At the end of World War II, many Puerto Ricans made their way to the mainland in search of better economic opportunities. A large recession and a multitude of economic sanctions on the island made it very difficult for it’s native population to prosper. Although Puerto Ricans went to a variety of different locations in the continental United States, a majority of them settled in New York City and it’s surrounding areas. Many in the media portrayed Puerto Ricans in a negative light. Charles Hewitt, who wrote for Scribner’s Commentator, warned New Yorkers about the problems that Puerto Ricans presented to their way of life. He described them as being notorious for using welfare, that they had a variety of diseases including: malaria, tuberculosis, and many sexual transmitted diseased. Most importantly, he noted that Puerto Rican women were willing to take factory jobs making significantly less than their white counterparts. He complained of their concentration in poor neighborhoods in Brooklyn, such as Red Hook and the waterfront. He greatly disapproved of their intermarriage with negroes. He even went as far as to accuse the girls of being prostitutes.
America was also in a period of adjustment. The second world war had just ended and they were rejoicing the victory at home. The economy in America was booming as a result of the war effort. Puerto Ricans didn’t see the same benefits on the island. They were experiencing extreme poverty and were starving. Many Puerto Ricans rejected the claims that they were going to use the Government for assistance and that they were a sickly, diseased people. Puerto Rican organization joined together to insist upon these facts. In response to these accusations, they told many in a letter to a local newspaper that they worked whenever they could and how proud they were of their heritage and work ethic. They tried to appeal to white America in many ways, saying that some of their people even worked for the federal government, occupied prestigious posts in academics, rose from the ashes out of the poverty they experienced in Puerto Rico, and fought alongside other Americans in World War II. The overall sentiment of these writers was that Puerto Ricans were a problem that needed to be solved.
An oral history of a Puerto Rican woman who has since migrated to Staten Island paints a somewhat different picture. Her mother and father came to New York from Puerto Rico just after World War II. Their story generally disproves the common sentiment of the media in the 1940’s. Aida Dasaro tells her family’s story from the beginning:
For a couple of months and then sent for her um...with the two oldest..uh..my two oldest brother and sister. And he basically came here to find a better life because they lived in extreme poverty in Puerto Rico. It was right after World War II, maybe 1945 1946, or maybe even 1947. Um, they basically settled in uh Brooklyn, probably in Bushwick and then my father um began to look for a job.
Her family’s story generally falls in line with what writers of the day had to say in regards to the reasons Puerto Ricans had for coming to the mainland. Her father actually came alone, to generally scope out the city and see what opportunities were afforded to him. Where he originally decided to work once he came to New York wasn’t discussed. However, when her mother came over, she did discuss where she worked.
Aida Dasaro: Mom basically was a housewife. She may have worked for a time in uh, a factory making, um, uh, slipcovers.
Amanda Dasaro: For beds?
Aida Dasaro: For, you know, living room sofas and chairs.
This is an exact echo of what Charles Hewitt wrote about Puerto Rican women in regards to their employment. Her mother worked in a garment factory, making slipcovers for low wages.
Her story also echoed the sentiment of Puerto Ricans at the time when she discussed her family’s reasoning for leaving the island:
Aida Dasaro: Um, it was very difficult for my father to find a job. Basically, the uh, the economy was still very much agrarian, uh poor dirt farmers living in, in run down wooden shacks and there was basically a depression in Puerto Rico that forced millions of people to leave after WWII.
Amanda Dasaro: Did the depression equate with the depression in mainland United States? Or was it after wards?
Aida Dasaro: Uh, I think at the time that the United States was going through the depression I think Puerto Rico was also experiencing it’s own depression. But being that most people lived in poverty, um, and basically ran their own family businesses or there uh just wasn’t enough jobs to go around other than working on the military bases in Puerto Rico. Most people were still very much, um, poor farmers.
Although she states that Puerto Rico experienced economic depression the same way the mainland did, it is important to find out that even though the mainland experienced relief in the form of economic upswing due to the war effort, the island didn’t. The people who lived in Puerto Rico had no choice but to move to places like New York to seek a better economic opportunity.
Although the family didn’t technically gain support from Puerto Rican associations, according to Aida, the neighborhood was everything. When asked about her family’s reception into the community, Aida replied: “Well basically they, they tended to keep to themselves but, um, they basically moved into an area that predominantly was black and Puerto Rican.” The family settled in an area that had people of familiar skin color and familiar languages, who they could communicate easily with and who were well versed in Puerto Rican cultural traditions.
Eventually, Aida’s mother stopped working in order to raise her children. Her father began to work for a city agency, the Parks Department of New York City. It was easier for her father to gain employments for two reasons. The first had to do with language: “My father already had, um, had, was capable or knew how to speak English already.” The second had to do with a specific opportunity.
Well, I believe that he had taken, um, the Parks Department was hiring, uh, workers to work in the Parks Department which was a subdivision of the Sanitation Department. And uh, I believe he told me that there was a massive uh, employment drive and he managed to land a position within the Parks Department. So it became he worked for the city and it became a steady job and they were offered a large uh, increase in salary and he was capable of then uh, supporting his family.
What the author’s from the previous articles mentioned fail to discuss is the unwavering support of city agencies in response to the so-called “crisis” of Puerto Ricans. Community agencies helped those in need, offering language classes and job opportunities. Although there is specific discussion of a government funded committee to weed out welfare abusers from the system, it is clear from Aida’s experience that her parents were very hard working individuals, who placed strict importance on family values, and values in general, especially American ones. They made sure that their children were educated, even if they weren’t:
Amanda Dasaro: So there was no issue with language barrier or anything like that? With like neighbors.
Aida Dasaro: My mother at first there was. My father already had, um, had, was capable or knew how to speak English already.
Amanda Dasaro: And um, your brother and sister, were school age, or no, they were still young?
Aida Dasaro: Um, I think they were school age. I think they were school age.
Amanda Dasaro: What year are we talking? Are we talking like 1950 something? Or before that?
Aida Dasaro: Uh, my brother and sister may not have been of school age yet, but eventually they did enter into the public school system of New York City.
Aida also mentions that her parents were adamant about her learning English. Spanish was hardly spoken in her childhood home. She explains:
Amanda Dasaro: Now, did you always know how to speak Spanish? Was that something that…
Aida Dasaro: No, not really. I was raised speaking English because my parents believed that, um, we should learn the primary language of the uh country and uh would speak to us in English in the house.
Amanda Dasaro: So how did you learn how to speak Spanish?
Aida Dasaro: Well they would speak it among themselves and at school uh starting in the 6th grade we starting taking elementary Spanish and with the help of my parents and the fact that most of the people in the neighborhood spoke Spanish um I had a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish and continued to study it throughout junior high school, high school, and college.
Puerto Ricans are also different in a sense from other immigrant groups that settled in New York. Although many were searching for better economic opportunities, some left New York and went back to their homeland, or moved on to settle in different places. This was not the case with most Puerto Ricans who settled in the New York City area. Aida equates their feelings with common feelings felt today all throughout Puerto Rico:
Amanda Dasaro: When grandma and grandpa left Puerto Rico were they really upset to leave their family? Or did their family come with them?
Aida Dasaro: Well, there were members already here, uh, from both families. But they knew that once they moved from Puerto Rico that they were never going to return that they were going to make their future in the United States and particularly in New York City because that’s where most of uh Puerto Ricans from the island settled.
Amanda Dasaro: Why did they never wanna go back?
Aida Dasaro: Because they felt that there was no future there for themselves or their children.
Amanda Dasaro: It’s funny, because people feel like that now. And we’re talking like almost like 70 years later. People still feel like that.
Aida Dasaro: Well you have to understand that Puerto Rico now is going through a very very difficult economic downturn, and most of the professionals cannot afford to live there anymore because their jobs are not paying adequate enough money for them to even subsist on.
Amanda Dasaro: Well where, couldn’t that be said for when your parents lived there?
Aida Dasaro: Exactly.
Amanda Dasaro: So it’s pretty much the same, they’re pretty much going through the problem for the past 70 years.
Aida Dasaro: Well there was a time that people were returning to the island and the tourism industry was at it’s peak. But now with the economic situation going on with the junk bonds and uh the persistent bankruptcy of in Puerto Rico many professionals are leaving the island and heading back, heading to the United States to seek better job positions.
Aida’s family about her story truly puts the experience of Puerto Ricans into perspective. Colonized and forgotten about by the United States government, economic downturn before and after the war forced many Puerto Rican families to emigrate to the mainland. There was a large concentration of Puerto Ricans in New York, where Aida’s family ultimately settled. After fighting on the American side of the war, they were thanked with high taxes and low wages, leaving them no choice but to leave their beloved little island.
Once they came, they settled as best as they could. Relying on organizations and churches, they tried to integrate themselves into society. They learned as much english as they could and made sure their children learned it as well, even as a primary language. Puerto Ricans may be different in the sense that they had been citizens since 1918, but they were still treated as if they had no social standing. They were hardworking and diligent. They weren’t diseased, and most of them worked for what little they had, not using welfare to make ends meet. As you can see, Puerto Ricans were never the problem. White columnists and media honchos portrayed them in a negative light, as they feared what they did not understand.
Racial nativism was alive and well in the late 1940’s, but families like Aida’s did not let that break their spirit. Through her parents hard work, Aida was educated in the New York City public education system and went on to receive a full scholarship to Fordham University. She completed a degree in sociology, eventually taking a government job at the Postal Service for a short time. There she met her husband whom she has three wonderful children with. She now prospers, living in a three bedroom home in a nice neighborhood in Staten Island, teaching young boys and girls the skills they need to survive in this world. Because of her parents perseverance and determination in the fact of racism and adversity, she was able to succeed.