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The Detroit News

Puerto Ricans Step Into the Limelight


April 12, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Detroit News. All rights reserved.

His name was not Elmo. But in 1967 Detroit, Hermogenes Vazquez's American co-workers and employers at the foundry could not say his name. So Vazquez, a proud man of Puerto-Rican decent, chose to ignore his colleagues' cultural ignorance and let them call him what they could pronounce--- Elmo.

"I've been called worse things than that," says the 64-year-old retired Vazquez, who much prefers to be called "Hermo" (pronounced AIR-mo). "I kept my head high. It bothered me, but I just wanted to make a life for my wife and children."

And that he did, raising five children with his wife in Corktown, which--- like the rest of Metro Detroit, he says--- is a more accepting place today.

Vazquez is one of the 23,466 Puerto Rican-Americans who call Metro Detroit home. Although they account for the second-largest Latino group in the state, Michiganians of Puerto-Rican descent are often overshadowed by the larger, more recognized, Mexican-American community. Now that Detroit Tigers catcher Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez is making a home here, there is a sense of hope that the baseball superstar, their "hermano Boricuan," will increase mainstream acknowledgement and awareness about their often-ignored community.

"We don't need validation," Vazquez says. "But when the Tigers start winning all those games, now that Pudge is here, people will notice."

"There is international Latino interest in our city now. We're all looking for a positive role model to connect with and Pudge is it," says Fred Feliciano, 37, a Puerto Rican-American, who heads Multicultural Affairs for Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

Puerto Rican culture made its way to Metro Detroit in two significant migrations. A small group of black Puerto Rican men moved to the Detroit area in the early 1900s to work in the auto plants, says Osvaldo Rivera, director for Multicultural Affairs at Madonna University, a private, liberal-arts college based in Livonia. Rivera, who is Puerto Rican, has researched the migration of his people to Detroit over the years.

Because of their darker skin, this first group of Puerto Ricans blended in with Detroit's African-American community, married, had families and lived in the only area they could at the time--- Black Bottom.

The second wave, made up of more mestizo and Creole Puerto Ricans, moved to Metro Detroit in the 1950s and '60s to work in foundries and in beef, sugar beet and automotive industries. The immigrants moved to southwest Detroit and Pontiac. Today, the most tangible Puerto Rican presence can be found in a few eateries in southwest Detroit.

"You can get authentic Puerto Rican food at Dona Lola's," says Jorge Chinea, director of Wayne State University's Center for Chicano-Boricua Studies, about the Ecuadorian restaurant that serves Puerto Rican dishes in southwest Detroit. Don Luis Comidas Criollas, a Puerto Rican takeout restaurant, is nearby and a few other places in the area serve Puerto Ricanlike dishes here and there.

"By the time the second migration of Puerto Ricans moved here, the Mexican-American population had already established a community in Corktown and what is now called Mexicantown," says Madonna University's Rivera, who hosts a Latin radio show Saturdays on WDET-FM (90.9). "Although the cultures are different, Puerto Ricans were able to move into the area and live around other people who spoke the same language."

Vazquez was part of that second group. He'd been living in Garfield, N.J., with his wife Laura, but couldn't find work. His brothers and sisters in Detroit encouraged him to move to the city. Vazquez and his wife followed the advice.

"I moved here the year of the riots," Vazquez says. "The city was in a lot of turmoil and unrest. But there was a man named Father Kern. He was an awesome man who helped the needy."

The Rev. Clement Kern, a Catholic priest at Detroit's Most Holy Trinity Church, would help newcomers find jobs and housing. He later helped establish the Puerto Rican Club, an organization that advocated for the social rights of its members. Kern is now deceased, but the club still exists as a social club, located on Springwells Street.

Vazquez joined the club in its early days. It became an integral part of his tight-knit community, which holds family and religion sacred. (Most Puerto Ricans are Catholic, some are Pentecostal.) After 22 years of marriage, his wife Laura died in 1982. Saddened, Vazquez moved back to Puerto Rico for a short time. But he returned to be with his children.

Throughout his travails, Vazquez says he never stopped loving Jesus and he never stopped loving baseball. These days, he follows games on TV rather than his portable radio, but the New York Mets remain his favorite team. With "Pudge" in town, Vazquez says he is starting to like the Tigers. He even went to the team's home opener Thursday.

"They will fight and be a better team," Vazquez says, before erupting into his rich, trademark chuckle. "Pudge and the other Latin players will turn this team around."

Like his father, Michael Vazquez loves baseball. A substance abuse and violence prevention counselor, Vazquez is also a baseball coach at southwest Detroit's Western International High School, where 12 of the 14 players are Latino.

"For us, being Puerto Rican and knowing Pudge is, is a proud moment, even for the larger Latino community," says Vazquez, 40. "I'm happy about what Pudge can do for all Latino players. It's also a motivation for the kids on my team.

"School comes first, but now they know there are opportunities."

Nelva Munoz, 19, is seeking opportunities other than baseball, besides, she's not a big fan of the sport. "I'm more into boxing than baseball," she says.

The Wayne State University freshman is the first in her family to go to college. When she finishes, she hopes to become a veterinarian. For now, she's taking on higher education with the help of the school's Center for Chicano-Boricua Studies program, a curriculum that has helped Latino students enroll in and graduate from college for more than 30 years.

"With the Chicano-Boricua Studies, I don't feel alone," Munoz says. "Both of my parents are Puerto Rican. My mother was born here in Detroit and my father was born in Puerto Rico, so I have both perspectives. One of the biggest obstacles I face now is other people's ignorance.

"There are people who can't say my name, but there are also people who insist on calling me Mexican. I've had people say, 'What's the difference?' There is a big difference, culturally. I'm proud of what I am and I'm proud of my heritage."

Flavors of Puerto Rico

You can buy plantain at Joe Randazzo's and Goya products at any mercado in southwest Detroit. Or try a restaurant:

Don Luis Comidas Criollas
7340 Michigan Ave., Detroit
(313) 554-5054
Take-out only. Puerto Rican food.
Open 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays; 11 a.m.-6:30 p.m Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Dona Lola Restaurant
1312 Springwells St., Detroit
(313) 843-4129
Dine in and carry out. Ecuadorian and Puerto Rican food.
Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Armando's Mexican Cuisine
4242 W. Vernor Highway, Detroit
(313) 554-0666
Dine in and carry out. Mexican eatery with Cuban dishes similar to Puerto Rican.
Open 10:30 a.m.-1:45 a.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 10:30 a.m.-3:45 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

El Comal Restaurant
3456 W. Vernor Highway, Detroit
(313) 841-7753
Dine in and carry out. Menu includes Central American dishes and Mexican food.
Open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday and Saturdays.

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