Puerto Ricans, Politics, and Power: An Electoral History in New York

By in Immigrant NYC, Latin American Immigration, Leadership, NYC History

BBy Ryan Clinton

History major, Wagner College  ’14

Ortega Family History

“Look at my hands. I don’t want you to have these kinds of hands,” Manny Ortega’s father used to tell him, raising his calloused palms and drawing attention to his right hand, which was missing half of the middle finger. “He stressed [education for me]” (Ortega Interview). Manny Ortega, the 52-year-old law chairman of Staten Island’s Democratic Party and a practicing family law attorney, emphasized his family’s role in his pursuit of higher education and professional opportunities.

Mr. Ortega’s father, an Ecuadorian immigrant to the United States, came to this country in the late 1940s seeking work. He came to New York and joined the merchant marines. An injury tying ropes on the docks sliced off part of his finger. His broken English hampered his ability to receive many distinctions and promotions that he otherwise would have gotten.

Mr. Ortega’s mother also came to the United States in the late 1940s, though she traveled from Puerto Rico at the behest of bureaucrats there urging those looking for work to head north. She returned briefly to Puerto Rico in 1960 to give birth to her son and then moved back to the U.S. permanently; the Ortegas ultimately settled in the Bronx. Mr. Ortega went on to graduate from law school and has been practicing law for nearly 27 years.

The individual family history of the Ortegas, while fascinating in and of itself, is only a small part of the much larger story of the mass migration of Puerto Ricans to the United States and specifically New York City following the end of World War II. As is the case with Mr. Ortega today, many of these Puerto Ricans became politically active in the city, running for congressional seats, competing in mayoral races, and pushing for reforms that directly impacted theirs and their children’s lives. Although the political participation of Puerto Ricans in the country overall has been somewhat minor over the past several decades, they have undoubtedly left their mark on many issues and campaigns and are part of a growing Hispanic community that has today risen to not only local, but national prominence.

Electoral History

Between 1945 and 1960, New York’s Puerto Rican population rapidly expanded from 61,463 to 612,574 (Haslip-Viera 12); following the Second World War, Puerto Rico’s economy had been performing exceptionally well but the island’s cities could not provide enough jobs to match the massive amount of people looking for work. Workers were urged by the U.S. officials and Puerto Rican leaders to move to the United States, which many did (Gonzalez 63). In New York, many Puerto Ricans became involved in mayoral races, city council elections, congressional matchups, and advocated for reforms such as the push for bilingual education. The influx of Puerto Rican immigrants led many news outlets and media figures to express concern (and undeniable racism) that these new entrants to the country were a liability, citing overcrowding of neighborhoods, the sapping of welfare funds, and the immigrants’ inability to speak fluent English (a problem to which Mr. Ortega’s family can clearly relate). In the 1949 mayoral election, Congressman Vito Marcantonio, an Italian-American representing a district in Harlem with a large Puerto Rican neighborhood, lost his bid for mayor because he was a friend to the Puerto Rican community. His opponents, including NYC Mayor O’Dwyer, portrayed him as a communist willing to give the new immigrant community government handouts. Although O’Dwyer won reelection easily, Marcantonio won his district by thousands of votes, demonstrating the Puerto Ricans’ voting power when mobilized (Menendez 203-222).

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Puerto Ricans in New York struggled to reform the school system that was failing their children; the grassroots organizations United Bronx Parents (UBP), the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (PRLDEF), and ASPIRA were created. At this time, the Puerto Rican population of the state had peaked with nearly 900,000 Puerto Rican inhabitants (Haslip-Viera 14). These organizations sought to change the rhetoric of city institutions and politicians who essentially claimed that Puerto Rican culture was inferior and incapable of achieving better results in schools, a call back to the “Puerto Rican problem.” While the fight for reform was an uphill battle, these decades saw the rise of the first Puerto Rican superintendent and landmark Supreme Court cases that eventually led to the implementation of bilingual education in schools, the hiring of teachers who spoke Spanish to assist English language learners, and the formation of the Office of Bilingual Education by New York’s Board of Ed. The introduction of this new curriculum began to yield improved results for Puerto Rican students in NYC (De Jesús and Pérez 14-26).

Other notable Puerto Rican political figures include Herman Badillo, a four-time candidate for mayor (in 1969, 1973, 1977, and 1985) who, while attaining large percentages of the Puerto Rican vote, was never elected; Fernando Ferrer, a borough president of the Bronx who ran for mayor in 1997, 2001, and 2005 (he was unsuccessful in each bid, although he did stir up much enthusiasm in the Puerto Rican community and convinced many to contribute to his campaign) and numerous other congressmen and city council members who were elected by large margin thanks to neighborhoods that were home to large Puerto Rican neighborhoods (Cruz 60-96).

A Changing Nation

Nationally, Puerto Ricans and Hispanics as a whole have begun to seriously influence presidential elections; according to the 2010 census, there are over a million Puerto Ricans living in New York, nearly 5 million in the United States and 53 million Hispanic people in the United States overall. Second and third generation Hispanic citizens “…will account for 40% of the growth in the eligible electorate in the U.S. between now and 2030, at which time 40 million Hispanics will be eligible to vote, up from 23.7 million now” (Taylor, Gonzalez-Barrera, Passel, and Lopez). Latinos, who voted for President Obama by a nearly 50% margin, can prove to be a critical voting demographic for candidates that court them. The face of the electoral landscape is changing before the eyes of the United States, ensuring that it is impossible to ignore a group that was once marginalized and called a “problem” in American society.

New York City’s Puerto Rican community continues to thrive today. Puerto Rican New Yorkers have a rich history, especially politically, as they have sent numerous members of their community to city councils, school boards, and the United States House of Representatives. Puerto Rican reformers can also take pride in their ability to change institutions, such as the Board of Education, that were on an otherwise unmoving trajectory and bring them a level of equality. While Puerto Ricans have been skeptical of the political system in the past and have faced hurdles on their road to political participation, the past few decades have shown them the political power that they wield both locally and nationally. Long gone are the days of the “Puerto Rican problem.” Now, Puerto Ricans and Latinos in the U.S. emphasize their cultural backgrounds and the diversity it brings to the country. Manny Ortega, who has devoted a large part of his life to political activism, remarked, “It’s difficult to put it into words…but you get a sense of enrichment from [Puerto Rican] culture…you just feel proud” (Ortega Interview).

Cruz, Jose E. “Pluralism and Ethnicity in New York City Politics: The Case of Puerto Ricans.” Centro Journal 23 no. 1 (2011): 54-85. Accessed March 4, 2013.

De Jesus, Anthony and Madeline Perez. “From Community Control to Consent Decree: Puerto Ricans Organizing for Education and Language Rights in 1960s and ‘70s New York City.” Centro Journal 21 no. 2 (2009): 6-31. Accessed March 22, 2013.

Gonzalez, Juan. Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America. New York: Viking, 2000.

Haslip-Viera. Latinos in New York: Communities in Transition. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996.

Melendez, Edgardo. “Vito Marcantonio, Puerto Rican Migration, and the 1949 Mayoral Election In New York City.” Centro Journal 22 no. 2 (2010): 198-233. Accessed March 4, 2013.

Ortega, Manuel, Interview by Ryan Clinton, Staten Island, New York, March 18, 2013.

Taylor, Paul, Ana Gonzalez-Barrera, Jeffrey Passel and Mark Hugo Lopez. “An Awakened Giant: The Hispanic Electorate is Likely to Double by 2030.” Pew Research Hispanic Center, November 14, 2012. Accessed April 2, 2013. http://www.pewhispanic.org/2012/11/14/an-awakened-giant-the-hispanic-electorate-is-likely-to-double-by-2030/.