Western New York Heritage

Another Look: Preserving Hispanic Heritage in Buffalo and Western New York

View Print Version PDF

The DeCastro brothers, Jose Marcelino, Julio and Eduardo pose outside their NYC cigar shop, ca. 1886. Julio would emigrate to Buffalo by 1900, making him one of the first Puerto Ricans to call the city home.

Courtesy NYS Archives Legacies Project and J. Edmund DeCastro, Jr.

Who was Ysidro Pasadas Catalano? What was he doing in Buffalo, New York, in 1860? How long did he stay? Did he know Henry Wright, a fellow Mexican-born sailor who had been charged with assault and battery? Might he have been Wright’s victim? We may never know the answers to these questions, nor much else about the earliest Hispanic immigrants in Western New York. Their stories are lost and will likely live only in the imaginations of those who care enough to think about them.

We might not have known these first Hispanic settlers even existed if not for the early census records. In fact, these meticulously kept chronicles provide the sole source of information on Catalano and others like him. They list the resident’s age, the country of his or her birth and those of the parents, along with their occupations and those of any other family members living with them at the time. In addition, the census records indicate “whether deaf and dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, pauper, or convict.” Some common infractions listed in those days included petit larceny and intemperance.

The U.S. Census records for Buffalo and Erie County in 1860 list 14 inhabitants of the area who were born in Spanish-speaking countries: 10 Spanish; 2 Mexican; and 2 Cuban. The City of Buffalo was not yet officially three decades old that year, when Ysidro Pasadas Catalano was 22 years old and Henry Wright was 27. One of them may well have been the first Hispanic in Buffalo. Fellow Western New Yorkers of Hispanic or Spanish origin included Joseph Martin, a ship’s carpenter, and his wife Isabella, a housekeeper. Joseph’s brother, Emanuel Martin was 36 years old and listed himself as a sailor. Might the Martins’ surname have originally been Martínez? Alexander Francis, a boarding house keeper; Thomas Ferron, a 28 year-old porter; and Louisa Pethen and Hager Gedson, apparently single mothers were also among the early Hispanic residents of Buffalo.

In 1896, Spaniard Miguel Angel Rojas filed this “Declaration of Intention” to become a United States citizen with the Erie County Court.

Courtesy NYS Archives Legacies Project

By 1880, the nascent Hispanic Community consisted of at least 22 residents of Cuban, Spanish, and/or Mexican birth. Among them was Frank Gonzalo, a “barbermaker” of Cuban birth. Notably, the author of the Mexican National Anthem, Jaime Nunó, was also living in Buffalo at that time after having moved here in 1866. A decade later, the records show residents who included the widower father of four sons, watchman John Martin (another brother of Joseph and Emanuel, perhaps?); Maria Hill, a washerwoman; printer Juan Pierce; and William Vernett, listed as a “Clairvoyant/Doctor” of Mexican birth. In 1896, Miguel Angel Rojas, an immigrant from Spain, filed a “Declaration of Intent” in Erie County Court, to become a U.S. citizen. But for most of these early Spanish and Hispanic residents of the Queen City, their reasons for coming here, their contributions to this community, and other details of their lives are lost to us forever.

At the turn of the century, the population of Buffalo had burgeoned to over 350,000, but census data from the time does not show Hispanics as a subgroup. It wasn’t until 1910 that the questionnaire began to ask about the respondent’s “mother tongue”. We do know, from the NYS Legacies Project, that a branch of the DeCastro family, New York City cigar shop owners of Puerto Rican descent, had moved to Buffalo in the early 1900s. Julio DeCastro came here to work for the Foster McClellan Company and later became its general manager. This family’s story is a depiction of the much sought-after American dream. Julio’s hard work afforded his son an elite private school education and a successful career. According to the NYS Legacies Project, Julio’s son Julian Edmond served in WWI and went on to become a “valued reporter” for the Buffalo Evening News.

After the turn of the century, with the Spanish-American War in the past and the Pan-American Exposition having attempted to build goodwill between the U.S. and its Latin-American neighbors, Hispanic migration to Western New York began to increase. Mexican and Spanish communities grew and began to organize formally. According to information provided at the NYS Archives Legacies Project, there were 140 Spaniards living in Buffalo by 1920. The Spanish American Club, formed in 1924, was one of several community entities established to support unity through social events. The Centro Social Club Mexicano, established in 1947 for the Mexican community, was another. It was also about this time that Puerto Rican migration, which had begun in about the 1930s (although records show some Puerto Rican arrivals much earlier), began to pick up pace and continue throughout the 1950s and 60s.

The Ramos family moved to Western New York from Detroit around 1925 and were among the early Spanish families in the region.

Courtesy John A. Sanabria

Puerto Ricans, who had gained United States citizenship after the U.S. take-over of Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War as a result of the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917, would soon become the largest Hispanic group in Buffalo and Western New York and they remain so today. Many of the early Puerto Rican arrivals came to this area as migrant farmers, travelling back and forth to the island in keeping with available seasonal work. They later brought their families and settled permanently. Community “pioneers” such as Agustín “Pucho” Olivencia and Juan “Indio” Texidor welcomed and assisted subsequent new arrivals and began to organize community groups to address educational, social, economic and political issues that arose for the burgeoning community. Mr. Texidor and others founded the “’Ecos Borincanos” radio program in 1958 to provide a forum for sharing culture through music and addressing community issues through debate and dialogue. With the ground-breaking for the Puerto Rican-American Community Association on Swan Street in 1969, later renamed the Olivencia Center, Mr. Olivencia and his compatriots provided a permanent space for community gatherings and paved the way for the Hispanic leaders and community initiatives that followed.

The Spanish-American Welfare Association participated in the City of Lackawanna Silver Anniversary Parade with this float in 1959.

Courtesy Olivia Padilla

The 1960s through the 1990s saw an influx of Hispanics from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Ecuador and other locales in Central and South America. Dominicans came to escape the tyranny of the Trujillo dictatorship and Cubans fled first the Batista and later the Castro regimes. Others left their homelands for political or economic reasons, some came as students, and still others for adventure. Organizations that originated to address the needs of Mexicans and Puerto Ricans such as the Puerto Rican-Chicano Committee (PRCC), expanded their missions to adapt to the changing demographics. Hispanics United of Buffalo, today’s leading Hispanic services organization in the region, evolved from the earlier organizations designed to meet the diverse needs of the community. Educational initiatives, such as the bilingual education program, were developed in response to the linguistic and cultural needs of the growing Hispanic population in the city schools. Confesor Cruz and Olga Sonia Dávila were among the pioneers in this area. They, along with a community advisory board, laid the groundwork for a program that in 2014 continues to thrive.

Groundbreaking for the Puerto Rican-American Community Association took place at Swan and Chicago streets in 1968. The facility would eventually be named the Agustín Olivencia Center.

Courtesy Blanca Rodriguez

Today, Hispanics in Buffalo and Erie County number over 40,000 with over 65% residing within the city limits. They have made, and continue to make, great contributions to the growth and development of Buffalo and the region. The Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York, Inc. is working to ensure that future generations will have no need to speculate about the Hispanics living here today, or within recent memory. The Hispanic Heritage “Bring Us Your History” Project has been launched to capture and preserve the lived experiences of Hispanics in Buffalo and Erie County through the collection of their stories. To this end, the project is collecting and archiving pictures articles, news clips and oral interviews that will be digitized and catalogued in a searchable database. The goal of the project, and the mission of the Hispanic Heritage Council, is to preserve the history of Hispanics in Western New York for future generations.

The project, funded in part by the New York State Council for the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature and administered by the Arts Service Initiative of Western New York, is a collaborative effort of partners and sponsors that include the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, the Buffalo History Museum, RandForce Associates and researcher Stephanie Bucalo, a graduate student from the Department of American Studies of the State University of New York at Buffalo. Alma Carrillo, former Hispanic Heritage Council Director, is also an integral member of the project.

From Concept to Creation: An Idea Comes to Life

The “Bring us your History” project was first conceived in August of 2011 during a strategic planning session in the early days of the Hispanic Heritage Council’s formation. With the help of consultant Eve Berry of Eve Berry and Associates, the initial members of the Board met to formulate a mission and vision, and to identify strategic actions for the work of the Council. The mission of the Council guided the direction of the planned work and resulted in the idea for the History Project:

The mission of the Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York, Inc. is to foster and inspire awareness, understanding, and appreciation of past, present, and future contributions of the Hispanic community in Western New York.

The seed of this idea was planted and led to a connection with Dr. Michael Frisch of the University at Buffalo. Natural links with the Central Library and the History Museum also sprang from early discussions. Little did the directors and partners know how this idea would germinate and grow!

A smiling Mercedes “Bessie” Mendez sits behind the wheel of a Bethlehem Steel truck, ca. 1948. She was one of the first females to be hired by the company.

Courtesy Olivia Padilla

August 2012 marked the launching of this major Hispanic public history project in West Seneca, NY. Interviewers Stephanie Bucalo and Casimiro Rodríguez met with Father Antonio Rodríguez at the West Seneca Branch Library and listened as Father Rodriguez told his story. He spoke about his contributions to the Hispanic community throughout Western New York and recalled many of the community pioneers whom he met along the way. This interview launched a series of fifteen interviews of community members who felt the immediate need to record and document the stories of their past in order to educate and inspire future generations. The completion of Phase One included 15 hours of interviews, as well as the collection of artifacts (pictures, documents, etc.), in digital formats appropriate for library use, accompanied by a digitally indexed collection database. Throughout phase one, the HHC Board Members and volunteers were busy reaching out to the community to promote the project. In addition, a “Community Timeline” was being developed through an ongoing, interactive dialogue at community events throughout the year.

The Journey Continues: Phase Two

In Phase Two of the project, the HHC has been working with its partners to develop a permanent exhibit that was launched at the Buffalo History Museum in September of 2014. The exhibit includes interactive panels with text, pictures and audio recordings. While future generations may wonder who Agustin “Pucho” Olivencia, Juan Texidor and Olga Sonia Dávila were, how they and their families came to live in Western New York and how they contributed to the rich history of the Hispanic community and the region at large, they won’t have to go far to have some of their questions answered. Thanks to the Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York, Inc. and its partners, they will be able to hear directly from these community leaders or from some the people who knew them best. Their voices, their family photos and other bits and pieces of their lives will be available to anyone interested in knowing more about them.

The full content is available in the Fall 2014 Issue.