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THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
Island Reaches Out To Mainland Puerto Ricans
By Matthew Hay Brown | Sentinel Staff Writer
November 22, 2004
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO -- Mari Carmen Aponte still remembers the woman who came to her, tears in her eyes.
"You validate me," the stranger told Aponte, "because you call me a Puerto Rican."
For the director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, the woman has come to symbolize the yearning of Puerto Ricans from the U.S. mainland to be accepted by those on the island.
"She wasn't talking about me," Aponte said. "She was talking about herself and her search for dignity. . . . That's all they're asking for."
Their voices are growing. After decades of migration, the number of Puerto Ricans living on the mainland has surpassed the number living on the island, according to a new report issued by the Federal Affairs Administration.
Leaders of the community in both places hope official recognition of the long-anticipated milestone, a phenomenon without precedent in the Western Hemisphere, will spur new communication between the two halves of the Puerto Rican diaspora.
"This study is a way of really uniting, because that's where the future is," Aponte said. "When you have a population that is that big in both places, there's only one way, and that's to find, in dialogue, a way of belonging one to another."
As a way of starting that dialogue, the first-ever Atlas of Stateside Puerto Ricans compiles information on the 3.9 million who live in the United States -- a population that may be little understood by the 3.6 million on the island.
"There is a longstanding concern that the people of Puerto Rico are not as informed as they should be about the history and challenges faced by their compatriotas who have ventured stateside," writes Angelo Falcón, senior policy executive at the Puerto Rican Legal Defense & Education Fund in New York.
Puerto Ricans in the United States, he writes, are "often seen as poor and apathetic, concentrated in the poor barrios of the older cities of the Northeast."
That perception may be a legacy of the mass migration of the 1940s and '50s, when hundreds of thousands of poor, mostly rural laborers left the island for low-paying work on the mainland.
Falcón, a political scientist, describes a more complex community, growing in size, variety and influence as it spreads from its traditional base in the Northeast and Midwest to establish new centers in the South, Southwest and West.
Drawing on census and other data, he affirms the continuing challenges of poverty, residential segregation and linguistic isolation, areas in which Puerto Ricans on the mainland continue to lag behind other Hispanics in the United States. But he also details an increasingly diverse community with a growing potential for economic and political clout.
With an average individual income second only to Cubans among Hispanics, total earnings greater than those on the island, a growing middle class and an enduring identification with the island, the stateside population constitutes an important new market for Puerto Rican businesses to consider, Falcón writes.
Remittances -- money sent by Puerto Ricans on the mainland to family and friends on the island -- may exceed $1 billion annually, he estimates.
Meanwhile, the size of the population living in the Boston-New York-Washington corridor, the center of American economic and political power, offers a "locational advantage" that could be leveraged if the community were able to develop leadership and infrastructure comparable to those of already influential groups there.
And the comparatively low level of education attained by stateside Puerto Ricans -- 9.9 percent of adults 25 and older had a four-year college degree in 2000, compared with 24.4 percent of those in Puerto Rico -- suggests a potential recruiting ground for island universities.
"One of the purposes of this report is to see if we could generate some consciousness in Puerto Rico about the role of Puerto Ricans in the United States," Falcón said. "Ways in which the government might act that would be to mutual benefit of both sides . . .; I'm hoping we can get some discussion going on the island."
The project is one of several attempts by the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration under Gov. Sila Calderón to reach out to stateside Puerto Ricans. A voter-registration drive signed up more than 300,000 voters. Leadership workshops have trained mainland-based activists and organizations. And recruitment has brought mainland students to the University of Puerto Rico.
"You do see a shift in paying more attention to the community here and finding ways to partner with some of the institutions that have been involved here on behalf of the community," said Félix Matos Rodríguez, director of the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños at Hunter College in New York. "I think there is a recognition that the Puerto Rican diaspora is a part of the Puerto Rican nation, and as a result of that, there needs to be a level of communication about dialogue, empowerment and institution-building."
Jorge Duany, a University of Puerto Rico anthropologist and author of The Puerto Rican Nation on the Move: Identities on the Island and in the United States, called the fact that the report was commissioned by the island government "significant."
"It's actually the first time in many years that there has been any kind of sustained attention to the issues of Puerto Ricans in the U.S.," Duany said. "This may advance a kind of conversation."
With Calderón leaving office in January and election officials yet to declare the winner of the closely fought election to replace her, whether that conversation will continue is unclear.
"This is a blueprint," Aponte said. "It embodies some realities put forth by a recognized political scientist and scholar that really need to be taken seriously as new policy is put forward."
Falcón hopes the report points the way to more scholarship. Much remains to be learned, he says, about such issues as migration patterns, voter participation and remittances.
"Our reality is getting much more complex than ever before," he said. "I hope the report starts to point a different way of looking at the Puerto Rican experience in the United States. I hope it generates more work -- more research and more thinking."