Puerto Ricans in New York Face Persistent Struggles

Email a Friend

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.