Located in Passaic county, New Jersey, Paterson is known as the capital of the Peruvian diaspora in the US. Peruvians in Paterson are not as numerous as those in other states. Yet, Paterson has frequently been regarded as “an authentic piece of Peru in U.S soil.” Besides its colorful festivities, Peruvians in Paterson have passionately preserved their cultural heritage. A walk on Market Street, listening to their random talk and music and feeling the sparkling vibe, would magically transport you to the homeland of Peru. But how did Paterson become the capital of the Peruvian Diaspora in the U.S?
Paterson: The Silk City and Its Workers
Paterson was one of America’s major cities. Founding Father Alexander Hamilton elected this city as one of the first manufacturing centers in the nation. Paterson thus set a solid foundation for America’s Industrial revolution. American poet William Carlos Williams, who praised the city in an epic poem, said that ‘Paterson had a definite history associated with the beginnings of the United States’. Praising its natural beauty, Williams implied that Paterson shaped the mind of the modern man. His statement resonates deeply since this city embodied the essence of America. In Paterson, immigrants found jobs in factories which produced cotton textiles, aircraft engines, steam locomotives, and colt revolvers. For two centuries, Paterson was a Mecca for immigrants pursuing the American dream.
“The first Peruvian immigrants only worked ten hours a day and had Saturdays off. Their salary was slightly lower than other industries. But considering the benefits obtained, the position was worth having.”
According to consulate records, Peruvians first immigrated to Paterson after World War II. But scholar Teofilo Altamirano claims this is incorrect. The U.S economic boom during the 1910’s created demand for foreign workers. According to Altamirano, the first Peruvians immigrated to Paterson as textile operators during this time. Although there is no extant proof, the facts suggest that then Peruvian president Augusto B. Leguia facilitated this migration flow. Leguia, as a former insurance executive, had frequented New York’s exclusive clubs and befriended America’s most powerful industrialists and tycoons. Leguia opened the Peruvian economy by signing trade deals with the United States. It is probable he may have contributed to them by also providing the workforce.
Peruvians were fortunate in this regard. Compared with most Paterson industries, a textile operator was the best job an immigrant could find. The factory conditions were sanitary, the workload was light and the labor force was unionized. The first Peruvian immigrants only worked ten hours a day and had Saturdays off. Their salary was slightly lower than other industries. But considering the benefits obtained and the healthy environment, the position was worth having.
During the 1920’s, the power of labor unions increased. Paterson industrialists, overwhelmed by labor strikes, began to move their factories to Pennsylvania. Although some textiles factories remained, the Peruvian migration dwindled in the next two decades. After World War II, however, the textile manufacturing company ‘Grey’ brought hundreds of workers from Peru to equip their Paterson factories. The new migrants convinced other Peruvians to come to the United States. So, the 1950’s and 60’s witnessed a massive Peruvian migration to Paterson. Most of them came from the Limeño neighborhoods of La Victoria, Surquillo and Callao.
The Entrepreneurial Peruvians in Paterson
Eventually, the closing of factories left many Peruvians unemployed. The eighties were portrayed as dark times for the city of Paterson, affected by poverty and crime. But such a tragedy was just a blessing in disguise. Peruvians then had the opportunity to display their true worth. If there is something that makes Peruvians original is their ability to make money. They are self-starters and possess the inventiveness to build something out of nothing. It is ingrained in their nature, and part of what Peruvians call Picardía y viveza criolla (astuteness and resourcefulness). Such entrepreneurial spirit is something that Peruvians have in common with Americans. Business, or the ability to make money, is one of the reasons Peruvians love the United States.
Today, Peruvians in Paterson own small businesses which range from travel agencies, restaurants, mechanic shops and bodegas. A recent survey unveiled that more than half of the “city’s 2800 Hispanic businesses” are owned by Peruvians. Furthermore, Peruvians in Paterson display such pride for their homeland, with an intensity we have seen neither in Peru nor anywhere else. And this passion is perfectly depicted in their celebrations. Paterson residents spend half a million dollars every year for their now famous Peruvian Parade.
No Peruvian diaspora in the world has spent such amounts for a celebration.𝔖
Image: Chris Pedota/North Jersey/NuestraGenteDigital