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THE NEW YORK TIMES
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
These days, though, it is hard to resist the sense that Ms.
Martinez is hanging her flags with as much a feeling of nostalgia
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
''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
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
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
''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)