Commentary Magazine

New York's Puerto Ricans:
Formation and Future of a New Community

New York’s Puerto Rican immigrants, who have already established a community in the city larger than the population of Seattle or New Orleans, are a historical accident. When mass immigration from Europe was shut off in 1924, it seemed reasonable to expect that the last great wave of foreign immigrants had swept through the city. For a century it had taken in great numbers of Irish, Germans, Jews, Italians, Poles, Greeks, and other Europeans. But in 1924 it appeared that this movement had come to an end. For where were further foreign migrants to come from? The Mexicans, who did not fall within the scope of the quota law, stayed in the Southwest. The French Canadians, also outside the quota system, did not venture beyond New England.

New York City was still a magnet for migrants, but now they were English-speaking migrants, young men and women from all over the country, and Negroes from the South. For twenty years there was no considerable foreign immigration. The European refugees were relatively few in number compared to the immigrant movements of the past. The New York City public schoolteacher could always expect to have a few children from foreign countries, but the experience of whole classes, whole schools, of children who did not speak English, was, it seemed, a thing of the past.

In 1898, however, a major potential source of non-English-speaking migrants had been placed under the American flag, free from the operation of the restrictive immigration laws which came into effect in the 20’s, and free, too, from the kind of administrative border controls that keep down immigration from Mexico today. Puerto Rico took a long time to discover New York. Why the beginning of mass emigration was delayed until 1945 is hard to say. From 1929 to 1939, the depression kept down immigration to this country, except in the case of political and religious refugees; after that year the war made normal immigration difficult. But in 1945, with the war ended, with prosperity continuing, and with a cheap airline service operating to New York, a path from the island to the city was finally opened. In twelve years the city has been transformed. Today, almost 10 per cent of the population of New York is Puerto Rican, and the percentage will certainly continue to rise. In Puerto Rico itself, the population has more than doubled since 1898, with births exceeding deaths by 65,000 a year. There is no reason why, in a prosperous year on the mainland, Puerto Rican immigration should not go to 70,000 (as it did in 1953), and even in a relatively poor year (as in 1954) one may expect more than 20,000. But this is only one source of the increase of New York’s Puerto Rican population—another is the high rate of increase of the Puerto Rican population already in New York. Any relatively young group like the New York Puerto Ricans may be expected to have an exceptionally high birth rate; but the Puerto Ricans of child-bearing age have a birth rate higher than that of other New Yorkers.

New York, certainly, is only at the beginning of its Puerto Rican epoch. The majority of Puerto Rican migrants will continue to come to New York because it is a short airplane ride away, it offers a wide array of jobs to unskilled workers with no or little knowledge of English, its wage rates are good, and it is easy to go back home from New York if one wishes (and there is much movement back and forth). Indeed, New York is today more attractive to Puerto Rican migrants than it was thirteen years ago: the mere fact that 650,000 or more Puerto Ricans now live there means that it is a much better place to live for the others just arriving. It has more stores, churches, movie houses, institutions, dance halls, organizations, and newspapers run by and for Puerto Ricans. It has more employers used to Puerto Rican labor and willing to employ it. And its institutions—its schools, hospitals, welfare and social services—have adapted themselves to the special needs of their new clients and are understanding of their special problems. Regardless of how things appear to the casual observer of the overcrowded Puerto Rican quarters, life in New York is far better for Puerto Ricans than it is in Puerto Rico, and far better than it was for European immigrant groups earlier.



There is sometimes an advantage to being historically exceptional: the Puerto Ricans are unquestionably better off than they would have been if they had begun their immigration in 1925 instead of 1945. For in those twenty years two things occurred in the world that transformed the way the city would meet a great wave of poor, foreign, and, to some extent, racially different migrants. Those two things were the depression and Nazism. The depression led to the creation of a great structure of special services for the poor and all those afflicted by the accidents of a modern urban society. More than that, it resulted in a change in dominant attitudes toward the poor. For twenty years the national administration was in the hands of a party dependent on the votes of the poor and the recently poor. By 1945, the experience of depression and the New Deal had convinced everyone that the poor were entitled to assistance from the government.

New York’s welfare services, public and private, in 1945 were probably the best in the country. Indeed, as the old immigrant quarters emptied out, the institutions that had served them and developed rare skills in doing so found themselves with underemployed resources. In 1945 a poor family on the Lower East Side could find private institutions ready to supply an unexampled range of services—day care for pre-school children, supervised play and clubs for older children, classes for adults, music lessons and art lessons, free milk, lunches, and snacks, and a great deal more.

But in addition there was the impact of Hitlerism and the Second World War, which by reaction had helped to create a sympathy for the racially different. This sympathy was not strong enough to overcome the longer established and deeply ingrained prejudice of Americans against the dark-skinned, but nevertheless it offered a great deal of competition to that older feeling and muted any easy expression of aversion. In New York City the decline of racial prejudice had been most marked. The Jewish group had strong reasons to oppose the expression of prejudice and discrimination. New York State had been the first to pass a law against discrimination in the sale of housing, and the first to pass a law against discrimination in employment; the city was the first to pass a law against discrimination in the rental of housing. New York, one could fairly say, was the ideal place for foreign immigrants marked by quasi-racial characteristics (as is true of the Puerto Ricans, with their markedly Negroid and Indian features).

There was only one serious obstacle facing the Puerto Rican migrant. In 1945, and indeed until the present day, living quarters in New York were scarce and expensive. Since there had been little residential building for fifteen years before 1945, since New York was entering on a period of prosperity which severely taxed its existing housing resources—how was it possible for Puerto Ricans to find any place to live at all? This was the gravest problem they faced—but here too the fates were kind. The particularly strict rent control laws of the State of New York stimulated landlords to seek out every possible means for increasing the income from their properties. The chief means was by “furnishing” and subdividing existing apartments. Furnished rooms and apartments, “hotel” rooms, new apartments gained by subdivision—all were exempt to some extent from the restrictions of rent control. And so the Puerto Ricans became the first great immigrant group that did not begin its career in the traditional immigrant quarters. Even so, it was not easy for the Puerto Ricans to find places to live, but without rent control’s stimulating landlords to devise new accommodations it would have been literally impossible and there might not have been any large-scale Puerto Rican immigration at all. If the Puerto Ricans found it hard to find places to live, their neighbors found it equally hard to move away. All were thus forced into a closer proximity than they might have wished, and the Puerto Ricans were unable to preempt one large area as their central settlement. They had to move in where they could. The process of subdivision brought them into middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhoods throughout Manhattan, and for the first time the whole process of acculturation, instead of going on inside the borders of some great ghetto, took place right under the eyes of the middle classes. Even so, the Puerto Ricans have been subjected to less discrimination than any previous large immigrant group. Of course they have poorer quarters, and pay more for them—but this is mostly because they are newcomers, have little money, and are only gradually learning how to deal with New York’s peculiar housing market. Of course, too, they have the inferior jobs—but again this is mostly because they are newcomers, not well educated, and often do not speak English, or speak it poorly. And of course there is widespread expression of distaste—but this is purely personal and the press and the public authorities are careful to avoid evidence of prejudice. The public authorities in particular, aware that the Puerto Ricans are citizens and may vote, are notably friendly. When we consider the impact of the West Indians in London, we may appreciate how remarkable has been New York’s calm and efficiency in absorbing much greater numbers of Puerto Ricans.

Indeed, when one considers the way the older New Yorkers calmly adapt themselves to the problems of a school system that can no longer offer their children the education it did (it must devote itself to the more pressing problems of the newcomers), of neighborhoods in which overcrowding creates an insuperable garbage-disposal and noise problem, of public parks that seem to have become the preserve of the Spanish-speaking, one may well ask whether there is not something oddly quiescent about New York’s acceptance of the Puerto Ricans. Is this not another case of the New Yorker’s complete helplessness in the face of “trends” and “developments” which perpetually transform his environment and which he makes little effort to combat or to guide? I believe it is. The New Yorker is indifferent to his neighbor—for many reasons which I will not go into, for my subject is the Puerto Ricans, not the New Yorkers. And he is as indifferent to the Puerto Rican as he is to anyone else. Living right next door to an apartment house (now calling itself a “hotel,” or announcing “furnished singles and doubles”), he will simply step carefully to avoid banana peels and watermelon rind, and know little and care less about the life lived within twenty feet of his apartment.



Three books have recently appeared which seek to describe and understand the life of the New York Puerto Ricans; only the first in a stream that will certainly grow, they are by a journalist, an anthropologist, and a doctor.1 They permit one to begin to outline the special characteristics of the Puerto Ricans. These books, with varying degrees of success, describe the characteristics of Puerto Rican life in New York City, and help enlighten us as to what the impact of Puerto Rican immigration on New York has been.

New York, I have suggested, has served the Puerto Ricans well—by the standards that commonly prevail in such matters as mass immigration. Now I would like to turn around and ask, how well has it been served by the Puerto Ricans?

To begin with, there is one way in which the United States, and New York too, has always been well served by its immigrant groups, and the case of the Puerto Ricans is no exception: New York has a great number of dirty and poor-paying jobs which, in the absence of new immigrants who will take them because they have no alternative, must be given to the incompetent and unreliable. It is these jobs that the Puerto Ricans have taken—preparing food, clearing dishes, making beds, washing linen, all the work that must go on because New York provides entertainment and services for the rest of the nation in its restaurants and hotels. The restaurant and hotel trades are now so heavily dependent on Puerto Rican labor that it is hard to see what they would have done for help had there been no Puerto Rican migration—perhaps a heavier inflow of Negroes from the South would have taken place. The Puerto Ricans have gone into other work, too, particularly light factory work, and the women have gone into the garment trades.

And yet, while we in America expect the immigrant to work hard at a dirty, ill-paying job, we do not expect him to stay at it forever, and we certainly do not expect his children to follow him in it. And we will not consider an immigrant group desirable if it is content to remain in such work. How a society is to reconcile the expectation that everyone will rise with the fact that there is an irreducible minimum of jobs which are unpleasant and poorly paid, I do not know—however, American society has not yet been forced to this reconciliation, for even after European immigration was cut off, Mexicans, Negroes, and Puerto Ricans were available to take up the work at the bottom. Nor do I know how it is possible to reconcile a widespread racial prejudice, which makes social advance difficult, with the universal insistence that only such advance makes life worthwhile. Indeed, it is the tragedy of the Negroes that they are in this impossible situation, and the Negro crime rate is part of the result.

American society supplies two paths for this upward movement: small business and education, both relatively open to the ambitious, both requiring only small capital investments which should be available to some among even the most impoverished ethnic groups. And the two generally work together: the small improvement in the economic situation of the small shopkeeper or manufacturer permits him to maintain his children in school and permits them the more striking movement upwards that is characteristic of the second generation. This pattern has been the characteristic one for those groups—such as the Jews and the Japanese—which have made the most striking advance. It demands that the group should have the skills, ability, and energy to engage in business; and that it should have the outlook that sees education as a good (whether for itself or as a means to better-paying jobs hardly matters), and the ability to inculcate this outlook in its children.



The Puerto Rican group in New York has already shown that it can make the first move, from work for others to self-employment, and on a fairly respectable scale. In this respect, it has already distinguished itself from the two other major migrant streams with which it has a certain kinship, the Mexican and the Negro. These latter groups have not been especially successful in moving into self-employment. Obviously, discrimination—in getting credit, for example, has hampered all three groups. And yet there has been a difference among them, I think, in the ability to overcome discrimination. There are certain forms of business enterprise that involve very little capital and very little in the way of help from others—all those, for example, that involve services to one’s own group, such as grocery stores and restaurants adapted to the specific tastes of the group, or special agencies dealing with some need of the group—arranging passage, transfer of money, and so on. A group may supply such services for itself and thus begin to collect small reserves of entrepreneurial skill and capital from which larger enterprises may grow, or it may allow these servvices to be supplied by others. The Puerto Ricans in New York supply these services for themselves. The first sign of Puerto Rican movement into a neighborhood is the bodega, or grocery store, and the store advertising pasajes— tickets for trips to Puerto Rico. These are run by Puerto Ricans themselves. In the denser Puerto Rican neighborhoods, almost every retail establishment is run by Puerto Ricans. Indeed, so active are they in this respect that, as Christopher Rand points out, they will often run stores for the Negro group, despite the fact that the latter have been settled in New York far longer than the Puerto Ricans. In Chicago, where the two Spanish-speaking streams of migrants, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, meet, the Puerto Ricans, again demonstrating their entrepreneurial superiority, are much more energetic in striking out for themselves.

What explains this difference? It is one of the virtues of Rand’s book that he is the first (as far as I know) to attempt to describe and explain it. The American occupation of Puerto Rico introduced a number of influences from the mainland:

American business went in and began selling American goods by American methods—today one hears that Puerto Ricans know much more about installment buying than other Latin-Americans. They have also acquired a hunger for the gadgets money can buy. . . . Many Protestant missionaries also went to Puerto Rico from the mainland after 1898. . . .

And he quotes a sociologist on the impact of this movement:

The new missionaries . . . began presenting Christianity to the island as a religion of works—linked with uplift, change, ambition and all that—rather than a religion of the status quo, as Spanish Catholicism had been. They founded schools, hospitals, and farm-improvement stations. They taught a belief in material progress. . . . In short, they implanted the so-called Protestant ethic on the island, and this led, inevitably, to things like a new middle class, a new money economy, and bigger commercial cities.

One may see how different this was from the experience of the American Negroes, freed from slavery and yet living in a society which continually impressed on them their inferiority or incapacity; or the Mexican immigrants, coming from largely Indian villages and towns that had been influenced little by the Mexican national government and economy, let alone the much more active type of government and economy introduced in Puerto Rico after 1898.

What we speak of is a tendency; how extensive and significant a tendency, it is not easy to say. Its causes are even more speculative. Yet it promises that within not too many years there will be a Puerto Rican middle class of some size; and that middle class will represent a major step toward the solution of what New Yorkers conceive of as the Puerto Rican “problem.” For if this middle class develops, the Puerto Ricans, despite the large dark-skinned element among them, may be looked upon as, say, Italians are today—as an assimilating ethnic group, rather than a special racial group.

The development of a Puerto Rican middle class, if it occurs, may be made possible by the leaving behind of the dark-skinned members of the group in the Puerto Rican ghetto, the latter thus failing to share in the advance of the group and being assimilated in the minds of Americans—and in actuality—to the American Negroes. Evidence in all three books suggest such a possibility. On the other hand, if the Puerto Rican group maintains its unity—as is likely, owing to its rather strong national feeling (perhaps the development of a sense of nationality binding dark-skinned and light-skinned together is another unanticipated gift of American occupation)—if it remains cohesive, while one part of it rises, then we shall have a new situation in America: a dark-skinned element that is socially similar to one of the white ethnic groups. One wonders whether there will be any special burden of discrimination or prejudice that it will have to bear. I suspect not—at any rate in New York, where law is rapidly wiping out the last pockets of permissible discrimination, by public or private bodies. In this case, the prejudice against Puerto Ricans may be no more severe than that against recent European immigrant groups, and then the example of a dark-skinned ethnic element akin in social status to European ethnic groups may do much to weaken prejudice against Negroes.



But is the shopkeeping propensity, about which there can be no argument, sufficient to create a Puerto Rican middle class? Is there a tendency for Puerto Ricans to go into the potentially more lucrative forms of enterprise? Do the many thousands of Puerto Rican women in the garment trades suggest the possibility of Puerto Ricans owning and managing their own small garment factories—a path which many Jews trod to membership in the middle class and eventually great wealth? Is there a tendency for Puerto Ricans, again like the Jews before them, to own and manage the highly profitable rooming houses, hotels, and apartment houses in which they are now packed? Puerto Ricans would have some initial advantage in both types of business—they would know the language of their workers and tenants, they would be better acquainted with their foibles, they would be better able to get workers and tenants when these are scarce. There is no discussion in these books of this type of enterprise (though the Puerto Rican foreman in the factory employing Puerto Rican labor is already common). It would be important to know if this is happening.

However, there is evidence, unfortunately negative evidence, as to the Puerto Rican propensity to take the other great path upwards, through education. If one result of the American occupation was acquaintance with both the products and outlook of modern industry and commerce, one might well expect that another result would be a positive orientation toward education. In the U.S. itself, vast sums have always been spent on education, and the same has been true, mutatis mutandis, in the American possessions. Puerto Rico has benefited from this American propensity, and now possesses an effective system of education headed by a university that is probably one of the strongest ever developed in “colonial” territory. The Puerto Rican migrants are therefore better acquainted with the potential benefits of education than other groups have been. Dr. Padilla writes:

Among parents, formal education for their children is regarded as having a very important role in their aspirations . . . education is highly valued by all Hispanos. . . . Among recent migrants one of the foremost goals in their coming to New York is connected with educating their children to an extent they could not have achieved in Puerto Rico.

And yet: “A large number of children of migrants quit school as soon as they can get working papers or as soon as they have passed the required age for compulsory schooling.” The Puerto Ricans do indeed value schooling—in this respect they are distinguished, for example, from the Mexicans; yet the attitude of their children to school is not markedly different. In view of the group’s strong drive for social and economic advancement, why does one not see Puerto Rican children knocking at the gates of the high schools and colleges, as other education-and mobility-oriented ethnic groups have done before them? True, there is a language problem—but other groups have had the same problem. One suspects that the language problem is more serious for the Puerto Rican group—because of the proximity of the island, the frequent trips back and forth, the significance of Spanish as distinguishing the darker-skinned Puerto Ricans from the American Negroes.

Perhaps there are other reasons, too, for this apparent failure of the Puerto Ricans—up to now—to take advantage of New York’s educational opportunities. Every group that emphasized education has been driven by the desire for material achievement and security. However, a rather special attitude to material gain must characterize those who take the long road of education to achieve it: an ability to defer gratification, perhaps based on the experience that gratification will not be permanently deferred. Perhaps, too, the material environment of New York is too overwhelming to permit deferment of gratification; perhaps American influence in arousing a taste for material possessions in Puerto Rico has been too successful and children will not hold off leaving school to get jobs. And perhaps, for various reasons, New York schools are unrewarding and unpleasant for Puerto Rican children, though these schools have made and are making a great effort.

One is in any case at some loss to understand the failure of the Puerto Ricans to make intensive use of the educational path upwards. Yet if a sizable core of well-educated individuals fails to develop, the movement of the entire group will be seriously affected. It will possess only a small professional elite whose services will go to outsiders, it will have insufficient leaders, it will not be able to provide well-trained people for the share of public offices its voting strength should gain for it—in short, it will be seriously hampered in changing from a group that is a “problem” to a group that is a self-respecting and respected part of society. Unfortunately, we learn all too little about this aspect of things from our three books, and yet a good part of the future of the Puerto Ricans in New York (and of New York itself) depends on it.



There is another aspect of Puerto Rican experience in New York that is striking—the dependence of the Puerto Rican group on the elaborate structure of services for the poor and unfortunate that has been erected in New York City. It is of course not surprising that a new immigrant group should take advantage of whatever aid and services are available. What is surprising about the Puerto Ricans is the manner of their dependence. In the case of many Negroes in Northern cities, we may properly speak of the helpless dependence on public aid of people whose misfortunes have become too much for them. In the case of the Puerto Ricans, we must often speak of the active adaptation of a people to all the services that a modern welfare state makes possible. Among Puerto Ricans, there is less helpless dependence—though there is certainly a good deal of that—and rather more of what we may call the instrumental use of welfare state services to work out the best possible life for oneself. Concretely, what this means is that state and private services are made part of the pattern of one’s life, and used with all the skill one can muster to serve the general aim of “progress.” I do not refer to relief alone. I also have in mind the special Puerto Rican attitude to the public hospitals, the police, and the various social welfare and social work agencies. Perhaps a few quotations from Dr. Padilla will suggest something of the character of this relationship:

A child who does not obey his parents . . . may be reported to a social agency. In the latter instance the parents want him placed in a school where “he will learn” and where he will be living away from the family. . . .

The individual who wants to make trouble for another with the police watches for some “legal technicality,” such as throwing garbage or water out of the window, on which to have his enemy delivered a summons. . . .

When a quarrel or dispute may possibly lead to a compromiso (a tough situation in which life or personal freedom may be risked . . .) the police are called to prevent the compromiso from burgeoning. Thus a lovers’ spat may be reported to the precinct if it is interpreted as leading one of them to suicide.

Perhaps the most striking case is that of young Juan and Maria. They had had sexual relations.

The following day she told her best friend about it. . . . Her friend, a woman who had lived in New York for several years, told her she had to go to the police and inform them so that Juan would marry her. Maria went to precinct headquarters and told the desk sergeant that she had lost her virginity . . . the policeman . . . said, “This is [statutory] rape,” and . . . she argued with him that it was not. . . . Maria [later] explained [to the anthropologist] that [as she understood it] if she accused Juan, he must then either marry her and honor her, or . . . have to go to prison.

Puerto Ricans expect and hope that the government will take an active role in the solution of personal and family problems when these become too heavy to bear, or demand some expert handling. We learn that wives will leave husbands who are cruel to them or fail to support them, knowing they can go on relief, get help with their children, or get jobs—and this inevitably raises the power of women, and quite changes the relation between men and women in the family. Puerto Ricans with health problems, we learn from the excellent study of Dr. Berle (conducted in the same neighborhood investigated by an anthropological team headed by Dr. Padilla), will come to New York to take advantage of its free medical services for the poor—and this becomes one of the causes producing the steady movement to New York. During the first year of migration there is a very heavy use by Puerto Rican families of hospital services, reflecting both this pattern of getting one’s medical problems solved on arrival, as well as, more unfortunately, the fact that the first years after migration are likely to be those in which serious accidents occur.



When we look at this pattern in the light of the history of other ethnic groups, we recall that other migrants from agrarian and backward regions have shown a timid and even fearful approach to government and authority. The experience of a society in which one depends on a network of personal relations, largely based on kinship, to maintain security—and this is the experience of the Puerto Ricans, in large part, just as it has been the experience of other migrants—makes it very difficult for one to know how to make use of those formal and bureaucratic means for maintaining or restoring security which the modern state has established. In particular, immigrants from traditional backgrounds have feared government interference with traditional family arrangements, its power to interfere with the way they handle their children, even to the extent of taking the children away and placing them in institutions. Such immigrants often fear hospitals, too, as places where parents and children might be spirited away for who knows what dread operation. But it would seem to be the case that this fear of government and bureaucracy hardly exists among the Puerto Ricans. They see government as benign and all-competent; this attitude permits them to plan their lives in such a way that government and its services may play a significant role in them. Of course, there are numerous and often terrible problems of misunderstanding, incapacity, helplessness, confusion—Puerto Rican families are often made miserable by the mysterious workings of bureaucracy, often come to grief in their inability to understand how to get the benefits these bureaucracies exist to dispense. And yet it is also true that the Puerto Ricans manage these things better than we might expect, and perhaps better than other immigrants in the past did.

To find out what the government allots to the indigent and troubled, and how benefits may be obtained, is no simple matter, particularly if one is not at home in the language of the government agency. It takes special skills and a good deal of time. These skills are sought out and valued by the Puerto Rican community. The store advertising pasajes will also generally indicate that the services of an abogado (lawyer) is available. “Recent migrants,” Dr. Padilla tells us, “have a strongly legalistic orientation and are very much concerned with such matters as using the legal systems to protect their rights. . . . People who ‘know the country’ are asked about ‘good’ lawyers ‘who don’t sell out’ and ‘who talk in court.’” Elsewhere we learn that inquiries will be made about good social case-workers or investigators. There has developed within the Puerto Rican community a cadre of individuals who speak a fluent English, who dress and argue well, and are thus felt to be capable of guiding the less competent through the maze of agencies and procedure which he must thread to get relief, medical assistance, compensation for injuries, and so on.

I think it is historically something quite new that an impoverished immigrant group should see government not as an awesome power to be propitiated, or a threat to be circumvented, but as a positive good to be cultivated. As Dr. Padilla says at a number of points, the Puerto Rican acts on the premise that in this country “the law is for the worker and the poor.” Within this general orientation, of course, the Puerto Rican is well aware of the fact that not everyone is on his side. Thus, there is considerable ill-feeling between the New York police and the Puerto Rican population. The police are perhaps the arm of government that finds it hardest to accept the modern social-work, welfare-state outlook. The Puerto Rican will also encounter unsympathetic social investigators, and unsympathetic and perhaps even prejudiced hospital attendants and doctors. But this leads him not to withdraw but rather to complain, to demand his rights, to seek out other, more sympathetic, representatives of the universal good which is the state.

How may we reconcile the entrepreneurial energy and drive that we have earlier described as the heritage of American administration, with this positive attitude toward government aid that seems to be equally a part of that heritage? There is no necessary conflict—except in terms of the mythology of free enterprise, which assumes that success is something gained in the teeth of government interference and opposition, or, at least, in an atmosphere of governmental indifference. The Puerto Rican wishes to be successful and independent. He comes to the mainland to seek “progress.” But insofar as fate—because of accident or illness (the common disasters of the poor and mobile), or a large family—makes it impossible to achieve this goal, he accepts the necessity of getting government assistance. It is considered improper, Dr. Padilla tells us, for a man to seek assistance if he is capable of working. Work, and progress through work, are still the first goal. However, this feeling coincides with a fairly heavy dependence on relief. This may be justified in many ways. Relief is for one’s wife and children, not for oneself. Indeed, a good deal of relief for Puerto Ricans is of the supplementary assistance type, in which an income insufficient to maintain a large family is helped out by payments necessary to bring family income up to some fixed minimum. Then, too, Dr. Berle suggests, a man may interpret his failure to hold a job or get a good one as caused by illness, which will justify him in seeking and accepting government support. There are unquestionable trends in Puerto Rican attitudes that work against dependence on government—in particular, a strong sense of dignity, a strong feeling about the things that shame one. But the needs of one’s children, or illness, will overcome the feeling that the acceptance of relief affects one’s dignity or is shameful. And under these circumstances, the Puerto Rican will address himself to the problem of getting this aid with efficiency and competence, and will on occasion even express pride in his management of the complex procedures necessary to get all the types of assistance to which a large family with insufficient income is entitled.



It is worth considering what the Puerto Rican pattern of life in New York City adds up to. Here is a group that is energetic and strongly oriented toward material progress; that has positive attitudes toward education but does not seem to be able to implant them in its children; that accepts as part of its outlook on life that government and private bureaucracy should play a large role in offering aid and solving individual problems. One must say that the picture is not very different from that of present-day Americans in general, except that the heritage of “self-reliance,” as against dependence on state and private bueaucracy, which today plays a largely mythical role in this country, never played much role in Puerto Rican life, and consequently places little restraint on a relatively uninhibited and instrumental use of formal agencies for aid and assistance.

The experience of the Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico itself is decisive in the establishment of these patterns; their experience in New York will be decisive in either maintaining or altering them. We do not deal, as far as we know, with any immutable characteristics of a Puerto Rican “national character.” The most authoritative study of the people of Puerto Rico (The People of Puerto Rico, by Julian Steward and others) points out how varied are the circumstances under which Puerto Ricans live, how different consequently are the people in the plantation areas from those in the small-farm areas, how different the upper classes from the agricultural workers, and both from the developing middle classes. Of course, there are also common elements in Puerto Rican life—the Spanish language, certain kinds of music and dancing, certain customs. But most important in making the Puerto Ricans a single group is a common experience—and the common experience of the American occupation and American influence (though it has of course affected different groups differently) has been perhaps most decisive. It explains much that we will consider “typically Puerto Rican” in New York. For example, it is responsible for the fact that the Puerto Rican experience with government has been on the whole a positive one. For decades, the role of government on the island has been all in the direction of a sound and understanding solution of problems. Economic enterprise is encouraged, the land problem is handled reasonably, taxes are low, migration is intelligently guided. Wherever its hand is visible, government has operated to alleviate misery and encourage enterprise. Why should not the Puerto Rican conceive of government as benign, intelligent, competent? One might point out that Puerto Rican society in its leading representatives sees the future of the island as dependent on the maintenance of a subtle interdependence with the United States, one in which benefits are maximized and deprivations minimized; its greatest political leader is great because he manages this delicate relationship. In the same way, it would appear, the individual Puerto Rican, on the humblest level, may see his future as dependent on mobilizing the interest and good will of the proper public authorities.



We have said that the Puerto Rican is not so different from the American; we might then add he is not so different from all those people in the modern world for whom government plays a decisive role. We have discovered in the last ten years with what incredible speed the ancient forms of a society may be overturned and transformed by the forces of government. The character of the oldest continuous civilization in the world has undergone such a transformation. It is not surprising that Puerto Rico, too, with a relatively weaker traditional culture than China, should be transformed by a weaker and more considerate governmental intervention. As the writers of The People of Puerto Rico point out:

Institutionalized changes have been destroying the personalized, hierarchical, and authoritarian relationships of the older hacienda system and the isolation and self-sufficiency of the small subsistence farmer. All socio-cultural segments of the island are becoming more alike in their cash-mindedness—their dependence upon wages, the purchase of manufactured goods, the decline of home industries—their stress on individual effort, their utilization of national health, educational and other services.

And they conclude:

If national character has meaning in the case of Puerto Rico, it must be considered as a trend toward the values and practices of industrial civilization. . . .

I believe this is so. I have said that Puerto Ricans are, in their leading orientations, not so different from Americans. And now one must add: they are, in their leading orientations, not so different from what people everywhere are becoming under the impact of common forces which make us all more alike. In considering the potentialities of these orientations for creating a satisfying life for them in New York, we consider, in a measure, ourselves; and in a measure, everyone else.




1 The Puerto Ricans, by Christopher Rand, Oxford University Press, 178 pp., $3.75; Up from Puerto Rico, by Elena Padilla, Columbia University Press, 317 pp., $5.00; Eighty Puerto Rican Families in New York City: Health and Disease Studied in Context, by Beatrice Bishop Berle, Columbia University Press, 331 pp., $4.75.

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.