Middle Class of Empire

A (Mostly White) Middle Class of Empire, 1900-1929

As soon as Puerto Rico’s new relationship as a colonial territory of the US was established after the US invasion of July 1898, migrants drawn from Puerto Rico’s elite and middle-class sectors began to settle in New York City. These migrants were merchants, professionals and administrative staff who formed part of Puerto Rico’s growing participation in the commercial networks that connected the island to the US’s Northeastern cities, especially New York. The growing investments by US companies in agricultural commodities, alongside growth in trade facilitated by the Jones Act provided opportunities for Puerto Rican merchants, investors, intermediaries and white-collar workers. They joined a small disperse group of mostly cigar workers who had migrated (especially via South Florida) to New York in the 1890s and very early 1900s.

The island’s newspapers tracked the social lives and commercial successes of these middle class and elite migrants who worked as agents, clerks, accountants, shippers, and business owners. Before the imposition of US citizenship in 1917, citizenship was not required for Puerto Ricans to travel and reside as US “nationals,” insulated from legal controversies, a legal status that activists from this very class helped solved through ligigous action.[1] They mostly lived dispersed throughout Manhattan, and could express surprise when they randomly stumbled upon each other in the City’s streets.  They frequented familiar Spanish restaurants and local markets.[2] Visitors from Puerto Rico estimated that there were about 1500 Puerto Ricans in New York in 1918, but this estimate likely did not include the rapidly growing ship, cigar, dock and factory workers settling in West Harlem, East Midtown and Brooklyn’s Red Hook.

These middle class and elite migrants predominated until the final years of World War I, when the recruitment of workers in Puerto Rico began to reconstitute migration to New York City towards the working class, although the influx of elite and middle class Puerto Ricans remained a part of both the migration process as well as the communities in New York and eventually in California.

Puerto Rico Born Population in US

1910 554
1918 1,500 (estimated)
1920 7,364





These early middle class migrants were part of the island’s agricultural, professional and commercial sectors and were often children or grandchildren of Spaniards or other Europeans who migrated to Puerto Rico during the nineteenth century  As a result, many were comfortable with both island and Spanish identities.

Anuncios economicos.La Correspondencia 17 sept 1918.

These (usually young) members of the island’s small elite and middle class families frequently found means (however temporary) to advance their careers and find their fortune in the City’s job market. Manuel Garcia, a young poet, found a good job in a “famosa corporacion, donde es muy estimado y mejor retribuido.” Armando Lopez Landron ran a family owned business in Jersey City after joining the US army during WWI via Puerto Rico’s Camp Las Casas.[3] Another migrant had a shoe export business with his family—a young man for whom residence in New York linked him to his parent’s Asturian background: “el alma commercial un tanto yanquizada, pero el corazon es cada dia mas Asturiano.” Yet another “Asturiano” from Puerto Rico had established a textile export shop in the city while a Caguas tobacco grower and merchant, J. Sola, had commercial offices and warehousing in New York.  Antonio de Leon owned cigar factories in the city. Caguas’s ex-mayor (a growing center of tobacco production) also had many of his children placed in lucrative jobs in “casas comerciales.” Another islander exported liquor, and yet another was a newspaper cartoon designer. Doctors, bankers and commercial agents had flourishing practices, while many other islanders visited on business trips.[4]


Puerto Rico politician and educator Juan Huyke narrated his random encounters in an early 1920s ship voyage to New York. On the ship he met various teachers, a doctor, someone at the literary digest, two who were placed with a Wall Street company, and a medical school student.[5] Spanish-born islander Jose Padin ran the Spanish department of DC Heath Publishing, while Antonio Leon owned a cigar factory. One school official came to teach Spanish at De Witt Clinton High School.[6] 

In 1922 Huyke wrote of the many Spanish teachers, clerks, lawyers, guest house keepers, customs and mail staff, literature professors and federal employees spread out between New York, DC and various campuses.[7] These priviledged sectors, living dispersed in middle class areas or among Cuban or Spanish immigrants, were like ships passing in the night in relation to the slowly growing communities of Puerto Rican laborers near the Brooklyn docks, the tobacco workshops, and in south Harlem. Not only did they not share social worlds, but for years after 1917 they were mostly unaware of each other’s presence. As late as 1925, when vibrant working-class organizations and cross-class political clubs had been formed by Puerto Ricans in Brooklyn and Harlem, elite commentators from the island still declared that there were no legitimate Puerto Rican clubs in the city worthy of the name.[8]

Puerto Rican women, although not visible as merchants or professionals, worked in offices as clerks and bookkeepers, or worked as teachers, mostly in the commercial and financial districts of downtown New York. It helped that the war years boosted female middle-class hiring, with advertisements on the island for English speaking clerical and administrative positions in New York and Washington DC, with salaries of $100/month. A group of these women raised funds for a flag for the Island’s regiment during WWI.

Because of these many opportunities (and voting rights when in the US) Huyke commented, from his middle-class perch, that the Puerto Ricans' US citizenship was fully equal and not second class (“nuestra ciudadania es la misma”).[9]

Continue to Middle Class Empire page 2

[1]Gonzalez vs Williams 1902; McGreevey, Robert. Borderline Citizens: The United States, Puerto Rico, and the Politics of Colonial Migration. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2018; Venator Santiago, Charles. Hostages of Empire: A Short History of the Extension of U.S. Citizenship to Puerto Rico, 1898 to the Present. Editorial Universidad del Este, 2018.

[2]La Correspondencia, various.

[3]La Correspondencia, 23 Sept 1918.

[4]La Correspondencia, various.

[5]Huyke, Juan B. Estímulos; Libro De Inspiración Y Optimismo Para La Juventud. Chicago, New York: Rand McNally y Compañía, 1922. Huyke would soon be serving as Puerto Rico’s first creole Commissioner of Education (1921-1929).

[6]Like most elite Puerto Rican leaders of the first few decades of the 20th century Padin studied and worked part of his life in the US. Padin would later become Commissioner of Education during the 1930s.

[7]Huyke, Estímulos, 197.

[8]La Prensa, 15 june 1925.

[9]Huyke, Estímulos, 197.