Nuyorican poet laureate Pedro Pietri, mural by James De La Vega
One of the most powerful poems written about the Puerto Rican experience in the United States was first performed in New York City in 1969, by Nuyorican poet and activist, and performance artist Pedro Pietri.
His epic poem "Puerto Rican Obituary" encapsulates the lives of boricuas who live here on the mainland- US citizens whose culture and hearts are forever tied to the island of Puerto Rico which was named "rich port" by Spanish colonizers, but for many will always be Boriken, its Taino name.
They were always on time
They were never late
They never spoke back
when they were insulted
They never took days off
that were not on the calendar
They never went on strike
ten days a week
and were only paid for five
and they died
They died broke
They died owing
They died never knowing
what the front entrance
of the first national city bank looks like
All died yesterday today
and will die again tomorrow
passing their bill collectors
on to the next of kin
waiting for the garden of eden
to open up again
under a new management
dreaming about america
waking them up in the middle of the night
screaming: Mira Mira
your name is on the winning lottery ticket
for one hundred thousand dollars
hating the grocery stores
that sold them make-believe steak
and bullet-proof rice and beans...
"Puerto Rican Obituary," by Pedro Pietri
Puerto Ricans came here to work in factories and fields. Most wound up living in tenements and housing projects in urban areas facing discrimination that was based on their language, and their "race", since most Puerto Ricans have a mixed Taino/African ancestry.
Puerto Rican migration
Since 1493, Puerto Rico has been under the control of colonial powers. Even during Spanish rule, Puerto Ricans settled in the U.S. However, it was not until the end of the Spanish-American War that the huge influx of Puerto Rican workers to the U.S. began. With its victory in 1898, the United States acquired Puerto Rico from Spain and has retained sovereignty ever since. The 1917 Jones–Shafroth Act made all Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens, freeing them from immigration barriers. The massive migration of Puerto Ricans to the United States was the largest in the early and late 20th century.
U.S. political and economic interventions in Puerto Rico created the conditions for emigration, "by concentrating wealth in the hands of U.S. corporations and displacing workers." Policymakers promoted "colonization plans and contract labor programs to reduce the population. U.S. employers, often with government support, recruited Puerto Ricans as a source of low-wage labor to the United States and other destinations." Puerto Ricans migrated in search of higher-wage jobs, first to New York City, and later to other cities such as Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Orlando, and Miami...
Puerto Rican Day Parade - NYC
There are over four million Puerto Ricans living stateside, with reports that this number exceeded the population in Puerto Rico for the first time in 2003. Despite new demographic trends, New York City continues to be the home of the largest Puerto Rican community in the United States, with Philadelphia second, but Puerto Ricans live in all 50 states and the territories, with large numbers in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Texas. The strong presence of Puerto Ricans in Hawaii, Arizona, and California is partially due to previous generations moving to those states in the early 20th century to work as farm laborers.
There are now Puerto Ricans living in every state. US-Puerto Ricans has an interactive map.
When I first heard Pedro read his poem, I wept. I wept not only for my friends and family, my neighbors and co-workers-I wept for all the babies who were not born because the US had instituted a population control program that resulted in the sterilization of over one third of Puerto Rican women on the island.
The colonial legacy of controlling women's sexuality and reproduction continues to prevail with such policies as the testing of the I.U.D., birth control pills and the sterilization of women. In the case of sterilization, the subject of this bibliography, between the 1930s and the 1970s approximately one-third of Puerto Rico's female population of childbearing age had undergone the operation, the highest rate in the world. So common was the practice that the words "sterilization" and "la operacion" (the operation) were used interchangeably. The massive sterilization of Puerto Rican females warrants that their experience be brought to the forefront, and there's the hope that this bibliography will stimulates interest and further research in the subject.
If you have never seen Ana María Garcías documentary film La Operación, I suggest you do.
First released in 1982, Ana María García's La Operación is a landmark documentary on policies of population control in Puerto Rico. Using both interviews and historical footage that contextualize the heavy-handed promotion of female sterilization as an answer to "overpopulation" on the island, this film offered one of the first comprehensive analyses of population policies as embedded in the context of U.S. imperialism, racism, and corporate-government cooperation to rationalize a national workforce.
Growing up in NYC, and living part of my life in El Barrio, or Spanish Harlem, as it was dubbed, I was bi-lingual, English-Spanglish. I was not introduced to Puerto Ricans by West Side Story.
The irony of West Side Story was that the starring role of Maria was played on stage by Carol Lawrence, and on film by Natalie Wood-neither were Puerto Rican. For years, most US mainlanders only idea about Puerto Ricans was shaped by that updated Romeo and Juliet fantasy set in NY of warring gangs of Jets and Sharks.
You lovely island . . .
Island of tropical breezes.
Always the pineapples growing,
Always the coffee blossoms blowing . . .
Puerto Rico . . .
You ugly island . . .
Island of tropic diseases.
Always the hurricanes blowing,
Always the population growing . . .
And the money owing,
And the babies crying,
And the bullets flying.
I like the island Manhattan.
Smoke on your pipe and put that in!
I like to be in America!
O.K. by me in America!
Ev'rything free in America
For a small fee in America!
Even today, when the most prominent Puerto Rican in the United States sits on the Supreme Court, Justice Sotomayor was castigated by right-wing opponents for being an immigrant, though she was born in the Bronx, and all Puerto Ricans whether island born or mainland born are citizens.
Though there are now major places in the academy for Puerto Rican studies, like El Centro, in NYC, few schools across the US teach Puerto Rican history or culture, and the politics of the island are little understood even in the progressive community, though activist Juan Gonzales, is a co-host of Democracy Now and writes a regular column for the Daily News, reporting often on the politics of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans.
Mainland Puerto Rican's will be playing a major role in the future of the Democratic Party. They are a key voting block in areas of the East Coast, and in Florida. Puerto Ricans are forging coalitions with other Latinos, and have also built bridges to black Americans, though not without friction.
It is not clear however whether the island of Puerto Rico will retain its current status, become a state, or most unlikely-gain its independence. The future political status of the island remains a subject of heated debate, on the island and in mainland communities.
US policy towards the island has been ambivalent over the years, ranging from paternalism to benign neglect, to outright exploitation. Puerto Ricans are still moving here due to unemployment rates on the island that are currently 16.5%, and youth unemployment is double that figure. Puerto Ricans have soaring rates of HIV/AIDS infections - twice the number of infections on the island than on the mainland.
All died yesterday today
and will die again tomorrow
They all died
like a hero sandwich dies
in the garment district
at twelve o’clock in the afternoon
social security number to ashes
union dues to dust
they were born to weep
and keep the morticians employed
as long as they pledge allegiance
to the flag that wants them destroyed
They saw their names listed
in the telephone directory of destruction...
I doubt that if Pedro were alive today, that he would have a different vision.
It is up to us to change it.