East Harlem Dukes

On June 11, 1956, there was an Harlem gang fight that involved the shooting of Victor Serrano, a member of the Dragons.  The gang that attacked him was called the “Dukes.”

It is a little fuzzy to me about whether the Dukes were Italian or not.  The members of the Dukes lived in East Harlem in an area where the Viceroys lived, a Puerto Rican gang in a Puerto Rican area.  The Dukes involved in this shooting have Spanish names, yet there is a source from Chris Bell’s excellent book on East Harlem that says the Dukes were Italian.  It could be that the Dukes started off as Italian, but with East Harlem changing rapidly in the 1950s to a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood, that the gang accepted Puerto Rican members as time went along.  As a side note, one of the Dukes who was interrogated by police after the shooting had to have a Spanish translator.  If anybody knows anything about the Dukes, or was in the Dukes, please email me at [email protected].  The Viceroys were bitter enemies with the Dragons and seeing as the Dukes shot at the Dragons, it could be that the Dukes were allied with the Viceroys.  Here is a picture of some Dukes gang graffiti.

On the night of the shooting, several Dukes went over to the west side to a candy store at 652 Amsterdam Avenue.  Apparently this is where the Dragons hung out, so it could very well be that this Dragons’ gang wasn’t the East Harlem Dragons, but a west side branch of the Dragons.

But first, the Dukes went to the candy store in the afternoon – about 15 of them.  By the sounds of it, they might have gone there in the afternoon for a scouting expedition because all they did was look into the candy store and leave.

That night, cutting through Central Park and through Columbus Avenue to the west side – back to the candy store they visited in the afternoon – four Dukes’ went looking for a fight.  Jose Estremera (aka “Juan”), Raphael Buitrago, Felix Figueroa (aka “The Undertaker”) and an unidentified juvenile.  Juan had hidden a sawed-off Remington model #6 rifle on the roof of his building.  Taking two practice shots up on the roof, he came down with the rifle and 14 bullets for their upcoming excursion  The boys all agreed amongst themselves that they were going to “burn” some Dragons, the ones they had seen previously in the day.  Apparently a friend of Estremera (Juan) had told him that the Dragons had come looking for the Dukes earlier in the day.  It seems they were looking for a specific Dragons’ gang member because later they were telling the police that they were looking for a Dragon who was wearing “brown slippers.”

Remington model #6 rifle

This rifle was not used in the shooting, but is what a Remington model #6 looked like. The gun used in the shooting between the Dukes and Dragons was sawed-off.


Ad for Remington model #6

Ad for Remington model #6


Walking towards their destination, Juan gave the gun to Buitrago who put a shell into the gun.  19-year-old Buitrago later told the police it was hard for him to remember things because he was crazy and he just “started shooting.”  According to witnesses, the boys got to the candy store, with Buitrago and Juan seeing 4-5 Dragons lolling about while the Undertaker set up post down the street, watching for cops.  Buitrago asked them if they were Dragons and they replied in the negative.  But Buitrago knew better and ordered the Dragons into the candy store.  Without warning he pulled the sawed-off rifle from his pocket where it was hidden, and shot at them as they scurried inside.  He then put another shell in the gun, shooting again.  Serrano was hit in the back, with the bullet coming out of his left shoulder.  Seriously injured, he was hospitalized for a month to recover from his injury.

652 Amsterdam Ave scene of shooting in 1956 between Dukes & Dragons gang

Present-day 652 Amsterdam Ave., the scene of shooting in 1956 between Dukes & Dragons gang.


The Dukes high-tailed it out of there back to where they lived in East Harlem.  When they got back to home turf they gave the left-over bullets to Manuel Rodriguez, who appears to be another Duke.  Juan then stashed the rifle under the bathtub in his home.  Later that day Felix, Raphael and Jose got together to talk over the events.  Raphael and Jose were delighted with the outcome saying “man we played nice today.”  But The Undertaker (Felix) was scared and the next morning when he saw the newspaper which had reported the shooting, he went to Jose’s house, very worried.  Jose and Felix went up to his roof to talk about it.  Felix wanted to give himself up to the police, but Jose was not worried in the slightest: “don’t worry, they’re not going to catch us.”  But Felix persisted in wanting to give himself up, but Jose replied, “for what man, you give yourself up they’re going to hit you in order to make you talk.”  Felix knew what he was talking about because two Viceroys that live near him, “Mig” and “Junior,” had been taken to jail for gang-related offenses.  Jose ridiculed Felix saying “you’re scared,” and that “I ain’t punking out, I’d rather go to court, you guys will be in jail.”  Felix, realizing he wasn’t going to convince Jose took off for Brooklyn, to escape capture by the police.  He stayed there for a short time and when he came back, the cops were waiting for him, just as he thought would happen.

When the police interrogated Felix, Jose and Juan, they all made full admissions to their crime and were sentenced for felonious assault and possession of a weapon.  I’m not certain about what happened to the victim Serrano or to the Dukes involved in this shooting, but if you know I would love to find out how their lives ended turning out…