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History of Puerto Ricans in Connecticut

Puerto Rico, the United States' only commonwealth, is an island in the Caribbean chain known as the Greater Antilles, located 1600 miles southeast of Miami, FL. Approximately 100 miles long from east to west, and 30 miles wide from north to south, it is an island of large fields, mountains and rainforests.

Puerto Rico became a United States possession in 1898, after the Spanish-American War. It was then an island of poor farmers and their families, growing mainly sugarcane. Hurricane devastation and a single-crop economy caused a very high unemployment rate through the early 20th century. During World War I, the unemployment rate in Puerto Rico was a staggering 40%.

It wasn't until 1917, after the war's conclusion, that the Puerto Ricans were granted US citizenship. Since American corporations and island conditions were making life for farmers financially infeasible, Puerto Ricans began migrating to the United States mainland. The isolationist immigration policies of post-World War I America protected these workers from foreign competition and many Puerto Ricans settled in New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. During World War II, some of these Puerto Rican migrants fought in the Army, while others worked with Remington or New London Shipyards in Connecticut to produce war supplies and ships.

While the war increased job opportunities for Puerto Ricans in the mainland US, conditions on the island were still detestable. During the post-war years, Puerto Rican governor Luis Muņoz Marin instituted Operation Bootstrap with the assistance of the US government to relieve the unemployment problem. This project provided for the construction of factories on the island, and gave tax exemptions to US companies that invested in Puerto Rico for development. Puerto Rican immigration to the mainland was also encouraged. The Puerto Rico Department of Labor actively recruited workers for the states to work on farms. Thousands of workers were flown to then-Bradley Field to work in and around Hartford producing tobacco and apples.

However, while this plan seemed to solve unemployment dilemmas, the transplanted workers were subjected to conditions akin to slavery within the pre-Civil War US. Basic toiletries like toothbrushes and clean water were not provided, and many workers were miserable in their new environment. As more and more Puerto Ricans came to Connecticut, however, they eventually moved into other jobs in the cities. The emigrating population of French Canadians in Hartford was replaced by the immigrating Puerto Ricans, who were given low-class but paying jobs.

By 1950, there were approximately 40,000 Puerto Ricans migrating to the mainland United States per year. The Puerto Rican population of Connecticut was started to grow roots. In Meriden, the 1950's saw the election of the first Puerto Rican city council member, as well as the first Puerto Rican police officer.

While Puerto Ricans were eventually able to become financially stable as workers in Connecticut, socially there were as alienated as before. Like their former nation, Spain, Puerto Rico is predominately Roman Catholic in religion. Religion plays a large part in Puerto Rican society, and the fact that many Connecticut Catholic churches discriminated against them was a major barrier in achieving a level of social comfort within the state. Other churches opened their doors to the Puerto Ricans, and in due course, the Catholic churches adopted Spanish-language masses into their schedules to accommodate them.

By 1970, there were 37,000 Puerto Ricans in Connecticut. Economic troubles caused many companies that were steadfast employers of Puerto Rican workers, such as American Thread in Willimantic, were forced to begin cutting back their workforce. In addition, urban renewal projects of the 1970's began to replace developing Puerto Rican housing developments within the cities. This and other factors caused the development of the Young Lords and other militant Puerto Rican groups that held rallies protesting labor and housing issues as well as advocacy of Puerto Rican independence.

In the present day, Puerto Ricans make up a large percentage of Connecticut's population. Within Hartford alone, nearly 31.9 percent of the population was of Puerto Rican descent according to a 1989 survey. They are currently the largest single minority group in the state.

 

Bibliography

Brosnahan, Tom, Kim Grant, New England: a lonely planet travel survival kit,
Victoria, Australia: Lonely Planet Publications, 1996

Institute for Community Research, Hartford Sociodemographic Profile,
Rapid Sociodemographic Assessment Project, 1989.

Puerto Rican Passages.
Videocassette. Connecticut Public Television, 1995