Say It

Due to Crisis, More Puerto Ricans Now Live in the U.S. Than on the island

One writer looks at how the crisis created an exodus.

Dancers wave Puerto Rican flags as the annual National Puerto Rican Day Parade makes its way up New York's Fifth Ave. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people turn out for the parade which celebrates the heritage and identity of Puerto Ricans living in New York.
AP Photo/Kevin Hagen
July 6, 2015, 1:24 p.m.

The ground is buck­ling un­der my fam­ily’s feet in Pu­erto Rico, as though an earth­quake were rat­tling the en­tire is­land.

The earth­quake is a col­lapsing eco­nomy. Stores are shuttered in San Juan. Busi­nesses are leav­ing the is­land. Jobs dis­ap­pear without warn­ing. The “of­fi­cial” un­em­ploy­ment is 12 per­cent, but the real un­em­ploy­ment is closer to 25 per­cent. From 1996 to today, 160,000 fact­ory jobs dwindled to 75,000. In 2010, the gov­ern­ment laid off 33,000 work­ers. Right now it owes $73 bil­lion. Gov­ernor Gar­cia Pa­dilla says he can’t pay it, and the is­land is this close to bank­ruptcy.

At first, none of this af­fected my cous­in Adai­l Nieves. Born and raised in Caguas, he was tak­ing com­puter classes and ready to work hard—at any­thing. He lived in a ren­ted room and kept his over­head very low. Adaíl was go­ing to make it. Every night, he’d sit at the win­dow with his com­puter books, and read by the light of a street­lamp. He kept his books in a soap­box nailed to the wall, and a poem was nailed above them: Rud­y­ard Kip­ling’s “If.”

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are los­ing theirs and blam­ing it on you”

Adai­l kept his head. He cooked rice and beans on a hot plate, ironed his pants by pla­cing them un­der his mat­tress, and sewed patches on them. He made the rounds of gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ment of­fices in San Juan, Rio Piedras, Caguas, Cataño, Guaynabo, Dor­ado, Naranjito, and Bayamón. He entered and ex­ited the gleam­ing bank build­ings of Hato Rey, and criss-crossed the six­teen piers of San Juan Har­bor. The stead­i­est job las­ted three months: clean­ing boat hulls in Las Croabas. Oth­er­wise, Adai­l was lucky to work one or two days per week.

“Sorry, noth­ing today,” he’d hear.

Adai­l kept try­ing. He covered the holes in his shoes with pieces of car­ton. From the piers and factor­ies, he went to the ho­tels and res­taur­ants, look­ing for a job as a bus­boy or dish­wash­er.

“Sorry “… Sorry”…”

He knew that jobs were get­ting scarce, and people were leav­ing the is­land. For nearly ten years, over 100 Pu­erto Ric­ans per day have packed their bags: 140,000 last year alone. It is a new mass mi­gra­tion, com­par­able to the one after World War II. They’re mov­ing to Texas, North Car­o­lina, and es­pe­cially Flor­ida, which boasts nearly 700,000 Pu­erto Ric­ans in the Or­lando met­ro­pol­it­an area, and 1 mil­lion throughout the state. For the first time, more Pu­erto Ric­ans live in the U.S. (4.7 mil­lion) than on the is­land (3.6 mil­lion).

But Adai­l was not go­ing to be one of them. He loved his is­land, and he would struggle and stay be­cause it was his home.

Four years passed. Adaíl quit his com­puter classes, and took any job he could find. Some­times he was hired off the books, and paid $50 for a 10-hour work­day. He took the money and con­sidered him­self lucky.

Adail felt be­trayed by Amer­ic­an cap­it­al­ists and Pu­erto Ric­an politi­cians. He knew that if the Jones Act were re­formed, and the U.S. per­mit­ted Pu­erto Rico to de­vel­op its own ship­ping in­dustry, there’d be 50,000 more jobs throughout the is­land.

He knew that un­der cur­rent law, Pu­erto Rico has no bank­ruptcy pro­tec­tion. The $73 bil­lion debt, and the in­terest pay­ments on it, are strangling the is­land. Taxes will rise. More busi­nesses will shut down. More jobs, and people, will leave Pu­erto Rico.

Last week, for the first time in his life, Adail had to pay a sales tax of 11.5 per­cent at Sam’s Club. His land­lady also in­formed him that, be­cause her wa­ter rates had ris­en by 60 per­cent, she’d have to raise his rent. That night, something died in­side Adaíl. He trudged up to his ren­ted room, looked at the Kip­ling poem, and said his good­byes.

Adai­l is mov­ing to Flor­ida to look for a job in Or­lando. “I’m go­ing to Dis­ney­land,” he told me bit­terly, over the phone.

Nel­son Denis, a former New York state As­sembly­man, is the au­thor of War Against All Pu­erto Ric­ans (Na­tion Books, 2015).

Say It columns are works of opin­ion that re­flect the writer’s view­point as sup­por­ted by evid­ence. They do not rep­res­ent the opin­ions of Next Amer­ica, its par­ent com­pany or af­fil­i­ates. 

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