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Puerto Rican population gains political strength


NEW YORK - Just 7 years old when her family left, Nelida Perez doesn't have memories of Puerto Rico so much as snapshots - the river near their one-room home, the red dresses she and her sisters wore to the airport, someone getting locked in the bathroom on the plane they took to New York.

Clearer in her memory is the long, narrow railroad apartment they all shared in Brooklyn, being pulled away from her mother for the first time to sit in a classroom taught in a strange language, the different-looking and sounding children in their neighborhood.

The eight members of the Perez family - father Carlos, mother Milagros, and their six children - were among the hundreds of thousands who moved from Puerto Rico to the United States in the late 1940s and 1950s.

This migration of mostly rural poor laborers and their families, encouraged to leave by island politicians focusing on industrialization and welcomed by mainland businesses eager for cheap labor, would reshape both places - and change the Puerto Rican people irrevocably.

8 million citizens

The movement back and forth continues to the present. Today, the 8 million U.S. citizens who identify themselves as Puerto Ricans are divided almost evenly between the island and the mainland, where communities can be found up and down the East Coast and out to the Midwest.

For a half-century, they have battled discrimination in housing, education and hiring to grow in number and influence on the mainstream United States.

The contribution of Puerto Rican workers, managers and business owners to the U.S. economy during the last half-century measures in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

Artists from Tito Puente to Jennifer Lopez and athletes from Roberto Clemente to Robbie Alomar are only some of the most celebrated figures in a vanguard that also includes writers, painters and intellectuals who have broadened the cultural life of the mainland.

There are now three Puerto Rican members of Congress in addition to the island's nonvoting delegate, and non-Latino politicians with large Puerto Rican constituencies have increasingly advocated island causes.

As they grow more numerous and influential on the mainland, migrants and their descendants are challenging definitions of just who is a Puerto Rican.

"It's an incredibly complex community," says Felix V. Matos Rodriguez, director of the Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos at Hunter College in New York. "You have third-generation Puerto Ricans in the United States whose connection to the island is minimal, but who are very much Puerto Rican in the way they understand themselves and conduct their daily lives. You have Puerto Ricans on the island who have never migrated, and are never going to migrate. You have to make room for the complexity of all of these different experiences within the umbrella of Puerto Ricanness."

When, after World War II, island and mainland officials collaborated quietly on plans to lure laborers from rural Puerto Rico to urban New York, Carlos Perez Gonzalez would have been the sort of worker they had in mind.

Encouraging migration

A World War II veteran with an eighth-grade education, he worked seasonally as a sugarcane-cutter in Barrio Bhomamey outside the western town of San Sebastian while his wife, Milagros Martinez Jimenez, took in embroidery piecework. They lived with their five children - a sixth had died in infancy - in a wooden, two-bedroom, zinc-roofed dwelling with no water or electricity, and grew fruits and vegetables and raised chickens to survive.

Milagros was pregnant with another child when Perez left for New York in late 1952. After the baby was born in early 1953, Milagros brought the rest of the family north.

More than 550,000 Puerto Ricans, fully a quarter of the island's population, migrated to the mainland from 1947 to 1960. The Puerto Rican government set up an office in New York to match workers with farm and factory jobs on the mainland.

"Of course, politically, they couldn't overtly say they were pushing people away," Matos says. "But the New York office became a sophisticated operation to encourage and manage migration."

As he showed them into the railroad apartment they would share in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, Perez gave his children a little speech.

"'You are now in the United States of America, of which we are part, and you are to speak English,'" his oldest daughter, Teodula, remembers. "'I want to hear English.'"

"Everything was so fascinating," says Teodula Vazquez, who was about to turn 11. "I was excited, because my dad was so excited for us."

Perez moved from job to job, working in an electroplating shop, a bread factory, a box factory. In between jobs and on weekends, he sold snacks from a cart, drove a hot dog truck, tried to pick up fares as a gypsy cab driver.

"We were always working, improving ourselves little by little," Milagros remembers. "It was a struggle."

The family grew to nine children, raised in a traditional Puerto Rican home, with island food and Spanish music and rules that kept the girls from dating. All succeeded in school; seven would graduate from college, and several would earn advanced degrees. Among them, there are a psychologist, a social worker, a pair of high school counselors, a historical archivist, a nurse and a police officer.


Their success is hardly unusual, but it is well above average. A half-century after Puerto Ricans first arrived on the mainland in large numbers, they continue to face discrimination in housing and hiring. They remain less likely to be educated and more likely to be poor than the population as a whole.

Vidal Perez, a licensed clinical social worker at Brown University who works to promote equity in and access to schools, says among professionals a subtle discrimination still is pervasive.

"When you're successful, somehow you got a break - when in fact you had to work twice as hard," he says. "You say something in a meeting, and people ignore you, but when a white colleague says the same thing later, people stand up and applaud. Sometimes you feel like you're not even in the same room."

In 1982, Carlos and Milgaros went home to Puerto Rico. Having benefited from the first great movement of Puerto Ricans to the United States, the mass migration of the late 1940s and 1950s, they joined the second, the return migration of the 1970s and '80s.

As movement between the island and the mainland continued back and forth, academics began talking about circular migration, and calling Puerto Rico a nation of commuters.

"The crucial fact," the political analyst Juan Manuel Garcma Passalacqua wrote in 1985, "is that every day, 5,000 of them are literally up in the air, coming and going to and from Puerto Rico and the United States."

The phenomenon led to debate over whether their ability as U.S. citizens to travel back and forth between island and mainland had hurt Puerto Ricans by keeping them from establishing roots in any one place.

Findings of study

At least one recent study of circular migrants appears to confound that theory.

"People who had gone back and forth between the island and the mainland actually were more skilled in general, better educated, more likely to be bilingual, and with regard to social and economic connections, more likely to have relatives and friends in both places," says Jorge Duany, an anthropologist at the University of Puerto Rico who worked on the 1998 report. "That certainly raises a number of questions about the impact of circular migration, which until recently was considered to be one of the major causes of Puerto Rican problems like poverty and unemployment."

"This sort of finding is something that we have been uncovering in studies of circular migration elsewhere for some time," says study director Douglas Massey, chairman of the sociology department at the University of Pennsylvania. "Circular migrations result in a number of benefits both to the sending communities and individuals."

Massey, who has studied the movement of peoples throughout the Americas, says migration from nearby countries such as Mexico tends to be more circular than that from Puerto Rico because many of the migrants are undocumented aliens with no legal right to remain in the United States.

Nevertheless, he says, circular migration has been shown to benefit both the sending communities and the migrants themselves.

"We do find increases in the welfare of households," Massey says. "People go out, flows of money come back. The most immediate effect of return flow of money is to increase the wealth of the households that are left behind.

"For people with experience in the United States, frequently that experience can be turned to positive benefits. If they have learned to speak English, they can get a job in the hotel sector. Many migrants actually save up money to start a business."

Using money he had saved in the United States, Carlos Pirez bought land near his old home in San Sebastian and grew coffee, bananas and other food. He continued to farm the land until he fell ill in the mid-1990s. He died in 1998; Milagros has remained on the island.

Their children have stayed on the mainland.

Obdulia Perez Gonzalez fought to become the first Latino high school counselor in Perth Amboy, N.J., a community with a large and growing Puerto Rican population. In 30 years at Perth Amboy High School, she has made an effort to steer young Latinos to college.

"It doesn't happen automatically for us," she says. "Our people are often not schooled. They don't know those ropes. I'm there to make sure the kids take the algebra, they take the geometry. I try to get them to begin to think seriously about the course of their life, and how what they do now is related to what they do later."

Other challenges

For those who are successful, there are other challenges. Going to public school in Perth Amboy, Obdulia's daughter Marisol would ask her father to drop her off two blocks from the door, so the other Puerto Rican students wouldn't see his Mercedes. Later, at the private Rutgers Preparatory School, one classmate warned others not to mess with Marisol, saying she carried a knife and was in a gang.

"I was caught between two different worlds," says Gonzalez, now 29 and a special educator working with Latino children. "An upper-middle-class world that didn't really include Latinos, and a Latino world that was in the lower economic status.

"People would say things like, 'Poor little rich girl, your parents are trying to be white.'

"Why do we as Puerto Ricans have to be poor to be accepted?"

In the United States today there are many who have never lived on the island and who speak little Spanish, but who identify with the flag, the food, the music and the traditions of their ancestral homeland as proud Puerto Ricans. The effects of the emergence of these "Nuyoricans" on the community as a whole remain unclear.

"People do make the distinction between being island-born as opposed to mainland-born," says Duany. "The two groups have some differences. But they clearly talk among themselves. Still they marry each other, and they hang around and they dance salsa and put together parades and so forth."

For many, the bonds remain strong. When he started at Tulane Law School in New Orleans several years ago, Daniel Gonzalez was asked by a Puerto Rican classmate where he was from. Obdulia's son, born in Perth Amboy, told his new friend he was from San Sebastian.

"I look back at what's come before me, and it's like a legitimate foundation," Gonzalez says. "What my grandfather accomplished in coming here, and every one of his kids is educated. Nine kids who kind of lived the dream my grandfather intended. Being an offshoot of that, I kind of have no choice but to make it."

Matthew Hay Brown is a reporter for the Allentown Morning Call, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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