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Roots and Routes of Manuel Rivera: Navigating Cuban, Puerto Rican, and African American Cultural and Legal Identities in Early 20th-C. Black Bilingual Jacksonville

Project of Merit Winner!
Author: Amarilys Sánchez
Faculty Mentor: Dr. Gregory Helmick


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.
Research Types: Graduate Research, Undergraduate Research, Faculty/Staff


Website 2

7 Responses

  1. Fascinating project, Amarilys! I love the title you chose, “Roots and Routes”, to document Manuel Rivera’s trajectory from the perspective of a more fluid notion of migration. I was really intrigued by the geographical inaccuracy you found in the 1935 Florida State Census record of Rivera and the possibility that such error, as you suggested, could be a “purposeful navigation by Rivera”. I wonder if you have found more archival documents that shows Rivera’s identity negotiation within the context of the Cuban presence in Jacksonville.

  2. You’ve done a great job Amarilys! Your research into Manuel Rivera’s life and his contributions to the history of Jacksonville is really engaging, and your poster is excellent.

  3. Hey Amarilys, this is a great project. It is interesting to look back on a local figure and how they navigated their racial identity, given the salience of race in determining one’s social status. Let me know when you have that interactive map set up, I would love to see it!

  4. Great job. Your poster made me think about the shifting attribution of race in different social/cultural contexts and times. I wonder how Rivera intentionally deployed his identity (racial, national, or otherwise) in different ways during various parts and times of his life. Likewise, I wonder how many times others (as parts of systems) identified him differently…and for various reasons.

  5. I have to say that what first drew me to your post was the mention of PR, as my family is from the island. It was interesting to read how with your research you were able to reconstruct Manuel Rivera’s life. Sometimes we don’t think that people at that time moved so many times but in Manuel’s case, it differed. Really interesting to note how he became a pillar of Jacksonville, LaVilla community being an outsider. I wonder how his Hispanic heritage played as an owner of the club. Especially because there must have been few Hispanics in Jax at that time!

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