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The islands of Puerto Rico and Cuba have a great deal in common. As near-neighbors in the Greater Antilles island chain, both lie in the Caribbean between Florida and Venezuela. Both share Spanish origins, and both islands have played key roles in the history of the Americas.
The immigrant experience of each island’s people, however, could not have been more dramatically different. In the latter half of the 20th century, the people of Cuba found themselves cut off from the United States, forced to overcome great dangers and obstacles to leave their homeland. In contrast, the people of Puerto Rico found themselves annexed by the U.S., and had to discover what it meant to immigrate to a country that already claimed them as citizens.
However different their political circumstances, the immigrants of both islands had to face the challenges of 20th-century migration, and to find new ways to establish lasting communities in a strange—if not so distant—land.
Christopher Columbus was the first European to step onto the shores of Puerto Rico and Cuba, and he found the islands enchanting; he called Cuba “the fairest island human eyes have yet beheld.” The spell was broken within a few years, however, as Spain began intensive colonization of the islands, converting them first into military bases, then into gold mines and vast plantations. The native islanders were nearly wiped out by disease, overwork, and maltreatment, and Spain soon began importing enslaved Africans to work the fields and mines.
By the 19th century, the islands had become economic powerhouses, producing hugely profitable sugar, coffee, and tobacco crops. But they were also political powder kegs, as their inhabitants—the descendents of Spanish colonists, free and enslaved Africans, and native islanders—fought to free themselves from Spanish rule. By the end of the century, the people of Cuba were on the verge of independence, and Puerto Rico might have soon followed.
But in 1898, the United States entered the islands and changed their fate forever. War had broken out between the U.S. and Spain, and by its end Spain’s colonies in the Caribbean were under U.S. control. From that point on, the destinies of the two islands diverged dramatically. Puerto Rico would become a U.S. commonwealth, and its people would become U.S. citizens in 1917. Cuba would achieve independence in 1902, but by the end of the century it would come to be defined by its hostile relations with the U.S. and its allies.
In the 20th century, these close but uncertain relationships with the United States would come to affect each island profoundly. They would also help shape two of the most distinctive immigrant experiences in U.S. history.
The story of the Puerto Rican people is unique in the history of U.S. immigration, just as Puerto Rico occupies a distinctive—and sometimes confusing—position in the nation’s civic fabric. Puerto Rico has been a possession of the U.S. for more than a century, but it has never been a state. Its people have been U.S. citizens since 1917, but they have no vote in Congress. As citizens, the people of Puerto Rico can move throughout the 50 states just as any other Americans can—legally, this is considered internal migration, not immigration. However, in moving to the mainland, Puerto Ricans leave a homeland with its own distinct identity and culture, and the transition can involve many of the same cultural conflicts and emotional adjustments that most immigrants face. Some writers have suggested that the Puerto Rican migration experience can be seen as an internal immigration—as the experience of a people who move within their own country, but whose new home lies well outside of their emotional home territory.
At first, few Puerto Ricans came to the continental U.S. at all. Although the U.S. tried to promote Puerto Rico as a glamorous tourist destination, in the early 20th century the island suffered a severe economic depression. Poverty was rife, and few of the island’s residents could afford the long boat journey to the mainland. In 1910, there were fewer than 2,000 Puerto Ricans in the continental U.S., mostly in small enclaves in New York City, and twenty years later there were only 40,000 more.
After the end of the Second World War, however, Puerto Rican migration exploded. In 1945, there had been 13,000 Puerto Ricans in New York City; in 1946 there were more than 50,000. Over the next decade, more than 25,000 Puerto Ricans would come to the continental U.S. each year, peaking in 1953, when more than 69,000 came. By 1955, nearly 700,000 Puerto Ricans had arrived. By the mid-1960s, more than a million had.
There were a number of reasons for this sudden influx. The continuing depression in Puerto Rico made many Puerto Ricans eager for a fresh start, and U.S. factory owners and employment agencies had begun recruiting heavily on the island. In addition, the postwar years saw the return home of thousands of Puerto Rican war veterans, whose service in the U.S. military had shown them the world. But perhaps the most significant cause was the sudden availability of affordable air travel. After centuries of immigration by boat, the Puerto Rican migration became the first great airborne migration in U.S. history.
The first great generation of Puerto Rican migrants established communities in cities throughout the country, including Chicago, Philadelphia, and Newark, as well as in mid-Atlantic farm villages and the mill towns of New England. However, since the 1930s, the capital of Puerto Rican culture in the mainland U.S. has been New York City. Despite its great distance from the Caribbean, New York had long been the landing point of seagoing Puerto Ricans, and the airborne newcomers followed suit. The new migrants settled in great numbers in Northeast Manhattan, in a neighborhood that soon became known as Spanish Harlem. Although many had been farm workers in Puerto Rico, they know found themselves working in a wide variety of jobs, staffing the hospitals, the hotels, the garment factories, and the police departments of their new hometown, and they soon became a significant force in the city’s political and cultural life.
The migration to the 50 states slowed in the 1960s and 70s, as an urban recession led to fewer jobs in U.S. cities, and many of the first generation returned to Puerto Rico. At the same time, many migrants struggled with poverty, unemployment, and racial discrimination in their new home. Darker-skinned Puerto Ricans often found themselves excluded from jobs, education, and housing, and were frequently attacked by non-Puerto Rican street gangs. Meanwhile, for most Puerto Ricans the language barrier sometimes made it difficult to find well-paying work or to navigate government agencies or other English-speaking institutions.
As a second generation was born into the mainland Puerto Rican community, new political movements were born as well. Puerto Ricans organized to campaign for greater civil rights, for equal access to education and employment, and for changes in the status of Puerto Rico. In a 1951 referendum, the Puerto Rican population had voted overwhelmingly to become a U.S. commonwealth, rather than remain a colony. Many groups, however, continued to call for full independence, and later in the decade militant nationalists fired on the U.S. House of Representatives and attempted to assassinate President Harry Truman. Political organizations also sprang up to agitate for social reform and greater economic aid to the island, which continued to struggle economically. At the same time, cultural organizations such as the Nuyorican Poets urged Puerto Ricans on the mainland to become more aware of their heritage, and produced poems and songs that examined many of the harshest aspects of the migrant experience.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the Puerto Rican community has established solid roots in the U.S. mainland. Although the first generation of migrants faced great obstacles, their labors helped build institutions that now benefit their successors, including churches, community centers, schools, businesses, and political organizations. Today, Puerto Ricans serve New York in the city, state, and federal governments; in 1992, New Yorker Nydia Velázquezbecame the first woman of Puerto Rican descent to be elected to the U.S. Congress. The Puerto Rican Day parade has become the largest parade for any national or ethnic group in the city. Nationally, performers such as Rita Moreno, Raul Julia, and Tito Puente have become familiar faces to millions of Americans, and writers such as Edwin Torres, Nicolasa Mohr, and Judith Ortiz Cofer have made their mark on the nation’s literary scene. The Hall of Fame baseball player Robert Clemente, who passed away in 1972, is still revered throughout North America, as much for his philanthropy as for his skill in the outfield.
Today, almost as many people of Puerto Rican descent can be found in the 50 states as on the island itself. Meanwhile, the nature of the community continues to change. More professionals and high-tech workers are arriving on the mainland than ever before, and the fastest-growing Puerto Rican enclave is not in New York City, but in Orlando, Florida. It seems clear that, after more than a century as part of the United States, the Puerto Rican community will continue as a growing, dynamic, and surprising part of American life for decades to come.