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LEONARD QUART: Nuyoricans and their ongoing powerful presence in New York City

Though "West Side Story" was more a poetic fantasy than an attempt to capture the texture of Nuyorican (New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent) life, it was the only widely disseminated American mass culture product of that time to conceive Puerto Ricans as a unique racial/ethnic group and culture.

Puerto Ricans have been immigrating to New York City since the middle of the 19th century. At the time, the island was still a Spanish province, and the motivation to move was the same as it was for other immigrants: America offered the greatest opportunities for economic success. Puerto Rico then became a territory of the United States, as a result of the treaty arrangement following the Spanish-American War in 1898.

In 1917, the Jones-Shafroth Act changed the status for Puerto Ricans forever. Now they were officially American citizens and could travel to and from the United States without the use of a passport. Eligible Puerto Rican males could also be drafted into the military, just in time for World War I. Beyond this need for more deployable American forces, the war also spurred more Puerto Rican migration to the mainland, where they encountered exploitation and racism from the local American population while serving the city and country’s economic needs.

My first memory of Puerto Ricans was in the early 1950s when the red brick tenement across the street was crammed with a number of Puerto Rican families, who were poorer than the lower-middle-class, working-class, and mostly Jewish population that dominated my Bronx neighborhood. I wouldn’t say the Puerto Ricans were warmly embraced as outsiders, but whatever racist put-downs I heard (“they are taking over and transforming the city”) were relatively mild. Still, as the Puerto Rican population increased in the ’60s, their presence became more problematic. In a city of deteriorating infrastructure and economic woes, they often found themselves on the bottom of the city’s socioeconomic ladder, relegated to its worst neighborhoods like East Harlem, the Lower East Side, and the South Bronx, and playing a significant role in drug dealing and violent street gangs.

In popular culture, that period of Puerto Rican life in New York City was most durably and famously represented by the Broadway (1957) and film production (1961) of “West Side Story,” which won 10 Oscars—with a Leonard Bernstein score, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents. “West Side Story” made no attempt to be a realistic social document or an exploration of the dynamics of the relations between the immigrant communities and the groups that preceded them.

Though “West Side Story” was more a poetic fantasy than an attempt to capture the texture of Nuyorican (New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent) life, it was the only widely disseminated American mass culture product of that time to conceive Puerto Ricans as a unique racial/ethnic group and culture. The play/film never went beyond old stereotypes about Latinos, however, with the women being either virginal or childlike or sexual and fiery, and the men being violent and clannish.

I had two close Puerto Rican friends during that period, and they came from working-class backgrounds. But their lives—though they never rejected their Hispanic roots—were not deeply entwined in or committed to Latino life. And their life choices—choosing non-Latino partners, moving in mixed ethnic circles—said something about the future of Puerto Ricans in the city. In fact, the city’s Puerto Rican population peaked in 1970 at nearly 900,000 and gradually declined thereafter. A gradual process of suburbanization developed as Puerto Ricans moved to the northern suburban counties, New Jersey, and Long Island. Today, about half a million Puerto Ricans live in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In the states of Connecticut and Massachusetts, there are more than 300,000 Puerto Ricans, and Boston will hold one of the largest Puerto Rican Festivals in the U.S. this summer.

The most significant decrease of the city’s Puerto Rican population occurred between 2017 and 2022, with the number of Puerto Ricans living in the five boroughs dropping by almost 20 percent, from about 715,000 to 574,000. The Dominican population of the city had become the largest Latino nationality in about 2015 and continued to expand thereafter with booming neighbourhoods in Washington Heights. And the Latino population has become increasingly diverse with more than 20 different ethnic groups represented. It includes large numbers of Mexicans, Central Americans, and Venezuelan migrants as well.

Puerto Rican Day Parade on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Photo courtesy of Boss Tweed via Flickr.

Puerto Ricans still preserve a cultural place in New York City and hold an annual National Puerto Rican Day Parade that marches up Fifth Avenue with an estimated attendance of one million people. It is one of the largest celebrations of cultural pride.

If Puerto Ricans are no longer the dominant Hispanic group in the city, they are still a powerful presence.

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