A woman wears the a mask with the Puerto Rican flag at the parade.
A woman wears the a mask with the Puerto Rican flag at the parade.

Tracing the Diaspora: From Puerto Rico to the Mainland

Puerto Ricans on the mainland are increasing in number by the day.


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It is difficult to describe how a culture can be so powerful and yet so dynamic that it can infuse with different societies so well it creates something new. From local “PhillyRicans” to the well-known “Nuyoricans” the Puerto Rican communities across the country are dynamic and impressive. And as the #PRIDEUndefeated launch is underway, the community has expressed the need for unification, especially in light of the current issues affecting the Puerto Rican community on and off the island.

“We want people to know the struggles our community is going through […] there aren’t only communities in Puerto Rico that are struggling, there are communities here that are struggling. That’s the sense we want to take back so somehow we can build this one voice to help each other with one voice in all these struggles,” said Marisol Velez-Acquino, creator of Una Sola Voz, an art project that calls for the immediate release of Oscar Lopez-Rivera.

The Formation of the Diaspora

From 1902, when Isabel Gonzalez arrived in New York on a steamship from Puerto Rico, to the present, the fluctuation of Puerto Ricans from the island to what became known as the “mainland,” has become commonplace.

“Gonzalez would... argue that you could not exclude, detain or block Puerto Ricans who wished to enter the United States for one very good reason: Once the United States took Puerto Rico in war, took control of her commerce, and appointed executives in Washington to run the place, Puerto Ricans were now living in a part of the United States and were American citizens,” Ray Suarez wrote in Latino Americans.

This action not only helped to classify the mass entry into the United States and New York specifically, but paved the way for years to come. “Between 1908 and 1916, seven thousand Puerto Ricans emigrated to the United States. Another eleven thousand came in 1917 alone. As free as they now were to move, however, they were still trapped in legal limbo, now tagged with an ambiguous status, defined as “noncitizen nationals” Suarez continued in Latino Americans.

It was in 1917 that the Jones-Shafroth Act was signed by President Woodrow Wilson, clarifying Puerto Ricans status in the United States and providing equivocal citizenship. And through that action, Puerto Ricans continued to migrate to New York. And while the preferred regions may change, the results  stay the same: a new culture and mentality combining the values and style of the Caribbean culture with those of the mainland.

“For a large number of Puerto Ricans, their first castle on the U.S. mainland was an aging tenement building in East Harlem. The neighborhood had been welcoming immigrants for decades: southern Italians, Germans to the south, African-Americans to the west in Central Harlem,” Suarez wrote.

This migration only increased as time went on, with expansion to other areas of New York and the United States. “Though Spanish-speaking immigrants had come in small numbers throughout the nineteenth century, the growing barrios in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx represented something new. These were the first major Spanish-speaking communities in the United States outside Florida and the Southwest.

The Puerto Rico Federal Relations Act of 1950, also known as “The Public Act 600,” signed by President Harry S. Truman on July 4th, declared Puerto Rico as a “protectorate.” This act allowed Puerto Ricans to draft their own constitution establishing the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and allowed for a form of self-government that still gave the President of the United States veto power.

Puerto Rican migration to New York City increased exponentially as a result. Puerto Rican communities arose in neighborhoods throughout Manhattan in the Lower East Side (known as Loisaida) and East Harlem (known as El Barrio). These were the foundations of the Nuyorican identity and subsequently the cultural and political movement that solidified the Puerto Rican community in New York as a community with a united front of interests.

The Diaspora Today


According to Pew Research, population losses from the island of Puerto Rico to the mainland have only increased. For the county of San Juan alone, the population decreased by 10% between 2010 to 2015 for a total of 40,000 people. Nine other counties saw similar population decreases.

The Census Bureau reported an almost 300,000 decrease in population in Puerto Rico from 2010 to 2015. With members of the Puerto Rican Diaspora going to three main areas: New York, Philadelphia, and Orlando. For many years, New York remained as the top destination, with Philadelphia as a close second.

The cities of New York and Philadelphia have remained the key areas with Puerto Rican settlements with Orlando and Central Florida rising only to rival that of the original numbers that New York city once boasted.

“The Puerto Rican population in New York is different from Philadelphia because in New York we’re more integrated in the community, especially in areas such as Harlem where populations in Philadelphia are more separate,” said Johnny Irizarry, Director of Center for Hispanic Excellence: La Casa Latina, at the University of Pennsylvania at a discussion at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

As of the 2015 U.S. Census, there was an estimate of 121,643 Puerto Ricans living in Philadelphia, up from 91,527 in 2000. Representing 8% of Philadelphia's total population and 75% of the city's Hispanic/Latino population, as of 2010. Puerto Ricans are the largest Latino group in the city and that, outside Puerto Rico, Philadelphia now has the second largest Puerto Rican population.



PROMESA’s Impact

The numbers have only increased under the debt crisis, which has begun to drastically increase the number of Puerto Ricans moving to the already-established communities in New York and Philadelphia, but exponentially increasing in the area of Orlando.

With the Puerto Rican Oversight Management and Economic Stability Act, mandating a minimum wage of $4.25 for workers 25 years old and younger, many college-educated and professional millenials are coming to the mainland simply for economic opportunity, no different than many of their predecessors, Isabel Gonzalez included.

Others still come for their families and other personal reasons, as more Puerto Ricans live on the mainland than on the island according to recent Census data. This number is only expected to increase should PROMESA not get the amendments that many on the island see as limiting to Puerto Rico’s economic future.


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