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History of Puerto Rican Immigration to New York Term Paper

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Updated: Sep 8th, 2021

From the advent of the 19 century New York has been the chief point of entry for Europeans coming to US. The first bunch of about 20 million immigrants coming in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to the Ellis Island, where they were Americanized by being given American names, and left to vent for themselves (Duany 2002: Ch. 9).

Even though the Europeans started migrating into America as early as 18 th century the first Puerto Ricans known, entered New York in the mid 19th Century (Haslip-V et al 2004, pp. 1945-2000). By then Puerto Rico was under the Spanish rule and its people being Spanish subjects hence they were immigrants. This wave of Puerto Ricans migration to New York occurred after the war that involved Spain and America. Immediately after this war, Puerto Rico became an American possession and Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917 was approved to give Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship and allow them to travel without the need of a passport between the island and the United States mainland, thereby becoming migrants. Nevertheless, the main wave of migration came about in the 1950s in what came to be termed as “The Great Migration” with the introduction of air travel.

The original Puerto Rican commune in New York City was in Manhattan (Haslip-V et al 2004, pp. 1945-2000). A good number of the Puerto Ricans who went there were from well-to-do families or were people whose economic situation could allow them the sumptuousness of traveling from the island to New York by means of steamship, a costly and long trip (Torres A, 1995, pp. 117-305). Amid the earliest Puerto Ricans to immigrate to New York were Spanish crown exiles both men and women, due to their political beliefs and resistance for the cause of Puerto Rican sovereignty

In 1917 United States Congress approved the Jones Act which gave Puerto Ricans US citizenship. This implied that Puerto Ricans no longer required an authorization to travel to the U.S. during this period situation in the island economically was appalling and continued to deteriorate further due to the many hurricanes which damaged most of its crops.

Many Puerto Rican families moved to the United States, the bulk of which went to New York, to look for better living conditions. In New York, they encountered similar hardships and discrimination that previous groups of immigrants had faced prior to them.

They could not find well paying jobs because of the language barrier and their lack of technical working skills (Haslip-V et al 2004, pp. 1945-2000). The few men who were lucky to get jobs worked in factories and were poorly paid. The women usually remained at home to tend to their and perform other chores relevant to housewives. Those who did not find jobs had the option of joining the United States Military.

The heaviest Puerto Rico immigration to N Y C came after World War II. Almost 40,000 Puerto Ricans entered New York City in 1946 and 58,500 in 1952–53. Puerto Rican women faced up economic exploitation, favoritism, racism, and the insecurities intrinsic in the resettlement process on a daily basis, nevertheless they fared well than did men in the job market. The women left their homes for the factories in large numbers Puerto Rican migration to New York climaxed when 75,000 people bade goodbye to the island.

Those Puerto Ricans who migrated to New York City faced severe discrimination. For instance in some hotels and restaurants one could find signs that read “No dogs or Puerto Ricans allowed”. The ulterior motives of assassinating U S president led Americans to view Puerto Ricans as anti-Americans and the bias against them became even more heightened.

Several Puerto Ricans managed to prevail over these impediments and became respected members of their communities. Many of those who survived, such as Antonia Pantoja, established organizations such as “ASPIRA”, which assisted fellow countrymen to achieve their goals/objectives.

Antonia Pantoja was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She attended University of Puerto Rico where she managed to get a Normal School Diploma in 1942. After graduating, she was employed as a schoolteacher for two years in Puerto Rico where she cultured a deep interest in education and indulging in the needs of vulnerable children. In November 1944, she migrated to New York City where she was employed as a welder in a factory that manufactured lamps for children. During these years she had to work hard and long hours. Pantoja realized the harsh experience of racial discrimination against Puerto Ricans and how this society required the knowledge and political power to trounce these and other confrontations in the United States. She became a campaigner in the factory, teaching other workers about their rights and how to start and manage a union. These were the most determining years of her life. It should be noted that within a few years, those women who welded pieces of strand for underwater radios would rise to join together a fragmented community, a community much in need of leadership and vision.

In order to address these problems, Dr. Pantoja initiated the Puerto Rican Forum in 1957 to act as an umbrella for organizations and programs geared to the promotion of economic self-sufficiency.

Dr. Pantoja aimed most of her energies; however, to harmonizing the performance of Puerto Rican children in New York schools, children of Spanish speakers who were educated through English only. There was a fall in reading in 1961, with two out of three eighth graders performing poorly. By 1963, when there were 179,000 Puerto Rican public school students, only 331 managed to obtain high school academic diplomas, with only 28 advancing to college.

To address this, in 1961, Dr. Pantoja formed Aspira, a nonprofit organization to encourage educational attainment, self-esteem, cultural awareness and leadership development among the Puerto Ricans. It operated through clubs in city schools, Aspira used habits and signs to plead to students tempted by gang culture. Aspira had a sober initiation ceremony, foundationally laid on a Taino Indian ritual, in which ”aspirantes” seized candles and vowed to follow educational excellence and to devote their success to their society. The movement was symbolized by a spitfire, a small tropical bird known for its liveliness and high velocity. The group taught the ”Aspira process” of awareness, analysis and action. With the advent of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, Dr. Pantoja changed her emphasis from self-help programs to one of reforming the educational system. In 1964, she assisted in drafting up a request by the Puerto Rican Forum for $12.5 million from the city’s antipoverty council to set up bilingual prekindergarten classes, post-school programs for besieged students, parental regulation and adult education courses, as well as other related programs

While serving on a committee convened by Mayor John V. Lindsay, she recommended the decentralization of the school system (Board of Education of the City of New York. 1991). It is noteworthy that, that summer, after the riots that rocked many American cities, she attended the New York constitutional convention in Albany, where she pushed for the state to undertake constitutional responsibility for free higher education, adult education and ”compensatory education” for the vulnerable as well as the less advantaged.

By 1972, Dr. Pantoja was frustrated by the continued failure of city schools to teach Puerto Rican students – who still continued to perform poorly with a graduation rate of only 30 percent – Aspira lodged a civil rights case in federal court demanding that New York City to offer classroom teaching in Spanish for struggling students. The verdict of the suit resulted in establishment of bilingual classes and English as a second language class for Latino students whose English skills were in the lowest fifth.

High School Graduation Rates (Case study of stateside)

Puerto Ricans including other U.S. Latinos have encountered long-term problem of a high school dropout rate that has culminated into relatively little educational attainment levels. (Baker 2002: 132, 133, 154, 167, 169, 171 and 172; Rivera Ramos 2001: 3-5, 162-63). Categorically those aged 25 years and above, only 63.2 percent of Stateside Puerto Ricans had graduated from high school, measured against 84.0 percent Whites, 73.6 percent Blacks and 83.4 percent of Asians. There were very low high school graduation rates in other schools for instance, Mexicans (48.7 percent), Dominicans (51.7 percent) and Central and South Americans (60.4 percent), while it was below that of Cubans (68.7 percent) and Other Latinos (72.6 percent).

College Graduation Rates

It is important to understand that, according to the 2000 Census, 24.4 percent of those 25 years and older had a 4-year college degree, with the figure being only 9.9 percent for stateside Puerto Ricans (Board of Education of the City of New York,1991). Come 2003, graduation for Stateside Puerto Ricans improved to 13.1 percent, less than the rate for Whites (26.1 percent), Blacks (14.4 percent) and Asians (43.3 percent) (Baker 2002: 132, 133, 154, 167, 169, 171 and 172; Rivera Ramos 2001: 3-5, 162-63). Amongst Latinos, barely Mexicans (6.2 percent) were the only ones who fared worse than Stateside Puerto Ricans in college attainment, with the others exhibiting higher rates: Dominicans (10.9 percent), Cubans (19.4 percent), Central and South Americans (16.0 percent) and other Latinos (16.1 percent).

Graduate Degrees

In the year 2003 stateside Puerto Ricans manifested low attainment of graduate school degrees, with only 3.1 percent of those 25 and older having one (compared to 4.7 percent in Puerto Rico in 2000). This rate was far much below that of Whites (8.7 percent), Blacks (4.1 percent) and Asians (15.6 percent) (Nieto S, 2000, pp. 9-34). Among Latinos, Stateside Puerto Ricans performed fairly well in the attainment of graduate school degrees than Mexicans (1.4 percent) and Dominicans (1.8 percent), but worse than Cubans (6.7 percent), Central and South Americans (4.2 percent) and other Latinos (5.6 percent) (Board of Education of the City of New York (1991).

This irregular placement of students was most probably due to the fact that bilingual educators were most likely Spanish. Students who spoke Chinese and Haitian were assigned to bilingual education far more often than children who spoke Russian, Korean, and other less commonly spoken languages; Chinese and Haitian are the other two most commonly spoken languages after Spanish.

ESL students performed fairly well as compared to their bilingual education students counterparts irrespective of whether they started the tracking in kindergarten (54.4% of ESL managed the median, vs. 39.7% of bilingual education students), first ranking (55.5%-47.2%), and second ranking (61.6%-40.0%) (Board of Education of the City of New York, 1991) (Baker 2002: 132, 133, 154, 167, 169, 171 and 172; Rivera Ramos 2001: 3-5, 162-63).Same results were portrayed in Math test results, in each grade measured. Kindergarten (70.1%-51.2%), first ranking (66.4%-51.8%) or second ranking (80.1%-50.0%).

ESL and Bilingual education

In N Y C, schools use both English as a Second Language (ESL), and bilingual education. ESL is an adapted English immersion program, whereby the student is offered special course to help him advance in English skills while taking a rather traditional curriculum in English (Baker 2002: 132, 133, 154, 167, 169, 171 and 172; Rivera Ramos 2001: 3-5, 162-63). Bilingual education programs permits the students to take their courses in their home language, as well as learning English in a special class. On average, bilingual education learners use an average of 120 minutes per week in English classes.


Students in ESL programs have positively shown to be in a better position than those in the bilingual education to successfully achieve the English skills required to be placed into mainstream classes, and they’ve shown to achieve these skills rapidly (Dillon S, 1994, pp. 4 -175). They attain higher assessment scores in reading and math, disproving the argument that better reading skills are invariables of other academic skills. Students who effectively reach the exit measure are far more likely to complete school.

Looking at NY City’s educational policies as for the last 10 years, there is actually systematic neglect of the needs of Puerto Rican students. This ignorance, which would be regarded as criminal by any standards of decorum, is supported by an administrative power base that is tremendously White and deficient almost totally in Puerto Rican representation (Nieto S, 2000, pp. 9-34). In response, Puerto Rican parents and students have are supposed to mobilize themselves against school policies that are evidence of derision that infuses the school system. The Puerto Rican educational difficulties are as a result of a situation that has been furthered, enabled, and, in essence, institutionalized through the strategies. For the future of Puerto Ricans to be of any meaning in terms of education system, school managers as well as the policies should be put under scrutiny.


  1. Baker, Susan S. (2002). Understanding Mainland Puerto Rican Poverty (Philadelphia: Temple University Press).
  2. Duany, Jorge (2002). The Puerto Rican Nation on the Move: Identities on the Island and in the United States (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press).
  3. Board of Education of the City of New York. (1991). A pilot study of services to students of limited English proficiency in New York City public schools. Brooklyn, NY: Author. (ED 377 681) pp. 2-13
  4. Dillon, S. (1994, June 8). Report faults bilingual education in New York. The New York Times.
  5. Nieto, Sonia (ed.) (2000). Puerto Rican Students in U.S. Schools (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates) pp 9-34.
  6. Torres, Andres. (1995). Between Melting Pot and Mosaic: African Americans and Puerto Ricans in the New York Political Economy (Philadelphia: Temple University Press) pp.117-305.
  7. Haslip-Viera, Gabriel, Angelo Falcón, and Felix Matos-Rodríguez (ends) (2004). Boricuas in Gotham: Puerto Ricans in the Making of Modern New York City, 1945-2000
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