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From the Field

¡Yo soy Boricua! Identity-related work and collective elevation strategies among New York Puerto Ricans

Puerto Ricans in New York City form a minority group in the struggle against discrimination. Audrey Célestine shows how this group is reappropriating the self-segregation imposed by the institutions on the model of the mutual aid of the African American and Hispanic communities.

As American citizens of a territory that had been colonized since the end of the 19th century, Puerto Ricans settled in New York suffered from poverty and racism. Like all populations that have migrated to the United States, Puerto Ricans have faced a society and political system marked by the centrality of race as a principle of social hierarchy and integration (Treitler 2013). The citizenship status they enjoy, their identification as a non-white population, and the colonial dimension of the U.S.-Puerto Rican relationship further make them a paradoxical group in the U.S. political and social space (Smith 1997). Prior to World War II, Puerto Ricans are often associated with an ethnic group that, if not "truly white," is at least clearly distinguished from black Americans (Lee 2014). Beginning in the 1950s, Puerto Rican migration to New York City accelerated to nearly 11 percent of the city’s population by the late 1960s (Lee 2014), becoming the second largest local minority there after African Americans. With Puerto Ricans’ presence much more visible, public housing policies that cluster them in certain neighborhoods and the racist media campaigns they face, in a context marked by strong mobilizations of African Americans, also transform the way the group organizes itself politically. They adopt a strategy that may seem paradoxical: that of claiming an ethno-racial identity in order to fight against the unequal treatment suffered because of this very identification. An exploration of the discourses and practices of activists grappling with this tension sheds light on the processes that lead dominated groups to mobilize by reappropriating forms of segregation and ethno-racial labeling in order to claim equality. This article examines the collective trajectory of Puerto Ricans in New York City from the 1950s onward in order to understand how this tension is actualized and resolved in the political practices and strategies of a minority group. Without the notion of non-mixity being defended or claimed, the identity work carried out to define the contours of the mobilized group and the way of considering self-segregation are at the heart of the emancipation strategies they put in place. Although produced by an organized migration policy and the supervision of Puerto Rican migrants, this self-segregation has been diverted by the educated fraction of the children of migrants for emancipation purposes, through contact with the Civil Rights Movement. This detour took place thanks to an identity work of construction of the borders and symbolic affirmation of the group, constrained however by the modes of state identifications, as "Hispanic".

The Puerto Rican "colony" in New York: institutional framework and assimilationist injunctions

Although the Puerto Rican population began to settle in New York City at the end of the 19th century, it was after the Second World War that they migrated to the mainland in significant numbers. This massive migration was encouraged by public mobility schemes of the Migration Division of the government of Puerto Rico, which organized the migration of these citizens to the metropolis for the development of their territories of origin. Everything was done to encourage the emigration of the Puerto Rican working classes, who settled in New York, in particular, in a context of housing shortage. They were concentrated in the poor areas of the city and experienced many difficulties in the immediate post-war period.

Once there, this population, of which few Americans know that they are citizens, is the object of media campaigns of denigration. They were blamed for all sorts of problems: they brought disease, disrupted the school system, and caused a housing crisis. Media criticism was tinged with racism against a non-white population that managed to circumvent the immigration quotas imposed on poor countries since 1921 and 1924. Faced with the pressures of the Puerto Ricans, the Migration Division also served as a privileged interlocutor and representative of the Puerto Rican population in the United States.

The Division organized meetings of young Puerto Rican graduates who were identified to become community leaders and to contribute, through self-help actions, to meeting the needs of the poorest among them. The management of the Migration Division thus formulated clearly assimilationist injunctions and discouraged the use of protesting repertoires of action. They encouraged mutual aid and intra-community solidarity rather than demands addressed to the authorities (municipal or federal). By bringing together young Puerto Rican professionals in this way, the aim was to create an elite that maintained privileged relations with both the island’s government and New York City.

Figures 1 and 2. Historic mural in El Barrio, Spanish Harlem

This mural is at the corner of 104th Street and Lexington Avenue, in Spanish Harlem; vandalized and restored in 2009, it represents the inhabitants of this historically Puerto Rican part of Manhattan. © Audrey Célestine, 2006.

The politicization of a new Puerto Rican generation

However, this space for exchange will lead to the creation of organizations whose missions and practices are far removed from the injunctions of the public authorities. The example of the activist Antonia Pantoja is particularly instructive in this regard. A social worker who arrived in New York in the 1940s, she worked with the Puerto Rican population in East Harlem. She decided to further her education by attending night classes at the New York Public University and began attending meetings organized by the Migration Division. She met other young Puerto Ricans with similar backgrounds. Social workers and teachers, they were often the first in their families to have access to higher education and, in the course of their work, they measured the distance between the professional practices of their colleagues - most of whom were white - and the needs of the population. These young graduates take advantage of this space to make connections and contacts, exchange in political discussions and eventually create associations whose mission will be to promote political action by Puerto Ricans under the leadership of the Migration Division.

This phenomenon of reappropriation and politicization of the institutional framework is particularly visible with the creation of the Puerto Rican Association for Community Affairs (PRACA) in 1956. Three years earlier, Antonia Pantoja and several other young Puerto Ricans had created, with the support of the Migration Division, the Hispanic Young Adults Association, whose mission was to put forward Puerto Rican "models" and paths of merit as part of a policy to promote a positive image of the group. Quickly frustrated by such an approach, Pantoja and his comrades decided to create PRACA in order to respond to the "specific needs" of Puerto Ricans by challenging, if necessary, the municipal services and public authorities in general. It was the prevalence of racism and discrimination, as well as access to qualified professions, that allowed this young, newly graduated generation to observe the segregation suffered by the Puerto Rican population, which pushed them to regroup within militant organizations affirming a strong Puerto Rican identity. As this respondent testifies:

So I join PRACA, but at the time it wasn’t called PRACA, it’s the Hispanic Young Adult Association and over time we went through a process of self-identification and came to this conclusion: we are not "Hispanic young adults". We are Puerto Ricans! (interview with Y. Sanchez, PRACA member from the 1950s).

Building an organization to "serve the community" became the priority for these young leaders, who saw it as the only way to end the "colonial treatment" of Puerto Ricans in the city: the placement of non-English-speaking children in classes for the mentally challenged, substandard housing, and lack of access to health care, resulting in higher rates of school failure and infant mortality in segregated neighborhoods with large Puerto Rican populations, such as the South Bronx.

Beginning in the early 1960s, initiatives included the creation of Aspira clubs in the city’s schools. Their goal was to identify Puerto Rican high school students, enroll them in clubs where they would learn about the history of their island, its struggles, while receiving academic support, so that they in turn would return to their schools to form clubs whose mission was to recruit and politicize other young Puerto Ricans. The goal is to create a Puerto Rican elite that will be committed to helping the community once they have attained positions of power through higher education (Simonet-Cusset 2002). This project is driven by an understanding of the situation of Puerto Ricans as intersecting with their situation as a colonized population of the United States, Spanish-speaking and non-white (racially mixed).

Figure 3. Community garden in Spanish Harlem (2007)

© Audrey Célestine.

Neither African American nor Latinx: defining the group’s boundaries

We were influenced by the African American culture. African Americans taught us how to survive on the streets. It wasn’t our parents who spent their days at work and just didn’t know. The 1960s were crucial: with the Civil Rights Movement, they inspired a whole bunch of other movements. They were the ones who taught us how to survive on the streets (interview with former El Comité activist, summer 2006).

The politicization of the communal self-segregation is also part of a particular historical context: for many Puerto Rican activists, their political education took place alongside African American collectives and activists. This is the case in particular in groups present on the campuses of the public university of the city of New York. They lived in the same neighborhoods, exchanged political texts, and drew inspiration from the struggles of African Americans. In the 1950s and early 1960s, African American organizations were indeed the only ones that offered an opportunity to act on the discrimination front, and many young Puerto Ricans joined organizations like the NAACP (Lee Diaz 2007).

As time went on, Puerto Rican leaders drew parallels with the situation of African Americans who, like themselves, found themselves in the position of second-class national citizens, justifying the various attempts to build coalitions with them. For many, the challenge was to fight alongside African Americans while maintaining specific demands that would constitute points of divergence.

If the living conditions and material situation were close to those of the African Americans, common political action was not self-evident and organization among Puerto Ricans often seemed the best option in New York. For example, Spanish language instruction for newcomers and the development of bilingual education programs appear to be essential when Puerto Rican youth have the highest failure rates in the city. Puerto Rican leaders, recognizing the importance of developing a collective identity and reversing the stigma of the African American mobilizations, emphasize the teaching of Puerto Rican history as a means of instilling true community pride. They consider that "knowing who you are" is an essential step to "taking power".

Finally, the demands for school desegregation, at the heart of the African American agenda, appeared to be less of a priority to Puerto Ricans, for whom the recruitment of Puerto Rican teachers and administrators and the improvement of study conditions were more important. The mobilizations of the 1960s were thus largely guided by the idea that it was necessary to have control over the institutions and that the specificity of the Puerto Rican situation be taken into account, particularly by the local educational institutions ("board of education", schools, city). To this end, meetings in Spanish are organized to mobilize parents and teach them to intervene in the school.

The constraint of state identification

The identity work of constructing borders for the purpose of making claims is, however, constrained. It is primarily constrained by the actions of the state and public authorities. As Puerto Rican leaders sought to strengthen the "community" and the political issues specific to it, the category "Hispanic" gradually emerged in political discourse, before becoming a census category in 1980 (Schor 2009). For many, such categorization has the effect of invisibilizing differences in nationality, status, and citizenship, particularly between Puerto Ricans and other populations in the rest of Spanish-speaking America. While claims from the 1950s onward had included posing as a minority belonging to the U.S. population, along with African Americans, the category Hispanic seemed to refer to (and associate them with) migrant populations, many of whom were not citizens (Celestine 2018).

Many organizations, however, while following in the footsteps of the collectives that carried the demands of the "specific problems" of the Puerto Rican group, will submit to the injunctions to serve a broader population of "Hispanics." This is the only way that organizations can continue to receive public and private funding. However, the identity work done to build a Puerto Rican community, to create an elite that would integrate the workings of the administration and the economy while trying to "forgive back to the community" - That is, demonstrating an "ethic of community responsibility" (Simonet-Cusset 2002) by committing to the good of those to whom success is owed - once achieved, continues to be seen as essential in the collective trajectory of Puerto Ricans in New York.

Figures 4 and 5. Puerto Rican Day Parade, New York (2006)

© Audrey Célestine.

Conclusion: an original form of non-mixity

The Puerto Rican case shows how minorities can appropriate an entre soi imposed by institutions with assimilationist aims and by the logics of discrimination and segregation produced in particular by the public authorities, without claiming non-mixity as an organizing principle. At the intersection of colonial history and the racialization of minorities in the United States, this group has been able to divert the imposed self-segregation and politicize it, first on the model of African American mobilizations, then in an institutional environment marked by the imposition of "Hispanics" as an identification category.

For Puerto Rican leaders in New York, political emancipation meant working to define the community’s problems and issues autonomously, politicizing the youth in order to form an elite capable of working for the community in turn. The identity work to achieve this constitutes in itself a historical process of defining the particular interests of the group, without this prohibiting coalitions with other minorities. In this case, and contrary to the uses of non-mixity in the framework of other minority mobilizations, it was not so much a question of temporary spaces allowing Puerto Rican activists not to be monopolized or to constitute safe spaces in front of "allies" who would occupy too much space. Indeed, the segregation and the very local character of mobilizations that were less visible and emblematic than those of African Americans resulted in very little participation by non-Puerto Ricans. However, the idea that it was up to the people concerned, and not to predominantly white and/or dominant institutions, to define their political orientations and strategies, played a key role in the identity work carried out in defining the contours of the group and the issues to be defended.


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To cite this article:

Audrey Célestine & translated by Oliver Waine, “¡Yo soy Boricua! Identity-related work and collective elevation strategies among New York Puerto Ricans”, Metropolitics, 5 May 2023. URL :

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