- Puerto Rican Citizen: History and Political identity in Twentieth-Century New York City by Lorrin Thomas
Lorrin Thomas’ book has been justly praised. With the aid of multiple sources, from statistical data to oral accounts and personal records, she traces the often messy story of Puerto Ricans in New York City from the 1917 statute that made them U.S. citizens to the early 1970s. It is a zigzag story of a people moving from an immigrant, albeit citizen-immigrant, status to one in which the search for an elusive equality is coupled with an effort to preserve one’s distinctiveness or cultural uniqueness or, as is said from the very first pages, one’s identity.
It is the story of this search for a “political identity that pushed beyond citizenship” (p. 5), that is, a status that did not mean equality, that makes the Puerto Rican experience so exciting a case study, for it emphasizes that the case is not so unique as it might first seem and suggests that it warrants comparison with other minorities elsewhere. The Québécoises’ claim that they are a societé distincte, analyzed by Will Kymlicka and Charles Taylor in works cited by Thomas (p. 4 n7), and the Mexican experience, analyzed by David G. Gutiérrez, are similar case studies of peoples who, like the Puerto Ricans, one day woke up to find they were no longer subjects of one nation but of another that held them in lower esteem than its own sons and daughters. It is an experience that the historian Thomas sees as common to others, be they Hispanics or blacks [End Page 753] in the U.S., or other minorities in France, Germany, the Balkans, Turkey, East Asia, Central Africa, South America, and Mexico itself, and she underlines this commonality in her introduction and epilogue. One could add the Dominicans in Puerto Rico, or Haitians in the Dominican Republic.
The difficult Puerto Rican road to equality and identity is not only a historic fact but also very much a part of contemporary history. The island once again is debating its relationship to the United States, and asking if its relatives in the North—Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Second Circuit Court Judge José Cabranes, or Congressmen José E. Serrano, Nydia M. Velázquez, and Luis V. Gutiérrez, or artists like J. Lo or Mark Anthony are Puerto Rican enough to take part in a referendum on the island’s future political status. The debate stirs some degree of collective shame, for the local government encouraged the flight of those too poor to stay.
Some things are made clearer by numbers. The small Puerto Rican community of the 1910s (p. 56) gained power as it moved through the decades (pp. 96 and 141 and following), both in New York City and the United States as a whole, and it is now almost 5 million strong (sons and grandchildren included), 23 percent of them in New York. Others aspects of this growth remain to be studied, as is suggested by the continued poverty of many despite the political and economic gains of some, and the fact that most reviewers of Puerto Rican Citizen are no longer Anglos analyzing others but Puerto Ricans and Hispanics looking at themselves. (Perhaps Thomas or others will attempt to tell the story of Puerto Ricans from the 1970s to the early 2000s.)
In its effort to describe change, Puerto Rican Citizen examines not only the minority-majority relationship but also the many subdivisions among Puerto Rican migrants. Some were based on racial grounds (p. 36), although they were often ignored by the ruling majority who saw Puerto Ricans as part of an ethnic and racial problem, linked to crime, welfare, and disease (p. 134). Others divisions were more political, based on issues like the many ill-fated attempts by some to merge with mainstream political organizations, the arms-length efforts of those who sought to...