Active duty military personnel, veterans and their families have dispersed the Puerto Rican population beyond what has been considered as traditional centers of Puerto Rican migration. New York, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts continue to host the largest populations of stateside Puerto Ricans.. But large Puerto Rican communities have formed and are thriving around military bases in el Nuevo South (the former original confederate states), the Midwest and Western states. Moreover, our findings show that military service also works as a pathway to middle class status for Puerto Ricans.
The migration of Puerto Rican veterans from the island to the mainland is not a new trend. The Vietnam War marks the point when for the first time a majority of Puerto Rican veterans returned or remained in the United States after completing their service. This trend explains why two thirds of the Puerto Rican veteran population resides in the mainland even though two thirds of them enrolled while on the island.
With the exception of Puerto Ricans, Latinos/as have been traditionally underrepresented in the military. This situation is rapidly changing as Puerto Ricans have kept their exceptionally and historically high enrollment rate in the military while Latinos/as in general are enrolling in greater numbers. There is no indication that Puerto Rican enrollment in the military will decrease in the coming years.
Puerto Rican military personnel and veterans are indeed changing the landscape of the United States and opening new space, in terms of location and opportunities, for the Puerto Rican diaspora.
Numerically, service members and veterans may not represent a large percentage of the total stateside Puerto Rican population, but in states with large military installations they do. Nationwide, Puerto Rican veterans represent 6.8% of the total Puerto Rican population while Puerto Rican service members only represent 0.8% of the total Puerto Rican population (Franqui-Rivera 2014).
A Path to Middle Class Status
As this graphic shows, in these states Puerto Rican veterans as a percentage of the total Puerto Rican population double or triple the national average. Moreover, when adding the active duty personnel, we find that some 20% to 29% of the Puerto Rican population in these states has served or is serving in the military. On the other hand, states considered as traditional centers for Puerto Rican population show the opposite trend (with the exception of Florida). These examples are strong evidence that these communities have formed as a result of military service and base locations.
Military service works as a path towards middle class status, as I have argued elsewhere. Overall, the veteran and military Puerto Rican population enjoys a higher quality of life in terms of income, educational attainment, employment rate, and home ownership than its non-veteran counterpart. In terms of median income, male island-based veterans have a clear advantage over male island-based non-veterans. Island-based female veterans, on the other hand, have a median income over 50% higher than that of island-based non-veteran females, and have almost the same income as non-veteran Puerto Rican males in the United States (Franqui-Rivera 2014).
When it comes to educational attainment, Puerto Rican veterans and active duty personnel far surpass the Puerto Rican civilian population. 74% of Puerto Rican active duty personnel has some college, a BA, or Graduate school; veterans follow with 65% and civilians trail with just 40%. Further, 26.5% of Puerto civilians 20 years old and above, have not completed high school or its equivalent. And the veteran population’s percentage of graduate school attendees almost double that of the civilian population. 8.2% of the veteran population has not finished high school. This is the case because a large percentage of the veteran population served during World War II and the Korean War when the educational requirement for service was a 4th grade education.
Though this project does not delve into the Puerto Rican experience in recent conflicts it is noteworthy to point out that island and stateside Boricuas have participated in every conflict to the present day. They have become the pillars of new communities dotting the United States, from traditional Diasporican centers in the eastern seaboard to what we now call El Nuevo South--or the former states of the Confederacy.
Wherever they go, Puerto Rican soldiers carry a bit of Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican culture with them. Wherever they go, they continue to proudly show their puertorriqueñidad.
National Guard Unit prepares to ship out overseas from Texas as part of the Global War on Terror.
Video courtesy of Hector Calderón
Continue to Honoring Puerto Rican Military and Veterans
Puerto Rican Veterans and Service Members’ Wellbeing and Place within the Diaspora, in Edwin Meléndez and Carlos Vargas-Ramos, eds., Puerto Ricans at the Dawn of the New Millennium, Centro Press, New York, (2014).
Video still: Puerto Rican soldiers, Sgt. Paul Santiago, Northern Iraq, 2003
Graphs and Charts: Center for Puerto Rican Studies