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Philadelphia Operation Bootstrap and Puerto Rican Migration

Latino migration to Pennsylvania was also triggered by the initiation of Operation Bootstrap in 1948. The program was promoted by the governments of the United States and Puerto Rico as a development strategy for the island; it consisted of a plan to transform Puerto Rico from an agricultural society to an industrial one. Ultimately, it provoked the movement of huge numbers of Puerto Ricans from rural to urban areas as they searched for work. Many industrial jobs were created, but they were a fraction of what was needed to employ the thousands upon thousands of rural Puerto Ricans who had been displaced by the decimation of the island’s agricultural sector. The United States and Puerto Rican governments encouraged this surplus population to emigrate in order to alleviate unemployment and population problems at home and to fill labor needs on the mainland. More than half a million islanders moved abroad over the next twenty years. Roughly 21,000 traveled to the United States every year as migrant farm laborers.

Many of these migrants moved to New York, but a significant number settled in Pennsylvania. Some headed to Allentown, in the central eastern region of the state, to work in orchards. They provided cheap labor for the booming agricultural sector there, and their numbers grew to 325 men by 1951, an increase of three times over the previous year.9 In 1953 the men were featured in a three-page Sunday Call-Chronicle photo story on Puerto Rican migrant laborers. Recalling the stereotypes held by Bethlehem Steel managers toward their Mexican employees, the article asserted that because tomatoes thrive in heat, tropical-born Puerto Ricans make ideal tomato pickers.10

The paucity of Latina women in the region meant that many migrants married local women, thus establishing a small number of bicultural families. These alliances signal significant acceptance of the Puerto Rican laborers in the town at large, but as the Puerto Rican population grew, tensions surfaced between them and Allentown’s white population. In 1958, for example, when the Puerto Rican population numbered four hundred, the Morning Call published ten articles on the Puerto Rican problem and various community efforts to deal with it.11 Over time the Puerto Rican population grew large enough to establish community organizations that dealt with discrimination against Latinos. Most notably, the Casa Guadalupe was founded in 1967 as a social-services agency providing an array of education, health, and employment services. The organization is still in operation today. Several other important Latino communities emerged throughout Pennsylvania in a manner very similar to Allentown’s. Small clusters of contract workers, such as Puerto Rican grape pickers in Erie and Mexican mushroom workers in Kennett Square, marked the origins of what have become robust Latino populations at the present time.

Puerto Rican workers deplaning in Philadelphia, 1947. Courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Urban Archives, Bulletin Collection, Philadelphia PA.

The Pennsylvania city most affected by Operation Bootstrap was Philadelphia. The increasing number of Puerto Ricans after World War II shaped the city’s Latino landscape over the next fifty years. Puerto Ricans found support among one another and through the Philadelphia Catholic Church known as La Mila-grosa, but they often found the rest of the city to be unwelcoming. Many landlords would not rent to Latinos, and underlying tensions between Puerto Ricans and other groups sometimes led to violence. Well-intentioned city workers and politicians tried to address such problems, but their recommendations were often informed by cultural misconceptions that attributed the community’s problems to its Latin mentality.12 By the late 1950s, Puerto Ricans began organizing with other Latinos to address concerns such as housing, bilingual education, discrimination, violence, and inadequate city services.

However, just as these initial organizing efforts began, larger structural changes were taking place in Philadelphia. Between 1968 and 1985, urban renewal and gentrification efforts displaced many Latinos, forcing them to move to neighborhoods where they were often met with resistance and sometimes

violence from white residents. By the 1970s, the manufacturing jobs that had provided work for so many Latinos were gone, engendering blight and poverty. Many Latinos responded by organizing again, this time focusing on economic development, health services, and cultural promotion. In addition, a younger generation of Puerto Ricans known as the Young Lords brought a more radical approach to Latino community activism. They fostered ethnic pride and advocated the independence of Puerto Rico. They drew attention to police brutality and criticized the system, breaking ranks with established Puerto Rican agencies such as Aspira and Concilio groups that supported the Democratic Party. Although short-lived, the Young Lords left a lasting mark on Latino politics in the city, serving as a stepping-stone for several former members to achieve public office and helping to make ethnic pride a central characteristic of the many organizations that have followed.

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