Puerto Rican or Negro?

views updated

Puerto Rican or Negro?

Growing Up in East Harlem during WW II

Book excerpt

By: Piri Thomas

Date: 1993

Source: Dublin, Thomas, ed. Immigrant Voices: New Lives in America, 1773–1986. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

About the Author: Piri Thomas, originally called Juan Pedro Tomás was born in New York City's Spanish Harlem in 1928, of Puerto Rican and Cuban parents. He struggled to overcome the background of street crime, drugs and gang warefare that he had grown up with, and became an author, poet and journalist. In 1967, he published his autobiography "Down these Mean Streets," which became a bestseller. He continues to write as well lecture worldwide on racism and social justice issues.


This extract describes the experiences of a young Puerto Rican boy living in New York during World War II, including racial prejudice from other immigrant children in his mixed-race neighborhood.

Puerto Ricans have been one of the main groups of immigrants to the United States since the nineteenth century, with the vast majority settling in New York. However, there were many other groups of immigrants in New York in the early and mid-twentieth century, resulting in frequent racial tensions between the different groups, especially when difficult economic conditions led to high rates of unemployment and competition for jobs. At a more basic level of prejudice, color differences created suspicion and resentment, even among the children of immigrant families.

The majority of immigrants from Puerto Rico to the American mainland have been economic migrants seeking to escape poverty and unemployment in Puerto Rico. When the United States acquired Puerto Rico as a colony as a result of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the numbers of migrants to the mainland increased. They were attracted by the availability of jobs in the United States, the positive reports of life there from earlier Puerto Rican migrants, and the availability of cheap efficient transport links between the island and the mainland. Puerto Rican immigration was further boosted by the 1924 Immigration Act, which severely curtailed the number of European immigrants to the United States and led to an expansion of job opportunities especially for unskilled workers. Although the depression years reduced these opportunities and migration slowed down, by the 1940s the American economy was booming and the government initiated formal labor recruitment policies to bring workers to the United States from Puerto Rico. Between 1947 and 1949, a yearly average of 32,000 individuals migrated, mostly taking jobs in the garment and needle-trade industries.

The vast majority of Puerto Rican immigrants arrived in New York and settled in the city. By 1920, approximately 7,400, or sixty-two percent, of all Puerto Rican immigrants lived in New York, and by 1940 this had risen to 61,500, or eighty-five percent. They often created communities close to their workplaces that became almost exclusively Puerto Rican in ethnicity, language and culture. During the inter-war period, East and South-Central Harlem, previously the home of large Italian and Jewish communities, became the largest Puerto Rican neighborhood in New York, known as "El Barrio." Puerto Ricans were concentrated particularly between 90th Street and 116th Street between First and Fifth Avenues, and 110th Street and 125th Street between Fifth and Manhattan Avenues.

From the outset of their settlement in large numbers in the United States, Puerto Ricans experienced much racial prejudice and discrimination, largely because they did not fit the traditional racial stereotypes of white and black. Most were of mixed racial origin and were brown-skinned, having intermarried extensively with the Spanish colonial settlers during early generations, and they faced discrimination not only from the American-born white population, but from European immigrants such as the Italians. When a major wave of West Indian immigration to New York began in the early 1940s, many whites associated the Puerto Ricans with this group. Largely as a result of the personal and institutional racism they faced, Puerto Ricans became concentrated in the lowest-skilled, poorest-paid jobs, faced high levels of unemployment in times of economic downturn, and were segregated into disadvantaged areas with poor social conditions. During the Great Depression, many Puerto Ricans, such as the author's father, were employed in unskilled manual jobs by the Works Progress Administration, one of the New Deal agencies established to provide work and income to the unemployed. It was disbanded in 1943 when the economy had improved and full employment was achieved.


[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]


Puerto Ricans are still one of the main ethnic groups in the United States, with an estimated 3.4 million in the country in 2000. They remain concentrated in the northeastern United States, mainly in New York and New Jersey. However, they were dispersed in the 1940s and 1950s from East and south-central Harlem to other areas of the city, partly as a result of major slum clearance programs. By the 1950s, the traditional European immigrant enclaves had also lost their distinctiveness, and there were more ethnically-mixed residential communities in New York.

Over time, the socio-economic circumstances of Puerto Ricans have improved, partly due to affirmative action programs that gave Puerto Ricans the opportunity to improve their educational performance and increased their employment opportunities. However, they continue to have among the highest unemployment and poverty rates of all ethnic minority groups and are over-represented in low-skilled and unskilled jobs.



Sánchez Korrol, Virginia E. From Colonia to Community: The History of Puerto Ricans in New York City, 1917–1948. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983.

Pérez Y Gonzìlez, María E. Puerto Ricans in the United States. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Padilla, Elena. Up from Puerto Rico. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.


Grosfoguel, Ramon. "Puerto Ricans in the USA: A Comparative Approach." Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 25 (2) (1999): 233-249.

About this article

Puerto Rican or Negro?

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article