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Latino New Jersey History Project

Latino New Jersey History Project: Oral History Interviews

The Latino/a New Jersey History Project

Project Description

Latinos make up nearly twenty percent of the Garden State’s population.  Professor Lilia Fernandez and Rutgers students have spent several summers exploring and documenting this population’s history through the Latino New Jersey History Project, a student-led, community-based research project.  Launched by Professor Fernandez in 2016, the project aims to document the histories of New Jersey’s diverse Latino/a communities by identifying archival materials and conducting oral histories with local residents.  Since the summer of 2017, Rutgers undergraduate and graduate students have been receiving training, doing preliminary research, and conducting oral histories with community members in New Jersey.  (Under Interviews, click on the participant's name and then select the HTML or PDF version of the transcript to read.)

Latino NJ Project Students

Rutgers School of Arts and Science students participating in the Latino/a New Jersey History Project (From Left: Aracely Ortega, Luz Sandoval, Tania Mota, Laura Sandoval, Carie Rael, Aziel Rosado, Amy Castillo. Front: Kevin Rosero) Photo courtesy of Kara Donaldson


Jenesys Alicea

Jenesys Alicea was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1981. Her maternal grandparents were born in Puerto Rico and moved to the mainland U.S. early in their lives. Jenesys grew up in North Newark and then Belleville. Her father worked in factories and in shipping and handling, and her mother eventually worked for Essex County. Jenesys went to Elliott Street School, Ridge Street Annex and Broadway Middle School in Newark and then, after moving to Belleville, to Belleville High School, graduating in the Class of 1999. She attended cosmetology school at Concorde in Bloomfield and has spent her career working in cosmetology. After first coming out as gay, she began transitioning in her mid-twenties with the help of an organization in Jersey City dedicated to helping trans youth. She identifies as a transgender woman. In the interview, she discusses her family history, childhood and life experiences, focusing in on topics including her Puerto Rican heritage, Latinx communities in Essex County, the process of transitioning, LGBTQ activism, trans-related health care, working as a freelance cosmetologist, and traveling to Puerto Rico.

Carmela Becerra

Carmela Becerra was born in Cali, Colombia in 1964. She grew up in Cali along with her three siblings. Her father worked as a foreman at a construction company, and her mother was a homemaker. She discusses the diversity of her ancestors with Afro-Colombian and indigenous roots and notes an absence of racism and colorism during her upbringing in Colombia. She remembers the rise of cartel-related violence. After completing a two-year college degree, she was motivated to move the U.S. for job opportunities. With family members living in Elizabeth, New Jersey, she decided to settle in Elizabeth. She describes the large Colombian community in Elizabeth and her family connections in the city, notably an aunt who owned a travel agency. She planned on returning to Colombia, but she met and married her husband, who is Puerto Rican, and decided to stay in the U.S. She compares and contrasts language and cultural practices of Colombians and Puerto Ricans. After going back to school, she became a teacher and has worked as an English as a second language teacher. She visits Colombia frequently and plans on retiring in Colombia. In the interview, she delves into raising children in America, demographics and immigration, current issues surrounding immigration, and political and economic strife in Colombia.

Luis Calvache

Luis Calvache was born in Quito, Ecuador in 1944. He, his brother and sister were raised in Quito by his widowed father, Eloy Calvache Pérez. Luis’ father was a merchant worker; he sold clothing across the towns in the province of Ambato to support his family. Luis lost his mother at the age of seven. At the age of fourteen, Luis began moving alone from Guayaquil to Ambato and back to Quito, where he had to support himself with whatever jobs he could find--selling newspapers, shining shoes, etc. He eventually had to join the Ecuadorean military at eighteen, which he mentions was a typical rite of passage for eighteen-year-old men at the time. What he remembers most from his childhood was the typical food and his favorite music, dancing, and soccer. Luis completed his basic education and then continued on for an additional 3 years; he eventually gained his license to drive cars, taxi cabs, and trucks, in Ecuador and he was able to sustain himself this way. During this time, he met his wife and married her when they were in their early twenties. He mentions that after a few rough years in his young adult life, he decided to take a chance and go to the U.S. In 1990, he arrived in Los Angeles, then to New York City, and eventually arrived in Plainfield, New Jersey at a friend’s home. The job he held the longest in the U.S. was in the construction industry. Here, Luis discusses having struggled with adapting to the language barrier and finding that Latinos were sometimes problematic in the workplace against other Latinos. However, he recognized the small groups of Latinos that did offer him and his family a hand during their first years in the country. He yearns to go back to his country someday but continues to live in the U.S. to stay by his wife and children’s side.

Saskia Leo Cipriani

Saskia Leo Cipriani was born in 1980 in Santurce, Puerto Rico. Her parents were born in the Dominican Republic. In 1981, her family moved to Passaic, New Jersey, where she grew up in a neighborhood that was, at the time, largely Dominican and Puerto Rican. She attended Catholic schools and then Clifton High School. After going to Passaic County Community College for one semester, she transferred to Rutgers University, first to University College and then to Livingston College, where she graduated in 2004. During her undergraduate years, she was involved in Lambda Theta Alpha sorority, Casa Boricua, the Latin American Student Organization (LASO), and the Latin American Womxn’s Association (LAWO). Additionally, her work-study job was at the Center for Latino Arts and Culture (CLAC). Over the course of her career, she has worked in the private sector and in higher education. In 2010, she earned a Master’s in Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers-Newark. At the time of the interview, she was working on her dissertation in the Ed.D. program in Educational Leadership at Rowan University. In 2009, she co-founded the Latino Alumni Association at Rutgers University (LAARU). Since 2012, Ms. Cipriani has served as the Assistant Director of CLAC.

Maria Ealey

Maria Ealey was born in Medellín, Colombia in 1981. During her early childhood, she grew up in a middle-class family and attended Catholic schools. In the interview, she describes drug cartel-related violence in Medellín and the impact on her family. Following her aunt and grandmother, her family immigrated to the U.S. in 1995 and settled in Paterson, New Jersey. They lived in South Paterson in what was, at that time, a predominantly Colombian and Arab neighborhood. While working part-time jobs to help support her family, Ms. Ealey went to high school at John F. Kennedy. She discusses the difficulties of transitioning to life in Paterson, learning English, and dealing with financial constraints associated with access to health care and higher education. Initially, she went to Bergen County Community College for nursing, while also working full time. Then, she attended Berkeley College and studied international business, working early in her career for an attorney and a foundation. Currently, Ms. Ealey is a staff person in the Department of Latino and Caribbean Studies at Rutgers University. She resides in Middlesex County. 

D.H. Figueredo

Danilo "Dan" H. Figueredo was born in Guantanamo, Cuba in 1951. He grew up in Havana, where his father worked for the government. In the interview, he shares his recollections of the Cuban Revolution and the Bay of Pigs invasion. After Fidel Castro's ascent, Figueredo's father came under political pressure, and the family emigrated from Cuba in 1965, first to Spain for a year and then to the United States. With family members living in Union City, New Jersey, Figueredo and his parents settled in Union City, where he spent his middle school and high school years. In the interview, he describes what it was like adjusting to life to Union City, where his parents connected with the Cuban community and he eventually found a close group of friends in high school that included Bob Menendez. After graduating from Union Hill High School, he attended Montclair State University and majored in English and literature. He then earned a Master's in Library Science at Rutgers in 1978 and a Master's in comparative literature at New York University in 1989. He spent his career writing non-fiction and children's books and working in library science at the Union City Public Library, Newark Public Library, where he directed the Bilingual Program, New York Public Library, New Jersey Library Association and Bloomfield College Library. Among D.H. Figueredo's publications are Revolvers and Pistolas, Vaqueros and Caballeros: Debunking the Old West (Intersections of Race, Ethnicity, and Culture) and the bestselling children's book When This World Was New, which is based upon his arrival in Union City in 1966.

Eva Fontanez

Eva Fontanez was born in the Bronx, New York in 1959. Her parents were born in Puerto Rico and moved to the Bronx after having their first child. During her childhood, Eva Fontanez lived in the Bronx, in Elizabeth, Newark and Passaic, New Jersey and in Brooklyn, before returning to the Bronx. She grew up in a Pentecostal household in which her stepfather was a Pentecostal pastor and her mother, a seamstress by trade, raised eight children. After graduating from Bushwick High School in Brooklyn, she briefly attended María Eugenio de Hostos Community College before entering the workforce. In 1980, she and her mother and younger sister moved to Las Piedras, Puerto Rico. After nine years of living in Puerto Rico, she moved to Plainfield with family members. In 1990, she got a three-year grant-based job at Raritan Valley Community College (RVCC) and spent the rest of her career there in variety of roles, including as staff in Student Activities and Multicultural Affairs. At RVCC, Ms. Fontanez served as the founding advisor of the Orgullo Latino Club and helped to start CRECER, a program that began in 1996 to encourage underserved youth from area high schools to attend college. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, she spent nine months in the San Juan area of Puerto Rico helping in relief efforts and working for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in a call center.

Rosita Hamilton

Rosita Hamiton was born in 1955 in Brooklyn, New York. Her mother and maternal grandmother moved from Guaynabo, Puerto Rico to New York in the early 1950s. Her father grew up in Guánica, Puerto Rico and moved to New York City when he was young. Rosita Hamilton spent her childhood and young adult years in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. Her mother worked as seamstress and participated in the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. Her father was a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT). Hamilton attended St. Barbara’s Roman Catholic School and then St. Michael’s High School. She went to Queens College, eventually earning her bachelor’s degree in 1986. She was active in the women's movement, joining the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1972, and in the anti-Vietnam War movement. She began her teaching career at Catholic schools in New York City. After moving to New Jersey, she taught at St. Helena in Edison and then spent the rest of her career teaching history at Linwood Middle School and in the high school in North Brunswick. She was a member of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA). Since retiring in 2016, she has stayed active in the women's movement and in organizations such as Indivisible and the ACLU. Currently residing in Monroe Township, she previously lived in Piscataway and South Brunswick.

Madai Poole

Madai Cruz Poole was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1974. Her mother was born in Utuado, Puerto Rico, and her father was born in Salinas, Puerto Rico. Her parents moved to the New Jersey-New York area when they were young, eventually settling in New Brunswick. Her father worked for Suburban Transit, and her mother worked in the Public Defender's Office. Growing up in New Brunswick, Poole attended the parochial schools Sacred Heart and St. Peter's Elementary School. For high school, she went to Rutgers Prep. Poole went to Rutgers College and double majored in Administration of Justice and Puerto Rican and Hispanic Caribbean Studies. She participated in Rutgers Unión Estudiantil Puertorriqueña and spent time in Latin Images Living-Learning Community. After working for many years in the pharmaceutical industry in marketing, she became the department administrator for Latino and Caribbean Studies in the Rutgers School of Arts and Science. In the interview, Poole discusses being an EOF student at Rutgers and then working as an EOF counselor, organizing support for her extended family in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, being a cancer survivor, and returning to Rutgers to work in the department from which she graduated.

Benito Rodriguez

Benito Rodriguez was born in Aguada, Puerto Rico in 1951. He grew up in Aguada in the barrio called Rio Grande. He had two sisters and a brother, and his parents worked in agriculture. After going to school until the fourth grade, he worked in sugar cane fields to help support the family. In the interview, he describes growing up in an agricultural area and that work, not education, was emphasized by his parents. He recalls fondly the cuisine he grew up eating and favorite types of music. In 1969, when he was eighteen, he decided to move to the United States for work. Following his sister who had settled in Newark, he first lived in Newark and later moved to Keansburg. He describes the difficulties of adjusting to life in America, which for him was made easier by the fact that his sister was already established in Newark. After working at a flour company and a restaurant, he worked at the Roselle Paper Company for forty-four years. The interview is conducted by his grandson Aziel Rosado.

Mercedes Valle

Dr. Mercedes Valle was born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Her father moved to Connecticut to work in the tobacco industry, and later, when she was six, she moved with her mother and two siblings and joined her father in Newark, New Jersey. Growing up in Downtown Newark in the late 1950s and 1960s, she went to public schools and to Catholic School for two years. In the interview, she describes the challenges of learning English, adapting to the culture, experiencing discrimination in the predominantly Italian area, and connecting with the few Latino families in her neighborhood. She was drawn to St. Columba Church, where she became involved in youth activities. As a teenager, she worked part-time jobs. After graduating from high school, she worked as a secretary, until a co-worker encouraged her to go to Essex County Community College. Then, through ASPIRA, she transferred to Livingston College at Rutgers University. At Livingston, she connected with Puerto Rican students and professors. She became a student-activist in the Puerto Rican Student Organization. She joined Guazabara, a theater troupe that performed plays about issues affecting Puerto Ricans in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. She was active in La Casa de Don Pedro, the community-based organization founded by Ramon Rivera in Newark. Following graduation from Livingston College in 1973, she continued her education at Seton Hall and the University of Massachusetts, earning her doctorate. She spent her career as a school psychologist. She has been active in relief efforts in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Anthony Villanueva

Anthony Villanueva was born in New York City in 1945. His father was born in Isabela, Puerto Rico, and his mother was born in Santurce. They migrated to the mainland separately and settled in New York City, where they met and then married in 1944. Anthony Villanueva grew up in El Barrio, also known as Spanish Harlem, in East Harlem, Manhattan. In the interview, he discusses speaking Spanish during his early childhood and learning English in grammar school. After his family moved to Jersey City, he relates that he experienced discrimination for the first time. In Jersey City, he went to St. Peter's Grammar School and then Ferris High School. As a child, he traveled frequently to Puerto Rico, which he has continued throughout his life. He went to college at the Rutgers Newark College of Arts and Sciences (NCAS) from 1963 to 1966, when he enlisted in the Navy. He completed basic training at Great Lakes, Illinois, advanced training with the Marine Corps at Camp Lejeune, and naval corpsmen training at St. Albans Naval Hospital. He served as a naval corpsman attached to a Marine unit in Vietnam in Quang Tri Province from 1967 to 1969. He discusses transitioning back to civilian life after his service and dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder at a time that it was not recognized by society. After the war, he finished his undergraduate education, obtaining his bachelor's degree in history at NCAS in 1973. He worked as a police officer for eighteen years, after which he worked in finance, county government and banking and then as a surgical technician in a hospital. Now a resident of Illinois, he has been pursuing graduate studies in Caribbean and Puerto Rico history at Northern Illinois University.

This project is ongoing, and new interviews will be added periodically.

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