Exploited Citizens: The Puerto Ricans Who Migrated to Grow Our Food

Chartered flight with Puerto Rican migrant farmworkers, circa 1948. Courtesy of the Records of the Migration Division, Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos, Hunter College, CUNY.

By Beth Harpaz
Editor of SUM

Professor Ismael García-Colón (GC/College of Staten Island, Anthropology) was raised in the small town of Cidra in Puerto Rico’s rural highlands. Many of his relatives and neighbors did seasonal farm work on the U.S. mainland. “I grew up listening to their stories about allá fuera (outside there), how we call the continental United States,” he said. “Most of the people in my hometown of Cidra migrated to New Jersey to harvest vegetables and fruits or to Connecticut and Massachusetts working in tobacco farms.”

Ismael Garcia ColonA first-generation college student, García-Colón moved to the U.S. mainland at age 21 for a Ph.D. program at the University of Connecticut. His first book, Land Reform in Puerto Rico: Modernizing the Colonial State, 1941–1969, grew out of his dissertation on landless Puerto Ricans who became migrant farmworkers. Later, as an archivist at Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies, he came across records from the Puerto Rican Farm Labor Program, a U.S. government program that placed Puerto Ricans in more than 400,000 stateside farm jobs between 1947 and 1993. That program, which he says “indirectly fostered the migration of thousands … and the emergence of many stateside Puerto Rican communities,” is the focus of his new book, Colonial Migrants at the Heart of Empire: Puerto Rican Workers on U.S. Farms.

Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. colonial territory made it politically easy to establish the farm labor program. But the fact that Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens was at the same time seen as problematic by government officials and employers. Puerto Ricans — unlike laborers from Mexico or elsewhere in the Caribbean — could not be sent home after harvest or deported for union activity. But García-Colón resists any notion that the Puerto Rican workers were not discriminated against: After all, they were treated as “racialized foreign others” and subject to the same low wages and substandard conditions as other workers. 

“Perhaps the U.S. government could have developed viable and diverse agricultural production instead of flying Puerto Ricans more than 1,500 miles to work on U.S. farms,” he said. “Unfortunately, local and global forces facilitated instead the cultivation of inexpensive fruits, vegetables, and tobacco products in the continental United States.”

García-Colón sees the book as helping to educate the general public about the contributions of Puerto Ricans, along with their history and dual status as both citizens and colonial subjects. “Scholars of U.S. migrant labor should not forget the presence of Puerto Ricans, since their condition as colonial citizens reveals the complexity of the definitions and practices of who is a citizen and who is an immigrant in the 21st century United States,” he said. “That Puerto Rico is a U.S. colony is a matter of concern not only for Puerto Ricans but for anybody in the world who despises the undemocratic nature of colonialism.”

When he presents his work to academic audiences, he says, “many scholars are surprised to find out about the migration of Puerto Ricans as farmworkers.” In fact, “there are small cities in the United States where most of the population is of Puerto Rican descent and this is a direct result of farm labor migration.” 

New York City’s Latinx community, on the other hand, is less centered around Puerto Ricans than it once was. “Puerto Ricans were the majority of the Latinx population of New York City from the late 1930s to the 1980s,” García-Colón said. “Nowadays, Puerto Ricans continue living together with other Latin American and Caribbean immigrants. Mixing and merging with others, creating new understanding of themselves is part of how humans make their own history under circumstances that are not of their own choosing.”

He adds that “migration remains the only alternative for many Puerto Ricans to survive in a colonial regime devastated by economic crisis, government corruption, policies of austerity, Hurricane María, and the recent earthquakes.”

Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.

Since this article was published: 
Colonial Migrants at the Heart of Empire: Puerto Rican Workers on U.S. Farms won the 2020 Puerto Rican Studies Association’s Frank Bonilla Book Award. The award committee praised García-Colón for painting “a full picture of Puerto Rican migrants’ experiences with the U.S. agricultural labor regime,” adding, “Colonial Migrants at the Heart of Empire cogently laid bare the centrality of labor migration to the modern colonial state in Puerto Rico.”


Submitted on: JUN 10, 2020

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