Can You Name Manhattan’s First Immigrant?

Did you know the first foreign-born New Yorker was the black dude Juan Rodriguez?

Yup. 1613, first immigrant resident of the Lenape people’s Manahatta.

Bet they didn’t teach you that shit in middle school! Juan was born on the island of Hispaniola—today split between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. His momma was an enslaved African and his daddy was Iberian. Meaning maybe Portuguese but just as likely Spanish. Dude spoke like 3 languages and came in part because of his linguistic chops. 

Did you know that in 1861—before the U.S. civil war or Emancipation Proclamation– Colombia already had a black president?

Juan José Nieto Gil was the first and only black president in the history of Colombia. Photo: Wiki Commons

Yup. President Juan José Nieto Gil, Colombia’s first and only black head of state.

And you’re right. He only served for 6 rollicking months amidst the political wild west of 19th century Colombia. But fact is, dude was the Americas’ first black president—147 years before Obama. The other fact is, Nieto Gil was erased from Colombian history. As in, his official portrait was white-washed in 1866 to cover his nappy ass blackness. As in, that same portrait was thrown in a basement beginning in 1974, after a restoration crew unmasked his black face below the cover-up. White elites weren’t having that shit, so Nieto Gil sat in the basement till 2008, when a Colombian journalist raised up the rot and got the higher ups to hang President Juan José Nieto Gil’s official and proudly black AF portrait in the presidential palace.

Why does this matter? Because aint shit ever happened in no vacuum. 

And because if you listen to the news around here, the only things worth reporting on happen in the almighty U.S. of the only America! Well, my friend. You can guess this black African immigrant’s take on that monkey-noodle soup. No Sir. What happens here is part and parcel of what happens around the world. And the influencing is just as much South-North as it is North-South. Some of the most potent ideas we take as Western have white-washed Latin American, African, Aboriginal and Asian roots. 

Like freedom. Haitians spearheaded and won emancipation in 1793—a cool 73 years before the U.S. And President Nieto Gil was an abolitionist president before the U.S. civil war even began. 

And today, Kamala Harris isn’t the only black Madame Veep. On Juneteenth, Francia Márquez was sworn in as Columbia’s first black Vice President. 

Francia Márquez during the presentation of candidates of the Historical Pact on January 19, 2022. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez

Like Harris, Márquez is a lawyer. Unlike Harris, Márquez was born into dirt poverty, skirted Colombia’s famed guerrilla war, became a teenage mother, then worked as a cleaner to feed her family. She rose to prominence as an environmental activist and lawyer—a fact belittled by deeply problematic headlines like New York Times’ article, Teen Mother. Housekeeper. Activist. Vice President? 

It’s impossible to know every bit of history unfolding around the world right now. And yet—it’s completely possible to move in the world with an acknowledgement of our human oneness—what’s happening over there matters over here. Whether you know it or not, whether The New York Times reports it fully or not.

Living in the thick of this throughline is a huge thread of robust antiracism. You can’t be human all by yourself. 

Black Diaspora-strong Love,


p.s. On Juan Rodgriguez, there’s actually great and growing scholarship on this, came across a great paper from CUNY years ago sorry can’t recall source. Here’s a news piece from NYT.

p.s.s. On President Juan José Nieto Gil, follow Gonzalo Guillén’s journalism if you read Spanish. OkayAfrica had a great summary piece, and this Bogota City article is in English. 

p.s.s. The Work.Kin.Cure takes this kind of global interest in dismantling white supremacy. Of course we look closely at what’s real on the homefront, but what kind of self-respecting African New Yorker…in the footsteps of Juan Rodriguez…would I be without peppering you with worldwide Black Love?