Puerto Ricans in the Continental United States

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Puerto Ricans in the Continental United States

ETHNONYMS: Puerto Ricans, Hispanics, Latinos, Puertorriqueños, Boricuas, Nuyoricans


Identification and Location. Puerto Ricans are descendants of native peoples from the island of Puerto Rico in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Their homeland was acquired by the United States in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. American citizenship was conferred on the Puerto Rican people in 1917 by the Jones Act. The U.S. Bureau of the Census defines Puerto Ricans as part of a larger population of ethnic minorities designated as Hispanic. The term "Hispanic" is used to define anyone in the United States who has a Spanish surname or a Spanish-speaking background. Many people of Latin American and Caribbean descent, including Puerto Ricans, do not readily identify with that term and refer to themselves as Latinos or as part of the ethnic subgroup that reflects their historical experiences. Thus, Puerto Ricans often interchangeably use terms that reflect their relationship to the island, its history, and its traditions as well as the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. Many Puerto Ricans identify themselves by using the Spanish term Puertorriqueños. This is a literal translation of "Puerto Rican," and serves as a marker of linguistic and cultural affiliation. Similarly, the Spanish term Boricua refers to the descendants of Boriquén, the name given to the island of Puerto Rico by the Amerindians who once lived there. By defining themselves as Boricuas, Puerto Ricans make the historical past an integral part of the present. Puerto Ricans who migrated from the island and settled in New York often define themselves and are defined by others as Nuyoricans. They constitute several generations that are bilingual and bicultural.

Demography. Puerto Rican people began to migrate in large numbers after 1898, when Spain ceded Puerto Rico and other territories to the United States at the end of the Spanish-American War. Thousands of Puerto Rican workers migrated to Hawaii to work in the sugar industry between 1899 and 1901. Those migrants were contract laborers who had worked in the coffee industry in Puerto Rico and became unemployed because of an economic crisis that resulted in the decline of coffee production. Others traveled in smaller numbers to Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and the American Southwest.

Migration to the continental United States increased during World War I. In 1910 there were approximately 1,500 Puerto Ricans in the United States; by 1930 that number had increased to 52,774. The majority of the migrants settled initially in New York City and formed communities where they shared their daily life experiences with the Latin Americans and African Americans who also resided there.

The migration of Puerto Ricans to the U.S. mainland after World War II has been referred to as the "first great air-borne migration." In 1940 there were 70,000 Puerto Ricans living in the continental United States. Throughout the 1950s the number of migrants increased as nearly 45,000 Puerto Ricans migrated to the mainland annually. This was the largest exodus in Puerto Rican history. By 1970 Puerto Ricanborn residents and their descendants on the mainland totaled almost 1.5 million people. Throughout the 1970s there was a decline in the number of people leaving the island, with only 16,500 people migrating annually. This decline was due in part to the growth in employment opportunities there. In addition, approximately 333,000 Puerto Ricans returned to the island. This trend was short-lived. By 1980 there were over two million Puerto Ricans living in the continental United States. The U.S. Bureau of the Census reported that in 1990 over 2.7 million Puerto Ricans resided in the U.S. mainland. By 2000 the Puerto Rican population in the continental United States had increased to 3.4 million, approaching the 3.6 million population figure for the island.

History and Cultural Relations

Although many political and socioeconomic factors contributed to the exodus of Puerto Ricans to the U.S. mainland, economic reasons were predominant. Throughout the initial stages of migration Puerto Rican laborers left their homeland in search of employment opportunities. Among those early migrants there were also tailors, cigar makers, carpenters, and skilled artisans. Early migrants also worked as contract laborers to produce goods, such as ships and ammunition, needed during World War I.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s Puerto Ricans were aggressively encouraged to migrate by the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments. The view of development and modernization experts was that a manageable population size would enhance future prospects for modernizing Puerto Rico, and World War II constituted one of the first modernizing experiences in Puerto Rican history. Approximately 76,000 Puerto Ricans served in the U.S. military during World War II. Many of those young veterans acquired skills that permitted them to enter the labor force and settle in the United States.

For some Puerto Ricans the process of assimilation and transculturation is difficult, and many suffer social dislocation as they struggle with discrimination, racism, and sexism. Others are able to make transitions that permit them to negotiate their identities as bicultural and bilingual members of American society. Another sector opts to become totally assimilated and identifies as Hispanic or American. Family linkages, interpersonal relationships, and the celebration of cultural values and traditions influence the processes of assimilation and transculturation.


Historically, Puerto Ricans who migrated in search of employment opportunities settled in major cities in the Northeast and Midwest. The largest proportion of Puerto Ricans settled in New York, particularly in neighborhoods where their kin or former residents of their hometowns already were living. Family and friends provided important linkages that helped newly arrived migrants find work, gain access to social services, and become integral members of their new communities. In 1980, 73.3 percent of the Puerto Rican population resided in the Northeast. The states with the largest concentration of Puerto Ricans in 1980 were New York, New Jersey, and Illinois. Florida, Massachusetts, Texas, and Connecticut experienced the greatest growth in the Puerto Rican population in the 1990s.

A number of factors influenced the settlement and dispersion of Puerto Ricans in the 1980s and 1990s. Many Puerto Ricans moved to smaller cities because of deteriorating socioeconomic conditions in the urban enclaves, including crime and a lack of employment opportunities. Puerto Ricans who migrate from the island continue to settle in New York City and the surrounding area, but many are now moving to small cities as well. An extensive network of family members and friends has informed prospective emigrants that opportunities in traditional areas of settlement are limited. In the 1990s cities such as Hartford, Connecticut, and Springfield, Massachusetts, in the Northeast experienced rapid growth in the Puerto Rican population. Another important shift has been the movement of Puerto Ricans to cities in the southern part of United States, particularly Florida, Texas, and California. An older population of Puerto Ricans that previously resided in the Northeast and Midwest is resettling in the South. A highly educated population of Puerto Ricans both from the U.S. mainland and from the island is settling in these states, where employment opportunities are more available.


Subsistence. Social and economic changes in major cities in the Northeast and Midwest have had an effect on patterns of migration, settlement, and resettlement among Puerto Ricans. These changes have also affected the well-being of the members of these communities. Puerto Ricans who are unable to find sustainable employment in the island or on the mainland often have to use social services to meet their basic socioeconomic needs. As impoverished, unemployed, and underemployed individuals, they must contend with limited housing, health care, and other social services that limit opportunities for educational, social, and economic advancement. The young and the old are at highest risk. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the poverty rate of Puerto Ricans in the mainland in 1990 was 30.3 percent. Puerto Ricans have one of the highest poverty rates among all American ethnic and racial groups. Poverty rates among Puerto Rican women are even higher. The rate of poverty among Puerto Rican female heads of households in 1990 was 31.9 percent compared to 30.0 percent in 1980. The adverse effects on children living in these economically impoverished households and neighborhoods with inadequate social services have been severe. Many of the elderly who migrated in the 1940s and 1950s and worked in manufacturing industries now rely solely on social security income. They often find themselves trapped in an urban milieu in a society that has failed to ensure their well-being.

Puerto Ricans constitute a very diverse group of people. Although there are highly educated professionals who are members of the American middle class, most Puerto Ricans are among the working class who struggle to ensure that the basic needs of their families are met. Others are the working poor and the very poor. These individuals and families must rely on diminishing social welfare programs to meet their needs for housing, health, and education.

In 1990 the Hispanic population had the lowest average level of education in the United States. Among Puerto Ricans twenty-five years of age or older 46.5 percent had less than a high school education. Only 9.2 percent of the population in that age group had obtained a college education. Policy makers, educators, and community activists are trying to revitalize many of the segregated schools Puerto Rican children attend. These schools often are unable to provide the basic skills needed to compete in the American workplace.

Commercial Activities. As employment became available in the industrial Northeast and Midwest, Puerto Rican men and women joined the U.S. agricultural, manufacturing, and service industries as unskilled and semiskilled laborers. Women took low-paying semiskilled jobs in New York's garment district. However, as manufacturing industries left the Northeast and Midwest in search of cheaper sources of labor abroad, many of those women became unemployed. Younger women with limited skills became an integral part of the U.S. service industry as clerical workers and receptionists.

The period between 1960 and 1980 is referred to as "the revolving door migration" because of the constant flow of Puerto Ricans traveling to and from the island and the mainland to improve their socioeconomic status.

Land Tenure. Many Puerto Rican families are unable to secure the funds needed to purchase a home. Puerto Ricans have the lowest rate of home ownership in the United States.


Kin Groups and Descent. Kin groups are composed of consanguineal and affinal relations. However, Puerto Ricans also incorporate other individuals who are not related to them by blood or marriage into their kin networks. Children who are adopted are accorded privileges and responsibilities as close kin, as are fictive kin such as compadres (coparents). Descent is bilateral and is based on consanguineal kinship.

Kinship Terminology. Distinctions are made between generations of kin, with some exceptions. For example, children who are reared by their grandmother (abuela) may refer to her as their mother by using the Spanish term mamá and the English term mother interchangeably. They refer to their biological mother in the same manner.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Legal marriage is considered the ideal, but consensual unions also occur. Puerto Ricans validate the participants in consensual unions by according them rights and responsibilities as legally married persons. Individuals are allowed to seek their own mates. However, family members often intercede to ensure that the match is an appropriate one based on factors such as family lineage, class, and status.

Domestic Unit. The predominant domestic unit is the nuclear family. Other domestic arrangements include female-headed family units and extended family units. Male-female relations are part of a patriarchal complex in which men are respected as providers for their families. Women are valued as wives and mothers who secure the well-being of the family. These ideals are reflected in the practice of both men and women seeking employment opportunities and resources for their kin. However, many of the social and economic constraints Puerto Ricans encounter create tensions that negatively affect interpersonal relationships.

Puerto Ricans greatly value the family, and extended kin networks are particularly important. Value is placed on the interaction between extended family members. As a result of high rates of marital separation and divorce, Puerto Rican families, particularly female-headed ones, must often rely on the support and assistance of extended family members. The elderly also form part of these extended family networks because they rely on their adult children for assistance and support. As grandparents they are relied on to assist in child rearing. As a result of these factors, several generations of Puerto Ricans may reside in one household.

Socialization. Mothers, grandmothers, and other female kin are responsible for child rearing. Fathers and grandfathers are increasingly assuming these responsibilities as more women work for wages outside the home. Babies and preschool-age children are given a great deal of affection and leeway as they develop appropriate modes of behavior. Young children are expected to be respectful of their siblings and older kin and adult members of society. Appropriate modes of behavior are expressed and regulated within the framework of gender-based networks. Girls are expected to learn appropriate female roles and responsibilities that encompass childcare and other domestic duties; as a result they are generally restricted to participation in social activities with other females and close kin. Boys have more opportunities to socialize with other male kin and a broader network of friends beyond the confines of the home and the immediate neighborhood. These gender-based networks affect language socialization. The ability to converse in Spanish is highly valued, and girls are more likely to be exposed to Spanish-dominant networks. Boys have greater exposure to English-dominant networks because of their broader social contacts. However, birthplace, length of residence in Puerto Rico, the frequency of trips to the island, the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood, and the day-to-day experiences of children affect their fluency in Spanish and English.

Greater restrictions on the mobility of girls beyond the home are generally linked to the onset of menarche. The age of fifteen marks an important cultural transition from childhood to young adulthood. Parties (quinceañeras) are often held among family and friends to mark this transition. Young girls are adept in the exercise of strategies to expand their social network. As young women become involved with school-based activities, they have opportunities to expand their social networks.

Children and young adults are expected to pursue a formal education. From the perspective of adults, children and young adults must acquire the skills needed to defend themselves (saber defenderse). They are expected to take responsibility for their socioeconomic well-being and that of their kin as educated and productive members of society.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. There is variation in behavior among members of different social classes. Among Puerto Ricans in general extended kin and other relationships are based on mutual respect. The elderly are accorded respect and honored. Interpersonal relations are strengthened as individuals travel to and from the island. Important cultural ideas, traditions, and practices are also reinforced. Puerto Ricans on the mainland often ask their kin to visit their relatives on the island. Throughout these visits information about births, marriages, illnesses, and deaths is exchanged. Social, political, and economic events that affect the well-being of Puerto Ricans are also discussed. Within this context, prospective migrants on the island learn about employment opportunities and new areas of settlement. Many are prompted by their kin to migrate.

Puerto Ricans living on the mainland often return to Puerto Rico for the holidays or to participate in family rituals and community festivals, often bearing gifts for their kin. These gifts are often goods needed or desired by family members and are markers of an elevated social status because they reinforce the idea that the migrant has achieved success in the continental United States. Gifts are also given out of respect and appreciation for the families that serve as hostesses during the return migrants' visits. This practice is not participated in by return migrants who have not experienced socioeconomic success on the mainland.

Political Organization. A host of national, state, and local organizations and nonprofit agencies have been created by Puerto Ricans to serve the needs of their compatriots. Some of these are advocacy groups that address public policy issues that affect Puerto Ricans on the island and the mainland. Other organizations not only address ways in which public policies and practices affect Puerto Ricans but also try to implement solutions by seeking the support of the community at the local level. They are public policy and advocacy groups that attempt to inform and empower Puerto Ricans. Some of the national organizations include the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights, the National Puerto Rican Coalition, the National Puerto Rican Forum, and the Institute for Puerto Rican Policy. Institutions committed to education and the development of the leadership potential in Puerto Rican and other Latino youths have played a critical role. The Young Lords Party, established in 1969, was instrumental in the development of breakfast programs and physical examinations for young schoolchildren in urban areas. The ASPIRA Association, established in 1961, encourages Puerto Rican youth to complete their education and develop their intellectual potential. The Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños (the Center for Puerto Rican Studies), established in 1973 at Hunter College in New York, encourages analysis of the Puerto Rican experience. Scholars and community advocates associated with the center and other programs are particularly interested in the development of new theories and practices that are indicative of the rapidly changing reality for Puerto Ricans. Other national organizations have established links with community groups and individuals at the local level. The Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund works to protect the civil rights of Puerto Ricans and other Latinos by ensuring their equal protection under the law in education, employment, housing, health, and welfare.

Social Control. Informal mechanisms of social control affect the extent to which children and young adults socialize with others beyond a network of close kin. Girls and boys are expected to adhere to gender, sexual, and class norms. Behavior that is not consistent with these norms can be perceived as disrespectful in an ethnic community that emphasizes respectability. To behave in an undignified or disrespectful manner brings shame not only to the individual but to the family unit.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Under the Spanish conquest the people of Latin America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean were forced to convert to Roman Catholicism. The majority of people of Puerto Rican descent are Catholic and generally adhere to the teachings and practices of the Catholic Church. In recent decades other religions have come to play a prominent role. Evangelical Protestantism has increased its membership, particularly among the working poor and socioeconomically disadvantaged. For generations Puerto Ricans have also engaged in religious practices that incorporate Santería and Espiritismo.

Religious Practitioners. Practitioners of Santería integrate aspects of Catholicism and West African religions. This syncretic religion is rooted in the beliefs and practices of Africans brought to the Americas to work as slaves. Espiritismo is rooted in Catholicism and the religious teachings of Alan Kardec. Its practitioners believe that spirits are able to intervene in the world of the living and do good and evil with the assistance of mediums. These religious practitioners engage in rituals in which they call upon the spirit world to help them cure illnesses and secure the well-being of an individual through the use of herbs and physical remedies. They can cause harm by engaging in similar rituals.

Ceremonies. Puerto Ricans participate in varied ceremonial events to mark salient events in the life cycle, such as birth, marriage, and death. Among those who practice Catholicism the sacraments of baptism, communion, confirmation, and marriage are not only rituals but also occasions when family members and friends gather to share a meal and celebrate an individual's participation in these rites of passage. Puerto Ricans also place a high premium on educational attainment and have family gatherings to mark these accomplishments.

Puerto Rican communities throughout the United States celebrate their ethnic heritage by holding Puerto Rican Day parades and community festivals.

Arts. Puerto Rican artists, artisans, dramatists, and writers have struggled against the injustices they have experienced as an ethnic group. They have also sought avenues to celebrate their cultural heritage and experiences in the continental United States. Puerto Ricans in New York established the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater and the Museo del Barrio, where many Puerto Ricans have honed their skills. These community-based artistic centers also inform and educate the Puerto Rican community and the larger American society about Puerto Rican culture. Poets, short-story writers, and novelists who are the sons and daughters of post-World War II emigrants have expressed the feelings and sentiments of many Puerto Ricans who experienced abject poverty in a society that discriminated against them and defined them as second-class citizens. Subsequent generations of authors have written about the contemporary experiences of Puerto Ricans in an urban setting. Others write about the migration, settlement, and return migration of their kin by weaving together life histories and stories that elucidate the wide range of experiences among Puerto Ricans. Internationally known musicians have infused the musical landscape with Afro-Latin rhythms, Latin jazz, Salsa, and Latin rap. Younger artists appropriate empty spaces in an urban milieu to create graffiti and other forms of public art. Others appropriate the geographical landscape and transform it by creating little houses (casitas) in the form of traditional Puerto Rican wooden structures. In New York these houses are markers of the cultural resilience and tenuous position of Puerto Ricans in the continental United States.

Medicine. Access to health care and information is problematic among working poor and poor Puerto Ricans. The lack of health care practitioners in Puerto Rican neighborhoods negatively affects the well-being of the population. The Hispanic Health and Nutrition Examination Survey has reported that Puerto Ricans are more likely than any other Hispanic group to suffer from diabetes, heart problems, and chronic bronchitis. The AIDS epidemic has disproportionately affected the Puerto Rican population.

Death and Afterlife. Death is marked by the gathering of family and friends at a wake, a religious ceremony, that depends on the religious affiliation of the deceased, and a burial. Deceased relatives often are transported to Puerto Rico for burial. Family members who have sufficient economic means often make arrangements to bury the dead with their ancestors on the island.

For other cultures in Puerto Rico, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 8, Middle America and the Caribbean.


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Puerto Ricans in the Continental United States