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Puerto Rican Presence Wanes in New York

by Mireya Navarro

February 28, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

A stretch of 116th Street in East Harlem -- increasingly marked by Mexican restaurants and Dominican bodegas -- nonetheless still bears the name ''Luis Munoz Marin Boulevard'' after the first native son governor of Puerto Rico. On the blocks around ''El Barrio,'' Puerto Rican music still wafts out of certain storefronts.

And Maria Martinez, 62, hangs no fewer than three Puerto Rican flags from her apartment window and fence. ''The truth is,'' she likes to say with a bit of Puerto Rican defiance, ''we got here first.''

These days, though, it is hard to resist the sense that Ms. Martinez is hanging her flags with as much a feeling of nostalgia as pride.

Being Hispanic in New York City used to mean being Puerto Rican. But over the last decade, the number of Puerto Rican New Yorkers decreased for the first time since they began arriving in the city in great numbers 60 years ago -- down by nearly 100,000, or 11 percent, according to data from the Department of City Planning. With the growing presence of Dominicans and Mexicans, Puerto Ricans now account for 37 percent of the city's Hispanic population. Experts say the decline is destined to continue.

In certain ways, city planners say, the trend reflects a traditional immigration pattern: the dispersion of groups from the city to the suburbs and other parts of the country as they make economic headway. But unlike most traditional immigrant groups who came to New York during the early part of the 1900's, more than a third of Puerto Ricans leaving the city have moved to Puerto Rico, including significant numbers of people born in the States.

For many Puerto Ricans , their diminishing presence has provided them with a moment to look back on, and assess, the Puerto Rican experience in New York .

Although there has been no shortage of success stories -- from political gains and lasting contributions to the arts to the less visible but more pervasive expansion of the middle and professional classes -- there is much about the fate of Puerto Ricans that remains puzzling. Why, for instance, are so many among the poorest of the city's poor?

In the 1990's, the percentage of Puerto Rican households in the city living at or below the poverty line increased despite a strong local economy, to a rate greater than that of any other group. According to the most recent data, about 40 percent of New York 's Puerto Ricans qualified as poor, a figure considerably higher than that of African-Americans and worse than the average rate for all Hispanics.

Taking stock of the widely differing fortunes of Puerto Ricans in the city, Luis Garden Acosta, founder of the youth agency El Puente and a former member of the Young Lords Party, the militant Puerto Rican group of the 1960's, said, ''It's been a period of exploration, of very strong community building, of coming to grips with American reality, with the wonderful promise of great opportunity starkly contrasted sometimes by the horrible aspects of our existence.''

Many researchers say there is not enough scholarship to lay out a definitive explanation of why so many Puerto Ricans in the city continue to struggle. It is also difficult to track the poor: are Puerto Ricans -- who as American citizens came to New York as migrants -- mostly a static group, or a constantly changing group driven by the frequent back-and-forth movement between the States and the island?

But there have emerged some dominant theories on the progress of Puerto Ricans as a group, some involving a question of bad timing, others centering on the question of whether their American citizenship has been a mixed blessing in this country. Researchers note that because citizenship has meant no barriers to entry into the United States, the proportion of poor people among the Puerto Ricans coming to New York over the decades has been larger than for immigrant groups. This has made broad economic progress a more daunting challenge.

Many Puerto Ricans who arrived from 1940 to 1970 were especially vulnerable because they wound up concentrated in manufacturing jobs just as industry began its long and nearly complete decline in the city.

The depressed state of nearly half the city's Puerto Rican population is even more striking when set against the more general success of Puerto Ricans in other cities, like Tampa, Fla., and Los Angeles, where the income of Puerto Rican households has resembled that of the overall population.

''There's this almost structural poverty,'' said Gladys Carrion, a Bronx-born Puerto Rican who is executive director of Inwood House, an agency that serves pregnant teenagers. ''They're still living in the poorest communities, segregated communities, with the worst schools, in the lowest-paying jobs. The question is, why do we continue to be on the hit parade for the pathology?''

The Exodus - Rediscovering The Homeland

The poverty levels may have something to do with the exodus from New York , some researchers say.

The number of Puerto Ricans in the United States has grown over the last decade or more, up from 2.7 million in 1990 to 3.1 million, according to the Census Bureau's latest count in 1997. But in New York City, the Puerto Rican population fell by more than 96,000 residents in roughly the same period, to 800,000 in 1998.

While Puerto Ricans have moved out, however, the city's broader Latinization has increased, its boroughs filling with Central Americans, South Americans, Dominicans and Mexicans. City planners estimate that in about 10 years, Puerto Ricans will be replaced by Dominicans as the city's largest ethnic group by place of origin.

This shift is mainly because of fewer births and because Puerto Ricans have spread out around the Northeast and beyond, with large numbers going elsewhere in New York State and to New Jersey and Florida.

But an analysis by city planners after the 1990 census also found something distinctly atypical: of those leaving between 1985 and 1990, the single largest group, 38 percent, was going to Puerto Rico. And close to 40 percent of them were born in the States.

For Puerto Ricans , of course, there has always been a great deal of migration back and forth between the island and New York in response to shifts in the economic climate. City researchers found, for instance, that many of those leaving for Puerto Rico tended to be less educated and poorer than the Puerto Ricans who stayed in the city or moved to other states.

Some researchers have blamed such circular migration for interruptions in the family life and schooling of many migrants and for slowing the development of local leadership and institutions. By now, however, many Puerto Ricans also migrate back and forth responding to family ties and better job and educational opportunities throughout the United States, said Jorge Duany, an anthropologist at the University of Puerto Rico.

Retirees and successful younger people have also been drawn back to Puerto Rico, where the unemployment rate of 12 percent today is half what it was in the 1980's. Hildamar Ortiz, a lawyer who left New York with her 14-year-old daughter in 1996, said she moved partly to honor her late father's dreams of retiring in Puerto Rico. But she said she had always wondered what it would be like to be Puerto Rican in Puerto Rico.

Born in the Bronx after her parents migrated north in the late 1930's, Ms. Ortiz, 52, who works for the Federal Housing and Urban Development Department in San Juan, said she grew up in a Puerto Rican neighborhood where the only non-Hispanic whites around were the teachers at school. ''The only time we went to Fifth Avenue was for the Puerto Rican Day parade,'' she said.

Now, she said, she feels so at home that she has no plans to return to New York except to catch the occasional Broadway play.

''You belong here,'' she said, sitting in the living room of her 10th-floor beach-front condominium. ''You feel it; nobody questions it. There's no hostility. I think you don't realize how much that takes a toll.''

The Obstacles - Educational Lack Feeds Poverty

Back in the neighborhoods of Ms. Ortiz's childhood, more people have become poor.

Central to that stubborn poverty is the question of educational attainment, experts say. Barely 10 percent of Puerto Rican New Yorkers 25 and older have a college degree, said Francisco L. Rivera-Batiz, an associate professor of economics and education at the Teachers College of Columbia University.

The impact of the educational problems among Puerto Ricans in the city has only been deepened because the city's current economic expansion has increased the demand for more highly skilled workers, Mr. Rivera-Batiz said.

Census Bureau officials say the Puerto Rican experience mirrors somewhat that of Hispanics nationwide, who in the 1990's for the first time surpassed blacks in poverty and who have the lowest education rates among the major demographic groups.

But at Aspira, a youth services organization founded 38 years ago to combat high dropout rates among Puerto Rican students, officials say the lack of significant progress in educating Puerto Rican children can no longer be attributed to factors true for other Hispanic groups, like language problems. By now, most Puerto Ricans in the city have been born in the States and speak English.

For second- and third-generation Puerto Ricans , said Alex Betancourt, a director at Aspira, ''the issue is schools that have been neglected for many, many years and poor family involvement in education.'' The problem is abetted by a pattern of residential segregation in New York City that researchers say has been almost as severe for Puerto Ricans as for blacks, historically the most segregated demographic group in the city.

Blacks and Puerto Ricans in the city have faced similar discrimination, researchers said, but the black population has generally done somewhat better for reasons beyond the language barrier and cultural adjustments that Puerto Ricans additionally faced.

One reason is that blacks counted on their autonomous churches as ''an enormous laboratory of leadership development,'' said Andres Torres, director of a Latino public policy analysis institute at the University of Massachusetts and author of a book comparing the two groups. Another, he said, is that the attachment to the homeland among Puerto Ricans has divided their attention, making them less focused than blacks on dealing with problems in New York .

But perhaps more critically, experts say, blacks have had a more diversified labor base, and thus more economic mobility, and found a better niche in civil service jobs.

The poverty among Puerto Ricans is largely rooted in the low-wage manufacturing jobs that first lured migrants to New York City in great numbers during the post-World War II years -- many of them agricultural workers displaced by industrialization on the island, economists and researchers who have studied the Puerto Rican migration say.

But for many, that kind of employment was short-lived because manufacturing had begun its steep decline in the 1950's.

''Puerto Ricans had terrible timing,'' said Sonia M. Perez, a researcher with the National Council of La Raza, a national Latino civil rights organization. ''There was this massive decline of jobs, and they weren't able to bounce back'' because of low education levels.

In the 1970's and 80's, she said, ''you started to see the breakdown of families, an increase of single-mother families, high unemployment. That's when you started to see indicators of high poverty.''

Many believe that the poverty was compounded by the Puerto Rican experience with welfare. Arriving as American citizens, Puerto Ricans were entitled to the social services denied to many new immigrants. Among single mothers with young children, who often found welfare more attractive than a low-paying job with no benefits, public assistance kept many from job experience or started a cycle of poverty, sociologists say.

At 33, Mercedes Gerena, who was born in the Bronx to Puerto Rican migrants, remains a single parent on welfare, just as her mother was while raising her and nine siblings in Mott Haven. She said her fate was sealed when she became pregnant at 16 with the first of her two children.

Ms. Gerena is facing federal deadlines for ending her benefits. She recently found a job cleaning restaurants, and hopes to one day become a nurse's aide or a day care attendant. Although her 16-year-old son dropped out of school, Ms. Gerena has big hopes for her daughter, Jennifer, 13, a seventh grader at St. Jerome Church's parish school who wants to go to college to become a teacher.

''Puerto Ricans in the Bronx, they sometimes feel like quitting, but they hold on,'' Ms. Gerena said. ''We've had our ups and downs. They all can tell you it's rough, but they've managed.''

Two Worlds - Trying to Decide Where Home Is

For those trying to understand the idiosyncratic history of Puerto Ricans in New York , there has long been the belief that the experience has been complicated by their passionate nationalism. Both Americans and natives of a United States commonwealth with its own culture and sense of nationhood, many Puerto Ricans have resisted acculturation. Many blame American policies in Puerto Rico for the economic conditions that forced them to migrate in the first place.

New York City Councilwoman Margarita Lopez, who was born in Puerto Rico, said she has lived in the city for more than 20 years, but had to decide ''to embrace this country.''

''You have to make a conscious decision that you're part of this or not,'' Ms. Lopez, 49, said. ''We're always taking the position of outsiders, outsiders that are not willing to give up the dream of going back to the island. You ask yourself, am I betraying who I am? When I answered no, then I was able to move forward. But it wasn't easy.''

But other Puerto Ricans had no such doubts. ''Why would I want to leave the vital electronic center of the world, the most interesting cultural capital of the world?'' said Miguel Algarin, a poet who founded the Nuyorican Poets Cafe on the Lower East Side.

Mr. Algarin, who moved to New York when he was 9, said the Puerto Rican flight is a mistake. ''They should have stayed on 116th Street, fixed up the apartments like whites are doing now and maintained their political base in the United States,'' he said.

After a half century, Puerto Ricans in New York have succeeded in carving out electoral districts and Latino studies programs in universities. They have won bilingual education and civil rights battles and congressional, state and municipal posts. They have created a wide array of organizations, from cultural institutions to nonprofit agencies that now increasingly serve other Latinos.

''Puerto Ricans have to be acknowledged as the front line that opened doors for every Latino that came after them,'' said Susana Torruella Leval, director of El Museo del Barrio, the Puerto Rican and Latin American art museum.

There are more than 20 Puerto Rican elected officials in New York . But political representation has not necessarily translated into advancement for many constituents.

One major limitation, said Juan Figueroa, president and general counsel of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, is that the party system in the state is so machine-driven that it leaves little room for those who want ''to march to a different beat in order to deal with the many endemic problems of our communities.''

But Antonia Pantoja, 77, a pioneering Puerto Rican community organizer who founded Aspira, said the underlying problem is indifference by both government and the public, including economically comfortable Puerto Ricans , to ''a society where children are not taught by the schools they attend, where families do not have decent housing to live in, where the color of your skin will keep you out of the services and resources all citizens are entitled to.''

She added, ''Not only are these facts distressing, they are the shameful reality of a country that professes commitment to a democratic society.''

At the southern tip of the Bronx, Edwin Lorenzo is among those staying and refusing to remain indifferent.

Mr. Lorenzo grew up in the Mill Brook Houses in Mott Haven and went to West Virginia University in pursuit of an engineering career. Then, during one spring break in the Bronx, a friend was murdered over a drug deal. After that, he said, ''every time I came here, a lot of things bothered me that didn't use to bother me. The streets were dirty. There was graffiti on the walls.''

Mr. Lorenzo, the youngest of five children born to a Puerto Rican father and Salvadoran mother, switched majors to become a social worker. At 28, he is director of the East Side House Settlement Mott Haven Community Center, a multiservice agency whose after-school programs he attended as a child. He has a brother in California and another one in Florida, but he is raising his three children in the Bronx.

''For many years we judged success by whether or not we left the inner city,'' Mr. Lorenzo said. ''All the successful people leave, and they have no connection to the community. All the people who stay are viewed as failures. That's a greater harm than the other one.

''You decide it has to stop someplace,'' he said.


Photos: Hildamar Ortiz, a lawyer born in the Bronx, now lives in Puerto Rico. ''You belong here,'' she said. ''You feel it; nobody questions it.'' (Richard Perry/The New York Times)(pg. A1); A Puerto Rican flag hangs in East Harlem on 116th Street, where Mexican restaurants and Dominican bodegas are multiplying. (Photographs by Angel Franco/The New York Times); '' Puerto Ricans in the Bronx, they sometimes feel like quitting, but they hold on.'' MERCEDES GERENA -- Single mother and restaurant worker; ''We're always taking the position of outsiders, outsiders that are not willing to give up the dream of going back to the island.'' MARGARITA LOPEZ -- New York City Council member; ''They should have stayed on 116th Street, fixed up the apartments like whites are doing now and maintained their political base.'' MIGUEL ALGARIN -- Poet and English professor at Rutgers University. (pg. B7) Chart: ''Their Struggle in New York '' Population While 79 percent of all Latinos in the city in 1950 were Puerto Rican, that number today has fallen to just 37 percent. College Graduates Puerto Ricans in New York City continue to lag behind non-Hispanic whites and blacks when it comes to educational attainment. There are also fewer college graduates among them compared with Puerto Ricans nationwide. The Poor Many researchers say it is impossible to definitively determine why so many Puerto Ricans in the city continue to struggle economically. But they say one reason is the decline in the city's manufacturing jobs, where many Puerto Ricans had worked. Graphs show New York City demographics for poverty, education, and percentage of the population from 1950-99. (Source: Analysis by Susan Weber, Queens College Sociology Department from Census Bureau data and survey data)(pg. B7)

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