Testimonies of the Depression

One worker had picked tobacco on the island since childhood. As a kitchen helper at a New York hotel he made $13/week with meals, followed by a bus boy job when the Depression started, moving from cafeteria to cafeteria: “I am far from lazy, the best I can anywhere is bus boy, I can be dishwasher, or kitchen helper in a hotel, but beyond that I don’t get.”  When interviewed in 1937, he was a member of Local 302 of the Cafeteria Employees Union, earning $15/week plus meals. Supplementary relief of $20/month helped with his family expenses, and he still felt he was better off than in Puerto Rico.



R.P. grew up in San Sebastian and migrated to New York in 1926 because he had, “suffered too much there,” working in Santurce’s tobacco factories and then doing housework “at starvation wages” (“I never want to go back”). But things in New York “haven’t been much better.” Unemployed since 1931, and on relief with $12/week, he worked on and off jobs in factories and laundries.  He then joined the Workers Alliance (“if we don’t fight, no one will fight for us”).

The son of a poor baker from Cayey, ECS emigrated in 1919 after learning cigar-making.  His wife and children died from disease on the island where “there was never enough to eat.”  During the 1920s, he found plenty of work earning $30/week and sometimes even $40. During the long 1919 strike he had to work at the Hotel Astor wiping plates and serving food for two months. A stay in Tampa in 1930 led to eventual unemployment, and a return to New York, then Scranton, where he worked at a nonunion mechanized tobacco plant in which seven traditional cigar makers performed skilled work alongside 200 women producing a machine-made product.  A suction machine “which could be operated by women” replaced him eventually, and a return to the City kept him making cigars at a small scale with “very poor” pay—eventually he forced to apply for relief.  Like many PR cigar makers, he was a member of the Mella Club.

A self-described clerk and unlicensed doctor had his wife ordered to a colder climate for health reasons in the late 1920s.  His first job at the Merrill spring factory as a machine shop, and then as a machinist, earned him $22/week with long hours of mandatory overtime.  Lack of rest led him to a different job in an elevator manufacturing shop where he became a foreman to 25 workers but earned only $19/week. He then held ten different jobs in 18 months, all in metal factories, followed by unemployment—he and his family were starving without relief. The Salvation Army and Catholic Charities gave him food, but only for a while, and then his relief was approved.  A taxi driver license later led to an income driving, but he could not support his family on what he made and had to go back on relief twice .


A baker’s apprentice migrated and found work at the hotel commodore as a pantryman making $13/week, and later 12-hour days at cafeterias for $15 and $17. After a brief return to Puerto Rico he returned to restaurant work under the same conditions, but he had his hopes fixed “trying to get the union interested in the place so that we can better our conditions.”

Those who managed to hold on to their jobs or higher incomes were usually in higher skill positions, had more formal education, and had learned English early. After working at National Biscuit since the mid-1920s, one worker kept his high paying job through the 1930s. He learned radio repair in preparation for the arrival of TV technology. Another worker, an orphan who completed high school in Santurce, also found relative success during the 1930s. He migrated in 1931 and found much work as a “Cuban musician” for which there was a constant demand.  He worked steadily as a trumpet player making $40/week by 1939.  He also composed music for other recording artists. In the interview he showed pride that his wife, an “American from Arizona,” worked only in their Spanish-speaking home, “as long as I can afford it.”

A man from Aguadilla was a trained accountant.  Migrating in the midst of the Depression, he encountered trained accountants doing clerical work for little money, “if not washing dishes.” His first job was in the laundry of a hotel for $16/week which increased to $21 after 5 years.  But his accounting skills kept him busy on his own time earning another $26/week, which made for a “decent” living.  For him, “Puerto Ricans who come to this city and return to the homeland usually exaggerate about the prosperous conditions existing here. According to them, there was a job in every business house just waiting for you; rent, food and clothing very cheap.  I certainly regret that I made the mistake to come to New York.”

A San Juanero who migrated in 1936 had inherited a small cigar shop in Humacao from his father where he learned the trade and made a decent living, “not a get rich business.”  But he blamed the Porto Rico American Tobacco which “put the shop out of business as they monopolize tobacco plantations.”  After he migrated to San Juan, he began work at its largest cigar factory.  After one year of hard work he sent for his family.  After they migrated to New York he ran his own small shop of cigars and sold the product himself to shops and restaurants. He made $23/week, a decent wage for the Depression years, supplemented by his wife’s meager $6/week making flowers, lamps and blouses at home.




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