Puerto Rican migrants have resided in the United States since before the Spanish-Cuban-American War of 1898, when the United States took possession of the island of Puerto Rico as part of the Treaty of Paris. After the war, groups of Puerto Ricans began migrating to the United States as contract laborers, first to sugarcane plantations in Hawaii, and then to other destinations on the mainland. After the Jones Act of 1917 extended U.S. citizenship to islanders, Puerto Ricans migrated to the United States in larger numbers, establishing their largest base in New York City. Over the course of the 1920s and 1930s, a vibrant and heterogeneous colonia developed there, and Puerto Ricans participated actively both in local politics and in the increasingly contentious politics of their homeland, whose status was indeterminate until it became a commonwealth in 1952. The Puerto Rican community in New York changed dramatically after World War II, accommodating up to fifty thousand new migrants per year during the peak of the “great migration” from the island. Newcomers faced intense discrimination and marginalization in this era, defined by both a Cold War ethos and liberal social scientists’ interest in the “Puerto Rican problem.”
Puerto Rican migrant communities in the 1950s and 1960s—now rapidly expanding into the Midwest, especially Chicago, and into New Jersey, Connecticut, and Philadelphia—struggled with inadequate housing and discrimination in the job market. In local schools, Puerto Rican children often faced a lack of accommodation of their need for English language instruction. Most catastrophic for Puerto Rican communities, on the East Coast particularly, was the deindustrialization of the labor market over the course of the 1960s. By the late 1960s, in response to these conditions and spurred by the civil rights, Black Power, and other social movements, young Puerto Ricans began organizing and protesting in large numbers. Their activism combined a radical approach to community organizing with Puerto Rican nationalism and international anti-imperialism. The youth were not the only activists in this era. Parents in New York had initiated, together with their African American neighbors, a “community control” movement that spanned the late 1960s and early 1970s; and many other adult activists pushed the politics of the urban social service sector—the primary institutions in many impoverished Puerto Rican communities—further to the left.
By the mid-1970s, urban fiscal crises and the rising conservative backlash in national politics dealt another blow to many Puerto Rican communities in the United States. The Puerto Rican population as a whole was now widely considered part of a national “underclass,” and much of the political energy of Puerto Rican leaders focused on addressing the paucity of both basic material stability and social equality in their communities. Since the 1980s, however, Puerto Ricans have achieved some economic gains, and a growing college-educated middle class has managed to gain more control over the cultural representations of their communities. More recently, the political salience of Puerto Ricans as a group has begun to shift. For the better part of the 20th century, Puerto Ricans in the United States were considered numerically insignificant or politically impotent (or both); but in the last two presidential elections (2008 and 2012), their growing populations in the South, especially in Florida, have drawn attention to their demographic significance and their political sensibilities.