Puerto Ricans in New York City
A Book Review
By Manuel Hernandez
Puerto Ricans have one of the highest rates of emigration
in the world. According to the United States 2000 Census,
there are approximately 3.5 million people of Puerto
Rican origin living on the United States mainland. The
population on the Island is approximately 3.8 million.
About half of the total Puerto Rican population lives
outside of the Island. The history of the Puerto Rican
migration dates back more than one hundred and fifty
years. The number of Puerto Ricans who migrated to the
United States was greater than the rest of the Islands
in the Caribbean because of Puerto Rico's political
relationship with the United States which granted Puerto
Ricans the right to enter and exit the United States.
With the trading of raw materials from "La Isla"
to cities along the eastern seaboard and political events
fired up by Spanish colonialism in Borinquen, Puerto
Ricans experienced immigration from as early as 1860.
The early immigrants were mostly political exiles who
opposed Spanish rule on the Island. After the historical
events of 1898, the faces of the Puerto Rican migration
changed. The influx of working-class Puerto Ricans continued
to flow but those working on farms paved their way to
New York too.
According to the introduction in Pioneros, the Puerto
Rican community grew
from 1,600 to 135,000 people from 1910 to 1945. The
numbers are overwhelming and speak for themselves. The
bilingual edition of Pioneros published by Arcadia comes
alive with vivid portraits of those who pioneered and
paved the way. The images reflect the characters, settings
and drama of the great Puerto Rican migration. The pages
also present relevant documents such as steamship tickets,
newspaper headlines, U.S. Customs identifications, lists
of passengers, passports, magazine advertisements, letters,
programs and other documents, which shed light on the
lives and activities of the Puerto Ricans of the time.
The book is divided chronologically and thematically.
It begins with the means of transportation used by the
early travelers, followed by the faces of the pioneers
of the first decades of the 20th century. The third
chapter focuses on family and neighborhood life. The
organizing for social and political participation takes
center stage in chapter four followed by the cultural
life and entertainment of the first settlers in chapter
five. The book completes its visual representation by
presenting the migration, the world wars and the airborne
This enduring collection of images from the Archives
of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College
at CUNY facilitates the study and analysis of the history
of the United States Puerto Rican community when it
was merely beginning to contribute to New York's social,
political, cultural and economic life. The book is a
mutual collaboration between two New York historians,
Félix Matos-Rodriguez and Pedro Juan Hernández,
director and archivist of the Center for Puerto Rican
Studies at Hunter. This collection is a pioneer in its
own merit because it is the first collection to bring
forth a thorough and complete visual representation
of the pioneers of the time. The book takes into consideration
the visual orientation of our children and young adults.
In a time when the eye is being fed like never before,
Pioneros captivates and educates in a natural and delightful
way. The book is a must for every educator and historian
interested in American/Hispanic/Latino studies.
se habla español, estás en Puerto Rico?"
By Manuel Hernandez
Puerto Ricans on the Island take their Spanish seriously.
A couple of weeks ago,
I was buying groceries with my son at a Supermarket
in San Juan. We were speaking English, Spanish, Spanglish,
and SpanEnglish as the great AmeRícan poet, Tato
Laviera would say because my Nuyorican background allows
me to code-switch whenever I feel like doing so. All
of a sudden, a middle-aged man wearing a Yankee baseball
hat and using a pair of Converse sneakers, who cried
out to us, "Aqui se habla español, estás
en Puerto Rico" confronted us. He quickly moved
his shopping cart away from us before we could react
to his statement. I have encountered this situation
more than a dozen times in different places on the Island.
From La Sultana del Oeste to La Ciudad Caridura, "El
Difícil" as our grandparents called it is
still a difficult language for native speakers of Spanish
to listen to in Puerto Rico.
Hundreds and possibly thousands of monolingual Puerto
Ricans are mortified that in their Island there is a
growing and diversified minority that speaks a language
that they do not completely understand. After one hundred
plus years of Puerto Rico-United States relations, there
is still a resistance to the speaking and teaching of
English in Puerto Rico. It makes many Boricuas feel
uncomfortable to hear English in the beaches, malls,
concerts, hotels, restaurants and historical sites.
They whisper, mumble and complain when conversations
they do not understand are held in their presence. They
get angry when they come across English language stations
on cable television and radio.
In reality, the middle-aged man's reaction was natural.
Puerto Rico is an Island that has Commonwealth Government
with strong political, cultural and economic ties to
the United States, but the main language of Puerto Rico
is Spanish. Furthermore, one of the important factors
that identify a nation is its language. According to
recent studies, about fifteen to twenty percent of the
Puerto Rican population is bilingual. Many Boricuas
on the Island are apprehensive about English. Why? Hostility
and oppression towards a foreign language has been part
of human nature for years. In the 1980's and 1990's,
the English Only movement in the United States promoted
the speaking and teaching of the English language throughout
the Continent. When the contrasts between the majority
and minority collide, fear in the death or destruction
of the other takes over.
A language is a way of living, an essential element
in defining a culture and its people. Through language,
we master our reality and the most intimate emotions
are revealed to us. When a language is imposed upon
a nation, it creates unexpected and undesired reactions.
Many on the Island feel like one of the founders of
the Nuyorican poetry movement, Sandra Maria Estevez,
states in her poem "Here": "I speak the
alien tongue." There is no doubt that English is
a universal language, but many Islanders believe that
it has been imposed upon their daily lives.
The Puerto Rican government spends hundreds of thousands
of dollars in professional staff development and new
books every year in attempting to get students to learn
English, but many graduate from high school without
mastering the basic skills of reading, writing, speaking
and listening. The statistics at universities and colleges
are alarming. Approximately seventy percent of the students
that are accepted at the University of Puerto Rico,
Rio Piedras Campus score below average in the ESLAT
(English as a Second Language Achievement Test) on the
College Board Examination. Many English teachers and
university professors on the Island find themselves
teaching a language students do not want to learn.
Puerto Rico will continue to be a Spanish-speaking nation
with an ever-growing and dynamic bilingual population.
Puerto Ricans on the Island have embraced and ingrained
the great majority of the American cultural expressions.
Millions of Boricuas view American movies every day,
listen to American music, surf on the Internet, eat
at McDonald's at least twice a week, buy Wrangler and
Levi's jeans and vacation at Disney World at least once
in a lifetime. My middle-aged friend expressed ignorance
and a monolinguistic attitude, but he walked around
with a baseball hat from America's baseball team and
a pair of sneakers from the classic American sneaker.
Fear of English only expresses the majority's inability
to understand that English is enriching the Puerto Rican
culture in ways many fail to comprehend. The influx
of English is an asset to the Puerto Rican culture,
and fear should be eradicated from the mainstream. "Aquí
se habla español" I would add, "y el