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Presentation Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History

Migrating to a New Land

Tourism poster, 1940.

The story of the Puerto Rican people is unique in the history of U.S. immigration, just as Puerto Rico occupies a distinctive 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.

Rural Puerto Rico, 1903.

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.

To find more photos of Puerto Rico in the early 20th century, search in Detroit Publishing Company

Hilda Hernandez registers to vote, New York, 1960.

After the end of the Second World War, however, Puerto Rican migration increased dramatically. 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.

To hear firsthand about one Puerto Rican man's journey to the mainland in the 1950s, listen to interviews with Ralph Soria in the collection "Working in Paterson: Occupational Heritage in an Urban Setting."