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The Hartford Courant
Influence On The Mainland
Both U.S. And Island Have Been Shaped By Steady Back-And-Forth Migration
By MATTHEW HAY BROWN
July 22, 2002
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, a plane trip to New York when someone got locked in the bathroom.
Clearer in her memory is living in 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, growing up among 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.
The movement back and forth continues. 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 includes writers, painters and intellectuals who have broadened the cultural life of the mainland.
The hundreds of thousands who lined Manhattan's Fifth Avenue June 9 for the National Puerto Rican Day Parade - and the participation of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his predecessor, Rudolph Giuliani, U.S. Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles Schumer and Gov. George Pataki - demonstrated the community's growing political power. There are now three Puerto Rican members of Congress in addition to the island's non-voting 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.
A World War II veteran with an eighth-grade education, he worked seasonally as a sugar cane 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 him saying. "`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 piraguas 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, they include 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 that 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."
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."
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. The effects of the emergence of these "Nuyoricans" remain unclear.
"People do make the distinction between being island-born as opposed to mainland-born," says Jorge Duany, an anthropologist at the University of Puerto Rico. "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 a couple of 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."