Manuel Rivera, owner of the jazz club/beer garden Manuel’s Taproom, was an important member of Jacksonville’s LaVilla community during the 1940s and 1950s. During the formative years of R&B, Manuel’s Taproom hosted musicians developing their craft, including the Al Downing combo (with Ray Charles on piano). Rivera lived in LaVilla, a historically Afro-Creole community that had been incorporated in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1869. Married to an African American woman, Rivera was legally categorized as Black. Among former residents of LaVilla, Rivera is remembered as either a Cuban or Puerto Rican man who would often visit the Caribbean, ferrying his convertible Cadillac and bearing generous gifts in both directions.
When taking a closer look at census records and other sources, we can see that Rivera negotiated various roots and routes, being a Puerto Rican-born pillar of Black society in midcentury Jacksonville, whose story of migration traverses around the Caribbean, Europe, and northeast Florida. The historical record shows that Rivera navigated various identities and freely crossed national, ethnic, and linguistic borders. His story reinforces the fluidity of Caribbean migration and its constitutive part in the Black history of northeast Florida.
This project seeks to construct a digital space that explores Manuel Rivera’s migration through the Caribbean and configurations of ethnic and racial identity involved in his story. Based on the documents tracking his life, we can see that Rivera’s migration story challenges the common notion of immigration as a one-way trip, as Rivera repeatedly returned to his native Puerto Rico and to Cuba.