Interviews & Profiles

A son of the Bronx is now its historian

A Q&A with Angel Hernandez on taking over from Lloyd Ultan and the borough’s connection to Puerto Rico.

Bronx Historian Angel Hernandez, Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson and outgoing Bronx Historian Lloyd Ultan.

Bronx Historian Angel Hernandez, Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson and outgoing Bronx Historian Lloyd Ultan. Bronx Borough President's Office

Angel Hernandez is the new Bronx historian, taking over from Lloyd Ultan who held the position for 26 years and now holds an emeritus title. Hernandez doesn’t really see himself as replacing Ultan, who also was his history professor at Lehman College and mentor. His respect for Ultan makes him want to keep his old mentor and friend around.

Hernandez, a history junkie and longtime Bronxite of Puerto Rican descent, has a day job serving as director of government relations for the New York Botanical Garden. He’s also president of the Huntington Free Library and Reading Room. Balancing both positions while serving as historian isn’t a concern for Hernandez, since he’s doing it all in the borough he loves. 

“The Bronx is my forever home,” he told City & State in an interview where he discusses his appreciation for Ultan, how he’s able to take on the unpaid job of historian with everything else he’s doing, when his family came to the Bronx and highlights of the borough’s history. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

You’ve been told by many that you’re stepping into some pretty big shoes taking over for Lloyd Ultan. How impactful was it for you knowing your predecessor was the Bronx historian for 26 years?

This is a passion job. You know, it’s unpaid. People do this from the heart. When you do something that you love, it’s not very easy to let go. You just don’t give up on a passion. You don’t give up on stuff that makes you happy. So, when I got appointed, Justin Cortes, the chief of staff for Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson, had asked about Lloyd, and I said we can’t just send Lloyd into the sunset. He will always be our historian. He’s done the work. He’s carved out his legacy.

You have a lot on your plate with your job at the New York Botanical Garden, serving as president of the Huntington Free Library and Reading Room and now as historian. How do you keep up?

There’s a lot of work cut out for me, but it’s stuff that I love. You know, it’s all coming from the heart. No one likes to spend most of their time doing anything they don’t like. I am highly fortunate that everything I do in my life is stuff that I enjoy. How do I find time? It’s all about time management, learning how to say “no.” Time is precious. Time is golden. It’s also about keeping a calendar and making sure that you’re in charge of that. You’re in charge of your own time.

What’s your family’s Bronx story? How and when did your parents arrive in the borough?

My mom was born in Humacao, Puerto Rico, which is on the southeastern part of the island. She migrated straight to the Bronx in 1958. My dad was born in Bayamon, also in Puerto Rico, and migrated to East Harlem in the 1970s. They met sometime in the ’70s and in 1978, I popped onto the scene. I was born in St. Luke’s Hospital in Manhattan – an all-women’s hospital at the time – and I was brought to my very first home in the Bronx, which was 1590 E. 172nd St., right on the corner of Stratford Avenue in Soundview. 

That’s where the legacy starts. My mom had a high school education. My dad had an elementary school education. So they always pushed me to do more and to live up to all my potential. At the same time, we all needed to work and help out with the bills. It was kind of tough trying to juggle both priorities. But I am so lucky and fortunate that I worked it all out and got me to the place where I’m at today.

You’ve lived the Puerto Rican experience in the Bronx. How did Puerto Rico come to have such a strong relationship with the borough, from your historical perspective?

The Bronx, they call it one of the cities of Puerto Rico, the city on the mainland. The Bronx, as well as New York City, has a rich history because it’s one of the hot spots during the great migration of the 1940s and ’50s. Puerto Ricans started pouring into the city, living in places like Greenpoint, Brooklyn. But the Bronx was that place. The Bronx was the frontier. Again, it started in Greenpoint and then Puerto Ricans started migrating to East Harlem. Then that became El Barrio. The Bronx was about venturing out, exploring the train system. Also the Bronx was the place where a lot of development happened. A lot of people from East Harlem were displaced and replaced in the Bronx. Many of them were Puerto Rican families. So there’s a history there that has a lot to do with the migration era.

Puerto Ricans are still here in the Bronx, although the population has dwindled. But we still have that legacy here. We’re also here to serve as an example. We’re here to inspire the other Latinos who will come to the Bronx later on. So there’s a lot of history between the Bronx (and) Puerto Rico, and we continue to bridge those connections.

What’s exciting for you about Bronx history?

I’ll tell you what, we still get a bad name, right? There’s this constant strive to change the narrative of the Bronx. Regardless of how things have progressed since the 1960s and ’70s fiscal crisis and urban decay, people still have this certain idea of the Bronx, and when you have a misconception of the place, you don’t have much of an understanding of its history. So this is one of my primary functions, to talk to people about the Bronx, to talk to the world about the Bronx and let them know that there’s still a rich history. The Bronx is a different place today and it’s a place for firsts! I mean, listen, hip-hop started here. Me talking about the history and not just the past, but the present and the future, it’s a duty. It’s a duty to the Bronx, and it’s a civic duty to the people. So I want to talk about the post-World War II era. I want to talk about the grassroots movement, and how the people of the Bronx basically seeing their own neighborhoods come back to rejuvenation, emerging from burning buildings to becoming an “All-America City” in 1997. This is what we should be talking about today, and especially with our youth. They should have more Bronx pride. It’s important for me to do that. Lloyd has been doing it for a very long time, and I just want to continue that tradition.