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Edmundo Quinones

Oral history interview conducted by Gregory Ruf and Fabiana Chui

June 10, 1994

Call number: 1994.007.24

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0:00

RUF: This is an interview for The Brooklyn Historical Society-Chinatown History Museum Oral History Project on Sunset Park. This is June 10, 1994. The interviewer is Gregory Ruf and Fabiana Chiu. We're talking with Edmundo Quinones at Project Reach Youth, 199 14th Street in Brooklyn. That's between 4th and 5th Avenue. Could you start by introducing yourself?

QUINONES: My name is Edmundo Quinones, I am 48 years old, and I consider myself a -- almost a lifelong resident of Sunset Park, minus 8 years that spent in Puerto Rico in high school and college. I was born in Manhattan of Puerto Rican parents. Both my parents came to this country when they were sixteen. My father was sixteen. My mother was seventeen years of age.

1:00

RUF: Your mother was seventeen, did you say?

QUINONES: Right.

RUF: Did they - how long until they met? How did they meet? Under what circumstances?

QUINONES: They met because my father was a friend of the family. I had family here already. I had two aunts and a great-aunt and a great-uncle.

RUF: On your mother or your father's side?

QUINONES: On my mother's side.

RUF: On your mother's side. What brought them to the States? What was the impetus, the earliest relatives that you know of who came north?  

QUINONES: I don't know why my great-aunt came. Actually I had two great-uncles. One came because he was a musician, so he played with Latin bands in New York, 2:00in Miami, in San Juan, and in Havana.

RUF: How long ago was this?

QUINONES: This would have to be going back into the 1930s, yeah. And one uncle came in the 1940s to practice family medicine on the Upper West Side. I don't know why he chose New York. He had studied in Switzerland, and he came -- he settled here. I guess this was the place to be. My father come from a working class background, and he came here because it was very difficult to find work in Puerto Rico, and he came from a numerous family, as did my mother, and both families had been farm owners. They farmed coffee and tobacco.

3:00

RUF: Big cash crops, as opposed to subsistence, let's say.

QUINONES: Well, right, at that time, people in Puerto Rico who owned those farms lived well. They didn't have a lot of money, but they lived well. They formed a rural middle class. Now, after the turn of the century, when the American invasion of Puerto Rico, their lands became -- they had no value, because they were in the central part of Puerto Rico, which is the mountainous part. And American trade demanded sugar. They didn't need coffee, they didn't need tobacco, so both of my families formed part of a big movement in Puerto Rico, which was all of that culture that was in the central mountain region that had been doing that type of farming for generations. They all went bankrupt. Those lands had almost to be given away. So in the 40's, the situation in Puerto Rico 4:00was desperate, because those people went from the countryside to the small towns to the city, and there was nothing there to do. So my father came here to work, and we worked as an auto mechanic, and later on most of his life here, he was a machinist.

RUF: He came by himself? At age sixteen?

QUINONES: He came by himself at age sixteen, but he had a brother here.

CHIU: Where in Puerto Rico was he from?

QUINONES: My father was from an area between Otuado and Lares, Puerto Rico. And my mother from the town of Comerio, Puerto Rico. So he had an older brother here. He came to him.

5:00

RUF: And his brother had come a couple of years earlier? Much earlier?

QUINONES: His brother had come I think about ten years earlier. He was a teacher in Puerto Rico, and he convinced this ship captain of a small cargo ship that he knew something about navigation, and they hired him, and that's how he got to New York. It's amazing. So he came by boat, yeah.

RUF: Had your father's family been very large when he lived in Puerto Rico?

QUINONES: Yes, very large.

RUF: How many people might we --?

QUINONES: My father is the product of a third marriage, so you count. The two previous marriages there had been a lot of children. My father's an only child of that third marriage, so I didn't even get to meet all of them. Say at least fifteen or sixteen. My mother is one of fourteen children, which for those farm 6:00families was OK, because everyone had a job to do.

RUF: And what was it that brought your mother and her family?

QUINONES: My mother came here because she was looking for a more interesting way of life. She came from a very strict Victorian-type family, and she felt that she could have a better life here, and also that she'd have a little bit more freedom to enjoy life out of the supervision of her mother and father.

RUF: So she came by herself as well?

QUINONES: She came by herself to her sister's house.

RUF: And what was her sister doing here? Was her sister employed?

7:00

QUINONES: Her sister was a housewife.

RUF: I see, that's very interesting. And did both of them live in Manhattan when they first arrived?

QUINONES: Yes, that was the landing point, yeah.

RUF: And you are, are you the oldest child in your family?

QUINONES: I am the oldest.

RUF: Of how many?

QUINONES: Of four. I have to count, because my parents divorced when I was five, so I have two half siblings by my father and a half sibling by my mother.

CHIU: So that means when you guys moved to Sunset Park, you were six, it was with your mother or with your father that you moved?

QUINONES: It was with my mother.

CHIU: Why did she move to Sunset Park?

QUINONES: She moved to Sunset Park because her sister to whom she came in 1944 had bought a house in Sunset Park, and the word had got around in that area of 8:00Manhattan that this was a good place to live and raise a family, and the houses were really very reasonable. And -- most of the houses in Sunset Park have one or two rentals, so that was really a way to go for young families.

RUF: What was your mother's sister doing at the time?

QUINONES: She was raising her three children.

RUF: And she was still married?

QUINONES: Yes. Who?

RUF: We're talking about your aunt.

QUINONES: Right. Yes?

RUF: How did they save enough money to buy a house? How much would a house cost at that time? Do you have any idea?

QUINONES: I think -- we're talking 1951 -- I think a two- or three- family frame house in Sunset Park cost about six thousand dollars, and it was possible for a working class family with one person working at that time to save to buy a house.

9:00

RUF: So when they moved, where in Sunset Park did they first get a house?

QUINONES: 49th Street between 3rd and 4th Avenue.

RUF: Hmm, okay. Were there many Latinos living in the area at that time?

QUINONES: No. There really were very few Latinos in Sunset Park as I grew up. The average was two families per block.

CHIU: Two Latino families?

QUINONES: Two Latino families per block, and I have to say also that even though there were people from other parts of Puerto Rico, the majority of the Puerto Ricans, who were the only Latinos in that area at that time, were from the North coast in Puerto Rico, and particularly from three coastal -- from two coastal towns and one city. That's Arecibo, Camuy, and Hatillo, Puerto Rico. And that's 10:00significant also because the Puerto Ricans who settled Sunset Park were Caucasian.

CHIU: That's right, the people from those ports are Caucasian.

QUINONES: Right.

RUF: Hmm, I see, I see. Now why was -- when they came out here, aside from the house being affordable, you said a moment ago that word got around that it was a good place to live, or a good place to move into. Aside from the affordability of housing, what made it attractive?

QUINONES: I think people compared it to the large apartment houses in Manhattan. You know, the five or six, seven stair walk-ups. So this was, at that time, and not only to Latinos, but I think to others as well, this was almost like a suburb, you know?

RUF: It must have been very quiet.

QUINONES: It was very quiet, people had lived there for generations, and there 11:00was a small town spirit in the neighborhood, and in particular as it pertained to each block.

RUF: OK, now if you're on -- how would you define a block? Are we looking just one particular part of the street, or are we talking about square blocks?

QUINONES: We're talking about one street between two avenues--

RUF: Okay, aha, I see! Okay!

QUINONES: -- so 49th Street between 3rd and 4th Avenue.

CHIU: Both sides of the street?

QUINONES: Both sides of the street.

CHIU: You said earlier that per block you would find two Latino families. Who were the others?

QUINONES: The others were -- many of them were Norwegian, because Norwegians and Finns settled the area after the Dutch. In fact, you know, Sunset Park has the 12:00first co-ops in New York City that are still co-ops, right along Sunset Park, because the Finns brought that concept over. So it was heavily Norwegian with some Finns and some Swedes. A lot of Irish, a lot of Italian, and then a smattering of all the other Eastern European. You know, Polish, and German, a lot of Germans.

RUF: How did you find it during your childhood, interacting with people from other groups such as this?

QUINONES: Well, it was a good experience because we all grew up together. We went to the same schools. All our parents worked on the waterfront or in the factories. But it was also a difficult experience, because the Puerto Ricans 13:00were the last ones to arrive, so that there was a lot of prejudice against Puerto Ricans, and we always found ourselves on the defensive. And then what's also difficult for me and my family was that we weren't considered White. That was a completely weird thing, because we'd think, what are they talking about? We're all descended from the same part of Europe, and we're all Western Europeans, and we're as white as anybody else. That was particularly irritating to us.

RUF: Did you find that very forceful even as a youngster? As a child?

QUINONES: Oh sure.

RUF: Your classmates wouldn't let you forget?

QUINONES: Absolutely.

RUF: What was going to school like at that time?

14:00

QUINONES: It was a reflection of the times. Schools were, public schools in -- that neighborhood has always been a neighborhood of large families, have always been tenements, and that neighborhood has always served to serve immigrants, so we're talking about large schools, large classes, very orderly, very clean, and very dull.

RUF: Why do you say dull?

QUINONES: Well, you know, there was very little creativity at that point. There 15:00was a lot of respect from everyone in terms of the teachers. What the school said, you did, and anyone who got in trouble in school would be in trouble at home. And also, in that system, if you didn't make it, that was tough.

CHIU: What school was this?

QUINONES: It was Public School 1 on 47th Street I'm sorry -- Public School 2 on 47th Street between 3rd and 4th Avenue. That was an old brick schoolhouse that was torn down. Now it's Public School 1. And Dewey Junior high school, which is still around up to the 9th grade.

CHIU: PS 2 is not there.

QUINONES: No. It's PS 1.

CHIU: So it's the same building?

QUINONES: It's not.

CHIU: Oh, it's not.

RUF: Did you find, when you spoke of the prejudice that you encountered as a 16:00Puerto Rican living here, did you find that in the classroom as well coming from the teachers? Or were teachers sort of above that or more sensitive to you?

QUINONES: I think -- I bet that that prejudice was there, but it was very subtle, and in a way, even though we broke ground, and that's why I mentioned this before -- we were largely accepted because we were Caucasian. Because we didn't look any different than the rest of the children. I'm sure that it was there, but I think something else that would have protected me was, my mother in particular was very active in the school. So when they see parents that are 17:00present for their children, no one is going to mess with that kid, but I'm sure that it was there, and also that I think it was even more difficult for recent immigrants. I had the language, and so did my parents. Even early on, so I always had advocates there for me.

RUF: What would you do with your classmates in terms of after-school activities or leisure?

QUINONES: Most of the leisure time was spent on the block, and very much, I think even like today in Sunset Park, there was a block identity, so you played ball games on the block. Stick ball was a big thing. You played hand ball. But 18:00during the spring and summer, for up to about 11 years old, there were seasonal games that we played. For example, for two weeks you played marbles, and there were very, very intricate rules and setting up with the marbles, and different kinds of marbles, and trading. This was a whole big thing. Then, for about a week -- and this was all tied into the candy stores. Almost every block there was a candy store. Then you bought pea shooters and peas, and you spent a week shooting that at everybody that passed by. Then we used to make carpet guns out of a long piece of wood, a rubber band, and clips and a bottle cap, you'd make 19:00this type of sling, and you'd go to the local empty lot and bring out an old carpet, linoleum, and you'd cut that up and you'd make the sling-shot. It was called a carpet gun. That was at least two weeks.

RUF: You'd shoot at the carpet? Or you'd shoot at each other?

QUINONES: We'd shoot at each other, of course. That was the whole thing. What else did we do? Of course, water guns were very popular, and the --for me, the crowning event of the summer, mid-summer, and you have to imagine every body would be outside. Everyone. Not children only, but grandparents, everybody would sit on the stoop playing cards, drinking beer, listening to music. It was like what you see today when you see a block party, that's what it used to be almost 20:00on every block. We used to start then getting balloons and filling them up with water, and you have to imagine all these kids, right? Twenty, thirty kids lined up on each side of the block running to attack each other with water balloons. It was wonderful, wonderful. And when we'd get tired of that, we would have them with the next block. If we had friends there, we would invite them over for a water balloon war.

RUF: Would you mix in the groups? Or would it be sort of your block against the other block?

QUINONES: No, it would be your block against the other block unless you had a close friend or a relative on another block, and then you'd get to meet the other people.

RUF: They would come on your team?

QUINONES: Right.

RUF: When you split into groups -- let's say you're on your own block, and you're sort of going at each other this way, did you mix? You were saying there weren't very many Puerto Rican families in the area, so would the groups of children playing together, would they be very mixed? Or would you find 21:00yourselves, well, we Puerto Ricans tend to be in this one particular group? Was there sort of -- were there divisions in this way? Or was that not really…

QUINONES: Sure, sure. We had a couple of friends on the block, but not everyone. Not everyone. But that was not only prejudice, that was the way it was, because since there were so many kids on the block, cliques started to form.

CHIU: So this was on 49th Street between 3rd and 4th?

QUINONES: And on 52nd Street between 2nd and 3rd.

CHIU: I see. So I just wanted to know what progression of different locales did you live?

QUINONES: We lived on 49th Street between 3rd and 4th when we arrived. A year later, my mother remarried and we moved to 52nd Street between 2nd and 3rd.

RUF: When you were at 39th Street-

QUINONES: 49th.

RUF: 49th, I'm sorry. You were living with your aunt?

QUINONES: We rented from her.

22:00

RUF: Two family house?

QUINONES: A three family house.

RUF: And which apartment did you have?

QUINONES: The second floor apartment.

RUF: You aunt was downstairs?

QUINONES: She was downstairs.

RUF: And who was third floor?

QUINONES: Someone that had lived there forever. A Norwegian fellow by the name of Norman who kept a picture of the King of Norway in his kitchen.

CHIU: That's great.

RUF: Was he an old fellow?

QUINONES: Well, to me, yeah, he was an old fellah.

RUF: Was he a real character that you liked to visit or call upon?

QUINONES: At times, at times. He never married. He lived in that apartment with his mother. His mother passed away and he stayed in the apartment. He had a rocking chair, and we used to crack nuts. We used to visit him, of course, underneath the rocking chair.

RUF: And when you moved to 52nd Street, what was the impetus behind that? Space? 23:00Or just --

QUINONES: Space.

RUF: And what was that set-up like?

QUINONES: We rented that apartment from at that time the only Puerto Rican family that was on that block.

RUF: Would you find that this sort of networking among and between Puerto Ricans was very important?

QUINONES: Absolutely. Absolutely, yeah, for housing and for jobs. Yeah.

RUF: Your parents were working on the waterfront at that time?

QUINONES: My mother was a factory worker making dolls down the block from the house, which was very convenient, and my stepfather worked as a waiter in the Stork Club. You heard of the Stork Club?

RUF: Sure.

QUINONES: You heard of the Stork Club?

CHIU: Like a fancy-

24:00

QUINONES: Very, very fancy. So he'd come home with, you know, stories -well, he didn't really talk a lot, but when he would --of all the stars that he had served, you know.

RUF: And how did each of them land those jobs? How did they find those jobs?

QUINONES: My mother got her job through word of mouth in the neighborhood. There were tons of those types of jobs along the waterfront, and what people used to do, for example, since it was seasonal work, there was never any concern about that type of work. People were laid off on Friday, would take a week or two off, and then just go along -- it was 2nd and 1st Avenue -- and get a job. That was what you did. You just went up to the factory and you got a job.

RUF: Her co-workers were -- came from different backgrounds as well, or were they predominantly newer immigrants, or --?

25:00

QUINONES: It was a mix. It was a mix. Most of the people lived in the neighborhood and walked to work. But I remember in the late 1950s people from outside of the neighborhood coming to work, to those factories. I remember it particularly because they were Black, and there were no Blacks in the area. That was my first contact with African Americans, just seeing them walking down from 4th Avenue to the factories.

CHIU: 4th Avenue because of the subway?

QUINONES: Because of the subway.

RUF: Has the African community grown since the late 1950s? Have people settled here as well?

QUINONES: It did grow, because it grew from zero. [laughter] It grew from zero to a small number. There's really a small number. It's so hard to tell in Sunset 26:00Park, because you look at a black face, they could be Puerto Rican, they could be Dominican, they could be from Panama. But there are, for example, on my block now, there are two African American families. And in the neighborhood, there are African Americans, but it's basically a Latino neighborhood.

RUF: When did you start noticing other Latinos moving into the neighborhood, let's say non-Caucasian Puerto Ricans, or even people from other countries?

QUINONES: I think a big Puerto Rican migration in the late 1950s or very early 1960s. But then something strange happened in that neighborhood, or not so strange. It was a combination of things. Most -- first of all, everyone in that 27:00neighborhood considered themselves; they used the word middle class. We had no concept of any difference between middle class, and working class, and blue collar -- everyone thought we were middle class.

RUF: Why? What was the source of that?

QUINONES: TV? I don't know. But you have to remember that these were people that very few went to school, these were across ethnic lines, factory workers, maids, doormen -- everyone. The Irish, the Italian, the Norwegian -- everyone. But they were able to own homes, have a car, go on vacation, and have a house in the country. Talk downward mobility. Yeah. So in the early 1960s the Whites, the 28:00non-Latino Whites started becoming uncomfortable with the larger number of Puerto Ricans coming in, coupled with the idea that making it was moving out of Brooklyn. Moving to Long Island, New Jersey. And everyone, like my generation, they had to go to California before settling down. That was like a rite of passage.

RUF: California? Why?

QUINONES: I don't know. So what happened was that the neighborhood changed. I was away for eight years. When I came back, there was virtually no one left in the neighborhood. Everyone had fled, including all those middle-class Puerto 29:00Ricans, who in the 1960s all went back, including me.

CHIU: Went back to Puerto Rico?

QUINONES: Went back to Puerto Rico, or, because at that point the migration was 50/50, same number arriving as leaving. All Puerto Ricans started going out to Suffolk County and Jersey.

RUF: Explain to me what happened in the late 1950s or early 1960s to bring a much larger influx of Puerto Ricans to the New York area, let's say, and what was it that got established middle class Puerto Ricans in this area, like yourself, to go back?

QUINONES: Okay. What happened was, in Puerto Rico, a continued deteriorating situation in terms of no jobs in the cities and towns, overpopulation, and no real government plan to organize, subsidize, or help the agriculture. And that 30:00was a very, I think, that was a very well planned-out strategy, so that Puerto Rico in the 1960s and 1970s I think, was the third largest buyer of American goods in the world. So, you know, Puerto Ricans imported rice and beans and tomatoes and flour, and bananas, because there was no established support for agriculture.

RUF: Whoa, well that'll do it! Now, there's a lot of questions that this brings up. Before we get onto that I want to go back to something you said--

QUINONES: Wait a minute. Why did Puerto Ricans go back? Puerto Ricans went back because Puerto Ricans, maybe unlike the Europeans that came, in their minds never thought that they would stay here for too long. OK? They came here to work, maybe to have their children grow up and go to school, but they never cut ties with their homeland, and in the Sixties, they got kinda -- many of them got 31:00weary of life in New York, and weary of the prejudice. And they were financially in a state that they could go back to Puerto Rico and buy homes and be comfortable in their own country. And also, many of them brought back skills, and these are people like my parents, in their forties, who had skills that could then be transferred into the economy in Puerto Rico. Because the migration in Puerto Rico has always been a very low-skilled migration. The skilled workers and the professionals at that time stayed in Puerto Rico.

RUF: What year was it that you went back?

QUINONES: '59.

RUF: And how old were you at that time?

QUINONES: I was fourteen.

RUF: And you went back to go to high school?

QUINONES: Mm-hmm.

RUF: The whole family left?

QUINONES: Mm-hmm.

32:00

RUF: Did you sell the place you had?

QUINONES: No, we rented. We rented here.

RUF: Oh, you rented the apartment. And did you still have a place in Puerto Rico that the family could go back to? Or did you have to search out a home?

QUINONES: We went to a suburb or San Juan. My family, unfortunately, doesn't have that going back to a small town or to an area where they were from.

CHIU: What part of San Juan did you go back to?

QUINONES: We went back to Bayamon.

RUF: Now, had you been raised as bilingual?

QUINONES: Yes.

RUF: You spoke Spanish in the house?

QUINONES: Yes.

RUF: So it wasn't a problem linguistically for you?

QUINONES: Well, it wasn't a problem in terms of my understanding what was going on or me being able to express myself. But it was a problem because, and I had to go an English language school for a year because I couldn't study Biology in Spanish. My Spanish was not up to par, but after a year of study, thanks to -- 33:00my Spanish was really in pretty good shape, because my parents continued teaching and correcting me at home. I'm forever grateful. But within a year, I was on my third year of high school in the local high school, and got one of the highest grades in Spanish.

CHIU: That's great.

RUF: And what did your folks do when you got back to Puerto Rico?

QUINONES: My mom started her own business, started a driving school, and my stepfather was a waiter captain in the French restaurant in San Juan.

RUF: You never told me, how did your stepfather get that job at the Stork Club?

QUINONES: I haven't the slightest idea. Probably through a cousin, a friend.

RUF: Did church play an important role?

34:00

QUINONES: For me? Yes. The church, especially in that environment, was -

RUF: We're talking about in Brooklyn now?

QUINONES: Brooklyn. Was very, very important to Latinos. Most Puerto Ricans are Catholic. I'm a baptized Catholic, but my family was never Catholic. My mother was brought up as a Protestant, so that we went -- I grew up as a Presbyterian because that happens to have been the closest Spanish language church in the area, and that meant a lot, because that was a place where you were with other families, other Puerto Rican families. That was a place where I continued to practice my Spanish because you read and you spoke and you sang and you acted, and it was a great place for a kid to grow up because of the values that were taught.

35:00

CHIU: The church is still there?

QUINONES: The church is still there. It's interesting because we started renting the space. There was an English -- the congregation had services at nine o'clock in the morning, say, and we rented the space at eleven. Now the congregation bought the church, and there are a couple of people in their eighties and nineties, just one or two, because those Puerto Ricans are probably back in Puerto Rico. I try to get my children -- I have two children, 21 and 18 and I tried to get them to go to that church, and they just couldn't hack it. I had to take them to an English language church. But that was very important.

RUF: What did they not like? What was it that didn't work for them? Was it the language?

36:00

QUINONES: It was the language, yeah.

RUF: So they haven't grown up as bilinguals.

QUINONES: One of them has, the oldest, because we were more aware when he was born, and we had more time. And he took an interest, and he also took Spanish, you know, in junior high school and in high school. With the second child, he understands but he can hardly speak it, because both my wife and I are bilingual to the point that we're very much affected by the language that we're living in. So when he was growing up we didn't realize that we weren't speaking Spanish at home.

CHIU: When you came back from Puerto Rico, where in Sunset Park did you go back to? Why did you go back to Sunset Park?

QUINONES: I came back to Sunset Park because I had someone that I considered an Aunt. She was really a first wife of one of my uncles, living here, and I came 37:00to her house. And I came back because that's where my supports were.

RUF: Was this larger network of kin people very important in the earlier times?

QUINONES: Yes, absolutely.

RUF: Both sides of the family?

QUINONES: No, my mother's family.

RUF: Was that true of most people? People would tend to gravitate towards one side or the other, or would generally speaking people take both mother's side and father's side?

QUINONES: I-- I've found that it depends on the relationship that the parent has with their family. And it's usually one side. Right?

RUF: But it could go either way?

QUINONES: It could go either way.

RUF: That's very interesting. What was -- you mentioned as a child in the area in Sunset Park candy stores were a big thing. I've heard other people talk about soda shops or ice cream parlors. What were the hang-outs? If you didn't hang out 38:00on the block, where would one go?

QUINONES: Ice cream parlors were -- we had great ice cream parlors with homemade ice cream. But they did not become important until you were twelve and thirteen. Otherwise you were hanging out on the block, and then you started hanging out on the corner. You know, the guys would go to hang out and smoke cigarettes and drink wine on the corner. Then, when you became a little bit more sociable, then you went not only to the ice cream parlor, which were by and large Norwegian and German owned, but since there was a healthy Italian community, you used to hang out at the pizzeria.

RUF: So when you came back from Puerto Rico, you came directly to Sunset Park?

39:00

QUINONES: Right.

CHIU: What address was that?

QUINONES: 52nd Street between 4th and 5th Avenue.

CHIU: Now all of this time that you've lived in Sunset Park, it was always called Sunset Park?

QUINONES: No, absolutely not.

CHIU: What was it?

QUINONES: It was Bay Ridge.

CHIU: Oh, OK. All of this time?

QUINONES: All of this time. Sunset Park was a park. That's it. Just --

CHIU: So if anybody asked where you lived, you said Bay Ridge.

QUINONES: Bay Ridge. You ask anyone in this area here, if they're going to visit me, they'll say, we're going to Bay Ridge to visit Edmundo. Sunset Park is an invention of the 1960s, people wanting to make some money by establishing Sunset Park as a poverty area, which it was. It always was. And being able then to funnel monies into the area under the auspices of what was then called the 40:00community corporations. They would have a housing unit, an education unit.

CHIU: You were here when they started calling it Sunset Park, in the late 1960s.

QUINONES: When I came back, right.

RUF: You came back in -

QUINONES: No, I came back in --I visited in '68 over the summer, and I came back in --my first was born in '73, I was married in '72 --'70, '71.

CHIU: Your first son was born in Puerto Rico?

QUINONES: Both were born here, yeah.

RUF: You got your college education in Puerto Rico as well?

QUINONES: I went to University of Puerto Rico for three years.

RUF: Studying what?

QUINONES: Studying Spanish Language and Literature with a specialization in 41:00Caribbean and Latin American Studies and Literature.

RUF: Was this something you chose yourself?

QUINONES: It was.

RUF: And how did your family feel about it?

QUINONES: Oh, it was a great thing. They supported me. I was so fascinated when I got back, which was when I was in high school, to experience this whole world of writers and poets and painters. I was just --it just knocked me off my feet that I had to learn more. In fact, I was so impressed -- my name is Edmund Quinones, and the first year in Puerto Rico, my first course, first year in Puerto Rico at the University of Puerto Rico, a very well-known Puerto Rican historian, History of Puerto Rican Literature, kept saying, you know, "These New 42:00York Puerto Ricans have come here calling themselves John Rivera -- they should really take a look at their roots." And he just worked on me all year, and I got so much flack from that year from that name. It was like, saying Quinones here, "Como? Comas escribe?" And I'd have to start. I said to myself, I have to make a choice here. You know, I am bilingual, I am bicultural, but it has to be one name, and it has to be one name for the rest of my life, and since my father's name is Edmundo, I chose Edmundo.

RUF: When you returned to the US, when you came back to Brooklyn, did you return alone?

QUINONES: Yes.

RUF: The rest of your family remained in Puerto Rico?

QUINONES: Yes.

RUF: Have they remained there?

QUINONES: Yes.

RUF: So it was just you. And you came back and settled with an aunt.

QUINONES: Yeah.

RUF: On your mother's side?

43:00

QUINONES: You could say my mother's side, because she was my uncle's first wife.

RUF: OK. Mother's brother's first wife?

QUINONES: Right.

RUF: And that was on 52nd Street between 4th and 5th.

QUINONES: Right.

RUF: Now you've lived between 2nd and 3rd, 3rd and 4th, 4th and 5th. Did the Avenues have particular identities?

QUINONES: Oh -- absolutely. If you look at the housing stock between 2nd and 3rd -- between 2nd and 3rd, 3rd and 4th, most of the housing stock is frame with some brick. But above 4th going up to 7th Avenue, you start getting these beautiful brownstones. So people would start -- the track was to start off on 2nd or 3rd Avenue, and over the years, work yourself up the hill, literally.

44:00

RUF: Oh, isn't that interesting.

QUINONES: Yeah, yeah.

CHIU: So, so far you've held three different locales, three different places where you lived. Where did you move from in the area, from the 52nd Street area?

QUINONES: Well, from the 52nd Street area I spent two years here on 16th Street and 5th Avenue, because I just found an apartment there through my aunt. I met the woman I'm living with now, and we got married and my first son was born here.

RUF: Did people think of it in terms of Park Slope? You mentioned before that the idea of Sunset Park being sort of a creation of the 1960s. You know, there's Borough Park on the other side of 8th Avenue, and there's Park Slope here. Was this all generally conceived of as part of Bay Ridge? Or was it just Sunset Park?

QUINONES: I think Bay Ridge was, as I remember, from the upper-30s on to almost 45:00the Verrazano Bridge. But there was always a distinction. There was the Bay Ridge that I came from, and then past 69th Street, there was the other Bay Ridge, and part of it had the same housing as we did, and then another part of it, as you got closer to the water, had very expensive one-family homes as it does now.

RUF: Was that other part of Bay Ridge, was that predominantly occupied by people of a particular demographic background or ethnicity, or was it a mix?

QUINONES: It was -- it was a mix. I've been told that up until the 1950s though, a lot of rich Irish lived in many of the mansions in Bay Ridge.

46:00

RUF: When you returned, were you fresh out of college or had you been working in Puerto Rico for awhile?

QUINONES: I worked and went to school.

RUF: Doing what?

QUINONES: I taught Spanish as a second language at night.

RUF: And when you came back, what did you do for a living?

QUINONES: When I came back, I worked in a counseling program. Part of the anti-poverty program and education/action program, counseling and organizing families that were experiencing some --

[Interview interrupted.]

QUINONES: --for two years. I got laid off and had to come back.

RUF: You got laid off from work here?

QUINONES: There, in Puerto Rico, yeah.

47:00

RUF: And then you came up and found a place in '69.

QUINONES: Then, from Puerto Rico, with one child, I came back to my in-laws on 54th Street.

CHIU: And then from your in-laws you came -

QUINONES: From my in-laws, then we got an apartment on 54th Street. From there we moved to 50th Street between 5th and 6th for about five years. And we've been where we're at now on 56th Street between 3rd and 4th for about nine or ten years. There's a bit of gypsy in me, I think, actually.

CHIU: Mostly within Sunset Park.

QUINONES: Right, mostly within Sunset Park.

RUF: Do you remember anything about how much those apartments cost you in terms of rent at that time?

48:00

QUINONES: When?

RUF: Well, let's say when you went back to live with your in-laws on 54th St, you stayed there for a brief time. Were you paying rent, or did they let you stay?

QUINONES: Hah, no. We were paying rent. No, when I was with my in-laws for about six or seven months, I wasn't paying rent. Of course, it depended upon whether it was a rent-controlled apartment or not, right? And that was an eight family house, so that was rent controlled. About $150 for a four-room railroad apartment. They're $650 now.

RUF: They're $650 now. And what was the place like when you found your own apartment on 54th after the in-laws?

QUINONES: It was a railroad apartment, two-bedrooms, kitchen, and then a 49:00combination living and dining room area.

RUF: And how much was that?

QUINONES: About $150, $200 a month.

RUF: And what about the place on 50th between 5th and 6th?

QUINONES: That was a two-bedroom apartment in a sixteen family house, newly renovated. It was beautiful -- so nice. And that went up to close to $600.

RUF: Well, that was a big jump.

QUINONES: Yeah.

CHIU: That was when? Around what time?

QUINONES: Between '79 and '84.

RUF: And the place you live now on 56th Street is how large?

QUINONES: It's a two-bedroom apartment on the first floor, and we moved there 50:00because people that I had been working with retired. They live in Jersey and in Florida half the year. So it's their house. We rent from them. Even though it's a small apartment, it has a back porch, and we have use of the yard.

RUF: What was -- I can understand the impetus, perhaps, of moving out form the in-laws. I mean, you get a sense of, you're on your own, you're independent, you're not always living under them. I imagine that's part of the reason that pushed you to get a place of your own.

QUINONES: Sure.

RUF: Did you move to 54th Street for any particular reason?

QUINONES: Yeah, we did. Because apartments, although plentiful, have always been difficult to get. And, ah--

RUF: Why, if they're plentiful?

51:00

QUINONES: Because sometimes they can be expensive. Because they're rented through a network, and because you're not sure of the services, no matter how much you're paying. Now we lived on 54th Street because my wife's family got together and bought the same family house. It was like a family condo, you know? So we just rented one of those apartments. They call it una sociedad. Una sociedad.

CHIU: When did you start seeing the first Asians coming in?

QUINONES: Oh Lord.

CHIU: Where and why did they come here?

QUINONES: I started seeing the first Asians when my youngest son, who is now 18, 52:00was finishing grammar school, OK? So that would be when he was in the fourth grade, so that's --he was nine. So nine years ago. And I noticed the Asians because of the school. Grandmothers, when I took him to school in the morning, I would see the Asian grandmothers bringing their grandchildren by the hand, while they had another child tied to their back.

CHIU: This is like 1982, 1983, right?

53:00

QUINONES: Yes.

CHIU: When was your son born?

QUINONES: Arturo -- Ramiro was born in '73, and Arturo was born in '76.

CHIU: You're talking about your younger son, right?

QUINONES: Yes, younger, right. So it's '85. That's when I noticed them.

CHIU: What school was that?

QUINONES: That was our school on 60th Street and 4th Avenue.

RUF: Did you realize they were Chinese? Or were they Chinese?

QUINONES: They were Chinese.

RUF: Did you know at that time -- when you began to notice them moving into the area, or seeing them at school, did you have a sense of where they were settling? Where they were living?

QUINONES: Not really, not really. It was years -- several years afterwards that 54:00I found out that they were settling along 8th Avenue in the 50's. And by the time I got up there, I was in total disbelief, because when I walked up, it was all Chinese. Chinese restaurants and supermarkets. You know -- I couldn't believe that an immigrant group had come into a neighborhood and were doing so well. You know, a first rate restaurant, you know?

RUF: How long ago was it that you made your first visit up there?

QUINONES: It must have been about seven years ago.

RUF: Did you ever visit 8th Avenue before that?

QUINONES: No, no. It was very quiet, very quiet -- Mom and Pops -- I had no 55:00reason. The commercial strip was 5th Avenue. The larger stores are in either downtown Brooklyn or on 86th Street, so, that 8th Avenue, prior to the Chinese, were nothing, you know, little shoe makers and grocery stores and that sort of thing.

RUF: I spoke with someone several months ago who was talking about the economic changes in the neighborhood and how they effected people of different ethnic groups, let's say. And he was of the opinion that Latinos in the area sort of missed, or were deprived of, their economic heyday. That just as they were about to sort of reach economic dominance or predominance in the area, the Chinese had sort of moved in and taken the thrust away. Would you agree with such an assessment?

56:00

QUINONES: Hmm. There are feelings in the community of envy of the Chinese, because in the last five years is when I've become aware of it. The Chinese are the only people buying in the neighborhood.

CHIU: Buying houses?

QUINONES: Buying houses. And the Latinos, even though we're so family oriented, have not, most of us, been able to pool our resources together the way the Chines have. They buy the houses, but there are three generations in that house. We haven't been able to do that, except with, I'm giving you the example of the sociedad -

CHIU: Right.

QUINONES: I know, but in general we haven't been able --that doesn't happen. So 57:00there's a feeling, gee, these people just got here, and they're doing very well that they're buying up houses. Coupled with a reputation in the schools that the Chinese children are so hard working. So when we go to open school night, and you look at the honor roll, the Chinese names. So that exists. That's what I've been able to pick up more. And an interesting -- it's also been interesting because even though Sunset Park started coming back in the 1970s, we never 58:00thought that anybody would buy in Sunset Park, and when people predicted that yuppies from Park Slope, the wannabe yuppies that couldn't buy in Park Slope, started buying in Sunset Park, we just couldn't believe it. We said, they're gonna leave. So when the Chinese came, we said, many people said, this is an interesting mix, because for awhile it really did feel like a ghetto, in its positive and its negative. And I would have preferred, actually, that my children grow up in a more diverse community. You know?

CHIU: Since you've seen the area change so much, based on the current population in Sunset Park, how do you see it, say, in ten years, twenty years?

QUINONES: I see, even though Puerto Ricans, in terms of being part of the Latino 59:00population in Sunset Park, are going to have a piece of that Latino population, because right now, the Dominicans are in large numbers, the Mexicans from Puebla, and then all the Central American countries, and a large migration from Ecuador and Peru. So, it's interesting now that it's still Latino, but the faces are more Indian looking, you know, than years ago when it was either Caucasian 60:00Latino or mixed Latino or Black Latino. So I think that's going to continue to happen. I think the Chinese are going to make up half of the community. When >-once we knew that they were established in Sunset Park, like five years ago, I said to myself, they're never going to come below 5th Avenue. They're not. Because you know, traditionally in New York people stay in their own neighborhoods, you know? But there's been some trickling, and now along 4th Avenue, I see not only Chinese workers, but I see Chinese teens just strolling and hanging out and walking around. What I haven't seen is any mixing. I don't see any mixed Latino-Chinese groups. Chinese with Chinese and Latinos with Latinos.

61:00

RUF: How do the two cohorts get along?

QUINONES: I don't think they do. I think that there's a tolerance. I think that, since there's been so much friction, that for Sunset Park kids, particularly for any child living from 53rd Street on to 60th Street, including my children, they belong to district 20, and they all went to junior high schools in that district, which is basically a White district. So in the minds of the youth, the tension and the energy goes between Latino and White relations in those schools, because they're going to White schools. They're travelling into White 62:00neighborhoods. So the Chinese have kind of got in there, and people don't know what to do with them.

CHIU: So, what would you say -- as an educator -- what would you say is needed for us to be placed -- to help us deal with the next ten, twenty years?

QUINONES: Well, two things would need to happen, which I doubt will happen. In the schools there needs to be, each of those ethnic groups needs to be represented in terms of school staffing. And we've gotten some stronghold; Latinos have, in Sunset Park. Two of the -- well, Dewey, PS 1, and PS 94, the teachers are -- the principals are Latinos. In PS 314 where my children went, we 63:00fought and we got Latino teachers into that school. And so the Chinese need to do the same. And then, once that happens, there have to be curriculum changes so that their culture is included in the daily curriculum, and that -- once we left the school -- didn't happen as much. Because you still, you walk into 314 near Street Patrick's day, and everything is green, and Ireland all over, and Erin Go Bragh. But then, during the rest of the year, when you walk in those halls, visually you don't see, you don't know the ethnicity. So that has to happen. And second of all, for both groups, a larger participation in the area of politics.

RUF: Do you think it's important for community services or social services to 64:00pick up, to get more developed? Is that a pressing need?

QUINONES: It is a pressing need, and there are services now in place, so it's not starting form scratch, but developing what there also is there. And the same thing would have to happen with the social services. The leadership and the people providing the social services need to reflect the ethnicity of the neighborhood. Because it's not only -- even in the social services, it's not only in the delivery of services, but it's -- I don't like to use the word, but it's also the empowering of those groups.

RUF: There's one question that I've been wanting to ask you. When you talked about the different demographic changes within the Latino community of the area, the influx of more Dominicans, more Mexicans, Ecuadorians or Peruvians, what has this done for the concept of community, or solidarity, among Latinos as a sort 65:00of umbrella category?

QUINONES: It's done two things. It's enriched the experiences of those groups. For example, I live with another two families. It's a three family house. So it's Puerto Ricans on the first floor, Dominicans on the second floor, and Ecuadorians on the third floor. All spring, summer and fall, there's a domino game going in front of my house. The local guys that are playing, they're my age and a little younger. I call them my security alarm, because they're always out there, so you can't really break into my house! And I observe them, because these are, you know, working class, beer-drinking, cussing, spitting on the sidewalk guys, who are having this great experience. They're from Ecuador, 66:00Dominican Republic, Cuba, and a large number coming in from Puebla. So it does that, and there is, -- once people get to know each other, there's that sense of community. But it also underlines the differences, you know? People then tend to appreciate more people of their own background, you know? We're talking, we're on the block, "Oh, you're from Peru? Really? Oh, well my mother is ---" and you know, then you really get into -- I've noticed, we're all waving our little flags, now. We're all putting on the cars, you know, that we're from Argentina, we're from Peru, that we're from Puerto Rico. We might not have done that as much before. That's what I mean, it's an enrichment, but it's also an 67:00affirmation of where you're from, and a better sense of where you're from:

RUF: Has there been much change in terms of where people hang out nowadays? What do young people do?

QUINONES: Yeah. Young people, and I'm not the person to ask, right? But my sense, especially the older teens, tend to go to clubs in Manhattan. We didn't do that as much.

RUF: What about looking for jobs? Young people looking for employment -- in the neighborhood?

QUINONES: Depends on the skills. I have a sense that, just from what I and I haven't really seen stats lately -- a lot of kids do work in the neighborhoods because we have such a high drop-out rate. The schools are really basically 68:00fucked up, and not responsive at all, so we lose a lot of kids in junior high school.

RUF: That's a shame. 

QUINONES: Yeah.

CHIU: We've taken a lot of your time. Is there anything else you would like to say for this oral history interview?

QUINONES: I wish that groups like Puerto Ricans, like my own people, would learn from their experiences as immigrants, and be a little bit more sensitive to people coming in, because unfortunately it seems to be a tradition in New York 69:00that you -- you establish that you're not the last guy on the ladder by criticizing the new guy, 'cause now you're American, you know? I wish, and I've heard a lot of Puerto Ricans say that, people would be more aware, that that's something that we all should learn, all of the new people. The new Italian immigrants, and the Jews, and now the Puerto Ricans. We forget so quickly that we were in that boat so recently.

CHIU: That's great. Thank you.

QUINONES: You're welcome.

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Interview Description

Oral History Interview with Edmundo Quinones

Edmundo Quinones was born circa 1946 in Manhattan to Puerto Rican immigrant parents, and grew up in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn. As Latinos, the Quinones were discriminated against--still, he remembers a childhood of mixed play in his working-class neighborhood with stick-ball and water balloons. At age fourteen Quinones moved to Puerto Rico. When he re-settled in New York City he found the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn to be inhabited primarily by Latinos. He married a Puerto Rican woman and had two sons. Around 1985, Quinones stumbled upon Brooklyn's Chinatown and was amazed to find the Chinese American community so quickly well-established.

In this interview, Edmundo Quinones discusses his life as a first-generation working-class Puerto Rican American. He reflects on the challenges he's faced as a Latino growing up in a White neighborhood; particularly discrimination, and strengthening his Latino identity while avoiding mainstream assimilation. He provides an overarching view on the American dream: class mobility (both upward and downward), ethnic relations, and neighborhood change. He describes the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge's transformation from a predominantly poor Scandinavian enclave, to a Latino area called Sunset Park, to a bustling, predominantly Chinese American community. Interview conducted by Gregory Ruf and Fabiana Chiu.

Brooklyn Historical Society collaborated with the Chinatown History Museum (now the Museum of Chinese in America) in order to conduct a series of oral histories with residents of the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. The Cantonese, Mandarin, and English language interviews focused on what was then a new presence of Chinese and Asian immigrants concentrated along Eighth Avenue. Among the topics that are explored in the interviews are tensions between different groups of Chinese immigrants, crime and safety in the neighborhood, Sunset Park's relationship to Manhattan's Chinatown, and how long-term residents of Sunset Park had adjusted to the area's "newcomers."

Citation

Quinones, Edmundo, Oral history interview conducted by Gregory Ruf and Fabiana Chui, June 10, 1994, New Neighbors: Sunset Park's Chinese Community records, 1994.007.24; Brooklyn Historical Society.

People

  • Quinones, Edmundo

Topics

  • American Dream
  • Chinese Americans
  • Discrimination in housing
  • Education
  • Ethnic neighborhoods
  • Ethnic relations
  • Hispanic Americans
  • Multiculturalism
  • Puerto Ricans
  • Scandinavian Americans
  • Social classes

Places

  • Bay Ridge (New York, N.Y.)
  • Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
  • Chinatown (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
  • Puerto Rico
  • San Juan (P.R.)
  • Sunset Park (New York, N.Y.)

Transcript

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Finding Aid

New Neighbors: Sunset Park's Chinese Community records