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The U.S. Recruited 400,000 Puerto Rican Farmworkers. This Is Their Story

Between 1947 and 1993, a U.S. government program recruited and transported workers from Puerto Rico to fill more than 400,000 farm jobs around the continental U.S. A new book, Colonial Migrants at the Heart of Empire, by Professor Ismael García-Colón (College of Staten Island and The Graduate Center), describes the experiences of these Puerto Rican migrant laborers on stateside farms.

That these workers were U.S. citizens made the program politically palatable in Washington. But their citizenship was also seen as problematic. Unlike migrant workers from Mexico and other parts of the Caribbean, Puerto Ricans could not be summarily sent home when the tomato or tobacco harvest was over. Nor could they be deported for union activity or for complaining about substandard conditions, low wages, or unjust treatment.

“The Puerto Rican experience in farm labor migration challenges our understanding of U.S. citizenship, revealing the dual status of Puerto Ricans as both U.S. citizens and as racialized foreign others,” García-Colón said in an interview.

The fact that Puerto Ricans are both citizens and U.S. “colonial subjects” is a critical aspect of García-Colón’s research and perspective. “Immigration scholars should not indiscriminately compare the experiences of colonial migrants with those of immigrants without looking also at the distinctiveness of their experiences,” he said. “That Puerto Rico is a U.S. colony is a matter of concern not only for Puerto Ricans but for anybody in the world who despises the undemocratic nature of colonialism.”

García-Colón grew up in a small rural community in the Puerto Rican highlands called Cidra where many of his relatives and neighbors migrated to the mainland for farm work. “I grew up listening to their stories about allá fuera—outside there, how we call continental United States,” he recalled. “Most of the people in my hometown of Cidra migrated to New Jersey to harvest vegetables and fruits or to Connecticut and Massachusetts working in tobacco farms.”

Economic migration to the continental U.S., he said, continues to be “the only alternative for many Puerto Ricans to survive in a colonial regime devastated by economic crisis, government corruption, policies of austerity, Hurricane María, and the recent earthquakes.”

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Colonial Migrants at the Heart of Empire
University of California Press, 2020

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Ismael García-Colón (Associate Professor, Anthropology) | Profile 1 | Profile 2