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Puerto Rico Profile: Virginia Sánchez Korrol

May 5, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

When Virginia Sánchez Korrol recalls her childhood in New York City, what stands out is the contrast between the two Puerto Rican communities of her youth. The first one, the community of her own experience, was vibrant and supportive; the second, portrayed in school textbooks, was impoverished and marginalized. "This is not what I’ve seen," she remembers thinking as she read the textbook version of the lives of New York’s Puerto Ricans. "This is not my home."

Ever since that time, Virginia Sánchez Korrol, Professor and Chair of the Department of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Brooklyn College, has dedicated herself to presenting the Puerto Rican community in New York on its own terms. Looking beyond negative statistics on poverty and unemployment, she has delved into the elements that bring strength to a group of people who have not only survived with their cultural identity intact, but who have also made significant contributions to American life.

Moreover, Dr. Sánchez Korrol has discovered that as Puerto Ricans in New York — and elsewhere on the mainland — work to understand their identity as both Puerto Ricans and Americans, they have begun "to forge national interconnections, build coalitions with other ethnoracial groups, and reaffirm their solidarity with Puerto Ricans on the island." In the process, they are strengthening their ties to other U.S. Hispanics while creating a Puerto Rican identity that is "trans-national," not limited to residence on the island.

Dr. Sánchez Korrol was in fact born on the island of Manhattan, not in Puerto Rico. Her parents both migrated to the mainland in the 1920s, part of an early wave that set the stage for the mass exodus of Puerto Ricans after World War II. Her father, who came from Aguada, headed for New York when he was 16 years old and yearning for adventure. He went to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and then the Merchant Marines, before returning to the railroad for the rest of his career. "He was a Union man and proud of it," said Sánchez Korrol in a recent interview.

Her mother came to New York from Mayagüez around the same time as her father, but she was not driven by the same sense of adventure. Like most migrants from Puerto Rico, she left home because economic circumstances gave her no other choice. In New York, she met her future husband, married, and settled into the role of "housewife," a title that Sánchez Korrol said belies the fact that she did "so many other things."

In fact, so-called "housewives" like her mother play a central role in Sánchez Korrol’s research and writing. In a 1980 essay, "Survival of Puerto Rican Women in New York Before World War II," she focuses on "active, vibrant women determined to keep family life intact while shouldering their share of financial burdens." These mujeres de la casa maintained the cultural continuity of their community by creating "an extension of the role they played in their island society." Sánchez Korrol paints a vivid picture of informal but critical networks like the "Family Intelligence Service":

    Over the factory sewing machines or on apartment-house stoops, in the bodegas [Puerto Rican grocery stores] or in the privacy of their own homes, women exchanged information on housing, jobs, folk remedies, the best places to shop, their churches and their children’s schools. What has usually been characterized as idle female chatter essentially provided the tools for handling the unfamiliar situation.

As a child, Virginia Sánchez Korrol had ample opportunity to observe this kind of interaction at very close range. After her parents left Puerto Rico and settled in New York, their home became "the hub for relatives that began to make that trek during the war period, soon after World War II."

During the years immediately following the war, Puerto Rican enclaves in New York "yielded the contours of a distinctive community," according to Sánchez Korrol’s highly praised and influential book, From Colonia to Community: The History of Puerto Ricans in New York City. Between 1940 and 1960, the number of Puerto Ricans in the continental U.S. grew by more than 900%. Sánchez Korrol attributes most of this explosion of "airborne migrants" to the rapid industrial expansion in Puerto Rico during Governor Muñoz Marín’s "Operation Bootstrap," which boosted the island’s economy at the expense of large numbers of agricultural jobs.

By 1960, three out of ten Puerto Ricans lived on the mainland, and most of them had been forced to migrate by an economy which no longer had room for them. Perhaps because of the circumstances of their departure, Puerto Ricans who left the island have not always had a close relationship with those who remained. Sánchez Korrol said recently that "for a very long time the connection between the New York communities and those in Puerto Rico was really lost." In fact, when Colonia to Community was first published, in 1983, there was almost no interest in publishing a translated version in Puerto Rico.

In the two decades since that time, though, islanders have shown a great blossoming of interest in the mainland Puerto Rican population, as works by Virginia Sánchez Korrol and others have abandoned "the deficit model" which focuses on the problems of Puerto Ricans, and instead have highlighted "their pro-active role in shaping the cities of this nation." By 1994, when a new edition of Colonia to Community was published, the subject of Puerto Ricans in the continental U.S. had attracted the attention of the academic community in Puerto Rico, with the University of Puerto Rico holding regular symposia on the topic.

Sánchez Korrol is not, however, resting on her laurels. As a writer and teacher, she considers herself a "Scholar-Activist" with the responsibility for "the planting of the seeds of a historical memory that rests not on ‘distorting’ or ‘rewriting history,’ … but on setting the record straight."

She has therefore undertaken the monumental task of compiling Latinas in the United States: An Historical Encyclopedia. Together with Vicki L. Ruiz, head of the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at Arizona State University, Sánchez Korrol is integrating her expert knowledge of Puerto Rican women into a comprehensive study of Spanish-speaking women in the U.S., from the 16th Century to the present.

Not scheduled to be published until 2003, the two volume encyclopedia is already drawing attention. On April 1, an effusive story about the efforts of Drs. Sánchez Korrol and Ruiz appeared in the New York Times. Soon after, the researchers were flooded with new information from all over the country.

"People are contacting us," said Sánchez Korrol in an interview. "We didn’t know this was going to happen." She recently received a call from a man in upstate New York whose mother, now 104 years old, was one of the original migrants from Puerto Rico to New York City. She and her husband, a Spaniard, opened the first bodega in Spanish Harlem in the 1920s. These grocery stores, which had telephones and extended credit to customers, served a vital purpose in the early migrant community.

Sánchez Korrol is hoping to include this woman’s story, which has never been told before, among the 800 entries in the encyclopedia. "We’re going to have a lot of unknowns," she said. "It’s added a dimension to the project that’s really exciting."

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