Puerto Ricans in New York Face Persistent Struggles

Friday, November 20, 2009

Puerto Rican leaders have made lots of news this year – from Sonia Sotomayor’s rise to the Supreme Court, to the so-called ‘three amigos’ who took power in the New York legislature.

While New York’s most visible Latino leaders are Puerto Rican…some researchers are trying to call attention to a less visible reality: that almost a third of Puerto Ricans are living below the poverty line, compared to less than a fifth of all New Yorkers. And in educational and professional achievement, New York’s Puerto Ricans are doing worse than Latinos as a whole. WNYC’s Marianne McCune reports.

REPORTER: Puerto Ricans are among the poorest New Yorkers. Their rate of unemployment is higher than for Latinos as a whole. They own fewer homes and fewer go to college.

LOPEZ: All the folks that I grew up hanging around didn’t make it.

REPORTER: 24-year old Jose Lopez works as a youth organizer at Make the Road New York in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. This is where he grew up, with mostly Puerto Rican and African American friends.

LOPEZ: Going to the YMCA across the street, playing basketball to the wee hours of the night.

REPORTER: But Lopez was the only one who went to college.

LOPEZ: When I first left, I felt guilty. Maybe because there was just a sense of fear in me that folks would be like ‘Oh, this brother thinks he made it and he left. He thinks he’s better.’ It felt weird at first. And I was like damn, I wish I could drag them along but I can’t.

REPORTER: In New York, less than a third of Puerto Ricans have any college education. They are poorer and less educated than Latinos on the whole, despite the fact that they’ve been here longer and have the advantage of U.S. citizenship. There are plenty of potential explanations. And one of them, says Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., is that many of the most successful Puerto Ricans aren’t reflected in the statistics.

DIAZ: Many have left the Bronx, many of them have left the City of New York. When you look at areas like Pennsylvania, when you look at areas like New Jersey and Florida, you see a lot of home ownership, you see a lot of professionals who are Puerto Rican who started out here in New York City.

REPORTER: And many successful Puerto Ricans return to the Island – Puerto Rico is a Commonwealth of the United States, so it’s easy to go back and forth.

But Professor Philip Kasinitz of the CUNY Graduate Center says none of that erases the reality that Puerto Ricans in New York are struggling. In his comprehensive study of second generation immigrants in New York, Kasinitz found that young Puerto Ricans are doing only a tiny bit better than the children of Dominican immigrants.

KASINITZ: And that was surprising given they’ve been in the country so much longer. Most young Puerto Ricans spoke English predominantly and in many cases exclusively, so a lot of cultural assimilation didn’t seem to have led to a lot of upward mobility. And this stood in contrast to a lot of more recent immigrant groups.

REPORTER: Kasinitz says it’s partly a result of decades of bad luck.

KASINITZ: Puerto Ricans were more negatively affected by deindustrialization in the 1950s than any other group.

REPORTER: They came to the U.S. by the thousands to work in factories just after World War II. So he says they were the ones laid off when New York’s factories closed down. They were also concentrated in the neighborhoods hit hardest by the fiscal crisis of the 1970s and by the crack epidemic of the 1980s.

KASINITZ: Puerto Ricans are a remarkable case of the wrong place at the wrong time. When the South Bronx was burning, it was Puerto Rican neighborhoods that were in the forefront of that problem.

REPORTER: During those decades, the struggles of Puerto Ricans got a lot of attention – from the Broadway musical West Side Story to studies by social scientists of the so-called culture of poverty.

The chorus of this tongue-in-cheek song recorded for an audio documentary in the 1950s says, “I am a problem, They tell me I’m a minority, I’m a focus of sociology.”

But while many of those social problems have endured, Angelo Falcon of the National Institute for Latino Policy says today – nobody talks about them.

FALCON: Puerto Ricans went from the poster boys of the culture of poverty research to now feeling very invisible in many ways.

REPORTER: With the arrival in New York of millions more immigrants from all over the world, especially other Latin American countries, the struggle of Puerto Ricans is no longer a hot topic. Falcon says even some Puerto Rican leaders don’t want talk about Puerto Rican poverty.

FALCON: I remember getting one Congressman, a Puerto Rican Congressman calling me up to tell me why did we publish this? It’s making us look bad. You know, how can we play role of leaders in Latino community if we have the highest poverty rate?

REPORTER: There’s pressure to look good, and to be inclusive. Puerto Rican elected officials now represent districts populated by Dominicans, Ecuadorians, Colombians, and Mexicans. Bronx Borough President Diaz says they walk a fine line between advocating for Puerto Ricans and serving everyone.

DIAZ: Once upon a time we were a very lonely community. And shame on us if we are not helpful to other emerging Latino constituencies.

REPORTER: With the changes in population, grassroots groups that used to focus on Puerto Ricans are also under pressure to serve all Latinos. Many have dropped the words Puerto Rican from their names - the Puerto Rican Legal and Education Defense Fund became Latino Justice.

Now, Professor Kasinitz says, when those groups focus on the prominent Latino issues of immigration, or Spanish language translation – they’re not necessarily serving Puerto Ricans, whose struggles may mirror more closely those of African Americans.

KASINITZ: There’s still a large impoverished Puerto Rican community in New York that in many ways is not an immigrant community. Where is its future? Where is it going? Where are the opportunities for it?

REPORTER: The answers to those questions are out there, says Edwin Melendez of Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies. But numbers have to be crunched. And nowadays, he says those numbers are hard to come by. While the government used to collect specific data on Puerto Ricans

MELENDEZ: In many states and cities that has been lost. And now you have only this Hispanic aggregated data.

REPORTER: So it’s difficult to understand the underlying problems. That’s why Melendez has been looking into how many Puerto Ricans are succeeding each year in the City’s elementary, middle and high schools.

MELENDEZ: When you see the data, you know there’s something wrong with the pipeline, with the advancement grade by grade. And we’re falling through the cracks. And I think we need to fill those cracks!

GONZALES: Like, give me an example of a professional email.

REPORTER: Back at Make the Road New York, Jose Lopez and his cousin Jesus Gonzalez are trying to fill those cracks - by bringing what they learned in college and elsewhere back to the teenagers they work with in Bushwick, rather than leaving the neighborhood behind.

GONZALES: You don’t want to contact a group of lawyers with ‘sexymama123.’

REPORTER: Gonzalez says just their presence here makes a difference.

GONZALES: It’s had a huge impact on folks to be able to see people who have been to college or had a stable successful career that they liked. As opposed to just trying to make ends meet.

REPORTER: But Gonzalez and Lopez say they don’t focus their efforts on Puerto Ricans. While this area used to be heavily Puerto Rican, it too has changed: over the past decade, Mexican groceries have popped up and Latinos from Central and South America have moved in. Plus, Lopez says all of Bushwick’s poor residents are struggling to pay rent as the neighborhood gentrifies.

LOPEZ: I think the Puerto Rican community, especially in this neighborhood, has always been a very tight knit community. My mom's and all the Puerto Rican folks in the projects in the building that she grew up in, folks always asking each other for sugar, or for coffee, or, like, babysit my kids while I go for a job interview. I think with any ethnic group when you start to lose that knit in a community, that fabric, then it just becomes harder to exist and do well.

REPORTER: These two say there are some Puerto Ricans who look down on the immigrants who’ve only recently arrived – because they’re not citizens or don’t speak English.

But none of the residents of Bushwick are going to emerge out of poverty, Lopez and Gonzalez say, unless they stick together. For WNYC, I’m Marianne McCune.

To see photos and some of the statistics Marianne talks about in this story, visit our news blog.


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Comments [7]

Ave Maria

I agree with the following statement:

"Many have left the Bronx, many of them have left the City of New York. When you look at areas like Pennsylvania, when you look at areas like New Jersey and Florida, you see a lot of home ownership, you see a lot of professionals who are Puerto Rican who started out here in New York City."

This is a MAJOR factor regardless of the main issue presented. Despite the fact that so many Puerto Ricans have left the city and migrated elsewhere, they are still the largest Hispanic group. Out of those that still reside there, a third are below the poverty line, which leaves two thirds, TWO THIRDS that aren't. And that's not including those who left he city and sought better lives elsewhere. I'm Boricua and I live in Fairfield, CT, one of the most expensive towns in the state- after having lived in the slums of NYC, worked my butt off to get myself a proper education and finally get to the financially secure position that I've gotten to. Why am I and the countless Boricuas who have done the same not counted in this 'statistic'? I find it revolting when the media chooses to focus on the negative aspects of the Puerto Rican population within the United States, the shed light on the positive. Yes, raising awareness to an ongoing problem is essential when it comes to the preservation and betterment of our own involvement within our communities, but this article is just borderline degrading and focuses solely on a single problem without even considering the probable reasons behind the changes.

And to those that fall along the 1/3: Unless you're disabled, elderly or a minor, I suggest you get your butt off the couch, quit drinking the maltas and eating the pastelillos, and make something of yourselves. It's you who is running our image down the drain, our culture, gather some work ethic for Christ's sake!

Sep. 11 2012 08:24 PM
New Yorker ?

Lets just say that being
Puerto Rican has its advantages.I think that New York is always a special place for special people. Puerto Ricans can call it home yet we are not the commonwealth of America for nothing . You give and you take as long as you get what your heart desires. Too many excuses too little time.Give us the chance to succeed and we will as a people nation and culture. Stop stealing away our hopes and dreams and maybe yes maybe we can make them all come true.Learn to Love us as a brother and sisters not hate me cause I am true to my culture. Give us a reason to do better and we will everyday. Stop telling us lies and expecting us to believe that tommorrow will offer us opportunity when all you want is to rob us of our culture. Make sense of liberty and show us the way.Instead of trying to bring us to justice for something as simple as only God can tell. If God is our leader then how can we fail.. Nay to those opposed and to Boricuas wepa we are a family we are a people and yes God loves us lets show this world that we are united through peace power and happiness. Yes money is essential and yes god does provide. As long as we stay united the enemy will fall and fail at all there attempted to disgrace this faithful culture we call Puerto Ricans...

Aug. 26 2012 06:06 AM

I'm 23 years old, strong & successful Puerto Rican man. I graduated recently from college with a bacholers degree in Registerd Nursing and my family is from NYC & most of them moved to CT and we all are doing wonderful have a huge family and for the most part we all are financially stable... Just like every other race there's poor & rich & mid class ! Well that's just my comment all my boricuas stay strong ;)

Jan. 11 2012 09:43 PM
jcruz from brooklyn

Pr this or that ,if u really do yur homework regarless if the Puerto rican is from pr or USA ... We have spreaded we expanded ,in all fifty states ,and if u lool up Orlando fl,all Puerto rican own houses,and live mid class and berter... Check the military and see how many or are there .. check nyc congress people see how many leaders we got ,... We got smarter, living in nyc is for the rich, y strugle and live in the getto Wen u can just go to Jearsy,pa,phiilly,upstae ny .. Chicago ,I can go on .. and live beter life ,.. then to ne in nyc struggling.. we go to any state with our ny attitude and we suceed .. easy ,... And one more thing we had to strugle and go threw hell for all the latinos to live beter life hear..we put up with a lot of racial stuff ,and now cus of us pr .. lationos get respect ... Aight simple ass that ,don't forget don't include sports and singing ,ports of millinares in that .... Aight pr for life til I die

Dec. 30 2011 06:14 PM
Onel DelOrbe from Sobro

Has anyone noticed that that majority of those Puerto Ricans who have made it can often pass for white? Marc Anthony, Sonia Sotomayor, Luis Acaba (Astronaut), are just a few examples of this great divide between white Puerto Ricans and the oppressed dark ones. We are a people who claim to be the most advanced in latin america, yet still we obsessed over trivial characteristics, such as eye color. I remember being rejected by the older Puero Ricans because I lacked this very important trait .(how else was I going to compete against the jews or italians?) One can imagine how single I was, with portly Rican moms telling their daughters they have to lighten the line - even if it meant eroding their own heritage (blancito y alto, con ojos verde o azul!!).
Another problem Is the lack of Puerto Rican owned businesses here in New York. Nowadays it seems like everything is owned by other minorities, and I'm sure they'd rather hire one of their own, instead of those evil Ricans that'll steal your hubcaps. These immigrants came here with college degrees, as opposed to us, who came here straight from the slums with a 5th grade education.

Jul. 21 2011 03:40 PM
sammy from bronx,ny.

i think we puertoricans really got stuck on that high cloud,that because were citizens, we are better, we are the best looking, have the best style. when we really just ripped off the black americans, always tried to distant ourselves from other hispanics and put them down. always seeked attention. i think that being citinzes really got to our heads. that we didnt really have to work hard as other hispanics. we wanted things handed to us. and now the other folks that we have robbed from, attacked, and put down ,are now thriving. and were the ones who are lost. and reggaetone is not our savior, another ripp off of the black culture. not to deny our african roots. but we puertoricans only say were black when its convenient. if hiphop was created by white people, we would jump and join and say yeah were white too.

Apr. 20 2011 09:40 PM
sonia santiago from Jesup, Ga

Im a ny rican born and raised in ny city , moved to miami then to belive it or not ga
I have 4 children all doing well 2 iin college I feel for my people what happen we need to start helping ourselves before we can help any body else unfortunetly nobody is going to help us even those who can jenniffer from the block anthony what happen to helping someone else . we have bueatiful woman handsome men with talent and gifts though maybe not the money . no one knows that we exist there is shows on tv about every ethinc group but ours we have lost our identy we in ny always hang out with blacks but you don't even see one of us on a video unless it is reggeton no models with the bueatifull people that we are some of us are living right those that can help don't have no vision and it takes a neiborhood to bring us up. I guess they say the hell with them to each it's own come help weather with education . fashion . the arts don't forget jen who was there for you " teenage pregancy . is some thing you can help when my kids look to see who they can id with there is no one Im sure there is some money you can help with God has bless you help others those PRs out there we are a lost generation with no identity stop trying to act like we down with every one when we are not even down with eachother blacks have the naacp whites have the tea party jews have there organcation it is okay for us to have the puertorican so and so help ourselves first so we can help others. those that have start a charity help a fellow puertorican you will wish you did when your children are looking for someone to id with were not all bad we have so much to give somethings take money . hey out there there are bueatifull puertorican girls that can model, singers dancer designers help ,help ,help
im adovacting for the newyork rican the forgoten people... love u and God Bless

Jul. 24 2010 09:40 AM

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