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Through out the twentieth century Puerto Rican immigrants have played a major role in the United States’ labor force, cultural identity, and in politics. From the 1920’s, when the cigar makers waged their union battles, attracting the attention of other trade unions to Puerto Rican workers. Today the Puerto Rican Political Action Committee of Connecticut (PRPAC) is a major player in state politics, by supporting candidates and getting the Puerto Rican community involved in the elections of the state, but also the city of Hartford. In the "Memoirs of Bernardo Vega: A Contribution to the History of the Puerto Rican Community in New York", Vega talk about finding a voice for the laborers of the city and fighting for equal opportunity for all workers. In Jose Cruz’s "Identity and Power: Puerto Rican Politics and the Challenge of Ethnicity", he talks about in today’s society how Puerto Ricans must stay together in the battle to be heard by the government.
As a result of protests against the imprisonment of Eugene V. Debs, a massive strike broke out in July of 1919. The strike stopped all cigar production in New York City, slowly spreading throughout the United States. Quickly unions began to see the importance of the Puerto Rican worker. This strike had many benefits for Puerto Rican workers. Soon after, Puerto Rican laborers began to enjoy the same wages and hours as other immigrant workers from other countries. However, the most notable result of the cigar makers’ strike was that for the first time Puerto Rican delegates were able to participate in the meetings of the union members.
The cigar makers’ strike led to other strikes by different Puerto Rican laborers to call the attention of their owners to the fact that the Puerto Rican labor force was a group that was not going to be pushed around. On December 2, 1922 the Liga Puertorriquena was formed. Composed of an array of social, intellectual groups that had never before taken up the position of the workers’ struggle, Liga Puertorriquena was the first major effort to unify the concerns of the entire community. This new group now had the backing of the Puerto Rican community to make their voice heard in the city. Puerto Ricans were now able to protest and have an impact on what was going on both in the community and back on the island.
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In the earlier part of the century Puerto Ricans were not only concerned with how much they made per hour or how many hours they were forced to work, but also Puerto Rican migrants were concerned with life back home; in Puerto Rico itself. A group called Association Nationalist protested the governor of the time in Puerto Rico, E. Montgomery Reilly. The people felt that Reilly was not doing anything to help the Puerto Ricans on the island live a better life. When the Governor came to New York City he was greeted by protesters that had been organized by the nationalists. Soon a fire erupted on the ship causing the ship to sink. Immediately the authorities blamed the nationalists, but there was never any evidence to support their claims.
Vega talks about how Puerto Ricans became very involved in the political issues of their time. Puerto Rican political organizations supported candidates that shared the same social, economic, labor views. In 1924 Puerto Rican political organization supported presidential candidate Robert M. La Follette. La Follette gained the support of several labor and agricultural organization across the country. In support of La Follette the Puerto Rican campaign committee, on which Vega was named, organized rallies throughout the Puerto Rican neighborhoods. At the time the focus was on whom would best help out the working class and poor. Who would fight for equality in the work place for immigrants?
Soon more political societies were formed, including Ateneo Obrero in 1926, which Vega was president of. Now the goals of the Puerto Rican political leaders was to establish and educational center which was to oppose the feeling through the community that New York was only a temporary place to work. Leaders saw that there was a new generation of children growing up in New York that needed adequate services so that they could grow up and replace their fathers in the work place later on. Quickly leaders realized that they had to establish a cultural identity with in the city so that their community would feel as though New York could be there permanent home. Vega and other leaders fought to keep Puerto Ricans from continuing on the path of migrant workers. They felt that the industry and agricultural leaders had to stop exploiting Puerto Ricans workers. However the problem was not that easy to solve because there was already large amounts of unemployment and the chance for some Puerto Ricans to go work on a cotton plantation was too hard to pass up.
Through out Vegas years of being a political leader within the Puerto Rican community he fought for the people. The first task was to gain better pay and hours to workers in the factories, to show that the Puerto Rican work force was a strong and vital part of industry. Then Vega wanted to be able to establish cultural ties within the community in order for the Puerto Ricans to be able to led the same life in New York than they would on the island.
In Cruz’s "Identity and Power", he discusses the issues of the Puerto Rican community, especially in Hartford, through the Vietnam War and to today. One of the issues that Vega and his generation were unable to accomplish was the factor of representation. With the formation of the PRPAC in the 1970’s, Puerto Ricans were able to make this goal a reality. Through the formation of the PRPAC the Puerto Rican community in Hartford was able to become a political force within the city. This made Hartford stand out above New York City and other places where large number of Puerto Ricans resided. "The contrast of Hartford with New York City, where, despite being the oldest and largest settlement, Puerto Ricans had no representation, was notable, and the saliency of PRPAC was the departure from situations of nearly complete political invisibility."
This meant that is a candidate gained the backing of the PRPAC then they were almost a shoe-in for their office. This is due to the large percentage of Puerto Ricans in Hartford. A result of the PRPAC’s power was in 1991, when two state representatives, a department head, several members of commissions, the corporation counsel, a deputy city manager and three members of the city counsel were all Puerto Ricans. No longer was Puerto Ricans asking politicians for help, they were now the politicians helping other Puerto Ricans. However, before all this success the PRPAC had to find a way to exploit ethnic interests to the public, they quickly found out how. "When Puerto Ricans organized and mobilized around ethnicity- that is, when a pressure group articulated ethnic interests- they were able to access power." Meaning, the way that Puerto Ricans accessed their ethnic interest is when a group pressured ethnic interest within the community, showed the people that there was something to gain through ethnicity.
A Puerto Rican community had been in Hartford for decades, but now Puerto Ricans were truly able to develop it into a stronger community. Puerto Rican politicians did this by hiring Spanish-speaking police and firefighters, implementing bilingual education, official celebration of Puerto Rican holidays, and better employment and housing opportunities. To get voters to respond to ethnic identity politicians used slogans in Spanish to remind voters of their identity. No longer were Puerto Ricans afraid that they would be denied work based on their ethnicity.
"They defined themselves as Puerto Rican Americans and were intent on
showing their fellow citizens that they could adopt the American way of life
Without losing their culture. To do this, they celebrated ethnicity while
penetrating partisan structures, marching, rioting, organizing, and
mobilizing independently to obtain cultural and political concessions."
Cruz talks about "ethnic politics" and how it involves politicians using the interests of ethnicity to gain political interests. Vega’s efforts would be considered a form of "ethnic politics" as understood by Cruz. This is due to the fact that in gaining public support for a candidate Vega would appeal to fellow Puerto Ricans by showing them that the candidate had their interests in mind. This is an example of Cruz’s "ethnic politics" because it shows how Vega used ethnic interests to gain support.
Even before Cruz’s term, "ethnic politics", Vega was already was implementing it in the Puerto Rican communities of New York. Through out some of the worst employment times Vega used ethnic interests to mobilize the Puerto Rican community to implement policies to their own benefit. However, Vega worked more for the working class in general, not just Puerto Ricans. This term "class politics" meant that gaining the interest of the public infavor of a politician meant that Vega would lobby the working class, not an ethnic class. The shift from "class politics" to "ethnic politics" came when Puerto Ricans finally started to gain political positions. Once Puerto Ricans took political positions within the community they were able to create policies to benefit each other.
In reading Salvador Enriquez’s paper I thought that his description of class politics turning to ethnic politics to protect the rights of workers and their culture was very good. He made many key points on the topic of ‘ethnic politics’ that I agreed with.
Clara Morel said, "Vega’s memoirs concentrate on the concepts of the class politics. He fought for the civil and political rights for all poor people of ethnic backgrounds. Cruz on the other hand, focuses on identity politics." I agree with this statement as well because it brings up an important difference between Vega and Cruz.