“It’s a small story with a lot of juice in it,” said Anthony Stevens-Acevedo, Assistant Director of CUNY’s Dominican Studies Institute.
As street names go, Broadway is as illustrious as it gets.
To date, no person had been deemed worthy enough by the City to share its name.
For three miles, from 159th Street to 218th Street in Manhattan, Broadway itself will be part of a duet, as the avenue will now bear the name of Juan Rodríguez.
The bill to co-name Broadway was signed into effect this past Tues., Oct. 2nd by Mayor Michael Bloomberg at City Hall.
“Hopefully, young people will see his name up there and be inspired,” said the Mayor during the bill-signing.
First they will have to find out who Juan Rodríguez was.
While there might well be thousands of men named Juan Rodríguez in northern Manhattan today, historians have found that they were all preceded by one man who emigrated to New York in 1613.
“This is the kind of research that produces new academic knowledge and engages in a conversation with a scholarly community who studies New York City’s early history,” said Dr. Ramona Hernández, director of CUNY’s Dominican Studies Institute (DSI).
Researchers at DSI produced a new monograph that documents that the first non-native to live in New York City was a black or mixed-race Dominican.
This Rodríguez did not have to apply for a visa, wait for a green card, or pledge allegiance to the United States of America.
Instead, he abandoned ship.
Historical records show that in 1613, Juan (or Jan or Joao) Rodríguez (or Rodrígues) joined a Dutch sea captain Thijs Mossel, on the vessel Jonge Tobias from San Domingo, now known as Santo Domingo.
While Mossel later returned to the Netherlands, Rodríguez remained in New York, as the first non-Indian settler of the island.
In 1613, the United States of American had not come to fruition, and neither had the Dominican Republic. Instead, the terrain where Rodríguez made his home would have been called Mannahatta by the native Lenni Lenape.
Juan Rodríguez was salvaged from historical obscurity in 1959 by Dutch historian Simon Hadt, who revived him from two documents.
The 1614 documents were records from a trading dispute between the crews of two Dutch trading ships who were trying to resolve a dispute before the Dutch Authorities.
The two factions were arguing over the purchase of beaver pelts and mentioned a man named Juan Rodríguez, who had set up a trading post on Mannahatta.
In signed affidavits, Rodríguez’s former crewmembers on Mossel’s ship explained that Rodríguez had left them a year earlier, and was given a number hatchets and axes to trade with the natives.
A group of community leaders gathered at City Hall for the bill-signing.
“This research also serves people from a practical point of view: A very early predecessor of the large Dominican population that thrives in New York City today, Juan Rodríguez’s story belongs to the history of all New Yorkers,” noted Dr. Hernández.
Present at the bill-signing were faculty from the Dominican Studies Institute at the City University of New York (CUNY); Hostos Community College staff members; Michael Mowatt-Wynn, President of the Harlem and the Heights Historic Center; and New York City Councilmember Ydanis Rodríguez—who sponsored the bill.
Hostos Community College’s Director of International Programs and Special Assistant for Community Relations Ana García-Reyes said that the signing of the bill is important in redressing some current negative attitudes towards immigrants.
“Immigrants have been coming to the United States for many years,” she said. “They have left a stamp as part of a legacy of the melting pot that has made New York City such a great city.”
Anthony Stevens-Acevedo, assistant director of CUNY Dominican Studies Institute, said that Rodríguez spent enough time on Hispaniola, in Santo Domingo, to have absorbed its business and trading culture – in which the Dutch were heavily involved.
His exact origins are unknown.
“We’re not sure where he was from,” said President Mowatt-Wynn, who explained that many African scholars trained in Portugal were hired by the Dutch as interpreters. “Most ports had Afro-Latino interpreters.”
In signed affidavits, Rodríguez’s former shipmates refer to him as a mulatto and a Spaniard; there are some hypotheses that he is the son of an African slave and a Portuguese sailor.
But no one, not even his Dutch contemporaries, called him a slave.
“What we see in his behavior is an adamant vindication of his freedom,” said Stevens-Acevedo.
Mossel’s crew tried to bring Rodríguez back to Holland with them, but he was resolute about staying in Mannahatta, becoming the first immigrant in New York City’s melting pot.
“He was an Afro-Latino brought here by the Dutch, who lived in Upper Washington Heights with the Native peoples, so it was a real combination of all the cultures in New York,” said Mowatt-Wynn.
That Rodríguez’s name will grace the stretch of Broadway where a sizeable community of African-American, Dominican and Dominican-American residents has settled was noted as significant.
“For us it is very important—the co-naming unifies both the Latino community and the African American community,” said Councilmember Rodríguez.
A celebration planned for May 15th of next year will celebrate Juan Rodríguez 400 years after his arrival on Manhattan.
“It’s a small story with a lot of juice in it,” remarked Stevens-Acevedo.
In the meantime, one wonders if Rodríguez’s ancestors are still on the island, making their way along Broadway at the very moment.
For more information on Juan Rodríguez, please visit