Puerto Rican Emigration: Why the 1950s?

Sources: Data for 1900-1970 are from José L. Vázquez Calzada, La población de Puerto Rico y su trayectoria histórica ( Río Piedras, P.R. : Escuela Graduada de Salud Pública, Recinto de Ciencias Médicas, Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1988), p. 286; data for 1970-1990 are from Francisco L. Rivera Batiz and Carlos Santiago, Island Paradox: Puerto Rico in the 1990s (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1996), p. 45.















Puerto Rican migration was facilitated after 1917 by the granting of US citizenship to all the residents of the Island, which had been acquired from Spain in the War of 1898. However, the change of legal status which took place in 1917 did not immediately produce a wave of migration from Puerto Rico to the United States. The large migration of Puerto Ricans to the United States took place after 1945 as a result of economic changes having to do with the transformation of the Island's economy from a monocultural plantation economy into a platform for export-production in factories.

The Puerto Rican case in only one example, among many others, of migrations of workers from the colonial to the metropolitan countries. In one sense it forms part of a larger pattern of migration of workers from the colonial or underdeveloped parts of the world to the metropolitan countries, similar to the migration of North African workers to France, of Indian, Pakistani and West Indian workers to Great Britain, and of Turkish workers to Germany.

Although Puerto Rican migration to the continental US started long before 1945, the great displacement took place, as in the case of the migration of other colonial workers to Europe, only after the end of the Second World War. Within this larger framework of periphery-to-core migration, this paper seeks to explain the set of local circumstances which propelled the Puerto Rican migration of the late forties and fifties. In this particular Caribbean case what has to be answered is why the displacement of workers to the United States-which had increased slowly since the Spanish American War of 1898-- suddenly took a considerable leap in the late forties and early fifties, and continued in relatively large scale proportions through the 1970's.

The answer to the question lies in the transition from a monocultural plantation economy to manufacturing for export after World War II . The transformation of the Puerto Rican economy under the export promotion program known as "Operation Bootstrap" caused a shift of employment from agriculture to manufacturing and a shift of the rural population to the towns and cities of Puerto Rico. But by themselves these changes are not a sufficient explanation for the magnitude of the exodus from the island after 1945.

The transformation associated with Operation Bootstrap signified an absolute decline in the total number of jobs available in the island, in the context of a rapidly increasing population and increasing spatial mobility of labor associated with the decline of agriculture and increase in manufacturing activity.

Before the onset of Operation Bootstrap in 1947, migration to the United States took place at a much lower rate. In the decade of 1930-1939 the annual rate of migration to the United States averaged 1,800 people annually. In the decade of 1950-1959, by contrast, the Puerto Rican exodus was taking place at a rate of 43,000 persons a year. Why did massive migration take place then and not before, and why so suddenly?