Virginia Sanchez Korrol<

Labor Migration and U.S. Policies:

The invasion of Puerto Rico during the Spanish-Cuban-American War bound the island within a U.S. political-economic orbit and promoted in turn the continental emigration of countless workers to American cities and possessions. U.S. occupation accelerated a foreign-controlled capitalist agrarian system. It ushered in decades of neglect and chronic underemployment connected with a metropolis-owned and protected sugar plantation monopoly.  Virtual eradication of coffee, tobacco and other agrarian sectors became the norm. Almost immediately, emigration loomed large as an escape valve for an increased population, viewed by U.S. government officials as excess and, therefore, fodder for relocation as a cheap source of labor. Recruitment of contract laborers by Caribbean plantation owners had drawn some Puerto Rican workers to the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador in the waning years of the nineteenth century, but this worker exodus paled in comparison to what transpired in the twentieth century.

Within the first decade of American control, Governor Charles Allen lent full support to emigration as he surmised, “... the emigration of these people can do no harm to the island. Out of a population of nearly a million, not more than 5,000 or 6,000 have emigrated—scarcely one half of one percent. They will never be missed in making up the census returns of the next decade. Porto Rico has plenty of laborers and poor people generally“.[1] Recruitment centers opened in the coastal cities of San Juan, Ponce, Aguadilla, Arecibo, Mayaguez and in the western mountain areas of Adjuntas.  Between 1900 and 1901 eleven expeditions consisting of over 5,000 men, women and children were recruited by the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association to work alongside Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Portuguese and Italians in the pineapple and sugar fields of those Pacific islands.  Contractual accords stipulated incentives—credit for transportation expenses, the availability of public education, opportunities to worship in Catholic Churches, decent wages and standard living accommodations.

[2]  However, contractual abuses abounded. The voyage to the Hawaiian Islands proved cumbersome, inflicting undue hardship and distress on the contracted workers. The trip originated in one of several ports, including the Capital City of San Juan, Ponce or Mayaguez, the island’s second and third largest cities. From there, the ships steamed to New Orleans, where the workers boarded trains bound for Los Angeles or San Francisco. The last leg of the journey was from San Francisco to Hawaii, where the workers’ contingents were parceled out in small crafts to plantations on several of the islands. 

Families were particularly attractive to recruiters as they were known to provide stability and greater length of service. Women, therefore, were as important for a successful recruitment effort as were the men. Salary differentials as stipulated in the labor contracts placed women and girls at a distinct disadvantage, but this was not an uncommon situation, as female labor had been traditionally undervalued in Puerto Rico. Women were conditioned to work for considerably lower wages. Their primary function, after all, was perceived in conventional terms: the reproduction of children, integration of the family unit, transmission of cultural values and traditions and, by extension, reproduction of the workforce. Nevertheless, the contracted workforce found great distinctions between the agricultural system as practiced in Hawaii and what they were used to in Puerto Rico. Many of the workers came from the island’s depressed coffee sector, characterized by paternalistic relations between landowner and worker. In Hawaii, the Borinkis, as they were called, were used to temper the organizing efforts of the Japanese. Puerto Ricans were segregated in work camps surrounded by groups who spoke different languages, conducted different lifestyles, utilized different modes of transacting trade and worshipped different gods. 

As early as 1903, 539 Puerto Rican children were enrolled in Hawaiian schools. Within three years this figure rose to 650, and there are indications that Puerto Rican women were already employed as teachers as early as 1924. Puerto Ricans constituted 2.2 percent of the Hawaiian population in 1923, just over 5,000 individuals. Despite increased outmarriage, dispersal and isolation of Puerto Rican workers throughout the islands and limited involvement with the homeland, 9,551 individuals claimed a Puerto Rican identity in the 1950 census.[3]

Unrest among the worker contingents surfaced almost immediately as reports describing the migrants’ horrendous ordeals appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times and newspapers in Puerto Rico.Desertion was not uncommon, and tales of individuals who refused to board Hawaii-bound vessels account for the emergence of the earliest Puerto Rican settlements in California. Men and women deposited on San Francisco wharves ultimately secured employment in Alameda and Santa Clara counties and went on to form the earliest Puerto Rican organizations in California. The Puerto Rican Club of San Francisco (1911) and the Club Puertorriqueño de California(1923) promoted progressive agendas pledged to advancement and maintenance of the island’s cultural heritage and values.[4]

Despite the fact that a small contingent of contracted workers was brought into Hawaii as late as 1926, labor recruitment virtually ends in the first decade of the century, influenced in great measure by island protestations.  Puerto Rican leaders blasted the controlled emigration, citing a weakening of the island’s social and cultural fabric.  Others, intending to justify recruitment, called into question the civil status of the workers: “If the island is an integral part of the U.S., so is Hawaii, and there is no law to check the passage of laborers from one domestic point to another; and second, if Porto Rico is not an integral part of the United States, neither is Hawaii; and therefore federal laws do not apply.” [5]

Less than a hundred Puerto Rican workers were repatriated, but others remained in Hawaii and, in time, managed to make productive lives for themselves. Some became landowners, homesteading on several of the islands. Such possessions remain in the hands of these early families to the present.

As would be the patterns in other stateside colonias, organizations soon emerged to structure and coalesce the small communities. Among the earliest in Hawaii, the Puerto Rican Welfare Association appeared in the 1920s, followed in 1931 by the Civic Club. The latter sought to change the situation of Puerto Ricans. Their charter pledged to promote the general welfare and prosperity of Puerto Ricans in Hawaii and to “improve by any and all lawful and honorable means their status and condition in order to attain highest order of American citizenship.”[6]  The need to promote themselves as the American citizens that they were arose on numerous occasions. Historian Norma Carr cites several attempts to deny Puerto Ricans the right to vote. Debates over the rights of citizenship, granted to all Puerto Ricans under the Jones Act of 1917, seemed to indicate the group’s intention to stay in Hawaii. Hawaii’s Puerto Ricans had all but created their own culture by the decades of the 50s and 60s, fusing elements of both their Atlantic island heritage and their Pacific island home. Although many would continue to identify with their country of origin, they spoke English, knew little about Puerto Rico, “poured Shoyo on their bacalao and sang Hawaii Pono’i” as their native anthem. Puerto Rican-Hawaiian musicians played the ukulele instead of the ancestral quatro and, in essence, became keiki hanau o Ka’aina— children of the land.

[7]  Nevertheless, a significant Caribbean presence did reemerge with the stationing of Puerto Rican military personnel in Hawaiian bases, enriching and replenishing the contemporary community.

As Puerto Rican contract workers emigrated to various countries and American states between 1900 and 1924, they set into motion a continuum of emigration and permutations that persist to the present. Justified by the premise of overpopulation, emigration was promoted as a temporary but valuable measure. Puerto Rican men and women were openly encouraged to leave their homeland, not only for Hawaii but to set the rails in Ecuador, harvest henequen in Yucatan, work in agriculture in Colombia, as industrial workers in St. Louis, Missouri, and pick cotton and fruit in Arizona and New Mexico.[8]  Viewed from another perspective, the ten women from “good families” contracted to work in the American Manufacturing Company in Brooklyn, New York, in 1920, the earliest documented couple to arrive in Meriden for work in a Connecticut ball bearing factory in 1925, and the 20 or 30 families recruited to live and work for the Arizona Cotton Growers’ Association in 1926 set the stage for a procession of migrants that would intensify with the coming years.[9]

The dynamics of migration were inextricably linked to economic considerations and fluctuated according to market cycles. During the First World War, a shortage of semiskilled and unskilled labor in the United States stimulated the migration of 13,000 contract laborers for employment in war-related industries.  American citizenship facilitated the transfer of thousands of Puerto Ricans to mainland communities, as their relocation encompassed nothing more than was required of individuals crossing state lines. Two other factors encouraged Puerto Rican migration: the decline in the U.S. labor force due to immigration restrictions accruing from the National Origins Act in 1924 and conscription into the U.S. military. Overall, some 83,000 individuals saw action in the two World Wars, and many would use their military experience as a springboard for living in the continental United States.[10]

Between 1909 and 1916, some 7,394 individuals emigrated from Puerto Rico to the United States, but in 1917 that figure rose to 10,812 migrants.  An estimated 52,000 Puerto Ricans resided in the United States between 1920 and 1930. The prosperous period following the Great War drew Puerto Rican migrants to employment in the lowest paying sectors of production—manufacturing and light factory work, hotel and restaurants, cigar making, domestic service and laundries. However, between the period of the Great Depression and the end of the Second World War, there was a marked decrease in the annual average net migration. By the decade of the 30s, Puerto Ricans already made up over 40 percent of the New York City’s Latino population—61,463 out of a total population of 134,000.[11]

For the next 30 years, this city, so important in the earlier struggles for independence, would continue to attract the major portion of the migration.

Teacher Resources:


“First Annual Report of Charles Allen, 1900–1901,” in History Task Force, Sources for the Study of Puerto Rican Migration, 1879–1930 (N.Y.: Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos, Hunter College, CUNY, 1982), 14–15.

Guide to the Blase Camacho Souza Papers, 1899–2003

Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos, Hunter College, CUNY.

Iglesias, C. A. Memoirs of Bernardo Vega. Juan Flores, trans. (N.Y.: Monthly Review Press, 1984).

History Task Force, Sources for the Study of Puerto Rican Migration, 1879-1930 (N.Y.: Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos, Hunter College, CUNY, 1982).

Preliminary Guide to Articles in Puerto Rican Newspapers Relating to Puerto Rican Migration between 1900 and 1929.Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos, Hunter College, CUNY, 1981.


Carr, Norma. The Puerto Ricans in Hawaii, 1900-1956 (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms, 1989).

Glasser, Ruth. Aqui me quedo: Puerto Ricans in Connecticut (Hartford, CT.: Connecticut Humanities Council, 1992).

Sanchez Korrol, Virginia. From Colonia to Community: The History of Puerto Ricans in New York City (Berkeley, CA.: University of California Press, 1994).


La Escuela Electronica.

Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos, Hunter College, CUNY.

Latinas in History.


[1]   First Annual Report of Charles Allen, 1900 –1901 in History Task Force, Sources for the Study of Puerto Rican Migration, 1879–1930 (Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos, Hunter College, CUNY, 1982), 14–15.

[2]   Two important studies on Puerto Rican migration during this early period are: History Task Force, Sources for the Study of Puerto Rican Migration, 1870–1930, and Norma Carr, The Puerto Ricans in Hawaii, 1900–1956 (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilms, 1989).

[3]   Norma Carr, The Puerto Ricans in Hawaii, 182–3, 465.

[4]   Virginia Sánchez Korrol, “In Their Own Right: The History of Puerto Ricans in the U.S.A. in Alfredo Jiménez ed., Handbook of Hispanic Cultures in the United States: History (Houston, Texas: Arte Público Press, 1994), 286.  

[5]   The Daily Picayune, “Porto Ricans Classed as American Citizens,” in Norma Carr, The Puerto Ricans in Hawaii, 93, 158.

[6]   Ibid., 243, 267, 272.

[7]   Ibid., 318.

[8]   Newspapers remain the best sources for this information. See Preliminary Guide to Articles in Puerto Rican Newspapers Relating to Puerto Rican Migration Between 1900 and 1929 (Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, Hunter College, CUNY, 1981). See also Articles in the New York Times Relating to Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans, 1899–1930,  (Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, 1981).

[9]   History Task Force, Sources for the Study of Puerto Rican Migration,  4, 187–193. See also Virginia Sánchez Korrol, “In Their Own Right,” 286 and Ruth Glasser, Aqui Me Quedo:The Puerto Ricans in Connecticut, 31.

[10]   Arturo Morales Carrión, Puerto Rico: A Political and Cultural History (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1983), 257–8, 285–6.

[11]   Virginia Sánchez Korrol, From Colonia to Community, 11–47. See also Gabriel Haslip-Viera, “The Evolution of the Latino Community in New York City: Early Nineteenth Century to the Present,” in Gabriel Haslip-Viera and Sherrie Baver, eds., Latinos in New York: Communities in Transition (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966), 3–29.