THE STORY OF U.S. PUERTO RICANS - PART FIVE
Virginia Sanchez Korrol
Community and Organization
Even the geographic contours of Puerto Rican barrios lay under siege by mid-century. Following the Second World War, New York confronted the challenge of urban blight. Plans to redesign and revitalize the city rested on the demolition of old, mostly poor neighborhoods under the guise of urban renewal. As old buildings crumbled, replaced by seemingly endless rows of undifferentiated housing projects, highways or middle-income lodgings, previously intact working-class neighborhoods disintegrated. Puerto Rican barrios fragmented as their inhabitants were forced to scatter, like falling leaves on a blustery day, to different sectors of the city. Affordable housing became virtually impossible to find; small businesses—bodegas and botánicas—closed their doors or relocated, taking capital with them and the critical community leadership skills they exercised. As if the upheavals resulting from urban renewal were not enough, families who applied for admission to public housing, whether in their original neighborhoods or in new areas, often failed to get in.
Extended families divided, spread out into unfamiliar boroughs, to Long Island and other distant suburban regions. Here they were forced to begin anew, confronting old patterns of discrimination based on their class or color or simply because they spoke in Spanish. New schools were not always as welcoming as the old neighborhood schools had been. For a few, the moves proved relatively propitious. The large Puerto Rican settlement in Brentwood, Long Island, beckoned some of the dispossessed. Puerto Ricans had moved to the country-like South Shore community as early as the 1930s, when the state mental institution, Pilgrim State Hospital, began to hire workers. The second largest employer in the area was Entemann’s Bakeries, a major plant in the region that hired skilled and semi-skilled workers. Soon Puerto Ricans in Brentwood began to own homes and businesses, enabling the budding of local leadership. This community provided a source of refuge for many seeking to escape the trials of urban life or to return to a bucolic setting much like what they had left behind in Puerto Rico.
For others, however, dispersal meant a breakdown of familial and communal support systems. At a time when the migration from the island was at its peak, invigorating and reinforcing Latino/Hispanic barrios with human potential, the economic, communal and organizational structure of diaspora communities faced dismal prospects. Increasing poverty and the overall distressed condition of the New York Puerto Rican community had reached alarming proportions. Earlier associations, self-help societies, social organizations and the professionally oriented groups that had helped shape communities in the inter-war years were also affected by the increase and broad dispersal in the city’s population. Organizations simply did not have sufficient resources or political access to state or city-wide agencies to address social or economic ills of such magnitude. Some, like Casita María, a religious, multi-service agency, continued to service the community opening branches in boroughs with high concentrations of Spanish-speaking individuals; other groups became inactive.
Ironically, the support of key religious institutions also failed to meet the needs of the Puerto Rican community at this critical juncture. Since 1902, Catholic Churches exercised a limited ministry to the Hispanic population offering religious and pastoral services in the native language in a handful of churches. Our Lady of Guadalupe, the only church that utilized Spanish language services in the early years of the migration, was soon joined by La Milagrosa, St. Cecilia, Holy Agony, Most Holy Crucifix and La Esperanza in later decades. National parishes in New York were institutionalized, and had served Catholic immigrant populations throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These offered bilingual, bicultural ministries, observed national holidays and essentially softened the edges in the process of Americanization. Unlike the experiences of Irish or Italian Catholic immigrants whose religious clergy accompanied their countrymen across the ocean or, in the case of Cubans in the 1960s, whose priests fled Castro’s government alongside the refugees, Puerto Ricans had no clergy to bring. The Church in Puerto Rico historically discouraged the propagation of a native clergy, preferring to import priests and nuns from Spain.
However, as Puerto Rican barrios multiplied, the descendants of European immigrants moved away from the old neighborhoods, leaving behind sparsely filled churches that catered to the needs of remaining aged parishioners. The head of the New York Diocese, Francis Cardinal Spellman, chose not to continue the practice of national churches, instituting the concept of integrated churches, where all people could share pastoral resources. For Puerto Ricans this translated into basement services in neighborhood parishes dominated by non-Hispanic Catholics. Masses in Spanish were celebrated once a week by Spanish-speaking priests, representatives of a variety of national derivations, imported for the express purpose of dispensing the sacraments. From the Puerto Rican perspective, sociologist Díaz-Stevens relates:
For one thing, the Puerto Ricans and Latinos did not feel that the parish truly belonged to them, although they did identify with the parish and worked assiduously to create a Puerto Rican/Latino worshipping community here. “Toleration” rather than “ownership” marked their “belonging.” In fact, instead of being integrated into the existing parish community, they were relegated to the basement church, where they often remained “out of the sight and mind” of church officials and the English-speaking congregation. “Let’s keep them in their place,” was the prevailing sentiment of the other parishioners and the older clergy.
Reorganization and Expansion:
As the organizational structures of pioneering colonias no longer provided viable structures to address the needs of Puerto Ricans, other groups, many supported by War on Poverty funding, emerged with broad agendas that did. New or refocused entities, such as the hometown clubs, emerged in the 50s and 60s to confront initial reactions to relocation in dozens of urban centers throughout the states. Some, like Chicago’s Los Caballeros de San Juan, were religion oriented groups which nonetheless went on to dominate Puerto Rican life through community activism. Others, like the multiple branches of the Migration Division found in numerous cities with large Puerto Rican concentrations, were government sponsored. And still others were multi-service agencies that grew out of the needs of the communities.
The Puerto Rican Association for Community Development, PRACA, ASPIRA, the Puerto Rican Forum, the Puerto Rican Family Institute, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Hometown Clubs and the Office of the Commonwealth were among those groups in New York that responded to the urgent socio-economic conditions of the period. These high profile organizations developed regional, state and national agendas and formed offshoots in other states with large Puerto Rican concentrations. A precursor among this assemblage, the Migration Division of the Department of Labor of Puerto Rico opened its doors in New York City in 1948. Its mission was to minimize the adjustment experience of new migrants and to broker between Puerto Rico and the diaspora communities. The office monitored the migratory flow from the island, including movement of the seasonal agricultural contract laborers who had trekked northward for decades. The Migration Division also served as a clearinghouse on such matters as jobs, housing, and health services. To lessen the strain on the city’s resources, the agency attempted to divert the non-seasonal migrants away from New York, encouraging them instead to take up employment and residence in surrounding states such as Connecticut or New Jersey or even in remote destinations like Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and California. To better achieve this objective, as early as 1955 the Office of the Commonwealth had established branches in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Ohio and Connecticut. Within five years, 45 percent of the migrant flow was destined for New Jersey, while 20 percent responded to the need for cheap labor in the tobacco regions of Connecticut.
Within a short time, this government-controlled agency garnered currency as the intermediary for U.S. Puerto Rican affairs, a situation which both inhibited and displaced grass-roots leadership emanating from urban barrios or rural settings. In fact, the virtual exclusion of Puerto Ricans from New York City politics during the 50s could be traced to several factors, one of which was the role assumed by the Migration Division, or the Office of the Commonwealth, as it was subsequently known. Ironically, pledged to develop communal leadership, the Office of the Commonwealth tended to bypass internal authority figures, consulting island superiors on matters affecting the New York and U.S. Puerto Rican communities.
On the plus side, many within the migrant community thought it logical to be represented by a quasi-political, highly visible agent. Migrants viewed their stay in the United States as a temporary hiatus, expecting to return to Puerto Rico once they had secured financial stability. Indeed, during the 60s and 70s a noticeable return migration of retirees of the pioneering generation, in tandem with the cyclical characteristics of the circulation of labor between both geographic points, upheld that premise. Still other Puerto Ricans supported and accommodated to the Division’s mandate to work with neighborhood groups and to encourage formation of new units as needed.
The Council of Hometown Clubs, or El Congreso del Pueblo,was one of many groups that worked with the New York Migration Division. This influential federation, led by the activist, Gilberto Gerena Valentín, incorporated some 80 clubs in 1956. The clubs functioned as extensions of island towns and cities and formed the backbone of the Puerto Rican Day Parade, the largest ethnic cultural manifestation in New York City. The clubs, which had provided a “home away from home” for many of the pioneering generation, continued to sponsor baseball teams, sports leagues and beauty pageants. They provided support for social and cultural causes, raising emergency funds for the needy, shelters and job opportunities. Under the aegis of the Council, social and hometown clubs took political positions against injustice, police brutality, racism and discrimination. The importance of hometown clubs in community development cannot be dismissed, as these were usually the first to take root on U.S. soil wherever large concentrations of Puerto Ricans and other Latinos were found.
Other organizations in New York, including the Puerto Rican Association for Community Affairs and Puerto Rican Forum, prioritized the advancement of their U.S. constituencies and grassroots origins. Their missions ultimately challenged the Migration Division’s hegemony. The Forum patterned itself after the NAACP and the American Jewish Committee. It aimed for recognition as a broad-based representative of the Puerto Rican community. Guided by an able cadre of grassroots and college educated community activists, the Forum published an assessment study of Puerto Ricans in New York in 1963 that projected immediate and long-range planning for the community’s progression. Some 60 organizations, among them ASPIRA, PRACA and the Puerto Rican Family Institute participated in the planning. Essentially, the findings of the study stressed the need to reduce poverty, raise educational attainment and strengthen the family structure through the creation of cultural, educational and other institutions.
Strategies formulated to address these urgent issues flowed in complementary directions. One, supported by the Puerto Rican Family Institute, prioritized amelioration of the migration experience; stabilizing the family structure; and confronting basic needs, such as housing, education, health and employment. The other, led by ASPIRA, called for a sharp focus on educational attainment that, in turn, would result in the creation of leadership. The latter was the brainchild of a dynamic visionary, Dr. Antonia Pantoja.
From the moment she appeared on the scene bent on promoting self-definition and determination for Puerto Rican diaspora communities, Pantoja played a leading role in devising solutions to the many problems that plagued the barrios. In the mid 50s, she joined forces with a group of young professionals to establish the Puerto Rican-Hispanic Leadership Forum, subsequently transformed into the Puerto Rican Forum. Born on the island but educated in New York City, Pantoja worked her way up the professional ladder. From her early days as a factory worker, Pantoja took up the banner for workers’ rights aiding and promoting unionization efforts. In time, she became a teacher, having earned an undergraduate degree from Hunter College of the City University of New York, and then a social worker fighting for social and educational reforms. Pantoja earned masters and a doctorate degree in social work and helped to found Boricua College. In the 80s she moved to California where she organized the Graduate School for Community Development in San Diego. Upon her return to Puerto Rico, she and Wilhelmina Perry established an economic development corporation entitled Producir. Fr. Joseph Fitzpatrick, among the first social scientists to study U.S. Puerto Ricans, refers to Pantoja as the Puerto Rican community’s inspiration and guiding spirit.
Of all of the organizations connected with Pantoja, ASPIRA is perhaps the best known. It sprang forth, as previously indicated, from pioneer work with the Puerto Rican Forum. ASPIRA, meaning to aspire, pledged to fill the leadership void so prevalent in policymaking and decisions of public and private institutions. The key to social change according to the organization’s mission was education, and ASPIRA established regional chapters in secondary schools with significant Puerto Rican and Latino populations to guide the young towards professional, business, academic and artistic goals.
In 1961, the year of ASPIRA’s birth, the numbers of Puerto Ricans graduating with academic diplomas was dismal. Indicators of poor educational attainment proved devastating. High school diplomas were earned by a mere 13 percent of Puerto Ricans 25 years and older, while more than 50 percent could claim only an eighth grade education. In 1963, a mere 331 out of a total of 21,000 completed academic programs, a necessary prerequisite for college and university admission. Conditions worsened outside of New York City. Of 11,204 males enrolled in Chicago schools, only 9 percent completed four years of high school and of 9,173 females, only 7.3 percent had done so. Only four Puerto Rican students graduated from Boston high schools between 1966 and 1969 and there were years in which no Puerto Rican student received an academic diploma. In the following decade, dropout rates in Chicago schools would hover around the 70 percent mark with equally poor showings in Philadelphia 70 percent; Boston percent and New York, 80 percent.
ASPIRA pledged to reverse these trends. Aspirantes, high school students enrolled in ASPIRA chapters, entered into an empowering, nurturing environment where they were tutored in those academic areas in which they were deficient and enriched in the study of their history and culture. Both students and their families received counseling about college opportunities, requirements and financial aid, visited campuses and attended programs to familiarize them with the process of higher education. Over time, the benefits of the program yielded an impressive harvest. Many aspirantes in important decision-making positions today bear witness to ASPIRA’s success.
Guide to the Antonia Pantoja papers, 1923-2002. Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora. Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos, Hunter College, CUNY.
Guide to the Juanita Arocho papers, 1940-1994. Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora. Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos, Hunter College, CUNY.
Guide to the ASPIRA of New York, Inc., 1959-1998. Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora. Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos, Hunter College, CUNY.
Guide to the OGPRUS, 1930-1993. Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora. Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos, Hunter College, CUNY.
Pantoja, Antonia. Memoirs of a Visionary (Houston TX.: Arte Publico Press, 2002).
Falcon, Angelo et al. Boricuas in Gotham: Puerto Ricans in the Making of New York City (Princeton, N.J.: Markus Weiner Publishers, Inc. 2004).
Latinas in History
La Escuelita Electronica. Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos, Hunter College, CUNY.
Nemir Matos Cintron. Puerto Ricans in New York City. CD-Rom. Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos, Hunter College, CUNY.