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Background Essay on Cuban Immigration and Puerto Rican Migration to the United States

This essay explores the dual phenomena of Cuban immigration and Puerto Rican migration to the United States, noting their relationship to those countries' respective independence movements as well as U.S. intervention in Cuba and Puerto Rico.

Beginning in the second half of the 19th century, Cubans and Puerto Ricans both fought for their independence from Spain. During this period (1868-1898) many of the most politically active revolutionaries sought (or were forced into) exile in the United States. Cubans and Puerto Ricans saw the United States as a beacon and model for democracy, and a potential source of aid in their countries’ struggles for independence. This first wave of Cuban and Puerto Rican immigrants, mainly upper-middle class intellectuals, lobbied the U.S. for support to oust the Spanish, and after their successful expulsion hoped that the U.S. would leave the islands to their own democratic devices. Ultimately, the U.S. betrayed the Cubans and Puerto Ricans by engaging directly in a war with Spain (1898) and then taking control of its colonies rather than fostering their independence. Puerto Rico became a possession of the U.S. and Cuba, while granted its independence, remained under close U.S. supervision under the Platt Amendment of 1903. The amendment gave the U.S. the right to intervene at any time in Cuban domestic affairs, and the land rights for a U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay. Cuba and Puerto Rico’s intertwined fates as new American possessions fostered solidarity between the two exile communities, and led the Puerto Rican poet Lola Rodríguez de Tió to exclaim that Cuba and Puerto Rico were “the two wings of the same bird” (de un pájaro las dos alas).

Over the next 15 years, Cuban immigration and Puerto Rican migration expanded to include not only the middle and upper classes but the working class as well. Despite, or perhaps because of their homelands’ new status as U.S. colonies, Cubans and Puerto Ricans living in the U.S. made significant efforts to preserve their cultural heritage, including their work routines and rhythms. In this regard, the nature, as well as the schedule and customs of work remained practically unchanged, especially in the cigar factories of Key West and Ybor City, Florida. Lectores, or factory readers, were a fixture in the cigar factories of both Florida and New York City. The reader played an important role in disseminating news (especially news from home), progressive ideologies (such as unionism, socialism, etc.) and literature to his largely illiterate listeners, and helped to make cigar makers the most enlightened members of their class (often to the chagrin of the factory owners). Outside of work, immigrant communities established mutualistas (mutual aid societies), schools, and social clubs to help their increasing population adjust to a new life in exile. In Florida, these forms of mutual support also helped to shield the community’s Afro-Caribbean immigrants from the extreme racism of the Jim Crow Era. While blacks and whites worked side-by-side in the cigar factories, women worked apart from the men and in the more menial parts of cigar production. There were racial tensions within the exile communities as well, especially in Florida.

The passage of the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917 granted Puerto Ricans full U.S. citizenship and was designed to encourage migration to “augment the common-labor supply,” and bolster the ranks of the military during World War I. The Jones-Shafroth Act contrasted sharply with the Immigration Act of 1917, which restricted immigration from parts of Europe and Asia. This contradiction suggests that the U.S. government viewed its role in Latin America as of a different character than its relationship with the nations of Europe and Asia. Regardless of the U.S. political agenda, the Jones-Shafroth Act opened the doors of the United States to hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans over the next half century.

Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.Creative Commons License
Item Type | Article/Essay
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Background Essay on Cuban Immigration and Puerto Rican Migration to the United States,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 23, 2023,

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