History of Migration Flows. The earliest mainland Puerto Ricans seem to have been students and revolutionaries. Beginning in the latter half of the 19th century, wealthy Puerto Rican families sent family members to universities in the United States. In addition, there was a handful of Puerto Rican revolutionaries periodically living in New York City and plotting (often with Cuban exiles) against the Spanish government that then controlled Puerto Rico and Cuba. Shortly after the Spanish-American War in 1898, when Puerto Rico became associated with the United States, several thousand Puerto Ricans were recruited to work in the sugarcane fields of Hawaii, at that time another U.S. territory.
It was some four decades later, however, during the 1940s, that the heavy flow of Puerto Rican emigration to the mainland began. Mainland job opportunities during the first half of the decade, created by the building efforts of World War II, initiated some in-migration, but the economic boom of the latter half of the decade was the primary reason for the explosive growth that took place during the ten-year period. In a sense 1945 to 1950 was a watershed period, marking the beginning of a period of heavy immigration that would continue, with several brief interruptions, until the present.
By 1990, the year of the most recent U.S. census, almost 44% of all Puerto Ricans lived on the mainland. Even so, the first half of the 1990s showed a decline in the flow from island to mainland. The first two years of the decade were characterized by net flows of a little less than 20,000 each year to the mainland. By 1992 the number migrating from the island was almost balanced by those returning to the island. Then in both 1993 and 1994 there were net-return flows from the mainland to the island. In fact, the net return of almost 25,000 Puerto Ricans to their homeland in 1994 was the highest ever. Overall, had these people not emigrated, Puerto Rico would have a population of nearly 6.8 million (1996 est.), instead of its estimated 3.8 million.
Major Points of In-Migration. In 1910, when census data first became available for Puerto Ricans living in the United States, more than one-third lived in the state of New York, especially in New York City. The concentration percentage increased over the next 30 years until 1940, when the proportion of mainland Puerto Ricans living in New York reached 88%. By the 1950s, however, it became apparent that New York City was beginning to lose its allure for Puerto Ricans, as they began to disperse to other cities and states. By 1990, New York City was still the leading American city of destination for Puerto Ricans, but the percentage of all mainland Puerto Ricans living in the state of New York had declined to about 40%.
When Puerto Ricans left New York, they tended to move to nearby cities in states of the Northeast. In Puerto Rico, 73% of the population lived in urban as opposed to rural areas in 1996, whereas 96% of all Puerto Ricans on the mainland lived in urban areas. In addition to cities in various northeastern states, cities in Florida, Illinois, and California also have prominent Puerto Rican populations. In 1990, 87% of all mainland Puerto Ricans lived in the eight states of New York, New Jersey, Florida, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Illinois, and California.
Socioeconomic Status of Mainland Puerto Ricans. Although generally considered a disadvantaged minority in the United States, mainland Puerto Ricans have much higher incomes, lower poverty rates, lower unemployment rates, and a somewhat lower percentage of persons 25 years of age and older who have not graduated from high school than island Puerto Ricans. When mainland Puerto Ricans are compared to the non-Hispanic population in the United States, it is equally clear that the average non-Hispanic is economically better off. Non-Hispanics exhibit higher average incomes, lower rates of poverty, lower unemployment levels, and higher levels of educational attainment. Thus, mainland Puerto Ricans fall economically between the island Puerto Ricans and other U.S. residents. Recent research suggests that mainland Puerto Ricans in the 1980s made major economic progress. After standardizing for inflation, the annual income of Puerto Rican men increased by 9% between 1980 and 1990, while for Puerto Rican women, it grew by 20%. Furthermore, these rises in income were accompanied by improved occupational conditions, improvements in educational attainment, and higher labor-force participation rates for mainland Puerto Ricans. Despite the improvement, there remain large pockets of poor Puerto Ricans living in some of the central cities of several of the northeastern states.
Unique Characteristics of the Puerto Rican Experience. Puerto Ricans represent the only large group of people from a distinctly different cultural background to have come to the United States as American citizens. Because they are citizens, they enjoy great freedom of movement between their island homeland and the U.S. mainland. In addition, they represent the first large group of American immigrants of predominantly mixed black and white racial ancestry. They span the racial continuum between black and white. It has been suggested by some researchers that the experience of Puerto Rican tolerance for racial differences may be one of their major contributions to American society.
Puerto Ricans are also important because they represent the second-largest component of the Hispanic population in the United States, after Mexican Americans (who number 17 million; see Hispanic Americans). In 1994 the U.S. Hispanic population was estimated to have surpassed 27 million. Although most Latinos think of themselves first in terms of their national origin (for example, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Dominican), there is a growing tendency to band together into a potentially more influential U.S. political force. Some demographers have predicted that by the year 2010, Hispanics will have numerically surpassed the African American population, thus becoming the largest American minority. Puerto Ricans, with their relatively large population, could be highly visible and influential in that future more-Hispanic America.