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New York Community Formation in the Twentieth Century

During the twentieth century the state of New York’s Latino contingent became numerous as well as diverse in its origins and socioeconomic composition. The changes in volume and patterns of migration during that century were consequences of U.S. foreign policy, political turmoil in various Latin American countries, and the inability of the majority of Latin American regimes to meet their people’s expectations concerning economic and social standards. At various points in time, the stability or upsurge in the Latino population is explained by one or the combination of some of the aforementioned causes. In addition to population inflows, high birth rates among Latinos are also a key factor for Latinos’ sprawling presence.

The first jump in the number of Latinos taking residence in the state of New York was the result of Puerto Rico’s takeover by the United States in 1898. With a population of close to 1 million at the time, Puerto Rico was opened in the succeeding years to recruitment by companies in search of laborers. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century Puerto Rican peasants and workers had already been supplying some of the demand for planters in neighboring islands; but starting in 1900 Puerto Ricans were to be fanned far and wide, depending on the needs of U.S. corporations. Using the routes long established by maritime companies to carry commercial cargo, the transportation of passengers got a boost when Puerto Rican men and women were recruited to labor in New York City factories; others came on their own, escaping unemployment or just seeking better wages. With the exception of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital, it was estimated that on the island there were five unemployed workers for each available unskilled position. Under such pressure, 71,000 persons left Puerto Rico between 1909 and 1940. As a group, Puerto Ricans concentrated in blue-collar occupations; about 75 percent of them found jobs in factories, laundries, construction, and as cigar makers, porters, and hotel employees; a few of them were hired as farmworkers.5

The year 1917 marked a significant increase in the number of Puerto Rican migrants. Congress granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans through the Jones Act. About 11,000 Puerto Ricans left their island for the United States immediately after the act was passed. Those who settled in New York congregated

in a few areas such as the Lower East Side, Chelsea, and East Harlem in Manhattan whereas the rest located along the waterfronts of Brooklyn, such as Greenpoint and the Gowanus Canal. Roughly up to the end of World War II, the areas of settlement for Puerto Ricans were determined mainly by the location of their jobs and availability of affordable housing. With the onset of the Great Migration (1946-1964), Puerto Ricans populated new areas in the city; they moved to Manhattan’s west side, Washington Heights, inner areas of Brooklyn, and above all, the South Bronx. They came to inhabit houses and tenements that had been first occupied by previous generations of European migrants, most notably Jews, Italians, and the Irish. The first waves of Puerto Ricans shared urban spaces with members of such groups. Friction and instances of racial violence were part of Puerto Ricans’ daily life; but as time went on and the Puerto Rican population grew, they ended up taking over whole areas vacated by Anglos who left for the outer boroughs and suburbia. They inherited the living space but not the property, though. They became tenants in run-down housing and unkempt neighborhoods; their living conditions were immortalized in documentaries and novels such as Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets (1967).

Perhaps the most famous of these areas is East Harlem, better known as El Barrio (literally, neighborhood). El Barrio lies north of 96th Street and south of 125th Street, and First and Park Avenues flank it to the east and west, respectively. As early as 1916, there were 50 Puerto Rican families residing in this neighborhood. Owing to the Jones Act of 1917 the numbers rose, and the 1920 census finds 7,364 Puerto Ricans in El Barrio. During the rest of the decade, when Puerto Rican and Cuban communities were still about the same size, both groups settled in this section of the city, which would soon be known as Spanish Harlem. By 1930, Puerto Ricans (44,908) had outnumbered Cubans in the city two to one. The pace of growth continued in the years following World War II, and as one-third of Puerto Rico’s labor force moved to the U.S. mainland, chiefly to New York City, their numbers came to predominate in East Harlem, impressing upon the area a markedly Puerto Rican flavor.

El Barrio epitomized the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Puerto Ricans’ experience in New York City. The vibrancy of the community could be felt in the way extended families living in close proximity of one other wove networks with neighbors of the same background by clustering in tenements, attending the same churches, organizing block parties, playing stickball, hanging out in the stoops, and patronizing the same bodegas. It was in this neighborhood that Puerto Ricans first flexed their political muscle as a voting bloc in favor of Italians such as Fiorello LaGuardia and Vito Marcantonio. It was here also that they elected the first Puerto Rican to the New York State Assembly, Oscar Garcia Rivera. Some years later, in 1958, a conglomerate of associations and hometown clubs established an institution that has had an enduring impact: the Puerto Rican Day

Parade, the annual Puerto Rican event par excellence. On the second Sunday of every June, between 2 and 3 million participants and spectators from both New York City and around the country, including Puerto Rico, take part in this revelry.

Other activists, parents, and artists founded cultural institutions, such as El Museo del Barrio (1969), to showcase and preserve traditions and artifacts representative of Puerto Rican culture. In the wake of the civil rights movement, activists emerged to organize Latinos around the issues dear to the people of the neighborhood. Urgent problems such as the need for quality housing, access to health care, garbage pickup, and education stirred people to action. The Young Lords Party (1969-1976), for instance, channeled, even if briefly, the rebellious and creative energy of politically oriented youths, who mobilized the community to take care of their own problems and demand solutions from the government.

Much like South Bronx in the 1970s and 1980s, El Barrio took a turn for the worse during those decades. East Harlem was ravaged by poverty, fires, unemployment, drug trafficking, violence, and the HIV epidemic. Those who could, left the area for better places. Coinciding with the anticrime policies of the Giuliani administration (1994-2002) and the economic expansion of the 1990s, some of the more noticeable social ills of East Harlem seemed to have lessened, which attracted non-Latino groups and investment into the area. Crime indicators are considerably down (from 31 murders in 1990 to 10 in 2006), housing construction for middle-and high-income buyers is on the rise, and small businesses as well as chain stores have proliferated.6

As with everything else Puerto Rican in New York City, much has changed concerning El Barrio. As the new century takes off, there are less Puerto Ricans and more Dominicans and Mexicans in the area. Institutions founded to serve Puerto Ricans have altered their mission statements to adapt to the newer Latino subgroups. During the 1990s, El Museo del Barrio’s mission was modified several times, reflecting the changing demographics while remaining true to its Puerto Rican origins. The museum includes representative art and culture from the Caribbean and Latin America, so that today El Museo is touted as the leading Latino cultural institution in New York City. Any casual walk on the streets of El Barrio confirms the strong imprint Mexicans are making through business and cultural expressions.

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