Originally published in The Washington Post September 20, 2019 at 6:23 a.m.
My parents fared moderately well as blue-collar and government workers on the mainland, and they built a house on the island for retirement, only to watch uneasily as the fantasy of Puerto Rico as a middle-class U.S. outpost in the Caribbean slipped into uncertainty. Their struggle informed my own as I tried to hold onto my bicultural Nuyorican identity, one that never fully embraced “Americanness” in a country that desperately resisted racial difference, increasingly seeing it as a sign of disloyalty.
After Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory in 1898, the island evolved from a site dominated by U.S.-based sugar manufacturers to a mid-century showcase for industrial capitalism. The shift was hastened by pressure from the postwar United Nations for world decolonization, the threat of a militant Puerto Rican nationalist movement, and a Western desire to blunt any enthusiasm for Cuba’s socialist experiment. As part of the industrialization effort, euphemistically called “Operation Bootstrap,” the United States allowed corporations to set up on the island tax-free, employ workers for below minimum wage and corner the market on selling to Puerto Rican consumers.
The effort, also known as Manos a la Obra or “Let’s Get to Work,” transformed the island’s agricultural economy into an industrial one. Luis Muñoz Marín — the island’s first elected native Puerto Rican governor, voted in in 1949 — led the effort to attract U.S. corporate investment to the island to establish textile, clothing, and other manufacturing operations. This economic transformation also included a long process of consolidating agricultural production, which eliminated jobs and land for rural residents, who were tied to it through wage labor and subsistence farming.
While living standards for many improved, Bootstrap’s success depended on exporting surplus labor to the United States, creating a wave of migrant Puerto Rican workers to the mainland. Thousands had migrated in the past to Hawaii for the sugar industry as well as to New York City and Tampa, to work as tabaqueros, or cigar-factory workers. But the Great Migration of the post — World War II era firmly established Puerto Ricans as a growing population in urban centers like New York City, Boston, Philadelphia and Cleveland.
Puerto Ricans’ Great Migration to the North paralleled that of African Americans, who had migrated to those urban centers just a few years earlier to escape Jim Crow laws. Because many — if not most — of the Puerto Ricans forced to flee northward were darker-skinned and not part of the island’s white-ish elite, there was some cultural crossover between the two groups. They faced similar forms of racial discrimination and lived in the same or bordering neighborhoods. And because Puerto Ricans were already American citizens, their experience aligned more with the established African American status of second-class citizenship than that of Latin American immigrants from other countries.
Earlier Cuban immigrants, like jazz musician Mario Bauzá, had begun to fuse African American jazz techniques with Afro-Cuban ones, music that allowed Puerto Ricans to build bridges with American blacks. Puerto Rican groups promoted fusion music like bugalú, which combined Afro-Cuban rhythms with R&B.
But while there was considerable cultural exchange, Puerto Ricans inhabited a racial no man’s land, the variations in skin tone and appearance being something “other” than African American while also clearly racially distinct from white Americans.
My parents were part of this migration, arriving in New York within years of each other in the early 1950s. They had come from different corners of the Luquillo Mountain Range in the northeastern part of the island, both children of rural farmers with somewhat different levels of accumulated wealth. My father’s family owned a large, prosperous finca, or ranch, in a mountainous region south of the municipality of Canóvanas, until a disgruntled suitor of one of my aunts, as my family members describe him, murdered my grandfather. The farm collapsed and had to be sold off, forcing my father, one of 14 children from two marriages, to live in difficult conditions in a poor barrio of San Juan called Buen Consejo.
My mother was one of nine children and grew up in a mountainside finca near what would become the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System, El Yunque. Her parents’ finca operated on the subsistence level, and my mother grew up in near-poverty conditions during the Great Depression, which gravely impacted rural Puerto Ricans. She did well in high school and attended the University of Puerto Rico on a scholarship, where she trained to be a schoolteacher. Yet economic conditions on the island remained desperate, so both of my parents took advantage of the low airfares that Operation Bootstrap provided to look for work in New York City.
Moving to the United States from Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America has been a thread in American history, a compelling narrative through which American exceptionalism is manufactured and celebrated. But Puerto Rico’s Great Migration is unique in that it grew out of an anticipated problem with Operation Bootstrap: an increase in landless and unemployed “peasants” as the island transitioned from an agricultural to an industrial economy. The guagua aérea, or “aerial bus,” was created to ship islanders to the mainland as part of a plan to impose the illusion of U.S. citizenship.
Flights from San Juan to New York were very inexpensive — as cheap as $25 — and Puerto Ricans quickly became the first set of migrants to the United States who arrived mostly via airplane. Because Puerto Ricans were already U.S. citizens, there was no restriction on their travel. This fostered a pattern of circular migration unheard of among other groups, who would do everything they could to stay in the U.S. permanently.
Because of this nomadic uncertainty, I’ve always felt profound ambivalence about my parents’ journey here. They were part of a process that, in a few short decades, would see the Puerto Rican population in the United States surpass that on the island. And with that came an awareness of a Puerto Rican nation that didn’t need accoutrements like national sovereignty or even national territory to flourish and prosper.
This essay is an excerpt from Fantasy Island, the author’s new book chronicling Puerto Rico’s tumultuous relationship with the United States.