Delia Sosa, a 64-year-old Dominican immigrant, walks along a small stretch of Broadway Avenue in New York City called Juan Rodriguez, but admits she doesn’t know who this person was.
“From the last name, he looks Dominican to me,” he supposes.
When she learns the details of the fascinating story behind the name, Sosa’s eyes widen in surprise.
This piece of street has become the American city’s greatest recognition for Rodríguez. It passes through Washington Heights, an area at the top of Manhattan Island known as the “Little Dominican Republic” due to the heavy presence of immigrants from the Caribbean country.
However, most New Yorkers are unaware that Juan Rodriguez was the first known non-native to this land, the first immigrant to what would become the quintessential immigrant city.
“He’s sort of a forerunner of New York’s multiculturalism,” historian Anthony Stevens-Acevedo, who has studied Rodríguez’s trip, told BBC News Mundo.
The life and history of Juan Rodríguez seem to have more uncertainties than certainties. The most revealing details of his biography come from documents found in the Netherlands.
These early articles point out that Rodríguez was black, and in the spring of 1613 he landed in the Hudson River area in what is now New York City. He arrived aboard a Dutch merchant ship that passed through Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola (present-day Dominican Republic and Haiti), which at the time was a Spanish colony.
It appears that Santo Domingo was also Rodríguez’s birthplace, according to recorded testimonies from crew members.
The fact that his name appears in some documents such as “Jan Rodrigues” has given rise to some speculation that he has Portuguese roots. But experts warn that there is not enough evidence to confirm this.
Evidence suggests that Rodríguez boarded the Dutch ship as a sailor and was exploring opportunities for the fur trade.
The truth, according to the documents at the time, is that when the captain of the ship announced that he would return to Holland after crossing the Hudson, the crew lost one of its members: Rodríguez decided to stay there.
Some wonder if he was abandoned by the Dutch, although statements made at the time indicate that he left the ship voluntarily, after threatening to jump overboard if stopped. The former sailor was given weapons and tools to survive on this land for about a year. This marks the historical importance of Rodríguez as the first non-native inhabitant of these lands.
The area where it settled, discovered less than a century earlier by Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano for France, was inhabited by natives mostly belonging to the Lenape tribe. The land had not yet been colonized.
It is believed that Rodríguez was able to communicate and interact with indigenous peoples, thanks to his familiarity with different languages, acquired through contacts with foreigners in his native country.
Thijs Mossel, the captain of the ship Rodríguez embarked in Santo Domingo, returned to the Hudson in 1614 and was taken by surprise when he saw his former sailor working for another Dutch expedition which had just arrived.
A conflict erupted between the two ships and, according to testimony later collected by the Dutch authorities, Rodríguez participated in the heated argument, was injured and rescued by his new partners.
Although it is not known what happened to Rodríguez from this point on, Stevens-Acevedo explains that this conflict has helped to better document his history in the Netherlands.
“It was a bit of a coincidence that allowed us to meet Juan Rodríguez,” says the researcher, who is co-author of a monograph on the character for the Institute of Dominican Studies at the City University of New York.
“A free black man”
Rodriguez’s story seemed destined for oblivion until historian Simon Hart mentioned it in 1959 in a book on the early Dutch voyages on the Hudson, which included quotes from the original documents.
This sparked the curiosity of other scholars who, over the following decades, began to regard Rodríguez as one of the earliest examples of an African-American presence in what is today one of the world’s major cities.
He resided there before the Dutch founded the city of New Amsterdam in 1624, which was later renamed New York after the British conquest in 1664.
Stevens-Acevedo describes Rodríguez as “a typical Proto-Dominican of the time: a free black man, very accustomed to taking his own initiatives and an ardent defender of his freedom”.
He has also been defined as the first Latino or the first entrepreneur in this part of the world.
There may be several explanations why the story of this pioneer immigrant remains relatively unknown to this day, even after then-mayor Michael Bloomberg approved a party’s name change in 2012. of Broadway.
“Today, people are focusing on other things: ambition, the future of the new generations, health and education,” says Paulina Monte, a 65-year-old Dominican immigrant who also did not know. who was Rodríguez.
Historian James Nevius, author of several books on New York City, argues that there is a tendency to “whitewash” history.
“(Rodríguez) represents diversity, the promise of New York and a constant struggle with the people who are trying to take advantage of it,” says Nevius. “In New York you can reach a certain level, but if there is someone above you and they think you are too smart for anything, they will push you away,” adds the historian.