Latino Histories of New Jersey

Lilia Fernandez (Latino and Caribbean Studies)

When most people think of Latinos in New Jersey, our limited knowledge likely comes from the fictional work of world-renowned author, Junot Diaz. Born in the Dominican Republic and raised for part of his childhood in New Jersey, Diaz is perhaps the most famous Latino from the state and the most famous Latino Rutgers alum.  What else do we know about the state’s Latino population, however, beyond the fictionalized Dominican community Diaz depicts? Who are New Jersey’s Latinos? How long have they been here? Why did they or their ancestors chose to settle here? What is life like for Latino Americans in the Garden State? This course explores the history of Latinos in New Jersey by studying the few primary historical sources available to us. We will read original texts, studies, and reports written about Puerto Ricans in the 1950s and 1960s, for example, and Cubans in the 1960s and 1970s to understand how researchers thought of these populations in those decades. We will ask questions such as: why did certain institutions (the department of labor, agricultural extension, public schools, churches) take an interest in these populations? What do these studies tell us? What else do we want to know? We will then visit the archival collection at the Newark Public Library’s New Jersey Hispanic Research and Information Center to learn about efforts to preserve and better document this history. Next, we will analyze some oral history interviews done with elders and community leaders to explore some of the key themes, events, and experiences that residents have identified as pivotal to their lives in New Jersey. Finally, we will consider what historians know about newer Hispanic immigrant groups—the growing Mexican, South American, and Central American communities of the state and come up with ideas about how to continue such historical research in the future. We also will create an interactive map, web-based map that identifies the Latino population throughout the state.