Puerto Rican Workers Respond to the Depression

When the Depression began in October 1929 few programs were in place to assist the massive, long term loss of income by tens of thousands of working class New Yorkers.City and Federal authorities were slow to respond with solutions to match the scale of the problem. After conditions worsened through late 1929 and 1930, the city created a special relief commission that gathered funds and distributed cash payment and provided on-site meals.[1] Through the mid-1930s, various relief and employment programs helped the thousands who were left without an income through very modest direct reilef payments or through various sorts of employment. WPA-supported public jobs began in 1936, at the same time as slow economic recovery was under way. New York City's Mayor La Guardia proved adept at using federal funds provided by the Roosevelent Governemt to develop public works projects throughout the City.

Like most working class and poor New Yorkers, Puerto Ricans encountered many problems getting access to these emergency employment and aid programs in part because of their scarcity, but also because of language and political obstacles. The community did not get access to Civil Works Administration jobs in 1933 because local employment office did not receive the listings. The Puerto Rican community was aware of these programs and fought for access.  El Curioso, a weekly variety newspaper with a populist tone, published by Jesus Colon, Bernardo Vega and others, covered changes in policy closely.[2] The Spanish-language press also followed policy changes and programs carefully. Initially Puerto Ricans had difficulty getting WPA jobs as their citizenship was doubted by officials and often had no papers with which to confirm their status. Relief and service programs improved for Puerto Ricans and other barrio residents throughout the 1930s, especially after La Guardia was elected mayor (1934) and Vito Marcantonio was elected to Congress (1934), marking a significant difference between the worst years of the Depression and the late 1930s. Mayor La Guardia, who came from the same neighborhood in East Harlem, had made commitments to the working class Italians and Puerto Ricans. In 1936, they supported the opening of a major health and service center on West 110th street that had Spanish-speaking workers and volunteers.[3]

Starting in the mid-1930s, Communist Party and American Labor Party activists helped Spanish-speaking people enroll in relief and WPA employment programs. Verdad, a Communist Party newspaper, explained relief policies to its readers. One author estimated that 25% of all Harlem (Italians, blacks, Puerto Ricans) depended on relief payments.Similar numbers were suggested by the WPA.[4] Congressman Vito Marcantonio’s East Harlem office and his Puerto Rican staff members provided a clearinghouse for paperwork and support services relating to relief and WPA work. His office helped young people get Civilian Conservation Corps jobs and helped Puerto Ricans and Italians with their new unemployment insurance and social security benefits.[5]

NARA office territories classified file 1907-1951

The Puerto Rican community itself also came up with responses to the challenges of the Depression. Community leaders put pressure on the island’s Partido Socialista to open an employment bureau sponsored by the island’s colonial government in 1930.  Seen then as the “only instance of any government established outside the continental US taking care of its unemployed nationals,” the office was directed by Leon Vivaldi, a leader of the Liga Puertorriquena e Hispana. The office provided employment and social service referrals to Puerto Rican migrants while documenting their citizenship, and expanded its staff and budget during the 1930s.[6] Vivaldi’s political ties and the influence of the workerist orientation of the Partido Socialista were evident when the office refused to make referrals to work sites with striking workers.

Struggling to live with relief or WPA jobs was difficult and led to many daily sufferings and conflicts. Evictions, lack of food, and daily conflicts were part of the lives of Puerto Ricans, which resembled the problems faced by other New Yorkers; but these were exacerbated by language barriers, lack of political clout in the Tammany Hall hierarchy and the proletarian character of the community. People’s responses to need were also politicized by the very context of the Depression. Julian Hamas refused a non-union job at a barbershop offered to him by the Home Relief agency because it was “against his principle.” As a result, he was taken off the relief rolls and soon evicted from his apartment. In protest, five members of the “Lower Harlem and Puerto Rican unemployment council” (one of the committees of the unemployed likely organized by the Communist Party) hurled his furniture into the local relief office.[7]

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[1] Williams, Mason B. City of Ambition : Fdr, La Guardia, and the Making of Modern New York. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2013; location 1520.

[2] “Pago suspendido a empleados.” El Curioso. 14 April 1934.

[3] Spanish Book, Box 1, Folder 1, Roll 269, Records of the New York Works Progress Administration, New York Municipal Archive.

[4] This is roughly confirmed by Rodriguez’s 1937 research (Rodriguez, Manuel. "A Study of the Puerto Ricans in New York City and Their Difficulties in Adjusting to Cosmopolitan Life." Thesis. Columbia University, 1937.) “Las condiciones de los "latinos" en Harlem.” Verdad 14 November 1939.

[5] Vito Marcantonio Papers, Special Collections, New York Public Library; Meyer, Gerald. Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician, 1902-1954. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989; Thomas, Lorrin. Puerto Rican Citizen: History and Political Identity in Twentieth-Century New York City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

[6] Negrón, Héctor Raúl. "A Study of the Puerto Rican Employment Service Located in New York City." Thesis (M A), Fordham University, 1940.

[7] “Court suspends 5 Furniture Hurlers,” Amsterdam News, 2 Jan 1937.