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Puerto Rican Citizen: History and Political Identity in Twentieth-Century New York City

Puerto Rican Citizen: History and Political Identity in Twentieth-Century New York City

by Lorrin ThomasLorrin Thomas


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By the end of the 1920s, just ten years after the Jones Act first made them full-fledged Americans, more than 45,000 native Puerto Ricans had left their homes and entered the United States, citizenship papers in hand, forming one of New York City’s most complex and distinctive migrant communities. In Puerto Rican Citizen, Lorrin Thomas for the first time unravels the many tensions—historical, racial, political, and economic—that defined the experience of this group of American citizens before and after World War II.

Building its incisive narrative from a wide range of archival sources, interviews, and first-person accounts of Puerto Rican life in New York, this book illuminates the rich history of a group that is still largely invisible to many scholars. At the center of Puerto Rican Citizen are Puerto Ricans’ own formulations about political identity, the responses of activists and ordinary migrants to the failed promises of American citizenship, and their expectations of how the American state should address those failures. Complicating our understanding of the discontents of modern liberalism, of race relations beyond black and white, and of the diverse conceptions of rights and identity in American life, Thomas’s book transforms the way we understand this community’s integral role in shaping our sense of citizenship in twentieth-century America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226796086
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/15/2010
Series: Historical Studies of Urban America Series
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Lorrin Thomas is associate professor of history at Rutgers University, Camden.

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Puerto Rican Citizen

History and Political Identity in Twentieth-Century New York City
By Lorrin Thomas

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-79608-6

Chapter One

New Citizens of New York

Community Organization and Political Culture in the Twenties

Puerto Ricans in la Colonia Hispana, 1916–29

On the day he arrived in New York in the summer of 1916, after riding the ferry from Staten Island to Manhattan and then boarding a West Side elevated train bound for Twenty-third Street, Bernardo Vega entered the vibrant New York world of Spanish-speaking immigrants. It was a world about which outsiders knew little. Indeed, Jesús Colón, a compatriot and later friend and ally of Vega's who landed across the river in Brooklyn's "Puerto Rican ghetto" in 1918, would observe that "only those who lived there knew it existed." Manhattan's first barrios latinos had sprung up in Chelsea and along lower Second Avenue before the turn of the century but soon shifted uptown and, by 1920, became a Spanish-speaking island in what was then the largely Jewish and Italian neighborhood of East Harlem. This enclave, too, occupied the margins of the city both geographically and socially. Residents of the colonia hispana (as Spanish speakers referred to their Brooklyn and Manhattan neighborhoods together) formed a lively and diverse community of working-class and middle-class aspirants in New York. Skilled and unskilled laborers lived alongside merchants and shopkeepers, together with a handful of professionals that included lawyers, doctors, and dentists who served the surrounding community of hispanos. In terms of political interests, El Barrio would become increasingly heterogeneous over the course of the twenties, but the earliest residents of Puerto Rican East Harlem never forgot that its roots lay in the lively exile community founded in New York by Cuban and Puerto Rican independence fighters in the 1860s.

When Vega and Colón first landed in New York, the Puerto Rican population in the city was tiny, with Spaniards and Cubans dominating the colonia. "I remember when we had just one Puerto Rican grocery store, one Puerto Rican restaurant and one such barbershop in all of New York City," Jesús Colón wrote, recalling his first years in the city. "No matter where you lived you had to take the old nickel IRT to 125th St. and Madison Avenue if you wanted a haircut in a Puerto Rican barbershop so you would not be discriminated against because of race, color, nationality or accent." Within a few years, however, Puerto Ricans would overtake other Spanish speakers in number. Contemporary estimates of the population of Puerto Ricans from within the colonia placed the migrant population at around 30,000 to 40,000 in 1925, although Bernardo Vega thought there were almost 35,000 Puerto Ricans in New York already in 1919. In 1927, Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner Córdova Dávila pronounced that the "40,000 votes" of Puerto Ricans in New York "constitute a respectable force." More grandiose was the Porto Rican Brotherhood of America, which claimed in its 1927 annual bulletin that "our conservative estimate shows the number of Porto Rican residents in NY to be 100,000." The U.S. Bureau of the Census estimate put the Puerto Rican population at about 45,000 by 1930.

The several hispano communities into which Puerto Rican migrants settled around 1920 comprised a heterogeneous world. Colón described the colonia of the twenties and thirties as a crazy quilt of racial, economic, and political identities: "In this pilgrimage in search of a better economic well-being, have arrived Puerto Ricans who are poor, middle class, white like some inhabitant of a Nordic forest, trigueños like good descendants of Chief Aguaybana, black like a shining citizen of old Ethiopia." "And," he added, "all of them carry with them a mind that surely doesn't think alike in terms of politics, prejudice, etc., which adorns the present social organization." This diversity of mind flourished within a context of sharply drawn class distinctions in the colonia. By the time the post–World War I Puerto Rican migration began, some of the earlier migrants, who in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries settled first in Chelsea and in the Upper West Side, had opened shops and restaurants, doctors' offices and other businesses in the area of Harlem bounded approximately by Eighth Avenue to Lexington, and 110th Street to 120th.

Carlos Tapia, a leader of the Puerto Rican community in Brooklyn in the twenties and thirties, noted that while most Puerto Rican migrants in that period settled in the Borough Hall and Red Hook sections of Brooklyn, the "cream" of the Puerto Rican migrants "elected to live in Harlem." He recalled bitterly what he saw as the differences between the Manhattan and Brooklyn enclaves: "The Brooklyn Puerto Ricans were the ones who fought and struggled to establish the foundation of the Puerto Rican political, social and economic force.... [Puerto Ricans in Manhattan] did not participate in these battles ... in their sanctuary [but] they reaped the political and economic benefits conquered by blood, and fire, death and tears by fellow 'countrymen.'" Bernardo Vega, who remained in Manhattan, also reflected on the boroughs' distinct class identities. He observed that middle-class Puerto Ricans living in Yorkville (south of East Harlem's barrio latino) and other middle-class parts of Manhattan tended to call themselves "Spaniards," or avoided speaking Spanish in public or reading Spanish papers, and forbade their children to speak Spanish. On the other hand, Vega insisted that in working-class neighborhoods, residents were "proud" to be Puerto Rican—"no one cared if they were called 'spik.'"

Ramon Colón, a cousin of Jesús Colón, recalled that "in those days Brooklyn was more or less poor in comparison with [El Barrio]." Only about a third of residents in the Manhattan barrio worked as unskilled laborers, while in Spanish-speaking Brooklyn, over two-thirds of residents worked in low-skill jobs; 15 percent of Manhattan residents worked in offices or owned businesses, while less than 3 percent of their Brooklyn compatriots did so. Many of the men who counted as skilled laborers worked as tabaqueros, or cigarmakers. Most women who worked for wages were also skilled workers, though they were more likely to do sewing piecework at home. There were also differences in the racial profiles of the Brooklyn and Manhattan communities. Of those Spanish speakers categorized as "black" by state census takers, a higher percentage lived in Brooklyn than in Manhattan, a fact not unrelated to the class structure of the two communities since, in Latin America as in the United States, racial and class hierarchies ran parallel to each other. Some Manhattan Puerto Ricans referred with disdain to the "negros" settling across the river, suggesting their sense of privilege as residents of a neighborhood into whose white population they hoped they would soon blend. Their judgment was challenged by two of the Brooklyn barrio's best-known leaders, Jesús Colón and Carlos Tapia, who considered themselves black and embraced the many-hued complexions of their Brooklyn compatriots. Arturo Schomburg, who would become the most famous of these early Puerto Rican New Yorkers as a bibliophile and collector of a world-class library of Africana, took a different approach to navigating the city's racial landscape. After migrating to New York in 1891, Schomburg "crossed over" to the African American community that he married into in the early twentieth century, and lived the rest of his life largely separate from his compatriots.

The heterogeneity of migrants' worlds could be measured not only in the class and racial differences but also in the multitude of nationalities represented in the Spanish-speaking colonia. Before the turn of the century, Spanish immigrants vied with Puerto Rican and Cuban exiles for dominance in both the Chelsea and East Harlem centers of hispano life in New York, but the Antillean nationalists had dispersed by the beginning of the Spanish-Cuban-American War in 1898, many of them returning home to fight in the final imperialist struggle against Spain. The very small numbers of Dominicans, Mexicans, Venezuelans, and other South Americans living in New York before World War I also began to increase in the years after the war. In 1913, a Colombian immigrant founded what would become the colonia's newspaper of record, La Prensa, as a four-page weekly; by 1918, a Spaniard, José Comprubí, started running the paper as a daily to meet the needs of the expanding colonia. Ten years later, La Prensa reported an average daily readership of fifteen thousand. The paper covered headline news from across Latin America as well as local news deemed relevant to its immigrant readership. The editorial sensibility of La Prensa was a subject of some dissension in the colonia among members of the working class, who regularly accused Comprubí of representing the interests only of the bourgeois sector of the community. The editors would occasionally make a show of running a front-page interview with a working-class leader or providing page-one coverage of a dockworkers' strike (many Spaniards and Puerto Ricans were maritime workers). Puerto Ricans in particular also complained, from time to time, about the paper's bias in favor of its Spanish readers.

In its early years, Spaniards dominated the colonia not only numerically but also culturally. While Puerto Ricans often referred to the United States, and New York City in particular, as "la metrópoli"—the center of political power over the island—Spain remained, to many, the "patria." Spanish origins conferred greater social status, both in and outside the colonia, and it was a common practice for Puerto Ricans to "pass" as Spanish when they could. Pedro Juan Labarthe, a Puerto Rican teacher at Xavier College in Chelsea, and later author of the first published memoir of a Puerto Rican migrant in New York, lamented that even other Spanish speakers in the colonia looked upon his compatriots with disdain and suggested that Puerto Ricans suffered from an "inferiority complex." Labarthe illustrated his point with a story about visiting an American barbershop with a Puerto Rican friend. When the barber asked Labarthe's friend—"a cultured, refined man, well-respected in our country"—if he was Puerto Rican, the friend replied that no, he was Spanish. Labarthe, "wounded," interjected, "I am Porto Rican." Upon leaving the barbershop, the friend explained, "It's that we have such a bad reputation here." Many migrants asserted that for people of other ethnicities in New York to refer to Puerto Ricans as "Spanish" was a term of "respect."

The Spanish-speaking colonias in East Harlem and Brooklyn were not only heterogeneous internally. In each borough, they also formed part of a larger mixed community of immigrants and second- and third-generation "ethnics." In the East Harlem barrio, Jews comprised the "old" residents, having settled in the blocks above 110th Street, east of Fifth Avenue, beginning in the late nineteenth century. Italians had begun to migrate north from southern Manhattan around 1910 and were well established in the neighborhood by the time Spaniards and Puerto Ricans began settling there in larger numbers after World War I. Some Puerto Ricans recalled conflict between ethnic groups. Lorenzo Homar, who arrived in East Harlem as a child in 1928, said that "there were fights with Italian-Americans and with the blacks, because [Puerto Ricans] were the new ones, they were the new immigrants." His father, he recalled, took a look around El Barrio and said, "'No, I'm not staying here.' He believed that it was pretty much a ghetto." So the family moved north and west, to the less crowded Jewish and Irish district of Washington Heights. Others remembered El Barrio in the early twenties as a peaceful place where neighbors of different nationalities got along well. "We didn't find so much discrimination at that time because we [Puerto Ricans] were only two families [in the building]," recalled Louise Delgado, who lived on the fringes of East Harlem when she migrated to New York with her family in 1923—although she did recall hostility from her Italian neighbors, both on the streets and at the dress factory where she worked, later in the thirties.

Some residents of Brooklyn also remembered less ethnic conflict in the early years of the twenties. Mercedes Díaz, who arrived in Brooklyn in 1923, remembered ethnic relations there in the twenties as Louise remembered them in Manhattan: "There was no racism because there were very few of us." But most of those who recounted halcyon days of early settlement also related memories that contradicted their rosier ones. Although Mercedes asserted an absence of racism in that era, she admitted that "there were fights, the Italians against the Puerto Ricans." Another early Brooklynite, Félix Loperena, said that his Irish neighbors were the most hostile to Puerto Ricans; Ramón Rodríguez concurred, postulating that "the Irish hated the Puerto Ricans because they envied their ability to come and go freely as citizens." A number of the people who recalled an atmosphere of ethnic conflict pointed to skin color as a factor. Loperena remembered problems with his Irish neighbors most acutely, but he also observed that "Italians treated trigueños worse than light-skinned Puerto Ricans." Juan Ramos, who first said that Puerto Ricans were treated fine because there were few of them, later added that Italians were very prejudiced toward "blacks" (meaning African Americans) and toward Puerto Ricans whom they perceived as black. Clemente Torres talked about a general attitude of racial discrimination among Jews and Italians: "In that time, it wasn't easy for Puerto Ricans to live together with these people.... When I arrived in this country [in 1925] people of my skin color ... [weren't] allowed in many places in that time."

A migrant's class identity shaped how he or she remembered social relations in the colonia in the early years. Within El Barrio, unskilled workers and their families lived in close proximity to shopkeepers and professionals, they shopped together at la marqueta, an open-air market that stretched beneath the Park Avenue railroad trestle, and they gathered at the Teatro Latino for Spanish-language movies. Although residents of both classes worked to organize mutual benefit societies and other associations to improve their "lot" in a crumbling district of the city, Bernardo Vega felt that the elite "always seemed to turn their backs on the working people." A larger proportion of the "working people" lived across the river, near downtown Brooklyn, close to factory jobs and to the Navy Yard, where many worked on the docks, but far from the shops and services of El Barrio, where they could find Spanish-speaking clerks and familiar products like plátanos and habichuelas (plantains and beans).

Some migrants later recalled fondly the smallness of this Brooklyn world, the intimacy of the few Puerto Rican families who resided there in the early 1920s, and the plentiful work; others, though, said they felt isolated and were acutely aware of the aspersions that many Manhattan Puerto Ricans cast on their less "cosmopolitan" counterparts in Brooklyn. Ernesto Sepúlveda was a member of Brooklyn's small Puerto Rican petty bourgeoisie who settled there in 1926 and lived next door to his friend Ramon Colón, Jesús Colón's cousin, on Lafayette Avenue, where he operated a small grocery store. Sepúlveda claimed in a 1974 interview that "at no time in the fifty years since I came here have I felt rejected or discriminated against because I was Puerto Rican." His working-class compatriots, on the other hand, described clashes with Jewish and Italian coworkers in the wire factory, the Campbell Soup factory, and National Biscuit Company—places where they might have struggled to find work in the first place. They steered clear of the Irish police, "who were like a gestapo for the Puerto Ricans"; they "couldn't cross Columbia Street" into the Italian district because "they would throw stones"; and relied regularly on the informal aid of the Brooklyn colonia's "Robin Hood," Carlos Tapia.


Excerpted from Puerto Rican Citizen by Lorrin Thomas Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents



Puerto Ricans, Citizenship, and Recognition

One New Citizens of New York

Community Organization and Political Culture in the Twenties

Two Confronting Race in the Metropole

Racial Ascription and Racial Discourse during the Depression

Three Pursuing the Promise of the New Deal

Relief and the Politics of Nationalism in the Thirties

Four How to Represent the Postwar Migration

The Liberal Establishment, the Puerto Rican Left, and the “Puerto Rican Problem”

Five How to Study the Postwar Migrant

Social Science, Puerto Ricans, and Social Problems

Six “Juan Q. Citizen,” Aspirantes, and Young Lords

Youth Activism in a New World


From Colonial Citizen to Nuyorican



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