Latino New Jersey History Project

New Jersey has a remarkably diverse, though largely understudied, Latino population.  In 2016, according to the American Community Survey, people who identify as Hispanic or Latino were estimated to number over 1.7 million making them nearly 20 percent of all New Jersey residents.  Yet we know very little about their roots. Who are the Garden State’s Latinos? What is their history? This summer, seven Rutgers undergraduates and history Ph.D. student Carie Rael worked with Lilia Fernandez, Henry Rutgers Term Chair in Latino & Caribbean Studies and History, to find out as part of the Latino New Jersey History Project.  Their goal was to research, document, and record the history of New Jersey’s diverse Latino populations. Along the way, they received important assistance on digital tools and platforms from New Brunswick Libraries personnel Stacey Carton, Jan Reinhardt, and Francesca Giannetti.

The students used a variety of sources and methods. They gathered census data, for example, to produce maps and tables enumerating Latinos throughout the state, its counties, and its main cities and towns. Some were surprised at what they learned. While we might expect Newark, Elizabeth, and Paterson to have large Latino enclaves, few realized that New Brunswick is 56 percent Hispanic and West New York is 78 percent Hispanic (both as of 2016).  The town of Bridgeton in South Jersey has one of the largest concentrations of Mexican immigrants in the state. Census data revealed unexpected trends and unlikely settlement destinations.

Hudson county map

With training from Francesca Giannetti, digital humanities librarian, students learned how to create thematic maps in Social Explorer and multimedia narratives integrating images, text, and multimedia embeds in ArcGIS’s Story Maps.  They learned about theories of place and space in spatial narratives, as well as elements of data and visual literacy through the strategic exploration of Social Explorer’s data sources, spatial geometries, and visualization types. Through the students’ mapmaking efforts, they were able to trace demographic changes over time, settlement patterns, and the migration stories of individuals and entire communities.


Students also visited the Puerto Rican Community Archives (PRCA) at the Newark Public Library to learn about how the PRCA has collected more than one hundred oral histories over the past two decades and has gathered many archives and records of New Jersey’s Puerto Rican communities.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the summer was completing oral histories with local residents. Shaun Illingworth and Kathryn Rizzi of the Rutgers Oral History Archives (ROHA) provided training and guidance on ethical and practical considerations in conducting oral histories.  After extensive training, background research, and preparation, students went out and recorded oral history interviews with various Latino residents and community leaders. Some were able to interview members of their own communities, while others interviewed important figures like Board of Governors member and Rutgers alum Martin Perez, or Irving Linares, the publisher of a Spanish language newspaper in Newark for the past 40 years.

Since the group created audio or video recordings of their oral histories, they also benefited from basic video editing training at the Douglass Media Library with Stacey Carton. Students attended a workshop that focused on Adobe Premiere video editing software (available at the Fordham spaces in Douglass Library), but also covered topics relating to storytelling, project organization, and the history of editing. They later utilized the Fordham spaces to continue working on their projects.  Jan Reinhart provided support with audiovisual equipment as well.  Using their video training, two groups of students were able to produce short videos—one on the history of New Brunswick and another on the Latino populations of Union City.  These will be posted online, along with the oral histories and map projects, so they can be made available to public audiences.

The students and Professor Fernandez learned a great deal about New Jersey’s rich history. They discovered that the state’s sizeable Latino population is relatively recent, having grown mostly since the mid-1980s through migration waves that brought Mexicans, South Americans, Central Americans, and Dominicans to the Garden State. In 1970, for example, the census counted only 135,656 people of “Spanish origin” (what today we generally refer to as “Latinos” or “Hispanics”), compared to the 1.5 million the census counted in 2010. The largest subgroups, as of that year, include Puerto Ricans (27% of all Latinos), Mexicans (14%), Dominicans (13%), Spaniards (7.7%), Colombians (6.5%), and Ecuadorians (6.5%). Today, one in five Jersey residents identifies with some type of Hispanic or Latino ancestry.

The project team included Amy Castillo (Criminology and Latino and Caribbean Studies ’20), Tania Mota (Journalism and Media Studies and Latino and Caribbean Studies ’20), Aracely Ortega (Sociology and Africana Studies ’20), Aziel Rosado (Mathematics and Latino and Caribbean Studies ’20), Kevin Rosero (History and Political Science ’19), Laura Sandoval (Sociology ’20), and Luz Sandoval (History and Public Health ’19).

Their work is beginning to be shared online. The following are links to individual projects built using the Story Maps platform.

Mota, Tania. “Mexican Settlement in New Jersey.”

Rael, Carie. “Latinx of Hudson County, New Jersey.”

Rosado, Aziel. “Puerto Ricans in New Jersey: A Grandfather’s Story.”

Rosero, Kevin. “A Grandmother’s Journey.”

Sandoval, Laura. “Latino History of New Brunswick.”

Professor Fernandez plans to continue the Latino New Jersey History Project in the future to keep exploring and documenting the diverse and varied origins of the state’s Hispanic communities. The maps, oral histories, and other digital humanities elements will help make this history accessible to audiences beyond the university and beyond the state.

Lilia Fernandez, Stacey Carton, and Francesca Giannetti

Francesca Giannetti