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Failed Migrant Dreams: The Unknown Story of Operation Airlift

Suset Laboy

Eileen Findlay’s newest book We Are Left Without a Father Here: Masculinity, Domesticity, and Migration in Postwar Puerto Rico tells a tale few know but that may resonate with many. In its simplest form, hers is a book about a father sending his children off to make a living and to provide for their own families. Except that in this rendition, the story goes all wrong and the stakes are much higher, as they involved the fate of thousands of men (and their families) who were left to fend for themselves between Puerto Rico and Michigan. Sifting through an impressive array of untouched and rarely seen material, Findlay reveals the little known story of Operation Airlift, a Puerto Rican government supported project that exported 5,000 Puerto Rican farmworkers to the beet fields of Michigan during the summer of 1950. It documents the beliefs both of the Puerto Rican government and the men itself that informed their desire to set for the Midwest during this time and the ultimate cruel failure of the project. Very few other studies, if any, provides such a detailed account of an event from the Great Migration of the 1950s.

Findlay‘s story centers around the idea that Puerto Rican men of the time, and at all levels of society, saw themselves as fathers who had to provide for their families. This was certainly the vocabulary that the Partido Popular Democrático (PPD), and particularly its leader Luis Muñoz Marín, used to speak to his constituents and amass support for his populist agenda. As Findlay establishes, “Luis Muñoz Marín positioned himself as the great father of the modern Puerto Rican nation—seemingly visionary, empathetic, and generous” (p. 42). Thus opens the first Chapter of this book: with a look into the ways in which both Luis Muñoz Marín, his party and government created and fueled the paternalistic notion that a man’s role in society was as a father, providing for a home. They accomplished as much, “combining exhortations to free voting and active participation in unions and other civic associations with promises to fathers of economic dignity, social respect, and power over homes, wives, and children” (p. 5). The dire economic and social situation of the time was ripe for this kind of rhetoric; Luis Muñoz Marín promised workers that, under his guidance, men would once again fill their duties as fathers and women as mothers.

Under Luis Muñoz Marín, the government of Puerto Rico sought to deliver on its promise (or perhaps made the promises to justify the deliverables) through several projects in Puerto Rico and stateside. Findlay speaks of efforts to urbanize and industrialize the island, “inciting Puerto Ricans to embrace modernity, to aspire to ‘developed’ status” (p. 60), as well as to address Washington’s direct control over the island’s economy and the poverty caused by the sugar industry. Indeed, according to Findlay, while ushering Puerto Rico to modernity, the government also sought to transform the raw colonial relationship between the two nations by recasting “the U.S.—Puerto Rican relationship as familial rather than colonial” (p. 49). Both urbanization and industrialization efforts could not quite deliver on the party’s promises given the island’s overpopulation and rampant unemployment. The solution? Export people to the United States, which is the subject of Findlay’s chapter, “Removing Excess Population’: Redirecting the Great Migration.”

Operation Airlift was one of several government initiatives to deal with the island’s grim realities. Findlay tells us of efforts to train women as domestic servants to be exported to the United Sates, which ended in failure; of the backlash from New York (where more than 300,000 Puerto Ricans had moved between 1940 and 1950) towards the increasing number of Puerto Ricans in the city; and of propaganda campaigns meant to convince the U.S. that Puerto Ricans would make good workers and good citizens. These PR efforts did not pay off and the government complemented it with a different approach—send Puerto Rican men to work the fields, in rural areas with new propaganda efforts to support this move. As Findlay explains, “Officials in the PPD cultivated relationships with journalists at the New York TimesLifeEsquire, and Time…. Puerto Ricans, they insisted, were similar to previous immigrants from Europe. Given the chance, they would assimilate into mainstream U.S. Ssociety even more easily than their predecessors; they were already U.S. citizens and passionate participants in U.S. cultural activities like baseball” (p. 98). This is where you scratch your head over the project that flew in the face of the dreams officials were selling on the island of an industrialized society that eschewed an agricultural economy.

In 1950, the government of Puerto Rico signed a contract with Michigan field crops to airlift 5,000 men to the sugar beet fields of Michigan. According to Findlay, the idea was to send workers to Michigan over the summers to come back to Puerto Rico to build “stable homes and raise healthy, productive children” (p. 116). These promises drove men from all over the island to respond to the government’s call. Ultimately, quite a multiracial group made the trek to Michigan. One of these ended in tragedy only a few days after the airlift started when the plane carrying 62 workers crashed, killing 27 men. The crash put the airlift on the map, catching the media attention in Puerto Rico and Michigan. This gave the program a thrilling air that turned the arrival of Puerto Ricans to the state into an exciting (even welcomed) event.

The honeymoon ended quickly. Findlay reports that as early as 1 week after their arrival, workers began protesting the conditions they encountered. Not only was the harvest itself grueling work, workers experienced a host of other exploitative circumstances. Growers held migrants pay until the end of the season; they paid them meager wages, which workers later could only spend in high priced rural stores, as they had no means of transportation; inflated medical costs; provided repulsive housing and working conditions; and so on.

True to a tradition of mobilization and protest they had learned in Puerto Rico at the time, the workers protested their conditions. Findlay recounts, “Whether highly articulate or barely literate, these migrants drew on the popular political mobilizations of the preceding decades in Puerto Rico. ‘Workers have rights that cannot be ignored!’ they shouted. ‘Contracts must be honored! We must have hygenic housing!’” (p. 137). They wrote to Luis Muñoz Marín, to the press, to their wives, to folk singers, to anyone who would listen and publicize their plight. They used the language of father responsibility (both from Luis Muñoz Marín as father of the nation towards them and from them to their families) to demand better treatment and conditions. One of them wrote directly to Luis Muñoz Marín, “I come before you, as if you were my father, to request that you do right by this humble Puerto Rican” (p. 143). Soon, these protests extended to Puerto Rico with wives demanding for the rights of their husband’s and to Michigan, where workers established relationships and alliances with church outreach volunteers, and Mexican Americans (p. 148). By the thousands, workers fled the fields and even Michigan, dismantling the government plans and threatening the PPD’s ongoing efforts to pass a new constitution on the island.

Although the government initially attempted to placate, even deny, the workers’ claims, ultimately, they had to respond to the workers’ demands. By the end of the summer, the Puerto Rican Department of Labor had relocated hundreds of the men to fields in New Jersey, Washington, and New York. Many left for work elsewhere. Operation Airlift was, thus, a failure. The government of the island distanced itself from Michigan Field Crops, denouncing their treatment and in August 23 passed the Law No. 1 to help the families of the Airlifted men, bring back the men that had fallen ill, and relocate to other states those that hadn’t. This was a first in the history of Puerto Rican migration to the United States. Still those men who wanted to return, who demanded to return, were denied as much. The government sold them on a pipedream, a one-way ticket to the Midwest with no return to the island. To be sure, although the government of Puerto Rico made efforts to quietly silence the outcry from workers and their families, they mainly did so on paper and many workers ended up stranded in the states or unable to claim the wages from their labor. Adding to this, was the very vocal and visible Nationalist struggles that ensued in the 1950s, which deeply preoccupied the government and ended “media attention to the midwestern farmers’ exploitation of Puerto Ricans” (p. 173) Out of sight, the workers and their families fell out of the minds of Puerto Ricans on the island.

Whether one agrees or not with Findlay’s central tenets, one thing is clear: with every passing day that we don’t learn or tell the story of these workers, we become accomplices in their erasure. This brings us full circle to what I consider to be We Are Left Without a Father Here’s largest contribution. Ultimately, however, Findlay manages to accomplish much more than just bring to light an unknown chapter in the history of Puerto Rico and its Puerto Rican diaspora. She calls for a history of Puerto Rico that tracks the movement of its people beyond national and physical boundaries. With We Are Left Without a Father Here, she begins to shatter the chasm between los de acá y los de allá, challenging the notion that the histories of island Puerto Ricans and stateside Puerto Ricans should be studied in a vacuum. Doing so, does not begin to tell the full story. We look forward to see who heeds her call.

The book:
We Are Left Without a Father Here: Masculinity, Domesticity, and Migration in Postwar Puerto Rico
By Eileen J. Suárez Findlay
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5782-7
312 pages; $24.95 [paper]
To purchase the book from the publisher click here.

© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 29 January 2016.