- Puerto Rican Citizen: History and Political Identity in Twentieth-Century New York City
In a poem titled “Nuyorican,” from his 1985 collection AmeRícan, the poet Tato Laviera writes, adressing the island of Puerto Rico itself: “yo soy tu hijo, / de una migración, / pecado forzado, / me mandaste a nacer nativo en otras tierras, / por qué, porque eramos pobres, ¿verdad? / porque querías [End Page 250] vaciarte de tu gente pobre” [“I am your son, / of a migration, / forced sin, / you sent me to be born in other lands / why?, because we were poor, right? / because you wanted to empty yourself of your poor people”]. In many respects, Lorrin Thomas’s book, Puerto Rican Citizen: History and Political Identity in Twentieth-Century Puerto Rico, could work as an extended and insightful commentary on the history, struggles, and achievements that lie behind Laviera’s poem.
Thomas’s point of departure is the paradoxical status of Puerto Ricans since 1917: in that year the Jones Act granted them (or imposed on them, depending on one’s reading) US citizenship. Although that status put them in a position of relative advantage with regards to other immigrant groups, in some ways the journey of Puerto Ricans throughout the twentieth century was their paradoxical confrontation with the fact that US citizenship as such, as a formal but abstract concession of “rights,” did not solve or even address the most pressing problems they were dealing with: poverty, discrimination, and racism on the part of “mainstream” North American society, as well as general disenfranchisement. Like other minority groups, Puerto Ricans were in fact second-class citizens, and their history in the U.S. is that of a struggle for recognition, not in the sense of simply being seen (they were already “seen” through the lenses of prejudice and stereotypes), but in the sense of demanding a voice that could be heard and bring changes to their specific group situation.
The book’s six chapters move in a chronological fashion from 1917 to the early 1970s, focusing mainly on the Puerto Rican community in New York City. That limited frame allows Thomas to address problems that in fact go well beyond that location and temporal frame (some of them, unfortunately, continue to this day), while also offering vivid, concrete examples for her observations. Primary among the topics tackled are the attempts of Puerto Ricans to gain recognition for their cultural specificity as a group and attention for their particular problems, while also negotiating possible points of contact with other groups in the city. The second chapter is particularly enlightening in that regard: it traces the sometimes misguided attempts of Puerto Ricans to manage public perception of their race. The issue was not only complicated by how different the categories for race that the immigrants brought from the island were from those current in the United States, but also by their resistance to be “confused” or identified with African Americans. That resistance often had its own racist overtones. In fact, tensions with other “minority” groups (such as Jews and Irish) were an important part of the Puerto Ricans’ saga in New York City. Chapters 4 and 5 offer valuable information on the development of public representations of Puerto Ricans as a group (i.e., Puerto Rican youngsters as gang members in West Side Story), and on the interest that social scientists took in Puerto Ricans as examples of a “culture of poverty” during the 1950s and 1960s, often without deep examination of the roots of that poverty. [End Page 251]
Also insightful is the book’s mapping, in chapters 3 and 6, of the Puerto Rican community’s relation to city, state, and federal government agencies and politicians. It is a relation marked by multiple attempts to influence and support politicians who often courted the Puerto Rican vote only to turn their back on them once victory was achieved. But it is also the story of the persistent efforts of Puerto Ricans to take care of their own needs when nobody...