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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Puerto Ricans and Public Policy

Puerto Ricans, while liminal in status (of citizenship), have influenced many changes of public policy in both the United States and Puerto Rico. A large amount of changes and additions made as a result of Puerto Ricans could be separated into two main categories: migration and community services.

Migration Policies/Organization:

While the Puerto Rican government publicly acknowledged a policy that neither encouraged nor discouraged migration to the United States, it still considered migration an effective means for relieving unemployment and overpopulation on the island. This interest waned in the post World War II period, as agricultural and industrial employment opened up in the United States (Maldonado 1979, 103-121). One of the largest changes regarding migration was the creation of the Migration Division in the Department of Labor in Puerto Rico in 1951. The Migration Division was created as a result of great numbers of Puerto Ricans emigrating to the United States. It assisted and organized these emigrants on the mainland. A major function of this division was to facilitate the transition for Puerto Ricans from life on the island to life on the mainland and encouraging assimilation was their means for accomplishing this. The Migration Division told many Puerto Ricans that they should assimilate into American culture by learning the English language, learning the customs and traditions, and adopting middle-class morals and notions (Mora 2009).

In addition, the Migration Division also acted like an overseer for Puerto Rican workers in the U.S., especially for farm and factory workers. In this way, along with facilitating adjustments in the U.S. for the workers, "the Migration Division sought to reduce the hostilities Puerto Ricans encountered, especially in New York City. It served as a liaison to the city administration and social services and worked with Puerto Rican organizations” (Whalen and Vázquez-Hernández 2005, 205-210).

Community Service Changes:

Once Puerto Ricans established themselves on the mainland as laborers, contributing to the economy and to society, community service policies were needed to ameliorate the social and living conditions for these new communities. Puerto Ricans noted that the conditions on the mainland were dire —labor was exploitive, they lived in what were known as "cold water flats" (already considered substandard housing for a few decades), and the education system was not meeting the needs of Puerto Rican children. There were only 10 bilingual teachers for approximately 14,000 Spanish-speaking students, and Puerto Rican children were put into remedial classes and steered toward a future career in light industry rather than anything academic or professional. A further problem with the educational system was that it contained little-to-no material on their heritage or issues effecting Puerto Ricans. (Fried) These shortcomings within the educational system not only inhibited social mobility for Puerto Ricans, but also negatively impacted the training of future Puerto Rican leaders and advocates. Things needed to change for Puerto Ricans in the U.S., so various groups formed with the sole purpose of working to improve the lives of those in Puerto Rican communities.

Many public policy changes for Puerto Ricans occurred in New York City as a result of the large population of Nuyoricans in that area. One group that had a large branch in New York and was well known for being community and civil policy oriented, was the Young Lords Party.

The Young Lords advocated for the rights of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. They had a 13-point platform that outlined the goals of the party. One of the goals was for Puerto Ricans to have control over their own communities and land in the United States.

We want control of our communities by our people and programs to guarantee that all institutions serve the needs of our people. People's control of police, health services, churches, schools, housing, transportation and welfare are needed. We want an end to attacks on our land by urban removal, highway destruction, universities and corporations” (Young Lord’s Party 13-Point Program and Platform).

They wanted to improve life for all Puerto Ricans on the mainland. Above all, the Young Lords were interested in civil and community involvement. They worked to establish many community service groups, launched breakfast programs for poor children, and they argued that institutions in a community should help the communitythe poor and all who reside there—regardless of race or class.

This group believed in confrontational protests so that they could receive attention from city and government officials. One of such confrontational protests conducted by the Young Lords was the Garbage Offensive in August 1969 in response to the deplorable sanitary conditions of East Harlem. Garbage was only regularly collected from wealthier, white sections of the city while East Harlem was ignored -- mostly due to the ethnic and immigrant status that most of the community had. "White affluent areas were serviced properly with regular garbage pick-ups, while Black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods were left in unhealthy conditions" (The Prolibertad Freedom Campaign Newsletter, August 2009, E2). New York City Officials were asked several times to correct the situation, but this was not working. The Sanitation Department failed to recognize any problems associated with garbage collection in East Harlem, noting that the area "gets maximum service" and that "all possible help [is given] to neighborhood clean-up programs." (Fried)

So with no other options, the Young Lords and "residents of the area around Park Avenue and 110th Street joined in heaping and burning garbage at several intersections." (Fried) An anonymous Young Lord going by the name Yoruba said,

"we don't want violence for violence's sake, and we don't want to dump garbage in the street...but if we have to go through a mountain of red tape, if there's never any action by the city, then we have no choice." (Fried)

This protest was successful in that it effectively increased awareness to the needs of Puerto Ricans in East Harlem, which was illustrated by sanitation becoming a major issue in the coming mayoral election.

The Young Lords also took over the First Spanish Methodist Church in December of 1969, renaming it the People's Church, and they also took over Lincoln Hospital for twelve hours in July of 1970. During the takeover of the church, the Young Lords established free breakfast programs, free clothing programs, health care services that included lead-testing, a day-care, a liberation school, community dinners, and viewings of films, and readings of poetry(Latino Network Education Services). Over 13,000 people in the community benefited from these services. The takeover of the hospital was a plan to show the need for and simultaneously demand "door-to-door preventive health services, maternal and child care, drug addiction care, senior citizens' services, 24-hour a day grievance table, and increased minimum wage for hospital workers" (Latino Education Network Service). The Young Lords, therefore, worked to meet the civil service needs of the people of the community and gain them rights that politicians could not secure for them.


American Flag (image). 1 December 2009.

Fried, Joseph P. 1969. "East Harlem Youths Explain Garbage Dumping Demonstration." New York Times, Aug 19, 1969, p. 86.

Garbage on Street (image). 1 December 2009.

Maldonado, Edwin. "Contract Labor and the Origins of Puerto Rican Communities in the

United States." International Migration Review 13 (1979) : 103-121.

Mora, Anthony. American Culture 213: Latino Studies. University of Michigan: 2009.

Puerto Rican Flag, San Juan, Puerto Rico (image). 1 December 2009

The Prolibertad Freedom Newsletter. ¡El Coqui Libre! August 2009: Vol. 2 Latino Education Network Service. 2009.

The Young Lords (image). 1 December 2009.

Whalen, Carmen Teresa and Victor Vázquez-Hernández. The Puerto Rican Diaspora: historical perspectives. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005.

Young Lords Party (image). 1 December 2009.

“Young Lords Party 13-Point Program and Platform.”

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