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Bad Press, Good Press and the Reception of Puerto Ricans in New York City, 1946-1948

Then there was “the other half” of the debate. These articles and discussions had a different tone that ranged from ethnographically curious or careful, supportive and even celebratory. Initially they were framed as an explicit response to the right-wing attacks and the sense of panic they were creating, providing better facts and alternative narratives. But eventually they changed to a more complex arguments, including considerations of the causes of the migration and the island’s conditions and relationship with the US. It is important to consider the motivations and origins of these Catholic, Jewish, leftist and liberal voices.

New Yorkers were already divided in their responses to the relative surge in the immigrant population. Anti-racist politics, welfare state liberalism, new deal liberalism and popular front radicalism were central—and divisive--aspects of New York politics and society.  Jews—then not fully considered “white” and subject to continued discrimination—were actively pursuing a politics of multi-linguistic multiculturalism in many unions and had developed broad organizations and ideologies in support of civil rights, equality and anti-discrimination, often in alliance with African American groups.  And this meant for many Jewish leaders and organizatoins positioning in support of Puerto Rican migrants.

In general, however, New York’s daily and magazine press was the principal “public” space in which support for the migrants took place. Soon the liberal press moderated its alarmist headlines and sent journalists into the communities and to the island.  The liberal, Jewish, and African American press moderated their initial panicked and sensationalistic tone about the numbers involved, shrinking the estimates from the hundreds of thousands (600,000!!) to the tens of thousands of recent arrivals.  Soon the Left-inflected, African American and liberal newspapers and magazines reported distinct versions of the Puerto Ricans as hard working, struggling citizens seeking the same basic rights as any other migrant group.  Many of these changed their focus from the migrants themselves and their characteristics to assigning blame to various institutional and structural contexts. PM, The Nation, Commonweal, pro-labor daily like the Daily News and New York Post, The Amsterdam News, the Catholic Christian Century and the Militant turned to cover the migration and its complexities in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Even the New York Times appeared to have learned its lesson after having repeated the alarmist and grossly mistaken demographic numbers that circulated in 1947, turning instead to produce far more nuanced and caerful articles. Depending on the source and the timing this friendlier treatment of the Puerto Rican migration varied from curious and naïve to firmly anti-colonial and celebratory of Puerto Rican's citizenship rights. The narratives emphasized sometimes in a stereotypical way the poverty that the depression and the sugar economy had created on the island without considering any of the recent economic changes that had facilitated the emigration.  Some in the left, pro-labor and liberal press took direct issue with the attacks by right wing and sensationalist writers and linked the “plight” of the Puerto Ricans to those of earlier immigrants that had faced both opposition and discrimination.


The African American, Catholic, liberal and left response shared many elements in understanding the emigration in the contexts of Puerto Rico’s "tropical" colonialism. One observer of the radical and black presses thought the response was less interested in supporting the migration and more in using the process to support their own political positions. Other coverage framed the worst aspects of the Puerto Rican presence in New York as part of their own critiques of American urban, working class society and the limitations of liberal capitalism. This included the knowledge that recent migrants always occupied the worst possible housing, preexisting slums (defined mostly as low quality housing and dense settlement patterns) that were being vacated by other ethnic groups—ethnic groups who had also been viciously attacked as ghetto-dwellers, slum creators or welfare dependent.  Housing costs, inflated for the newcomers by a variety of general and specific conditions, were also linked to the low wages they found in their jobs. 

These supportive responses, which accounted for a third of the coverage of Puerto Ricans in the press and periodical publications, sought to not only legitimize the presence of Puerto Ricans but to also explain their problems and support the improvement of city services in their growing communities.[5]  Sometimes the supportive press relied on realistic but still problematic descriptions that highlighted facts spun as positive characteristics as a way of dispelling the myths that were emerging about the migrants.  In some stories, readers were reminded that Puerto Rican migrants were literate, hard-working, white, had skills, and were family oriented.

But it was the liberal establishment press that produced the richest and most ethnographically sensitive journalism about the Puerto Rican migration.  The New York Times, the Daily News, the New York Post, the New Leader, the Nation, and others—all part of the diverse constellation of non-Communist social democratic and liberal politics sought to place their stories in a dialog with the complexity of the migrants and the various institutional frames in which their lives could be understood. In this way they also changed the very questions and language and helped consolidate liberal support for Puerto Rican migrants and emigration in New York City by the early 1950s.

Some of the most respected liberal “social” and left journalists wrote extensive, ten-piece coverage of the new New Yorkers in sympathetic and often brutally honest tone that shifted the debate from simplistic support or opposition to the presence of the migrants.   Some of these journalists published at various levels, in newspapers, in liberal weeklies and eventually would publish book versions that focused on specific neighborhoods or on the Puerto Rican community itself.

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[1] Findlay, Eileen J. "Dangerous Dependence or Productive Masculinity? Gendered Representations of Puerto Ricans in the Us Press, 1940-50." Radical History Review 2017, no. 128 (2017): 173-98.

[2] Oct 22 1947

[3] Lait, J., and L. Mortimer. New York: Confidential! Chicago: Ziff Davis Publishing Company, 1948.

[4] Jon Weiner, “When Old Blue Eyes Was ‘Red’: The poignant story of Frank Sinatra's politics.” The New Republic, 31 March 1986.

[5] Goldsen, Rose K. "Puerto Rican Migration to New York City."Ph.d. Dissertation, Yale University, 1953.

[6] Welfare Council of New York City. Committee on Puerto Ricans in New York City. Report of the Committee on Puerto Ricans in New York City. New York: Welfare Council of New York City, 1948.