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Angela Fontanez

Oral history interview conducted by Morton Marks

January 29, 1989

Call number: 1989.004.03

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FONTANEZ: [inaudible] via Puerto Rico, although I was born in New York. When my mother remarried, I was five. We went to Puerto Rico. I stayed with my maternal grandmother for several months. My mother and my stepfather came to Brooklyn, got an apartment, got settled, and then sent for my sister and I. That was '48, 1948.

MARKS: You were born in New York?

FONTANEZ: I was born in the Bronx in 1943 in Lincoln Hospital. We were living in East Harlem, but at the time my mother gave birth, she was staying at my paternal grandmother's house in the Bronx, and so that I would be close to the hospital. So, I was born in Lincoln--in the old Lincoln Hospital. Lived in East Harlem on 110th and on 115th street, and then when my mother remarried, spent October, November, December, January, April, May, June, July, August, September, October; seven months in Puerto Rico. So, I came in October of '48, exactly on 1:00the twelfth because it was Columbus Day. I remember because the children were home because there was no school. My first recollection of the block that I lived in--I lived at 99 Washington Street, which was right at the foot of the factories. There's a large clock that you see on the building as you cross the Brooklyn Bridge--used to wake me up in the morning to go to school. All various factories, and there at the foot of the factories on Washington Street--this is before the Watchtower and all that was built--was all homes. The area was predominantly Puerto Rican. My block where I lived was predominantly Puerto Rican, although closer to the corner--and I forget what the cross-street is; the street that you take to get the bridge--was a number of Italian families. There was a bakery there that was family-owned and the family lived in the building. But, for the most part--And there was a sprinkling of Polish and Lithuanian; 2:00but, for the most part, my particular block was Puerto Rican. I started going to school in that area, P.S. 8 on Hicks Street next to the police precinct. I started kindergarten there. I went through kindergarten through fourth grade and then we moved to the projects, but I'll go--I'll talk about that later. I remember growing up in a very family kind of structure--extended family, if you will--whereby, whenever families came from Puerto Rico, clothes that didn't fit my sisters and I would be donated to the family. My father, my stepfather--I call him my father--was quite fluent in English, would help them, in terms of finding them work and helping them get their Social Security cards and secure 3:00whatever, you know, running--business that they had to take care of where they needed to speak and communicate.

MARKS: Were these people from your hometown he was helping, his, or just anybody?

FONTANEZ: Not necessarily. Not necessarily. My mother and my mother's side of the family is from Ponce. My stepfather's family was from Santurce. Some of the people were from Santurce, but there wasn't a problem in just helping people out because they were new. I remember speaking Spanish at home specifically, not English. My sister who is five years older than I spoke English because she went to school. I started speaking English when I went to school. I remember having an accent in kindergarten. I remember speaking differently than the children. I remember having an accent in the second and third grade, enough so that there was commentary.

MARKS: There weren't that many Spanish speaking students, the kids in--


FONTANEZ: There were. Just some of them knew more English than I did, but it was mixed. The school was at the foot of Brooklyn Heights, so you had children from the area. There you had it--you had Italians. It was quite mixed. You had a significant Hispanic or Puerto Rican population because you had Puerto Ricans living on Columbia and Washington Street, and they would go up Sand Street towards the Navy Yard and all the houses there. But there were Italian, there were Polish, and there were Lithuanian, I would say, predominantly--maybe some German, maybe some Irish. But for the most part, I would say Italian and Lithuanians, in terms of thinking about my friends.

MARKS: Columbia is like the real pioneer area. That's considered one of the first--

FONTANEZ: Yes, yes, and we had people staying there. When my mother came from Puerto Rico in 1930, and she came to live on Pearl Street. Jesús Colón, as a matter of fact, had gotten the apartment for the family--my mother's family--and 5:00she stayed there until she got her own place. At that time, it wasn't uncommon for people to take in boarders. You had an extra bedroom and, you know, someone stayed there, or, even if they shared the bedroom. My mother did stay on Pearl Street with her--my great-grandmother and my aunt on Pearl Street, and then they moved to Adams Street. So, all that area--Pearl, Adams, Sands, York--was Hispanic, predominantly Puerto Rican. As you got down towards the water--Front Street--further down towards the water and towards the Navy yard, you had more of your Eastern European immigrants. You had--There was a large Lithuanian community in that area and a lot of the kids in school were Lithuanian. My 6:00mother went back and forth to Puerto Rico, as many Puerto Ricans of that era did; but, when we came to join her and my stepfather and my sister and I, in '48, she stayed. She never lived again in Puerto Rico. On my block it was very common for people to take care of each other's kids and stuff like that, so we were in and out of everybody's house. Everybody worked, for the most part, in factories.

MARKS: Clothing factories or all kinds?

FONTANEZ: Different kinds of factories. My father at the--my stepfather, at that time, worked in a lollipop factory. A lot of people worked for Sunshine, the Sunshine Cracker Company. A lot of people--my great aunt worked for the Gillette Company, which was on Jay Street. They eventually moved down south, the factory moved down south, and a lot of people were displaced as a result of that. There 7:00was a lot of unemployment.

MARKS: The factories were sort of like the houses and the factories were interspersed in the neighborhood, or was it--were there--?

FONTANEZ: The factories were at the foot of where you lived and then you had these houses, but Sunshine was, was a distance. Sunshine was in Long Island City; you had to travel. I don't remember where the lollipop factory was. My mother had done a lot of work in the forties before--earlier forties, before--when I was born and before I was born, doing gloves, hand-sewn gloves. And you had all the bugle beads and a lot of beadwork on them. She used to do a lot of that work and it was homework; she did homework. She did some of that, but in my early years, she was home. She was home when I was eight, nine, ten; started working later when we got to the projects. I remember--So there was a lot of people that worked for--it wasn't Gillette. I think it was Gem, the Gem 8:00Blade Company over on Jay Street. It was a large factory. I think it's a part of the Polytechnic College now. Sunshine, a lot of people worked there. A lot of people worked for the bag factories in Williamsburg. They were paper bag--Not paper bag, I'm sorry, rope--rope factories. So, I mean, people that you knew from the neighborhood or when you had parties--there was a lot of parties because parties was your main form of entertainment and social life. So, you had parties for birthdays and you had parties for the holidays, of course, and you had parties for christenings and you had parties for weddings, but--And sometimes you just had parties. You just had a party for no particular reason.

MARKS: With live music, you would--?

FONTANEZ: In my, in my family, no one was, but that wasn't uncommon in parties. But the people that we knew, nobody played; so, we had we had, we had a Victrola and then eventually we got, you know, a regular--I remember summers were very 9:00pleasant because in those days, of course, you could sleep on fire escapes and you could sleep in the park. My stepfather had a radio that was--What do you call those that you could--short wave?

MARKS: Short wave?

FONTANEZ: --that you could--and we used to get Cuba and we used to get music from Havana; and that was very exciting.

MARKS: That was the heyday. I mean, there was some good music--

FONTANEZ: Yes, yes, and, so, we used to go to the park, Memorial Park, where the Red Cross is now. There's the Red Cross building is there, but Memorial Park is still there and there's a war memorial there which wasn't built at that time. But that park was a place where you could go and you could spend the night and then would get up in the morning and go and go home, go to, you know, school. Everybody went to work, and we were all from school. So, that was a part of our social life. A lot of the social life, too, revolved around church activities. I 10:00went to Our Lady of Pilar, which was right on Fulton where the high-rises are now--the co-ops.

MARKS: I've heard of that church--

FONTANEZ: And it was a beautiful chapel. It was a beautiful little chapel. I don't remember the priest's name. I remember he was from Spain, but I don't remember his name. So, my religious instruction was there. And, since it was a small chapel, communion and confirmation were at St. Peter's, which was a large, big church further up. So that's, that's where I did my communion and confirmation. In the neighborhood, in addition to P.S. 8, there was a Catholic school, Our Lady of Assumption, and it's church across the street.

MARKS: Was Pilar mostly a Puerto Rican community congregation?

FONTANEZ: Yes, that was a Spanish church. It was a Spanish church. Masses were in Spanish totally and all the organizations were in Spanish. There was the Sisters of María and all that. It was all in Spanish. It was a small chapel. It 11:00was very kind of cozy and I remember once leaving there and going to St. Anne's on Front Street, once I moved to the projects, feeling very--You know, it was a very huge, cold kind of place. So, the social life revolved around, you know, activities at the church, particularly for me because my, my mother was the type that she raised us to be Catholics and--but it was cultural more than very religious. So, the children were Catholic and, as we got older into our teens and stopped going to church, you know, it wasn't forced upon us. There was church and the parties and weddings and that sort of thing. There were, there were clubs. Also, there were dances at what they call Las Logias which were organizations like legions, and Jesús Colón was, was a part of that. There was a lot of social activities around organizations that Jesús Colón was involved in, and who was a close, personal friend. He was--I remember despising him very 12:00vehemently at one point in my life because, when I was fourteen and starting going through puberty and everything, my mother just didn't know what to do with me. And, of course, she went to--He was the type of person that you went to for advice, and he suggested maybe some kind of counseling; and, of course, in those days, I mean, you were nuts if, you know. And the thought that he would recommend something like that, I was very upset. But, subsequently, I remember feeling very, very proud at knowing him when his book came out later on in the fifties.

MARKS: He was a friend of your mother's?

FONTANEZ: He was a friend of my mother's and then subsequently my father's. And much, even much more so, of my great-grandmother, my great aunt and that side of the family, and that's how we got to know them; but, he helped a lot of people when they came here. And our relationship kind of got some distance between it 13:00in the fifties, in '58, specifically, when you had the Cuban crisis, because he was a socialist and, of course, you're talking about the fifties, being very, you know, the reds; everybody being very afraid of the whole communist, socialist kind of thing. So, people were kind of afraid, you know, that that would be a problem. [Interview interrupted.] This might be our lunch. Do you want to stop? [Interview interrupted.] Everybody was very scared to kind of associate with him, so I think he passed through a, you know, a difficult time, I suppose, people kind of alienating him to a certain degree. I know that was the case with my family, and I felt bad about it, as they did, but it was kind of like I didn't know much about that and it was kind of scary, although everyone in that period was pro-Cuban, just to kind of digress.

MARKS: Did they consider him a communist or a socialist?


FONTANEZ: Initially, initially they thought he was a socialist and then it became very apparent that he was a communist. In those days, you could go to Cuba by driving down to Florida and taking a ferry. And we were planning a trip to Cuba, my family and a friend of my father's from work who was Cuban; Pedro. We were going to go and then the, the--everything broke and that ferry business was stopped.

MARKS: Were there Cubans in your neighborhood, in that part of Brooklyn?

FONTANEZ: Yes, there were some Cubans. There were also. I'm glad you said that because there was different people I wanted to tell you about. All our shopping, for the most part, was done at the local bodega, which, as you know, is like a focal point of the Puerto Rican community.

MARKS: Like a colmado?

FONTANEZ: Yes, but it was, la Bodega era de Diego. Diego was from Seville. He was what we call a gallego. We used to call him gallego. He spoke with the 15:00T-H's. And he called my mother "Cubanita" because my mother happened to have been born in Cuba, although she was Puerto Rican. It just so happens that in those days, people island-hopped a lot looking for a better way. My grandmother was a seamstress and she went looking for a better life into Santo Domingo and met my grandfather there, and my mother was, was--she became pregnant in Santo Domingo, but she had my mother in Cuba and then went back to Puerto Rico. So, that was very common at that time also. And Diego carried everything. We didn't know what a super--Supermarkets were a new phenomena, anyway. There was an A & P in--There was an A & P in Brooklyn Heights on the bottom of Hicks Street off of Cranberry, I think it was; and before it was an A & P, it was a Bohack, and that was like a big, you know, thing.

MARKS: I haven't heard that name in a long time.


FONTANEZ: Yes, Bohack's, right? But the, the bodega was where we basically got everything. Every once in a while we'd go to Moore or Smith Streets. My mother would go there. Like, if she was going to make pasteles, there were certain ingredients that she got there cheaper or better or more quantity or something like that.

MARKS: But Diego stocked all kinds of things, like--

FONTANEZ: Right. Right, everything. Well, now, our meats we got from Ventri. Ventri was an Italian butcher who was on Sands and then he moved to Hicks later on. And Ventri's was--you know, you got your meat there. In those days, you went to the meat store for the meat, and this to the this, and, you know, you had the different stores for the stuff. But, as far as your groceries and your plantains and, you know, your produce and that sort of thing, you got from Diego. And, of course, you were able to get it on, on--You know, he wrote it in the little book and you paid him at the end of the week.

MARKS: He stocked tropical produce. Like, he stocked plantains and--Okay.

FONTANEZ: Everything. Yes, everything. And for Christmas you always got the 17:00traditional turrón from Spain as a gift and the calendar, you know.

MARKS: And how about cidra it was a…?

FONTANEZ: Yes, we weren't into cidra, but see, that was another thing that you--if you were into cidra, then he would give you that. But we always got the turrón and the calendar. That was standard staple, that. We knew we were good for that from Diego. [Interview interrupted.] So, Diego was, you know, he was a part of the family. Then we had the Paganis. The Paganis were the, were the family that delivered the coal and the ice. They were Italians and it was the father and all of the kids. And we never knew what they really looked like because they were all black with the coal, you know.

MARKS: [laughter] Under a bag.

FONTANEZ: And I remember the smell of the burlap bag. They used to bring it in a burlap bag. And we had, we had the ice box which, coming to, to--I mean, I remember East Harlem very vaguely, but I remember the apartment on 99 Washington 18:00Street very clearly. It was above a restaurant. There was a lot of roaches and a lot of mice.

MARKS: Not a Spanish restaurant? It was not a Spanish restaurant?

FONTANEZ: Huh? No, it wasn't a Spanish restaurant; and it serviced, you know, all those factories there. Later, we would get a restaurant up the street, which I'll tell you about. But there was a restaurant and then there was another story above us where Raymond Rodriguez and his family, a good friend of my father's--he was a jockey from Puerto Rico--came, and with all his six kids and lived; but they lived above us. It was a cold-water flat. We had the kerosene heaters and we had a big, huge, beautiful, black, coal stove in the kitchen and we also had a small two-jet gas stove, also. But, like, when you were doing a lot of cooking, we used both. So, the coal stove was good for heating as well as cooking; and I used to love to play with it because it had all these vents and 19:00all these things and you could play all kinds of things with it, and these would be like knobs and stuff like that. It was great. We did not have a bathroom, per se. It was a toilet with a pull-chain and a sink. And you either bathed in there, like when we were smaller, or we would have the big, galvanized metal tub that you'd heat the water and you went in there. And it was very cold in the mornings. I remember mornings being very cold and you used to put your clothes on the stove and got dressed very quickly in the kitchen. Okay? But mice, I mean, if I have mice, if I have a mouse now in my house--I have a private house up in Westchester and every once in a while a little field mouse will come in when the weather changes. I'll go hysterical, whereas, at that time, it was like if we saw mice it was like they were part of the family. It was nothing.

MARKS: Like pets.

FONTANEZ: Yes. We didn't go that far, but it was a common occurrence to see them scampering around and it was no big deal. Interestingly enough, you know, there 20:00weren't fires in those days, which my mother and I comment about, because now you hear about so many fires and you don't have the kerosene stoves and the wood or the wood-burning stoves. And we had them and you didn't hear about fires, which was interesting. We had--It was two bedrooms. My sister and I shared a bedroom and the other bedroom was my stepfather and my mother, and there was the kitchen and the living room. It was a nice size apartment, it was. By today's standards, it was a nice size. I would say the living room was maybe about the size of this room.

MARKS: Your sister was older or you're--?

FONTANEZ: My sister is five years older and she was born in Puerto Rico and she came as a baby here in '30, 1930 with my mother. What else about the physical place? The furniture; I know the furniture we had was used. I remember that. It 21:00was in good condition but it was used. And that was, I mean, that--I mean for a person to buy something new was, like, very strange. We did eventually, I remember, get bunk beds, and they were new and they were from Michael's, which was a big--they're still there on Jay Street and Myrtle. Myrtle, they're on Myrtle because the El used to still run. And you would get stuff from the various furniture stores and you would have a payment book and you'd make your payments every Saturday. The other store that we used to go to was the poultry market. The poultry market was on the other side of the Fort Greene projects. That was a long walk, to get fresh eggs and fresh-killed chicken on Saturdays because Saturday morning you always had fresh chicken soup. It was church, soup, and we used to go to St. George movie house. The St. George Playhouse was the name of it, across the street from the St. George Hotel. That was--


MARKS: --Your Sunday, yes?

FONTANEZ: --Traditional, yes. Traditional Sunday activity, going to the church. Going to church and going--having lunch, and going to the movies. What other stores did we go to? We didn't go to that bakery. We used to--When we had Italian bread, it was from Diego's. We got the meat from Ventri's.

MARKS: When did more, you know, Spanish oriented stores start opening up? Do you remember? Was that--

FONTANEZ: In that area--I moved from there when I was eight, and then what we had was Key Food, and all your Spanish stores continued to be on Moore and that neck of the woods, Moore and Williamsburg, and you would go there to get the stuff. But, of course, your, your local stores would carry the produce because they were--But they weren't Spanish. There weren't Spanish stores, interestingly enough, in that area, which was predominantly Spanish. There was the Boys' Club 23:00there on the corner and that store on the corner; they were Lithuanian. Later, much later--I was nineteen when I left there--the Spanish people bought that one bodega by the St. George Church, a big Lithuanian church there on the corner, which is still standing there on York. So, I went to P.S. 8. I remember my kindergarten teacher died in the Korean War. I went to first, second and third grade there. There were some Blacks but that was more when I came back to P.S. 8. I finished seventh and eighth grade at P.S. 8 and I'll tell you why later. Some Blacks there, but for the most part it was Hispanics and Whites, various denominations. We moved to the Farragut projects which were just opened in 24:00'52--forty-eight, forty-nine, fifty, fifty-one, fifty-two, fifty-three, fifty-four, fifty-five, '56, because I was eight.

MARKS: Can I ask you a question?


MARKS: I just wanted to follow up. You said that there were other Hispanics. Besides Puerto Ricans, there were other Spanish-speaking people. They were Cubans?

FONTANEZ: There were Cubans. There was a, a few Cubans, a few Chicanos, a few Mexican families; but, it was like one, you know. It wasn't like a group of them or that some came shortly after that.

MARKS: And it was all people working in the same places, pretty much, right? They were all working in the same kinds of--

FONTANEZ: If people had a business, it was a store.

MARKS: Otherwise they'd be working in the factories, the same ones?

FONTANEZ: Factory workers. Merchant seamens. Merchant seamens, I remember a lot, there being a lot of merchant seamens in the family. My sister--Both of my sisters' godfathers were merchant seamens, interestingly enough; and we'd get 25:00all the exotic stuff from, you know, all the goodies whenever they came. A matter of fact, I still have--which they're antiques now--is a porcelain teacup set from China. We moved to, in '56, to the Farragut projects. They were just opened. The Farragut projects were at the foot of the Navy Yard. We lived at 191 Sands Street. That building was just opened. There was one other building open. Ours was the second building that was opened, which was where you went to pay the rent, initially, which was 111 York Street, across the street from the Swift Ice Cream factory; which is no longer there on York Street. Across the street from the Swift factory was P.S. 7, which is where I went from P.S. 8, and I did fourth, fifth, and sixth grade there. That school only went to sixth grade and then a new school was opened which just went up to the sixth grade, P.S. 287, 26:00the Dr. Bailey Kenneth Ashford School, right across the street from the Navy Yard. I went there. My street, which was Sands and Gold, the corner of Sands and Gold, was the dividing line. Children on my side of the street went to P.S. 5 on Tillary. Kids on the other side of the street went to P.S. 8. I wanted to go back to P.S. 8 because that was my school and P.S. 5 had the kids from Fort Greene, which was supposed to be the tough kids. And since my sister had graduated from there and we knew people, we pulled strings and I used another address across the street. And, so I went to P.S. 8 back in Brooklyn Heights in my old neighborhood for seventh and eighth grade. So, I did kindergarten, first and second grade in one school, third and fourth in another school, fifth and sixth in another, and back to P.S. 8. When I went back to P.S. 8, that's when the population started changing because then you had the influx of some Blacks; so that my eighth--my seventh and eighth grade class was predominately--was a 27:00good mix. You had everything. You had Italian, you had Puerto Rican, you had Italian and you had miscellaneous; but you had a little bit of everything. George Bay and his family, they were from Spain. You know, those were like exceptions. He was the only one from Spain, kind of thing.

MARKS: I'm starting to hear about this old Spanish community in the Heights. People from the Canaries and--

FONTANEZ: Yes, that was in--that was probably after the Spanish-American War.

MARKS: Interesting that historically it's been there for a long time.

FONTANEZ: Yes. Now, the Farragut projects was a fascinating microcosm. My floor, the seventh floor, people to my left were Black from the south, people to my right were Mexican, next to them were the Duffies, next to them was a Puerto Rican family, next to them was a Black family, next to them was a White family from Texas. I don't know what they were but they were White, a tall guy and very 28:00short wife, tons of kids. And so it went. And, and that floor, I think, was an example of what the population was. As the years went on and you got more Spanish and Black, and the Farragut projects became predominately--But, initially, you had a significant white population and it was very mixed, as I said.

MARKS: Were most people working in the Navy Yard, or was that just a coincidence that--

FONTANEZ: No, no. Some people worked in the Navy Yard but, for the most part, all those houses on Sands Street that were knocked down, a lot of the people went there. And where we lived eventually got knocked down for--to make way for the Long Island Expressway.

MARKS: Was this the Robert Moses stuff? Is this--

FONTANEZ: This is during Moses's time, sure.

MARKS: And that whole neighborhood got a--

FONTANEZ: Yes, all that--all of that activity. Sands Street was exciting in those days. We had a lot of tattoo parlors because you had all the Navy 29:00activity; a lot of the ships came in there. A lot of tattoo parlors, a lot of bars. I remember my father used to go to a barbershop on Sands Street and then I used to go--Sometimes I would have to go and get him and it was like going into this place where there was all these men. It was like--I would run, make a bee-line to the other end. But there were a lot of bars, a lot of tattoo parlors, and different kind of stores. My grandmother didn't live in that area at the time, lived on Sands Street at the time. She was a roomer in the house of a friend on Sands Street, so I would go to Sands Street a lot to visit her. She later moved to the projects also and whenever a ship came in from a Spanish-speaking country, she would always bring a few sailors over for a home-cooked meal, you know, this sort of thing. But it was always a lot of in-and-out of people. Across the street from me, there were projects and in 30:00front of me and to my left. But the other corner was two things; the Gold Theater, which was on the corner, and next to it, was that a Hershey factory? [Interview interrupted.] Who is it? [Interview interrupted.] We were talking about Sand--the Gold Theater.


FONTANEZ: Next to it, I think it was Hershey. It was a huge, huge chocolate factory. It took almost the entire block, with the exception of two or three houses and the Gold Theater; and it burned and there was a huge fire. I mean, that fire burned for like three or four days. A lot of people worked there and I don't know where that factory went. P.S. 287 and P.S. 5 is where most of the kids went unless they went to Catholic school. The year the Dodgers won the World Series was '58? You don't know? Okay, I was going to P.S. 8 at that time.


MARKS: Possibly, I think so.

FONTANEZ: There was a big party for them at the Bossert Hotel, which is now a welfare hotel on Montague Street. My sister was in high school at the time. That was very exciting. I remember baseball games and other sports activities being a major source of entertainment for Puerto Rican families at that time, particularly baseball. I remember hearing the Joe Louis fights on the radio as a kid. I remember, you know, and the baseball games, of course. And I mean, that was--to be able to go to Ebbetts Field, I think the tickets were like a dollar or something like that, but it was expensive. I mean, you couldn't go all the time. It was a big treat, but that was something that people did. I wasn't a baseball fan; my sister was and she went. The races were something that you kind 32:00of couldn't afford but you did watch them on television eventually. We were the second family on Washington Street to get a TV.

MARKS: Was your family active in, like, you know, in Puerto Rican associations or clubs or anything like that?

FONTANEZ: Knew the people. Knew the people, for the most part, but my mother was very much a homemaker. We were four girls, eventually we had one sister that was--my older sister, and it was myself. My, my forty-year-old sister now was born at 99 Washington Street, and my baby sister who is thirty-two was born in the projects. My older sister went to Prospect Heights High School where a lot of girls went from the area. Girls aspired to be secretaries and nurses, for the most part, in those days. My sister and myself went to art schools. I went to Washington Irving and my sister went to Prospect Heights and pursued art careers, which I was in for a while and she was in until she got married and she 33:00didn't work anymore.

MARKS: Washington Irving in Manhattan?

FONTANEZ: In Manhattan. You had, you had to take a test. I had to take a test in order to go there because it was out of my area. A large majority of the girls living in the project with me, Hispanic and otherwise, did not finish school, and got pregnant and got married, got pregnant, didn't get married, but didn't make--I mean, like a good eighty-five percent of the girls that I went to school with. So, the girls that I made friends with in high school were girls from all over the city and Washington Irving was very mixed. So, I had a lot of White girlfriends in addition to Puerto Rican girlfriends, Black girlfriends. The projects were great, the years that I lived there. Towards the end, when I, I left there when I was nineteen and moved to the Bronx. My family stayed there and moved shortly thereafter. It got rough but it was, was a great place to 34:00live. It was affordable housing and they were beautiful apartments. They were very well-kept. They were exterminated regularly. And, again, it was that extended family kind of thing, except you had more, more families in one building. Some of the people we knew, some of the people we befriended living there. The egg man would come around and make stops on all the floors. Dugan Bakers would come around and make all the stops. You don't have that sort of thing, you know, home delivery. You had the milkman. And none of these people got mugged or hurt, at least in that time. Eventually, I know the egg man did, was killed; but this was many years later. Say, this was like ten years ago, because it's gotten very bad. When I was a teenager in the Farragut projects, you had a lot--what you began to have was the gang activity; and, raising four 35:00girls in the projects, my mother was very strict. The only place I was allowed to go to was church or the movies. As I got older, I started going out with my sister who was then married. And, when my sister's first child was born, I went to the Palladium for the first time with my brother-in-law to celebrate, and I was fifteen.

MARKS: Was that a rock and roll show?

FONTANEZ: No, the Palladium was Spanish music.

MARKS: Oh, I'm sorry. That's right.

FONTANEZ: Yes, wrong Palladium.

MARKS: That's right. That Palladium. Okay.

FONTANEZ: Right. The Palladium.

MARKS: The Palladium with like--

FONTANEZ: Fifty-seventh Street.

MARKS: --with Machito and all the other--

FONTANEZ: Exactly, and Puente and Rodriguez and all those people.

MARKS: Sorry, wrong Palladium. The Palladium.

FONTANEZ: Right, yes. So, that's where I started going and I loved to dance.

MARKS: This was the mambo period.

FONTANEZ: Yes, the mambo period. Hot, hot mambo period, and later cha-cha, but mostly mambo. High school--Let's see. Church; St. Anne's Church on Front Street 36:00was initially an Italian-Lithuanian church. As a matter of fact, they did have, I believe, a Lithuanian mass; but, when I was in my early teens, going there, we got a priest and he was Irish--Father Thomas--and he was fluent in Spanish and he--I wouldn't say he initiated--I suspect he did and we started having Spanish masses at St. Anne's. And, to me, it was a very clear indication--I mean, in retrospect, of the heavy influx of Hispanic population into the projects.

MARKS: From other parts of Brooklyn?


MARKS: From other parts of Brooklyn?

FONTANEZ: I would say from other parts of Brooklyn.

MARKS: Like some of the places that were getting destroyed by the highways--

FONTANEZ: Red Hook, specifically, being one of them. And there was a lot of, of houses being broken down in Smith and that area as well. So, you had people coming from, from those areas. Fort Greene was always predominately Black, as 37:00far as I can recall, you know, in those days. I would go to the library there. The Walt Whitman Branch Library was in Fort Greene and that's where I used to go. But St. Anne's was--St. Anne's then became--I used to go to, to Pilar because that's what I knew; but once St. Anne's became to be active in terms of, you know, in responding to the Hispanic community, I started going to St. Anne's and I changed as a young teenager. And Father Tomas was a young priest and very charismatic. In subsequent years, he was to make headlines because he was one of the priests involved in the movement that priests should be able to marry. So, he was very progressive and he generated a lot of activities--I became a Sunday school teacher--during that time, and other social activities and dances for the young people and, and so forth. So, consequently, what happened was that a lot of the teenagers that were involved in gangs also went to the dances at the St. 38:00Anne's. On Friday nights they used to have dances and my mother used to let us go sometimes. And that was very, you know--and, of course--

MARKS: Was it Latin music or was it--

FONTANEZ: No, we were into rock and roll. We were into Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers and all the--you know, the Five Satins and all the groups in the fifties. I became involved in Latin--Latin music was like at home, but when you were with your peers it was American music. But then, later on, when I was sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, I got into Latin heavy and I used to go to Latin dances only.

MARKS: At home you'd be listening to? Like mambo, I mean, or--

FONTANEZ: At home I used to listen to Alan Freed and Jocko. And my mother called it jungle music, you know, and we had to listen to it like Radio Free Europe, you know, under the covers. No! [laughter] But it was like--Right, huddled against the radio under the covers. I also listened to Dick Ricardo Sugar and Symphony Sid later on; but, in my early teens it was Alan Freed and Jocko.

MARKS: But your mother, I mean, her music was--

FONTANEZ: Latin. Strictly Latin.


MARKS: I mean popular--

FONTANEZ: Now, my mother was totally bilingual. My grandmother was the one that was the old school; and if my grandmother was still alive, we still would not speak English at home, you know. She understood it, completely, but--Excuse me. [Interview interrupted.] Well, as I said, my mother was very strict, so, a lot of the things that I did, if I didn't go with my sister and my brother-in-law, I would have to do on the sneak because I wasn't allowed to go. I remember seeing the film on--"Great American Wax," was it? With the Alan Freed story? And it was just--I mean, it brought back so many memories of the Fox and the Paramount and the rock and roll shows there, and stuff. But I literally had to lie to go.

MARKS: That was downtown Brooklyn. That was Brooklyn, that was?

FONTANEZ: Yes. That was--well, on Flatbush Extension, which is now part of Long Island University. The Paramount and the Fox I went to. I went to rock and roll shows at both of them, but towards the end because I just wasn't allowed to and didn't have the money. Later on, when I started working summers and stuff, we 40:00used to do--Starting in fourth grade, when we moved to the projects, my mother started working to help. My father had gotten a good--a better job. He was no longer working in the lollipop factory. He was working as a die-setter, tool die-setter, for a company called Waldes Kohinoor's. They make lead pencils and all kinds of stuff. They're still in Long Island City. It was a good job. It was a good-paying job and it had a strong union and he was very active in the union. And my mother started working doing custom jewelry, pasting costume jewelry, rhinestone jewelry, and bringing work home. So at, from age four, I mean, from fourth grade--I was like ten years old--up until my late teens, we did work at home. We did. And I made money. That's how I started making my money. My first summer that I was sixteen, I went to work full-time that summer, for the summer, 41:00working at the factory where they made them. And I used to make--

MARKS: It was in Brooklyn?

FONTANEZ: No, it was in the thirties in the garment industry area. It was Thirty-fourth and Eighth, around that area. And there was another one up in the Bronx and I used to travel to the Bronx to pick up the work and deliver it. But it was a family activity, and, you know, when I share these things with my twelve-year-old now, it's like, God! But the family was all together. I mean, we came home from, from school--my sister was going to college by then. We came home from school, did our homework, had dinner, and then once the dinner dishes were cleared and stuff, laid out the table. You know you could cover the table and we'd have all the baking sheets, you know, that you make cookies on--the cooking sheets?

MARKS: It held all the--

FONTANEZ: Those were the sheets that were covered with fabric and that's where you placed the work that you finished. And it was done with glue, with like acetone glue.

MARKS: You were assembling costume jewelry?

FONTANEZ: Yes, putting those rhinestones into the pieces, like buttons for coats or pins, for the most part. The buttons, they paid my mother two cents a button 42:00and they came in boxes of a gross, and she'd pay--give them to us at a penny a button, so she'd make a penny on it. But, I mean, I used to make thirty, forty dollars a week, and for a fourteen-year old, that ain't bad. I mean, this was Christmas presents--I was, I was rolling in bucks there and worked. The summers that I worked, I would come home with, you know, forty-seven, fifty dollars; and, I'm talking about the late fifties, so that was good money. I was making very good money. Gave my mother some money and what have you. But, but because we were all doing it as a family; my father, my mother, my older sister and I, my grandmother would come over and help. And, I mean, we all made money. It wasn't like slave labor. We talked. We played different games--we played geography--we played different games, and it was a social life for us as well. Saturdays we did puzzles, big picture puzzles. And even though there was 43:00television--we had television since Washington Street--we did puzzles. A big treat was--Pizzas just became popular and you didn't have pizza parlors. Like, Italian bar-restaurants would make pizzas. And there was a very nice bar-restaurant called The Dardanelles on, I think that was Tillary, right on the corner. It was a very nice place. You would call up; you'd order it by phone and then you'd go pick it up. So, Saturday nights a lot, you know, it was going for pizza--getting a pizza for dinner. That was a big treat. And, you know, you think upon these things now and they seem so simple, but, I mean, it was big fun in those days. It really was.

MARKS: Were there other families that you know who were doing the same kind of jewelry work, or was that a common--?

FONTANEZ: Not--No, not where we lived specifically, but other families in the Bronx specifically, yeah. Other people did it. My mother's comadre was the one that had turned my mother onto that. My mother had met her when they used to do the sewing back in the forties. She was an old friend of my mother's and she had turned my mother on. My mother, incidentally, had learned how to speak English 44:00by going to the movies, English-speaking movies, and that was when work was slow. And, since they brought their lunch, sometimes they'd only work a couple hours and then they'd be let go for the day. So, they'd take the lunch and they'd go to the movies. And that's how my mother learned how to speak English. My mother speaks English fluently and reads and writes it. But that's how she learned: going to the movies. But, it wasn't uncommon for people to do any number of things at home, whether it was sewing or ironing. Once my mother started working full-time, Doña Aleja from across the street used to take care of us and she also did the ironing for my mother. It wasn't uncommon for a lot of women to do that. The women were starting to work, then.

MARKS: Going out and working or, or--

FONTANEZ: Going out and working, as opposed to doing things at home: taking care 45:00of kids or ironing or this kind of thing.

MARKS: Normally, like light factory jobs, something like that?

FONTANEZ: Factories, for the most part. I would say ninety percent sewing, sewing kind of work. Many of them having come in the forties and the whole needlecraft industry, so this was basically what they knew how to do and this is what my mother did also. She did that. Later on, my mother took two jobs. She was working with the costume jewelry and then nights--this was when I was a teenager already--she worked for, what is it? Selchow and Richter, the people that make--

MARKS: The toys, puzzles? Scrabble?

FONTANEZ: Scrabble and games. And she used to stamp the letters on the Scrabble. That, that was what she did. My sister was going to college and working; painting towels, the designs on towels, terry cloth towels, and she worked for a 46:00cartoonist for a while, too. My stepfather stayed many years with that company in Long Island City, Waldes, and they eventually broke up. It was an alcoholism problem. When I was nineteen, I went on my own. I went to live with a family in the Bronx when I was nineteen.

MARKS: By this time, what we you doing? You had--

FONTANEZ: I had started working and I was going to school, nights. I was going to Art Students' League, nights, and I was working. The, the neighborhood started changing. [Interview interrupted.] [laughter]

MARKS: The gangs were like ethnic gangs? I mean, they were divided along ethnic lines?

FONTANEZ: Yes. Well, we had ethnic groups and you also had territorial kinds of situations because in the--Fort Greene you had the Chaplains, and then you had the Mau Mau Chaplains that came someplace else--gangs from the Bronx. But the 47:00gangs; you had Italian gangs, you had Black gangs, you had Hispanic gangs. Boys that were in the gangs from my projects I knew. They were boys that went to school with me and they were classmates of mine. And, of course, your mother, you know, telling you not to socialize with the people and stuff. But I remember he came out in the papers recently, this fellow, he just--I think he got released. Remember the Cape Man?

MARKS: From the late fifties, West Side, yes. I remember that when I was--

FONTANEZ: Yes, that was--Yes, I knew him. You know, they would come around. There was a lot of them, if they had a girlfriend or something, you know they would, they would come around.

MARKS: That was in a playground. Wasn't it something that--he did it in--?

FONTANEZ: Yes, and in those days it was like--You know, it wasn't like now. It was a big deal. Crime--

MARKS: But you removed yourself from Brooklyn. I mean, you left on your own?

FONTANEZ: I left when I when I was nineteen, yes.

MARKS: It was your own decision. I mean, you decided to get out and--

FONTANEZ: Yes, yes, yes. Well, I was working and I was going to school. My mother was very, very strict. She didn't allow me to go out and there was a lot 48:00of pressure. The family was breaking up and there was a lot of pressure with the alcoholism in my stepfather. And they eventually broke up, and--like the next year, the following year. But--And I didn't want to go out on my own. I wasn't making that much money and I, you know, I didn't know what it was like to live by myself. And I really--I literally sat down and figured out how much rents were and everything and I just couldn't afford it. And I went to live with my girlfriend and her family up in the Bronx and I stayed there until I was twenty-five and I got my first apartment. The gangs started when I was fifteen, sixteen, so we're talking forty-three, fifty-three, fifty-four, five, six, seven, fifty-eight, late fifties, late fifties, and I mean, mostly stabbings because guns weren't there, but mostly stabbings and you heard about them. Crime, crime started. All of a sudden there was incidents.

MARKS: This was right in the projects?

FONTANEZ: In the projects. In the projects. I remember once getting up and going 49:00to church and the lights would start getting put out in the stairwells; and, not being a particularly, you know, scary person--I mean, I don't scare easily--you open the door so that the light from the hall comes in and you go. But I was going from--My elevator wasn't working so I was going to take the odd elevator. You had an odd and an even elevator and I stepped on something that didn't feel right. You know, it didn't feel like the ground. And when I opened the door to look, it was a pool of blood. I mean, a large pool of blood, very large, and it was starting to coagulate and it was kind of sticky. We don't know who was there or what had happened. Obviously, there had been a body there! Several people thrown off the roofs in a couple of the buildings, numerous stabbings, but it 50:00wasn't like, it wasn't like thefts or rapes. It was just violent kind of stuff, just people not liking each other or drunk-related kind of, kind of stuff.

MARKS: A lot of assault--

FONTANEZ: Boys going away to homes and jail, in some instances, boys that I knew. I mean, you didn't hear about them anymore, but not--you didn't. You know, you still felt relatively--I don't remember going out and being afraid somebody was going to snatch my purse or something like that. Or rapes, you didn't hear about it; it was mostly violent kind of stuff, fights.

MARKS: Gang-related [unintelligible].

FONTANEZ: Yes, yes, somebody coming from another place to a dance or something and getting beat up and then coming back with his boys. That kind of thing was very, very common. Or fights over girls, you know, was very common, just in 51:00general. But the neighborhood changed.

MARKS: Dramatic--I mean, fast?

FONTANEZ: Dramatically, you know. It was like overnight. All of a sudden, it wasn't such a nice place to live in. People moving more quickly. You know, like before, you had people that lived there like us. We were there eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen; almost thirteen years.

MARKS: This was by around 1960 or so, somewhere around there?

FONTANEZ: I left in 1962. And by then you had people coming in and out a lot, people coming in and out.

MARKS: Mostly Hispanic, like--

FONTANEZ: Hispanic and black. You had a lot of large families living in the projects because that's where you could get affordable housing and you had three and four bedrooms. But you had, you know, you had this and my grandmother was a single person. She lived in the building next door. But the Farragut project was low-income. I mean, there wasn't--it wasn't luxury but they were good, nice, 52:00good apartments. They painted regularly, they exterminated regularly, the heating was excellent, and they were nice-sized rooms. We lived very, very comfortable there. From time to time, I remember when my stepfather's nephew came out of the service, came out of the Air Force, he stayed with us and we doubled up, you know. And several nephews stayed with us, and one niece, for periods of time--six, seven, eight months--until they got their own place. This was very common. I mean, we weren't the only ones doing this sort of thing. Tradition was still very--I mean, it was still very chauvinistic in terms of a woman's place or a man's place. I remember in the fifties my mother cutting her hair very short. My mother was quite liberated always. But my mother and my 53:00sister got identical haircuts--that was when Gina Lollabrigida was hot and you had the very short haircut with the big earrings; and, you know, my stepfather not approving. I mean, it was literally the talk of the town and that sort of thing.

MARKS: She had had long hair and--

FONTANEZ: Yes, not long, long. My mother I never remember having long, flowing tresses, but definitely not short. I mean, this was a boy--

MARKS: Oh, yes.

FONTANEZ: You know, you had the duck's ass they used to call it, in the back, you know, the short hairdo. And I had a boyfriend who did not--when I was sixteen--who did not allow me to wear make-up and did not allow me to cut my hair. I had long hair. And, you know, by the time I was eighteen it was like, well, gee, this is like, you know, my mother all over again--I don't want this--and I broke up with him. But the boys were, you know, very, very macho and very much in--

MARKS: Domineering?

FONTANEZ: Yes, very much into that and I didn't much like that. My sister 54:00married at nineteen to get away from my--I shouldn't say to get away from home because she was in love with her husband--but, I mean, I would venture to guess that she maybe wouldn't have married so soon had the home environment been different. And she got married young. I didn't want to get married. I felt that I wanted--Because I had led such a, you know, had such a strict upbringing, I wanted to enjoy myself and it was only after I left home that I was able to go out and I eventually traveled. I had skipped a part. When we lived in 99 Washington Street, my parents bought a small restaurant on Sands Street--my mother's a very good cook--and I would go to school from there. I literally lived in this place and it was great because there was a lot of action there all the time. I knew all the songs in the jukebox, you know.

MARKS: You helped out? You helped in the--

FONTANEZ: No, I didn't. Neither did my sister. We had a cousin that did. My--Our thing was you go to school, you study, you do your homework, you know, kind of. 55:00Well, I was like seven and my sister was like in eighth grade. I don't know if my sister helped. I know she brought me home from school and she brought me there and that's where we stayed. And my mother cooked and my father ran the place.

MARKS: You had mostly Spanish-speaking clientele?

FONTANEZ: Yes, absolutely. I would say ninety-five percent.

MARKS: Mostly for lunch? People who worked in the--?

FONTANEZ: Well, mostly for lunch, but also, because my father knew a lot of show-biz types, Daniel Santos and Davilita and all these people came to the restaurant, like on Saturdays and stuff.

MARKS: How did he know them, from--?

FONTANEZ: From Puerto Rico. From Puerto Rico and from just hanging out. And so that was a hang-out for a lot of people and it was a very profitable business. And my mother's dream was always to get a house. Unfortunately, my father would squander the money every time they had a couple of bucks in the bank. By that 56:00time, they were knocking down all those houses for the, to build the expressway. The only thing that was left standing was the Y, which is now--It became a Jewish place and now it's a Moonie place, I think. It's a Korean something. It's a large Y in the old-fashioned sense of the Ys. That was the only thing that was left standing. All the tattoo parlors went, the Gold Theater went--all of that. That's where the expressway was built. We were holding out. We had already moved from 99 Washington Street to the, to the thing but Raymond and that family were still above us. And, by the way, we gave the apartment to somebody, of course, that we knew, you know. I'm trying to think of how you did that. I don't think there were leases involved.

MARKS: They would move, you would--

FONTANEZ: Yes, it was like a segue kind of thing, you know.

MARKS: Right. They'd be in before--

FONTANEZ: And nobody knew about it, right. I don't know who the owners of the 57:00building were. I don't know who we paid rent to. I think it may have been the people who had the restaurant, I'm not sure. Anyway, the restaurant was very profitable but, every time we had some money together, my stepfather would squander it. So, we were holding out, you know, to get a lot of money. I remember Tita, who later [unintelligible] and Pridi, they came to live on our floor in the projects. They lived on Sands Street and they held out and they would give you money. I don't know how much, maybe $5,000, whatever. At that time, it was a lot of money. So, my mother was holding out, holding out, and Raymond and his wife that lived upstairs from us, they were holding out. They were the last ones left in that building. They moved over to the Red Hook area--to Canarsie. They moved to Canarsie. But one day, unbeknownst to my mother, my father, you know, agreed to a certain amount of money and he took off 58:00with the money and spent the money. So, that was like a big dream dashed for us.

MARKS: So the restaurant--

FONTANEZ: Yes, the restaurant went down and the highway went up. The projects were--There was, I remember, a lot of the Blacks were from the South. A lot of my girlfriends that lived in the projects, their families. They were from the South, so you had that migration in the fifties; and, so, you had a large Black population. And most of the kids that I knew, their parents had come from the South. And everybody worked. It was later, like when I was a teenager, we started getting more welfare families in. But for the--when we first lived there, for a great amount of time that we were there, it was people that worked. There wasn't a lot of stores, other than your small stores, in that area. For 59:00all your shopping, you went to Fulton Street. You went to Mays, you went to A&S. My sister worked at A&S, so we got a discount there. So, we used to shop at A&S and Mays; were your big stores where you went shopping. My, my grandmother would still go back to her barrio for certain things because that's where we were from, and to visit family and what have you.

MARKS: For food items or other kinds of--?

FONTANEZ: Yes, to the marqueta--

MARKS: Right.

FONTANEZ: --For certain things sometimes, but, other than that, for the most part we went up to Myrtle and Smith to that area for the poultry market. And then Key Food opened up on York Street--a big supermarket in our own area--so most of our shopping was done at Key Food. And then during the week the cold cuts for the sandwiches for school and stuff like that you got at the local, you got at the local store. There was a strip of stores that everybody went to. On the corner was a luncheonette, next to it was High's Pharmacy, next to that was Key--the liquor store, and next to that was Key Food. And those were the stores 60:00you went to; you just didn't think of going anyplace else. Oh, let's see, what else do I remember about that period of time? Anything in particular I haven't talked about?

MARKS: Can I ask you something?


MARKS: This film that you've done?


MARKS: I mean, I'd like to hear about, you know, how that happened, about the pioneers and also if you could talk more about your family connections with Jesús Colón or any of the other well-known people.

FONTANEZ: Okay. All right.

MARKS: And what your film was trying to show about early days in Brooklyn.

FONTANEZ: Okay. We stayed, we stayed in touch with Jesús Colón until--and the family--after he died. His wife subsequently died of cancer. She's in that picture, too. Conchita died of cancer and he remarried. He married a Jewish woman, I believe--his second woman. I'm trying to remember where he moved to. I know it was Brooklyn. But we still--Like, Saturdays was a day that you'd, you 61:00know, in the afternoons sometimes my father would--my stepfather would work half days on Saturdays when they were busy, but, if not, Saturday was the day that you would visit. I remember my stepfather. Jesús Colón, Giboyeaux who was--he's a tall man. He's like--you can see he sticks out of the crowd there. He's like six-two, six-four--was a very good friend. He was a--He is, because he's not dead. A great sense of humor. He was my sister's best friend, Jenny's godfather. He had baptized. They lived across the street. So, these are people you saw all the time. They had family in the area or somebody, was somebody's compadre. My stepfather and Jesús Colón and Giboyeaux; I remember these dialogues in the kitchen and the name Vito Marcantonio was very, very, very prevalent in these conversations. And up until I was an adult that I started 62:00doing research of my own, did I find out that Marcantonio was not Puerto Rican but Italian.

MARKS: But Italian.

FONTANEZ: And--But the politics in El Barrio were subject of conversation a lot, Puerto Ricans are very political people. This is from--carry-over from home. In Puerto Rico, you go now, and everybody, all they talk about is politics and everybody's very much into politics. So, the politics of, of--but the politics of Puerto Rico were not the subject matter that much.

MARKS: It was local--?

FONTANEZ: My stepfather was Republican.

MARKS: That's unusual.

FONTANEZ: Yes. And don't ask me why. And [laughter] conservative and--But, as I said before, he was active in the union. He was very active in the union and so, 63:00through the union activities. And this was another thing, too, that Jesús Colón and they all worked a lot in terms of getting people jobs; or in places where there weren't unions, if people needed assistance, this sort of thing, they were very active. Jesús Colón was very, very active in any kind of--you know, anything dealing with social conditions, whether it was jobs or housing or people needing to go on welfare or people, you know, needing some kind of assistance; a sick relative or anything like that. And with anything that you just didn't know about, I knew that this was the person that you called; like I said, when my mother was having trouble with me, advice about school, financial situations, investing in an insurance policy, all these sorts of things, in addition to being a close family friend. But he was definitely, you 64:00know--education is very highly regarded in our families and, you know, Jesús Colón was a quote "educated man," or what you would call an "educated man." So, it wasn't only someone that was older, and of course you had the whole respect for older people kind of thing, but the fact that he was educated and the fact that he had been here many years was, was something that, you know, that all the components had made him a very highly regarded person. He became more active, I would say, in the later years became more--for lack of a better way of saying it, to me, more outwardly socialist. And, as I said, after the Cuban crisis and all of that, we kind of, you know--

MARKS: Shied away.

FONTANEZ: --shied away from him.

MARKS: He became an open supporter of the, of the whole Cuban--of the revolution and--

FONTANEZ: Absolutely, yes. And years later, I had already been away from home 65:00many years, there was a tribute to him that I went to, with my mother and my mother's friend Emma, a woman--a Black woman that lived--who's still a friend of the family who lived in the projects with us, went to the, went to the function and there was a lot of people there, including Pete Seeger. He was very good friends with Pete Seeger--was there and a lot of--you know, Ossie Davis. A lot of socialists, old, old socialists were there. And I remember, as I said with the book as well as, I mean, my book was personally autographed. I don't--I lost it, unfortunately, in one of my moves, but I was so proud. I mean, to know somebody that had written a book was just about the most exciting--it's still pretty exciting, very exciting. And, you know, in those days, you didn't have Puerto Ricans doing major things. You didn't have Puerto Ricans involved in 66:00local politics. I'm not saying local, but involved in local politics so much as being elected officials. You didn't have Puerto Rican representation, so that someone of that level was highly regarded in the community. When I went to--When I became involved in the Puerto Rican project because I had been working for a series that had been funded by the--by HEW, through the State Education Department, called "Vegetable Soup." It was a project that I worked on six years. It was two series, two series of thirty-two shows apiece.

MARKS: What year was this? This is back in--

FONTANEZ: Kizinga, my son is twelve. I was pregnant with Kizinga for the second batch, so I'd say about fourteen years a--I'll tell you exactly, fifteen years.


MARKS: You've been here how long, at WNYC?

FONTANEZ: It's going on eight. This was fifteen years ago. I did "Vegetable Soup." Six years after that was when I did "Reflections of our Past." So I had a, I had a relationship with the State Education Department. They knew me, they knew my work, and they got funded, they--They wanted to get funded to do a Puerto Rican series on the migration and I was approached. So, I was involved in the--some of the research and the writing of the proposal. And I contacted a woman that I--who was referred to me by Malín Falú who is a very well-known radio personality here. Malín, when she first came from Puerto Rico, I had gotten her a job at "Vegetable Soup" and that's how I knew her. She went back to--She went into Spanish radio after that project finished and she's a very, 68:00very--she has a TV show also; very popular Spanish TV and radio host. She referred me to this woman and I called her up and I said, "Malín, I'm doing research for a Puerto Rican series. Do you know anyone?" She said, "Oh, I just had this woman on my show the other day, Angela Jorge." Angela Jorge is an active professor at Old Westbury and she did her doctoral thesis on the Puerto Rican migration, right. Malín introduced me to Marta and we're all in the same circle. So, I contacted Dr. Jorge--she didn't have her doctorate yet--and she was doing her thesis and she did an incredible job on the research component for the series.

MARKS: On, on the migration, on the history--

FONTANEZ: --the migration. The scope of the project was to do a piece on the 1800s, on the 1930s, on the fifties, sixties, and present time. And the pilot 69:00was the piece for the 1800s. The piece was for school-age children, I believe it was ages eight through twelve, and it was to--so that people would know about the migration, but particularly for children.

MARKS: This is going--like the early migration. This is to give some--

FONTANEZ: Yes, this was tabaqueros and farm workers. And this was after the San Ciriaco, the big hurricane that devastated the agriculture in Puerto Rico, and people came over on boats. So, the purpose of that piece was to show that Puerto Ricans were here in the early 1900s and, you know, you had Spanish communities on Fourteenth Street and so--the Spaniards predominately, so you had Spanish people settling there and in Brooklyn because that's where the boat stopped. So, 70:00I designed a piece. The script--I had gotten J. J. Gonzalez who had written a very beautiful book. He's from the island of Vieques and he had written a beautiful book called The Gull Against the Wind, which, if I ever get money, I'd like to get the film rights to. It's an incredible story about his boyhood and how the Marines came over and started bombing on the island. It's a beautiful book. I wanted J. J. to write it because his style was very lyrical. It was the kind of style that I wanted. Well, J. J. farted around and farted around and, to make a long story short, the director and I finished writing the script. The project was fraught with problems from the beginning, and unfortunately, I was promised things that they didn't come through with. And I refused to continue the project because the monies that I wanted, they didn't want to ask HEW for and I felt that, you know, they were really trying to do some--they were really 71:00exploiting. You know, the pilot I did, I mean, the costumes, the props and everything, was stuff from my house, and--I mean, we really did it on a shoestring and we did an incredible job, as you will see. And, so, I started--So we got the funding for the project and were supposed to do the pilot; and, if the pilot was approved, then we were supposed to get the balance of the money. That's how it went. And I was executive producer of the project. Once I started doing the, research and I found out that there was so little documentation. So I began doing oral histories which was a major source of my stuff. Oral histories and old El Diario newspapers--I mean, they don't have any kind of, of keeping I mean, we're talking about pieces of old newspapers that were yellow and falling apart.

MARKS: Right, and you had to plow through no indexing, just--

FONTANEZ: I mean, just literally going through papers. I had--I pulled together 72:00a great team of kids, young people, and we really did a--we really did an incredible job. Going to old steamship lines and getting records, going to the Brooklyn Eagle was a source of stuff, some Spanish periodicals, and oral histories. It was really a mélange of all this stuff--just literally piecing a puzzle together.

MARKS: You found people who were still alive or who--

FONTANEZ: Yes, yes, yes. Like my grandmother--Well, she wasn't alive, but through my mother I got stuff. Because the age group that we were trying to reach was a young age group and because I was--I felt very strongly about not wanting to be pedantic and I wanted it to be something that really--kids really got into, the script that I wrote was a script where kids go back in time through a mirror. In Haverstraw, New York there's a large Puerto Rican population from, from the forties. Don't ask me how they got up there because I 73:00don't remember now. But the family in my story is a Puerto Rican family. They're barbers because a lot of barbers came in the forties. He has a barbershop and in, in the back there's an old mirror. They're cleaning up; they're going to modernize the barbershop. There's this old mirror and the kids are fooling around back there and they go through this mirror and they wind up on this ship. So, it was a Spanish Puerto Rican boy and his sister, an Italian boy and a Black girl and they go back and they find themselves on this ship. There's a lot of stuff on the ship and then they come here. Oh, I got stuff from Bernardo Vega's book also.

MARKS: Yes, there's a lot in there. I was just looking at that about the tabaqueros.

FONTANEZ: Yes, Bernardo's book and some of Samuel Gompers' stuff. Samuel Gompers was a tabaquero, too. I mean, he had non-Puerto Ricans that were cigar makers, too. I converted a cigar store on Twenty-third and Eighth into an old 74:00tabaquería. It was incredible. And the man who was there had been there many years, had the old presses and everything, the old molds in his basement.

MARKS: Did he have reader, like in the old days?

FONTANEZ: I had a lector. I had a lector and Jesús Colón, I believe, was a lector in Puerto Rico, which is very common for schoolteachers and educated--all the educated people to do that to augment their salaries.

MARKS: That was one way of educating other people, too, right? Like the news and--

FONTANEZ: Well, yes, because your tabaqueros were, as the piece points out, were very worldly people and they discussed anything from local politics to Balzac. Tabaqueros, for the most part, were socialists, too. So, the piece imparts information through the kids actually being exposed to it. Your cops are Irish, 75:00you know, this sort of thing.

MARKS: Is it like the 1880s or thereabouts?

FONTANEZ: Eighteen ninety-eight.

MARKS: Right at the time of the war with Spain and--

FONTANEZ: Right. We don't touch upon it because it was a half-hour piece, there was so much you could get in; but it would--the basic theme was to show that people came here that did have skills. There were skilled craftsmen that were well-dressed and they weren't laborers, that they were educated, and how they were educated; and the whole concept of people helping each other out, the whole concept of people being here and sending for relatives. The research that was done on the piece--The piece scored very, very high in the summit of--in the research because--And the woman that did, that did the testing for us--they tested it on one hundred kids, fifty Puerto Rican and fifty White and Black kids--and, you know, they test you to see what you know before you see the piece 76:00and what you know after the piece and what you retain and what impression you get. The only thing that didn't come across as ringing true was what was hard conditions coming over in third class, which was underground, under, you know, below sea level, et cetera, because kids had already seen, "Roots."

MARKS: So they knew about the slave ships.

FONTANEZ: So they knew about really bad conditions, you know.

MARKS: The real--

FONTANEZ: So that was the only thing they didn't--So, so they did not see that passage as being a difficult journey, which it was because--

MARKS: --Compared to a slave ship.

FONTANEZ: --because they had, exactly. So, that was the only thing, you know, if the question was, you know, "Was it a hard trip coming over?" No, it looked luxurious to them. But--

MARKS: But the people who came, I mean, it was a well-paid profession in Puerto Rico, right? It was--

FONTANEZ: Well, you had--I got a lot of, I got a lot of--There's a lot of stuff, just for your own information, and I got some stuff from El Centro, but from 77:00there I got stuff, too, from records. Oh, God! What kind of records are those?

MARKS: The manifests, whatever they call them, the ships--

FONTANEZ: Not that. At the time, there was a certain department of our government that was in charge of Puerto Rico. This was before commonwealth status, and there was a lot of letters written because a lot of the people came here and were lost. A lot of the people--You had a lot of scouts that went to Puerto Rico to get people to work over here, like they did with the--going to Hawaii, as well.

MARKS: --Recruiting people.

FONTANEZ: You had a lot of young people. You had a lot of young people that ran away from home. But the conditions were deplorable because you had people coming here without coats or shoes or anything. And, even though the ships docked down south, they died from the cold and, you know, from exposure. I mean, I had to 78:00stop doing it. It was very painful after a while. Letter after letter, people pleading to try to find their families, people that had died here and they didn't know where they were buried; all kinds of stuff. The conditions were very bad and many, many people died. People that were promised, you know, things that didn't happen when they got here. A lot of that, too. But also stories of people that made it. You know, people that came here and started a little business and became successful. I mean, people like Malabé Shipping Company. Malabé's from Brooklyn. And, you know--

MARKS: Your film was focused on Brooklyn or, or--although--

FONTANEZ: Yes, it did focus on Brooklyn specifically and the ships docked at the Hamilton Docks.

MARKS: Although the workshop was actually in Manhattan, but it was, was set in Brooklyn.

FONTANEZ: Right. Well, no, the workshop--we don't know where the workshop is in the film, but the one that I converted was on Twenty-third Street, and most of 79:00them were in that area, and you traveled by train or trolley because the trolleys used to go across the bridge. When I lived in Brooklyn, when I lived on Washington Street, they were a nickel. The trolleys came over here to the Brooklyn, to--across the Manhattan Bridge.

MARKS: I'm thinking there were still some tobacco--a few of them. I remember, I lived on--there were still a couple of them scattered around.

FONTANEZ: There were still a few. There were still a few.

MARKS: There were there rather than Brooklyn. People would travel from Brooklyn to--

FONTANEZ: Yes, but it was lower Manhattan so, you know, it wasn't a big deal. And, you know, you had the people that you had like in East Harlem, you had a lot of bars and businesses, bodegas and stuff, that were Spanish-owned, and, you know, people that became successful. So, the piece focused on that period, what it was like and how people left family behind, you know, to come here and, you know, seek a better way of life, and eventually send for the family, and how people stuck together and how people helped each other. And, you know, I'll show 80:00it--I'll let you borrow a copy of it. But the research was very, very difficult because of the lack of documentation. Since then, the Centro has a lot of stuff now. They've conducted a lot of oral histories. As a matter of fact, they want to do an oral history with mother because she knew Jesús Colón and everything, but she didn't want to. My mother's very shy and, anyway, she's living in Florida now. But that's a very good source for material. But the--one of the things that I find interesting, when I think back, is I remember when the whole women's movement came about, how I was kind of very turned off about it because the women that I knew growing up; my mother, my grandmother, other family friends and neighbors, and friends that we knew, were women that worked, women 81:00that ran the household, but women that had a mind of their own and did, you know, made major decisions and carried on, you know, ran households and, and really were the major source of information and disciplining and what have you. And I didn't feel--I mean, was very aware of the whole issue. I think where the main area where women were still, you know, kind of in a position that was negative, if you will, was the whole thing about the man having the final word or being more, you know, tolerant, well, because he's the head of the household kind of thing. But as far as your day-to-day kind of stuff, that wasn't true and, I think, my opinion is that a lot of it had to do with the fact that people 82:00had to pitch you know; pull together to survive, to raise families, and so that women had to work in addition to running the household, and so they had equal say in how the money was spent and what was purchased. I remember we--our first car we got in 1957 was a Henry Jay Kaiser. It was chartreuse and dark green.

MARKS: Those little--

FONTANEZ: Yes, yes, it looked like a little boat. And, you know, my mother had something to say about what car we got and what color it was and everything because she helped to earn the money to buy it. And where we went on vacations and what we did and, you know, she had just as much say as anybody else, and, to a great degree, a lot of the stuff. I mean, it was like "Ask your mother" kind of thing. So that, I never had a sense of, of feeling that women were, you know, 83:00the kinds of issues we had--

MARKS: Subjugated?

FONTANEZ: Yes, the kind of issues that came up during the women's movement. Women always worked and women were always quite independent; and, my, my mother managed the budget at home and, you know, we'll save this much and these bills get paid, and all of that. So--and I think just the whole survival--it was a survival mechanism. I mean, all of those attributes grew out of survival mechanisms of those times. Anything else? [Interview interrupted.] After I did the Puerto Rican project, we used to call the Puerto Rican project "Reflections of Our Past," I have stayed with the desire to do more documentation on video, the dramatic form, of course, would be the ideal on the era, because I think, 84:00particularly now that we're coming into an era where Hispanics in New York City are going to be taking a more--I think--a more visible position in the dynamics of the city, that particularly for our median age group, which is eighteen, eighteen to twenty-two, they need to know this information. I think this project is very important because of that and, personally, you know, if I get a hold of a project or some money, I would very much like to--I think it's very important that this sort of information be a staple in schools, so that young people have a sense--I mean, when I saw that poster, I really got a sense of being part of history.

MARKS: Seeing your--

FONTANEZ: My grandmother--my great-grandmother and my great-aunt and my cousin and Jesús Colón and Giboyeaux; people that I knew and grew up with. I really 85:00got a sense of being part of--myself and then my family--actually we're part of a history, of making history, of the making of Puerto Rican history in, in Brooklyn. And I, I think it's important for my son and for young people in general, Puerto Rican children particularly but not necessarily, because there's so much negative stigma connected to, to different ethnic groups. People have a sense that, you know, you were here and you were part of making this town what it is today. You had an incredible amount of people working in laundries and hotels during that era, too, people working all phases of business in the city. And, I mean, working in the Navy Yard, you had a very large Puerto Rican population there, in the subway system later on, also. And it's important.


MARKS: To give that historical depth and--

FONTANEZ: Yes it's, it's important and it's--and for Puerto Ricans particularly for--to give, you know, a whole sense of pride and a whole sense of, you know--you have something important that you contributed to this society as well.

MARKS: Okay, thank you very much.

FONTANEZ: Yes, you're welcome.


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Interview Description

Oral History Interview with Angela Fontanez

Angela Fontanez was born in the Bronx in 1943. As a child, she was sent to Puerto Rico to live with her grandmother. After several months, she returned to New York and went to live with her stepfather and mother on Washington Street in the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn, in one of the original ''pioneer'' settlement areas. Her family then moved to the Farragut Houses, near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. During this period, her family would do piecework at home, making jewelry. In her work as a producer for WNYC television, Fontanez has been involved in state-funded projects, one of which is a short film for young people that recreates the arrival of Puerto Ricans to New York at around the turn of the century. In her work on this project, Fontanez re-created an old cigar-making workshop, the kind that could have been found in Brooklyn at the turn of the century.

In the interview, Angela Fontanez gives a detailed account of the schools, churches, and stores frequented by the Puerto Rican community in the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn. Fontanez recalls growing up in the Farragut Houses, a public housing project in the Downtown Brooklyn neighborhood, in the fifties. She comments on the changes the neighborhood underwent; how, for example, supermarkets replaced small bodegas. She discusses the formation of neighborhood gangs during this period. This interview is a bridge to the pioneers' generation, since Fontanez' family was friendly with Jesús Colón and other figures of that generation. In closing, she describes the television work she's produced that was intended to educate young people-particularly Puerto Ricans-about migrant contributions to urban development. Interview conducted by Morton Marks.

Brooklyn Historical Society initiated the Hispanic Communities Documentation Project in 1988. Over fifty interviews were conducted to document the experiences of Brooklyn residents who arrived from Puerto Rico, Panama, Ecuador, and several other Central and South American nations in the latter half of the twentieth century. This collection includes recordings and transcripts of interviews conducted between 1988 and 1989. The oral histories often contain descriptions of immigration, living arrangements, neighborhood demographics, discrimination, employment, community development, and political leadership. Also included are photographs and printed ephemera.


Fontanez, Angela, Oral history interview conducted by Morton Marks, January 29, 1989, Hispanic Communities Documentation Project records and oral histories, 1989.004.03; Brooklyn Historical Society.


  • Colon, Jesus, 1901-1974
  • Fontanez, Angela
  • New York Naval Shipyard


  • Employment
  • Ethnic identity
  • Factories
  • Gangs
  • Motion pictures
  • Navy-yards and naval stations
  • Public housing
  • Puerto Rican women
  • Puerto Ricans


  • Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
  • Downtown Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
  • DUMBO (New York, N.Y.)
  • Harlem (New York, N.Y.)


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Hispanic Communities Documentation Project records and oral histories