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Pathologizing Puerto Ricans? Here we go again…


Puerto Ricans in New York Struggling…Still
By Marianne McCune

November 20, 2009

Puerto Ricans are some of the most prominent figures in New York politics and culture, so some people are surprised when they hear that, overall, Puerto Ricans are among the poorest and least educated New Yorkers. Almost a third in New York are living in poverty. Here are some of the figures.

In New York City, 31.2 percent of Puerto Ricans live in poverty, compared with 27.8 percent of Latinos more broadly and 18.9 percent of the New York City population overall. Nationally, 22 percent of Puerto Ricans are in poverty, versus 19 percent of Latinos overall (from the American Community Survey via the Pew Hispanic Center).

Of course, when you look closely at the numbers you can see that other Latino groups are struggling as well — more Dominican and Mexican families in New York, for example, are living below the poverty line than Puerto Rican families.

But note that the margin of error for these stats from the 2005-2007 American Community Survey is big enough to put these groups basically on a par with each other. So what’s most surprising is that these groups are so close, given the supposed advantages Puerto Ricans have: They’re all citizens (because Puerto Rico is a Commonwealth of the United States), they’ve been in New York longer (most Dominicans and Mexicans immigrated to New York more recently), and a higher percentage speak English.

As for education: only 31% of Puerto Ricans have completed beyond a high school education as compared to 77% of Whites, 71% of Blacks (including African immigrants) and 42% of all Latinos. (From the American Community Survey via the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College)

Among Puerto Ricans between the ages of 24 and 32, only 16 percent have completed college, even though almost a quarter have at least one college-educated parent. And almost one in five Puerto Ricans that age with at least one college-educated parent dropped out of high school. (From the book “Inheriting the City: The Children of Immigrants Come of Age”).

I decided to do this story after going to see Phillip Kasinitz of the CUNY Graduate Center to talk about his book “Inheriting the City: The Children of Immigrants Come of Age.” As part of his comprehensive study, Kasinitz compared the children of Latino immigrants to the children of native born Puerto Ricans and he says he too was surprised to find that Puerto Ricans were experiencing less success educationally and professionally than many Latino immigrant groups.

Of course, when I went to speak with some of the leading thinkers on Puerto Rican issues, they said, “Duh!” But many said people don’t want to talk about this issue. Angelo Falcon of the National Institute for Latino Policy said the issues of Puerto Ricans have become invisible, especially as immigration issues dominate the political and academic dialogue around Latinos.

That’s how this story was born. Please contribute to this conversation by posting your comments below — there’s much to debate.

Tags: American Community Survey, CUNY, Dominican, immigration, Latino, Mexican, Mexico, National Institute for Latino Policy, Pew Hispanic Center, Puerto Rican, Puerto Rico | 17 comments | Posted in Economy, Education, Metro

Comment from Cynthia Ceilan
Date: November 20, 2009, 10:14 am

What these sorts of studies often fail to mention is the enormous numbers of Puerto Ricans who not only went to college, but enjoyed a significant measure of success in their chosen professions — and then left the city.

Puerto Ricans, native-born as well as their mainland-born children, have been thriving for decades in great numbers, though not necessarily in NYC.

To say that Puerto Ricans in New York are “still struggling” paints a rather skewed picture of this population. It also fails to recognize that 68.8% of us are educated and living well in this great city.

Comment from Victoria
Date: November 20, 2009, 11:11 am

Thank you for doing this story! I’m disappointed that Puerto Rican leading thinkers do not want to talk about this disparity that still exists. Why ignore the conversation if it can possibly catalyze positive change? If some of us can pull ourselves up then I think it is important to help others and not ignore the problems. (I write this as the daughter of a line of Puerto Ricans who have always worked hard and strived for a better life here – whether running their own businesses or working for community nonprofits.) We all need to help each other…

Comment from Juan A. Baea
Date: November 20, 2009, 11:51 am

The reason for the lack of achievement is because Puerto Ricans were benefited by the social programs of the 60’s, such as welfare, housing benefits and housing projects. This resulted in a mentality of dependence, not self reliance. Another casualty of the great society programs, much like African Americans.

Comment from Monica Rodriguez
Date: November 20, 2009, 12:06 pm

You came close to perhaps finding an answer to your questions when you mentioned that sometimes our (Puerto Rican’s) problems can mirror African Americans’s problems better than other Latinos’ issues. Puerto Ricans have a different experience, historically and today, than that of other Latinos. This is not often recognized, even among Latinos.
I’m thrilled to hear this piece highlighting the issue of the status of Puerto Ricans. Thank you for spending your time on this. The questions you ask have stumped me as well. I hope that they are answered soon.

Comment from Pablo Alto
Date: November 20, 2009, 12:40 pm

That fact that Puerto Rico is a Commonwealth (read: COLONY)has had a devastating effect on the spirit and psyche of Puerto Ricans here and on the island. This “neither state nor country” status means that the people do not view themselves as being truly a part of the United States nor fully independent.

Comment from J Rivera
Date: November 20, 2009, 4:40 pm

I feel and have always felt that there is a lack of a real desire for success among the Puerto Rican community.

Just as was stated in this piece, none of my friends made it, and I too felt shame as I became successful. To this day in the projects where I was born and raised, no respect is shown for those who are educated.

Just as Juan commented, I beleive that we were destroyed by a history of dependence on social programs. Again, even to this day I can’t find anyone with whom I grew up with that doesn’t think that the government is somehow responsible for their future. There seems to be a real lack of initiative to lift themselves up out of poverty.

There are real problems, we must not allow ourselves to be forgotten.

Comment from Lorenzo Canizares
Date: November 20, 2009, 5:18 pm

What is the class basis of this assessment? I am a Cuban-American, and amongst Cuban-American there is a marked difference in education between well-off Cubans and lower class Cubans.
What are we going to do for the lower class members of our Latino community so there is some hope in their future? The discussion needs to address the real life of people, not the panacea we would all like to see.

Comment from L Martinez
Date: November 20, 2009, 5:55 pm

My personal experience, having had been of Puerto Rican parents and having had grown up in a Puerto Rican neighborhood, is that education, achievement, ambition, and hard work are generally not encouraged by the culture. As a child I could see first hand the socioeconomic degradedness as a lot of inner city Puerto Ricans easily just avoided school, hung out in the streets, had illigitimate children, and made for an urban climate of domestic violence, ignorance, drunkenness, drug addiction and dependency on welfare (etc). My father said that Puerto Ricans do not have to fear being deported like Cubans and other Latinos do, so they don’t worry about calling attention to themselves by behaving wildly. The Hell’s Kitchen of the 1960s and 1970s eventually became a more upwardly mobile neighborhood because Arabs, and Hindus took over a lot of the stores and other businesses.

Comment from AusTexMex
Date: November 20, 2009, 8:08 pm

I was born in Texas in 1946 and now live in Los Angeles. Look, let’s be honest Latinos share many of the same problems. We also need to understand that Cubans, Mexicans, Dominicanos & Puerto Ricans have some unique issues that they would like addressed. I think it is incumbent for the majority group in a particular region to embrace the the other Latinos. These four goups makeup 90% of the Latinos in America. Some recent positive major milestones we’ve accomplished together: Defend The Honor (WWII)documentary by Ken Burns, 10,000,000 plus voters in the general election. President Obama! Thanks in part to Rosario Dawson and Voto Latino and of course Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. That’s Power. Do we have serious problems? Of course we do, however, we will address them and continue to move forward.

Comment from Marianne McCune
Date: November 20, 2009, 8:12 pm

I am the reporter of this story and I wanted to say just two quick things. One, I am so glad people are posting their comments here. There are many ways to look at these issues and I couldn’t fit every interpretation of the statistics into the radio story or the blog post. So I’m thrilled to see you all making the conversation more comprehensive. Two, for anyone who didn’t hear the story — it does cover some issues the blog post does not. For example, the reality that many of the more successful Puerto Ricans in New York move out (as mentioned in the first comment above) is, indeed, included in the audio version. If you haven’t heard it and want to, it’s here ay http://www.wnyc.org/news/articles/144777

Meanwhile, thank you for your candid and engaged responses. Please continue!

Comment from Felix Velazquez
Date: November 20, 2009, 9:22 pm

These discussions always remind me of the elephant in the living room. We are born comparing ourselves and we are told over and over again we never quite measure up; It drives and pushes us to succeed and quite too often to failure. I am 62 Y/O Puerto Rican who was brought to New York City when I was 13 years old. It was not talked about it by my father and my grandfather when I was i growing up in Puerto Rico, it is not talked about it here in New York, and it is not talked about it as I travel back and forth to the Island nation. It is a sickness that debilitates our souls and warps our psychic. It is called COLONIZATION. You do not have to go to far to find an example of its warped mirroring, just read carefully between the lines to some of the comments above.
My life experiences and my daly observations, tell me that these stats are not inaccurate, and that as long as the problem is defined by comparing and not by nation building we are doomed to loose the comparison game.

Comment from Angel Falcon
Date: November 20, 2009, 9:39 pm

I think the scapegoating of social programs and the idea that Puerto Rican colonial status has some marring effect on Puerto Ricans in diaspora is problematic at its face. Most Puerto Ricans in diaspora don’t concern themselves with political status per se. Status is a great concern for those on the island. And it is a stretch to indicate that colonial status has any effect on those in diaspora who are for the most 3 or even 4 generations in diaspora. However, there is a colonial mentality of a different sort where, as one poster mentioned, we look to the government as somehow being responsible for our failings and, in turn, as a possible solution to our problems. That creates a different kind of colonial mentality that only breeds false hope. You can’t expect things to get better without agency on your own part. One of the best ways to get out from our situation is to empower our children with the proverbial “knowledge of self” and know who it is they are historically and NOT rely on the school system to do it. We need grassroots Puerto Rican historical and cultural education, be it in bomba/plena or in political history in libraries, casitas, dondequiera…when people stop looking to athletes, musicians and the government for hope and look INTERNALLY for inspiration, THEN there can be change.

Comment from Judith Escalona
Date: November 21, 2009, 12:36 am

This is a very personal response to McCune’s piece which I found disappointing in being consistent with how our community has been historically imagined. I am the founder of PRdream.com, a web site on the history, culture and politics of Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican diaspora. I was born and raised in New York City.

The goal of http://www.prdream.com was precisely to create an online resource where Puerto Ricans could learn about themselves and carry on an exchange among themselves and others worldwide. It is predominantly English, because we are New York based and indeed Nuyorican. PRdream.com has been in existence for 11 years.

My observation and, actually, firsthand experience is that among Puerto Ricans stateside there is a desire to connect with the island and to maintain that relationship – however tenuous or problematic it may be or seem to be.

While Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico wrestle with the status issue, Puerto Ricans in the U.S. struggle with the identity issue. They are counterparts to the same history, remarkably paralleling one another in relation to the U.S. Leviathan.

Developing prdream.com has been a journey of personal growth and enrichment as a second generation Puerto Rican. It made me realize that much of what I learned through mainstream media and acquired in school and through hearsay in the streets was mostly misinformation based on ignorance and bias.

What I learned through PRdream.com was that Puerto Ricans are quite the opposite of that naggingly negative image that seems unshakeable.
I learned that the tiny island–the smallest in the Greater Antilles–has been the source of an incredible amount of talent for both the English and Spanish speaking worlds.

While we have not posted much of the overwhelming content we have acquired over the years (through videotaping oral histories, interviews, conferences and other events), a fair amount of it can be seen online. It clearly belies the image of our people that is consistently drummed into our children and the general public.

McCune errs in her good intentions because she is subject to the same perceptual bias our community knows only too well. That bias which appears scrupulous and articulate, quoting studies and statistics, in order to reinforce that all too familiar image of who we are but aren’t really. If the “successful” Puerto Ricans have left the inner city then it might be a more balanced report to look at those statistics as well and ask the more important question – what made the difference?

Comment from Alberto O. Cappas
Date: November 21, 2009, 12:46 am

This is nothing new to me, a reason I’ve shy away from the Puerto Rican leadership in NYC, composed of an obsolete attachment to Puerto Rico emotionalism. Just go and check out your Puerto Rican Studies Programs at CUNY, Hunter, etc, and you will find an emotional push for independence; and that is what we are feeding our next generation, instead of passing a torch of enlightment in relation to strategies on becoming economic providers and educators with a sound vision for tomorrow. We need to kill the social-welfare mentality found in the majority of the Puerto Rican community based organizations and its leadership. As Puerto Ricans, We are too liberal oriented without a base of political balance and logic, including a complete absence of backbone to proplerly negotiate and compromise in the political arena/system.

Comment from Jeff White
Date: November 21, 2009, 6:11 am

Judith, I think you are boasting about your website which highlights “Make A Donation” on each topic’s landing page. If you listen to the audio of the story which is at the very top of this page, then you would have heard the difficulties in getting statistics from the Census Bureau because they only ask for the broader Hispanic category on the Census questionnaire. Blaiming the concept that Puerto Ricans some 3 or 4 generations are still living in as high poverty as later hispanic immigrants is a valid topic by itself. Why hasn’t the community gotten out of the projects? As Juan A. Baea pointed out, the social programs championed to help people out have now proven to be the crutch that no one wants to give up. As an aside, the Latino designation used by the politicians to gain political clout has now proven useful in forgetting the struggle of Puerto Ricans still trying to pull themselves out of poverty. I would put some blame on the opportunistic politicians who turn the blind eye to there brethren for political gains.

Comment from Jeff White
Date: November 21, 2009, 6:13 am

To add, Puerto Rican’s overwhelmingly voted to become either a state (46%) or no change (50%) in 1998 so the colonially argument is irrelevant when the majority doesn’t want a change in status. The other half can come here if they don’t like there status. I’m sure millions around the world would give up their homeland to stay 6 months in America. They have lotteries around the world to come here!

Comment from Judith Escalona
Date: November 21, 2009, 8:44 am

Hey, this is America, there is nothing wrong with having a “MAKE A DONATION” button on a web site or a t-shirt or a sneaker. I’m proud to be a Puerto Rican and an American. I took the risk that someone would cynically attach themselves to my mentioning PRdream.com and attempt to undermine my views by this very claim of self-promotion. However, the truth is that I stated my background and work with PRdream.com in order to emphasize: 1. My personal search for knowledge about my culture and community as someone born and raised in the U.S. And 2. The fact that PRdream.com has been around for a substantial period of time, documenting our community, that would give weight to what I had to say.

No one is “blaming” any concept. Why would I anthropomorphize a concept?

The point White misses is that the U.S. has a long history of pathologizing our community through studies. To drive home my point, he actually defends McCune’s report by claiming that specific statistics are not available and “blames” the Census Bureau. She’s off the hook, according to White, by simply stating that those statistics are obscured by the bureau’s nomenclature.

Most importantly, I suggest that a “balanced report” in the media would have to include not only where successful Puerto Ricans have moved to (apparently out of New York City) but also their profile. The title of the report makes a tellingly broad claim “Puerto Ricans in New York Struggling… Still” and safely redlines the extent of her coverage.