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The Star-Ledger Newark, NJ

Puerto Rico And New Jersey: Chasing Jobs In Jersey, With Hearts Left Behind


October 28, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Star-Ledger Newark, NJ. All rights reserved. 

As a girl, Damaris Lorenzo spent summer days scampering across white-sand beaches, Sunday mornings skipping in the town plaza on the way to church, and many an evening listening to the call of the coqui, the tiny frog that fills Puerto Rico 's nights with song.

Today she's 20 and those childhood pleasures have given way to long hours working at a school supply store to help pay her tuition for her junior year at the University of Puerto Rico . Her nights are spent poring over computer programming manuals and human resources textbooks.

Lorenzo's hope, dearly held, is to find a job after graduation that allows her to stay in this lush, hilly town that she calls "my place of feelings." Someday, she would like her kids to be able to pick papaya from a tree or watch parrot fish swim in the clear Caribbean on hot afternoons.

But like so many of her classmates, Lorenzo fears she will be forced to head to the American mainland for work. Her three older brothers already live in Dover, Morris County, where thousands of Aguadans have settled over the last half-century.

"I do not want to leave this place," she says. "But if I have to, I will."

Fifty years after Puerto Rico became an American commonwealth, a string of industrial plant closures and foreign capital flight spurred by changes in U.S tax policy are making it increasingly difficult for the island to retain its brightest young students, professionals and skilled workers.

With limited opportunities to find work, especially outside the metropolitan region of San Juan, many of these people are heading to long-established Puerto Rican communities in New Jersey, New York, Illinois, Florida and other areas throughout the eastern and central United States.

In many ways, the migration is nothing new. Nearly half of the 8 million U.S. citizens who identify themselves as Puerto Rican live on the mainland already an exodus that began in earnest in the 1940s and continues today, with deep implications for both Puerto Rican and U.S. society.

Just as many Puerto Ricans are more likely to buy their patio furniture today from Wal-Mart than from a local store, Americans are apt to find their music influenced by artists like Tito Puente or Ricky Martin, or their favorite sports filled with names like Roberto Alomar or Chi Chi Rodriguez.

But at a time when Puerto Rico is trying to move beyond the labor-intensive industries that defined the island's economy for the last half of the 20th century, the continued outward flow of skilled young workers is at least a cause of frustration, and at worst a hindrance to the island's development.

"It's hard to measure the effect, because even as some people leave the island, others are returning," says Felix V. Matos Rodriguez, executive director of the Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos at Hunter College in New York. "But clearly, you want to retain your most talented people, especially in today's global economy."

For Lorenzo, the decision to leave the island is made easier by her family connections in Dover, where two of her brothers, Daniel and Rolando, run a pavement sealing business, and a third brother, Abraham, works in landscaping. Other relatives hold jobs in local banks, insurance companies and travel agencies.

The presence of Aguadans in Dover goes back to 1948, when a group of seven families moved there for work at the nearby Mount Hope Mine. Once they were settled, they helped family and friends find jobs in the area, at the National Hose Co., the Picatinny Arsenal and the Alan Wood Mining Co.

Over the years, as more and more Aguadans settled along the eight blocks of Blackwell Street between Morris and Salem streets an area that came to be known as "the Spanish barrio" they began subtly to change the face of the town, as they opened stores, restaurants, a credit union and a Spanish-language church.

Today, even though the community shares space with newer Spanish-speaking arrivals from Colombia, Mexico and other Latin American nations, Puerto Ricans make up more than 13 percent of Dover's population of 18,188, and popular local institutions like the Aguada Social Club still demonstrate their influence.

"Dover is just like Aguada," says Lorenzo, who has visited twice. "Only it's in a cold place."

The roots of Puerto Rican migration to the U.S. mainland go back to the 19th century, even before Spain ceded the island to the United States in the Spanish-American War of 1898.

The flow picked up after 1917, when island residents gained full U.S. citizenry. It became a torrent in the late 1940s, when rapid industrialization left thousands of poor farm workers without work in Puerto Rico 's abandoned sugar cane and coffee fields.

According to the U.S. Census, the number of Puerto Ricans on the mainland quadrupled between 1940 and 1950, rising from 69,000 to 301,000. Between 1947 and 1960, more than 550,000 Puerto Ricans one quarter of the island's population headed for the States.

Most of the first arrivals settled in New York. But that began to change in the early 1950s, when the Puerto Rican Department of Labor struck a bargain with the Garden State Service Association to lure unemployed islanders to work on the farms of South Jersey.

Data compiled by Rutgers University historian Olga Jimenez de Wagenheim shows that the year- round Puerto Rican community in New Jersey rose from 4,055 in 1950 to 26,000 in 1954, even as another 8,000 seasonal laborers got work on farms from Camden County to Hackettstown.

From there, the population grew swiftly, from 55,351 in 1960 to 366,788 in 2000. Today, one of every 23 New Jerseyans is Puerto Rican, and large communities have grown up in Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, Camden, Vineland and Perth Amboy as well as Dover.

For many migrants, the adjustment to life in New Jersey was difficult. Not only did many face barriers of language and culture, but they also encountered discrimination in education, housing and hiring. "Puerto Ricans faced a lot of negative stereotypes, and it made a difficult situation even harder," says Wagenheim.

Carlos Figueroa, who left Aguada for Dover in 1957 at age 17, with a ninth-grade education and almost no English, made 75 cents an hour at his first job at Boonton Handbags, and he remembers vividly the fear he felt as he walked home through Dover during his first few years there.

"Most people carried their lunch to work in a bag," he says. "We carried rocks." One night, he says, he was walking home from work at the Three Sisters restaurant, when five guys with knives began chasing him. "I tell you, I was the fastest race horse in the world that night. I was terrified."

Francisco De Jesus, who was 18 when he first arrived in Dover, moved in with his two older sisters in a small apartment above a shop on Blackwell Street and lasted three hours at his first job, as a dishwasher making 25 cents an hour. Like Figueroa, he had only a ninth-grade education and little English.

"I learned to love Dover," he says. "But those first days were tough. The police harassed us, the banks wouldn't lend us money and we worked hard for the money we earned. I washed dishes. I worked making pencils in Franklin. I did a lot of jobs to get by."

Slowly, as more Aguadans arrived, the early migrants began to feel more at home. A local radio station, WRAN, introduced a 90-minute show on Sunday nights devoted to Puerto Rican music. A community newspaper, La Voz, hit the streets. The first Puerto Rican restaurant, El Coqui, served up pasteles (meat turnovers) and mofongo (a plantain concoction).

With $55 from a handful of investors, De Jesus and Figueroa opened the Spanish-American Federal Credit Union in January 1970. Known in the community as "La Cooperativa," the credit union allowed Puerto Ricans to get mortgage loans; by the late 1980s, the union had helped 30 percent of the local families buy homes.

Today, the credit union occupies a modern building at 23 Prospect St., and boasts 20 full-time employees, 5,000 members and more than $18 million in assets. It stands as a testament, along with the Aguada Social Club and the Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Church, to the hard work of De Jesus, Figueroa and others.

After spending most of his life helping to establish the Puerto Rican community in Dover, Figueroa is now taking part in a different kind of migration the return of thousands of those who left the island in the 1940s and '50s to their childhood homes in Puerto Rico , a phenomenon that started in the 1970s.

"Like most people I know, I always wanted to come home," he says. "I told my wife: If I die, box me up and ship my body back to Aguada."

Figueroa has bought a home atop a hill outside town, with a panoramic view that takes in the blue of the Caribbean and the green edges of the Cordillera Central mountains. In the morning, he sits on his deck, staring out at brilliant red flamboyan trees and listening to the crowings of his neighbor's fighting cocks.

Aguada is a different place today than when Figueroa was a boy, largely due to the money that he and others sent home from Dover. "It is amazing for me to see concrete houses where there used to be wooden shacks, and all the conveniences of modern life electricity, cable TV and indoor plumbing," he says.

Julio Cesar Roman, who left office in January 2001 after serving as mayor of Aguada for 28 years, says the town has been completely transformed because of the ties with New Jersey. "It's interesting," he says. "Aguada may have changed Dover, but over the years Dover changed Aguada, too."

In part, it was the money that financed new construction and fattened the town's budget from $500,000 in 1968 to $9 million today. But the change is evident in other ways, too, including the presence of English signs above shops surrounding the central plaza, including Georgie's Mens Wear and the On Time travel agency.

"It's a little bit of New Jersey in western Puerto Rico ," Roman says.

Aguada also has seen the arrival of some second-generation Puerto Ricans born in Dover, who speak little Spanish and feel, in some cases, a little out of place in the local culture. Daisy Gonzalez, who is 45, moved to Aguada in 1989 after spending her first 32 years in Dover.

"It was a shock for me at first," she says. "My Spanish was not very good, and I don't think I had even eaten rice and beans before I got to Aguada. Like a lot of second-generation Puerto Ricans in the States, I was kind of caught in the middle: a Puerto Rican in New Jersey, and a New Jerseyan in Puerto Rico ."

Despite the return of some early migrants and their children, economic conditions in Aguada still drive young people desperate for work to the United States. Unemployment island-wide hovers at 13 percent, but here it tops 20 percent, and half the population lives below the federal poverty line.

The difference between the original flow of migrants from Aguada to Dover and that of today is the education level of the people who leave. In the 1940s and '50s, those who departed were largely the rural poor, who had at best a ninth-grade education.

"Today, it's the smartest kids, the ones we need to stay and help Puerto Rico compete in the global economy," says Idalis Larregui, an eighth-grade health teacher at the local Isabel Suarez Middle School. "It breaks your heart, because these kids are the future for Puerto Rico ."

Manuel De Jesus, the younger brother of Francisco De Jesus and a history professor who retired recently from the University of Puerto Rico , says the island needs to build an educated work force and escape its longtime dependence on U.S. capital to become a full-fledged participant in the international economy.

"That is harder to do if you cannot keep your top graduates," he says.

The dilemma is not lost on De Jesus' young cousin, Damaris Lorenzo, who would like nothing better than to contribute to Puerto Rico 's economic development while pursuing a fulfilling career in Aguada. But, she says, "I have to think about my future, and I don't know if there are opportunities for me here."

And so, even as she dreams of staying home, Lorenzo considers the possibility of following the trail blazed by her parents and grandparents, and so many other Aguadans over the past half-century.

"It would be very easy for me," she says. "All I have to do is go to the airport."

Second Of Three Parts

Next Week: The Statehood Debate Continues: Diverted By The Great Debate - Should Island Join Union Or Flee? Observers Say Neither Is An Economic Cure-All

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