Esta página no está disponible en español.

Changes In El Barrio, Identity Interesting And Confusing, New Arrivals Strive To Get A Toehold On The Future, NJ Home To 1 In 10 Mainland Puerto Ricans

Changes In El Barrio / Puerto Ricans Reflect On Life In New York


July 21, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Newsday. All rights reserved.

Carmen Quiones, 82, remembers well the day she arrived in New York from Puerto Rico, the sunny place known as the Isla del Encanto, the Enchanted Island.

It was April 3, 1947. The sky was cloudy.

"I saw all the tall buildings and I realized how different everything was from Puerto Rico," she recalled one day last week, speaking in Spanish.

"I cried."

Quiones was one of several hundred-thousand Puerto Ricans who came to New York City between 1947 and the mid-1950s. They settled by the thousands in East Harlem, which came to be known as El Barrio, or Spanish Harlem, the heart and soul of Puerto Rican New York, the birthplace of its rhythmic salsa music that today is known the world over.

Quiones still lives there today.

As the island prepares to celebrate 50 years of commonwealth status with the United States, she and other Puerto Ricans last week reflected on their experiences.

Experts such as Felix Matos-Rodriguez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, spoke of a coming golden age of Latino political power in New York, in which Puerto Ricans will lead the way.

Matos-Rodriguez noted that many social commentators have focused on the declining numbers of Puerto Ricans, and on the booming immigration of other Latinos such as the Dominicans and the Mexicans.

But the "real story," Matos-Rodriguez said, is that Puerto Ricans are by far the single largest Latino group in the city, and that they are the pioneers for an ethnic group that is entering legislative ranks in ever-increasing numbers.

While the total population of Puerto Rican New Yorkers fell by 12 percent between 1990 and 2000, Puerto Ricans still constitute 36 percent of the 2,160,554 Latinos in New York City. In other words, there are twice as many of them as there are Dominicans, the next largest group, according to 2000 Census figures.

Of 25 Hispanic elected officials in New York City, 22 are Puerto Rican, according to Felix Lopez, director of the New York regional office of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration.

Unlike Latino immigrants, every Puerto Rican here is eligible to vote under the 1917 Jones Act, which made them citizens from birth.

Lopez said that Puerto Rico is holding 50th anniversary festivities on the island to mark "the enormous achievements of Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico over the last 50 years...

"Puerto Ricans were living in grass homes," he continued. "The Puerto Rico of today is a markedly different place, socially, politically and economically. There really is an awful lot to celebrate."

But while scores of officials are expected to travel to Puerto Rico later this week, none of the local Puerto Ricans who spoke with Newsday last week was planning any celebration.

In El Barrio, Quiones, the retired garment worker, spoke of having a divided soul.

She has been a New Yorker for more than 50 years now and votes proudly in every election. But her experiences showed that life was difficult for Puerto Ricans back on the island and in New York.

Quiones got a job within three days of arriving in New York. She worked as a seamstress at a series of sweatshops - earning five cents for every dozen blouse collars, or about $4 a day. Mindful of the grinding poverty of her beloved Puerto Rico, she was grateful for the chance to regularly put food on her plate, and for the social service net that made health care possible even for poor people like her and her husband Luis.

But it was made clear to her that Puerto Ricans were second- class New Yorkers.

"One of my bosses here told me if I did not sew better he was going to send me out on the streets to become a prostitute," said Quiones.

Quiones said she never saw the flag of Puerto Rico until she came to New York at the age of 23. That was because Puerto Rico was a territory of the United States, and it was considered almost traitorous to display the Puerto Rican single-starred banner.

Such a person might be an independentista, an advocate for independence, some of whom were jailed. Over the years, other independentistas were killed.

Quiones and her husband became independence supporters here in New York, and attended local meetings.

In 1954, after a group of Puerto Rican militants shot up Congress, "FBI agents came to our apartment [at 126th Street and Second Avenue] to question us," Quiones recalled last week.

"My husband told them, 'Yes, I'm an independentista but I would never place a bomb anywhere or use violence.'"

The FBI was keeping tabs on Puerto Rican New Yorkers involved in the independence movement, according to FBI files obtained by Rep. Jose Serrano (D-Bronx).

Retired for 20 years, Quiones was found last week in the backyard of the East 116th Street home of her daughter Gloria and Gloria's husband, William Gerena-Rochet. On the front of the building was a large flag of Puerto Rico and a sign demanding peace and justice for Vieques, the Puerto Rican island where the U.S. military has conducted bombing exercises over the years.

If there is a single issue reflecting the expanding influence of Puerto Ricans in New York, it is Vieques. Politicians from the Rev. Al Sharpton to Gov. George Pataki have traveled to the island. In the case of Sharpton and others, they have gone to jail demanding an immediate halt to the U.S. practice bombing runs.

On East 116th Street the drop in Puerto Ricans and the increase in other Latinos is clearly visible. Puerto Rican merchants and residents have been slowly replaced by Mexicans and others over the years.

Elmer Rivera, 54, came from Puerto Rico when he was 7. He fought in the Vietnam War, got good jobs as a union construction worker, and raised six children with his wife, Sandy, to whom he has been married 31 years. He owns a home on East 116th Street and has seen all the changes.

"How many Puerto Rican stores do you see in this area now? You don't see many at all," said Rivera.

"Today the stores are either owned by the Dominicans or the Mexicans or the Middle Easterners."

Felipe Luciano, a journalist and former member of the Young Lords Party - a Puerto Rican radical group of the early 1970s - say Puerto Ricans opened the doors for the new Latinos.

"We suffered the racism, the police brutality, the poverty, more than any other group," said Luciano, who ran unsuccessfully last year for the City Council seat representing El Barrio.

"We were the marines. We took the brunt for all the other Latinos."

Another politician said the high cost of housing has been the main factor driving Puerto Ricans out of the area.

"This is the hottest real estate in the city right now," said John Ruiz, a retired New York City firefighter who is campaigning to replace Assemb. Adam Clayton Powell IV.

Ruiz, who was born and raised in El Barrio, referred in disgust to a nearby new penthouse apartment that is selling for $700,000.

Middle-class Puerto Ricans with families just can't afford that kind of price, he said, and so they have been leaving. But every summer many of them come back for their reunion, Oldtimers' Day, to see old friends and reminisce.

"I was at Oldtimers' Day last weekend, and I saw the faces of people I hadn't seen in years," Ruiz said, interviewed at his office Wednesday evening. "What I was hearing over and over again was, 'I'm living on Long Island,' or 'I'm living upstate.'"

Hispanics in New York - While the Puerto Rican population in the '90s declined, Puerto Ricans are still the largest Hispanic group in New York

1990 2000 Percentage Change

Total Hispanic

Citywide 1,783,511 2,160,554 21%

Queens 381,120 556,485 46%

Puerto Rican

Citywide 896,763 789,172 -12%

Queens 100,410 108,661 8%


Citywide 61,722 186,872 202%

Queens 13,342 55,481 316%


Citywide 332,713 406,806 22%

Queens 52,309 69,875 34

Central American

Citywide 101,222 99,099 -2%

Queens 30,375 34,183 13%


Citywide 84,4654 77,154 -9%

Queens 63,224 60,298 -5%


Citywide 78,444 101,005 29%

Queens 35,412 57,716 63%

SOURCE: City Department of City Planning

Puerto Ricans' Identity Interesting And Confusing

MARIA ELENA SALINAS Syndicated columnist

July 23, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Seattle Post-Intelligencer. All rights reserved.

Puerto Ricans are a proud people. Proud of their heritage, their language, their music, literature and art. They have given the world famous actors such as Rita Moreno, Jose Ferrer and Benicio del Toro; great athletes such as Roberto Clemente and Chi Chi Rodriguez; and pop stars like Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez. Puerto Ricans are proud of their delicious cuisine, of their music and of their beautiful island - known as La Isla del Encanto, The Isle of Enchantment.

Puerto Ricans are quick to demonstrate their sense of nationalistic pride. If you've ever been to a Puerto Rican Day parade in any major American city, you have surely seen thousands of Puerto Rican flags waving proudly in the air. There is no doubt that Puerto Ricans have a lot to be proud of. But there is one important element missing from their lives. Technically, they don't have a nation with its own political sovereignty.

This week, Puerto Rico marks its 50th anniversary as a U.S. commonwealth. On July 25, 1952, Puerto Ricans adopted a new constitution and a new relationship with the United States, which has been the subject of much debate ever since. The date is a national holiday in lieu of its very own Independence Day. It has no official Independence Day because it has not been independent for 500 years. After 400 years under Spanish rule, the United States has controlled Puerto Rico for the past century. Some people call it a colony.

The result is that Puerto Ricans have an interesting but confusing identity. They are officially American citizens - not by choice, but by decree of the U.S. Congress. They don't pay federal taxes; however, they have fought proudly for the United States in every war it has waged in modern history. They can travel back and forth to the mainland with their American passports. Those who live on the island can elect their local and state officials, but they can't vote for president. A resident commissioner who has a voice but no vote represents them in Congress. They have their own laws, but they have to abide by U.S. federal laws. What they do get to have are their very own beauty queens and Olympic athletes.

Three and a half million Puerto Ricans live in the United States. But in spite of their American citizenship, they are still treated by many like immigrants. This exchange actually took place in a Florida courtroom: A man appears before a judge, who proceeds to ask him a series of routine questions.

"Where are you from?" asks the judge.

"I'm Puerto Rican," the man responds.

"Do you have a green card?" asks the judge.

"I'm Puerto Rican," the man responds.

"I heard you the first time," says the judge. "Now tell me, do you have a green card?"

The exchange goes on for several minutes until, finally, a court clerk steps up and whispers to the judge that Puerto Ricans are American citizens and do not need green cards. The judge, a person who should know better, did not know this simple fact about 3.8 million people from this island in the eastern Caribbean.

That judge is not alone. Unfortunately, many Americans do not realize the unique relationship that exists between the United States and Puerto Rico , and many Puerto Ricans themselves struggle with their sense of identity. Three times they have gone to the polls to vote on the status of the island: Do they want independence, statehood or the status quo? Three times they have chosen to continue with what many Puerto Ricans consider "the best of both worlds."

In the event that Puerto Rico ever decided to become the 51st state, the question still remains whether the U.S. Congress would accept its will. In the meantime, Puerto Ricans keep asking the perennial question: Are we Puerto Rican, or are we American? In fact, they are both: Proudly carrying on two languages and two cultures. For now, that's what being Puerto Rican is all about.

Maria Elena Salinas is anchor of Noticiero Univision.

New Arrivals Strive To Get A Toehold On The Future

They aim for better opportunities while coping with problems

By Kevin Pentón

July 21, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Morning Call. All rights reserved.

Neither of the two Puerto Rican families who share the top floor of a three-story walkup in center city Allentown speaks English proficiently.

One brother, Luis Camacho, 24, has three children with respiratory problems, including a 2-year-old boy who was born prematurely and suffered a heart attack a week after birth.

The other brother, Juan Camacho, 21, was recently diagnosed as being mentally challenged. He takes medication that makes him so drowsy he fell asleep on the job and was fired days after he started.

By any measure, the odds for success are stacked against the two brothers and their wives and children, who left the island only a month ago in search of better financial and educational opportunities in the Lehigh Valley.

Yet Luis Camacho has a plan.

"Look, everyone who comes here from Puerto Rico starts out this way," says Camacho, whose intense eyes and physical determination give him the look of a much older and more experienced person. "We want to get to the top, but we can’t start there. We have to start here at the bottom."

Part of Camacho’s plan is to make his bottom more livable and rent-free by bartering his construction skills to rebuild his apartment and fix other problems at the dilapidated building.

So far, he’s climbed on the roof and repaired a stubborn leak that dotted his living room, knocked out the cracked walls of a bedroom and replaced them with new Sheetrock, and cleaned out the trash that littered the hallways and first floor of the building near Sixth and Chew streets.

The other part of Camacho’s plan is to get a good job so he and his wife, Amarilis Ortiz, can avoid having to apply for welfare benefits.

"We want to look back one day and know that we built ourselves up, that we didn’t take any handouts we didn’t need from anyone," he says.

The steady earners in the apartment so far are Camacho, who got a job at the Mopac meat-packing plant in Souderton, and Mariella Ortiz, Juan’s wife, who moved from a cashier job to a position at a picture-frame factory.

Ortiz has lived in Allentown before, sharing an apartment with her grandmother near the corner of Second and Tilghman streets. She knows many people think her neighborhood is an undesirable place to live.

Camacho had hardly left his quiet home in Puerto Rico when he started dreaming of a place where he could leave his door unlocked, where he could allow his children to run free without worrying that the street life might corrupt them.

Ortiz says she looked sadly at the trash strewn along the stairway leading up to her apartment and the leak seeping through her living room ceiling when she moved in.

But for now this is home, a place where she has not heard gunshots nearby, but a place where the sound of gunshots echo from a few blocks away, she says.

"This is OK, this is good," she says, stretching out her feet on a sofa that belongs to the apartment’s previous occupants. She and the others fear it will soon be taken away.

"I know we’re going to try as hard as we can," she says.

New Jersey Home To One In 10 Puerto Ricans Living In U.S.


July 24, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Associated Press Newswires. All rights reserved.

CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) - Angel and Gloria Rodan were among the first wave of Puerto Ricans to arrive in this city. They moved their family from the island so Angel could work picking tomatoes for Campbell Soup Co.

Now 55 years later, their family has deep roots in this city across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. And so does Puerto Rico.

Nearly one-third of the city's 80,000 residents claimed Puerto Rican ancestry in the 2000 U.S. census. Only two other U.S. cities - Holyoke, Mass., and Hartford, Conn. - have a higher concentration of Puerto Ricans.

New Jersey has the third-highest number of people with Puerto Rican ancestry in the United States; New York and Florida top the list. Seventeen New Jersey cities are in the top 100 nationally, including Jersey City, which boasts the second largest Puerto Rican Day parade in the nation.

In Camden, it is common to see miniature versions of the commonwealth's flag hanging from rearview mirrors or people with Puerto Rican names working in city government. One section of town, North Camden, is known as Little Puerto Rico.

The Rodans' daughters, though, remember a time when they stood out for their skin tones and their language.

Vickie Gonzalez, now 58, talked about a time when the only Spanish-speaking church in town was just a room in a downtown building. Most of the children in her neighborhood and school were of European ancestry.

Over her life, the city has become largely bilingual.

Her family's history parallels the broader Puerto Rican experience in New Jersey.

The migration from Puerto Rico was heaviest just after World War II as companies like Campbell's went to the island to recruit workers, said Carlos Vargas, a researcher at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at the City University of New York.

On Thursday, Puerto Rico celebrates the 50th anniversary of its constitution. That arrangement redefined the relationship between the United States and the island, though Puerto Ricans had been U.S. citizens since 1917.

The flow of people to farms and factories in the Northeast a half century ago was done with the cooperation of the Puerto Rican government. Many workers came to New Jersey and worked in farm labor camps. Later they left the camps for jobs in the cities, Vargas said.

"Puerto Ricans had more freedom because they were American citizens," Vargas said. "That also made it harder to expel them."

The farm workers ended up in cities like Philadelphia and Camden.

Angel Rodan worked in the fields, picking vegetables that would be turned into soups by Campbells. After a few years, he quit and moved to a job as a cook at a Camden restaurant. Because the owners were Greek, he learned Greek before he did English. Later, he worked long days elsewhere as a cook and then in a factory.

In that postwar era celebrated as a time when families could get by on one income, Gloria Rodan also worked, sewing men's clothing at a factory in Camden, then in Philadelphia.

Angel and Gloria Rodan died a few days apart in 1993. But the couple's three surviving daughters have remained in Camden.

Along with their children and grandchildren, they gather often for everyday staples of island cuisine such as beans and rice with chicken.

The daughters, all college educated, could have left Camden, the state's poorest city, Gonzalez said. But the Puerto Rican world in which family was the center of everything didn't allow that, she said.

"I stayed because my parents were here," said Gonzalez, a mortgage business manager.

Those cultural ties are loosening, Gonzalez said. She worries about generations growing up "Americanized," speaking English, listening to hip-hop instead of traditional music and not caring as much about family.

Gonzalez's niece Marilus Pegan, 27, a speech therapist, said that's partly true for her.

"She's a Puerto Rican-American," Pegan said. "I'm an American-Puerto Rican."

Self-Determination Legislation | Puerto Rico Herald Home
Newsstand | Puerto Rico | U.S. Government | Archives
Search | Mailing List | Contact Us | Feedback