Commentary Magazine

A Commentary Report: The Puerto Ricans

If someone twenty-five years ago had looked around at the potential sources of new immigration to New York City, his eye might well have fallen on Puerto Rico, but he would probably also have concluded that the Puerto Ricans, if they came to New York, would have a very hard time adapting. Puerto Rico in the middle 30’s—after thirty-five years of American administration—was a scene of almost unrelieved misery. It was overcrowded and disease-ridden, almost without industry, suffering from the collapse of its major cash crop (sugar), its population undereducated and underemployed. Puerto Rico was also unsure in its cultural traditions and without a powerful faith. Nor was there much strength in the Puerto Rican family. In some ways, it was a family similar to the type we find in peasant Europe—patriarchal and authoritarian, the man reigning as absolute despot, demanding obedience and respect from wife and children. However, this was not the family of the Polish or South Italian peasant. The major difference was the wide extent of unstable consensual or common-law marriage; more than one-quarter of the marriages were of this kind, and as a result about one-third of the births were formally illegitimate. In both legal and consensual marriage, moreover, concubinage and sexual adventurism on the part of the men were widely accepted, which meant that children often grew up in confused family settings and that great strain existed between husbands and wives. Children were loved in Puerto Rico—this was fortunate since there were so many. And yet it has frequently been said that their mothers perhaps loved them as much as they did in order to make up for neglect by their husbands.

Marriage in Puerto Rico was typically a matter of the young daughter—as young, even, as thirteen or fourteen—making an escape from home with a man whom her parents had not chosen and whom she herself scarcely knew. A random sample of the island’s population in 1947—48 showed that 6 per cent of the married women had been married at fourteen or younger, a fifth had been married at fifteen or sixteen, a quarter at seventeen and eighteen, and another fifth at nineteen or twenty—seven out of ten, in other words, were married before the age of 21! This, combined with the feeling that a man and woman living together should have children as soon as possible, resulted for women in a very early induction into child-bearing and for men in a very early induction into the burdens of adulthood.

Still, the family, despite these weaknesses, was perhaps one of the stronger elements in the Puerto Rican situation. Men might have children with a number of different women, but they took responsibility for all of them; there was (for a peasant culture) a relatively high degree of marital breakup, but there was always a place for the children. The institution of the godparents, the compadre and comadre, provided a second set of parents who stood ready to take over if the first was overburdened with too many children and too many woes, or was broken up by death or desertion. Children in Puerto Rico were neither resented nor neglected; if anything, they suffered from being over-protected.

Nevertheless, this was not, by the standards of other peasant cultures, a tightly knit and well-integrated family system, and when Puerto Ricans first began coming to New York, it did not hold up too well. Indeed, as early as 1930 a social worker at a meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Charities stated that the Puerto Rican family was the biggest social-work problem in New York at the time.

Given all this, who could have expected that the postwar Puerto Rican migration to New York City would turn out to be so successful? It was as little to be expected as the transformation of the island itself—a transformation so startling, and so little heralded by anything in Puerto Rico’s earlier history that by 1960 it was reasonable for two new books on Puerto Rico to bear the titles: Puerto Rico: Land of Wonders and Puerto Rico: Success Story. The great advances in education, health, self-respect, work capacity, and training that have taken place under Luis Muñoz Marin’s regime have benefited New York no less than Puerto Rico itself.



New York City had 500 persons of Puerto Rican birth in 1910; 7,000 in 1920; 45,000 in 1930. This group already included some professional people and some small storekeepers, but the overwhelming majority were employed—when they were employed at all—in unskilled work, as laborers, porters, factory operatives, and domestic help. In Manhattan, where three-quarters of the Puerto Ricans lived (in an area bounded by 97th Street on the south, 125th Street on the north, Fifth Avenue on the west, and Third Avenue on the east), they met the old East Harlem Italian community and the growing community of Negroes to the north and west. There was also a large Jewish group in East Harlem, which was then beginning to withdraw to other parts of the city, principally to the Bronx.

There is no record of any conflict between the Puerto Ricans and the Jewish group. With the local Italians, relations were cool. The tight Italian community did not find it easy to open up to strangers: the youth, of course, simply followed in the pattern of adolescent ethnic hostility, and the mild Puerto Ricans, whose history had had plenty of misery but remarkably little violence, were taken aback.

As for relations between the Puerto Ricans and the Negroes, they were more complex, even in those early days. The Puerto Ricans are a mixed people, and though a man’s color meant something very different to them from what it meant to white Americans, they knew very well its meaning for Americans. About one-fifth of the Puerto Rican group in New York in the 1930’s was listed in census returns as Negro (a slightly smaller proportion than was then listed as colored in the census taken in Puerto Rico itself). Lawrence R. Chenault, who made the first book-length study of the New York Puerto Ricans in the mid-30’s, believed that the American Negro was “inclined to resent all of the people from the West Indies [he included the Puerto Ricans in this group] because of their competition in the labor market,” while on his part “the Puerto Rican, if white or slightly colored, deeply resents any classification which places him with the Negro. . . . Finding the American-born Negro confronted with serious disadvantages in this country, the Puerto Ricans want to maintain their own group and to distinguish themselves from him. . . . People who have studied the relations of the West Indian groups in Harlem report that. . . the darker the person from the West Indies is, the more intense his desire to speak only Spanish, and to do so in a louder voice.”

But whatever the complications introduced in Puerto Rican attitudes toward Negroes by this factor of color, relations actually seem to have been pleasanter than with the Italians. In later years, the young people coming into this first section of Puerto Rican settlement, “El Barrio,” would find their adjustment made more difficult by the hostility of Italian youth; Negro youth were on the whole more willing to accept them.

During the war, Puerto Rico, four days from New York by boat, was cut off to normal passenger movement, and there was almost no addition to the Puerto Rican population until 1944. Then there was a heavy migration of 11,000. The next year, with the end of the war, air service between San Juan and New York was introduced, which immediately transformed the situation of the potential migrant. In 1945, 13,500 entered the city; in 1946, almost 40,000: New York was in the middle of a mass migration rivaling the great population movements of the first two decades of the century. By 1961, there were 613,000 people of Puerto Rican birth or parentage in the city (representing about 60 per cent of the total number of Puerto Ricans in the continental United States). Since 1961, the number of new arrivals has fallen off sharply and will probably remain low, but the high birth rate of the Puerto Rican group guarantees that it will make up an increasing proportion of the city’s population.1

By 1961 also, Puerto Ricans were no longer living almost exclusively in El Barrio in East Harlem. The desperate housing shortage made it impossible for El Barrio to expand into the areas to the north, east, and west, and the vast program of slum clearance and public housing not only broke up the Puerto Rican concentrations (in the oldest and most decrepit buildings, of course) as soon as they were formed, but prevented new concentrations from forming. And so Puerto Ricans spread rapidly throughout the city in the late 1940’s and 1950’s—to the West Side, to Washington Heights, to Chelsea, to the Lower East Side; and outside of Manhattan, to the downtown Brooklyn and nearby Bedford-Stuyvesant areas; to the Bronx, through Morrisania, Melrose, and other districts; and to various sections of Queens. Thus, unlike the older immigrant groups, they rubbed shoulders with almost everybody in the city.

The Puerto Rican migrants of the 1950’s were much better equipped for life in New York than those who came in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Thanks to Muñoz Marin’s programs of economic development, island incomes steadily rose during the 1940’s and 1950’s, as did the urban population and the number of workers with schooling and experience in manufacturing. And all this naturally reflected itself in the character of the new migrants, who, if anything, represented a better-than-average sample of the island population.

The links between the New York Puerto Ricans and the island Puerto Ricans are, indeed, close and complex, and quite different from the relationship of earlier migrant groups to their homelands. Puerto Rico is a part of the United States, and there is no control over movement between the island and the mainland; air passage is not too expensive; and the island government takes a strong interest in its people. Many, in fact, would be hard put to say whether they belonged to the city or the island. A great part of the movement between New York and San Juan consists of people going back and forth for visits, to take care of sick relatives or to be taken care of, of children being sent to stay with one family or another. In other words, going back is usually not, as it was in earlier migrations, either the return of someone who is defeated and incapable of adjustment, or of someone who has made a small competence that will look big in the homeland. Something new, then, has perhaps been added to the New York scene—an ethnic group that will not assimilate to the same degree as others have, but will resemble the strangers who lived in ancient Greek cities, or the ancient Greeks who set up colonies in cities around the Mediterranean.



There are interesting consequences for the community in this. Relatively few Puerto Ricans—as compared with Negroes or with the non-Puerto Rican white groups—register and vote. One reason may be that the state constitution requires all voters to be literate in English. After Mayor Wagner’s election to his third term in 1961, it was estimated that no fewer than 200,000 Puerto Ricans were in effect disfranchised by this provision, and in December 1961 the city filed a proposal for a constitutional amendment that would permit residents to take literacy tests in any language in which a daily or weekly newspaper was published in the state. Clearly, people active in politics and the leaders of the Puerto Rican community expect that Spanish will be the major language in use in the community for as long ahead as anyone can see. As against the situation in some earlier immigrant groups, where dominant opinion both in the city and in the group insisted on the need to learn English and to relegate the immigrant tongue to a lesser status, many Puerto Rican leaders—and they are young people—expect and hope that Spanish will maintain an important foothold in their community. The city government, on its side, encourages city employees to learn Spanish, and issues many announcements to the general public in both languages. Conceivably this will change, but Spanish already has a much stronger official position in New York than either Italian or Yiddish ever had. This is one mark of the closeness of the island—physically, politically, and culturally.

Closeness to the island is unquestionably a factor in another interesting characteristic of the Puerto Ricans in New York—the relative weakness of community organization and community leadership among them. The early migrants were so completely working-class and below that the few Puerto Rican professionals and businessmen in the city tended to blend into the non-Puerto Rican Spanish-language group, consisting of immigrants from Spain, Cuba, and other parts of Latin America. But as the number of Puerto Ricans in the city grew, something happened to the general Spanish-speaking group similar to what had happened to the high-status German Jews when the poor East-European Jews arrived—the effort to maintain a separate image for themselves in the public mind failed. When the Puerto Ricans became the overwhelming majority of the city’s Spanish-speaking population, the status of all Spanish-speaking people became involved in that of the new immigrants.

These circumstances have led to a recapture by the Puerto Rican group of some of the leadership elements from the longer settled, and perhaps better educated, non-Puerto Ricans. Thus, Emilio Nuñez, the first Spanish-speaking city magistrate (he was appointed in 1951) was born in Spain. Thus, also, the five Spanish-speaking members of the executive board of the Shirtmakers’s Union, Local 23 of the ILGWU, include one South American, one Mexican, one Cuban, and only two Puerto Ricans, though Puerto Ricans make up by far the largest part of the Spanish-speaking rank-and-file. And thus, finally, La Prensa, an old and established Spanish daily, which never had much Puerto Rican emphasis, was a few years ago completely revamped as a tabloid to appeal directly to the Puerto Rican population.

The fact that a newspaper originally designed for another group—and owned, to boot, by an Italian, Fortune Pope—could so easily be turned into a Puerto Rican organ, is a sign of the relative weakness of what may be called indigenous organization among the Puerto Ricans. The other and much larger newspaper read by Puerto Ricans, 1l Diario, was originally owned by a Dominican, and edited by a New York newspaperman who had formerly edited a newspaper in the (then) Ciudad Trujillo. Both La Prensa and Il Diario were bought by the transit operator O. Roy Chalk, who is also not a Puerto Rican, and have recently been merged. This newspaper performs many of the services other immigrant-group newspapers have performed, but it is not the creation of the community itself. And this is the kind of situation one finds in many other areas of Puerto Rican life as well. But just recently a new Spanish newspaper was started in the city; the change to a larger degree of self-sufficiency has already begun.



So far as religion is concerned, most of the Puerto Ricans in the city are Catholic, but their participation in Catholic life is small. It is interesting, for example, that only 15,000 Puerto Rican children are in parochial schools in the New York Archdiocese, against almost ten times as many in the public schools—a much smaller percentage than for any other Catholic group in the city. There are only 250 Spanish-speaking priests in the Archdiocese of New York, and most of these—like many priests in Puerto Rico itself—have expressly learned Spanish in order to minister to Puerto Rican Catholics.

As the problems of the first generation are overcome, as families become stabler, incomes higher, and the attachment to American middle-class culture stronger, Catholicism will probably also become stronger among the Puerto Ricans. But it does not seem likely that the Church will play as large a role in their life as it plays for Catholics of European origin. Indeed, there is already a well-established rival to Catholicism in the Puerto Rican community, and if we were to reckon religious strength not by mild affiliation but by real commitment, we might find almost as many Puerto Rican Protestants as Catholics. All told, about 14,000 Spanish-speaking people belong to the major Protestant denominations in the city, about 10,000 of them in their own all-Spanish churches. Attendance in these churches is high, evangelical zeal puts most Anglo-Saxon Protestantism to shame, and the willingness to spend money on the church is also great.

But the most vigorous and intense religious movements among the Puerto Ricans are the Pentecostal and independent Pentecostal-type churches. The 1960 study of the Protestant Council of New York located 240 such churches with an estimated total membership of 25,000—but the Council’s estimates are certainly too conservative. These tiny churches generally run services every day of the week. They demand that their people give up smoking and alcohol and fornication. They are completely supported by the membership, and often a church of 100 members will keep a full-time minister. Here, where the preachers and ministers are all Puerto Ricans, if a stranger comes in, he is warmly greeted, and if a member falls sick, he is visited. The tight Pentecostal congregation is one of the most important expressions of community that exists among Puerto Ricans in New York.

Aside from these churches, however, the Puerto Ricans do not have a strong organizational life. To be sure, there are many social organizations, based on place of origin on the island, but they do not have the importance that the early immigrant societies in New York used to have. That they should not is understandable: movies and television and other forms of commercialized recreation have usurped one major function of such societies in the past, while public and private welfare agencies have usurped the other. Moreover, the rise of organization has been inhibited by the same factors (urban renewal, public housing, etc.) that have dispersed the Puerto Rican population throughout the city and prevented the development of a great residential center for the group.

The ways in which the relation to the island affects the organizational life of Puerto Ricans in New York are probably many and subtle, but one clear impact is seen in the role of the Office of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in New York City. This office (maintained by the Department of Labor of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico) is for the Puerto Rican community of New York what the NAACP and the National Urban League are for the Negroes. It serves as an employment agency and an orientation center for new migrants; it represents Puerto Ricans and Puerto Rican interests on committees; it helps organize the Puerto Rican community where such organization seems necessary (as for example, in the 1960 campaign to increase registration, in which it took a leading and active role); it is concerned with the public relations of the Puerto Ricans, supplying information and correcting misconceptions.

But it is again a special twist for New York’s Puerto Ricans that their equivalent of NAACP and NUL, or of the Jewish community organizational complex, should be a government office, supported by government funds. That we no longer leave newcomers to New York to sink or swim is undoubtedly a good thing; yet because the Puerto Ricans have been so well supplied with paternalistic guidance by the island government, and with social services by city and private agencies, the group has not been forced to develop powerful grass-roots organizations of its own. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, however, the Puerto Ricans have achieved a sizable degree of success in adjusting to life in New York. Much of this success has been obscured, for adjustment means inconspicuousness and the well-adjusted Puerto Rican is often not seen as a Puerto Rican; he tends to be only someone with a Spanish name. The successful and adjusted withdraw to Washington Heights and two- or one-family houses in the Bronx or Queens. The newcomers, crowding the rooming houses of the West Side and Chelsea, are in some of the busiest sections of the city, with a large and active, previously settled population that is made all too aware of their problems and difficulties.



One important index of success is business, and according to a recent estimate by the Puerto Rican migration division, there are, all told, 4,000 Puerto Rican-run businesses in New York. This is an amazing figure. It is considerably higher, for example, than the much bigger and longer-settled Negro population has achieved, and it suggests that one of the widely accepted reasons for the low participation of Negroes in small business—discrimination in loans—is probably not of primary importance. (The Puerto Rican, after all, with his characteristically accented and poor English, would not be likely to impress the banker or supplier any more than a Negro does.) Other factors, like the demand for special items by the group and the bond of language, seem to explain the difference better.

As for Puerto Rican workers, the 1950 census already indicated a remarkable shift upward in the occupational profile of the second generation. In 1950, 37 per cent of Puerto Rican men were semi-skilled operatives (in toy factories, plastics, and the like) and 28 per cent were service workers (porters, elevator operators, kitchen helpers, etc.). For those Puerto Ricans born in this country who were under twenty-four and at work—still a small group, but suggesting the shape of the future—there was a radical decline in these categories and a sharp increase in the sales and clerical category (from 9 per cent for the Puerto Rican-born to 24 per cent for the native born). And the changes among women are even more striking. In 1950, more than four-fifths of young Puerto Rican women migrants were working in factories (mostly clothing factories) and only 7 per cent were in clerical and sales. Among the young native-born, on the other hand, the proportion working as operatives dropped by half, and the number employed in clerical and sales rose to 43 per cent!



For all this, however, it takes no special discernment of eye to see that a great many of the newcomers live in a veritable sea of misery.

As to its extent: Puerto Rican median family income was considerably lower than even non-white median family income—$3,811 as against $4,437—in 1960, and unemployment among Puerto Ricans also seems to be consistently higher than among non-whites. The census of 1950 showed, for men, 7 per cent of the non-Puerto Rican whites, 12 per cent of the Negroes, and 17 per cent of the Puerto Ricans unemployed; for women, 5 per cent of the non-Puerto Rican whites, 8.5 per cent of the Negroes, and 11 per cent of the Puerto Ricans. In 1960, 5 per cent of all New York males, 6.9 per cent of non-white males, and 9.9 per cent of all Puerto Rican males were unemployed.

In explaining misery among the Puerto Ricans, their high birth rate must be taken into account. Puerto Ricans begin bearing children younger, and bear more of them. A 1950 analysis showed that for women between the ages of fifteen and nineteen the Puerto Rican birth rate was about five times the continental white rate (the Negro rate for this age group was almost as high); for women twenty to twenty-four it was almost twice the white rate, and a third higher than the Negro rate.

We see the strain in a number of ways. For example, it is interesting to note how many of the adjusted Puerto Rican families have only one or two children. The job at $50 a week, which manages to support a small family in an apartment in the Bronx and which, compared with the $12-a-week income that was left behind on the island, represents real advancement, is completely inadequate to support five children or more. All problems tend to pile up. The bigger family may not get into a good apartment or a housing project. The crowding in a small apartment may mean more illness and poor management of children. And the difficulty of feeding so many mourns on $50 a week means that welfare has to be called in to help. One-half of all families in New York receiving supplementary assistance from the Department of Welfare are Puerto Ricans; one quarter of all Puerto Rican children in the city are on some form of assistance; and about one-seventh of all Puerto Ricans are on public assistance. The Puerto Rican (especially the Puerto Rican male) is not happy about going on relief; no one is, but it is perhaps even worse for Puerto Ricans since their culture places so high a value on the maintenance of dignity and self-respect.

Everything can contribute to breaking this circle of dependency—more education, more training, fewer children, fewer illnesses, better housing, dedicated social workers, etc., etc. Sometimes, however, at the bottom of the scale, things are too far gone for the circle to be broken. Here are the “multi-problem” families, afflicted simultaneously by a variety of miseries—a child who is a drug-addict, another who is delinquent, a father who is psychologically or physically unable to work, or perhaps is not there at all.

One of the greatest misfortunes of this bottom layer of unfortunates who cannot help themselves is the enormous difficulty of managing one of the most complex and ingrown bureaucracies in the world—harried city employees, probation officers, welfare workers, rent administrators, etc., etc., etc. An equal misfortune is the housing situation, which consigns those without sufficient resources and without energy to the frightful one-room furnished dwellings carved out of brownstones and apartment houses principally on the West Side of Manhattan. Better living quarters are available, and at cheaper rents, in the Bronx and Brooklyn, but when one is overwhelmed by so many troubles, the energy to take the subway to look for an unfurnished apartment, to get together the few sticks of furniture and the minimal kitchen equipment (the Welfare Department will pay), is often literally beyond the capacity of many families. And so they migrate dully from one of these awful dwellings to another, scarcely better, a few blocks away. Meanwhile, one generation on relief gives rise to another. The culture of public welfare, which Julius Horowitz has so vividly described in his novel, The Inhabitants, is as relevant for the future of Puerto Ricans in the city as the culture of Puerto Rico itself.

And yet despite all this, there was not an exceptionally high rate of delinquency among Puerto Rican children during the 1950’s. Today, a good deal of Puerto Rican violence consists of crimes of passion involving members of the community only (though it is not unreasonable to expect that in the future, as the community becomes more and more “Americanized,” more and more of this violence will be turned outward) . As for that other index of social strain—illness—Puerto Ricans seem to enjoy poorer health than other groups in the population, and their rate of admission to mental hospitals is higher than on the island, or for New Yorkers in general. The migration, it seems, has hit them very hard.



A typical pattern of migration for families with children is for the father to go alone, stay with relatives or friends, find a job and living quarters, and then gradually bring over the rest of the family. Many families are consequently divided between Puerto Rico and New York, and when they are united, if ever, they show wide differences in degree of knowledge of English, assimilation, and the like. A second pattern of migration involves a woman with children—her husband has deserted her, or she has decided to leave home and go to New York, where jobs are abundant, where the government is reputed to be “for the women and the children,” and where relief is plentiful.

The Puerto Rican mother works here much more often than she does in Puerto Rico, but women still tend, if at all possible, to stay home to take care of the children. Fewer of them work than do Negro mothers. The question, then, is what kind of care the children get from these mothers, many of whom have been married since what could be considered childhood. In Puerto Rico, it is perfectly clear how one raises children. The boys are praised for their manliness and aside from being required to act respectfully toward their fathers (whether or not their fathers still live with their mothers), they are left to raise themselves. In radically different fashion, the girls are carefully watched, warned to keep their virginity—without which a proper marriage is inconceivable—and then relatively early they flee from this restrictive and stifling atmosphere into marriage and motherhood.

In New York, however, both traditional patterns raise serious problems. If the boys are left to themselves, they find bad friends, may take to drugs, will learn to be disrespectful and disobedient. And even if a boy survives the streets morally, how is he to survive them physically, with cars and trucks whizzing by, and tough Negro and Italian boys ready to beat him up at the slightest provocation? If the girls are guarded and confined to the home (i.e. a tiny, overcrowded apartment) as proper girls should be, they become resentful at a treatment that their classmates and friends are not subjected to.

Thus the radical boy-girl disjunction does not work in New York City. To the social workers or young ministers in the slums, the dances and other co-educational activities they run are means of teaching young boys and girls how to relate to each other in ways that are not purely sexual and exploitative, and perhaps in a measure they do accomplish this. But to the Puerto Rican (and often Negro) parents, what goes on in the settlement houses and the church socials simply looks like a shocking invitation to premature pregnancy.

In this confusing situation there are two possibilities. One is to give up altogether and simply let the children run wild. But a more typical reaction is a tightening of the screws, not only on the girls but on the boys, too. Many cases of disturbed Puerto Rican boys that come to the attention of social agencies are cases of overprotection, anxiety stemming from an exaggerated fear of the dangers of the streets. With the girls, a tightening of discipline makes life seem even more stifling, and there is less chance of escaping into an early marriage here than there is in Puerto Rico. When a social worker suggested to a Puerto Rican girl who had a job and was expected to scurry home from the factory as fast as she had from school, that she ought to get away from the traditionally strict supervision of her father by moving into a residence, the girl was shocked. “She seems to think that in Puerto Rico they would consider any girl who moves away from her family into a residence as someone who goes into a house of prostitution.”

The changing city no longer provides the neighborhood that is exclusive to one ethnic group, and so the models for new conduct in rearing one’s children vary. There are Negro, Jewish, and Italian models, as well as the “American” models of the welfare workers and the settlement houses. What degree of discipline is proper, what kind of punishment and rewards ought to be enforced, what expectations should one have of one’s children? The Puerto Rican mother is at a loss in deciding on the right course.



And then there is the role of the school in the lives of the children. Even the least schooled migrant knows the value of education; Puerto Ricans universally would like to see their children well educated, and hope they will grow up to be professionals. But school is often a frustrating experience. The shift to a new language has been peculiarly difficult for the Puerto Ricans. We can only speculate as to why Jews and Italians, coming into the city at roughly the same ages as the Puerto Ricans have, and with less formal knowledge of English to begin with, should have made a less problematic linguistic adjustment. Certainly the schools did much less to ease their path. (Of course in the years of the heaviest Jewish and Italian migration, the school-leaving age was considerably lower, so that the children who could not learn English got out before their problems became too noticeable.)

Probably no public school system has spent as much money and devoted as much effort to a group of minority children as the New York public school system has devoted to the Puerto Ricans. There are now hundreds of special personnel to deal with parents, to help teachers, to handle the special difficulties of students. The magnitude of the problem is barely communicated by figures. “On October 31, 1958,” reports the Board of Education, “of the 558,741 children in our elementary schools, there were 56,296 children of Puerto Rican ancestry whose lack of ability to speak or understand English represented a considerable handicap to learning.”

The numbers alone are enormous, and there is the additional problem of the rapid movement of the newcomers. On the West Side of Manhattan—one of the major sections of entry for Puerto Rican migrants—the turnover in an area containing sixteen schools has been 92 per cent, which means that each year the school confronts what is in effect a completely new student body.

It is probably particularly hard for adolescent boys to adjust to this situation, for the Puerto Rican emphasis on masculine dignity makes it embarrassing to speak English with an accent. Meanwhile, there is a good deal of school-leaving at the earliest possible age and relatively small proportions today go into the academic high schools. The register for New York City schools in October 1960 showed that 18 per cent of the elementary-school students, 17 per cent of the junior high-school students, and only 8 per cent of the high-school students were Puerto Rican. The proportion in the academic high schools was 5 per cent.

The other side of the coin is an impressive amount of activity by young, educated Puerto Ricans to raise the level of concern for education in the group. For example, Puerto Rican social workers, professionals, and teachers have set up an organization called Aspira, which is devoted to helping students and their parents to take all possible advantage of educational opportunities. The young Puerto Rican leaders clearly see Puerto Ricans as following in the path of the earlier ethnic groups; and these leaders speak of the earlier ethnic groups as models for emulation, not as targets for attack. They identify, that is, with the Jews or Italians of forty years ago, rather than with the Negroes of today, and they have a rather hopeful outlook, which stresses the group’s potential for achievement rather than the prejudice and discrimination it meets.

New York’s folk culture is already deeply affected by the Puerto Rican migration—and in time, one feels sure, its commercial culture will be similarly affected. In every area of Puerto Rican settlement little record stores carry a remarkable variety of Latin American music; the same records, and live music, pour from hundreds of rooms and apartment houses, and from small and large (and even internationally known) dance halls. As the group becomes larger and more self-conscious, the special Puerto Rican passion for music and dancing will cut more and more into the coldness and sharpness of the city. Indeed, the Puerto Ricans in general add to a rather tough and knowing cast of New York characters a new type—softer and milder, gayer and more light-spirited.

But the most significant Puerto Rican contribution to the city of New York, one suspects, will be in the area of attitudes toward color. The Puerto Ricans introduce into the city a group that is intermediate in color, neither all white nor all dark, and they also carry with them a new attitude toward color. There is no strong sense among Puerto Ricans of difference based on color; intermarriage is common, and people are aware of color and hair and facial features as they are aware of any other personal and defining characteristics of an individual. In Puerto Rico, in fact, there seems to be much less concern over color than there is in Jamaica, where subtle distinctions are made in shade, and persons try to marry someone lighter than themselves.

In the 40’s, it was widely believed that the Puerto Rican group would eventually split, with the darker members being absorbed into the over-all American Negro community, just as West Indians and other colored immigrants had been. But Father Joseph Fitzpatrick’s study of marriage among New York Puerto Ricans reveals that the newcomers still maintain the pattern of a single Puerto Rican community in which people mingle freely in disregard of the color marks that so affect American social behavior. Even more interesting: Father Fitzpatrick’s study shows a sizable proportion of marriages between persons of different color; at least a sixth of Puerto Rican marriages in New York are of this type.

The break between colored and white Puerto Ricans, then, has not yet occurred. And if the cancer of color consciousness fails to develop among them, the Puerto Ricans may yet bring a greater gift to New York than any special cultural contribution could ever be.




1 In 1961 the crude birth rate of the Puerto Rican population of New York was 40 per thousand, as compared with 30 for non-whites and 20 for non-Puerto Rican whites.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.