Expert Commentary

Puerto Ricans in the United States: Research roundup

2013 roundup of recent research on Puerto Ricans, including studies on their political status, demographics, socioeconomics and education.

Puerto Ricans have both a rich history and a unique status among Americans. The United States assumed control of the island at the end of Spanish-American War, and in 1917 President Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act, which granted Puerto Ricans U.S. Citizenship with a number of crucial distinctions.

Because the island is an “unincorporated territory” rather than a state, not all Constitutional rights are available to residents. For instance, Puerto Ricans on the island do not have to pay federal taxes, but they cannot vote in presidential elections. Because they are U.S. citizens, they are not considered immigrants, yet they still face many of the same cultural and emotional challenges that other immigrant groups do when leaving their home.

More than a century after its association with the United States began, Puerto Rico’s status continues to be debated at home and in the U.S. Congress. In May 2013, Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner to the U.S. Congress sponsored H.R. 2000, the Puerto Rico Status Resolution Act, which calls for setting forth the process for admitting Puerto Rico as the 51st state. It follows an October 2012 referendum in which 54% of island residents taking part voted against maintaining Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status; of the 54%, statehood was favored by 61%, a nation in free association with the United States by 33%, and independence by 5.5%. In an op-ed in The Hill, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives of Puerto Rico wrote, “For all intents and purposes, the [immigration modernization] bill will give the illegal immigrants statehood. This is exactly what we want for the almost 3.7 million people, who are U.S. citizens, residing in Puerto Rico.”

For more on these dynamics, see the June 2013 Congressional Research Service report titled “Puerto Rico’s Political Status and the 2012 Plebiscite: Background and Key Questions.”

Immigration from Puerto Rico to the mainland United States started slowly: In 1910 there were only 2,000 Puerto Ricans living in the continental U.S., mostly in New York City. Many were recruited by companies looking for cheap labor under the Immigration Act of 1924, in force until 1952, and first settled in the South. The southern U.S. is now home to another 30% of the population, of which 18% live in Florida. A 2012 Pew Research Hispanic Center report indicates 52% of the Puerto Rican population is concentrated in the Northeast, mostly New York, which is home to 23% of the total. Puerto Rican immigration to Massachusetts began in the 1950s and today they make up 8.8% of the state’s population and account for more than half of the state’s entire Latino population.

Overall, 9.2% of the U.S. Hispanic population is of Puerto Rican descent, according to Pew, making it the country’s second-largest Hispanic population. There are 4.7 million Hispanics of Puerto Rican origin living in the 50 states and Washington, D.C. — more than the entire population of 3.7 million in Puerto Rico itself. Of those residing in the United States, 3.2 million were born on the mainland, and 1.2 million on the island.

A 2012 Pew report on the demographics of the Puerto Rican community in the United States presents a revealing portrait: Their median age is 27, well below the U.S. average of 37. They are less likely to be married than the overall Hispanic community — 36%, versus 44% among all Hispanics — and they have higher levels of education than the overall Hispanic population, with 16% over age 25 having obtained a bachelor’s degree. More than 80% of those ages five and older speak proficient English. The poverty rate among Puerto Ricans is 27%, however, higher than both the overall Hispanic rate and the general U.S. rate (25% and 15%, respectively.) Just 38% of Puerto Ricans are homeowners, less than the rate for Hispanics overall (47% ) and for the general U.S. population (65%). Voter turnout among Puerto Ricans was up 3.1% in 2012 from 2008, with 52.8% voting, above the 48% rate for the overall Hispanic population eligible to vote in the United States.

Below is a selection of recent research on issues related to Puerto Ricans, including studies on their demographics, economics and education.


“Migrating Race: Migration and Racial Identification among Puerto Ricans”
Vargas-Ramos, Carlos, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 2012, 1-22. doi: 10.1080/01419870.2012.672759.

Abstract: “The pattern of racial identification among Puerto Ricans is not uniform. It varies depending on where they live. Most identify as white, but more do so in Puerto Rico than in the USA. This paper addresses the impact that living alternatively in the USA and in Puerto Rico has on racial identification among Puerto Ricans. Using Public Use Microdata Sample data from the American Community Survey and the Puerto Rico Community Survey 2006–2008, I find that while there is no single pattern of impact, those more grounded on the island’s racial system are more likely to identify as white in the USA, while those less grounded in Puerto Rico are more likely to identify as multiracial or by another racial descriptor. On their return to the island, they revert to the prevalent pattern of racial identification, while still exhibiting effects of their sojourn on their racial identity.”


“The Orlando Ricans: Overlapping Identity Discourses Among Middle-Class Puerto Rican Immigrants”
Duany, Jorge, Centro Journal, 2010, Vol. 22, No. 1, 84-115.

Abstract: “One of the distinctive features of the recent Puerto Rican exodus to the Orlando metropolitan area is a large number of well-educated professionals and managers, most of whom define themselves as white in the census…. Of particular interest was how this privileged group represents itself as part of the growing Spanish-speaking population of Central Florida. A recurrent theme in the interviews was Puerto Ricans’ contested relations with other Latinos, including Cubans, Venezuelans, Mexicans, and Colombians. Furthermore, the interviews generated a wealth of qualitative data on how middle-class members of Orlando’s Puerto Rican community — primarily those born and raised on the Island — maintained transnational connections, especially kinship ties, with the homeland.”


“Residential Segregation, Socio-economic Status, and Disability: A Multi-Level Study of Puerto Ricans in the United States”
Burgos, Giovani; Rivera, Fernando I, Centro Journal, 2012, Vol. 24, No. 11, 14-46.

Abstract: “Although socioeconomic status (SES) is hypothesized to be one of the key mechanisms that links segregation to health, there are no multilevel studies that examine if SES mediates the relationship between segregation and disability among Puerto Ricans across the U.S. This paper introduces the Racialized Place Inequality Framework and addresses three questions: Does segregation affect the likelihood that Puerto Ricans have a disability? Are higher levels of segregation associated with lower SES? Does SES mediate the relationship between segregation and disability? Multilevel results from the 2008-2010 American Community Survey (ACS) and 2000 U.S. Census show that segregation (1) increases individuals’ probability of having a disability, (2) is associated with lower levels of SES, and (3) affects disability directly and indirectly through SES.”


“The Puerto Rican Effect on Hispanic Residential Segregation: A Study of the Hartford and Springfield Metro Areas in National Perspective”
Sacks, Michael Paul. Latino Studies, 2011, 9, 87-105. doi: 10.1057/lst.2011.1.

Abstract: “Hartford, Connecticut, and Springfield, Massachusetts, have both a large Puerto Rican population and an extremely high proportion of Puerto Rican among the Hispanics, making these metro areas valuable for study of the distinctive impact of Puerto Rican presence. Between 1990 and 2000, non-Hispanic Whites in these metropolitan areas were moving away from towns and cities where Hispanics were concentrated and growing. Such population separation may in part be attributable to the relatively high poverty level among Hispanics. Multivariate analysis applied to data for 38 metro areas with varying levels of Puerto Rican predominance among Hispanics shows, however, that ethnic group segregation was influenced by Puerto Rican presence even when controlling for the economic status of Hispanics. The ‘Puerto Rican effect’ may stem from the greater racialization of Puerto Ricans. By contrast other Hispanic groups may have benefited from an immigrant identity that has now become more of a liability.”


“The Political Incorporation of (In)Migrants in the United States: The Case of Puerto Ricans”
Cruz, Jose. State University of New York, August 2011.

Abstract: “In this paper I look at Puerto Ricans in New York City between 1960-1965 to illustrate aspects of the process of political incorporation as experienced by (in)migrants, that is, foreign-born individuals who enter a host society as citizens. Based on the experience of Puerto Rican political elites and their impact at the mass level, I argue that political incorporation should be understood in terms of the achievement of equality and substantive outcomes. Equality is understood as the achievement of political and social citizenship rights and the measure of substantive outcomes is structural assimilation. Structural assimilation is understood as full membership in the political, social, and economic institutions of the majority leading to at least economic equality.”


“Puerto Ricans in the U.S. Low-Wage Labor Market: Introduction to the Issues, Trends, and Policies”
Visser, M. Anne; Melendez, Edwin, Centro Journal, 2011, Vol. 23, No. 2, 4-19.

Abstract: “Puerto Ricans are concentrated in low-wage jobs and experience higher rates of unemployment and poverty than other Hispanic subgroups. Through a cross-sectional data analysis from the American Community Survey, 2006-2008, we examine the experience of Puerto Rican workers. Though educational attainment and language disparities play a role, structural factors such as concentration in low-wage service industries also explain the disadvantaged standing of Puerto Ricans in the labor market. This analysis highlights the importance of ethnic-specific studies and the need for research on factors that may influence Puerto Rican workers’ mobility in and out of low-wage jobs.”


“To Send or Not to Send: Migrant Remittances in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Mexico”
Duany, Jorge. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 2010, Vol. 630, No. 1, 205-223.

Abstract: “Despite their high out-migration rate, Puerto Ricans in the United States send less money than Dominicans and Mexicans to their relatives back home. One explanation for the low level of private transfers of Puerto Ricans is that public disbursements, especially for nutritional assistance, housing subsidies, and educational grants, may well be the safety net in Puerto Rico that remittances serve in other countries. In addition, most Puerto Ricans are covered by unemployment and disability insurance, and many have earned benefits such as Social Security, Medicare, and veterans pensions. Finally, Puerto Rico’s higher standard of living, compared to other Latin American countries, may mean that many migrants do not feel as obliged to send money to their country of origin as Mexicans or Dominicans do.”


“‘Locas,’ Respect, and Masculinity: Gender Conformity in Migrant Puerto Rican Gay Masculinities”
Asencio, Marysol. Gender & Society, 2011, Vol. 25, No. 3, 335-354. doi: 10.1177/0891243211409214.

Abstract: In this article, I explore how masculinity and gender nonconformity are viewed by 37 migrant Puerto Rican gay men who had been raised in Puerto Rico and migrated Stateside as adults. Most of these migrant men note the importance of masculinity in their development and interactions with others, particularly other men. They resist identification of themselves as effeminate and distance themselves from locas (effeminate gay men). They associate locas with overt homosexuality, disrespect, and marginality. I argue that migrant Puerto Rican gay masculinities are maintained within the precept of hegemonic masculinity through various social mechanisms, including a gendered construction of male homosexuality; the connection of social and interpersonal respect with masculinity; the socially allowable and pervasive ridicule and punishment of male femininity; and marginalization based on multiple social statuses. Through these interconnected social mechanisms, heteronormative perspectives on gender, gender binaries, and power are incorporated into homonormative migrant Puerto Rican gay masculinities.”


“Puerto Ricans in the United States and Language Shift to English”
Torres, Lourdes. English Today, September 2010, Vol. 26, Issue 3, 49-54. doi: 10.1017/S0266078410000143.

Introduction: “In this essay, I examine language use among Puerto Ricans in the U.S., and evaluate evidence that suggests that they are shifting to English more quickly than other Latino groups…. The idea that Puerto Ricans are the group that takes the lead in the loss of bilingualism among Latinos is a source of debate for observers of the sociolinguistic reality of Latinos in the U.S. With a particular focus on the Puerto Rican community in Chicago, I first discuss language loss among Latino populations in the U.S. Then, I offer a brief overview of Puerto Rican immigration history, and of Latino presence in Chicago. Lastly, I address the allegedly exceptionally rapid shift of Puerto Ricans to English, and discuss possible reasons for this phenomenon.”


“The Economic Consequences of Inadequate Education for the Puerto Rican Population in the United States”
Belfield, Clive R., Centro Journal, 2008, Vol. 2, No. 3.

Abstract: “This paper calculates the economic consequences of failing to graduate from high school for Puerto Ricans living in the U.S. Based on a range of social science evidence, we calculate the full economic consequences of high school graduation expressed in present values at age 20. In total, each new Puerto Rican high school graduate benefits the taxpayer by $111,000. The impacts are even larger from a social perspective. In total, each new Puerto Rican high school graduate generates a present value social benefit of $598,000. We also calculate the impacts for selected states where Puerto Ricans are residentially concentrated. Finally, in light of these consequences, we consider possible reforms to raise the graduation rate for Puerto Ricans in the U.S.”


“Recruiting and Preparing Teachers for New York Puerto Rican Communities: A Historical Public Policy Perspective”
Mercado, Carmen I, Centro Journal, 2012, Vol. 24. No. 2, 110-138.

Abstract: “Although teacher quality is the one factor that has consistently had the largest impact on student success, policies and practices that affect teacher recruitment and preparation are barriers to increasing teacher quality in and for Puerto Rican communities. Nevertheless, advocating for change in the 21st century requires anticipating the challenges we face as well as the powerful tools and practices that are needed to overcome these challenges. This article takes a historical, public policy perspective to identify the broad range of resources the Puerto Rican community has developed over six decades of community activism, in the largest Puerto Rican city and Latino city that also prepares the nation’s teachers.”


“Minding/Mending the Puerto Rican Education Pipeline in New York City”
Reyes, Luis O. Centro Journal, 2012, Vol. 24, No. 2, 140-159.

Abstract: “New York City has been the gateway city in the United States for the Puerto Rican migration as well as the locus for a significant proportion of the Puerto Rican student population. They continue to experience chronic underachievement as reflected in what has been characterized as a ‘leaky education pipeline.’ Puerto Rican youth face numerous social and economic barriers and have been concentrated in high schools where students have less than a 50/50 chance of graduating on time. These schools also spent less-per-pupil, were more segregated, and more overcrowded when compared with their affluent, white-majority suburban counterparts. Now, many of these so-called ‘dropout factories’ in Puerto Rican/Latino neighborhoods are being subjected to closing, restructuring or phasing out. Despite these realities, there is a dearth of publicly available, Puerto Rican-specific student data at all junctures in the education pipeline. This paper discusses what we know about the ‘leaky pipeline’ absent such data and analyzes the possible policy and programmatic solutions in light of the larger ‘education reform’ climate in New York and in the U.S. as a whole.”


Tags: research roundup, Hispanic, Latino, gay issues

About The Author