Letter Regarding the Needs of Puerto Ricans in New York Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In response to a letter sent by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to more than 120,000 American clergymen during the Great Depression, Alberto B. Baez of the First Spanish Methodist Church in Brooklyn, New York, asked for the president's help in addressing the needs of the growing Latino community–specifically, the Puerto Ricans with whom he lived in Brooklyn. Baez says that, in addition to jobs, Puerto Ricans needed English language skills, better health practices, and recreational activities outside their isolated slums.

Summary Overview

In response to a letter sent by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to more than 120,000 American clergymen during the Great Depression, Alberto B. Baez of the First Spanish Methodist Church in Brooklyn, New York, asked for the president's help in addressing the needs of the growing Latino community–specifically, the Puerto Ricans with whom he lived in Brooklyn. Baez says that, in addition to jobs, Puerto Ricans needed English language skills, better health practices, and recreational activities outside their isolated slums.

Defining Moment

In 1929, the stunning economic boom the United States had enjoyed throughout the 1920s came to an equally stunning end. Starting in late October, stock markets crashed, banks folded, industries faltered, and countless jobs disappeared in what would come to be called the Great Depression. Economists, social scientists, and other scholars have attempted to understand the specific causes that, in the aggregate, ushered in this tumultuous decade in US and world history. Generally, experts point to citizens' inability to repay loans and credit debt, a lack of government regulation of businesses and markets, and a lack of sustainability in the country's leading industries as some of the leading causes of this event. Many scholars also point to the sharp divide between the nation's rich and poor (including the large percentage of immigrants, who came to the country in the early twentieth century to work in the energy and manufacturing industries) as a contributing factor, as the latter group represented a large proportion of the population that would be adversely impacted by fluctuations in the economy.

In any case, although many political leaders and economic experts, including President Herbert Hoover, advanced theories on how to halt the downturn, efforts to turn around the economy proved fruitless. In 1932, the Democratic Party, buoyed by Hoover's inability to right the financial ship, nominated New York governor Franklin D. Roosevelt as its candidate to replace Hoover in the White House. In his acceptance speech for the Democratic presidential nomination, Roosevelt pledged a “new deal” for Americans in which the economic and social ills of the Depression would be remedied. When Roosevelt won in a landslide victory in November, he immediately set about implementing his agenda. He envisioned several areas that needed addressing, chief among them were generating jobs, restoring the markets, and rejuvenating the American economy over the long term. A defining feature of Roosevelt's New Deal was its departure from the laissez-faire approach to the economy employed by his predecessors–Roosevelt's platform called for a much larger role for the federal government in addressing the crisis, including regulatory reform, major financial investments, and a much larger set of federal agencies to service the public's needs.

As part of his effort to halt the Depression, Roosevelt looked to the public for input. In September of 1935, for example, Roosevelt sent a letter to over one hundred thousand members of the clergy. In the letter, he requested suggestions and comments on how to ensure the New Deal's success. A month later, the pastor of Brooklyn's First Spanish Methodist Church, Alberto B. Baez, responded with the suggestion that the president consider addressing the country's Latino immigrant experience.

Document Analysis

When President Roosevelt called upon the country's religious leaders for input regarding the efficacy of his New Deal, Pastor Baez–whose parish was located in the immigrant-heavy New York borough of Brooklyn–offered an atypical response. While jobs were essential to restarting the economy, Baez argued, immigrants (particularly the Puerto Rican community, which had grown rapidly in Brooklyn since the beginning of the century) were in need of social programs that would help them better integrate into American society.

Puerto Rican immigrants began arriving in Brooklyn in large numbers during the early twentieth century. Although Brooklyn lacked many economic opportunities, arriving Puerto Ricans saw more potential there than they did on their home island. Puerto Ricans quickly established barrios (Spanish-speaking neighborhoods) and a strong network in this borough, but theirs was a relatively separate existence from the rest of American society. They lacked English language skills, for example, as well as occupational training (since life in Puerto Rico was largely agrarian in nature).

In his letter to the president, Baez suggests that this group of immigrants is in danger of becoming entrenched in poverty even if the Great Depression were to come to an end, as they are uninspired to learn English or pursue the training they needed to find a job. Baez, therefore, suggests that, in addition to generating jobs, the New Deal will greatly serve Puerto Ricans by helping them learn English and the skills they need to succeed in the United States. Baez says Puerto Ricans living in impoverished Brooklyn “need to be convinced that they must learn to speak the English language.” Employable older Puerto Rican immigrants, Baez said, refuse to go to public schools, especially since the teachers do not speak to them in their native tongue. The schools, he continued, were the optimal vehicle for inspiring Puerto Ricans to pursue jobs: in addition to learning the country's primary language of English, these immigrants would also learn better hygiene and health practices. “They need almost to be forced to give more attention to their health,” he says.

Baez's suggestion is that the New Deal should include an investment in education for the country's large population of immigrants. A teacher who understands the Puerto Rican perspective, he said, would prove invaluable in inspiring students to become more actively involved in the community through work and activities. The goal of such an investment program would be to draw Puerto Ricans out of their slums and impoverished state. Instead of inactive and socially isolated, these people would become engaged and productive members of society, willing and ready to work when employment opportunities finally became available.

Essential Themes

When President Roosevelt promised Americans a “new deal,” he focused on more than reversing the economic course manifest in the Great Depression: Roosevelt wanted to restore the social fabric of American society. In this arena, Roosevelt looked for input not only from political leaders and advisors but from community leaders as well. He sent a letter to the clergy, asking for their opinions on how to revitalize the United States. Baez's response was reflective of his own local experiences in Brooklyn, although its themes had broader geographic and social applications.

Baez attempted to help Roosevelt understand the plight of Brooklyn's growing Puerto Rican population. Puerto Ricans, he said, had become entrenched in the barrios they created for themselves since the early twentieth century. In this environment, they did not see the need to learn English or obtain occupational training, Baez argued. As a result, Brooklyn's Puerto Ricans continued to live in poverty and isolation from the rest of American society, he said.

Reverend Baez urged the president to work to reverse this trend. Puerto Ricans needed to learn English, he said. Spanish-speaking teachers who could teach them English and inspire them to pursue meaningful employment opportunities, Baez said, would be the most effective vehicles for drawing Puerto Ricans out of the barrio. Baez suggested that a useful part of the New Deal could be investment in training Puerto Ricans themselves to become teachers. Even older members of the Puerto Rican community, with exposure to such educators, would likely take advantage of such training, Baez said.

Baez's response to the president's letter did not offer specific policy suggestions to train Puerto Ricans in these two areas. However, it did provide a glimpse into a community of immigrants that had become isolated from the rest of American society (as was the case with many other immigrant groups). Their condition was certainly exacerbated by the Great Depression, Baez argued, but their isolation and poverty had existed long before the stock market crash of 1929. The key to reversing Puerto Ricans' entrenched way of life, Baez said, was to inspire them to change their social and economic course in their own way.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Edsforth, Ronald. The New Deal: America's Response to the Great Depression. Hoboken: Wiley, 2000. Print.
  • McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America, 1929–1941. 25th anniv. ed. New York: Three Rivers, 2009. Print.
  • “President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1933–1945.” American Memory Timeline: Great Depression/WWII, 1929–1945. Lib. of Congress, n.d. Web. 13 June 2014.
  • “Puerto Rican New York during the Inter-War Years.” Hunter College: Center for Puerto Rican Studies. City U of New York, 2010. Web. 12 June 2014.
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