The Depression hits Puerto Rican Workers

Despite a large scale presence in New York for decades, Spanish speakers still faced obstacles in procuring services as their right to inclusion in public releif efforts was questioned formally and informally. Housing, health and recreation posed problems to the community, especially if they spoke no English. Moises Ledesma noted in 1936 the limited services for Spanish speakers and few Spanish-speaking staff in social agencies serving the communities where Puerto Ricans and other Latinos predominated.[9] But pressure from allies and the community itself helped turn the attention of social workers and other service providers towards the Puerto Rican community, an attention that was often focused on locations with large numbers of Puerto Ricans and other Spanish-speakers.

Department of the Interior Office of the Secretary Division of Territories and Island Posessions

The Depression also affected migration from the island. On one hand, it reduced the total flow of migrants by marking a significant net return of people to the island. On the other hand, it also led to the arrival of poorer, more desperate migrants with few work skills, no English and little education. One 1937 study that focused on 23 of the poorest families in Brooklyn (labeled by the authors as “the lowest class”), reported very modest, poor households. Nearly half of these families had arrived since the Depression began. The study partially confirmed fears that a few hundred recent immigrant families ended up on relief upon arrival in New York City, unable to find work.[10] A “repatriation” program, organized by the New York State Board of Charities and the Red Cross, encouraged and paid for a few dozen Puerto Rican families to return to the island starting in 1931. This was a coordinated effort, with Puerto Rico's Governor Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. and urged islanders not to migrate to New York as it was likely they would end up in a more precarious position.[11] The agencies established a policy of paying for travel costs for migrants with no source of income willing to return to the island, and 60% of their cases accepted the return passage.[12] Forty-one people were returned by State Welfare in 1937.[13] Knowledge of the "repatriation" program created an uproar in the community’s organizations and colonial administrators until it became clear that it was based on voluntary participation and was part of similar efforts for migrants from other parts of the US.

Social workers, focused on the poorest and least adjusted, found, predictably, that the initial explanation for the extreme poverty of Depression era migrants was their lack of English skills, which were now doubly important for survival in managing public agencies, public employment and patronage/service networks.[14] Brooklyn social agencies reported being “swamped” by requests for aid and relief from Puerto Ricans in 1930.[15] By the end of the decade there were 2,380 Puerto Rican relief cases, still a modest number considering the number of Puerto Rican households. This figure was thought to be large by administrators, even though it represented only 5% of Puerto Rican households. Puerto Rican and New York agencies collaborated in researching the needs of these families. They reported that 60% of the poorest families offered paid transport to Puerto Rico took the offer, with continuity of caseworkers transferred to Puerto Rico agencies.[16]

Relief payments were critical to those who were already vulnerable. An older woman from San Juan lived alone and worked in a large factory in Hoboken but lost her job. She then alternated periods of illness with domestic and janitorial work, but had to go on relief for years in the late 1930s. Her very poor health and lack of English kept her isolated. In her ill health she could barely get up and down the stairs. Her only source of strength came from her participation in both the Catholic Church and the Communist Party.[17] For others, relief payments covered long stretches of unemployment despite strong work histories and skills. A schoolteacher from Villalba who grew up cutting cane, picking coffee and working in tobacco factories on the island had felt “forced to emigrate.” His family had owned a modest coffee farm, but it was lost to a merchant.  When he fought against this politically connected prestamista he was fired from the school. In New York, in 1926, he began work as a carpenter and metal worker at the United Wire Works in upper Harlem, making a good wage of $25/week. At the wire works they had an “independent workers union called the Excelsior Workers which really tried to defend our working conditions.” But he was laid off in the depths of the Depression in 1933. He found work until 1939 as a carpenter with the Civil Works Administration (a federal jobs program) but was fired and had to go on relief. “I must work and can’t stand being idle…That I would like to see in a real building program, so that I, as a carpenter, could get steady work and feel that I’m building something.”[18]

Continue to Testimonies of the Depression

[9]Ledesma, Moises M. “Sociological Background of the Puerto Ricans.” Thesis, Columbia University, 1936.

[10]Rodriguez, Manuel. "A Study of the Puerto Ricans in New York City and Their Difficulties in Adjusting to Cosmopolitan Life." Thesis. Columbia University, 1937; "A Refugee Problem in New York: Porto Ricans Flee from Destitution into New Troubles." Better Times, 7 April 1930, 17-19; Shulman, Harry Manuel. Slums of New York. New York: A. & C. Boni, 1938, 339.

[11]McGreevey, Robert. Borderline Citizens: The United States, Puerto Rico, and the Politics of Colonial Migration. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2018.

[12]Hall, Frances Adkins. "The Problem of the Migration of Indigent Puerto Ricans to and from New York City." Puerto Rico Health Bulletin, no. 3 (Dec 1939): 496-504.

[13] The New York Times, 24 March 1937.

[14] Another study of an East Harlem “slum” block found 20% of families spoke no English. (Shulman, Slums of New York.)

[15]The New York Times, 22 May 1930; 2 April 1930, Thos. J. Rile, Brooklyn Bureau of Charities, to William Hodson, New York Welfare Council, Box 1138, File 9-8-116, Classified file, 1907-1951, Record Group 126, Office of Territories. United States National Archive.

[16]Hall, Frances Adkins. "The Problem of the Migration of Indigent Puerto Ricans to and from New York City." Puerto Rico Health Bulletin, no. 3 (Dec 1939): 496-504.

[17]Case history no. 1 1939, Spanish Book section, WPA Records, New York Municipal Archive.

[18]Case history no 2. 1939, Spanish Book section, WPA Records, New York Municipal Archive.