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7 Decades Ago, Puerto Ricans Helped Transform New York City's Workforce


Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans have moved to the mainland since Hurricane Maria devastated the island last fall. Many have moved New York City, which has seen this story before. Around 70 years ago, some half a million Puerto Ricans moved to New York. Alexandra Starr reports.

ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: The Extended Stay America Hotel in Queens, N.Y., has become Rosa Basora's temporary home. FEMA's paying for it through a program that provides housing to people displaced by Hurricane Maria. From behind the sink in the hotel room's kitchenette, Basora watches as her baby grandson Skype's with relatives in Puerto Rico.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).


STARR: This is a kind of homecoming for Basora. Born and raised in Brooklyn, she didn't move to the island until she was 28.

ROSA BASORA: Everybody's telling me, ah, you're not going to get used to it, you're not going to get used to it. Guess what? I just came back to New York this past October.

STARR: In 23 years, she hadn't visited once. She came back because Hurricane Maria left her home with no water and no electricity. In returning, Basora retraced the steps of her parents. They came to New York in the 1950s, in search of work.

BASORA: My dad was a steel metal polisher.

STARR: And her mother, grandmother, grandfather, all worked in garment factories. Kat Lloyd is an educator at the Tenement Museum in New York City. She explains that Puerto Ricans, like the Basora family, helped drive a transformation in the city's workforce.

KAT LLOYD: Puerto Rican migrants, African-American migrants coming from the South, start to fill the jobs that had previously been held by Jewish immigrants.

STARR: The Tenement Museum recently opened an exhibit, called "Under One Roof," documenting that transition. It starts with the Epsteins, a Jewish family from Poland. They worked in the needle trades in the 1940s. The museum has recreated their dining room.

LLOYD: On the side table, we see candlesticks and prayer books.

STARR: Now, by the 1950s, Eastern Europeans, like the Epsteins, were leaving their jobs in the garment industry, and their kids weren't replacing them. Factory owners couldn't bring in new workers from Eastern and southern European countries because of the tighter immigration laws. So they recruited citizens from poorer parts of the U.S., like the South and Puerto Rico.

LLOYD: So we'll be moving now into Ramonita Rivera Saez's kitchen.

STARR: Saez was a Puerto Rican who moved to New York in 1955 and became a seamstress. The Tenement Museum has recreated the apartment she lived in right next to the Epstein's. While Saez spent most of her life in New York, she frequently flew back to Puerto Rico. Lloyd says that was common. There were a lot of flights, and they were cheap.

LLOYD: The flight between JFK and San Juan was packed every week.

STARR: That ensured a lot of Puerto Ricans maintained close ties to the island. Hector Codero is a professor at Baruch College. He says this is a reason why we see thousands of Puerto Ricans coming to New York today.

HECTOR CORDERO: New York City has 700,000 to 800,000 Puerto Ricans. Those connections at a time of a crisis are activated and become really important.

STARR: Rosa Basora, who currently lives in that hotel in Queens, she wants to return to Puerto Rico. Her son and daughter, however, say that the migratory cycle will end with them. The damage caused by Maria means they don't see a future on the island. New York will be their permanent home. For NPR News, I'm Alexandra Starr in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alexandra Starr