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Presentation Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History

In Spanish Harlem

Tropical fruit stand, Spanish Harlem, 1964.

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 Velázquez became the first woman of Puerto Rican descent to be elected to the U.S. Congress. The Puerto Rican Day parade has become one of the largest parades 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 and dynamic part of American life for decades to come.