THE PUERTO RICAN DIASPORA
FACTS AND ROOTS
Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States of America, defined as property but not part of that nation. As such Puerto Ricans have been granted some but not all rights provided by the Bill of Rights of the American Constitution. The island, along with Cuba and the Philippines was a spoil of the Spanish American War of 1898. But unlike Cuba and the Philippines that obtained independence, Puerto Rico remains a commonwealth of the United States. This fact continues to have fundamental consequences for the Island and its people.
Since the occupation in 1898 the United States Congress has enacted several laws regarding Puerto Rico. The Foraker Act in 1900 established civil government in a republican manner with three branches, patterned after the U.S. Constitution. In 1917 the Jones Act granted Puerto Ricans American citizenship. It provided for military recruitment and free access to the continental United States. Law 600 provided for Puerto Ricans to establish a Commonwealth with administrative autonomy and self government.
For the first forty years of the Puerto Rican Commonwealth, in spite of being United States citizens and able to move to the mainland, the majority of Puerto Ricans remained on the island. This was due largely to the poverty on the island, only 2,000 people emigrated between 1900-1910. A high point in emigration came in decade of 1920 to 1930 when 40,000 people emigrated to the mainland.
Beginning in 1940 the first significant migration of Puerto Ricans from the island to mainland began. From 1940 to 1950 more than 150,000 Puerto Ricans left the island for the mainland. The rate of migration from 1949 to 1950 was 8.8%, from 1950 to 1960 it increased to 19.9%, the highest in previous history with an average of 47 thousand yearly migrants.
They were arrived principally in New York, Pennsylvania and Florida. Because of its employment possibilities and the availability of low-cost airfare, New York became a beacon to islanders. Between 1950 and 1960, an unprecedented 470,00 people moved from the island to the mainland.
The migratory boom during the 1950s and 1960s conclusively shaped the Diaspora of Puerto Ricans to the United States mainland. At first they settled in New York communities like Spanish Harlem and Loisaida (the Lower East Side) where they soon adopted a new moniker, “Nuyoricans.”
2006 marked the intensification of a new migratory wave that marked another great exodus. The end of tax exceptions led American industries to resettle away from Puerto Rico, economic growth that turned negative, and high unemployment gave impetus to migration.
Among the reasons professionals give for leaving are: non gratifying salaries, uncertainty regarding the future, poor infrastructure lacking quality equipment and materials, working hours, lack of opportunity for professional development, unfavorable personnel statutes, lack of upward mobility, better schooling opportunities, career opportunities, personal and family insecurity, high cost of living (medical insurance, utilities, transportation, rent) and speaking the language.
In recent years, due to the Puerto Rican economic debt crisis and the impact of Hurricane María, it is estimated that anywhere from 200,000 to 400,00 Puerto Ricans will leave the island for the United States mainland by 2020.
Today Puerto Ricans are to be found throughout the United States. There are now more than 5.5 million Puerto Ricans in the United States mainland and another 3.5 million on the island. The Puerto Rican diaspora can be said to encompass the 5.5 million, one million of whom reside in the greater New York area. Significant enclaves of Puerto Ricans can be found in the states of California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.
BORICUA PA’ QUE TU SEPAS
The Puerto Rican diaspora has produced many notables in all fields contributing to the mosaic tapestry of America. They include entertainers like José Ferrer, Raul Julia, Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Benicio del Toro, José Feliciano, Tito Puente, Hector Elizondo and Rita Moreno, athletes like Roberto Alomar, Roberto Clemente, Felix “Tito” Trinidad, and Juan“Chi Chi” Rodríguez, political leaders like Supreme Court Justice Soñia Sotomayor, Representative Herman Badillo, Mayor Maurice Ferré and Representatives Rubén Díaz, Sr., Nydia Vásquez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and writers like Esmeralda Santiago, Miguel Algarín, Judith Ortíz Cofer, Miguel Piñero and Lin Manuel Miranda.
Whatever the future of the United States of America, you can be sure that members of the Puerto Rican Diaspora will be an important part of it.
Copyright by Jesús Salvador Treviño and José M. Umpierre. All photos used in this article are in the public domain.