Listen to Von Diaz’s story about Juan Rodriguez on PRI’s The World.
This post is from our media partner PRI’s The World.
On a recent evening in New York City, artist Maija Garcia gears up for a night of theater. First, she stands on stage and asks the audience a question.
“Who knows who New York City’s first immigrant was?” Garcia asks.
“Juan Rodriguez!” the crow enthusiastically responds.
Juan Rodriguez was the first non-Indian immigrant to settle in Manhattan. Be he wasn’t Dutch or English—rather, he was from what is now the Dominican Republic.
Garcia and her collaborator, Armando Batista, are bringing Rodriguez’s little-known story to the stage. But it’s not the only tribute he’s getting in New York. Three miles of Broadway—the part that runs through heavily Dominican neighborhoods includling Washington Heights—was recently renamed Juan Rodriguez Way.
To learn more about this early New Yorker’s life, I went on a stroll down Broadway with Garcia and Batista.
“We’re walking down Broadway, from 167th, which is now called Juan Rodriguez Way, or as Armando Batista likes to say JR Way,” Garcia said, smiling.
“JR Way baby!” Batista chimed in.
Armando Batista is an actor and educator with Dominican roots who plays Juan Rodriguez on stage. He was born and raised in Washington Heights, just 20 blocks north of the street corner where we’re standing.
“It’s personal, it feels personal, it’s someone I can look up to, and I can be inspired by, take on the task of using him as a symbol to inspire others and other young people,” Batista says.
Batista and Garcia’s play reimagines Rodriguez’s immigrant life—what he first saw and did when he got to Manhattan in the early 1600s. Standing on the newly named street, Batista reads a few lines from his play.
“We all come from somewhere, even the Lanape, who lived here for centuries. Their ancestors came across the Bering Strait, and spread across the American continent like so many fingers. So who belongs here? I suppose you belong wherever you choose to stay and plant seeds. We all come from somewhere, and return to the earth in the end. Dust to dust,” he reads.
How do we know that Rodriguez was the city’s first non-Native American immigrant? Scholars have long believed the Dutch settled here first, about 400 years ago. But there’s enough consensus now to rethink that.
Anthony Stevens-Acevedo, at the Dominican Studies Institute at City College of New York, dusted off the research that confirmed Rodriguez’s existence.
“We know he spent about a year here. We know he was a pretty independent guy. And he seems to be a fellow with a very strong sense of his own dignity and independence,” he says.
We also know he was a free black man who came aboard a Dutch merchant ship in 1613, and insisted on remaining in New York—even threatening to jump overboard should he be forced back on the ship.
Stevens-Acevedo then gave me a tour of the Institute’s archives.
“On this particular line that I’m pointing to you here…this is the letter s, a very convoluted s, and the t, for Saint. And I’m sure you will be able to figure out this one here that is D-o-m-i-n-g-o, so this refers to Santo Domingo, the island,” he says.
He’s pointing out letters in documents that gave clues to Rodriguez’s existence. They are scans of 16th and 17th century papers, stained yellowed by age.
The Dominican Institute’s Director, Ramona Hernandez, says she’s excited to see artists like Batista and Garcia bring Rodriguez’s story to life.
“I think that people are taking ownership of the story because it resembles who they are, it represents who they are, it resonates with who they are,” she says.
And Garcia—the actor—she sees potential for Rodriguez’s story to have an impact on more than just the Dominican community.
“We want young people, especially young people of color in New York City, to have a founding father they can call their own.”
The next step, some historians say, is to move Juan Rodriguez from just being a new street name to hearing his story in the classroom.
Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation and the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation