political evolution of
puerto ricans in america

In 1898, when the United States was ceded Puerto Rico from Spain, America joined the rush of countries seeking territories around the world. In contrast to its expansion across the continent, America reached across the oceans, not for room to grow, but for strategic reasons. The race to colonize Africa and China prompted the United States to demonstrate its growing economic and political strength. The nation's capitalist industries and burgeoning cities needed additional colonial resources to sustain their enormous growth. Most importantly, America believed that if its democratic ideals of freedom and liberty were spread throughout the world, peace and prosperity for all mankind would result.

The problem, however, of balancing economic and political subservience with abstract moral values of American freedom, is evident in the history between the United States and Puerto Ricans. On the island, farms and the people who tended them were seen as abstract economic resources by American corporations, ignoring 500 years of history and cultural identity. On the mainland, discrimination based on language and race denied many Puerto Ricans opportunities to move into the American mainstream. The resulting economic poverty is blamed on the Puerto Ricans themselves, rather than on the institutions and events that deny them self- determination. The incorporation of separate ethnic groups into a single free society has been one of the nation's most revered ideals. What the US found in Puerto Rico, however, was that Puerto Ricans had already achieved this cultural goal. A goal America was forcing them to give up.

Colonialism - 1850 to 1917

Puerto Rico began as one of the earliest colonial settlements in the Caribbean. Following Ponce de Leon's conquest of the island in 1508, Spanish colonization used Puerto Rico as a strategic base of trade for 400 years. The diversified economy and port activity attracted many European traders and freed slaves from the West Indies, forming a unique population where races mixed and intermarried freely. The result was the development of a strong island-centered culture and nationalist identity.

By the beginning of the 20th century, US military and economic leaders were concerned about the danger European colonies posed to trade shipping lanes, particularly in the Pacific and Latin America. When the Cuban revolt for independence began, the United States saw a way to expel Spain from territories in the Caribbean. The ensuing Spanish-American War lasted only four months, but gained for the US the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, and control over Cuban affairs. American capitalist investors, eyeing the open political status and untapped economic resources of Puerto Rico, converted much of the subsis-tence-level agricultural base into a single crop export economy revolving around sugar. The destruction of thousands of family farms in the process shifted large numbers of workers to a landless labor force, dependent on wages in plantations or urban refineries. Puerto Rico's virtual dependence on the sugar export market became clear when a large drop in prices caused by the onset of the Depression and hurricanes in 1928 and 1932 devastated the economy.

Politically, Congress did not know what status to give Puerto Rico after it was won in the Spanish-American War. Ignoring the precedents set during earlier annexations of Hawaii and Alaska, Con-gress did not grant territorial status to the island. According to published testimony, it is clear that many in Congress did not favor the inclusion of the Puerto Rican people into the US. Even President McKinley doubted as to 'whether in habits, training and experience (Puerto Ricans were) fit to exercise at once so large a degree of self-government." One Congressman questioned the wisdom of "allowing a people so culturally and racially different from the white American to become an incorporated part of the United States."

By 1917, the provisional legislature of Puerto Rico was chafing at the strictures imposed by the United States. The Unionist party had assumed control, arguing for complete independence rather than continued US domination. Meanwhile, a location for a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific had been chosen through Panama, leading US policymakers to see the strategic value of keeping Puerto Rico under US control. By granting American citizenship to Puerto Ricans, Congress hoped to mollify the opposition and secure political unrest. It was a delicate compromise to accommodate conflicting political motives - citizenship was granted to all who chose it, but autonomy and statehood continued to be out of the question. Puerto Rico would remain unincorporated territory but politically controlled by the United States.

Migration - 1917-1964

With American citizenship in hand, Puerto Ricans put out of work after the collapse of the sugar industry looked abroad for employment opportunities. In the first few decades of the 20th century, Puerto Ricans found work as contract labor in Hawaii and along the Atlantic Coast. In New York City, expanding industrial factories suffered severe labor shortages due to the drop in white European immi-gration during World War I. Many Puerto Ricans found their first mainland jobs in these factories.

After World War II, many factors coincided to bring about the largest migration of Puerto Ricans to the mainland. Economic development plans in 1947 industrialized much of the agricultural economy of Puerto Rico. Known as "Operation Bootstrap," the plan invited private development to the island by offering generous tax incentives. Skilled workers with manufacturing experience were drawn to the growing urban areas where 600 new American built factories were located. The loss of farm work left thousands of rural farm workers without means to survive. Most migrated to the US mainland in search of work. An estimated 750,000 Puerto Ricans left the island during the peak years of the migration, 1947 to 1964, the majority of them landing in New York City.

They arrived during a time when major changes in the American economy were greatly affecting the political geography and social structure of urban cities. The low wage unskilled jobs that were critical in assimilating earlier immigrant groups were disappearing as factories and industrial plants automated or moved to the suburbs. Federal highway programs and home mortgage incentives spurred many middle-class whites and former immigrants to join the exodus, leaving cities with a shrinking tax base. Those left behind were the minorities and the poor. Ninety percent of Puerto Rican migrants to New York City found their first jobs in light manufacturing or the garment industry , the industries hardest hit in this sectoral economic decline. The one industry showing growth, service jobs, was of little help to most Puerto Rican migrants. With an unsure hold on the English language, many Puerto Ricans were shunted to low wage 'back of the house' jobs in restaurants and hotels, not the clerical or sales positions with higher salaries and promotion potential.

Successful assimilation into the US mainstream is often aided by an established community in-frastructure that supports the group as it transitions from old to new cultures. The Puerto Rican migra-tion, however, was of such immense size, that it overwhelmed what little community had established itself in the 40's. Political leadership was stunted by conditions both outside and within the community. The Democratic party, important for Irish immigration decades before, could not and would not have offered much aid at the time of Puerto Rican migration. Patronage and the machine was in decline after twenty years of Federal government reforms. What Puerto Ricans did have was the Migration Office, an arm of the island government's Department of Labor. The Migration Office represented the Puerto Rican community among other city and government agencies. It found jobs, social services and housing for recent migrants, intending to ease their into the US. Many scholars believe, however, its main purpose was aiding the depopulation of the island, rather than concern over the difficulties met by Puerto Rican migrants. Its official standing amongst government agencies slowed the development of community activists and political leaders who understood firsthand the problems Puerto Rican migrants faced.

Other means of advancement available to other immigrant groups were closed to Puerto Ricans. Puerto Ricans have identified with Catholicism from Spanish colonial times, but the structure of the American church was not helpful to Puerto Rican community building. Led primarily by an Irish or Italian clergy, the church did not open new parishes in Puerto Rican neighborhoods or reach out to increase the number of Puerto Rican priests. The growth of Puerto Rican Protestant and Pentecostal churches, in contrast, is due to the rising number of Puerto Rican preachers. These faiths have fewer rules regarding who can preach and organize services.

Scholars note that close-knit immigrant communities are critical in building up political power and economic support. Forced together by restrictive covenants and hostile discrimination, Black, Irish and other immigrant 'ghettoes' formed fertile ground for political association and machine-bought votes. Puerto Rican neighborhoods, however, were thwarted by housing conditions during the 1950's and 1960's. The few communities Puerto Ricans they could call their own were targets of slum clearance and urban renewal. The South Bronx, the West Side and the Lower East Side were physically torn down and rebuilt as working-class public housing or urban renewal projects. In the few housing projects open to minorities, preference was given to Blacks. In areas such as East Harlem and Williamsburg, Puerto Ricans had to share political power with Italians, Blacks or Jews. Census figures in the 1960's measured a high degree of residential mobility for Puerto Rican families within the city. Only 44% of the entire Puerto Rican population had lived in the same place for more than five years. With little financial means for homeownership and forced to search throughout the city for shelter, the dispersal of Puerto Rican community denied them means to achieve political representation.

By comparing the mindsets of other immigrants who also entered through New York, one can recognize major differences in way Puerto Ricans saw their inclusion into American society. White ethnic Europeans broke family and cultural ties to their home countries in search of freedom and oppor-tunity in America. Their search fit easily into the economic and political ideologies of American culture. Blacks, in contrast, found migrating North was no better than the oppressive discrimination than the South. With nowhere else to turn, they stood their ground and carved out opportunities on their own. For Puerto Ricans, however, jobs were the main issue. Unmotivated by abstract issues of freedom or opportunity, Puerto Ricans were less concerned with assimilating into American culture than finding means to survive. Maldonado Denis says

"Of all the ethnic groups that migrated to the United States, Puerto Ricans are the only ones that never completely cut their ties with their fatherland. . . They continually go back to their island, to their homeland. Unlike the blacks, for whom Africa is not truly a home, Puerto Ricans do have a place, a nation, a culture that they can look to."

Puerto Ricans, therefore, did not possess the crucial element necessary for assimilation into the American melting pot, the willingness to leave one's past behind.

Community Consciousness - 1965 to 1980

By the 1960's and 1970's, the Puerto Rican community was having great difficulty achieving better standards of living. The young age of many of the migrants a decade earlier caused birth rates to skyrocket, fueling immense population growth. The median family income for Puerto Ricans was less than half of comparable white families. The unemployment rate of Puerto Rican men was twice that of whites, while a majority of Puerto Rican women were not even in the labor force. With few community support mechanisms, Puerto Ricans had nowhere to turn to but public assistance. By 1970, 30% of Puerto Rican families in New York City were on welfare. Consequently, the need for a solution to the "Puerto Rican problem" began to occupy government and social scientists. The Great Society programs of the 1960's were conceived to solve growing poverty problems of Blacks, Puerto Ricans and other minorities unable to achieve economic parity with mainstream society.

The front lines of the "War on Poverty" were agencies designed to speed assistance directly to the community, bypassing the machine-dominated city and state government entities usually controlled by white ethnics. Federal government backing enabled community based social groups to organize and implement social welfare and aid programs. These agencies were wholly dependent on year to year grant mechanisms adopted to finance them. The lack of continuity forced many groups to divert program grant money to administrative functions to survive. By the end of the 1970's, it was clear that many of the programs were ineffective at stemming the increase in Puerto Rican poverty. The organizations used to run them, however, nurtured and raised to power the first group of community-based Puerto Rican politicians, most notably Herman Badillo, Ramon Velez, Gilberto Gerena Valentin and the Young Lords.

Ethnic Competition

Puerto Ricans have often been associated with other ethnic groups in New York whose economic conditions are mired in poverty. Inherent in these comparisons is the assumption that all immigrant groups achieve success or failure according to rules of assimilation. It is more significant to discover in what ways Puerto Ricans were prevented from establishing political power structures of their own, in spite of their own efforts. The programs of improvement were often devised by government authorities, white liberal intellectuals or capitalist business concerns, who fully expected minorities to benefit from their knowledge and wisdom. The issue is not why Puerto Ricans failed at using these programs to achieve a better life, but why these programs were expected to work in the first place.


The minority group Puerto Ricans are most compared to are Blacks. Similar pathologies of pov-erty, crime, welfare dependency and dysfunctional families are often used loosely to describe the plight of both communities. Popular reasoning blames the historical legacies of slavery and colonialism for the equally low standing of both communities. Yet, when economic statistics of the two groups are com-pared, Puerto Ricans are worse off. A significant reason for the difference is the stronger "community infrastructure" Blacks developed to aid it through difficult times. The activist Black church, community density, and the long history of social aid societies and political organizations, like the NAACP and the National Urban League, contributed to a stronger political voice. When Great Society programs were being implemented, the level of political activity in the Black community helped increase the hiring of Blacks into government administrative positions. Puerto Ricans were still developing their first true representation at the time, and were not able to fully leverage these programs into significant change in their own community.

Hispanic Groups

After the U.S. Census started to track Hispanics as a separate minority, the growth of the His-panic population across the U.S. has fed hopes for broader political strength. Comprising 1/3 of the U.S. population presently, it is projected to be the largest classified minority in the U.S. by the year 2000. Looking past the aggregate numbers, however, there are fundamental problems in grouping Hispanics under the banner of a single community. National identity is still the basis on which Latino groups orient themselves. The Mexican-American community centered in the Southwest U.S. has different concerns than those of Cuban-American exiles in South Florida or the Puerto Rican population in the Northeast. Even in New York City, the steady growth of Ecuadorian, Salvadoran, Dominican, Mexican and Colom-bian immigrant populations, both legal and illegal, has provided an active counterpoint to the now settled Puerto Rican community.

What is unique about the Puerto Rican community among all ethnic groups is the perspective of race they bring when they arrive in the US. Most Puerto Ricans came to the mainland when social consciousness over race in America was locked into a duality of black versus white. As Rodriguez notes, the problems of Puerto Ricans started when their "culturally unified, but racially integrated" group migrated to a place where you were either white or non-white, with non-whites denied categorically most opportunities for advancement. The mixed heritage of Puerto Ricans prevented them from fitting into either category. When faced with this choice, some Puerto Ricans identified with their Spanish heritage, rather than be ostracized for being a person of color. Others rejected the idea of becoming 'an American' if that meant being subjected to discrimination. As long as race relations continue to divide American society, Puerto Ricans will find themselves caught in the middle.

Political Base Today

The current political mood against welfare programs is dire news for the growing number of Puerto Ricans still in poverty. Locked into the secondary labor market because of low status and little educational opportunity, Puerto Ricans are sure to feel the brunt of the reductions in public assistance now contemplated by Congress. Recent conservative literature has not made it any easier to understand the conditions of Puerto Rican poverty. Statistics showing 40% of Puerto Rican households are headed by single mothers has prompted some observers to claim it is the innate sexual adventurism of Puerto Rican men that has caused the breakdown of the Puerto Rican family. Others believe Puerto Ricans move to the U.S. primarily to receive welfare benefits for each child they have. The Puerto Rican community, however, is a diverse one, and settlement has also provided positive signs towards commu-nity improvement. The activism surrounding bilingual education and political representation today bodes well for continued growth of Puerto Rican political power.

Bilingual Education

Bilingual education is a key issue to the Puerto Rican community. As a group, Puerto Rican children report low educational achievement and high dropout rates before high school graduation. Many parents believed their children were disenchanted with a school curriculum oriented to assimilating ethnic groups to middle-class American values. Puerto Rican children were caught between their strong cultural heritage and their limited English language proficiency, while classroom lessons related advancement with the rejection of that heritage. As a result, children were not stimulated and were consistently tracked into low expectation classes.

Early efforts to change the system met with great resistance. Though many of the schools at-tended by Puerto Rican children were 60-70% Hispanic, bilingual education was not looked at as a priority by the white- dominated teachers unions and school boards of the 1960's and 1970's. Although studies showed that children would benefit from placement in bilingual programs, the teaching and administrative corps of the school system saw it as a threat to their professionalism. Efforts by Puerto Rican parents to gain seats on local school boards were met with electoral discrimination and blocked access. In 1972, bilingual supporters filed a legal suit and won a consent decree that compelled the Board of Education to institute bilingual programs throughout the system. Only then did programs appear in schools, primarily as "English as a second language" classes taught by non-native speakers and backed with little funding.

Political Representation

The settlement and growth of the Puerto Rican population in New York has finally provided them with opportunities to elect representatives responsive to their needs. In 1982, twelve New York City congressional districts had Black or Puerto Rican populations measuring greater than 65%. Legal suits filed under the Voting Rights Act argued for redistricting to create at least two Hispanic majority districts. Aided by expanded interpretations of the Act, minority districts were mandated to prevent diluting Black and Puerto Rican populations in white majority districts. After the 1990 census, one new minority district, District 12, was created, composed of a population that was 60% Hispanic, mostly Puerto Rican. It was controversial from the start. Called the "Bullwinkle District," its boundaries extended in three directions across Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens. Many observers derailed it as political affirmative action. During the election of 1992, however, Nydia Velazquez, a Williamsburg resident and former head of the Puerto Rican government's Office of Community Affairs, won with strong support. She became the first Puerto Rican woman to be elected to Congress.

Legal suits calling for the redrawing of the 12th Congressional District have been filed by conservatives who claim the district is a result of racial gerrymandering to achieve political ends. Why, they ask, are minorities entitled to representation in proportion to their population? They also believe that if left unquestioned, racial districting will result in whites representing whites, Blacks representing Blacks and Puerto Ricans representing Puerto Ricans. It is a valid argument. In the struggle to achieve a small voice in Congress, the redistricting plan papered over internal differences between racial groups to achieve what could be called a "Hispanic" majority. The controversy over group identity to achieve political ends reflects the additional difficulties Puerto Ricans undertake to gain full access into American society.


After three decades of struggling for political representation, Puerto Ricans are just beginning to achieve progress. The community has accomplished this task in spite of new ways to stifle its voice. Whether it is questions about island status, welfare programs, bilingual education or electoral power, Puerto Ricans have presented a complex assimilation problem to an American society interested only in simple solutions. Without a framework of tradition and history, Americans use categories of race and ethnicity to help define who we are. In a culture that prides itself on its ideals of assimilation and shared identity, Puerto Rican culture is an anomaly. Its difference and internal unity are threats to the delicate institutions that maintain dominant American society. For Puerto Ricans and other ethnic minorities in America, citizenship does not automatically give them the rights afforded to many others. It is a continuing struggle Puerto Ricans will suffer as long as they are not considered true Americans.

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december 1999