Puerto Rican population gains political strength

Communities prosper up and down East Coast and in the Midwest

September 18, 2002|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK - Just 7 years old when her family left, Nelida Perez doesn't have memories of Puerto Rico so much as snapshots - the river near their one-room home, the red dresses she and her sisters wore to the airport, someone getting locked in the bathroom on the plane they took to New York.

Clearer in her memory is the long, narrow railroad apartment they all shared in Brooklyn, being pulled away from her mother for the first time to sit in a classroom taught in a strange language, the different-looking and sounding children in their neighborhood.

The eight members of the Perez family - father Carlos, mother Milagros, and their six children - were among the hundreds of thousands who moved from Puerto Rico to the United States in the late 1940s and 1950s.

This migration of mostly rural poor laborers and their families, encouraged to leave by island politicians focusing on industrialization and welcomed by mainland businesses eager for cheap labor, would reshape both places - and change the Puerto Rican people irrevocably.

8 million citizens

The movement back and forth continues to the present. Today, the 8 million U.S. citizens who identify themselves as Puerto Ricans are divided almost evenly between the island and the mainland, where communities can be found up and down the East Coast and out to the Midwest.

For a half-century, they have battled discrimination in housing, education and hiring to grow in number and influence on the mainstream United States.

The contribution of Puerto Rican workers, managers and business owners to the U.S. economy during the last half-century measures in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

Artists from Tito Puente to Jennifer Lopez and athletes from Roberto Clemente to Robbie Alomar are only some of the most celebrated figures in a vanguard that also includes writers, painters and intellectuals who have broadened the cultural life of the mainland.

There are now three Puerto Rican members of Congress in addition to the island's nonvoting delegate, and non-Latino politicians with large Puerto Rican constituencies have increasingly advocated island causes.

As they grow more numerous and influential on the mainland, migrants and their descendants are challenging definitions of just who is a Puerto Rican.

"It's an incredibly complex community," says Felix V. Matos Rodriguez, director of the Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos at Hunter College in New York. "You have third-generation Puerto Ricans in the United States whose connection to the island is minimal, but who are very much Puerto Rican in the way they understand themselves and conduct their daily lives. You have Puerto Ricans on the island who have never migrated, and are never going to migrate. You have to make room for the complexity of all of these different experiences within the umbrella of Puerto Ricanness."

When, after World War II, island and mainland officials collaborated quietly on plans to lure laborers from rural Puerto Rico to urban New York, Carlos Perez Gonzalez would have been the sort of worker they had in mind.

Encouraging migration

A World War II veteran with an eighth-grade education, he worked seasonally as a sugarcane-cutter in Barrio Bhomamey outside the western town of San Sebastian while his wife, Milagros Martinez Jimenez, took in embroidery piecework. They lived with their five children - a sixth had died in infancy - in a wooden, two-bedroom, zinc-roofed dwelling with no water or electricity, and grew fruits and vegetables and raised chickens to survive.

Milagros was pregnant with another child when Perez left for New York in late 1952. After the baby was born in early 1953, Milagros brought the rest of the family north.

More than 550,000 Puerto Ricans, fully a quarter of the island's population, migrated to the mainland from 1947 to 1960. The Puerto Rican government set up an office in New York to match workers with farm and factory jobs on the mainland.

"Of course, politically, they couldn't overtly say they were pushing people away," Matos says. "But the New York office became a sophisticated operation to encourage and manage migration."

As he showed them into the railroad apartment they would share in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, Perez gave his children a little speech.

"`You are now in the United States of America, of which we are part, and you are to speak English,'" his oldest daughter, Teodula, remembers. "`I want to hear English.'"

"Everything was so fascinating," says Teodula Vazquez, who was about to turn 11. "I was excited, because my dad was so excited for us."

Perez moved from job to job, working in an electroplating shop, a bread factory, a box factory. In between jobs and on weekends, he sold snacks from a cart, drove a hot dog truck, tried to pick up fares as a gypsy cab driver.

"We were always working, improving ourselves little by little," Milagros remembers. "It was a struggle."

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