Latino Studies Puerto Rican Diaspora
Edna Acosta-Belén
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 February 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0073


Puerto Rican migration to the United States is an ongoing process that began in relatively small numbers during the second half of the 19th century and increased gradually during the early decades of the 20th. The process intensified during the post–World War II years and, since then, migration continues at a steady pace into the 21st century. Numerous stateside Puerto Rican communities have formed and are located in large US urban centers and suburban vicinities. Historically, the beginnings of Puerto Rican migration are linked to Puerto Rico’s long-standing connections to the United States. This relationship began during the early 1820s, when the Spanish colony of Puerto Rico became one of the United States’ major trading partners. Merchants, businessmen, students, and skilled workers were part of this 19th-century migration, as well as political exiles escaping persecution from a repressive Spanish colonial government because of their support for Puerto Rico’s independence. Late-19th-century US territorial and economic expansionist policies and strategic geopolitical interests in the Caribbean ultimately led to the Spanish-Cuban-American War of 1898 and the US invasion of Cuba and Puerto Rico. While Cuba was granted independence in 1903, Puerto Rico remains to this day an unincorporated US territory. Puerto Ricans became US citizens by Congressional decree in 1917 and can travel to or reside in the United States without restrictions and are, therefore, colonial migrants and not immigrants. Since the early years of the US regime, labor migration of agricultural workers to the sugar plantations of Hawaii and Cuba was promoted to deal with the island’s high levels of unemployment and poverty. There was also increased migration of businessmen, professionals, students, artisans (e.g., cigar makers, typographers), and other workers during the early decades of the 20th century, mostly to New York City, but smaller colonias (neighborhoods) emerged at other US locations. Migration policies supported by the United States and island governments facilitated the massive mid-20th-century exodus of Puerto Ricans to the United States, known as the Great Migration. This migratory wave was largely propelled by a US-led industrialization development program that displaced Puerto Rico’s agricultural labor force and, in tandem, encouraged the recruitment of low-wage island workers by stateside agricultural and manufacturing companies. Migration significantly increased the US Puerto Rican population during this period, and large Puerto Rican communities formed in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Newark, and several other northeastern cities (see Acosta-Belén and Santiago 2006, cited under General Overviews).

General Overviews

Major studies on Puerto Rican migration, especially those written by North American scholars in the 1950s and 1960s, were focused on problem-oriented or blaming-the-victim cultural-deficit models commonly found in studies of poverty among US minorities. These studies tended to recycle some common stereotypes and misconceptions about the disadvantaged conditions of Puerto Rican migrants. The emergence of Puerto Rican Studies as a field of academic inquiry in the late 1960s and 1970s fostered new historical and socioeconomic analyses of Puerto Rican migration and the formation of a US diaspora. It also generated a sustained critique of the shortcomings of previous scholarship and addressed the connections between US colonial domination in Puerto Rico and the structural and political factors that propelled island Puerto Ricans to migrate to the United States. New migration studies also began to document the history of Puerto Rican settlement and formation of stateside communities, and to draw attention to migrants’ productive lives and contributions to US society. This new historiography about the diaspora includes several notable works. Centro History Task Force 1979 and Centro Oral History Task Force 1998 introduce groundbreaking historical and socioeconomic frameworks for analyzing Puerto Rican labor migration. Sánchez Korrol 1994 is the first study to offer a detailed account of the historical development of New York City’s Puerto Rican community during the early decades of the 20th century. This particular book emphasizes the collective activism of pioneer migrants to create numerous cultural, social, and political community organizations that facilitated the process of adaptation and survival in US society. Torres and Velázquez 1998, an edited volume on the Puerto Rican movement, includes a substantive number of examples that illustrate different forms of social and political engagement during the years of the civil rights movement. Duany 2002 analyzes the contemporary transnational dynamics of a Puerto Rican nation moving between the island and the many US communities of settlement. The increasing demographic dispersion of Puerto Ricans to other geographic destinations besides New York City has compelled researchers to focus on the establishment and evolution of other communities. Whalen and Vázquez-Hernández 2005 is an edited volume that emphasizes old and new patterns of Puerto Rican settlement at various geographic locations. Lastly, few Puerto Rican migration studies provide a historical narrative that interweaves the history of Puerto Rico with the formation of its diaspora. Duany 2002, Acosta-Belén and Santiago 2006, and Ayala and Bernabe 2009 stand out in this regard.

  • Acosta-Belén, Edna, and Carlos E. Santiago. Puerto Ricans in the United States: A Contemporary Portrait. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2006.

    This interdisciplinary portrait of the development of the US Puerto Rican community illustrates how the historical and socioeconomic development of island Puerto Ricans intertwines with migration and the formation of a stateside diaspora. The book provides valuable statistical data on Puerto Ricans.

  • Ayala, César, and Rafael Bernabe. Puerto Rico in the American Century: A History since 1898. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

    An in-depth analysis of the historical, socioeconomic, and cultural development of Puerto Rico and its colonial relationship with the United States. This study also provides a detailed account of Puerto Rico’s historical evolution since the US takeover and the processes that contributed to migration to the United States.

  • Centro History Task Force. Labor Migration under Capitalism: The Puerto Rican Experience. New York: Monthly Review, 1979.

    A critique of the deficiencies of Puerto Rican migration studies published between the 1940s and 1960s by North American and other foreign scholars, and a class analysis of colonialism, the development of capitalism on the island, and the combination of factors that propelled Puerto Rican labor migration at different historical periods.

  • Centro Oral History Task Force. Extended Roots: From Hawaii to New York. New York: Center for Puerto Rican Studies, 1998.

    A collection of community histories from the Voices of the Migration Oral History Project and a 1984 conference, both sponsored by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, The City University of New York. The articles cover migrations to Hawaii; San Jose, California; New York; Lorain, Ohio; Chicago; and Vineland, New Jersey. First edition 1985.

  • Duany, Jorge. The Puerto Rican Nation on the Move: Identities in Puerto Rico and the United States. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

    This book provides a comprehensive analysis of the competing discourses on Puerto Rican identity on the island and within the US diaspora that have characterized Puerto Rico’s historical and cultural discourses. It also underscores the transnational nature of Puerto Rican migration.

  • Sánchez Korrol, Virginia. From Colonia to Community: The History of Puerto Ricans in New York City, 1917–1948. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

    This groundbreaking study remains the only comprehensive history of US Puerto Ricans that examines the factors that contributed to their migration and documents the neglected experiences of the pre–World War II Puerto Rican community in New York. Special attention is given to numerous community organizations created by Puerto Ricans. First edition 1983.

  • Torres, Andrés, and José E. Velázquez, eds. The Puerto Rican Movement: Voices from the Diaspora. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.

    The first comprehensive collection of essays and interviews aimed at documenting the political and social activism of diverse Puerto Rican organizations since the 1960s, and their collective struggles for civil rights, community empowerment, and the liberation of Puerto Rico from US colonial rule.

  • Whalen, Carmen T., and Víctor Vázquez-Hernández, eds. The Puerto Rican Diaspora: Historical Perspectives. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005.

    This collection of scholarly essays provides a wide range of historical perspectives on the formation of different Puerto Rican communities throughout the United States. Among the communities discussed are New York; Philadelphia; Chicago; Boston; Hawaii; Dover, New Jersey; Lorain, Ohio; and Bridgeport, Connecticut.

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