Home » Education » History of Puerto Ricans In the US - PART SEVEN

History of Puerto Ricans In the US - PART SEVEN

Virginia Sanchez Korrol

Politics explores the period of activism that occurred during the late 1960s and 70s is known as the Puerto Rican Movement. This class also looks at key major outcomes of Puerto Rican civil rights struggles are illustrated by the number of leading institutions and organizations that Puerto Ricans created to service the community in areas such as education, social and health services, public policy, politics, and cultural preservation and enrichment.

Part 7: Resources


 Brief Historical Chronology IV poster

 Teaching Guide


No one in the Congressional gallery seemed to notice the diminutive, slender woman in the gray suit. She had come to the United States in 1948, six years before that fateful day in March would forever change her destiny. At 34 years of age, the divorcee worked as a sewing machine operator in New York, an occupation that belied her true profession as a revolutionary patriot in the service of her homeland. She was Lolita Lebrón, a leader in the movement to free Puerto Rico from U.S. imperialism. Her eloquent statements stirred the souls of her compatriots; her actions on behalf of liberty would be recorded in the history books for decades to come.

Before God and the world,” she wrote, “my blood claims for the independence of Puerto Rico. My life I give for the freedom of my country. This is a cry for victory in our struggle for independence, which for more than half a century has tried to conquer the land that belongs to Puerto Rico. I state forever that the United States are betraying the sacred principles of mankind in their continuous subjugation of my country, violating their rights to be a free nation and a free people....[1]

Words written on a crumpled piece of paper discovered in the recesses of her purse revealed the revolutionary zeal of the leader of the only attack in history on the United States Congress. Besides Lolita Lebrón, the Nationalist band included three young patriots, all in their late 20s. They were Rafael Cancel Miranda, Andrés Figueroa Cordero and Irving Flores Rodríguez. Five U. S. Congressmen were wounded on that fateful day of March 2, 1954, when the Nationalists exploded a barrage of bullets intended to protest the Commonwealth status of Puerto Rico on a global stage—an act that would bound the island to the United States indeterminately.

Interjections of island politics and continental political mobilization were not unknown in U.S. Puerto Rican barrios. Indeed, adherence to independence ideologies was undoubtedly the major driving force in forming late nineteenth and early twentieth century exile colonias. The organizations that structured inter-war communities, regardless of geographic location, advocated strong political agendas. In New York politics, they were openly addressed in the charters of incorporation of labor organizations or fraternal associations like the Porto Rican Brotherhood of America and the Liga Puertorriqueña e Hispana. It was evident in the anti-colonial stands taken by hometown clubs regarding island and mainland political conflicts, and in the support given to politicians and party platforms. And it was a determining factor in the Puerto Rican groups that aligned themselves with dominant U. S. political party structures. In the early years of the migration, educational centers like La Escuela Francisco Ferrer y Guardia, were anarchist influenced. The first Puerto Rican division of the Socialist Party in the continental United States appeared in New York City’s El Barrio in 1918, and the Puerto Rican branch of the Communist Party was founded in 1927. The latter’s focal point in the New York community was El Centro Obrero Español, which published La Vida Obrera, a community press, and participated in labor organizing.[2]

Spanish Harlem housed two democratic, one republican and one independent political party clubs by 1936. These coexisted with radical and left wing organizations, politically oriented socio-cultural clubs and numerous fraternal associations. [3]The election of Oscar García Rivera, who ran on a Fusion Republican American Labor Party coalition ticket, to the New York State legislature in 1937, signaled the first time a Puerto Rican was elected to a major office in the continental United States. A social reformer, García Rivera defeated Democratic and Republican opponents to regain his seat in the Assembly in 1938, but Puerto Ricans would not again serve in the State Legislature until the mid-60s when Carlos Rios was elected to the City legislature as Councilman- at-large. In addition, a justice of the civil court, a state senator, and three state assemblymen were Puerto Rican. Since then, Puerto Rican men and women have consistently served in the City and State legislatures and judiciary.[4]


Established political figures, often lawyers and other professionals, frequently come out of organizational connections and were experienced in negotiating through the complex bureaucratic system. Many were connected with a broad array of programs underwritten by War on Poverty funding. Others, of whom Herman Badillo is perhaps the best known on a national scale, came from the reform wing of the Democratic Party. Badillo became the Commissioner of the Department of Relocation in 1961 and rose to become Bronx Borough President within four years. The first Puerto Rican to serve in the United States Congress in 1968, Badillo became New York City Deputy Mayor within ten years. Besides Badillo, four Puerto Ricans served in the Congress of the United States: Robert García, José Serrano and Nydia Velázquez from New York and Luis Gutiérrez from Chicago.  Among them, García was the only one born in the continental United States. Ironically,although predominantly representing diasporic communities, Puerto Ricans elected to the Congress of the United States would broker affairs of the island as well. This was true with the recent attempts to set limitations on Internal Revenue Service Code 936, which promotes tax cuts for mainland corporations operating in Puerto Rico. Serrano, Velázquez and Gutiérrez followed political agendas conducive to the well–being of all Puerto Ricans, regardless of place of residence.

The political mobilization of Puerto Rican and other Latino communities from the 70s to the present is impressive. It belies stereotypical notions based on electoral participation as the sole indicator that labeled the group complaisant when it came to politics. In the 40s and 50s, voting was certainly discouraged by the imposition of an English language literacy test or the requirement of a sixth grade equivalency. While electoral participation may not have measured up to the island’s overwhelming political involvement, where 85 percent of the voting population cast ballots in municipal and island-wide elections, politics in U.S. settings took a decidedly collective orientation. In the early 70s, New York Puerto Ricans protested patterns of discrimination in public housing. They utilized demonstrations, letter writing campaigns, petitions and other lobbying efforts to influence the New York Housing Authority to reform the process of tenant selection. Their struggles led to reforms in the tenant selection process. In Chicago the grass roots Caballeros de San Juan targeted the electoral process as the vehicle most likely to affect representation in city and state legislatures. Their efforts proved instrumental in promoting political participation. In Philadelphia a federation of seven barrioassociations called the Puerto Rican Alliance, fought for housing, education and legal reforms. And in Boston’s South End, numerous community struggles led to the creation of a Puerto Rican and Latino housing project, elected and appointed officials in key government agencies and educational reform.

The mobilization of community groups around issues like bilingual education, decentralization, housing and community control, and the militant legacy of the 60s and 70s brought forth groups that, although following in radical traditions, were mostly unaware of the rich political heritage of the Puerto Rican diaspora communities. They included the Young Lords in Chicago, and later in New York, who attempted to rectify decades of community neglect and outright discrimination. Others were the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, El Comité, and the Puerto Rican Students’ Union. These groups composed mostly of second generation, streetwise and college educated Puerto Ricans were well-versed in the dynamics of barrio life. Challenging traditional political hegemony, labeled as conservative and unresponsive to the pressing needs of diaspora communities, the young people turned once again to radical politics and civil disobedience.[5]

Grassroots protestations challenged established party politics considered to be outmoded and ineffective. An important case in point, the Young Lords Party advocated and took action on basic and immediate community concerns. In New York, the party’s manifesto postulated U.S. Puerto Ricans as the children of a forced migration, victims of a racist society and capitalist exploitation. They believed a radical socialist alternative was the only viable solution for meaningful reform and that independence for the island was an important factor in their agenda. In Chicago the Lords transformed ideology into action when they occupied the McCormick Theological Seminary to protest poverty in the near North Side. They opened a day-care center in the basement of a Methodist Church and “liberated” urban renewal land at Armitage and Halsted, where they created a people’s park.[6]  The issue driven actions of the New York Lords followed similar suit. Their attempts to solve pressing community needs included confiscation of a mobile clinic to test ghetto children for tuberculosis and lead poisoning. Writer Michael Abramson described them as:

...a new ingredient in the history of the Puerto Rican protest movement. On the island, leaders of the far left and/or pro-independence groups have usually come from middle or upper class backgrounds, and their styles of action and oratory have been in the traditional Hispanic mold. By contrast, the Lords are mainly the children of poor migrants; they have been raised in urban ghettos, and English is their first language.[7]

Moreover, the Young Lords’ agenda stretched beyond Puerto Rican concerns and membership as they advocated for the rights of all Latinos. Self-determination and liberation of all third world people, blacks, Chicanos, Dominicans, Haitians and poor whites held priority consideration in their platform for social reform. Between 1969 and 1974, the Lords set a respectable record for community empowerment in New York. Their fame and notoriety attracted followers from the cities’ urban barrios, especially among the young. The Lords joined with other groups to defend bilingual, bicultural education and pressed successfully for open enrollment in the universities and towards establishing academic departments and programs in Puerto Rican and Latino Studies.[8]  Undoubtedly, these efforts characterized a historic episode in shaping contemporary mainland communities.

Presently, the 1990 census data reveals a complex reality regarding U.S. Puerto Ricans. Researchers Rivera-Batiz and Santiago observe the onset of a socio-economic polarization among the group, which indicates the progress of the late 80s was not equally shared. As Puerto Ricans comprise an increasing middle class in some states where they are found in heavy concentrations, the group hovers below the poverty level in other states, including Connecticut and Massachusetts. California Puerto Ricans, for example, are relatively better off than other Latinos, and in Texas, they enjoy a strong labor force participation rate.  Florida and Massachusetts have the fastest growing communities in the nation, but New York City’s growth rate dramatically declined in the period from 1980–1990. Communities in Connecticut and Massachusetts ranked relatively low in terms of income and employment, but New York City continues to rank high in both categories. In the 80s and 90s, migratory flows from island to mainland communities paralleled that of the Great Migration period. While this accounts for a steady population growth, close to 60 percent of all U.S. Puerto Ricans are mainland-born.[9]  To fully appreciate the evolution of stateside communities and, by extension, our American multicultural heritage, it is critical that histories of Puerto Ricans address diversity within and outside of specific geographic regions. This, then, raises major challenges, but also opportunities in teaching about U.S. Puerto Ricans.



Guide to the papers of Oscar Garcia Rivera. Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos, Hunter College, CUNY.

Guide to the papers of Felipe Torres, 1920–1994. Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos, Hunter College, CUNY.

Guide to the papers of Frank Torres, 1984–1988. Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos, Hunter College, CUNY.

Guide to the papers of Rafael Anglada, 1970–1989. Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos, Hunter College, CUNY.

Guide to the papers of Helen Rodriguez-Trias, 1981–2001. Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos, Hunter College, CUNY.

Guides to the Records of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos, Hunter College, CUNY.

Iglesias, A. Memoirs of Bernardo Vega. (NY: Monthly Review Press, 1984).


La Escuela Electronica.

Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos, Hunter College, CUNY.


Latinas in History




[1]   Kal Wagenheim and Olga Jiménez de Wagenheim, The Puerto Ricans: A Documentary History, 206. At present 15 Nationalists are imprisoned in U.S. facilities for their political views.

[2]   Gerald Meyer, “Marcantonio and El Barrio,” 68. 

[3]   Ibid.

[4]   Virginia Sánchez Korrol, From Colonia to Community, 190–1.  

[5]   Pablo “Yoruba” Guzmán, “Puerto Rican Barrio Politics in the United States,” in Clara E. Rodríguez and V. Sánchez Korrol, eds., Historical Perspectives on Puerto Rican Survival in the United States, 144–151. See also Michael Abramson, Palante: Young Lords Party (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971), and Felix Padilla, Puerto Rican Chicago, 120–3.

[6]   Felix Padilla, Puerto Rican Chicago, 121.

[7]    Kal Wagenheim and Olga Jiménez de Wagenheim, The Puerto Ricans: A Documentary History, 311–2.

[8]    Ibid. See also Pablo “Yoruba” Guzmán, “Puerto Rican Barrio Politics in the United States.”  

[9]    Franciso L. Rivera – Batiz and Carlos Santiago, eds., Puerto Ricans in the United States: A Changing Reality (Washington, D.C.: National Puerto Rican Coalition, Inc., 1994).