Latinos and Latinas: Puerto Ricans
Abstract and Keywords
The 2000 census counted 3,406,178 Puerto Ricans living in the United States, bringing the total for those living in Puerto Rico and the United States to 7,333,403 million (U.S. Bureau of Census. (2000). Overview of race and Hispanic origin. We the people: Hispanics in the United States. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office). The label “Puerto Rican” is not a race but a self-identifier. A Puerto Rican might be born in Puerto Rico or in the United States from Puerto Rican parents. A Puerto Rican might be first-, second-, third-, or even fourth-generation in the Unites States or 20th-generation in Puerto Rico. As long as they identify themselves as Puerto Rican, they are Puerto Rican. The label Puerto Rican has many different connotations to both Puerto Ricans and non–Puerto Ricans. For the purpose of this entry, Puerto Ricans, whether born in Puerto Rico or in the United States, are defined as a multiracial and multicultural ethnic group with more than 500 years of history. The discussion in this entry provides a brief overview; for more in-depth reviews please see the following references: (Anderson, R. W. (1965). Party politics in Puerto Rico. Stanmford, CA: Stanford University Press.; Fitzpatrick, J. P. (1987). Puerto Rican Americans: The meaning of migration to the mainland (2nd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall; Lewis, G. K. (1963). Puerto Rico: Freedom and power in the Caribbean. New York: Harper & Row; Morales. (1986). Puerto Rican poverty and migration: We just have to try elsewhere. New York: Praeger).
Brief Historical Overview
Puerto Rico became a possession of Spain in 1493 when Christopher Columbus landed on the island during his second voyage to the Americas. At that time its inhabitants, the Taino Indians, called the island Boriquen. In 1508 Spain began the colonization of Puerto Rico; Juan Ponce de Leon was appointed as the first governor of the island, and the first European settlement on the Island was called Caparra.
The Spaniards believed that there were substantial gold deposits in Puerto Rico and the Taino Indians were forced to work in the mines. Many died in the process, others fled the island. The existing gold deposits were quickly depleted, and Spain turned to agriculture, introducing plantations to the island. Slaves were imported from West Africa to work on the plantations.
According to a 1797 census, there were more than 2,000 Indians and thousands of other Puerto Ricans of partially Indian origin. In 1875, when the abolition of slavery became effective on the island, more than 30,000 black slaves were freed. Thousands of others—black and mulatto—lived as free people during the period of slavery.
During the 19th century, the Spanish community increased from continued migration from Spain. In addition, many Spanish loyalists went to Puerto Rico from Central and South America in the wake of a series of pro-independence revolutions. The French moved to the island when the United States purchased Louisiana and from Haiti when the slaves revolted. In 1840 labor shortages influenced Chinese workers to move to Cuba and Puerto Rico. Italians, Corsicans, Lebanese, Germans, Scots, and Irish also spiced the Puerto Rican melting pot.
In the 20th century, Puerto Rico experienced an influx of people from the United States, political refugees from Cuba, Central and South America, and most recently, the Dominican Republic. Ethnically, all are Puerto Ricans; racially the Puerto Rican community cover the spectrum from White to Black with a larger in-between category known as triguenos (tan or olive-skinned people), with some unclear lines dividing these groups because of racial intermarriage (Table 1).
On July 25, 1898, U.S. troops landed on Puerto Rico's south coast in one of the final engagements of the Spanish–American War. Under the Treaty of Paris of 1899, Puerto Rico was given to the United States by Spain. During the negotiations for the treaty, no Puerto Rican was included in the deliberations or even consulted. For 2 years, the island was ruled by the U.S. military. The Foraker Act of 1900 established a civil government, with the governor an American appointed by the U.S. President.
In 1917, with the Jones Act, U.S. citizenship was conferred to all Puerto Ricans. The conferral of U.S. citizenship was met with mixed feelings in Puerto Rico. The Republican Party, which constituted a minority on the island, welcomed the move because its members aspired to eventual U.S. statehood. But the majority Unionist Party favored increased autonomy, and many
Table 1 Racial Composition of the Puerto Rican Population in 2005
No. of People
% of the Puerto Rican Population
White (mostly of Spanish origin)
Mixed and others
From Overview of race and Hispanic origin. We the people: Hispanics in the United States, by U.S. Bureau of Census, 2000, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office and http://www.cia/gov/publications/factbook/geos/rq.html (2007).
In 1948 Luis Munoz Marin was the first elected governor of Puerto Rico. In 1950 the U.S. Congress authorized Puerto Rico to draft its own constitution. On July 25, 1952, 54 years after American troops landed in Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rican Commonwealth was inaugurated, giving the Puerto Rican people the right to elect not only their own governor but also members of the legislature and senate. Under this new agreement, Puerto Rico acquired a considerable degree of home rule and has continued to elect its governor and resident commissioner in Congress (who has a voice but not a vote), and all member of the insular house and senate. It sets its own educational policies (with Spanish as the language of instruction in public schools and, since 1948, with English as a required second language), determines its own budget, and amends its own civil and criminal codes.
The Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico (the Puerto Rican Commonwealth) was described as “a permanent union between the United States and Puerto Rico on the basis of common citizenship, common defense, common currency, free market, and a common loyalty to the value of democracy,” with the U.S. Government retaining specifically defined powers “essential to the Union (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 1976, p. 15). In practical terms, the U.S. government retained the powers over military defense and foreign affairs, and federal agencies (for example the postal service system, and others) operated as they did in the United States.
Whereas the island's political status has remained the same for the past 55 years, Puerto Rico has undergone radical economic changes since the end of World War II. The development strategy of the Puerto Rican leadership was to industrialize the island by attracting outside capital with long-term industrial exemptions, lower wages, governmental low-interest loans, and other types of incentives.
By the mid-1950s, manufacturing replaced agriculture as the island's principal source of income. As the island grew increasingly urban, there was also a shift in living patterns, creating a large urban and suburban middle-class. Concrete homes replaced wooden shacks. Miles of new road were built, and factories were built in fields that once grew sugarcane. Remote areas were linked to major cities and the rest of the world by telephones, radios, and televisions. Increasingly, a considerable segment of the population enjoyed a living standard comparable to that of the United States and Western Europe. Advances in public health made significant inroads in reducing infant mortality and death from infectious diseases or malnutrition. A population that once traveled on foot or horseback now traveled on wheels, as cars clogged new highways. Despite this progress, however, major problems remained. The debate continues over the political status of the island and its relationship to the United States. Although the majority of voters appears to support the commonwealth status, a strong minority advocates statehood, and a smaller third group insists that the island should be independent. Coupled with this perennial debate over political status are severe, chronic problems of poverty, unemployment, and underemployment.
Although the industrialization program that was launched in the 1950s has permitted undeniable improvements in the quality of life for thousands of families, it has been unable to keep pace with the island's growing needs. A high birthrate and the loss of jobs in agriculture and, most recently, in industries have swelled the ranks of the unemployed. By 2000 Puerto Rico remained poorer than Mississippi, the poorest state in the United States, although it is ahead of many underdeveloped nations (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2000). Given the poverty, unemployment, and underemployment that have affected the island over the last 50 years, many Puerto Ricans believe that the sole hope for socioeconomic mobility is to migrate to the United States. Between 1990 and 2000, more than 1,498,718 million Puerto Ricans left the island to seek better opportunities in the United States.
Migration to the United States
Puerto Ricans were living in the United States when Puerto Rico was still a part of the Spanish colonial empire. During the 1830s, the founding members of a Spanish benevolent society in New York City included several Puerto Rican merchants (Fitzpatrick, 1987; Morales, 1986). By the middle of the 19th century, Puerto Ricans were engaged in more commerce with the United States than with Spain, and the sea routes between San Juan and New York, as well as other sea ports, were well traveled. In 1898, the Bureau of the Census noted 1,513 Puerto Ricans on the mainland.
Large-scale Puerto Rican migrations to the mainland is a post–World War II phenomenon. As Fitzpatrick (1987) indicated:
Although in 1940 fewer than 70,000 Puerto Ricans lived in the United States, there has been a significant increase in the Puerto Rican population living in the United States since the 1950s (see Table 2).
Puerto Ricans have come for the most part in the first great airborne migration of people from abroad. They are decidedly newcomers of the aviation age. … They are the first to come in large numbers from a different cultural background, but who are nevertheless citizens of the United States.
Reasons for the Migration
Although economics is almost always a key factor in the migration of people from their native lands, human motivation is never that simple or simplistic. Puerto Ricans fled neither religious nor political persecution, but life in the island for many young adults, particularly in the rural areas, may have seemed intolerable during the 1940s and early 1950s. As in the case of many parts of the world, rural Puerto Rico offered a static environment with few visible avenues for upward social mobility.
In the years following World War II, the urban parts of the island began to modernize, offering access to modern homes, cars, and other lures of modern life. Television in the 1950s tempted rural viewers with pictures of
Table 2 Number of Puerto Ricans Living in the Unites States (1950–2000)
Total Number Living in the United States
Born In Puerto Rico
Born in the United States
From Puerto Ricans in the continental United States (Series P-E No 3D), by U.S. Bureau of Census, 1953; Puerto Ricans in the United States (Series PC (2)-1D), by U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1963; Puerto Ricans in the United States (Series PC (2) 1E), U.S. Bureau of Census, 1973; Characteristics of the population (Series PC 80-1-C-1), by U.S. Bureau of Census (1983); Characteristic of the population (Series CP2-1-M), by U.S. Bureau of Census (1993); and Current population survey, 2004, by U.S. Bureau of Census, 2004, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
The hardships endured by the earliest migrants became less harsh for the later arrivals, who found relatives and friends waiting, stores that sold familiar Puerto Rican products, and even Spanish-language newspapers, radio, and television programs. Migration became common place, to the extent that some people made the 3½-hr flight on a whim or in reaction to some personal setback. If one can sum motivations, they could equate with the search for a better life.
Economics was probably a decisive factor in the decision to leave the island. Wage levels in the United States were higher that those in Puerto Rico, and the opportunities for employment were more numerous and more varied. Monserrat (1968) indicated:
A study conducted by Maldonado (1976), a Puerto Rican economist, provided support for Monserrat's statement. In her study, Maldonado found that:
The size of the Puerto Rican migration varies closely with the job opportunities in the United States, i.e. when job opportunities increase, migration increases; when job opportunities decline, migration declines. (p. 421)
Puerto Ricans migrate to the United States primarily for economic reasons… Specifically… (1) If the job market in the USA is relatively better than inPuerto Rico; and (2) if the average wage in the USA is higher relative to Those in Puerto Rico. (p. 9)
Search for the “Good Life”
New York City, the first stopping place for millions of immigrants to this country, became the new home for most of the Puerto Rican migration to the United States. The earliest Puerto Rican migrants settled in East Harlem or El Barrio. In 1940, about 20% of New York's 61,000 Puerto Ricans lived in Manhattan, but the migrants soon began to spread out to the city's other four boroughs. Although East Harlem was still an important enclave, by 1970 the thrust of the movement made the Bronx the largest Puerto Rican borough, followed by Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island.
While Puerto Ricans dispersed among the city's five boroughs, they were also moving outside of the city to Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and other areas of New York State. In 1940, 90% of all Puerto Rican migrants lived in New York City; by 1970 only 57 of all Puerto Ricans lived there.
The search for the good life has been almost an impossible dream for many. The U.S. experience suggests that immigrants from other countries also began at the bottom of the ladder and gradually moved up; Puerto Rican migrants began at the bottom of the ladder and for the most part have not been able to move up. The economic situation of Puerto Ricans has changed little in the last 37 years. Table 3 compares the U.S. general population with the Puerto Ricans living in the United States on three variables to illustrate the disadvantaged position of Puerto Ricans.
By 1990, as the table illustrates, Puerto Rican families were more than 3 times as likely as non–Puerto Rican families to fall below the official poverty level. If the husband is the only employed member of the household, chances are that the family will be as poor as 86% of all Puerto Rican males—those 16 years and older are in the labor force concentrated in low-paying jobs such as nontechnical and sales, service occupations, precision production and repair, and operators and laborers.
Contributing to the poverty problem among Puerto Ricans in the United States is the increase in the number of female-headed families. The increase is the result of a number of factors: (a) an increase in the number of divorces among Puerto Rican in the United States; (b) Puerto Rican women (including teenagers) having children without marrying the fathers; (c) the abandonment of some women by the father of the children; and (d) the death of the husband. In addition, women in the United States often receive lower pay than do men for the same jobs; consequently lower salaries place them at greater risk of becoming poor.
In 1990, women headed 17% of all families in the United States, but 43.3% of all Puerto Rican families were headed by women. Although many of these Puerto Rican women worked, their salaries are often below or near the official poverty level (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1993). Forty-two percent of Puerto Rican women 16 years of age or older were in the labor force, with an unemployment rate of 8.3% in 1993. That same year, women 16 or older in the U.S. population constituted 60% of all working women, with an unemployment rate of 6.1%. Seventy percent of all women in the labor force 16 years of age or older and 76% of Puerto Rican women in the labor force in the same age bracket are in relatively low-paying jobs, as shown in Table 3.
Another element linked to future employability and income is education. According to the Census Bureau in March 1991, only 24% of the total U.S. population 25 years and older had completed less than 5 years of school—for Puerto Ricans living in the United States, the figure is 8.4%, almost 3 times higher. Almost 70% of the general population has completed high school, compared with 58% of the Puerto Rican population. Furthermore, depending on the source used, the drop-out rate for Puerto Ricans in the United States is alarming, especially in the high-school grades, ranging from 30% to 80% (Fitzpatrick, 1987; Ford Foundation, 1984; Stevens-Arroyo & Diaz-Ramirez, 1982; U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 1978). However, the drop-out rate may be declining. It was previously estimated that only about 7% of the Puerto Rican community had attended college, with 1% graduating. In March 1991, the Census Bureau indicated that 10.1% have 4 or more years of college. As with the general population, Puerto Rican women appear to be entering and completing college more often than do Puerto Rican men.
Housing and Health
In addition to education, employment, and income, housing and health are important indicators of the conditions of Puerto Ricans in
Table 3 Comparison of the General U.S. Population and Puerto Ricans Living in the United States for Median Income, Poverty, and Unemployment
U.S. General population
U.S. General population
U.S. General population
Below the poverty line (in %)
Unemployment (in %)
From Characteristics of the population (Series PC80-1-C-1), by U.S. Bureau of Census, 1983 and Characteristics of the population (Series CP2-1-M), by U.S. Bureau of Census, 1993, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Poverty, poor education, and poor housing also lead to poor health. Puerto Ricans in the United States die more often of heart conditions and cancer than do the general population. Among Hispanic people in the United States, Puerto Ricans have a higher incidence of strokes and infant mortality, and lower prenatal care and preventive health care. In addition to heart diseases and cancer, injuries, strokes liver diseases, pneumonia, influenza, diabetes, human immunodeficiency virus, and homicides are the major causes of death among Puerto Ricans in the United States. In the case of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), the rate for Hispanics in general is 3 times higher than that of non-Hispanic Whites, and among Puerto Rican born Hispanics is as much as 7 times higher.
They (Puerto Ricans) live in the ruins of inner cities… forced to raise their children in housing that is most uninhabitable, attempting to raise their young in school systems that reject them, working in jobs that lead nowhere. (p. 38)
Among the risks to health, smoking continues in 43% of Puerto Rican men, and teenagers of both genders smoke more than either non-Hispanic White or Black teenagers. Furthermore, Puerto Rican teenagers report heavy drinking of alcoholic beverages more frequently than do non-Hispanic Black or White teenagers. Puerto Ricans and Cubans aged 12–17 in the United States also report higher rates of cocaine use than do their non-Hispanic White and Black counterparts (Public Health Service, 2000).
Reaching or achieving a better life has been an impossible dream for many Puerto Ricans. As Morales (1986) indicated:
They (Puerto Ricans) brought with them their own culture and language and a unique history of oppression at the hands of the Spanish and U.S. governments. As a Multiracial Latino group with U.S. citizenship, they have entered a competitive system that pits them against the descendants of black slaves and European peasants, who have to various degrees, learned the meaning of ethnic and racial strife. (p. 18)
Return Migration to Puerto Rico
Responding to a variety of forces—from economic incentives to family personal and triumphs and tragedies—migration from and to Puerto Rico by Puerto Ricans has been a complex and dynamic process that has not been systematically studied.
Migration to the United States appears to have followed economic trends in the Unites States—for example, when employment opportunities in the United States increase, more people move to the United States, and when economic conditions and employment opportunities drop, so does migration. Little is understood, however, about who migrates, when they migrate, and why they migrate.
After World War II, and until the early part of the 1960s, the U.S. economy was booming, and the migration from Puerto Rico to the United States was high, especially among three groups of Puerto Ricans: (a) unemployed low-skilled laborers, (b) unemployed agricultural workers, and (c) agricultural contract workers (workers who were recruited in Puerto Rico to move to farms in the United States for a limited time with the purpose of working on these farms). Although economic conditions in Puerto Rico had improved, salaries were low and unemployment continued to be as high as 40%. Most of the migration, except for the agricultural contract workers, was concentrated in New York City, but as Morales (1986) indicated, “we had to try elsewhere (p. 58), and Puerto Ricans began dispersing over a much wider area of the United States.”
By 1970 the U.S. economy began to decline, and many jobs for low-skilled laborers began to disappear. Although unemployment began to rise in Puerto Rico, many people began to return to the island. According to the 1980 census, 137,474 Puerto Ricans who had been living in the United States returned, many of them having lived in the United States for more than 10 years (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1983). Fitzpatrick (1987) quoted a study done in Puerto Rico that indicated “In 1979 there were 83,834 children from the mainland in the schools in Puerto Rico who did not speak Spanish well enough to be instructed in Spanish” (p. 22).
Few studies were conducted in the late 1960s and early 1970s in an effort to understand the return. Studies by Hernandez (1967) and Sandis (1970) indicated that most Puerto Ricans returning to Puerto Rico were better off financially than most people living in the island at the time (Badillo Vega, Morales Rivera, Rodriquez Hernandez, & Sanchez Benites, 1975; Bonilla & Colon Jordan, 1979; Cintron & Vales 1975). By 1980, the picture had changed and the Puerto Ricans returning to Puerto Rico from the United States appeared to be middle-aged, poor, and of low education. Then a new twist developed in migration patterns of Puerto Rican in the 1980s: The migration of skilled people such as doctors, lawyers, engineers, and accountants who could not find employment in Puerto Rico to the United States from the island (Puerto Rican Planning Board, 1984).
Another factor that appears to have had an impact on the Puerto Rican migration to and from Puerto Rico to the United States is the continuing immigration of people to Puerto Rico from others parts of South America, Central America, and other areas of the Caribbean. The immigration laws of Puerto Rico are American laws enforced by the federal government. Puerto Ricans do not participate in decisions as to who can or cannot immigrate to Puerto Rico. After the Castro revolution in Cuba, hundreds of Cubans moved to Puerto Rico. They moved to the Island because they spoke the same language, and shared a similar climate and culture. They entered Puerto Rico as political refugees. Puerto Ricans were not consulted nor could did they do anything about the Cuban immigration to Puerto Rico. More recently, Puerto Rico has become the permanent home of over 100,000 legal residents. They moved to Puerto Rico from Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, and other counties from other South American and Central American countries. Some moved originally to the United States and, after receiving their permanent residency, moved to Puerto Rico as they felt more at home with the culture, language, and climate of Puerto Rico than the United States mainland. More recently, thousands of illegal immigrants from the Dominican Republic cross the Mona Passage to Puerto Rico each year looking for work. Consequently as the economic situation in Puerto Rico worsens, and fewer jobs are available, more Puerto Ricans will leave the island and those who remain will become a minority group within their own island.
Social Services and the Puerto Ricans in the United States
Cultural Knowledge and Sensitivity
Most social services programs geared to help Puerto Ricans in the United States have failed and will continue to fail as long as Puerto Ricans continue to be misunderstood, stereotyped, and disrespected. The failure of social service providers to acknowledge and value the strengths of the Puerto Rican family and community has not served Puerto Ricans in the United States well (Campoa, 1974; Delgado, 1987; Longres, 1977). Culturally sensitive and culturally competent workers who understand the language, history, legal rights, and cultural values are required to provide the needed, culturally appropriate interventions to our community.
Social service workers providing services to Puerto Ricans need to have an understanding of the different generations of Puerto Ricans living in the United States, and the degree of assimilation achieved by these different cohorts. For example, many workers assume that because the client is Puerto Rican, he or she speaks, writes, and reads Spanish, which is not necessarily so. Those Puerto Rican consumers of social services who are Spanish language dominant often do not get the best professional social services for two reasons: (a) there are few competent bilingual and bicultural social workers and (b) many interviews are conducted using interpreters, who are not effective or who are children of the interviewees. The use of children to interpret is inappropriate for the purpose of the interview or the content when the discussion centers on very personal topics, including sexual content or intimate issues about the family.
Being a sensitive social worker entails more than just speaking the language: Understanding the values of the Puerto Rican culture as perceived by the Puerto Rican client (whether born in Puerto Rico or in the United States) and how this guides their behavior and gives meaning to their life. Social workers need to be professionally trained, culturally sensitive, and competent workers to work with Puerto Ricans clients. Those who are willing and able to understand the meaning of respecto (respect) for a Puerto Rican client and how this respect is manifested by the worker and the client when addressing one another during an interview is critical. Puerto Ricans are taught from childhood that when a parent, an elderly person, or anybody of authority addresses them, they must look at the floor as a sign of respect. Failure to understand this behavior has led many social workers to indicate in their case records that “the client has difficulty in maintaining eye-to-eye contact.”
Understanding Family and Community
Understanding the role of the Puerto Rican family in the daily routine and the significant events in the life of a Puerto Rican is extremely important. Understanding the roles of family members, including godparents (padrinos), is necessary in the assessment of the support system available to the family. Some Puerto Ricans have referred to the Puerto Rican family as a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because, whether extended or not, the family is the first support group. It also a curse: although it is nice to have so many people caring, there is also a reciprocal responsibility of caring for family members and to be there when needed. Many social workers assume that all Puerto Ricans have an extended family ready and available to care for them. This is not always the case, and the assumption might result in workers not offering or exploring with Puerto Rican clients the support or resources needed by them to deal with their situation.
Finally, the assessment of a Puerto Rican clients is not complete without understanding the Puerto Rican community in which the client lives and the support and resources available in that community that can be tapped to help the client. What formal systems, such as community agencies, are available to the client? Is the client affiliated with any church in their community? Are these institutions culturally sensitive to Puerto Ricans? What are the informal support systems, such as friends, bodegas (grocery stores), and botanicas (a neighborhood store in which herbs, medicinal plants, candles, prayers books, and statues of saints are sold)?
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