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Roger Caban’s El Barrio

Posted on Monday, December 7th, 2009.

Roger Caban has been a resident in Spanish Harlem for over 65 years and came to the StoryBooth in Foley Square to paint a very vivid picture of growing up in “El Barrio.” “When I was a kid, Spanish Harlem was West Side Story. From 3rd Avenue west to 5th Avenue was all Puerto Rican. From 3rd Avenue to the river east was Italian. It was a real Mason Dixon line. You couldn’t walk to the pool by yourself, you had to have a gang.” Later Roger sheepishly qualified, “I had a very short history with a gang. I was in a gang called the Latin Gents. We had jackets and everything. I lasted about a week. I got beaten up, they took my jacket, and that was the end of my criminal career.”

Roger Caban

Always the entrepreneur, Roger would buy shopping bags for two cents a piece and sell them on weekends for a nickel. “I would come home with my pockets bulging with coins. Five or six dollars was like a fortune to me as a kid.” His family owned the first television in their apartment building. “I grew up on television. All the kids would come up and I would charge them a penny to watch The Howdy Doody Show.”

His fondest memories are of La Marqueta, which used to be on 110th Street and Madison Avenue. “My fondest memory is holding onto my grandmother’s hand as she did her shopping rounds, it was a magical world. It was a place where the world met, Hispanics from the outer boroughs, Puerto Ricans from Connecticut.” They couldn’t buy their products from local vendors like beans, cilantro, and banana leaves for pasteles, a very complicated dish that his grandmother made on holidays. “My grandmother used to get up at three o’clock in the morning and start making it.”

Roger’s boyhood hero and inspiration was the actor Jose Ferrer, who was the first Puerto Rican actor to win an Oscar for his portrayal of Cyrano De Bergerac. Roger wanted to be an actor and/or an architect and performed in some Off-Broadway plays, but ultimately he went on to become a social worker. “It was the next best thing. Coming from East Harlem I thought I had something to offer kids from my generation or younger kids (to) pass it on.”

One Response to “Roger Caban’s El Barrio”

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  • If only I could live in Roger’s El Barrio. Thanks for giving us a first-hand account of it, John.

    Comment from Lily Percy on December 8, 2009 at 1:50 pm - Reply to this Comment

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