Puerto Rican Students:
A NYC Ethnographic Research Study
Imagine all the nations in the world belonging to one big family. The
United States would be the father, China the mother, Japan the daughter,
France the son, and so on. In this family of nations, Puerto Rico would only be a
family relative. Puerto Rico is a gorgeous island of many different colors. It has
green trees, fields and forests, brown hills, and white sandy beaches. It is
famous for its beautiful beaches, warmhearted people, and delicious foods. In
fact, it is also known to be the oldest community under the American Flag.
Christopher Columbus discovered the lovely island on November 19, 1493 during
his second voyage to the new world (Flores, 2009). Columbus decided to call
the island San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist) in honor of King Ferdinand
and Queen Isabella of Spain. Before Columbus named the island San Juan
Bautista, it was called Boriquen, but a lieutenant to Columbus named Juan
Ponce de Leon later changed it to “Puerto Rico” (Flores, 2009).
Today, Puerto Rico is defined as a “Caribbean island commonwealth of
the United States, located about 1,000 miles southeast of Miami” (Powell, 2005).
The United States acquired Puerto Rico in 1898, in the aftermath of the Spanish-
American War, prompting the first wave of Puerto Rican immigration. Puerto Ricans
were recognized as U.S. citizens by the Jones Act of 1917, permitting them to travel
freely to the mainland—United States(Nelson, 2003). Immigration increased
rapidly, particularly to New York City, where industrial development and
prosperity offered good employment prospects (Powell, 2005).
This pattern continued through the mid-20th century, when an
industrialization program known as Operation Bootstrap caused agricultural
workers to leave Puerto Rico. In the 1950s and 1960s more than 600,000
people left Puerto Rico for the United States (Flores, 2009). The largest number
of Puerto Ricans in the continental United States continues to reside in New York,
with sizable groups also in the Philadelphia and Chicago metropolitan areas.
Significant numbers have also settled in and around other East Coast cities,
in addition to California and Texas. More than 1.3 million Puerto Ricans live in
the New York City area (Powell, 2005). The first significant migration to U.S.
territory involved 5,000 Puerto Rican contract laborers who were hired to work
on sugar plantations in Hawaii between 1899 and 1901 (Powell, 2005). By the
year 2000, the number of Puerto Ricans in the United States became 3.4 million.
Economic hardship also drove migration after the Spanish-American War
(Flores, 2009). Although many Puerto Ricans were glad to be rid of the Spanish
government, under the direction of the United States the economy was
increasingly based on the export of coffee. An import tax in the United States
caused many Puerto Rican farmers to lose their farms and leave the island. Many
of these migrants came to work as seasonal farm workers
along the eastern seaboard. Others came to work in factories in urban centers.
There, they settled and created their own neighborhoods called “barrios”.
Influenced by the changes brought by the Civil Rights movement and
other movements of the 1960s, Puerto Ricans began to work through grass-
roots groups to create better living conditions in their communities
(Flores, 2009). The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund were
created in part to help create counseling and educational guidance for Puerto
Rican youth in the cities. The implementation of bilingual education in the public
school system counted among their successes. People in many barrios
encouraged the creation of social clubs, religious associations, and athletic
teams as ways of creating positive values and creating a viable community. Also
in the 1960s and 1970s, radical Puerto Rican political groups such as the Young
Lords challenged many of the standard notions held about their community and
advocated a radical socialist alternative (Nelson, 2003). They were able to
create free breakfast, day care, and health care programs for the poor as well.
By the 1980s and 1990s, many significant changes took place in the
Puerto Rican community. Many of the factory jobs in urban areas moved to
countries where the wages were lower. Service sector jobs in communications,
advertising, financial services, education, and government required high levels
of education, which new migrants did not always possess. The media has also
persisted in portraying Puerto Ricans in negative images, highlighting drug use,
unemployment, and gang membership. With so many Puerto Ricans residing in
the U.S., why is it that so many of them fail to achieve academic success?
Puerto Rican children and adolescents appear more at risk for below
average school achievement, mental health problems, and service referrals than
any other Hispanic group living in the United States. Moreover, their
experiences within U.S. schools are characterized by “low levels of academic
achievement, severe ethnic isolation, and one of the highest dropout rates of all
groups of students in the United States” (Nieto, 2000). Reasons for such
shortcomings are due to language, the public school system, and socio-
economic factors. In New York, less than a third of Puerto Ricans have any
college education (Powell, 2005). They are poorer and less educated than
Latinos on the whole, despite the fact that they’ve been here longer and
have the advantage of U.S. citizenship. Furthermore, the achievement level of
Puerto Rican females are “worst than or equal to that of the males” (Diaz, 2010).
Primarily, having a language barrier that prevents you from understanding
what is being taught within your classroom would block anyone’s chance of
succeeding in school. Despite the now legally mandated requirement that states
that all non-English speaking students receive bilingual instruction, “40 percent of
those entitled do not receive it” (Rodriguez, 1991). Of the other 60 percent who do
receive bilingual instruction, only “30 percent are exposed to a fully bilingual
instruction program” (Rodriguez, 1991). These students who did not receive
such instruction are at a higher risk of dropping out by the time they reach the
ninth grade (Maizel, 1993). They also become overrepresented in zoned high
schools and underrepresented in optional education programs
(Rodriguez, 1991). Hence, underprivileged Puerto Rican students often times
end up on the negative side of the educational tracks, where they are faced
with more stone walls than open doors.
Because it seems crucial for non-English speaking students to become
familiar with and eventually learn the English language, they often times lose
their sense of cultural identity. As for Puerto Ricans, the majority insist on
“retaining Spanish and their cultural roots while at the same time learning
English and becoming biculturally adept” (Nieto, 2000). However, how is it
possible to learn about an entirely different culture and its language and still
manage to keep your cultural roots and language in a school system that gives
teachers limited to no opportunity to create a learning environment where “the
bilingual and bicultural backgrounds of students are affirmed in every aspect of
their learning?”(Nieto, 2000). If students were to be provided with a learning
environment where they feel comfortable speaking their native language along
with English, as well as one that fully allows and encourages them to “express
and explore the behaviors reflecting the heritage of both cultures” (Nieto, 200),
students would have a better sense of identity; which would then promote their
self-confidence and motivation needed in order to do well academically.
However, there are still the socio-economic factors that play a major role on
Puerto Rican students’ academic life.
Although more than a third of all Latino children live in poverty, “Puerto
Ricans have the far greatest risk of being poor of any other Latino group”
(Nieto, 2000). According to a Current Population Survey given by the Annual
Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC) in 2006, 26.6 % of Hispanic children
were found to be living below poverty level. The Stateside Puerto Rican poverty
rate for families headed by single women is 39.3 % (Baker, 2007). The Stateside
Puerto Rican poverty level for single female headed households is higher than every
other major group except Dominicans, which stands at 49.0 % (Baker, 2007). What is
most troubling about these statistics is that among all the other Latino groups,
Puerto Ricans are the only ones to arrive in the United States already as U.S.
citizens, which should be an advantage but apparently is not in terms of
socioeconomic status. Growing up in poverty often times prevents Puerto Rican
students from gaining access to the resources needed to do well in school.
Students living in low-income families have a ten times greater dropout rate than
their peers from high-income families (Nieto, 2000).
Puerto Ricans, along with other U.S. Latinos, have experienced the long-
term problem of a high school dropout rate that has resulted in relatively low
educational attainment levels. Of those found to be 25 years of age and older,
63.2 % of Stateside Puerto Ricans had graduated from high school, compared
to 84.0% of Whites, 73.6% of Blacks and 83.4% of Asians(Acosta-Belén, 2006).
This Stateside Puerto Rican high school graduation rate, however, exceeded
that of Mexicans (48.7%), Dominicans (51.7%) and Central and South
Americans (60.4%), while it was below that of Cubans (68.7%) and Other Latinos
(72.6%) (Acosta-Belén, 2006).
In Puerto Rico, according to the 2000 Census, 24.4% of those found to be
25 years of age and older had a 4-year college degree, while only 9.9% of
Stateside Puerto Ricans had a 4-year degree. According to the 2003 Annual
Social and Economic (ASEC) Supplement Current Population Survey, the percent
of Stateside Puerto Ricans with undergraduate degrees increased to 13.1%,
below the rate for Whites (26.1%), African Americans (14.4%) and Asians
(43.3%). Among other Latinos, only Mexicans (6.2%) fared worse than Stateside
Puerto Ricans in undergraduate degree attainment. While other groups were
found to have higher rates: Dominicans (10.9%), Cubans (19.4%), Central and
South Americans (16.0%) and other Latinos (16.1%) (ASEC, 2003).
Based on three interviews I did on Puerto Rican women who have had
experiences within New York City public schools, I found these statistics and
reasons behind academic failure among Puerto Rican students to be valid. Two
out of three of the interviewees admitted to growing up in poverty, having a
language barrier, feeling isolated, and overall being the first in their family to
obtain a high school diploma and college degree. One of the three interviewees
admitted to actually hating the NYC public school system, saying that “it caused
me to drop out on purpose”. The three women that I interviewed were Janice
Gonzalez, Jessica Lopez, and Helen Gonzalez.
Janice Gonzalez is a 27 year old woman born and raised in New Burgh,
New York. Both of her parents are Puerto Rican, with high school diplomas.
Because Janice’s mother barely survived a brutal car accident, she was barely
able to speak. Since she always mimicked the sounds that came from her
mother, Janice grew up to learn solely the sounds of certain letters or the
beginning sounds of words and did not start speaking until age 8. When she
began school, Janice was placed in a program that required her to receive
speech therapy, as well as another program that helped her as she learned
how to read and write. Having her father help her with homework, Janice slowly
but surely began to catch up with the other students.
Because her father was extremely strict, Janice had no opportunity to
socialize outside of school grounds. However, she admitted to being very social
within the school, and would often get into trouble for being too talkative.
Furthermore, she proudly spoke of the diversity within all the public schools she
attended in New Burgh, as well as the many opportunities given to express her
cultural identity through clubs, multicultural events, and programs. When asked
of what challenges she faced growing up as a Puerto Rican, Janice spoke of the
pressure she faced while attempting to live up to her father’s high expectations.
She admitted to feeling that she had to behave as an adult although she was
still a child. For example, she was expected to fully care for her mother by
feeding, bathing, and putting her to bed. “It was as if the roles switched, my
mother became the daughter and I was her parent, but worst of all….I became
my father’s mistress.” Having been sexually abused by her father, Janice saw
school as her sanctuary. Consequently, she strove to finish both high school and
college. When asked what type of student she was, Janice replied that she was an
above average student.
Though Janice experienced challenges in terms of language and having a
dysfunctional family, she spoke of having a fair socio-economic status. Defining
her family as being in the middle class status, Janice spoke of living in a private
house, having her own room, and having access to numerous resources that
helped her to do well in school. Ironically, she admitted to viewing her father as
her biggest motivation that caused her to finish school. Furthermore, the fact
that she was very involved in extracurricular activities, such as Choir and ROTC,
gave Janice the confidence needed to continue attending school. When asked
of her opinion toward the reasons behind academic failure among Puerto Rican
students, Janice replied “it’s because Puerto Rican parents tend to have
expectations that are just too high, they’re also too busy working two or three
jobs to even get involved in their child’s full life, above all most of Puerto Rican
families are very dysfunctional”.
Jessica Lopez is a 19 year old woman born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. She
was brought to New York at age 12 by her mother, Rosalinda Lopez. Both of
Jessica’s parents are Puerto Rican with a junior high school education (mother-
8th grade, father-7th grade). When asked of her experience within NYC public
schools, Jessica replied “no matter how many times my mother changed my
school; I hated each and every one of them!” Because she was a non-English
speaking student, Jessica became frustrated every time she was given an
assignment in class or to take home. Though she was eligible to receive
bilingual education, Jessica stated that due to overcrowded classrooms and
only one to two bilingual teachers within most of the schools she attended, she
had no choice but to be in a “regular” classroom. “I felt like an alien from
another planet, I didn’t understand a word that was being spoken to me”.
When asked what type of student she was, Jessica replied “I was way below
Having a parent without even a high school diploma, Jessica and her
mother lived on Public Assistance. “Public Assistance alone was not enough to
buy most of the stuff we needed, so my mother had to work two jobs that paid
off the books in order to make ends meet”. Jessica spoke of the brutal beatings
she received from her mother, because her grades were very low at the end of
each marking period. “My mother thought I was just being lazy, she even
threatened to send me back to my father (who was abusive to both of us) just
so I would try harder in school”. As a result, she began to skip classes and
eventually dropped out of school by the 10th grade. When asked if she would
ever try to obtain her GED, Jessica replied “I don’t see the point; there is no
chance of becoming anything in a system made to make people like us fail”.
When asked of her opinion toward the reasons behind academic failure among
Puerto Rican students, Jessica replied: “the public school system breaks us
Puerto Ricans, it’s like they want to rip out your cultural roots or something just
so you can blend in with everyone else living in the U.S., and it’s because so
many of us are very poor and are being raised by single crazy mothers”.
Helen Gonzales is a 50 year old woman born in Brooklyn, New York. Both
of her parents are from Puerto Rico (mother-Mayaguez, father-Rincon) with a
Junior High School education (mother-6th grade, father-unsure). Helen is the
middle sibling of 5 brothers and 3 sisters. Having been born and raised in New
York, Helen spoke of having good experiences within her public schools. When
asked what type of student she was, Helen replied “I was always smart in
school, I was above average and I always enjoyed learning new things”.
Because her father was very involved in school, as well as very strict, Helen
admitted to “having no choice but to do more than was expected in all her
Having a large family consisting of 11 people, Helen described her socio-
economic status as being working class. “It was eleven of us living together
with only my father working, so we received public assistance”. Because she
was solely allowed to attend school and return straight home, Helen admitted
to having hardly any access to resources that would have benefited her in
school. “My brothers, sisters, and I were stuck in the house all the time, and my
parents didn’t have any knowledge of resources....they were never in
community activities, because they were too busy working and raising all of us”.
When asked about her main motivation to continue school, Helen replied
“my father was the one to always be involved, he pushed all of us to do well in
school and even tried encourage us all to become lawyers”. Though she
postponed college, due to having her first child after graduating high school,
Helen went back to school in pursuit of a Bachelors degree in Education. When
asked of her opinion toward the reasons behind academic failure among Puerto
Rican students, Helen replied: “Parents are not as involved in their child’s
education as much as they should be, their expectations are too high, there
are a lot of family problems happening as well, too many are very poor, and
there are no successful Puerto Rican role models out there in these
neighborhoods to motivate them”.
After interviewing each person, I began to realize that there is in fact a
connection between chances of academic success and language barriers, the
public school system, and socio-economic factors. A student who speaks perfect
English, attends a highly prestigious school, and is of upper class status has a
better chance of finishing high school, college, and even obtaining a doctorate
degree than a student who lacks two if not all of those privileges. Though it is
fair to say that Puerto Ricans have the advantage of having U.S. citizenship, it
does not signify that they all should and could automatically do well in school.
The misconception that Puerto Rican students are “just lazy” does not count as
a factor in whether or not they finish school. According to my research, it seems
that socio-economic factors and the public school system play a bigger role in
academic achievement among Puerto Rican students than language barriers,
for having the other two privileges would allow one to overcome most obstacles.
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Population Survey, prepared by the Bureau of the Census for the Bureau of Labor
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