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History of Puerto Ricans In the US - PART THREE

Virginia Sanchez Korrol

Puerto Rican New York during the Inter-War Years describes how Puerto Rican migrants, the majority of working class background, built their larger communities across New York.

Part 3: Resources

  Brief Historical Chronology II poster

 VSK Teaching Guide Part 3 Teaching Guide

Puerto Rican New York during the Inter-War Years:

What was it like to stroll through Spanish Harlem streets on a warm spring day in the 1920s, to chance upon Puerto Rican pioneers playing games of dominoes before neighborhood bodegas or meet the legendary figures of future colonia history? Tradition has it that one such individual, Rafael Hernández, sometimes took his guitar and steaming cup of black Puerto Rican coffee out to the sidewalk, sat on the curb, feet resting in the gutter and created music. There, he filled the streets of el barrio with strains of Puerto Rican danzas, wafting nostalgic remembrances of the homeland.  Almacenes Hernández opened for business in 1927 and held the distinction of being the first Latin record store in East Harlem. Owned by Victoria Hernandez, sister of the acclaimed composer Rafael, the store served as a magnet for aspiring musicians.  Victoria, a trained musician and entrepreneur gave piano lessons in the back of the store while Rafael created his famous melodic compositions. These compositions, especially the revered Lamento Borincano, became so synonymous with the island home that many believed they were written there.[1]

The barrio community inhabited by Hernandez and his musician friends originated with the arrival of Puerto Rican compatriots at the Brooklyn docks in the first decades of the twentieth century. The Borough of Brooklyn offered sparse opportunities that nonetheless, seemed abundant by comparison to the difficulties that they had left behind. Since the occupation of the island, an agrarian economy, based on the commercial cultivation of one crop—sugar—predominated. Over 65% percent of the industry was controlled by four absentee American companies, which siphoned profits away from Puerto Rico contributing to a dramatic decline in the island’s employment and a small, but steady stream of outmigration. Debilitated by hurricanes in 1899 and 1926, the unprotected coffee sector received the lethal blow with American preference for Brazilian and Colombian imports. The profitable tobacco sector and needle trades industry were also U.S.-controlled.  Moreover, the American tariff system bound the island into paying the same prices for imported goods as did the people in the United States, even though the standard of living in Puerto Rico was considerably lower.  Such goods consisted of basic foodstuffs, tools, textiles and other consumer commodities. An export trade could not be sustained because the island was forced to utilize a United States shipping monopoly. In sum, life in the U.S. colony of Puerto Rico was characterized by extreme poverty.  For increasing numbers of Puerto Ricans, opportunities for a better life existed elsewhere.

Pioneer migrants came in search of that better life. Each individual believed he or she embarked upon a personal odyssey, voluntarily executed.  The fact remained that island conditions visibly eroded with each passing year and held little promise for conceivable futures. The Socialist, cigar maker Bernardo Vega described life in the United States, especially New York City, between 1916 and the aftermath of the Second World War. The years spent as a political and community activist, writer and intellectual began inauspiciously as narrated in the following passage:

The topic of conversation, of course, was what lay ahead: Life in New York. First savings would be for sending for close relatives. Years later the time would come to return home with pots of money. Everyone’s mind was on that farm they’d be buying or the business they’d set up in town . . . All of us were building our own little castles in the sky.[2]

As a young, single woman, Elisa Santiago Baeza’s journey was somewhat different. The oldest daughter of impoverished farmers, Elisa came to work as a nanny and remained in the city for over 30 years. Eventually, she formed part of the return migration when she retired to Puerto Rico in 1966.  She came because, “We were eleven, six females and five males. My father always provided for us selling fruits and vegetables at the Puente de Balboa. But we were poor and as the oldest female, I was like a second mother. The burden of caring for the younger children was always on me. In 1930, I was invited to go to New York to live with my cousin. I went and stayed.”[3] 

Jesùs Colòn stowed away in search of adventure and opportunity. At the tender age of 16, Colòn simply walked up the plank to board the S.S. Carolina in 1918, where a friend sequestered him inside the linen closets. Colòn records his experiences in his essay, “Stowaway.”

Thus passed the days and nights traveling under strict war regulations, darkness during the night—for the United States was at war with Germany. During the day, I was shining dishes and pans or collecting china from the tables. During the night I went to bed too tired even to be able to dream about them. . . . As the ship dropped anchor alongside a Brooklyn dock and a plank connecting dock and ship was securely fastened in its place, I went ashore as unobtrusively as I had come into the boat in San Juan Bay in Puerto Rico. I never came back to accept the steward’s offer to remain on the ship.[4]

Still others followed the trek of the seasonal worker whose propensity to leave the island for employment was already well-embedded in the Puerto Rican psyche.

The community the pioneers conceived soon spread beyond the boundaries of Brooklyn, spilling across the East River into Manhattan and the South Bronx. Puerto Ricans would predominate among a Spanish-speaking population that included Cubans, Venezuelans, Dominicans, Mexicans, Colombians and Spaniards. Low-cost tenements, cold water flats and railroad apartments that previously sheltered Jews, Italians, Irish and other immigrants now anchored Puerto Rican colonias distinct in their composition. Proximity to employment and/or access to the public transportation system that traversed the city characterized overwhelmingly working class barrios sprinkled with a Hispanic-Caribbean flavored commercial, political, religious and organizational network. These, in turn, energized the formation of tightly-knit and self-sustaining neighborhoods.  Bodegas and other small businesses supplied basic consumer needs. Information spread, not only through oral exchanges in informal familial settings, churches, schools or social-cultural clubs that soon dotted the neighborhoods, but also through a prolific network of Spanish language broadcasts and print media. The latter encompassed an impressive array of periodicals, dailies, newsletters, radio, stage and cinema. Regardless of national origin, media bonded together a broad, diverse Hispanic community.[5]

Language and cultural maintenance bonded inter-ethnic relations, connected island with New York colonias and the broader Spanish American Caribbean world. New York Latinos read Spanish newspapers, listened to Spanish language radio stations, joined groups that promoted language and cultural concerns, danced and listened to Latin music and patronized Spanish language films and stage presentations. The writer activist, Erasmo Vando (1996-1988), along with fellow artists like playwright Gonzalo O’Neill, among others, made impressive contributions in this regard. An actor, Vando produced and directed original theatrical and musical presentations. These were often staged at the Union Settlement House, the Audubon Ballroom, Town Hall, the Park Palace or Carnegie Hall and played to Puerto Rican and Latino audiences. [6]

Foreign and domestic politics also influenced inter-war enclaves, uniting them in common cause with non-Puerto Rican Latino communities. Organizations such as The Porto Rican Brotherhood of America, founded in 1926 or the Liga Puertorriqueña e Hispana, 1927, addressed collective national interests, which included advocacy for civil rights. Aware of the powerless position of U.S. Puerto Ricans, a 1927 editorial in Gráfico laments:

The most vulnerable group of those who comprise the large family of Ibero-Americans in New York City is the Puerto Ricans. Truly it seems a paradox that, being American citizens, they should be the most defenseless . . . For these reasons it is here that Puerto Ricans require a knowledgeable individual authorized to represent and advise them in those relationships which, by virtue of the environment in which we, as aliens, find ourselves, must be maintained with other social groups. [7]

Socially and politically oriented groups labored to protect the civil rights of all Hispanics, a preoccupation that included monitoring international affairs of state in the countries of origin. Puerto Rican groups joined other associations in support of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.  Hundreds of barrio residents took to the streets to protest the slaying of innocent Nationalist victims, an event bitterly recorded in island history as the Ponce Massacre. Organizations demonstrated against Fascists in Spain and dictatorships in Cuba and Venezuela. Such lessons in solidarity stemmed from a shared heritage in Latin America and the Hispanic Caribbean but even then forecast manifestations of a collective Hispanic or Latino identity in stateside communities. Both Bernardo Vega and Jesus Colòn, long time activists and community supporters, gave importance to a unified Puerto Rican and Latino pueblo, often articulating sentiments of solidarity in their writings.[8]

Leadership was more often internal, seldom recognized as such by the wider non-Hispanic society.  Pura Belpré was one such individual. The first Puerto Rican librarian in the city’s public library system, Belpré recognized the need to maintain traditional family values and a sense of identity against the institutionalized process of Americanization.  She figured in the founding of numerous organizations dedicated to promoting such ideals, among them the Liga Puertorriqueña, Alianza Obrera, Puerto Rico Literario and the Asociaciòn de Escritores y Periodistas Puertorriqueños. A folklorist, writer and story teller, Belpré incorporated traditional Puerto Rican tales into oral and written children’s literature. She developed innovative programs for the city’s libraries, schools, settlement houses and community centers. Her audiences were of mixed heritage, representative of New York’s diverse ethnic communities,  many of whom were budding teachers preparing to instruct Latino children in the public schools.  In many ways Belpré’s legacy foreshadowed contemporary Head Start initiatives; she deliberately utilized the migrants’ island experience, as well as bilingual and multicultural elements in her programs. The artistic and literary giants of the Spanish-speaking world, including the Puerto Rican tenor, Antonio Paoli, the Spanish scholar, Federico de Onis and the Chilean Nobel Laureate, Gabriela Mistral, added cultural luster to Belpré’s library programs and professional associations.  Engaging and enthusiastic, she managed to enlist their participation whenever they were in the city. Local activists also lent valuable support.[9]

In great measure, the people’s grass-roots leaders shared a commitment to work towards the betterment and advancement of the Puerto Rican and Latino community. They expressed concern for preserving the group’s rich heritage even as they formulated strategies for claiming their rights as American citizens. A mark of their leadership abilities rested on their intimate knowledge of neighborhoods and the local bureaucratic structure confronted on a daily basis. Leadership emerged within a variety of contexts, including the ranks of labor, politics, group formation, and in a small professional class composed of physicians, lawyers, dentists, teachers and social workers. It arose among entrepreneurs, bodegueros (grocery store owners) and owners of botanicas and was evident among the clergy, nuns, Protestant ministers, missionaries, santeros and spiritualists. Some leaders remained within the regional confines of the barrios, providing insulation against the hostile environ, but many emerged as brokers between the world of their compatriots and the city’s overarching organizational and bureaucratic structure. Intermediaries, visionaries, organizers, spiritual and social service providers, all engaged, nonetheless, in performing a multitude of mundane daily tasks and personal interactions required of them in the business of building community.   

Contrary to popular notions, women played major roles in this regard. The Reverend Leoncia Rosado Rousseau, or “Mama Leo,” as she was known to her followers, embraced pastoral service from the moment she arrived in New York City during the 1930s. Some 20 years later, she launched an impressive campaign within the Pentecostal Church against drug abuse. Centered on innovative rehabilitation programs, addicts received religious orientation as motivation for a productive life. Among the first to shatter gender barriers in what was then a closed profession, Reverend Rosado Rousseau was also among the earliest to guide her fundamentalist sect into the service of community. Her contemporary, Carmela Zapata Bonilla, or Sister Carmelita, was the first Puerto Rican Trinitarian nun in the city. She became an advocate, specifically in the interests of Brooklyn’s Puerto Rican barrios, where she spent a major part of her life. Her missionary work nurtured all of the poor multiethnic children in the borough, but it was the plight of the Puerto Rican migrant that sparked personal compassion. An activist since the period of the Depression, Sister Carmelita advocated for the homeless before authorities and helped reinstate evicted families into apartments. At a time when social welfare services were virtually nonexistent, Sister Carmelita developed health, housing and educational programs through Church auspices such as Catholic Charities. She was also among the first to admit that she capitalized on personal connections with influential figures within the Puerto Rican community, regardless of their spiritual leanings, to secure necessary resources for her programs.[10]

The reality of life in poor, working class barrios meant inadequate health, housing and sanitation conditions, pitiful wages, uncertain employment outcomes, limited access to education and other training opportunities, and exploitation and discrimination. The crumbling tenements or cold water flats that sheltered most Puerto Rican migrants compounded the inhospitable psychological ambiance they inhabited.   Accustomed to life in a multi-racial society, where color barriers played secondary roles to class and culture, Puerto Ricans entered a biracial world where white was viewed as positive, while blackness was devalued. They now found themselves perceived as blacks, sharing the brutal racist discrimination that permeated African American life in the United States. Ethno-racial discrimination, restrictive residential, employment and union practices exacerbated a situation already compromised by the migrants’ limited occupational skills and low proficiency in the English language. Sociologist Felix Padilla confirms the fact that this negative atmosphere was not confined to New York. Writing about Puerto Rican Chicago, he interjects, “Puerto Ricans were perceived as lazy in an ambitious culture, improvident and sensuous in a moralistic society, happy in a sober world and poor in a nation that offers riches to all who care to take them.”[11]

Inevitably, enforced lifestyle alterations resulted from the migration experience bringing about changes that were sometimes assimilated into the culture and at other times rejected. Women increasingly shouldered more of the economic burden. In spite of the fact that women in Puerto Rico already comprised some 25 percent of the work force in the early decades of the century, they were nonetheless conditioned to marriage and motherhood as traditional female roles and expected to be supportive mates in a male-dominated society. In the New York colonias, many women assumed responsibility for providing supplementary or even primary household incomes, a situation that often provoked a shift in gender roles within the family. Working wives with unemployed husbands tested traditional familial codes. 

Skilled in the sewing of garments, Puertorriqueñas soon predominated in the clothing manufacturing industry. They worked in restaurants, laundries, factories; as nannies and as housekeepers in domestic service. They contributed to both the formal and informal financial sectors of the economy, becoming adept at juggling home and child rearing obligations, while working as piece workers in the home needlework industry. In their domestic surroundings, in the company of other women and children, Puertorriqueñas produced blouses, handkerchiefs, undergarments; embroidered and crocheted fine garments; fabricated flowers and decorative lamp shades; made belts and other accessories. Such settings provided the context for the transmission of cultural values, personal beliefs, reminiscences of the island ways and work skills. A sector known for exploitative practices, salaries ranged between six and eight dollars a week. In 1933 some 402 Puerto Rican women were known to have worked in the home for manufacturers, sub-contractors or personal clients, but these figures may have been inaccurate, as the practice continued well into the decades of the 40s and 50s.[12]

In addition, Puertorriqueñas pioneered numerous entrepreneurial ventures not unlike those traced to the experiences of other immigrants and African Americans. In Puerto Rican barrios these included institutionalizing the business of caring for children whose mothers worked outside the home and providing room and board for paying non-family members. Significantly, women’s enterprises enabled the cohesion of inter-war communities during their most formative and vulnerable stages. As women fostered socio-cultural links; ritual kinship networks, such as god-parenting (compadrazgo); and the raising of foster children (hijos de crianza), they extended communal bonds at a point when nuclear families predominated over extended family composition. It was often through such cooperative networks that life-long friendships formed and marriages were made. As had been customary in Puerto Rico, family units provided the basic economic source of support. Families shared apartments during difficult times and opened their homes to recently arrived migrants regardless of their economic straits. As social-cultural activities anchored togetherness in the home, so did economic ventures. In times of need, rent parties, complete with live music and comida criolla, were held in the home to aid the destitute. Fortunate was the family that included restaurant employees or musicians, for these talented individuals were frequently positioned to provide for the survival of the family unit.

The work experience of the pioneer migrant generation, particularly those who came during inter-war years, was varied. Skilled cigar workers, accomplished in union organizing, committed to socialism and aware of their place within a global working class structure stood firm in their resolve to advance diaspora communities.  The collapse of the tobacco and munitions industries in the 20s relegated Puerto Rican labor to mostly unskilled work in factories, manufacturing, light industry, manual labor, restaurants, laundries and other blue-collar sectors. There they remained concentrated throughout the ensuing decades. Within a decade, the onset of the Great Depression forced Puerto Rican workers into fierce competition with other groups, including American ethnics, now reduced to extraordinary measures in order to make ends meet. The more fortunate survived through state programs in construction, the building of roads, repairing streets and other public works spurred by federal relief funds. Others returned to Puerto Rico in the earliest of a return migration that verified the close relationship between economic cycles and the island’s population movements. The period of the 40s found Puerto Ricans in civil service and supplying labor to war-related industries once again.  Dozens of Puerto Rican men and women, especially those fluent in more than one language, became post office employees during the Second World War. Others found work in transportation, communication and other essential industries. More women migrated than men, particularly as the war came to an end. They were deemed an essential labor force in the garment industry by the decade of the 50s.



Colon, Jesus. The Way It Was and Other Stories. Edna Acosta Belen and V. Sanchez Korrol, eds. (Houston, TX.: Arte Público Press, 1998).

Colon, Jesus. A Puerto Rican in New York and Other Sketches. Juan Flores, ed. (N.Y.: International publishers, 1961).

Guide to the Pura Belpre Papers, Centro Library and Archives, Hunter College, CUNY

Guide to the Jesus Colon Papers, Centro Library and Archives, Hunter College, CUNY

Guide to the Oscar Garcia Rivera Papers, Centro Library and Archives, Hunter College, CUNY.

Guide to the Erasmo Vando Papers, Centro Library and Archives, Hunter College, CUNY


Colon, Ramon. Carlos Tapia: A Puerto Rican Hero in New York (N.Y.: Vantage Press, 1976).

Matos-Rodriguez, Felix V. & Pedro Juan Hernandez eds. Pioneros: Puerto Ricans in New York City, 1896-1948 (Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2001).

Glasser, Ruth.  My Music is My Flag (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995).


Latinas in the United States.



Nemir Matos Cintron. Puerto Ricans in New York. Centro CD-Rom

Continue to Part 4

[1]   Ibid.

[2]    C. A. Iglesias, Memoirs of Bernardo Vega, 6.


[3]   Virginia Sánchez Korrol, From Colonia to Community, 41.


[4]    Jesús Colón, A Puerto Rican Migrant in New York and Other Sketches, 22–4.

[5]   Virginia Sánchez Korrol, From Colonia to Community, 69. 

[6]   The Erasmo Vando Papers Finding Aid (Evelina Antonetty Library, Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, Hunter College, CUNY, 1995), 5.

[7]   Gráfico, March 27, 1927, 2.

[8]   Although Vega was 15 years older than Colón, both began their literary and activist careers in New York at about the same time.   Vega arrived in 1916 and Colón in 1918.   Both expressed Socialist solidarity in their writings. For backgrounds see Iglesias (1984), Colón (1982), and Acosta Belén and Sánchez Korrol, eds. The Way It Was and Other Writings.

[9]   Sánchez Korrol, From Colonia to Community, 69.

[10]   Virginia Sánchez Korrol, “In Search of Unconventional Women: Histories of Puerto Rican Women in Religious Vocations Before Mid-Century,” in Ellen Carol DuBois and Vicki L. Ruiz, eds., Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in U.S. Women’s History (New York: Routledge, 1990), 322 – 32.

[11]   Felix Padilla, Puerto Rican Chicago (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987), 59.

[12]   Altagracia Ortiz, Puerto Rican Women and Work: Bridges in Transnational Labor (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press, 1996), 56. See also Lawrence Chenault, The Puerto Rican Migrant in New York (New York: Columbia University Press, 1938; New York: Russell & Russell, 1970), 72.