During the 1930s, well-known Puerto Rican leaders Jesus Colon and Bernardo Vega—but also hundreds of others—transitioned from supporting the Socialist Party (which had been the center of working class politics among Hispanics in New York) to the Communist Party. They were encouraged by the aggressive and persistent grassroots organizing and militant rhetoric of mobilization that characterized the Communist Party’s response to the Depression in New York. The move was also propelled by the failures of Puerto Rico's Partido Socialista and the radicalization of labor politics on the island itself. Colon and Bernardo Vega were not the initial leaders of this transition. A small cadre of working class Puerto Ricans (and other spanish speakers) were already present in the Communist Party since the late 1920s and served as a bridge to the new members. The populist and reformist turn of the Communist Party that started in the mid-1930s and the successes of unionization and relief fights broadened further the appeal and recruitment among Puerto Rican workers and made the Communist-led (and inspired) Popular Front politics the political center of Hispanic progressivism, what I call the "Hispanic Popular Front".
One of the first Puerto Ricans to join the Party through contact with its Harlem-based locale (the Centro Obrero de Habla Española) was Frank Ruiz. Ruiz migrated in 1923 by working on a ship as a mess boy. He then worked as a power press operator at a tin can factory while studying at night. He joined the Communist Youth and soon after the Party itself (as well as one of the Hispanic clubs of the International Workers’ Order), where he worked with Juan Aviles, Armando Ramirez, Consuelo Marcial, and Alberto Sanchez. Juan Aviles and Alberto Sanchez were active in southern Harlem and presented as candidates by the Party’s Spanish Speaking Section in 1930. Sanchez was probably the Puerto Rican with the longest history of work within the Party, having worked in a factory in Brooklyn since 1926. Before he moved to New York, Sanchez had already done two years of political work in Colorado among Mexican Americans.
In 1930, the Communist Party’s Hispanic Section launched a campaign to recruit Puerto Ricans through its branches and newspapers. In the October 27 1930 issue of Vida Obrera editors bragged about how it was the only party to have an anti-imperialist platform dedicated to the absolute independence of Puerto Rico. The Party’s strong positions that demanded relief from Depression-era conditions, attracted many Puerto Ricans, Cubans and Spaniards who often had participated in militant labor unionism.The Party’s paper made these needs and frustrations clear. A letter from a WWI veteran from the Bronx, most likely a Puerto Rican (most Spaniards and Cubans were not citizens and thus did not serve in WWI) decried how he had volunteered to fight his class brothers in France and now found himself in “una vida perra, enfermo, sin dinero, sin ropa, sin nada.”
Jesus Colon soon became the best-known leader of the Communist Party’s Spanish Speaking section but he was accompanied by dozens of other organizers. From his roots in Puerto Rico’s Partido Socialista and US Socialist Party politics he transitioned to the Communist Party’s orbit in the early 1930s. Colon eventually became arguably the most important leader of the Party’s Spanish Section and director of the International Workers Order’s Hispanic mutual aid and social clubs, which later were named the Cervantes Society. From these positions (and others) Jesus Colon was a tireless fighter for working class issues and the rights of Spanish-speaking communities.
Like Jesus Colon, hundreds of other Puerto Ricans (and many Cubans and Spaniards) joined the Communist Party, and thousands joined or supported the Internatioanl Workers Order (IWO) clubs, the American Labor Party (and many related movements and organizations) because they provided a vehicle for them to make demands for their economic wellbeing and for the expression of their needs as ethnic (and racial) subjects. Many saw themselves as militant revolutionary anti-capitalists or socialists, but most were reformists with an orientation towards working-class goals and solidarity. That these movements led by “Communists” and “Socialists” worked within the broad limitations of reformist New Deal politics and the Stalinist opportunism of the Communist Party cannot be denied. Essentially the Communist Party’s Popular Front politics expressed a form of Democratic Socialism that hinged on the acceptance of a capitalist framework to push for strong reforms in favor of working class people. Unlike the Socialist Party which had sustained a tradition of political autonomy, the Communist Party pursued strategic rhetorical and electoral support for national Democratic Party (and some Republican Party candidates) progressives and reformers in an effort to fight what they saw as their main enemy, internal and external fascism (which often slipped into a simplistic vision of rule by corporations). This framework created opportunities as well as obstacles for the Latino working class and Puerto Rican activists. For Latinos and especially colonial-origin, US-citizen Puerto Ricans, the culturally inclusive, reformist and alliance-building politics of the leftist Popular Front world had a special attraction and in engaging with these struggles they extended to New York's growing Hispanic spaces the shared progressive politics of the Hispanic Popular Front.