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

The granting of US citizenship to Puerto Ricans opened the door to very positive assertions of rights and responsibility, especially in the context of migration to New York and other cities. When Puerto Ricans joined the Korean war effort by the tens of thousands these discourses expanded dramatically as a form of patriotic inclusion framed by ideas of manhood, national maturity, equality with the US and contributions to US claims about the assertion of democracy around the globe.  In this context, it became more difficult for the right wing to attack the migrants and the community, as military service served as the basis for the assertion of respectability and worth.

Yet, intractable problems of perception and image persisted for Puerto Ricans. One critical issue for the Puerto Rican migrant community was the questions of “slums.” Americans found “slums” particularly abhorrent and unacceptable. Even when not blaming Puerto Ricans for the impoverished conditions in which many lived, the broader American public expressed alarm at the worsening conditions of many blocks in East Harlem and reproduced old narratives that linked ghetto conditions to “ghetto behaviors.” 

The intellectuals and journalists around the Socialist Party, former Communist Party members, and the large liberal establishment (especially the Jewish civil and labor rights establishment) expressed support for the migrants in different languages and contexts, sometimes reproducing stereotypical perceptions even as they tried to contribute to solving problems for people in the community.  This was most clearly visible in newspapers like PM, The New Leader, The New York PostThe Nation and the Amsterdam News. They even expressed interest on the “push” forces that drove migrants out of Puerto Rico, probably misleading their readers as they emphasized Puerto Rico's economic failures, the decline of sugar and urban slums as the processese that produced emigration in those years rather than the dramatic attraction power of better jobs and higher wages for those already employed and with some industrial skills, as shown consistently by the social science data.

The labor press was a delayed participant in these debates. Some unions were already aware of their Spanish-speaking members and some, especially those under the leadership of Communist Party members or sympathizers, had already acknowledged their Spanish-speaking members by recruiting Hispanic staff or rank and file leaders, or by including bilingual sections or advertising in their newspapers. But once the massive entry of Puerto Ricans into the many unions became clear during the late 1940s and through the Korean conflict the labor press also became a major player in legitimizing and supporting the needs of Puerto Ricans, depicted as hard-working unionists with citizenship rights and with unmet needs in housing and community-based services.

Puerto Ricans themselves participated in these debates. They wrote articles, organized protests and wrote letters to counter right-wing attacks, and many second-generation activists from the community pressured liberal and leftist outlets to respond. Puerto Ricans, both recent migrants and elements drawn from the earlier migrant community and its second generation, were involved in responding to the “bad press” and redefining “the Puerto Rican problem” in different directions. Puerto Rican “politics of respectability” came to form a large part of this response. Puerto Ricans, including migrants, second generation and islanders quickly condemned and called out any visible form of bad behavior by Puerto Ricans in New York, while newspapers in Puerto Rico briefly pondered the bad image that New York ghettos were creating for both migrants and islanders. This was visible in Puerto Rico  and the New York City Spanish language press and in the letters sent to public officials including Luis Munoz Marin himself. The respectability aspect had diverse roots, but the journalism that came closest to knowing the real bad behaviors of ghetto dwelling Puerto Ricans were the Puerto Rican newspapers themselves, who thought they saw the habits of the rural poor transferred to the ghettos of New York. In other words, the “respectability politics” defense came with the caveat of reproducing class prejudices and class difference in the Puerto Rican community, in disservice to a reality which was in actuality very complex, as complex as the society that produced the migration itself.


The “pathologies”—real and perceived—of the migration would soon become a major issue for all even if they involved only a very small minority of the migrant population. Since 1945 Spanish Youth Bureau leaders had been pushing exactly for the kind of debate and attention to the needs of the poorer sectors of the community, and the debates and fights of 1947-1949 gave them the opportunity to gain more traction and develop more allies, especially with the special commission created with the Welfare Council and its 1948 study of the community’s welfare and educational needs.[6] The promotion of Columbia University’s Puerto Rican Study (paid and promoted by the island’s government and effectively led by Clarence Senior, Director of the University of Puerto Rico's Social Science Institute and soon to be Migration Division National Director) and the creation of the Migration Division office in New York also helped change the focus of the conversation especially among political and policy circles. Soon after, when Mayor O’Dwyer was pressured into forming a committee that focused on interfacing Puerto Rican community leaders with the City’s agencies the conversation, driven to some extent by political pressure from many sides, of how to link Puerto Rican migrants to problem-solving forms of support from the city and the many private agencies involved in supporting working class New Yorkers.

The arrival of Puerto Ricans in large numbers produced a real sense of crisis for those interested in providing services to a Spanish-speaking population that had grown very quickly, but also many debates: about the community’s legitimacy and needs, about the city’s preparedness to deal with a large influx of migrants which in fact were alien to the city’s dominant languages, culture, norms and conditions, as well as American responses to US colonial rule and reformism in Puerto Rico. Later, after the initial turmoil was over and the post-war Right-wing turn had subsided somewhat, the question of Puerto Ricans in New York in the 1950s became one of the critical litmus tests for the success of local liberalism and the strength of the New York City's welfare state. Puerto Ricans themselves were able to weigh in decisively on this debate, tipping the balance of New York Politics towards liberal, reformist social democracy, even as the older Puerto Rican community and the city itself moved away from popular front politics.

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Anti-discrimination Establishment, 1945-1960s

[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.