Puerto Rican immigrants Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A small island with more than 4 million people, Puerto Rico has long been seriously overcrowded, making migration to the mainland United States a useful means of reducing population pressures. As a U.S. commonwealth, Puerto Rico has had an open border with the United States that has allowed Puerto Ricans–who are U.S. citizens by law–to move so easily to the mainland that by 2003, emigrants from the tiny Caribbean island had become the second-largest Latino ethnic group in the United States, trailing only immigrants from vastly larger Mexico. Although most Puerto Ricans are bicultural and speak both English and Spanish, they also have worked to retain their ethnic identity in the United States both collectively and individually, even after more than a century of increasing immigration, provoked mainly by the lure of employment.

Before the Spanish-American War[Spanish American War];and Puerto Rico[Puerto Rico]Spanish-American War of 1898, the people of the Spanish island colony of Puerto Rico had started to evolve a sense of national identity. In 1897, after four centuries Spanish rule, the island’s rich hybrid mixture of Spanish, African, and native Taino and Arawak peoples had acquired a Charter of Autonomy from the Spanish government. Spain’s defeat in the Spanish-American War passed control of Puerto Rico to the United States. Since that time, the island’s people have faced paradoxical tendencies. While a powerful nationalistic streak has continued to imbue islanders with a strong sense of Puerto Rican identity, large numbers of Puerto Ricans have flocked to the United States.Puerto Rican immigrantsPuerto Rican immigrants[cat]WEST INDIAN IMMIGRANTS;Puerto Rican immigrants[04300][cat]IMMIGRANT GROUPS;Puerto Rican immigrants[04300][cat]LATIN AMERICAN IMMIGRANTS;Puerto Rican immigrants[04300]

Workers on a Puerto Rican sugar cane plantation around 1900.

(Library of Congress)
Puerto Rico’s Ambiguous Future

For many decades, Puerto Rican political debates have focused on one defining question: Should the island declare its independence, apply for U.S. statehood, or continue its hybrid “commonwealth” status. Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship by birthright in 1917. Their island’s commonwealth status allows them free access to the United States and many federally provided social services but denies them the right to vote in U.S. elections. Puerto Rico has one nonvoting representative in the U.S. Congress; its citizens can vote in U.S. primary elections of political parties but not in national general elections. At the same time, Puerto Ricans are subject to U.S. military service, and they have served in all American wars since 1900.

Puerto Rico has been a multicultural society for several centuries. When the Spanish first arrived, it was inhabited by Arawak and Taino people, most of whom were killed by European diseases and weapons. Spain formally occupied the island in 1511, a full century earlier than England began colonizing North America. By the time the island was acquired by the United States, it already had a university with degrees recognized in Spain and well-defined cultural traditions of its own.

Puerto Ricans began immigrating to the United States even before the Spanish-American War. Indeed, by 1898, New York City;Puerto Rican immigrantsNew York City was already home to a small but vigorous community of Puerto Ricans, many of whom were exiles who supported U.S. aid as a measure of liberation from Spain. Some of them cited the American struggle for independence against Great Britain in their calls for greater autonomy for Puerto Rico. Advocates of Puerto Rican independence were profoundly disappointed by the lack of American interest in that goal. The commonwealth status that the United States later granted to Puerto Rico actually restricted Puerto Rican autonomy more severely than the 1897 Charter of Autonomy granted by Spain, especially in extranational matters, such as trade. However, commonwealth status offers Puerto Ricans the advantages of unrestricted immigration to the United States and integration into the U.S. trade and cultural networks.

New York City<index-term><primary>New York City;Puerto Rican immigrants</primary></index-term> as a Point of Entry

After the U.S. occupation of Puerto Rico, immigration to the United States developed slowly. As late as 1910, fewer than 2,000 Puerto Ricans lived in the country, and almost all of them were in New York City. By 1930, the Puerto Rican population of the United States had risen to about 40,000. Soon thereafter, however, the main entry-port of New York City was flooded by Puerto Ricans. Substantial Puerto Rican communities were soon established in Brooklyn, the South Bronx, and Manhattan’s East (Spanish) Harlem, lower East Side, parts of the upper East Side, and Chelsea.

Around this same time, Puerto Rico’s economy was undergoing an important shift. During the last years of Spanish rule, the island had produced four main export products: Sugar cane industry;Puerto Ricosugar cane, coffee, cattle, and tobacco. However, the island’s close association with the United States elevated the importance of sugar, which was cheaper to produce in Puerto Rico than in Hawaii or the southern United States, which had previously provided most of the sugar consumed in the United States. The shift to a primarily sugar-based economy under U.S. corporate control took place during the second decade of the twentieth century.

The expansion of large-scale sugar production in Puerto Rico drove many small farmers off their land and into shantytowns in San Juan and other cities, while also creating new pressure for emigration. This powerful “push factor” was intensified during the 1920’s and 1930’s, when the island’s sugar cane industry declined, creating even more unemployment, poverty, and emigration to the United States. As increasing numbers of Puerto Ricans went north, shipping lines established regular routes on which to ferry large numbers of Puerto Ricans between San Juan and New York City, a trip that required four to five days.

Push-Pull Factors, 1940’s-1950’s

Between 1940 and 1950, the number of Puerto Ricans living in the United States grew by more than 400 percent, from about 70,000 to more than 300,000, including roughly 75,000 children born after their parents’ arrival. After the United States entered World War II in 1941, expanding war production drew still more Puerto Ricans to the mainland, providing the island some relief from widespread unemployment. Meanwhile, the Puerto Rican government sought to diversify the island’s economy by subsidizing industries such as glass, pulp and paper, shoe leather, and other products through the Puerto Rican Development Corporation. This effort, which began as the Fomento Program in 1942, utilized state capitalism. Later, it was reconstituted as “Operation Bootstrap,” under the aegis of private ownership.

The “Bootstrap” program was designed to create jobs and provide an independent economic base that would reduce emigration pressures. Companies, mostly from the United States, were invited to set up plants on the island to take advantage of relatively low wages and tax incentives. With the advent of large-scale jet air travel during the 1960’s, the government also promoted tourism, again mainly from the United States. The program enjoyed mixed success, but it had several side benefits, including improvement of the island’s roads, water supplies, sewage systems, education, and electrical utilities. Medical care also improved, allowing many Puerto Ricans to live longer. Even with these efforts, the number of new jobs created fell short of needs as continuing evictions of small farmers and steady, natural population growth continued to propel emigration to the United States into the 1950’s and early 1960’s. More than 69,000 Puerto Ricans moved to the United States in 1953 alone.

Rising prosperity in the United States during those years also played a role in drawing immigrants from Puerto Rico. Net annual immigration, which had averaged between a few hundred and 8,000 from 1920 through the early 1940’s, rose quickly to 40,000 during the early 1950’s. It peaked at almost 80,000 per year during the mid-1950’s then declined rapidly to fewer than 10,000 by the mid-1960’s, as new jobs opened in Puerto Rico’s own Bootstrap industries. However, many companies that established plants on the island later abandoned them, as even cheaper labor became available in other countries. As unemployment again rose, so also did emigration from the island.

The large amount of Puerto Rican immigration between the end of World War II and the mid-1960’s caused Puerto Rican communities within the United States to grow rapidly. Most new arrivals gravitated to New York City, but Puerto Ricans were beginning to spread out to nearby parts of New Jersey;Puerto Rican immigrantsNew Jersey and Connecticut;Puerto Rican immigrantsConnecticut and as far afield as Illinois;Puerto Rican immigrantsIllinois, Los Angeles;Puerto Rican immigrantsLos Angeles, California, and Miami, Florida;Puerto Rican immigrantsMiami, Florida.

Immigration and Labor

Most Puerto Ricans immigrated to the United States to find jobs. U.S.-based corporations often played an active role in their immigration by advertising stateside employment on the island. Some basic American industries such as cement making and Iron and steel industry;Puerto Rican immigrantssteel manufacturing actively recruited workers from the island. Waves of migration resulted from labor requirements in specific industries, such as textiles in New York City and Iron and steel industry;Puerto Rican immigrantssteel mills in Ohio;steel millsOhio. Many thousands of immigrants also held jobs in seasonal industries, such as farmwork. The idle season in Puerto Rico’s Sugar cane industry;Puerto Ricosugar cane industry is summer, which also happens to be the peak season for agricultural labor in the United States.

Demographic Trends

By the time of the 1980 U.S. Census, most Puerto Ricans living in the United States were still concentrated in the Northeast, with 986,802 in New York State;Puerto Rican immigrantsNew York State alone–an increase of about 50 percent over the figure for 1960. Another 243,540 lived in New Jersey, a 400 percent increase over 1960; 129,165 in Illinois;Puerto Rican immigrantsIllinois, mostly in and near Chicago, a 400 percent increase over 1960; 88,361 in Connecticut;Puerto Rican immigrantsConnecticut; and 91,802 in Pennsylvania;Puerto Rican immigrantsPennsylvania, with a notable community in Philadelphia.

Large Puerto Rican communities in other parts of the United States in 1980 included 94,775 people Florida;Puerto Rican immigrantsin Florida, mostly in and near Miami; and 93,038 in California, mostly centered in the Los Angeles area. By 1980, Puerto Ricans were living in every state, with significant numbers even in Alaska;Puerto Rican immigrantsAlaska (965), Hawaii;Puerto Rican immigrantsHawaii (19,351), Washington State;Puerto Rican immigrantsWashington State (5,065), Wisconsin;Puerto Rican immigrantsWisconsin (10,483), and Kansas;Puerto Rican immigrantsKansas (2,978).

Between 1960 and 1980, the total Puerto Rican population in the United States rose about 880,000 to almost 2 million. However, only part of this increase was the result of immigration. The rest reflected natural population growth within the United States. By the year 2000, the total Puerto Rican population in the United States was about 3.4 million–a 70 percent increase since 1980.

Beginning during the 1990’s, the Puerto Rican population dispersed from New York City; Puerto Rican immigrantsNew York City, which had been the overwhelming center of demographic gravity, with more than 80 percent of the group’s population within the United States. By 2000, Puerto Ricans in New York City represented only one-quarter of all Puerto Ricans in the United States. However, despite that declining proportion, about 800,000 Puerto Ricans still lived in the city. At the same time, Puerto Ricans in Florida;Puerto Rican immigrantsFlorida nearly doubled from 247,016 to 482,027 between 1990 and 2000, a 95.1 percent increase. In 2003, a U.S. Census survey found an estimated 760,127 Puerto Ricans in Florida, a 57.7 percent increase in only three years.

Puerto Rico’s population in the 2000 Census was 3,808,610, an 8.1 percent increase over 1990. The Census estimated 3,855,000 by 2003, and 4,120,205 in 2007. In 2003, for the first time, the Puerto Rican population in the United States exceeded the number living on the home island. Close to 4 million Puerto Ricans lived in the United States full or part-time by 2008. In Puerto Rican communities, the phrase aqui y alla (“here and there”) has been used to describe this mass migration back and forth.

Puerto Ricans in the United States

By the year 2000, Puerto Ricans in the United States were earning about $54.5 billion a year–28 percent more than the $42.6 billion earned by fellow Puerto Ricans still on the island. However, Remittances of earnings;Puerto Ricansimmigrants were supplementing island incomes by remitting an estimated $1 billion a year to relatives in Puerto Rico.

Puerto Ricans have maintained collective advocacy for political and social rights, preserving their cultural heritage within the context of broader U.S. society. In New York City, for example, many Puerto Ricans have run for elective offices since the 1920’s. In 1937, a Puerto Rican was elected to the New York State Assembly for the first time. By 2008, three Puerto Ricans were serving in the U.S. House of Representatives–two from New York City and one from Chicago. Puerto Rican mayors have also been elected in such American cities as Miami, Florida;Puerto Rican immigrantsFlorida; Hartford, Connecticut;Puerto Rican immigrantsHartford, Connecticut; and Camden, New Jersey–all with the support of large immigrant populations. Puerto Ricans have been targeted by national political parties as a potential swing vote in New York City and Florida.

Advocacy groups for Puerto Rican immigrants including the educational organization Aspira, began in New York City in 1961. Others include the National Conference of Puerto Rican Women, the National Puerto Rican Coalition, the National Puerto Rican Forum, and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. Puerto Rico’s government also maintains services “stateside.” Its Department of Labor has maintained an office in New York City since 1930; its Migration Division, which opened in New York City during 1948, by 2005 had offices in 115 American cities.Puerto Rican immigrants

Further Reading
  • Acosta-Belén, Edna, and Carlos Enrique Santiago. Puerto Ricans in the United States: A Contemporary Portrait. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2006. Richly descriptive account of Puerto Rican lives in the United States through the early twenty-first century.
  • Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños. Labor Migration Under Capitalism: The Puerto Rican Experience. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979. Socialist perspective of Puerto Rican migration to the United States with an emphasis on immigrants’ roles as surplus labor.
  • Fitzpatrick, Joseph P. Puerto Rican Americans: The Meaning of Migration to the Mainland. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1987. Broad survey of Puerto Rican migration to the United States from cultural, sociological, and economic perspectives, with attention to effects of this migration on both Puerto Rico and the United States.
  • Flores, Juan. Puerto Rican Arrival in New York: Narratives of the Migration, 1920-1950. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener, 1997. Individual and family stories of migration, mainly between the two world wars, emphasizing the growth of Puerto Rican communities in and near New York City.
  • Friedlander, Stanley L. Labor Migration and Economic Growth: A Case Study of Puerto Rico. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1965. Scholarly study of labor mobility and its relationship to economic growth, using Puerto Rico–with its open border with the mainland United States–as an example of how fluidity of labor flow can enhance productivity and cause problems in all areas that participate.
  • Hernández Alvarez, José. Return Migration to Puerto Rico. Berkeley: Institute of International Studies, University of California, 1967. While most studies of migration between Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland focus on U.S. immigration, this one concentrates on the reasons why some Puerto Ricans return to the island.
  • Maraniss, David. Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. Definitive biography of Roberto Clemente, arguably the greatest Puerto Rican player in Major League Baseball. Looks at Clemente as a social activist as well as a baseball player.
  • Morales, Julio. Puerto Rican Poverty and Migration: We Just Had to Try Elsewhere. New York: Praeger, 1986. Poverty and other “push factors” as major provocations of migration from Puerto Rico to the United States.
  • Pérez, Gina M. The Near Northwest Side Story: Migration, Displacement, and Puerto Rican Families. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. Study integrating economic and cultural factors in immigration into the matrix of family relations.
  • Pérez y González, María. Puerto Ricans in the United States. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000. College-level reference book that surveys Puerto Rican history and communities in the United States.
  • Torre, Carlos Antonio, and Hugo Rodríguez Vecchini. The Commuter Nation: Perspectives on Puerto Rican Migration. Río Piedras, Puerto Rico: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1994. Wide-ranging description of immigration’s role in the history of Puerto Rico, with a focus on shifting demands for labor as a “pull” factor from the island to the United States.
  • Whalen, Carmen. From Puerto Rico To Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001. History of Philadelphia’s Puerto Rican community in the context of broader immigration issues.


Garment industry

History of immigration after 1891

Latin American immigrants

Latinos and immigrants

New York City

New York State

Santiago, Esmeralda

West Indian immigrants

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