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Back And Forth: A Puerto Rican Right

Ease of travel encourages close ties to the island

By Edgar Sandoval

July 21, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE MORNING CALL. All rights reserved.

For the price of an airline ticket, Puerto Ricans can do what other newly arrived Latinos cannot: visit their homeland without checking in with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"When I am here for a while, I feel the need to go back to the island," said Raul Feliciano, 72, who left Puerto Rico 25 years ago and now resides in Bethlehem. "It’s like the island is my drug and I need it."

Feliciano doesn’t know if he would have left Puerto Rico if he didn’t have the freedom to travel back and forth. "My first choice to live is in Puerto Rico," he said. "I live here now, but at least I can go back as many times as I want."

Feliciano has traveled back and forth as many as five times in a year. "I know I am lucky," he said.

Greater mobility is an upside to Puerto Ricans obtaining U.S. citizenship from President Woodrow Wilson in 1917.

"It is easier for them to keep close ties to their island," noted Ana Sainz de la Pena of Allentown, coordinator of bilingual programs at the state Education Department.

Puerto Ricans travel from the island to the Lehigh Valley area and back to visit family and take vacations, but also to pursue better jobs, education and social services.

Feliciano left San Juan when he was 47, after trying to find more help for his daughter Lydia, who is blind and mentally retarded. In Puerto Rico, he found agencies that helped her with her blindness or mental retardation but not with both, he said.

A friend told him that schools on the mainland offered special education services for students like Lydia. She continues to be served by a social service agency, where she interacts with others with similar needs.

Francisco Franceschi, 63, took advantage of the ease of travel between the Lehigh Valley and the island for his children’s sake. Franceschi and his family came to Allentown when he was transferred here by the Methodist Church to serve a growing Latino population.

"I told them that we were borrowed here in the United States," he said. "We really belonged in Puerto Rico." The family traveled to the island in summers and on winter break from school.

"It was hard for me and my family to leave everything behind," Franceschi said. "I felt as if my children were missing out on their culture, so we traveled when we could."

His children are now in their 30s. Three live in the United States; one never left Puerto Rico.

"Today, all my children have an appreciation for where they came from," he said. "Most of them live here but go back when they can to recapture their culture, to see where they came from."

Ernesto Colon, a long-time Bethlehem resident who now lives in Patillas, Puerto Rico, sees the advantages to ease of travel from the perspective of an islander. He visits his children and grandchildren in the Lehigh Valley when he can save the money for a plane ticket.

"I was born under the Puerto Rican and the American flag," he said. "I am as American as the next Americano."

But the mobility afforded Puerto Ricans also has downsides, and in certain circumstances can create disadvantages for individuals and the community.

Educators point to a problem in area schools. Less affluent parents going to Puerto Rico – sometimes for necessities such as caring for an ailing parent or because a job here did not work out – might take their school-age children with them, interrupting their school year. Others come from the island during the year and enroll their children in an unfamiliar and challenging situation.

The result, area school officials say, is that such children tend to lag behind in classes.

Educators say that, when students travel so much, they aren’t able to learn how to write and read proficiently in either Spanish or English. They might speak both languages very well, but because they have no formal foundation in either language, they often perform poorly in both languages, according to Wanda Mercado-Arroyo, Allentown School District’s parental involvement coordinator.

Washington Elementary School in the Allentown School District, for example, saw much mobility in the 2000-01 school year. According to the state Education Department, 183 students enrolled after school started, and 139 students withdrew before the end of the school year. Its enrollment was at 559 in Grades 1 to 5 in October of that school year.

Mercado said many mobile students are Puerto Rican youngsters who travel from the mainland to the island. But the statistics also include those who move in and out of the district as their families move from house to house while settling into life in the Lehigh Valley, she said. Precise numbers are difficult to gauge.

In the Bethlehem Area School District, 571 new students who spoke Spanish or other languages began the 2001-02 school year. By the end of the school year, about 181 had left the district, according to Doris Correll, coordinator for the English acquisition program.

Some parents actually take or send their children back to Puerto Rico specifically to go to school there. Some think their children, if doing poorly here, will benefit by studying in a Puerto Rican school. But because the school systems are different, some students may have trouble readjusting when they return to the mainland.

Jennifer Arizarry, 17, left Dieruff High School for the 2001-02 school year. She was getting poor grades in Allentown, and her mother decided to send her to school on the island, hoping she would do better there.

She has spoken and written English most of her life, even though her grades in English were in the C’s and F’s, she said. Learning in an all-Spanish environment proved to be a challenge, she said, but she was able to do well and related better to the teachers.

"It was a totally different experience," said Arizarry, who has spent most of her school years in Allentown. "I did better in school, but I did not like it in Puerto Rico. I am used to life here."

She’ll be a senior at Dieruff in the fall and hopes she can use everything she learned on the island to improve her grades. "I want to do good here," she said.

Another downside to mobility between the United States and Puerto Rico in the Northeast, politicians and political observers say, is that it might contribute to the community not putting down roots, registering to vote and becoming politically active on the mainland.

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