Puerto Rican Migration Before World War II

Puerto Rican migration to the United States was slow and gradual in the period 1900-1940. Although there was an increase every decade during the first decades, the migration rate for the entire period 1900-1940 was slow compared to that of the the post World War II period. During the Great Depression of the 1930s the migration to the United States stopped and in some years there was return migration to the Island. Employment and underemployment and the opportunity for better wages in the United States were incentives that propelled migration. The "granting" of U.S. citizenship to all Puerto Ricans through the Jones Act of 1917 eliminated legal barriers to migration, as Puerto Ricans were now free to travel and settle anywhere in the United States or its possessions. However, during the first 40 years the magnitude of the migratory movement can be regarded as modest not only in relation to the much larger migratory current of the 1950s, but also in relation to the size and proportion of the Puerto Rican unemployed population itself in the pre-1945 period.


In 1930 there were 52,774 first generation Puerto Ricans in the United States, i.e., persons born in Puerto Rico living then in the continental U.S.[1]  Relative to the half million migrants of the 1950s, this figure may seem minor.  Of the 52,000 Puerto Rican immigrants in the US in 1930, 45,973, or 88 percent,  lived in New York. [2] Thus, New York was already before World War II the main recipient of immigrants from Puerto Rico. When the pace of migration accelerated in the 1950s, the already-established Puerto Rican communities New York became an attractive place of settlement for the immigrants. Thus, the smaller communities which were established before World War II became the centers of attraction for the new immigrants.

The participants of this early migration were largely drawn from the urban population. Given the insignificance of urban centers in Puerto Rico  the towns naturally yielded a small number of migrants.

According to a study by Lawrence Chenault published in 1938, the participants in this early migration were mostly urban workers.

Some of these  individuals, before leaving Puerto Rico, were trades people and factory workers, or followed some mechanical trade.  Domestic workers, and servants constitute another important class.  Many needle workers and persons engaged in home sewing have also migrated ... Migration from Puerto Rico comes by way of the towns and cities and not from rural areas. [3]

Migration to the continental United States picked up after the economic crisis of 1921.  Between 1910 and 1945, the number of migrants from Puerto Rico to the continental United States was 91,000, or approximately 2,600 a year.  Forty five percent of this migration took place during the 1920s, when 42,000 people emigrated from Puerto Rico.[4] In the 1930s the movement slowed down as a result of the far reaching industrial crisis, in spite of the fact that unemployment was at its peak in Puerto Rico.  The upturn in the 1920s and the downturn of the 1930s indicate the importance of the capacity of US industry to absorb workers in determining the migratory flow.  According to one estimate, with the unemployment rate at 65% there were more than 250,000 jobless workers in Puerto Rico in 1933[5] but in that year there was a movement of return migration to Puerto Rico instead of the increase of out- migration that one might expect. L. Chenault notes that "many Puerto Ricans found conditions so bad that they desired to return to their former homes.  Relief also had a part in the unusual movement of people which took place.  Puerto Ricans, like citizens of other states, were often returned to the is­land." [6] During 1930-35 about 6,000 Puerto Ricans settled in the United States.


Movement of US Citizens between Puerto Rico and the Continental

United States, 1930-35

Fiscal Years



Excess of Arrivals

Excess of Departures































Source: L. Chenault,  The Puerto Rican Migrant in New York City.

The depression determined not only the deceleration of migration to the US relative to the 1920s, but also an absolute reversal during its worst years, notably 1933.[7] During the recession of 1938 there was a reduction in the number of migrants, but not a net return flow.[8]

Throughout its different phases, Puerto Rican migration to the United States has come by way of the towns.  This, however, does not rule out that its main propeller has been the rural relative “surplus” population. Town dwellers migrate and are in turn replaced by new­comers from the countryside.  In the weakness of the towns we find one of the explanations of the slow tempo of migration before 1945.  The other lies in the long term industrial crisis in the US (and world­wide) between the two world wars.  The economic expansion that followed World War II  undid both of these constraints.

[1] L. R. Chenault, The Puerto Rican Migrant in New York City: 53.

[2] Chenault, The Puerto Rican Migrant in New York City: 57.

[3]  Chenault, The Puerto Rican Migrant in New York City: 62. Emphasis added.

[4] Stanley L. Friedlander, Labor Migration and Economic Growth: 45.

[5]"Thomas Mathews, Puerto Rican Politics and the New Deal, (Gainesville, University o Florida Press, 1960): 19 , 13O, quoted in Henry Wells, The Modernization of Puerto Rico (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969): 114.

[6]  The Puerto Rican Migrant in New York City: 55.

[7]Clarence Senior provides different figures.  He records a net out-mi­gration of 37,075 for the years 1921-1930, and a movement of return migration of 1,111 for the years 1930 through 1935. The main trends, however, are the same.  Senior records 1921 and 1922 as years of return migration, as well as 1931 through 1934.  The statistics of Senior and Chenault indicate fluctuations that are parallel to each other as well as to industrial cycles in the US.  See Clarence Senior, Puerto  Rican Emigration, (Social Science Research Center of the University of Puerto Rico, 1946): 57.

[8]Rose K. Goldsten, C. Wright Mills, Clarence Senior, Puerto Rican Journey: New York's Newest Migrants, (New York: Harper and Row, 1950): 44.