Puerto Ricans in the United States

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PUERTO RICANS IN THE UNITED STATES. Puerto Ricans have migrated to the continental United States as U.S. citizens since 1917. In the Jones Act of that year, the U.S. Congress made Puerto Ricans living on the island and the mainland American citizens. The United States took possession of Puerto Rico at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898 and has retained sovereignty ever since. Before 1898, Puerto Ricans came to the United States as workers, as merchants, and as political exiles, struggling to end Spanish colonialism in Puerto Rico and Cuba. After 1898, Puerto Ricans came because U.S. investment in Puerto Rico had wrought economic changes. Displaced cigar makers settled in New York City, Philadelphia, and Tampa. Puerto Ricans were also recruited through labor programs. Between 1900 and 1901, 5,000 men, women, and children were recruited to Hawaii as low-wage workers for sugar plantations. Puerto Rican communities emerged in Hawaii and in various places along the long, brutal journey, especially California. At the turn of the twentieth century, Puerto Ricans' status was ambiguous. In 1904, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that Puerto Ricans were neither citizens nor aliens, but ruled that they were entitled to enter the United States without restrictions.

After World War I, Puerto Rican migration increased, creating a vibrant community in New York City. European immigration was restricted, and Puerto Ricans, now U.S. citizens, became a preferred source of labor. Women found garment industry jobs and earned income by taking in boarders and providing childcare. Men worked in light manufacturing, as well as in hotels and restaurants. Puerto Rican neighborhoods formed close to job opportunities, and were soon dotted by bodegas (small grocery stores), restaurants, rooming houses, and other businesses and professional services owned by and catering to the new arrivals. By the mid-1920s, there were at least forty-three Hispanic organizations, including mutual aid societies, hometown clubs, cultural societies, and civically oriented associations. Puerto Ricans also participated in trade unions and city politics. Musicians, who had served in the U.S. armed services' black regimental bands, settled in the city, enriching the cultural life of the Puerto Rican community and serving as symbols of national culture. By 1930, approximately 100,000 Puerto Ricans lived in New York City, accounting for 81 percent of all Puerto Ricans in the United States. During the 1930s, the hardships of the Great Depression caused some to return to Puerto Rico. Still, by 1940, almost 70,000 Puerto Ricans lived in the United States, with 88 percent in New York.

The peak period of Puerto Rican migration came after World War II. During the 1940s, the population grew from 70,000 to 226,000. By 1970, 810,000 Puerto Rican migrants and another 581,000 mainland-born Puerto Ricans lived in the United States. Puerto Rico's agricultural economies declined, while the industrialization program based on U.S. investment and labor-intensive industries failed to generate sufficient employment. Leaving rural areas in search of work, Puerto Ricans settled in urban areas in Puerto Rico and the United States. Labor recruitment and contract labor programs continued. During World War II, the U.S. War Manpower Commission recruited approximately 2,000 Puerto Ricans, mostly to work in the canneries in southern New Jersey and on the railroads. After the war, a short-lived contract labor program to bring women to work as domestics was replaced by a program to bring men to work in agriculture. During the 1950s and the 1960s, between 10,000 and 17,000 agricultural laborers were contracted each year. While some returned to Puerto Rico at the end of the season, others settled permanently. Puerto Ricans also came without labor contracts, relying on social networks of family and friends. Urban economies provided jobs for women in manufacturing, especially in the garment industry, and for men in light manufacturing and the services sector, especially in hotels and restaurants.

Puerto Ricans increasingly settled beyond the barrios of New York City. By 1970, over 60 percent of Puerto Ricans lived in New York, still the largest community. Chicago became the second largest, with more than 79,000 Puerto Rican residents, and Philadelphia was third with more than 14,000 Puerto Rican residents. Communities of more than 10,000 had also emerged in Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, and Hoboken, New Jersey; in Bridgeport, Connecticut; and in Los Angeles, California. Dispersed settlement continued, and by 1990, just one third of Puerto Ricans lived in New York. Communities continued to grow in the Northeast and the Midwest, while the Puerto Rican population in Florida and Texas witnessed new growth. By the 2000 census, 3,406,178 Puerto Ricans lived in the United States, with 23 percent in New York City.

Wherever they settled, Puerto Ricans sought to recreate their communities, to confront the challenges they encountered, and to affirm their culture and traditions. Incorporated in 1956 in New York, El Congreso del Pueblo included eighty hometown clubs. These clubs continued earlier efforts to provide shelter, jobs, and emergency financial help, while expanding their activities to lead demonstrations against discrimination and police brutality. During the 1950s, Puerto Ricans in several communities established social service organizations to meet their needs, including the Puerto Rican Forum in New York and the Concilio de Organizaciones Hispanas in Philadelphia. Founded in 1961, Aspira prepared youth for leadership roles by establishing high school clubs, providing counseling, and advocating for educational issues, such as bilingual education. Aspira had branches in many communities. In Chicago, Los Caballeros de San Juan were instrumental in organizing the Puerto Rican Day Parade. Parades became important cultural and political events in many communities. By the 1970s, radical youth groups, such as the Young Lords, formed grassroots community-based programs and called for the independence of Puerto Rico and for a socialist society.

Puerto Ricans had settled primarily in industrialized cities. The economic restructuring of the 1970s affected Puerto Ricans in the inner cities, as manufacturing jobs relocated in search of cheaper labor. Puerto Rican women, who had been overwhelmingly concentrated in manufacturing, were displaced. The impact was intensified by residential segregation, as whole neighborhoods confronted the loss of employment and an eroding tax base. Puerto Ricans responded to these new challenges through grassroots community organizing, national organizations, and electoral politics. Despite underrepresentation and redistricting issues, in the 1990s Puerto Ricans had three elected representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives, and there were electoral victories on the local and state levels. In popular culture, there was new visibility as Puerto Rican celebrities enjoyed a broad appeal. Puerto Rico's political status was still debated, and tensions erupted over U.S. military activities on the offshore island of Vieques. Puerto Rican "Americans" continued to be at home in Puerto Rico and in the many communities of the Puerto Rican diaspora.


Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Labor Migration under Capitalism: The Puerto Rican Experience. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979.

Glasser, Ruth. My Music Is My Flag: Puerto Rican Musicians and Their New York Communities, 1917–1940. Berkeley: University of California, 1995.

Sánchez, Virginia Korrol. From Colonia to Community: The History of Puerto Ricans in New York City, 1917–1948. 2d ed. Berkeley: University of California, 1994.

Torres, Andrés, and José E. Velázquez. The Puerto Rican Movement: Voices from the Diaspora. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.

Whalen, Carmen Teresa. From Puerto Rico to Philadelphia: Puerto Rican Workers and Postwar Economies. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.

Carmen TeresaWhalen

See alsoHispanic Americans ; Immigration ; New York City .

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