The plight of the Puerto Ricans is the most poignant of the three major Hispanic communities in the US. Short-term, it is also the most explosive. Here in New York, where roughly a million Puerto Ricans live, a hearing by the US Commission on Civil Rights into Puerto Rican grievances back in 1972 had to be canceled on the second day because of unexpected disruptions.
Describing those disorders, Puerto Rican author Piri Thomas wrote that they "were not just a spontaneous event that came up out of nowhere, like just a happening. It was an ugly head of despair, frustration, exploitation, hot-and-cold running cockroaches, king-sized rats, crummy tenement slum houses, poor education, and much job discrimination. It was touched off by a long burning fuse to a bundle of dynamite that has een slowly burning since I was a kid in East Harlem in the early thirties. . . .
"The adjournment and cancellation of the hearing . . . was filled with the heart-rending, emotion-packed agony that only year upon year of the society-inflicted burden of second-class citizenship can produce. It has been a long-suffering reality to Puerto Ricans on the bottom of America's totem pole here on the Eastern seacoast, as well as whereever Puerto Ricans are throughout the United States."
Eight years later, things have changed little -- unless for the worse.
Adding to Puerto Rican frustration is the knowledge that, unlike Mexican or Cuban immigrants, they start with American citizenship. Since the US annexed Puerto Rico after the Spanish-American War of 1898, Puerto Ricans have been born American citizens, whether on their Caribbean island homeland or on the US mainland. Yet many of them feel less welcome and more discriminated against than either Cubans or Mexican-Americans --ically resemble.
To walk through the streets of Williamsburg at the Brooklyn end of the Williamsburg Bridge is to savor the anomalous and smoldering nature of Puerto Rican poverty. (Williamsburg is one of four main Puerto Rican Barrios in New York. The other three are: the South Bronx, a still widening area of desolation; East Harlem, the original barrio; and the Lower East side of Manhattan, where the Puerto Ricans are diluted with other Hispanics.) Across the east River from the Williamsburg waterfront and the Brooklyn Navy Yard are the soaring skyscrapers and (at nightfall) the enticing and dazzling lights of Manhattan, symbolic of the magnet that has drawn impoverished Puerto Ricans from the Caribbean to New York City in the hope of finding instant realization of the American dream. But only a block or two inland from the waterfront is the disillusioning grimness into which most of them have found themselves sucked.
At first sight much of it looks like devastated sections of some British or German cities a few months after the end of World War II: vacant, littered lots and the skeletons of abandoned tenements. Puerto Rican poverty in the Northeast is a far sadder sight than Chicano poverty in the Southwest or the rarer Cuban poverty in Miami. In East Los Angeles or San Antonio there is at least space. Homes there may be substandard and crowded, but most of them are single-story and have a yard. But in the barrios of New York, children have to come down many flights of stairs to reach the ground -- to find not a yard, but the street. Then there is the climate. New York's winters are freezing and its summers stifling and suffocating.
In Williamsburg, the feeling of not being wanted, which comes sooner or later to so many Puerto Ricans, is underlined by the hostility of the ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jewish community with whom they share the area. Each looks upon the other as an invader. The Puerto Ricans suspect the Hasidic Jews of buying up even derelict properties to prevent the Puerto Ricans from taking over.
The local Roman Catholic priest -- a native of Spain -- accompanying the writer was greeted warmly by young and old Puerto Ricans alike on every block. (In all Hispanic communities throughout the country, the local priest is usually the most trusted individual of all. It is the priest to whom Hispanics frequently turn when in trouble, particularly trouble with the law.) I asked this particular clergyman what most Puerto Rican families in the overcrowded, dingy apartments of Williamsburg would choose if they were suddenly offered what they most wanted. His answer: "A home of their own in Puerto Rico."
And yet they still come to the US. There is a continuing two-way movement, controlled by the relative promise of the economic situations on the island and on the mainland. A worsening situation in Puerto Rico since 1978 has resulted in a net flow into the US over the past two years. From 1972 through 1977, the net flow was away from the US.
Since 1972, incidentally, a total of over a million and a half people have traveled in each direction every year.
The US attracts despite the fact that statistics show Puerto Ricans worse off not only than whites (which most would expect) but also than other Hispanics and blacks. United States Bureau of the Census figures for median family incomes in 1978 in Table I make this clear. Table II, based on the same source for the same year, shows that a bigger percentage of Puerto Rican families are living below the poverty level than in the two other major Hispanic communities. Table III offers parallel evidence that Puerto Ricans come off worst when one considers the percentages of families in 1978 with the highest and lowest incomes. Table IV shows Puerto Ricans again faring worst in the unemployment rate figures for the third quarter of 1979.
These statistics all point to one thing: A pattern has developed whereby a Puerto Rican arriving in the US finds himself more than most others up against it, even though he or she arrives already as a US citizen. (The statistics also explain to the writer why the little Puerto Rican grocery store across the street from where he lives in a mixed area of Boston is called "Defensa Economica.") Manuelo Bustelo, national executive director of the National Puerto Rican Forum in New York, has put it bluntly: "The Puerto Ricans are by far the most disadvantaged ethnic group of all Spanish-speaking groups, and of all ethnic groups in the society at large."
If no differentiation is made between the groups of Hispanics, Hispanics are seen as less well off than whites but considerably better off than blacks. Puerto Ricans argue that if economic aid is allocated on this basis, in other words if they are classified with the other Hispanics, they stand to get less money than their particular and more acute degree of poverty entitles them to. Since they are worse off than blacks, too, they would not be helped by being lumped with blacks instead of with other Hispanics.
Table I Median family incomes Puerto US Cubans Chicanos Blacks Ricans
Table II Percentage of families below poverty level All Puerto US Hispanics Cubans Chicanos Ricans 9.3 21.4 15. 18.9 38.9
Table III Percentages of families in lowest and highest yearly income brackets All Puerto US Hispanic Cubans Chicanos Ricans Less than $4,000m 6.3 10.4 8.9 9.1 16.1 $25,000 or morem 22.4 9.7 15.9 8.9 6.3
Table IV Unemployment rate US Blacks Hispanics 5.8 10.8 8.2 Cubans Chicanos Puerto Ricans 7.6 7.9 11.5