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December 1991

The Other Underclass

Most people think of inner-city poverty as a black phenomenon. But it is also alarmingly high among Puerto Ricans, the worst-off ethnic group in the country--even though Puerto Rico itself has made great progress against poverty and there is a growing Puerto Rican middle-class on the mainland

by Nicholas Lemann

The term "Hispanic" which is used to describe Spanish-speaking American ethnic groups--mainly Mexican-Americans, but also Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Colombians, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, and immigrants from other Latin American countries--may wind up having only a brief run in common parlance. It has been in official governmental use for only a few years; the Census Bureau did not extensively use the term "Hispanic" until the 1980 census. Now it faces two threats: First, although most Hispanic groups are comfortable with the term, another name, "Latino," is gaining favor, especially on campuses, because it implies that Latin America has a distinctive indigenous culture, rather than being just a step-child of Spain. Second, the very idea that it is useful to try to understand all Americans with Spanish-speaking backgrounds as members of a single group tends to crumble on examination.

Cubans, who are much more prosperous than the other Hispanic subgroups, have now risen above the national mean in family income. They are concentrated in Florida. Mexican-Americans, who make up about two thirds of the country's 22.4 million Hispanics, live mainly in the Southwest, especially California and Texas. Puerto Ricans are the second-largest Hispanic group--2.75 million people in the mainland United States. A third of them live in one city--New York.

As soon as the Hispanic category is broken down by group, what leaps out at anyone who takes even a casual look at the census data is that Puerto Ricans are the worst off ethnic group in the United States. For a period in the mid-1980s nearly half of all Puerto Rican families were living in poverty. It seems commonsensical that for Hispanics poverty would be a function of their unfamiliarity with the mainland United States, inability to speak English, and lack of education. But Mexican Americans, who are no more proficient in English than Puerto Ricans, less likely to have finished high school, and more likely to have arrived here very recently, have a much lower poverty rate. The Journal of the American Medical Association reported earlier this year that, as the newsletter of a leading Puerto Rican organization put it, "On almost every health indicator...Puerto Ricans fared worse" than Mexican-Americans or Cubans. Infant mortality was 50 percent higher than among Mexican-Americans, and nearly three times as high as among Cubans.

The statistics also show Puerto Ricans to be much more severely afflicted than Mexican-Americans by what might be called the secondary effects of poverty, such as family breakups, and not trying to find employment--which work to ensure that poverty will continue beyond one generation. In 1988 females headed 44 percent of Puerto Rican families, as opposed to 18 percent of Mexican-American families. Mexican-Americans had a slightly higher unemployment rate, but Puerto Ricans had a substantially higher rate in the sociologically ominous category "labor force non-participation," meaning the percentage of people who haven't looked for a job in the previous month.

Practically everybody in America feels some kind of emotion about blacks, but Puerto Rican leaders are the only people I've ever run across for whom the emotion is pure envy. In New York City, black median family income is substantially higher than Puerto Rican, and is rising more rapidly. The black home-ownership rate is more than double the Puerto Rican rate. Puerto Rican families are more than twice as likely as black families to be on welfare, and are about 50 percent more likely to be poor. In the mainland United States, Puerto Ricans have nothing like the black institutional network of colleges, churches, and civil-rights organizations; there isn't a large cadre of visible Puerto Rican successes in nearly every field; black politicians are more powerful than Puerto Rican politicians in all the cities with big Puerto Rican populations; and there is a feeling that blacks have America's attention, whereas Puerto Ricans, after a brief flurry of publicity back in West Side Story days, have become invisible.

The question of why poverty is so widespread, and so persistent, among Puerto Ricans is an urgent one, not only for its own sake but also because the answer to it might prove to be a key to understanding the broader problem of the urban underclass. "Underclass" is a supposedly nonracial term, but by most definitions the underclass is mostly black, and discussions of it are full of racial undercurrents. Given the history of American race relations, it is nearly impossible for people to consider issues like street crime, unemployment, the high school dropout rate, and out-of-wedlock pregnancy without reopening a lot of ancient wounds. To seek an explanation for poverty among Puerto Ricans rather than blacks may make possible a truly deracialized grasp of what most experts agree is a non-race-specific problem. Although there is no clear or agreed-upon answer, the case of Puerto Ricans supports the view that being part of the underclass in the United States is the result of a one-two punch of economic factors, such as unemployment and welfare, and cultural ones, such as neighborhood ambience and ethnic history.


Puerto Rico was inhabited solely by Arawak Indians until 1493, when Christopher Columbus visited it on his second voyage to the New World. The island became a Spanish colony, and it remained one until 1898. In that year an autonomous Puerto Rican government was set up, with Spain's blessing, but it functioned for only a few days; American troops invaded during the Spanish-American War and the island became a possession of the United States shortly thereafter. The U.S. conquest of Puerto Rico was not the bloody kind that resonates psychologically through the generations; there was little resistance, and the arrival of the troops was cheered in many places. In 1917 all Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship and allowed to elect a senate, but until after the Second World War the island was run by a series of colonial governors sent from Washington.

During this period Puerto Rico underwent an economic transformation, as big U.S. sugar companies came in and established plantations. Previously the island's main crops had been grown on small subsistence farms up in the hills. The sugar plantations induced thousands of people to move down to the coastal lowlands, where they became what the anthropologist Sidney Mintz calls a "rural proletariat," living in hastily constructed shantytowns and often paid in company scrip. The most salient feature of Puerto Rico throughout the first half of the twentieth century, at least in the minds of non-Puerto Ricans, was its extreme poverty and overpopulation. "What I found appalled me," John Gunther wrote, in Inside Latin America (1941), about his visit to Puerto Rico. "I saw native villages steaming with filth--villages dirtier than any I ever saw in the most squalid parts of China....I saw children bitten by disease and on the verge of starvation, in slum dwellings--if you can call them dwellings--that make the hovels of Calcutta look healthy by comparison." Gunther reported that more than half of Puerto Rican children of school age didn't go to school, that the island had the highest infant-mortality rate in the world, and that it was the second most densely populated place on earth, after Java.

From such beginnings Puerto Rico became, after the Second World War, one of the great economic and political successes of the Latin American Third World. The hero of the story is Luis Munoz Marin (the son of the most important Puerto Rican political leader of the early twentieth century), who founded the biggest Puerto Rican political party and, after the United States decided to allow the island to elect its own governor, was the first Puerto Rican to rule Puerto Rico, which he did from 1949 to 1964. Munoz was the leading proponent of the idea of commonwealth status, as opposed to statehood or independence, for Puerto Rico. Under the system he helped to institute, Puerto Ricans forfeited some rights of U.S. citizenship, such as eligibility for certain federal social-welfare programs and the right to participate in national politics, and in return remained free of certain responsibilities, mainly that of paying federal income taxes. (Local taxes have always been high.)

Munoz's main goal was the economic development of the island. He accomplished it by building up the educational system tremendously at all levels, by using the tax breaks to induce U.S. companies to locate manufacturing plants in Puerto Rico, and perhaps (here we enter a realm where the absolute truth is hard to know) by encouraging mass emigration. Michael Lapp, a professor at the College of New Rochelle, unearthed memoranda from several members of Munoz's circle of advisers during the 1940s in which they discuss schemes to foster large-scale emigration from Puerto Rico as a way of alleviating the overpopulation problem. "They speculated about the possibility of resettling a breathtakingly large number of people," Lapp wrote in his doctoral dissertation, and described several never realized plans to create agricultural colonies for hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans elsewhere in Latin America.

It's doubtful that the Munoz government would ever have been able to export Puerto Ricans en masse to Brazil or the Dominican Republic, but in any case the issue became moot, because heavy voluntary emigration to an extremely nonagricultural venue--New York City--was soon under way. In 1940 New York had 70,000 Puerto Rican residents, in 1950 it had 250,000, and in 1960 it had 613,000. In general, what brought people there was economic prospects vastly less dismal than those in Puerto Rico. Back home, at the outset of the migration, industrialization was still in its very early stages, sugar prices were depressed, and thousands of people who had moved from the hills to the lowlands a generation earlier now had to move again, to notorious slums on the outskirts of urban areas, such as La Perla ("the pearl") and El Fanguito ("the little mudhole"). "The whole peasantry of Puerto Rico was displaced," says Ramon Daubon, a former vice-president of the National Puerto Rican Coalition. Among Munoz's many works was the construction of high rise housing projects to replace the slums, but during the peak years of Puerto Rican emigration little decent housing for the poor was available locally.

In particular what set off the migration was the institution of cheap air travel between San Juan and New York. During the 1940s and 1950s a one-way ticket from San Juan to New York could be bought for less than $50, and installment plans were available for those without enough cash on hand. Munoz's government may not have invented the emigration, but it did do what it could to help it along--first by allowing small local airlines to drive down air fares, and second by opening, in 1948, a Migration Division in New York, which was supposed to help Puerto Ricans find jobs and calm any mainland fears about the migration which might lead to its being restricted, as had been every previous large-scale migration of an ethnic group in the twentieth century.


At first the center of Puerto Rican New York was 116th Street and Third Avenue, in East Harlem. This was part of the congressional district of Vito Marcantonio, the furthest-to-the-left member of the House of Representatives and a staunch friend of the Puerto Ricans. A rumor of the time was that he was "bringing them up" because Italian-Americans were moving out of Harlem and he needed a new group of loyal constituents. But the migration increased after Marcantonio lost his seat in the 1950 election. By the end of the 1950s the Puerto Rican center had begun to shift two miles to the north, to 149th Street and Third Avenue, in the Bronx, which is where it is today.

At the time, the South Bronx was not a recognized district. A series of neighborhoods at the southern tip of the Bronx--Mott Haven, Hunts Point, Melrose--were home to white ethnics who had moved there from the slums of Manhattan, as a step up the ladder. These neighborhoods were mostly Jewish, Italian, and Irish. Most of the housing stock consisted of tenement houses, but they were nicer tenements than the ones on the Lower East Side and in Hell's Kitchen. From there the next move was usually to the lower-middle-class northern and eastern Bronx, or to Queens. During the boom years after the Second World War whites were leaving the South Bronx in substantial numbers. Meanwhile, urban renewal was displacing many blacks and Puerto Ricans from Manhattan, and the city was building new high-rise public housing--much of it in the South Bronx. During the mid-1960s another persistent rumor was that Herman Badillo, who had been appointed the city's relocation commissioner in 1961, tried to engineer the placement of as many Puerto Ricans as possible in the South Bronx, so that he would have a base from which to run for office. (Badillo was elected borough president of the Bronx in 1965, and in 1970 he became the first Puerto Rican elected to the U.S. Congress.)

For most of the Puerto Ricans moving to the South Bronx, though, the neighborhood was just what it had been for the area's earlier occupants--a step up (usually from East Harlem). All through the 1950s and 1960s it was possible to see Puerto Ricans as a typical rising American immigrant group (rising more slowly than most, perhaps), and their relocation to the South Bronx was part of the evidence. The idea that New York was going to be continually inundated by starving Puerto Rican peasants for whom there was no livelihood at home had faded, because spectacular progress was being made back on the island: per capita income increased sixfold from 1940 to 1963; the percentage of children attending school rose to 90.

In a new preface for the 1970 edition of Beyond the Melting Pot, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote, "Puerto Ricans are economically and occupationally worse off than Negroes, but one does find a substantial move in the second generation that seems to correspond to what we expected for new groups in the city." In keeping with the standard pattern for immigrants, Puerto Ricans were beginning to achieve political power commensurate with their numbers in the city. And the War on Poverty and the Model Cities program created a small but important new cache of jobs for Puerto Ricans which were more dignified and better-paying than jobs in the garment district and hotel dining rooms and on loading docks and vegetable farms.

But the 1970s were a nightmare decade in the South Bronx. The statistical evidence of Puerto Rican progress out of poverty evaporated. After rising in the 1960s, Puerto Rican median family income dropped during the 1970s. Family structure changed dramatically: the percentage of Puerto Ricans living in families headed by a single, unemployed parent went from 9.9 in 1960 and 10.1 in 1970 to 26.9 in 1980. The visible accompaniment to these numbers was the extraordinary physical deterioration of the South Bronx, mainly through arson. Jill Jonnes, in We're Still Here: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of the South Bronx, wrote:

"There was arson commissioned by landlords out for their insurance....Arson was set by welfare recipients who wanted out of their apartments....Many fires were deliberately set by junkies--and by that new breed of professional, the strippers of buildings, who wanted to clear a building so they could ransack the valuable copper and brass pipes, fixtures, and hardware...Fires were set by firebugs who enjoyed a good blaze and by kids out for kicks. And some were set by those who got their revenge with fire, jilted lovers returning with a can of gasoline and a match...."

Exact numbers are difficult to come by, but it seems safe to say that the South Bronx lost somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 housing units during the 1970s, and this produced the vistas of vacant, rubble-strewn city blocks by which the outside world knows the South Bronx. Two Presidents, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, paid well-publicized visits to burned-out Charlotte Street. Theories abound about why, exactly, the South Bronx burned: the excessive strictness of rent control in New York, the dispiriting effects of welfare and unemployment, the depredations of drugs. It is not necessary to choose among them to be able to say that the burning took place because most parties had abandoned any commitment to maintaining a functional society there. It is rare for the veneer of civilization to be eroded so rapidly anywhere during peace time. Fernando Ferrer, the Bronx's borough president, says, "I remember in 1974 walking around Jennings Street. One weekend everything's going, stores, et cetera. The next week, boom, it's gone. It hit with the power of a locomotive. In '79, '80, it seemed like EVERY goddamn thing was burning."

By virtue of the presidential visits and its location in New York City (and its prominence in Bonfire of the Vanities), the South Bronx has become the most famous slum in America. To visit it today is to be amazed by how much less completely devastated it is than we've been led to expect. The area around 149th Street and Third Avenue, which is known as the Hub, is a thriving retail district, complete with department stores and the usual bodegas (corner stores) and botanicas (shops selling religious items and magic potions). A neighborhood like Lawndale in Chicago, in contrast, hasn't had any substantial commercial establishments for more than twenty years. During the daytime the Hub area feels lively and safe. Also, there is new and rehabilitated housing all over the South Bronx, including incongruous ranch-style suburban houses lining Charlotte Street, row houses on Fox Street, and fixed-up apartment houses all over the old tenement districts from Hunts Point to Mott Haven.

What accounts for the signs of progress is, first, a decision during the prosperous 1980s by the administration of Mayor Ed Koch ("kicking and screaming," Ferrer says) to commit a sum in the low billions to the construction and rehabilitation of housing in the South Bronx. This has led to the opening of many thousands of new housing units. Some of them are very unpopular in the neighborhood, because they are earmarked to house homeless people who are being moved out of welfare hotels in Manhattan. Community leaders in the Bronx grumble that there's a master plan to export Manhattan's problems to their neighborhood.

Several impressive community-development groups, including the Mid-Bronx Desperadoes, Bronx Venture Corporation, and Banana Kelly, have played a part in the rehabilitation of the neighborhood, by using funds from the city and foundations to fix up and then manage apartment buildings. Nationally, a generation's worth of efforts to redevelop urban slums haven't worked well on the whole. The lesson of the community groups' success in the Bronx seems to be that if the focus of redevelopment is on housing rather than job creation, and if there is money available to renovate the housing, and if the groups are permitted to function as tough-minded landlords, then living conditions in poor neighborhoods can be made much more decent.

The biggest community-development organization in the South Bronx is the South East Bronx Community Organization, which is run by Father Louis Gigante. Gigante, a Catholic priest, is a legendary figure in the Bronx. He is the brother of Vincent "The Chin" Gigante, the reputed head of the Genovese organized-crime family. He has been associated with St. Athanasius Church in Hunts Point since 1962, but he is an atypical priest: he is tough, combative, politically active (he served on the New York city council, and once ran for Congress), and immodest. The area surrounding St. Athanasius is an oasis of clean streets and well-kept housing, which Gigante runs in the manner of a benevolent dictator. He is known for his tough tenant-screening policy. "You've got to house a base of people with economic strength," he told me recently. "We look at family structure--how do they live? We visit everyone. We look in their background and see if there are extensive social problems, like drugs or a criminal record. Back in the late seventies, I'd only take ten or twelve percent of people on some government subsidy--including pensions. I was looking for working-class people. You cannot put a whole massive group of social problems all together in one place. They're going to kill you. They're going to destroy you. They're going to eat you up with their problems."

For many years the politics of Hunts Point was dominated by a rivalry between Gigante and Ramon Velez, another legendary figure who was also a New York city councilman. Velez ran the Hunts Point Multi-Service Center, a large, government funded social-services dispensary that provided him with a base of political patronage jobs. Born in Puerto Rico, Velez came to the South Bronx as a welfare caseworker in 1961, the year before Gigante arrived. A fiery street-corner speaker, he quickly became the kind of up-from-the-streets community leader that the War on Poverty liked to fund. He made the multi-service center into a big organization, ran for Congress once, registered hundreds of thousands of Puerto Rican voters, became a power in the Puerto Rican Day parade, and led demonstrations that helped induce the city to rebuild a large South Bronx hospital, which has been by far the most significant new source of jobs in the area. He was investigated and audited many times because of government money unaccounted for at his organizations. His aides were rumored to carry weapons and to threaten political rivals with violence. (Velez says this isn't true.) Once Velez and Gigante got into a fistfight after Velez called Gigante a maricon ("queer"). (Velez insists that this never happened.)

Today Gigante and Velez are both in their late fifties, gray-haired (at least they were until recently, when Velez dyed his hair black), and mellowed. Each professes to have developed a grudging respect for the other. No doubt they will soon be representatives of a certain period in the past--the rough-and-tumble period when the Bronx was just becoming Puerto Rican. Fernando Ferrer, on the other hand, is part of the first generation of Puerto Ricans born and raised in the Bronx to come to power. He has been groomed for leadership ever since, as a teenager, he joined a program for promising Puerto Rican kids called ASPIRA.

A different group--Dominicans--is now streaming into New York (mainly Washington Heights, in Manhattan, but also the South Bronx) but is too recently arrived to have produced the kind of leaders whose names are widely recognized. A common Dominican route to the United States is to pay a smuggler $800 or $1,000 for boat passage from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico, and then to buy a plane ticket from San Juan to New York. Estimates of the number of Dominicans who have moved to New York City in the past decade run between a half million and a million. Dominicans are known for their industriousness, and many of them are illegal aliens ineligible for any kind of social-welfare program; they have gone into the undesirable, illegal, or disorganized end of the labor market, working in sweatshops, driving gypsy cabs, dealing drugs, and operating nightclubs and other perilous small businesses. In New York City, according to Ramon Velez, 6,500 "Puerto Rican Judases" have sold their bodegas to Dominicans. Gigante says that many of his tenants are now Dominican. Partly because the Dominican migration is predominantly male and the Puerto Rican family in the South Bronx is predominantly female-headed, Dominican-Puerto Rican marriages and liaisons are becoming common. Surely the Dominican migration is partly responsible for the increased vitality that the South Bronx has begun to display.

I don't mean to make the South Bronx sound happier than it is. Only a block and a half from the Hub, at the corner of 148th Street and Bergen Avenue, is an outdoor drug market, one of many in the area. There is still a great deal of deteriorated housing and vacant land where housing used to be. I spent a couple of mornings recently at Bronx Venture Corporation, a job-placement and community development organization in the Hub, talking to Puerto Ricans who had come in to get help finding work. Without exception they wanted to leave the South Bronx. They complained about absent fathers, angry mothers, brothers in jail, sisters on welfare; about ruthless competition with the Dominicans for jobs, shoot-outs between drug dealers, high schools where nobody learns, domestic violence, alcoholism, a constant sense of danger. Something is badly wrong there.


There is no one-factor explanation of exactly what it is that's wrong. In fact, most of the leading theorists of the underclass could find support for their divergent positions in the Puerto Rican experience.

One theory, which fits well with William Julius Wilson's argument that the underclass was created by the severe contraction of the unskilled-labor market in the big northeastern and midwestern cities, is that Puerto Ricans who moved to the mainland during the peak years of the migration were unlucky in where they went. New York City lost hundreds of thousands of jobs during the 1970s. Particularly unfortunate for Puerto Ricans was the exodus of much of the garment industry to the South. "What I see is a community that came here and put all its eggs in one basket, namely the garment industry and manufacturing," says Angelo Falcon, the president of the Institute for Puerto Rican Policy. When the unskilled jobs in New York began to disappear, Puerto Ricans, who had little education and so were not well prepared to find other kinds of work, began to fall into drugs, street crime, and family dissolution.

The ill effects of unemployment have been exacerbated by the nature of Puerto Rican sex roles and family life. The tradition on the island is one of strong extended-family networks. These deteriorated in New York. "You find the extended family in Puerto Rico and the nuclear family here," says Olga Mendez, a Puerto Rican state senator in New York. The presence of relatives in the home would make it easier for Puerto Rican mothers to work; their absence tends to keep mothers at home, and so does the island ethic that women shouldn't work. In 1980 in New York City, 49 percent of black women and 53 percent of white women were out of the labor force- and 66 percent of Puerto Rican women. Even this low rate of labor-force participation is much higher than the rate for Puerto Rican women on the island. In the United States today the two-income family is a great generator of economic upward mobility, but it is a rare institution among poor Puerto Ricans, whose men are often casualties of the streets, addicted or imprisoned or drifting or dead. Also rare is the female-headed family in which the woman works. "That poverty rates soared for Puerto Rican families while they have declined for black families largely can be traced to the greater success of black women in the labor market," says a 1987 paper by Marta Tienda and Leif Jensen, two of the leading experts on Puerto Ricans.

Conservatives who emphasize the role of the welfare system in creating the underclass would say that since other Hispanic groups have labor-force participation rates and family structures markedly different from those of Puerto Ricans, the real issue must be the availability of government checks, not jobs. Other than Cubans, Puerto Ricans are the only Spanish-speaking ethnic group for whom full U.S. citizenship (and therefore welfare eligibility) in the immigrant generation is the rule rather than the exception. "What should be an advantage for Puerto Ricans- namely, citizenship--has turned into a liability in the welfare state," Linda Chavez writes in Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation. "They have been smothered by entitlements."

In the community of underclass experts the role of pure skin-color prejudice is not much stressed these days, but the case can be made that it has contributed to the woes of poor Puerto Ricans. A staple of Puerto Rican reminiscence, written and oral, is the shock and hurt that dark-skinned Puerto Ricans feel when they come here and experience color prejudice for the first time. Blacks were enslaved on Puerto Rico for centuries--emancipation took place later there than here--but the structure of race relations was different from what it was in the American South. Plantations were relatively unimportant in pre-emancipation Puerto Rico, blacks were always a minority of the island's population, and there was a much higher proportion of free blacks than in the United States. Puerto Rico never developed the kind of rigid racial caste system that characterized places with plantation economies and black majorities. Intermarriage was common, and there was no bright legal and social line between those having African blood and whites. (The U.S. Census Bureau no longer asks Puerto Ricans to identify themselves by race.) In Puerto Rico the prosperous classes tend to be lighter-skinned, but dark-skinned people who acquire money don't find the same difficulty in being accepted in neighborhoods and social clubs that they do here.

On the mainland racial prejudice may play a role in shutting Puerto Ricans out of jobs, in ensuring that they live in ghettos, and in instilling an internalized, defeatist version of the wider society's racial judgments. But what's striking about the racial consciousness of Puerto Ricans as against that of African-Americans is the much lower quotient of anger at society. The whole question of who is at fault for the widespread poverty--the poor people or the United States--seems to preoccupy people much less when the subject is Puerto Ricans. For example, conservatives now commonly attribute the persistent poverty of the black underclass to the "victim mentality" expressed by black professors and leadership organizations. I think that the victim mentality among blacks is much more a part of the life of the upper-middle class than of the poor. But even if we grant the premise that ethnic groups are ideologically monolithic, the Puerto Rican case would indicate that the victim mentality doesn't have anything to do with persistent poverty: the Puerto Rican leadership does not have a victim mentality, but persistent poverty is much more severe among Puerto Ricans than among blacks. The National Puerto Rican Coalition publishes first-rate studies about Puerto Rican poverty that take different sides on the question of whether or not it's completely society's fault--something it's difficult to imagine of the NAACP.


A final theory about why Puerto Ricans are so poor as a group has to do with migration patterns. During the peak years of migration from Puerto Rico to the mainland, the people who migrated were apparently worse off than the people who didn't. A paper by Vilma Ortiz, of the Educational Testing Service, cites figures showing that in 1960 a group of recent Puerto Rican immigrants had a lower percentage of high school and college graduates than a control group on the island. Ortiz's view that it was not a migration of the most ambitious and capable--that people with less education and lower-status occupations were likelier to move--fits with the idea that for Munoz emigration was a way to reduce the crush of destitute former peasants on the island. Since about 1970, most experts believe, the pattern has been changing and better-educated Puerto Ricans have become more likely to leave the island, because of a shortage of middle-class jobs there. Oscar Lewis wrote in La Vida, his 1965 book about Puerto Rican poverty, "The majority of migrants in the New York sample had made a three-step migration--from a rural birthplace in Puerto Rico to a San Juan slum to New York." (Lewis did a lifetime of work on Latin American poverty which contains a great deal of interesting material, but he is rarely quoted anymore; his reputation is in total eclipse in academic circles because he invented the phrase "culture of poverty," which is now seen as a form of blaming the victim.)

Social critics commonly complain that Puerto Ricans lack a true immigrant mentality--that they aren't fully committed to making it on the mainland, so they don't put down deep neighborhood and associational roots, as other immigrants do, and they are constantly moving back and forth from Puerto Rico. Glazer and Moynihan wrote,

"In 1958-1959, 10,600 children were transferred from Puerto Rican schools, and 6,500 were released to go to school in Puerto Rico....Something new perhaps has been added to the New York scene--an ethnic group that will not assimilate to the same degree as others do..."

This is known as the va y ven syndrome; those who dispute its existence say that the heavy air traffic back and forth between New York and San Juan is evidence that Puerto Ricans visit their relatives a lot, not that they relocate constantly. "Where's your data [about constant relocation]?" Clara Rodriguez, a sociologist at Fordham University, asks. "There's nothing but travel data."

The migration patterns of middle-class, as well as poor, Puerto Ricans have become an issue in recent years. As has been the case with other ethnic groups, the well-educated and employed Puerto Ricans leave the slums. For Puerto Ricans who came to New York during the 1940s and 1950s--in slang, "Nuyoricans"--the most common sequence of moves was from the island to East Harlem to the South Bronx to Soundview, a blue-collar neighborhood just across the Bronx River from Hunt's Point, and then to the middle-class North Bronx, Queens, New Jersey, or Connecticut.

The consequent isolation of the Puerto Rican poor seems to be even more pronounced than the isolation of the black poor. Churches in black ghettos are all black institutions often dominated by middle-class blacks; the major churches in the South Bronx are Catholic and aren't run by Puerto Ricans. The work force of the New York City government is a third black and only a tenth Puerto Rican, meaning that middle-class blacks are much more likely than middle-class Puerto Ricans to return to the slums during the workday to perform professional social-service functions. The most common form of upward mobility in the South Bronx is supposed to be military service (South Bronx soldiers were often in the news during the Gulf War), but that makes people more successful by taking them thousands of miles away from the neighborhood.

The leaders of the South Bronx often don't live there. Ramon Velez has a residence in the Bronx but also ones in Manhattan and Puerto Rico; Ferrer and Badillo live in more prosperous sections of the Bronx; Robert Garcia, Badillo's much-loved successor in Congress, who resigned in a scandal, owned a house north of the New York City suburbs during the time he was in Congress; Yolanda Rivera, who as the head of Banana Kelly is one of the most promising young community leaders in the South Bronx, keeps a house in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. The Reverend Earl Kooperkamp, an Episcopal minister who was recently transferred to a South Bronx church after tours of duty in several poor black neighborhoods in New York City, says, "Anybody who was living here before and making anything got the hell out. In Harlem, East New York, Bushwick, Bedford Stuyvesant, you had the occasional professional. There are no lawyers and doctors in this community."

When middle-class blacks move out of black ghettos, they usually relocate to more prosperous black neighborhoods, which form a nonblighted locus of the ethnic culture. Puerto Ricans who leave the South Bronx for other parts of the New York area tend to melt into more integrated neighborhoods, where it's much harder to maintain the fierce concern with "the race" that has historically existed in the black middle class. Ramon Daubon, of the National Puerto Rican Coalition, goes so far as to say, "There is no distinctive middle-class Puerto Rican neighborhood in the United States."

There IS a Levittown for Puerto Ricans who are pursuing the standard dream of escape to suburban comfort--just outside San Juan. "If a Puerto Rican makes fifty or sixty thousand a year here, he wants to move back," says Ramon Velez. "He wants to buy land, build a house." Black middle-class emigrants from ghettos tend to remain in the same metropolitan area. Middle-class Puerto Ricans who move back to Puerto Rico can hardly function as role models, political leaders, counselors, or enlargers of the economic pie for the people in the South Bronx. "Look around in Puerto Rico," Velez says. "The legislature, all the influential people--they're all from New York. Two of my former employees are in the state senate. Those who are able to achieve something here and make money, they go back."

When young middle-class Puerto Ricans leave the island for the mainland because they can't find work as doctors or engineers at home, they often gravitate not to New York but to Sun Belt destinations like Orlando and Houston. The Puerto Rican population of Florida rose by 160 percent in the 1980s. New York now has a reputation on the island as the place that poor people move to, and later leave if they make any money. The percentage of mainland Puerto Ricans who live in New York has dropped steadily over the years, and if you exclude Nuyoricans from the social and economic statistics, Puerto Ricans look much less like an underclass.

Douglas Gurak and Luis Falcon, in a 1990 paper on Puerto Rican migration patterns, argue that poverty, nonparticipation in the labor force, and unstable marriages were often characteristic of the Puerto Ricans who are now poor here, rather than resulting from the economic and social conditions of New York. They write,

"It is clear that the selectivity of the migration process...results in an overrepresentation of women in the New York region who are characterized by traits associated with poverty. Those with less labor force experience, less education, more children, and more marital instability are the ones most likely to migrate to the mainland. Those with more stable unions, fewer children and more education are more likely to return to the island."

In Puerto Rico, especially rural Puerto Rico, common-law marriage and out-of-wedlock childbearing are long-established customs. Before Munoz's modernization efforts brought the rates down, a quarter of all marriages on the island were consensual, and one third of all births were out of wedlock. (Munoz himself had two daughters out of wedlock, and married their mother only when he was about to assume the governorship of Puerto Rico.) Female immigrants to New York, Gurak and Falcon say, tend to come out of this tradition, and they are more likely than those who don't emigrate to have recently gone through the breakup of a marriage or a serious relationship. Other Hispanic emigrants, such as Dominicans and Colombians, tend to rank higher than non-emigrants on "human capital" measures like education, family structure, and work history; and Puerto Rican immigrants who settle outside New York aren't generally more disadvantaged than people who remain in Puerto Rico. The overall picture is one of entrenched Puerto Rican poverty becoming increasingly a problem in New York City rather than nationwide.

Although their explanations vary, experts on Puerto Rican poverty tend to agree on how to ameliorate it: both Marta Tienda and Douglas Gurak, for example, call for special educational and job-training efforts. There is something about black-white race relations in America that leads people in all camps to dismiss those kinds of anti-poverty efforts in behalf of blacks as unimaginative, old-fashioned, vague, unworkable, or doomed to failure. The self-defeating view that the problem is so severe that it could be solved only through some step too radical for the political system ever to take seems to evaporate when the subject is Puerto Ricans rather than blacks.


Or it may be that the reason for the relatively calm and undramatic quality of discussions of Puerto Rican poverty is that the whole issue is really only a side show. The consuming policy matter for Puerto Ricans, including mainland Puerto Ricans, is what's known as the status question: the issue of whether Puerto Rico should become a state, become independent, or remain a commonwealth. "It affects our psyche, our opportunity, our identity, our families," says Jorge Batista, a Puerto Rican lawyer who is a former deputy borough president of the Bronx. "The only analogy for you is the Civil War. It permeates all our lives."

Puerto Rico occupies an unusual economic middle ground--worse off than the United States, better off than most of the rest of Latin America. Progress is now coming much more slowly than it did in the Munoz years. Munoz retired in 1964, after handpicking his successor. During the next four years, however, Munoz's commonwealth party split into factions, and in 1968 Luis Ferre, the head of the archrival statehood party, won the governorship. Munoz, then in retirement in Spain but still a god in Puerto Rico, handpicked another successor, Rafael Hernandez Colon. Hernandez unseated Ferre in the l972 election, and the statehood party passed into the hands of Carlos Romero Barcelo. The next few gubernatorial elections pitted Hernandez against Romero: Romero won in 1976 and 1980, and Hernandez won in 1984, and was re-elected against a different opponent in 1988.

The essential features of commonwealth are federal-income-tax exemption, only partial participation in the U.S. welfare system, and a lack of voting representation in Congress. Psychically, commonwealth status implies a certain distance from the United States--a commitment to the preservation of the Spanish language and of Puerto Rican culture. Like other liberal parties of long standing around the world, the commonwealth party is perceived as both the party of the establishment--of the way things are done in Puerto Rico--and the party of the common man. The party's symbol is the jibaro, the agrarian peasant from the mountains, the closest thing there is to an emblematic national figure. The typical Puerto Rican is no longer a jibaro, but that doesn't matter--the typical Texan is no longer a pickup-driving country boy named Bubba, either. Puerto Rico's idea of itself is as an island of earthy, unpretentious, good-hearted people who treat each other with dulce carino "sweet caring." It's easy to see how American culture could be perceived as a threat to this ethos, and thus something that should be kept at arm's length.

The statehood party is prepared to take the plunge into American life, although it promises, by way of soothing people's fears, to establish an estatidad jibara. Politically, the statehood party is to the right of the commonwealth party (and far to the right of the small, left-wing independence party) on the classic Latin American issue of whether or not to view the United States as a benign force in the hemisphere.

In terms of what would actually happen under statehood, though, the party, conservative though it may be, would bring into being a conservative counter-utopia. As a state, Puerto Rico would have two U.S. senators and five or six congressmen, all of whom might well be Democrats. And if Puerto Rico became a state, Republicans would find it more difficult to maintain their opposition to making the District of Columbia, even more solidly Democratic, a state too. Taxes on the island might rise significantly, because Section 936 of the Internal Revenue Code, the big Puerto Rican tax break, would be abolished; businesses would presumably relocate elsewhere. Puerto Rico is now given parts of the U.S. social welfare benefits package, and 1.4 million people, nearly half the island's population, receive food assistance. Statehood would bring full benefits and the welfare rolls of the new state might swell tremendously, not just with islanders but possibly also with mainland Puerto Ricans who would move back. A bitter controversy could be expected to emerge over whether to make English the island's official language.

Robert L. Bartley, the editorial-page editor of The Wall Street Journal, who in conservative battles can usually be relied on to side with the ideologues against the pragmatists, recently concluded after a visit to Puerto Rico that "what the statehood issue really needs is a good vacation." Advocates of statehood--a mixture of business interests and the rising lower and middle classes, like Margaret Thatcher's coalition in Britain--acknowledge that it would be worse in the short term, and stress the overriding historical importance of the island's becoming fully American.

The last time the status question was put to a vote in Puerto Rico was in 1967; commonwealth won. There the matter rested until 1989, when Governor Hernandez, at his inauguration, issued a surprise call for resolution of the status question--and then, even more surprising, President Bush announced that he favors Puerto Rican statehood in his first address to Congress. Bush's Puerto Rico policy is usually explained as an example of his tendency to make decisions more on the basis of personal loyalty than of political analysis. Luis Ferry the first statehood party governor, now an eighty-seven-year-old patriarch, is an old friend of Bush's, and endorsed him for President in 1980. Soon after the 1988 election Don Luis came to Washington and stayed as a guest in the Bush home. There, the rumor goes, Bush asked him what he wanted as his reward now that the long crusade for the White House was over, and Ferre said, "Before I die, I would like to hear a President of the United States say before a joint session of Congress that he wants statehood for Puerto Rico."

Bush's remarks in favor of statehood set off a two-year process in Congress to arrange another plebiscite in Puerto Rico. It was supposed to take place this year, but negotiations fell apart over such issues as whether the results would be binding on Congress and whether mainland Puerto Ricans would be allowed to vote. Now the plebiscite is sure to be put off until a year or two after the 1992 election. In the meantime, the commonwealth party's dream is that the U.S. Congress will allow it to be represented on the ballot by an option called "enhanced commonwealth," which would give Puerto Rico greater political autonomy, including the right to negotiate with foreign governments; even if this happens, it is not a foregone conclusion that the commonwealth option will win the plebiscite.

Every possible outcome of the status question would have some effect on Puerto Rican poverty on the mainland. In the almost completely unlikely event of independence, the new Puerto Rican nation would be unable to offer anything like the current level of food-stamp benefits, and presumably there would be another mass emigration of the poor to the United States, motivated by fear of privation; when independence took effect, islanders would lose the right of free immigration to the mainland that they now have as U.S. citizens. Statehood would raise food assistance and other benefits on the island to their mainland levels, and so would engender some migration of the poor from the mainland to the island, thus making the problem of Puerto Rican poverty less severe in New York and other big eastern cities.

Enhanced commonwealth is the only one of the three status options that holds any real promise of spurring economic development on the island in the near future. Even a muted reprise of Munoz's economic miracle could surely be expected to help alleviate Puerto Rican poverty in New York, by drawing people back to the island to find the unskilled jobs that they can no longer find on the mainland.

Obviously, a great deal could be done on the mainland to reduce Puerto Rican poverty. That it can even be discussed as an island problem, suceptible to island solutions, may be the most important of all the differences between the situations of Puerto Ricans and blacks. For many blacks there is, psychologically, a homeland off stage, in the South or in Africa, but nobody can really think of it as a place where the wrenching difficulties of the present might be worked out.

Copyright © 1991 by Nicholas Lemann. All rights reserved.
"The Other Underclass";
The Atlantic Monthly, December, 1991, issue. Volume 268, Number 6 (pages 96-110).

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