Parades and Power: The Boricuan Odyssey

Boricua Power: A Political History of Puerto Ricans in the United States; By José Ramón Sánchez; NYU Press; $24.

On a sunny Sunday last month, thousands embraced the 50th National Puerto Rican Day Parade as a celebration of their heritage and a moment of pride and visibility. It was the prime occasion for politicians, celebrities, corporations and assorted public figures to display – and claim the rewards of – their “solidarity” with this community. Besides its high profile and sheer numbers, this event is a yearly New York City milestone for bringing attention to the myriad conflicts between Puerto Ricans and the city’s powerful.

Again this year, the media recorded an aftermath of controversy: how many Fifth Avenue buildings were barricaded from the crowd; how many people were arrested, and for what; whether the police wrongfully targeted young people for wearing this or that (supposedly gang-related) t-shirt; how people watching a parade could be accused of “unlawful assembly"; and whether there were “wilding” incidents to report, as in past years.

The unfortunate conflicts following this exceptional moment of visibility reflect, in a way, the history of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. Although this group has had a long and prominent history in New York dating back to the 19th century, its history of struggle to find a place in American society is complex and still poorly understood. The socioeconomic statistics are easier to interpret, and they point unequivocally to chronic disadvantage: Puerto Ricans still suffer much higher than average poverty and unemployment rates, as well as lower income and education levels. Social scientific studies have focused considerable attention on stateside Puerto Rican communities, but the search for explanations of their disadvantage has yielded fragmentary, even contradicting conclusions. As result, a coherent account of what makes this group socially vulnerable has not emerged.

In a literature dominated by sociological and cultural studies, one relatively neglected aspect of the Puerto Rican community’s history is its political influence as means to improve their living conditions. In his new book, “Boricua Power,” José Ramón Sánchez offers an innovative perspective on this group as an active player in its own social history. This study fills an important gap by presenting a cogent and historically rich account of community empowerment in the intellectual tradition of political economy.

The term "boricua" derives from Borikén, the indigenous name for the main island of Puerto Rico – also known in Spanish as Borinquen. This self-identification is increasingly popular among Puerto Ricans in the rest of America, although the word is yet to turn up in English dictionaries. Like the terms Latina/o and Chicana/o, community activists began adopting the name for many of their organizations in the 1960s to raise group consciousness, and in opposition to more “Eurocentric” terms. By calling themselves boricuas, Puerto Ricans proudly use their vernacular to gain a measure of control over their own identity.

The book's approach is scholarly. Sánchez, an associate professor of political science and chair of urban studies at Long Island University, elaborates a novel understanding of power (political and otherwise), using the history of Puerto Rican political influence as supporting evidence for his theory. The concept of power developed here is dynamic and multidimensional. Power is about action rather than position or possession; it is about actors whose mutual relationship is never static but rather in constant flux. And it is also relational, since influence can be exercised but not held like some inanimate object. The author relies on dancing as a key metaphor for the reciprocity of power relationships: rather than coercing one another, real life social actors engage in partnerships that are potentially of mutual benefit. The “dance of power” image reminds us that mutual interests are at the root of any relationship, even in domination, since “power originates in the passions and interests of social interaction.”

The political history of the Puerto Rican community illustrates how an ethnic group interacts with interested partners on the dance floor of the urban political economy. In its hundred-year-long history in New York, Puerto Ricans have seized (and lost) a surprising range of opportunities to improve their status. Sánchez focuses on three particular historical periods. The first starts in the interwar years, when a large proportion of Puerto Rican workers were employed as cigar makers. In the 1920s, these workers enjoyed organizational success and had gained unusual control over their working conditions. Outside the workplace, cigar makers spearheaded the proliferation of political clubs and other institutions that brought influence to their ethnic community. Their power derived from the high value of their artisanship in the labor market. However, the rare skills that once attracted employers were of no use later when tobacco firms reconfigured their production operations to counterbalance the cigar makers’ ability to strike and organize. After losing jobs as cigar makers, Puerto Ricans shifted to other industries, working at jobs with lower skills and wages. By the 1930s, the changes were felt in the whole community, which became more impoverished, more vulnerable to competition from other immigrant workers, and less able to mobilize.

The second period coincides with that of greatest Puerto Rican immigration, between 1945 and 1965. After World War II, New York’s Puerto Rican workers benefited from their participation in Democratic machine politics and from their involvement in labor unions. However, the municipal reform movement of the 1950s weakened the patronage system that formerly secured social policies favorable to ethnic workers. Mass migration also contributed to decline in economic influence, as immigrant Puerto Rican workers were relegated to cheap and plentiful labor. According to Sánchez, the 1950s is also characterized by a development of cultural and political nationalism within the community, and this inward orientation did not help to arouse the interests of American society at large.

In this section, the author also presents a lucid account of the political roots of mass migration that could be particularly appealing to students of Puerto Rican history, or of migration itself. The social scientific literature does not offer a consensus about what led to such unprecedented levels of out-migration from the island, nor for its high concentration in New York City. In arguing that the factors producing migration increases “were driven by politics and policy,” Sánchez details the coordinated moves made by 1950s political bosses, both in Puerto Rico and stateside. For example, mass migration fit into the broad industrial development plan implemented in the island by the state and federal governments, as well as into New York mayors’ interest in renewing labor resources for the city’s declining light industries. The mid-century period is crucial because the loss of influence sets up the long term misfortunes of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. (particularly in the wake of deindustrialization) that continue to this day. There are lessons here for those interested in the social consequences of the current immigration policy regime, and of mass migration driven by the twin forces of industrialization abroad and post-industrial labor market segmentation in the U.S.

The third important moment of power shifts occurred in the late 1960s and 1970s. A brief surge in local Puerto Rican influence was spurred by highly visible, radical protests, epitomized by the Young Lords, an activist organization that did not shy away from direct confrontation with the police or other powerful institutions to advocate for the urgent needs of Puerto Ricans. The fallout of this movement was, however, increased cultural and social distance between this group and the dominant white majority. According to Sánchez, this media-enhanced confrontational style contributed to loss of interest in this group, and thus to a legacy of political marginalization. The Puerto Rican community was left with few compelling dance partners.

In comparing these periods, the book illustrates how each historical moment affords its own opportunities to “dance,” and also unique challenges. However, each moment of Puerto Rican empowerment was followed by a decline in influence, and the recurring pattern of defeats presents a problem for the dance theory of power. If their “record of organizing and institution-building has been impressive,” why does the long-term balance of power remain negative for Puerto Ricans? Could this be due to the contingencies of bad dance partner choices? If power is continuously created, why have other groups arrived at a seemingly permanent position of advantage? How could the clout of unions in the 1920s, political sponsors in the 1950s, or media visibility in the 1970s have been translated to more permanent Boricua empowerment? The author’s theory is effective in dissecting the shifts and sociohistorical context of power, but less successful in explaining the persisting downward trend over the longer term.

Other theoretical perspectives, like Marxian or race theory, could reasonably claim that the repeated losses are symptomatic of the larger “structures” of power. For instance, the ultimate dismissal of Puerto Ricans’ bids to dance could derive from the weakness of their class position as immigrant wage laborers, or from their status as non-white or colonial subjects. Even so, those views of domination/subordination fall short of accounting for an event where the powerful literally parade down the Upper East Side alongside the proud Puerto Rican crowd. By contrast, Sánchez’s closer look at the workings of power does provide insights into such displays of mutual attraction from both sides of the power equation. Besides correcting some real shortcomings of broader political theories, his thesis is also a contribution that invites further comparative and historical research on other social groups, locations and times.

Bienvenido Ruiz was born in Puerto Rico, lived in New York, and is completing his PhD in sociology at Northwestern University in Chicago. His research focuses on Latino communities, inequality and immigration.

- Bienvenido Ruiz

For more on the book, click here.