Puerto Rican parade in New York (2006) / Sean Elliot
In 2018, the Puerto Rican population in the United States reached 5.8 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Meanwhile, the population in Puerto Rico dropped to about 2.8 million, a reduction of almost one million people compared to the population of 3.7 million in 2010. It is expected that the official results of the 2020 census will not be very different from the estimates of 2018.
Taken together, those statistics represent a very interesting demographic phenomenon. In 2003, the population of the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States surpassed the population of the Island. The demographic data also indicate that almost two thirds of Puerto Ricans are part of the diaspora and only one third live in Puerto Rico. That’s why many academics describe Puerto Ricans as a nation in diaspora.
This surprising demographic change is largely due to a notable increase in Boricua migration to the United States during the 1990s and the first two decades of the new millennium (2000 to 2020). Scholars of the Puerto Rican diaspora have referred to the current wave as the New Millennium Migration. (Acosta-Belén and Santiago 2018; Meléndez and Vargas-Ramos 2014).
The increased migratory flow of Puerto Ricans to the United States during those decades was caused by various events and socio-economic conditions that affected the population of the island and the United States. Among them: 1) The steady reduction of federal tax exemptions between 1996 and 2006, which led to an exodus of many U.S. industries on the island and a considerable increase in the unemployment rate; 2) The so-called Great Recession (2007 and 2008), which caused a reduction in economic activity that affected the global economy and, therefore, the United States, and in turn limited economic growth on the Island during this period; 3) In the case of Puerto Rico, its economic situation was also worsened by the fiscal crisis of 2014, sparked by the devaluation of bonds sold to investors, failure to make payments on this debt in subsequent years, and a long history of repeated budget deficits by various government agencies and administrations; 4) Finally, the devastating effects of Hurricanes Irma and María in 2017 and the many earthquakes that occurred on the Island during 2020. These natural disasters aggravated the economic crisis and destroyed much of the island’s infrastructure, as well as causing the deaths of more than 3,000 people and heavy losses to companies and small businesses, housing and the jobs of thousands of families. The considerable increase in the migratory flow to the United States has also left Puerto Rico with a high percentage of the population over 60 years of age, because the migrants tended to be young and that led to a reduction in fertility rates and births on the Island.
The growth of the Puerto Rican population in the United States between 1910 and 2018 is shown in figure 1. Since 1980, the U.S. Census has grouped Puerto Ricans under the category of Hispanics, a pan-ethnic denomination that was used beginning in the 1970s and was then officially adopted by the Census Bureau and other federal agencies. In 1990, the Census also began to use the term Latinos to collectively identify residents of Mexican, Puerto Rican and Cuban origin, and others from Spain and Spanish-speaking regions of the Caribbean, Central America and South America. The two terms are commonly used interchangeably to refer to this population. Census information estimates that the Latino/Hispanic population was about 60.6 million in 2019, or approximately 18.5% of the total U.S. population. Residents of Mexican origin are the majority of the Latino population (about 62% of the total), followed by Puerto Ricans, who constitute approximately 10%.
Illustration #1: Puerto Rican population in the United States, 1910 to 2018
Source: Edna Acosta-Belén y Carlos E. Santiago, Puerto Ricans in the United States a Contemporary Portrait (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2018), Table 4.3, 98; U.S. Census 1910-2015; U.S. Census, American Community Survey 2018.
Figure # 2 shows that in 2018 about 1.2 million Puerto Ricans lived in Florida, a state that recently surpassed the 1.1 million who live in the state of New York. From the beginning of the Puerto Rican presence in the United States in the second half of the 19th century until 2018, New York was the main place where island residents settled. However, since the latter part of the 20th century, the geographic dispersion of the Puerto Rican population to other states, cities and regions of the United States has increased gradually, and in some cases, significantly, to many new sites. About half a million Boricuas live in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In the states of Connecticut and Massachusetts, there are more than 300,000. The Puerto Rican presence is also notable in some cities in the states of Texas, California, and Illinois, states where the population exceeds 200,000.
Illustration #2: States with the largest concentrations of Puerto Ricans (in 1980 and 2018)
Source: U.S. Census, American Community Survey, 2018
The first Puerto Rican settlements: from 1860 to 1898
Puerto Rican migration is often thought of as mostly a phenomenon of the middle of the 20th century. It is true that the magnitude of the exodus of Puerto Ricans from the 1940s to the 1960s — a period known as the Great Migration — has not been totally surpassed, but the Puerto Rican presence in New York City and some other U.S. cities dates to the 19th century. This presence began before the Spanish-American War and the invasion of the Island in 1898, when Spain was forced to give up the islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico to the United States.
The reforms granted by the Spanish crown in 1815 to its colonies contributed to the expansion of trade relations between Puerto Rico and the United States and the surge in sugar production on the island from the 1820s on. Those relations only intensified during the course of the 19th century. During that time, the United States became the main market for exports of sugar and related products from the Island and, in turn, supplied many products.
Unlike most of the Spanish colonies in the Americas, which had become independent by the middle of the 1820s, Puerto Rico and Cuba were not able to free themselves from Spanish colonialism. The Spanish colonial authorities maintained an environment of political repression in the two Antillean islands, which limited freedom of expression and other civil rights. This situation led to the exile of many Antillean patriots who favored autonomy or separatism and lobbied for reforms in the colonial regime, greater autonomy for self-governance, or total separation of the islands from Spanish control. Many sympathizers or partisans from these sectors, most of whom also were in favor of freeing the enslaved population of African descent, were forced to leave Puerto Rico and flee to various European and U.S. cities. Félix Ojeda-Reyes (1992) has called the Puerto Rican patriots exiled during this period “freedom pilgrims.” At the same time, businessmen, professionals, students and other figures in the intellectual and political circles of the Island also traveled frequently to the United States during the 19th century. In that era, much of the local elite in Puerto Rico and other countries in the Americas saw the United States as the highest representative of democratic values, progress and modernity.
The first communities of Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Spaniards and other nationalities of Hispanic origin in U.S. cities during the 19th century and the early 20th century were called colonies. During those years, the Antillean and Hispanic presence was mostly in New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Tampa and Key West. Puerto Rico’s and Cuba’s political course began to take a new turn in 1868 with the insurrections of the Grito de Lares (September 23) and the Grito de Yara (October 10). The Spanish army quickly defeated the Puerto Rican insurgency, while in Cuba the uprising was the beginning of its first war for independence (1868 to1878). In the following years, one of the few concessions the Spanish government made to the colonies was freeing the enslaved population of African descent in 1873 in Puerto Rico and seven years later in Cuba, in 1880. The enslaved population was extremely important in the expansion of production and export of sugar to the United States during the second half of the 19th century and also provided much of the labor in the previous centuries when the Spanish conquest and colonization caused a dramatic reduction in the Taino population. The persecution of revolutionary separatists, the censorship and fines of newspapers that criticized the colonial regime and other forms of political repression put in place by the absolutist governors sent to Cuba and Puerto Rico during the 19th century contributed to the formation of an Antillean exile community and the development of Cuban and Puerto Rican nationalism beyond the islands, within U.S. society.
Puerto Rican and Cuban revolutionaries established organizations in exile to keep alive the struggle for liberation of the two islands from the Spanish colonial regime. One of the first was the Republican Society of Cuba and Puerto Rico, founded in New York in 1865, led by Puerto Rican abolitionist and separatist doctor José Francisco Basora (1832-c.1882). Basora, from Mayagüez, also participated in the founding of the separatist newspaper “La Voz de América” (1865-1867) in the New York City area. He was a friend and collaborator with Dr. Ramón Emeterio Betances (1827-1898) from Cabo Rojo, the most outstanding Puerto Rican separatist figure of the time, and abolitionist and revolutionary Segundo Ruiz Belvis (1829-1867) of Hormigueros. Betances and Ruiz Belvis were forced to leave Puerto Rico in 1867 and traveled to Santo Domingo, and later to New York, where along with Basora they founded the Revolutionary Committee of Puerto Rico. Another distinguished Puerto Rican who arrived to New York from Spain in 1869 to work for the cause was Eugenio María de Hostos (1839-1903), also from Mayagüez. Shortly after his arrival, Hostos joined the editorial team of the New York newspaper “La Revolución” (1869-1876) and began to use the periodical to express his ideas about a future Antillean federation of free countries, including Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. He also expressed his disagreement with the ideas of those separatists who sought the intervention of the United States in the revolutionary struggle against Spanish colonialism and the annexation of the islands to the United States. The idea of Antillean unity originated by Betances and shared by Hostos was reiterated by Betances from his exile in Paris, where he issued his famous “The Antilles for the Antilleans” statement, a warning to separatists of the danger of a U.S. intervention in the struggle against Spain and the possible annexation of its colonies.
One industry that became an important source of jobs for Cuban and Puerto Rican migrants to the United States beginning in the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century was tobacco. Many cigar factories established in the United States, especially in Key West, Ybor City, Tampa and New York during those years. The artisanal class of tobacco workers was a self-educated group, illustrated by the fact that in that era they employed readers who read to the workers the news of the day, as well as classic works of social and political thought and world literature. The readings were followed by animated discussions among the artisans about the content of the texts read aloud daily. The insurrections of Lares and Yara added to the large number of workers in this industry who supported the Antillean separatist movement with donations.
The political activism of the Antillean separatists, both the landowning class and the local professional class, along with the artisanal working class, accelerated in the 1880s with the arrival of Cuban patriot José Martí in New York City. After several years of exile from his Cuban homeland and traveling and staying in several countries in Europe and the Americas, Martí settled in New York in 1881 and became one of the leading spokespersons for the separatist, pro-independence movement for Cuba. He also supported pro-independence Puerto Ricans. During the next two decades, several Puerto Rican patriots converged on New York and worked together in the movement to put an end to Spanish colonialism in the Antilles. Among the most outstanding were Sotero Figueroa (1851-1923) and his wife, Inocencia Martínez de Figueroa (1866-1957), Francisco Gonzalo “Pachín” Marín (1863-1897), Lola Rodríguez de Tió (1843-1924) and her husband, journalist Bonocio Tió (1839-1905), and Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (1874-1938). Figueroa, Marín and Schomburg were members of the Puerto Rico artisan class. The first two were well known printers and journalists before exile. Marín, who was also a poet, was persecuted by Spanish authorities for publishing the liberal newspaper “El Postillón,” which, shortly after his arrival in the New York area, had a second short life as a separatist newspaper. Schomburg had worked as an apprentice in one of the printing shops in San Juan and had many artisan friends who helped him move to New York the same year. Poet Rodríguez de Tió and her husband, both part of the landowning and Puerto Rican intellectual classes, went into exile more than once, spending most of their years in Cuba, with stays in New York in 1892 and from 1895 to 1898.
The activities of the “freedom pilgrims” far from their homeland were extremely important in the development of Puerto Rican nationalism in places where this ideology was not subject to the despotic treatment that Spanish authorities applied on the Island. From his arrival in New York in 1889, Sotero Figueroa participated in the Antillean separatist movement. He established the America Press, which published the revolutionary newspaper “Patria” (1892-c.1898), founded by Martí (Meléndez 2019). Figueroa was the manager of the newspaper and author of many of its editorials, as well as publishing a series of historical essays about the Puerto Ricans’ struggle for independence. Along with Pachín Marín and others, Figueroa was also the founder of the separatist group Club Borinquen in 1892 and of the Puerto Rico Branch of the Cuban Revolutionary Party in 1895. His press also published the newspaper “Borinquen,” sponsored by the party in 1898 and edited by separatist and annexationist Roberto H. Todd (1862-1955). Schomburg served for several years as secretary of another separatist organization, the Club Dos Antillas (1892-1898). Between the 1900s and 1920s, Schomburg, inspired by his Caribbean African descent and intellectual and personal connections with the Afro-Caribbean and African-American community in New York, decided to compile documents on the history of the populations of African descent in various parts of the world, and he created a very valuable collection that was acquired in 1926 by one of the library branches in the city. In 1972, the collection was designated part of the research library system of the New York Public Library, when the Schomburg Center was established for research in black culture.
From exile, the revolutionary poems written by Lola Rodríguez de Tió inspired the separatist cause. Her memorable lines, “Cuba and Puerto Rico are/ two wings of the same bird/ they receive flowers or bullets/ in the same heart” reinforced the idea of Antillean unity in the struggle for freedom. Along with Inocencia Martínez de Figueroa and Aurora Fonts, wife of the outstanding Puerto Rican general and veteran of the Cuban wars of independence, Juan Rius Rivera (1848-1924), Rodríguez de Tió was co-founder of the Club Mercedes Varona and the Sisters of Rius Rivera Club in New York. These organizations of revolutionary women dedicated themselves to raising funds and sending clothing and medicine to combatants in the swamps of Cuba during the second war of independence, which began in 1895. This war ended with the invasion of Cuba and Puerto Rico in 1898 and the transfer to the United States of the Spanish colonies in the Antilles, as well as some locations in the Pacific Ocean — the island of Guam and the archipelago of the Philippines, known since its independence in 1946 as the Republic of the Philippines.
The U.S. invasion and the growth of diaspora communities (1898 to 1940)
The U.S. invasion and Puerto Rico’s new legal condition under the Foraker Act of 1900 as an unincorporated territory played an important role in the increased migration of Puerto Ricans to the new ruling country. From the beginning of the new colonial regime, the U.S. governors sent to the Island promoted the migration of agricultural workers abroad to try to alleviate the poverty that afflicted most of the population. The effects of Hurricane San Ciriaco in 1899 were disastrous for the agricultural sector and aggravated the unemployment and poor social and economic conditions. The use of migration as an “escape valve” to provide cheap labor to U.S. agricultural businesses and industries and to try to reduce the problems of unemployment and poverty in Puerto Rico was one of the initiatives of the new regime that became, over the long term, the common governmental policy and practice in later decades.
One of the first decisions by the new colonial administration was to promote managed migration of Boricuas hired to work on the sugar plantations of Hawaii in 1900 and 1901. The Hawaiian Islands had been annexed by the United States in 1898 after an insurrection that overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy established by its indigenous population. The insurrection was instigated in part by the strategic interests of the United States in maintaining a naval base and a port in the Pacific near Asia and to protect the sugar companies established there. Its annexation was also a continuation of a long history and policy of U.S. territorial and military expansionism that began with the conquest of territories belonging to indigenous communities with the establishment of the 13 British colonies in North America in 1607 and continued after the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the birth of the new nation (1789). The wars against the indigenous nations continued intermittently until 1924 and various tribes were confined to numerous reservations from the middle of the 19th century to the early 20th century. Territorial expansion continued during the Mexican-American War (1846 to 1848) with the annexation of territories in the southwest that were part of the Mexican nation. It continued again, half a century later, at the end of the Spanish-American War with the transfer of the overseas Spanish colonies in the Antilles and the Pacific to the United States in 1898.
Between 1900 and 1901, a group of 114 Puerto Ricans, many accompanied by their families, were transferred by ship from the port of New Orleans and from there by train to San Francisco, where they took another ship to Hawaii. Abandoning the long voyage, a number of Puerto Ricans decided to stay in New Orleans or San Francisco and settled in those cities at the beginning of the 20th century. The Puerto Rican Club of San Francisco, founded in 1912, is one of the few signs of the Puerto Rican presence in this city during those years. The migrations to Hawaii lasted for a little more than a year and included more than 5,000 people, although almost two decades later the practice of bringing workers to the islands continued for a short period of time. In 2018, the federal census estimated that the population of Puerto Rican descent in Hawaii was about 48,000 residents. Various organizations were created on the islands during the 20th century to document and focus on the Puerto Rican presence. One of them is the Puerto Rican Heritage Society of Hawaii, established in 1983 by the late historian of Puerto Rican-Hawaiian descent, Blase Camacho Souza.
The U.S regime in Puerto Rico also encouraged Puerto Rican workers to move to various cities in the United States to work mainly in agriculture, manufacturing and service industries. This was an efficient way to provide a source of labor at low cost to the United States economy, which was in an expansion phase at the time. Both men and women were recruited to work, mostly in jobs with low or moderate pay. Puerto Rican workers were also hired to work on plantations and in sugar mills controlled by absentee U.S. interests in Cuba and the Dominican Republic during the early decades of the new regime. Others were hired to work in Mexico and Ecuador. One factor that contributed greatly to the migration in the early 20th century was the deterioration of the trade economy of the Spanish regime and the production of coffee, which was replaced, shortly after the U.S. occupation, by an agrarian capitalist economy dominated by sugar production and the purchase or lease of huge expanses of land by U.S. corporations and a small number of wealthy local landowners and sugar mill owners. The tobacco industry was largely controlled by U.S. corporations at that time. Meanwhile, the reduction in the production of various local sugar and coffee estates caused a serious increase in unemployment among the rural Puerto Rican population and forced many local landowners into bankruptcy or selling their land.
The Jones Act of 1917, through which Congress declared U.S. citizenship for Puerto Ricans, had a notable impact on the increase in migration. Most of the emigrants from the Island in those years settled in New York in Brooklyn and Chelsea in Lower Manhattan, as well as east of Harlem, which came to be known as El Barrio or Spanish Harlem. This era of the development of the New York Puerto Rican community, during the early 20th century, is known as the migration of the pioneers and has been documented in the “Memoirs of Bernardo Vega” (1977), a posthumous publication based on an edited version of a manuscript by a Puerto Rican tobacco worker from Cayey who emigrated to New York in 1916. For two years, Vega was also the owner and editor of the workers’ newspaper “Gráfico” (1926-1931), another valuable source of information about the conditions faced by Puerto Rican migrants during that era. The history of the community in New York has also been documented in the book “From Colonia to Community: The History of Puerto Ricans in New York City” by Virginia Sánchez Korrol (1994).
Another Puerto Rican pioneer from Cayey was Jesús Colón. In his home town he was raised among the cigar factories and the artisanal tobacco culture. Colón arrived in New York in 1918 and recorded his experiences as a working-class immigrant in search of a job. After doing several manual jobs, he decided to graduate from high school and take some college classes. In the following years, he wrote numerous articles published in the working-class newspaper “Justicia” in Puerto Rico and in the New York weekly “Gráfico” during the 1920s and the workers’ newspaper “The Daily Worker” (years later, “The Worker” and “The Daily World”) between 1955 and 1968. He also contributed to various other progressive publications in Spanish and English in New York City. Colón also published a book of stories, “A Puerto Rican in New York and Other Sketches” (1961). In it he collected numerous anecdotes and tales about his experiences as a Puerto Rican mulatto of humble origin, trying to survive in a society of racism and segregation. He posthumously published the memoirs of his brother, Joaquín Colón (1889-1964), who lived in New York from 1917 to 1964. His book, “Puerto Rican Pioneers in New York, 1919-1947” (2002), confirmed the sense of solidarity and struggle shared by many of the migrants who arrived in New York during the early 20th century. Most of them were tobacco workers from rural or semi-urban areas, along with a much smaller group of professionals. It also provides valuable information about the various organizations created to defend civil rights of the Puerto Rican and Hispanic community and lobby for better social, economic and educational conditions. During the Great Depression (1929 to 1933), the growth rate of the Puerto Rican migration declined into the 1930s and 1940s, but it accelerated again in 1950 (Figure # 1).
In 1917, the purchase of the Virgin Islands from Denmark by the United States allowed a Puerto Rican migration to the neighboring island of Saint Croix to work in the farms and ranches. The migration between Vieques and Saint Croix increased in later decades. The biggest exodus occurred in the early 1940s when the United States expropriated almost two thirds of the island of Vieques to establish a Navy training base, forcing thousands of Vieques residents to look for jobs in the Saint Croix sugar industry. The sugar industry in Puerto Rico was in decay during the industrialization on the Island in the middle of the 20th century. In 2000, a total of 7,357 Puerto Ricans lived in Saint Croix. These residents often identify as Puerto Crucians.
The Great Migration: The 1940s to the 1960s
While Puerto Rican society was transformed and modernized in the 1950s, as a result of the industrialization program known as Operation Bootstrap, industrial development also caused unemployment and deterioration of the agricultural economy and accelerated the mass migration to the United States. This pattern has continued until today. The new industries established in Puerto Rico by U.S. investors during this era were not sufficient to meet the employment needs caused by the rapid decline of the agricultural sector. It was also argued that Puerto Rico was an overpopulated island with few natural resources. These factors contributed to the island government unofficially encouraging migration to the United States to reduce unemployment and poverty. At the same time, the migration of Boricua workers increased the labor supply available to support various sectors of the U.S. economy.
The so-called Great Migration that was unleashed during the years after World War II, which ended in 1945, had the greatest impact on New York City, but it also led to a noticeable increase in the Puerto Rican population in Chicago, Philadelphia, Newark and other parts of New Jersey, and in the Northeast and Midwest of the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. To help migrants transition and adapt to U.S. society, the government of Puerto Rico created the Office of Migration in 1948, the beginning of what would soon become the Division of Migration, which established offices in San Juan, New York, Chicago, and other cities and region where many of the workers were arriving from the island. The Division of Migration offered information about jobs, housing and social services, as well as sponsoring cultural projects and English classes for workers who could not communicate in the language. The migration was also facilitated by air transportation, which came to Puerto Rico in 1950. The introduction of jet aircraft in the 1960s shortened the long flights to the United States. The government even negotiated lower airline fares to facilitate the movement to the United States. Ever since, this air bridge has facilitated the continuous movement of Puerto Ricans, as well as the maintenance of close ties with their country of origin. The metaphor of “the aerial bus” is today part of our vernacular to describe the coming and going of the population between Puerto Rico and the United States. The metaphor refers to the title of a story by Puerto Rican writer Luis Rafael Sánchez, published in 1983 and later made into a movie in 1993.
The socio-economic conditions of the Puerto Rican diaspora were not good during most of the 20th century. Although many Puerto Ricans were able to find jobs and establish themselves in New York and other cities during the years of the Great Migration and send money back to relatives on the Island, a considerable part of this population faced high levels of poverty, unemployment and underemployment. They also suffered from low education levels, high rates of school dropouts, poor housing conditions, an increased number of low-income families led by single women and a general environment of limited opportunities due in large part to racial and ethnic prejudices in U.S. society. Another factor that contributed to high levels of poverty was the decline in manufacturing in New York City and its fiscal crisis during the 1970s. For many years, the industrial sector was a very important source of jobs for the Puerto Rican population, in particular for women working in the clothing industry. In general, manufacturing businesses moved production to other countries where labor was less expensive than in the United States. Due to the massive reduction in employment in a variety of factories and industrial sectors, Puerto Ricans began to move from New York to other states and regions in the following decades.
One of the best known cultural celebrations started by the Puerto Rican population in the New York City area has been the Puerto Rican Parade (since 1996, National Puerto Rican Parade), begun in 1959 to show the growth and the spirit and community pride of this population. Since then, the parade has promoted various Puerto Rican institutions and organizations, their social, economic and cultural presence in New York City, and various aspects of the historical legacy forged by the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States. In the new millennium, this celebration has attracted multitudes of more than a million people of various races and cultures who congregate along the length of the traditional route on Fifth Avenue between 42nd and 49th streets or watch the parade on television. Representatives of the Island government and various municipalities annually attend the celebration. Puerto Rican communities from other cities in the United States have organized their own parades, festivals or traditional Puerto Rican cultural celebrations on holidays (for example, Three Kings Day, San Sebastián Festival, San Juan Day).
New migratory patterns and the New Millennium Migration (1990 to 2020)
The Puerto Rican migration has been characterized by increasing geographic dispersion since the 1990s, a trend that continues into the 2020s. The percentage of the population that lives in New York has declined considerably. The economic crisis in New York City in the 1970s was a very important factor in the decision of many Puerto Ricans and also led to a return migration to the Island during those years. Many Puerto Rican families that returned to Puerto Rico during this period settled in the metropolitan area. However, the population of the diaspora, which had reached 1.4 million in 1970, grew to a little more than 2 million by 1980. The population grew to 2.6 million in 1990 and, since then, has grown even faster, with the population of the diaspora doubling between 1990 and 2015, when it reached 5.3 million. Since then, Census estimates indicate an increase to about 5.8 million in 2018 (Figure #1). Figure # 2 shows that in 2018 about 1.2 million Puerto Ricans lived in Florida. This state recently surpassed the 1.1 million residents in New York. Since the beginning of the Boricua presence in the United States during the second half of the 19th century until the year 2018, New York was the main destination for Boricua migrants. However, since 1990, the geographic spread of the Puerto Rican population to other states, cities and regions has increased gradually and, in some years, has been significant in a broader range of new and old sites of settlement. In 2018, about half a million (500,000) of this population resided in either the state of Pennsylvania or New Jersey. In the states of Connecticut and Massachusetts, there are about 300,000 residents. There are notable populations of Puerto Ricans in some cities in Texas, California, and Illinois, states in which the population exceeds 200,000 residents. In Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia, there are more than 100,000 residents.
The population of the diaspora has faced many struggles for survival and well being and the development of its various communities, especially during the Civil Rights Movement, which acquired greater visibility in U.S. society during the 1960s and 1970s. In general, that movement is associated with the African-American population, which in that era outnumbered the population of other ethnic and racial minorities. In the history of the diaspora, that period is known as the Puerto Rican Movement, for the introduction to a collection of essays, “The Puerto Rican Movement: Voices of the Diaspora” (1998), edited by academic scholars Andrés Torres and José E. Velázquez. Puerto Rican activism during that period contributed to the creation of various organizations that made a name for themselves in community movements. Among them were ASPIRA, an institution that promotes educational development among Puerto Rican youth, founded in 1961 by community leader Antonia Pantoja, and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (PRLDEF), an organization established in 1972 that changed its name to the LatinoJustice PRLDEF in 2008. PRLDEF was responsible for taking several cases to court to protect the rights and well being of Puerto Ricans and other Latinos in New York, especially immigrants. In 1974, both organizations won a case that forced the School Board of New York to offer bilingual education programs for children of immigrants with limited command of English.
One of the most politicized and radical organizations during the Puerto Rican Movement was the Young Lords, a group that pressured city governments in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and other locations to pay more attention to the public health of the communities and their housing problems and to provide better access to health services. They also lobbied for curriculum reforms in the public schools, improvements to school cafeteria services, increased teaching personnel, and appointments of Puerto Ricans as school administrators. The organization began in Chicago in 1969 when a group of young Puerto Ricans was inspired by members of the African-American group the Black Panthers to participate in the Civil Rights movement and to work for the preservation and well being of their communities, as well as fighting racism and other inequality. The organization focused its efforts on increasing awareness among the population of these communities about the roots and purposes of these movements. The New York chapter also participated in campaigns in favor of independence for Puerto Rico and the liberation of political prisoners, most of them nationalists imprisoned in federal prisons since the 1950s. For a short time, the Young Lords established a chapter in Puerto Rico and also denounced the colonial condition of the Island, the military draft and the Vietnam War.
In general, the socio-economic and educational conditions of the Puerto Rican population have improved since the 1990s and there are clear indications of the growth of a middle class among residents of the diaspora. The majority of this population today works in service, transportation and retail sectors, as well as professional occupations. In 1970, only about 2% of the population had completed a university or advanced degree. This number rose to about 5.6% in 1980 and 10% in 1990. Since then, the percentage has continued to increase, reaching almost 19% in 2015.
The labor participation rate of the diaspora was 61.9% in 2015, not much different from the percentage of the total U.S. population (63%). Average household income rose from $12,631 in 1980 to $57,737 in 2015; that is still below the average income for the total population ($78,369), although it is comparable to the family income for the Latino/Hispanic population ($59,859) and a little greater than the African-American population ($51,477).
The improvement of some of these conditions is due in part to the activism of the citizens of the diaspora in defense of their rights and against injustices that damaged the well being and prosperity of their communities. From the beginning of their arrival to the United States, Puerto Ricans began to create their own organizations to encourage community development, advance their interests and achieve greater equality of opportunity, as well as encouraging political participation and representation of its residents. They also created a variety of organizations to promote their culture, their historical legacy, social relations and recreation. In general, socio-economic and educational progress that occurred between the 1980s and 2015 had its ups and downs, and was not uniform among the Puerto Rican population living in different cities or states. The effects of the pandemic of 2020 and 2021 on the poverty rates of the various communities of the diaspora still cannot be predicted with certainty. Nor do we know if the high levels of migration to the United States will continue during 2021 and following years or if there will be a possible increase in the return migration to the Island. What is clear is that the demographic data show there are still notable inequalities in the rates of income, employment and unemployment, and educational levels among the white U.S. population and the Puerto Rican population and other ethnic and racial groups collectively described as people of color.
Meanwhile, the population increase in the states of Florida, Connecticut and Massachusetts, and the proportion of Puerto Ricans in other states and certain cities in those states, has been obvious from the 1990s through 2020. In 2018, Census estimates indicate that Puerto Ricans and Dominicans represent more than half of the total of the various Latino and Hispanic populations (a total of 2.5 million) in New York City. The Puerto Rican and Dominican population in the New York area is approximately 700,000 people (or 29% of the total) for each of these two groups. Other cities have seen a surprising increase in their Puerto Rican populations. For example, almost 37% of the population of Hartford County in Connecticut is of Puerto Rican origin. Almost 29% of the Puerto Rican population of Florida in 2018 lived in Orange and Osceola Counties in central Florida, which include the cities of Orlando and Kissimmee, respectively. This population growth also has been notable since the 1990s. Since then, ten states have had an obvious increase in their Puerto Rican populations. Puerto Ricans are located in Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Texas, Ohio, Georgia, Virginia, and North Carolina (Figure # 2).
Another important aspect of the migratory patterns among Puerto Ricans is the continual circular migration flow, or the “revolving door” that consists of a constant coming and going between the Island and the United States. The references to the “aerial bus” or the notion of a “commuter nation” are frequently used to characterize Puerto Rican migration. The existence of these migratory patterns provides continuity and strengthens the constant presence of a first generation of migrants from the Island who share the diverse experiences of the generations of people of Puerto Rican descent who are born or raised in the United States.
Puerto Rican studies in U.S. universities
In U.S. academic circles, the rise of Puerto Rican studies programs during the 1970s in colleges and university branches affiliated with the city and state of New York (City University of New York, CUNY; State University of New York SUNY), and the Rutgers University system in New Jersey, was part of the achievements of the Puerto Rican Movement and were an indispensable central force in promoting teaching and research about the diaspora and the Puerto Rican nation. Half a century after the Puerto Rican studies programs and departments arose, mostly in the 1970s, many of them still remain in 2021. In 1994, the University of Connecticut at Storrs also established a Puerto Rican and Latino Studies Institute. Some of these programs have merged or have been incorporated into other academic units, mainly programs, departments and centers of Latino, Latin America, Caribbean or Ethnic Studies.
The establishment of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies in the 1973-74 academic year at Hunter College, CUNY, has been extremely important in the creation of a library and historical archives that document the Puerto Rican migration to the New York area and other U.S. cities. The Center has become the main resource for researchers on the diaspora in the United States, Puerto Rico and other countries. It also sponsors numerous educational and cultural products aimed at the Boricua community and other publics.
A little more than two decades since the rise of Puerto Rican studies as a field of academic research focused on the presence and experiences of the Puerto Rican population in the United States and the formation of the diaspora, the founding of the Puerto Rican Studies Association (PRSA) in 1992 created a new space for the discussion and dissemination of new academic research, the development of networks for cooperation among academics in the diaspora and on the Island, and for other professionals and activists dedicated to community or individual work in forming public policy, where they could share their various experiences with their peers, students and the public in general.
The educational struggles of the Puerto Rican population also contributed to the establishment of institutions of higher education in New York City. Since its founding in 1968, Hostos Community College, affiliated with the CUNY system and located in the South Bronx, has been indispensable as an entry into higher education for Puerto Rican, Dominican and other nationalities of students interested in completing associate degrees in two years in a variety of occupations or careers, or who want to continue their university studies in the future and complete more advanced degrees at other institutions. In 1972, Puerto Rican community leaders and academics also contributed to the founding of Boricua College, a private entity that offered associate, bachelor and master’s degrees and promoted bilingual university education at its campuses in Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn
The cultural identities of the diaspora
According to the Census in 2018, 69% of all Puerto Ricans in the diaspora were born in the United States. This statistic shows that several generations of Puerto Ricans live alongside recent arrivals from Puerto Rico. The generations born and raised in the north have found a variety of ways to construct, define, affirm and navigate their sense of Puerto Rican identity and their ties to that identity or their level of assimilation into the Anglo culture or other cultures in the social, ethnic and racial environments. The affirmation of their Puerto Ricanness, along with the celebration of the cultural hybridity of the diaspora, has also been influenced by the experiences of a marginalized working class and a migrant ethnic minority population that has had to face socio-economic inequalities and segregation and racial discrimination. Even Puerto Ricans from the most privileged classes are not exempt from racial prejudices, unequal treatment, and social, economic and political exclusion aimed at non-white or non-Anglo populations, as well as other races, racial mixtures and cultures. In the new millennium, activism by individuals and groups that promote an ideology of white supremacy has increased, a situation that has exacerbated violence and racial tensions and conflicts among the population. Some of these groups were responsible for the so-called “Capitol insurrection” that invaded the hallways of the House of Representatives and the Senate of the United States on January 6, 2021, trying to prevent the final certification of the presidential election of 2020. The violent uprising caused deaths in the Capitol. Increased acts of violence in the United States toward people of color and various ethnic and racial groups has put in doubt the future of the democratic values and principles historically promulgated by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and underlines the importance of finding ways to restore or renew them.
Although there remains a strong sense of Puerto Rican nationality among members of the diaspora, these individuals often self-identify or are identified as residents of a state or region (for example, “Nuyoricans,” “Orlandoricans”) or part of the Puerto Rican diaspora (“Diasporicans”); or simply as Boricuas or Puerto Ricans. The term Neo-Ricans was also used for a time in the 1970s. In general, the artistic and literary production of our diaspora communities has provided several treatments of the topic of identities of the Puerto Rican diaspora, its connections with the Island, and its contact with and relationship to the U.S. society. The co-existence of English and Spanish, along with the mix of both languages (Spanglish) and the code switching of alternating between the languages by bilingual residents, along with the mixture of the Puerto Rican and the Anglo, plus influences of the African-American culture and contact with other cultures within and beyond their communities, has created a new cultural and linguistic hybrid space to navigate between cultures, as well as new forms of what it means to be Puerto Rican or to have a sense of Puerto Ricanness. These definitions and self-identifications are not necessarily the same as those shared by the Puerto Rican population on the Island.
The United States is often defined as “a nation of immigrants” and, therefore, is “a multi-racial nation.” There is no question that over the course of two and a half centuries of its history as a nation, people of various nationalities and races have contributed to and continue to contribute with their work, effort, and creativity to U.S. society. From the beginning of the Puerto Rican presence and its participation in the United States in the middle of the 19th century, this population has contributed to the development of the nation and its communities. It has forged, as well, its own historical and cultural legacy. From the 1970s on, researchers into the diaspora in the United States and the Island, as well as members of the Boricua communities in the United States, have participated in the process of uncovering, rescuing, studying and making known this legacy. A large segment of the population of the diaspora has maintained its links to the Island, contributing significantly to its economic, political and cultural development while reaffirming their sense of Puerto Ricanness within the context of U.S. society
Acosta-Belén, Edna y Carlos E. Santiago. “Puerto Ricans in the United States: A Contemporary Portrait”. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2018.
Meléndez, Edwin y Carlos Vargas-Ramos. “Puerto Ricans at the Dawn of the New Millennium”. New York: Center for Puerto Rican Studies, 2014.
Meléndez, Edgardo. “PATRIA: Puerto Rican Revolutionary Exiles in Late Nineteenth Century New York”. New York: Centro Press, 2020.
Ojeda-Reyes, Félix. “Peregrinos de la libertad”. San Juan: Instituto de Estudios del Caribe,UPR, 1992.
Sánchez Korrol, Virginia. “From Colonia to Community: The History of Puerto Rican in New York City”. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
Torres, Andrés y José E. Velázquez, editores. “The Puerto Rican Movement: Voices of the Diaspora”. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998. United States Census Bureau. www.census.gov/data.html).
Author: Edna Acosta-Belén
Published: September 11, 2014
Updated by author: February 15, 2021
Revision: Dr. Lizette Cabrera Salcedo, February 17, 2021