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My name is Sylvia Obén.

I’ve told 3 stories. I joined Cowbird on September 18, 2013.

What is driving the migration of Puerto Ricans to Chicago from the island -- at the highest rates since World War II?

By Sylvia Obén


Puerto Rican migration to Chicago has grown steadily since World War II, as residents move to take advantage of greater access to education, higher salaries and more job opportunities. Others have moved to Chicago to join family members and have become deeply involved with the Puerto Rican community in the city.


The 2006 economic crisis in Puerto Rico caused residents leave the troubled island for a better life in the U.S. mainland in numbers unseen since the Great Migration after World War II. Many say the struggle to achieve a better life prompted them to flee the island.

“I could not see the light coming at the end of the tunnel, ” said María Véaz, a bilingual teacher recruited to teach in the U.S. “I was middle class and I became low-middle class [after the economic crisis in Puerto Rico]."

Similar patterns of migration are often repeated today but instead of being recruited as bilingual teachers, migrants have come for a college degree. Others have moved to Chicago to join family members and have become deeply involved with the Puerto Rican community in the city. Some have started their own businesses.


In June 2007, Elgin Area School District U-46 went to the Hotel San Juan in Puerto Rico to hire bilingual teachers, and Véaz got recruited. In 2014, 12 teachers -- the highest district’s number of teachers – were recruited from Puerto Rico. District officials have announced they plan to return again next year to bring more bilingual teachers to Elgin.

“I say to myself that my mission was accomplished [in Puerto Rico],” Véaz, 53, said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over the last three years, 144,000 Puerto Ricans have come to the U.S., as Table 1 and Figure 1 show.

Véaz is a third grade bilingual teacher at Dieterich Elementary School in Aurora.

“When I came to Illinois, I came with a hand in front and one in the back,” she said. “I didn’t have any money to start with. I just had debts.”

As a temporary teacher at a public school on the island, Carlos Conde Marin in Carolina, Puerto Rico, earned around $700 every two weeks. When she started working at that school in 2000, she waited almost two months to receive her first paycheck. Now, in the U.S., she is making around $2,300 during the same time period.

She now earns about $45,000 annually more than what she was earning in Puerto Rico, which “served to rehabilitate my credit,” said Véaz. “It helped to pay my credit cards and bills. I have four kids, and it was super hard for me to give them what they deserve.”

Véaz’s son was in Chicago, but her other three daughters were studying in Puerto Rico. She said that was one of the hardest things to do -- bring them with her to the U.S.

Until she was given her education certificate here, she worked for three months as a cashier at a Walgreens on the North Side.

Véaz said she is happy about being in the U.S., and she is not planning to return. She said being in the U.S. there is an “ugly face on the beautiful dream.” The subtle racism in the education system affects her every day, she said.

“The majority of people [in the U.S.] are white,” she said. “The students getting the attention in the bilingual classes are the white students and the African Americans.”

Later her husband found a job as well and moved with their daughters to Illinois.

“The primary reason I moved is what I think is the reason why most Puerto Ricans move, which is the economic situation,” said Ramón Luis Borrero, Véaz’s husband, 53.

In 2007, Borrero started to look for jobs in the U.S. since every year he had come to conventions in relation to his job, as a volleyball coach. During the conventions he talked with Puerto Ricans working in the U.S. and he realized that they were paid three or four times more than what he was making in Puerto Rico.

In 2010, Puerto Rican household income was approximately $5,500 less per year than that of all Chicagoans, as Table 4 and Figure 4 show.

Table 4: Chicago median household income

Demographic group

All Chicagoans

Puerto Ricans


African Americans

Median household income





Whites $58,750

Source: “60 Years of Migration Puerto Ricans in Chicagoland”


60,000! 50,000! 40,000! 30,000! 20,000! 10,000!


Figure 4: Chicago median household income

All Chicagoans!

Puerto Ricans!


African Whites! Americans!

Demographic group!

Source: "60 Years of Migration: Puerto Ricans in Chicagoland"

Chicago residents of Mexican descent had a median household income of $39,988, African

Americans were at $29,371 and whites were at $58,750.

Some 30 percent of Puerto Rican children live in poverty, 1 percent less than Mexicans, 18 percent less than African Americans, but 10 percent more than white kids.

In 2010, 9 percent of Chicago Puerto Ricans were unemployed — more than Mexicans (7 percent) and whites (5 percent) but less than blacks (11 percent).

The majority of Puerto Ricans in Chicago live on the city’s Northwest Side, especially in Humboldt Park, Logan Square, Hermosa and Belmont Cragin, according to the 2010 report, “60 Years of Migration: Puerto Ricans in Chicagoland,” produced by the Puerto Rican Agenda.


Median household income ($)!

“All our plans lined up,” said Borrero. “When my son got a scholarship to study in Loyola University in Chicago, it was the wave of escape.”

Borrero has been working for five years in Sky High Volleyball in Crystal Lake as a site director. He’s now earning 50 percent more than his salary in Puerto Rico, where he worked as a teacher and made $24,000 a year; he now earns $55,000 to $58,000 a year.

“Everyday the conditions to return to Puerto Rico are becoming more adverse,” said Borrero.

Since Borrero moved, he has visited his family on the island once.

“Every time the motivation to return to the island is less,” he said.

The more difficult thing to Borrero about moving to the Midwest was the “extreme weather.”


Dancing salsa in Puerto Rico, Jesue Sánchez met the love of his life, who was from Chicago. At the time, he decided to take advantage of the opportunity to look for a job as an environmental scientist in a Chicago branch of REI.

“[In Puerto Rico] jobs in my field of study are a bit scarce,” said Sánchez, who came from Cupey, Puerto Rico, a year ago. “ So, I decided to come to the U.S. hoping to get a job at what I studied.”


Sánchez, who left his family behind on the island, said connections always help. After working at REI, he found a job in North Dakota in Aspen Environmental Services, an environmental services company. He comes to Chicago often to see his girlfriend of two and a half years.


In September 2013, Jorge Lefevre moved from Dorado, on the northern coast of Puerto Rico, to the Chicago after he got a scholarship to do his Ph.D. on Latin-American literature. He decided to come to the University of Chicago because an advanced degree from a college or university in the U.S. is much more prestigious than a degree from Puerto Rico.

“I did my undergrad in Puerto Rico University, Rio Piedras Campus,” said Lefevre, 24. “Then I was doing nothing for a year, without studying or a job.”

Lefevre’s best friend from Puerto Rico got into the program as well, and he said it made the transition easier. He said although he has lived a year in Chicago he has not gotten used to the language, weather, food and the body language of people.

During the time he moved from the island he went back once to “escape from the weather,” Lefevre said.

His parents are working in Puerto Rico and luckily they are not going to move outside the island. For this reason he is going back to the island after he graduates. Lefevre said that when he finishes his Ph.D., it will be hard to find a job as a literature professor in the U.S. and even harder in Puerto Rico. He is saving money now so he will have some income to fall back on after he graduates.


“I might be unemployed for a while,” Lefevre said. “But my intentions are to go back [to the island]. But I do not dismiss that future. I could change my mind.”

Ruben Borrero, who is Véaz and Borrero’s son, was born and raised in Puerto Rico, and also had the same opportunity as Lefevre, but after he graduated he decided to stay in Chicago with his family.

“I got the opportunity to come and study at Loyola University,” Borrero said from Carolina, Puerto Rico, who did his undergrad at Loyola. “[My family] pushed me to do it, I didn’t want to do it at first. After coming to the U.S. from Puerto Rico, I had a newfound love for the Latino culture in general.”

He is part of a growing population of Puerto Ricans in Chicago. By 1990, Chicago’s Puerto Ricans had tripled to 119,800. Today Puerto Ricans are the second largest Latino group – after Mexicans -- in Chicago. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the Puerto Rican population in Chicago was 102,703.

Borrero, who came in 2006 to Chicago to study, said that not only Puerto Ricans, but also Mexicans, Salvadorians, Guatemalans, Colombians, Venezuelans—everybody who identifies themselves with this mix of cultures, has to go through the same struggles in this country, regardless of their country of origin.

Borrero studies public administration as a master’s student at the University of Illinois in Chicago and is also a hip-hop artist. He said he realized that white Americans often refer to Latinos as "brown" people, not as an insult, but as a way to categorize them.

“I guess ‘The Color Brown,’ [my artistic name] is an attempt to re-conquer this word and this color that all Latinos share in common in one way or another,” said Borrero. “It is, in short, my tribute to the struggle of all those brown people in the United States.”


Borrero has written a play called “Vuelo 395” (Flight 395 in English). It is referring to the only direct flight between Puerto Rico and Chicago, which he took during his first time traveling.

“Basically it’s my original music,” said Borrero. “My original lyrics and I talk about my experience being in Chicago outside of Puerto Rico. Reminiscing about being in Puerto Rico and just the new experiences I am acquiring in the U.S. as a Latino.”

He said being away from his family in Puerto Rico was really hard. Two years after Borrero started studying in Chicago, his family followed him.

“It’s amazing that my parents are here, and my family is here,” said Borrero. “One less problem I have to deal with by being in a different country.”

Borrero said it was harder for his parents to leave because they had lived all their lives in Puerto Rico.

“I have in the back of my mind that I will go back,” Borrero said. “I miss [the island] everyday.”

The search for economic opportunity is the most commonly given explanation for moving from the island, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of the 2013 U.S. Census data. According tothePew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project,42 percent gave job-related reasons for moving stateside, compared with 38 percent who gave family-related reasons.


Yet American citizenship has conferred few privileges to Puerto Ricans.


In 1953, when Leoncio Vazquez was 16 years old, a friend in Puerto Rico urged him to move with him to the U.S. The two went to California to pick tomatoes, and after eight years, Vazquez found his way to Chicago.

Based on a 2014 Pew Hispanic study, mainland-born Puerto Ricans make up only 4 percent of Puerto Ricans on the island. From 2000 to 2012, a third of the net loss of Puerto Ricans on the island was due to departures of mainland-born Puerto Ricans.

Vazquez said his parents didn’t know how to read and write, so they couldn’t teach him. But they taught him how to pray the Rosary every night. He decided to come to the U.S. because he was “looking for the American dream.”

At the age of 25, Vazquez moved to Chicago and started to get involved in organizations and political meetings.

“Puerto Rican movements brought me here,” said Vazquez, who is now president of the Spanish Action Committee of Chicago (SACC).

SACC was the first advocacy group for Spanish-speaking people in the city of Chicago.

Vazquez said he rarely goes back to the island to visit because all of his family members live in Chicago.

Puerto Ricans can come to the U.S. as often as they please because they are U.S. citizens.

The United States acquired Puerto Rico after the Spanish-American War of 1898. Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States. In 1917, Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens after the Jones- Shafroth Act.

The act stated that everyone who was born in Puerto Rico on or after April 11, 1899 and those who are not citizens, subjects or nationals of a foreign power, was declared citizens of the United States.


The new citizens took advantage of their status and decided to come to the United States in large numbers. One of the cities that drew them was Chicago. They started to come to the city around the 1920s. Middle-class families from Puerto Rico sent their daughters and sons to study at prestigious universities like the University of Chicago. After completing their educational studies, most of them returned to Puerto Rico.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Puerto Rican migration peaked.

Chicago, like many other Americans cities, was losing hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs. Manufacturing companies were leaving the city for the suburbs and third world countries in order to cut their operating expenses. Puerto Ricans worked on the assembly lines of small factories; they performed janitorial work and hotel and restaurant work. Puerto Ricans toiled in the hot foundries of the city. They worked in the suburban factories in light industry, making things like pipelines. Women worked as assemblers, laundry and dry cleaning operators, packers and wrappers. Unemployed families were forced to go on public aid.

Thousands of poor and working-class Puerto Ricans migrated to Chicago, and they had no plans to return home.

José López from Aibonito, Puerto Rico, came to Chicago in 1959 and was part of the huge wave of Puerto Rican migration.

“The experience that I found [in Chicago] was dramatic,” said López, who took office in 1981 as the executive director of Puerto Rico Cultural Center in Chicago. “I was born in a place that there wasn’t running water, no electricity, no cars, no roads.”

In 1950, there were 255 Puerto Ricans in Chicago, according to the book, “Puerto Rican Chicago.” By 1960, the number of Puerto Ricans in Chicago increased to 32,371.


When López went to school in Andersen Community Academy elementary school at 1148 N. Honore St., Puerto Rican students were segregated from every other culture, he said. “We were placed in a side space. The idea was that we were a problem because we didn’t speak English.”

López experienced a lot of marginalization. “It was too much,” said López.

In 1966, the Puerto Rican community of Chicago decided to do something about it. A riot took place, and a two-mile long street was packed with Puerto Ricans.

“Under attack, people fought back,” said López, who was 16 at that time. “Police cars were burned, terrible violence experienced. But Puerto Ricans said we are not willing [to keep on being marginalized] anymore.”

In 1968, López was one of the few Puerto Ricans who went to college. He went to Loyola University, and after graduation he started teaching at the Tuley High School. The school was overcrowded. In 1969, he assisted in the first study ever conducted on Puerto Rican dropouts, which was conducted by Isidro Lucas. López said approximately 70 percent of Puerto Rican students who entered Chicago public high schools dropped out. He said the main reason given by the students for dropping out was that their teachers did not listen to them.

Lucas from Spain decided to do the study because ASPIRA Association, nonprofit organization devoted solely to the education, suggested the topic to him. The study took a year to complete. It has two parts: the data of graduation and the investigation into reasons the students dropped out.

“[After the study] the bilingual education was promoted,” said Lucas. “We didn’t have it at that time, and the people were not talking about ideas or proposals but what steps can be taken to benefit students.”


Puerto Rican residents here pushed for a second high school in Chicago. In 1974, Roberto Clemente High School opened in Humboldt Park. Approximately 70 percent of the students there were Puerto Ricans.

Puerto Ricans in Chicago faced many of the same struggles most immigrant groups encounter when coming to a different culture. Many early Puerto Rican migrants came to Chicago as unskilled laborers escaping unemployment and poverty in their homeland. Major disadvantages of early Puerto Rican immigrants in Chicago were that they were usually uneducated and did not speak English.

“I think Spanish is part of our identity,” said Zoraida Rivera, a Puerto Rican Spanish teacher at Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School in Humboldt Park since 2007. Rivera came to Chicago when she was 25 years old and opened a Puerto Rican restaurant called La Bruquena with her husband in Humboldt Park where they now live.

She came because she wanted to succeed in the U.S. since it was hard to do so on the island.

“We come here with sacrifice, and this is no man’s land,” she said. “We have always been considered third-class citizens, and we have come to be minorities in our own country.”

Everyday she misses Puerto Rico, she said. She has a house in Caguas on the island.

“We go once a year,” Ramirez said. “The thing I miss most is the sea, mountains and family.”

Although Ramirez lived in Chicago when she was pregnant, she decided to give birth in the Hospital HIMA on the island 17 years ago.


“I wanted my son to be pure Puerto Rican,” she said. Ramirez’s son, Marcelo, is proud to say, “I was born in Caguas, Puerto Rico.”

After Marcelo graduates from college, Ramirez plans to move back to Puerto Rico and during summers she wants to come to Chicago.

“Once you are there you miss the city and vice-versa,” she said. “Chicago is a big-city place.”


There are now so many Puerto Ricans in the city that they have their own parades and festivals. This year the festival and parade were in June and as always took place in Humboldt Park (Division and California streets).

The annual celebration of all things Puerto Rican is one of the largest Latin events in the nation and is held in Chicago's landmark and majestic Humboldt Park. It features four days of fun, food and festivities.

Besides bringing the community together, the festival draws singers and bands from the island, so Puerto Ricans can feel as if they were back there. The typical Puerto Rican food cannot be missed: the “tostones” (fried plantains), “arroz con gandules” (rice with pigeon peas), “alcapurrias” (traditional meat-filled fritter dish somewhat similar to a croquette), “bacalaitos” (fried codfish fritters) and piña colada.

Despite the cultural acknowledgments, some Puerto Ricans are pushing for more national recognition.



“I am convinced that Puerto Rico will become the 51st state of the United States on or before the next ten years,” U.S. Congressman of Puerto Rico, Pedro Pierluisi said.

Statehood can be the solution to many of the issues Puerto Ricans are facing, he said. If the island becomes a U.S. state, residents can vote for president and fight for their rights and economic development on the island. This, in turn, might help create more jobs.

Pierluisi said many Puerto Ricans are looking forward to returning to the island. But they expect the quality of life in Puerto Rico will improve. As the economy grows, the island will get the political power that will provide equality and improve the quality of life.

“I have no doubt that many Puerto Rican brothers who have left will return,” said Pierluisi.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) submitted legislation in February 2014 that would mandate a

referendum asking Puerto Rican residents if the island should become a U.S. state. The Senate

version to legislation already filed in the House by the island’s non-voting representative, Pierluisi.

On Nov. 6, 2012, “54 percent of Puerto Ricans rejected their current relationship with the United States,” Heinrich said in a press release. “We have a responsibility to act on that referendum, and this step is critical in that effort. My home state of New Mexico spent 66 years as a territory before gaining statehood in 1912 -- the longest of any state. Puerto Rico has spent nearly 116 years as an American territory. That’s long enough.”

resolution, called the Puerto Rico Status Resolution Act (H.R. 2000)

, is an identical companion


In addition to one more star in the American flag, Pierluisi said the bill calls for the legislatively planned status under President Barack Obama, for which the White House proposed that Congress allocate $2.5 million to help fund an upcoming plebiscite in Puerto Rico within the next two years.

Under the Obama plan, the U.S. Department of Justice is limited to examining the constitutionality of the status options that the government of Puerto Rico believes should be included in the next consultation.

In conclusion, Puerto Ricans who migrated to Chicago indicated that the main reason they migrated to the U.S. is to seek economic opportunity -- to enjoy a better life and offer the same to their family members. Even though Puerto Rico is a territory of the U.S., they say that on the island the same opportunities simply don’t exist.




Baez, Juan Carlos, lived in Chicago and moved back to Puerto Rico for professional reasons, Tel.773.501.5541, date of interview: Oct. 26, 2014.

Borrero, Ramón Luis, Rubén Borrero’s dad and Director of New Program and a volleyball coach at Sky High Volleybal in Crystal Lake, Tel. 847.235.0789, date of interview: Nov. 17, 2014.

Borrero Rubén, Loyola alum, came to Chicago from Puerto Rico in 2006, Tel.773.876.9751, date of interview: Nov. 5, 2014.

Concepción, Héctor, Puerto Rican, candidate who sought election to the U.S. House to represent the 4th Congressional District of Illinois, Tel. 312.508.2169, date of interview: Oct. 25, 2014.

Gavina, Amelia, Recruitment Coordinator at U-46 School District, Tel.847.888.5000 ext.7174, date of interview: Nov. 17, 2014.

Lefevre Jorge, student at the University of Chicago from Puerto Rico, Tel.787.397.7355, date of interview: Oct. 17, 2014.

López, José, executive director of Puerto Rico Cultural Center in Chicago (PRCC), Tel.773.342.8023, date of interview: Oct. 2, 2014.

Lucas, Isidro, author of Puerto Rican dropouts in Chicago: numbers and motivations, Tel.847.328.7936, date of interview: Nov. 21, 2014.

Pierluisi, Pedro, Puerto Rico's Resident Commissioner in Washington since 2009, Tel.787.723.6333, date of interview: Oct. 21, 2014.

Rivera, Zoraida, a Puerto Rican Spanish teacher at Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School in Humboldt Park, Tel.773.276.2915, date of interview: Oct. 1, 2014.

Sánchez, Jesue, came to Chicago for profesional and love reasons, Tel.787.408.5644, date of interview: Oct. 26, 2014.

Serrano, Illeana, U.S. Census Bureau Specialist, Tel.630.288.9261, date of interview: Nov. 21, 2014.

Vázquez, Leoncio, president of the Spanish Action Committee of Chicago (SACC), Tel.773.292.1052, date of interview: Oct. 3, 2014.

Véaz, María, Rubén Borrero’s mom and recruited to be a bilingual teacher, Tel.847.281.6254, date of interview: Nov. 16, 2014.


“Behind a Push for Parole in Chicago, a Prisoner’s Old Neighborhood” by Emma Graves Fitzsimmons on The New York Times on Feb. 10, 2011.

“Jose Lopez’s Last Stand” by Elly Fishman in Chicago Politics & City Life Chicago magazine on Oct. 21, 2014.



José Luis González: el “País de cuatro pisos” y la nacionalidad puertorriqueña: Book, San Juan,Puerto Rico, Talleres, 1986.

“Nuevo libro analiza la presencia de puertorriqueños en Estados Unidos” by Primera Hora newspaper on Oct. 31, 2014. rico/nota/nuevolibroanalizalapresenciadepuertorriquenosenestadosunidos-1045125/

“Puerto Rican Chicago” book by Wilfredo Cruz, city of publication: Chicago, Arcadia Publishing, 2005.

“Puerto Ricans in Chicago: Study Gives Insight into Changing Community” by DNAinfo Staff on Feb. 18, 2013. ricans-chicago-study-gives-insight-into-changing-community

“Puerto Ricans to alderman: ‘Hands off our parade’” by Chip Mitchell on WBEZ 91.5 on April 4, 2013.‘hands-our-parade’-106504

“Puerto Rico Statehood: Pedro Pierluisi To Submit Bill To Congress Addressing Island's Status” by Roque Planas on The Huffington Post on April 18, 2013.

“Puertorriqueños son parte del corazón de Chicago” by Belhú Sanabria. Published in La Raza newspaper on July 13, 2014.


“60 years of migration: Puerto Ricans in Chicagoland” Bill H.R. 2000

Census Bureau of Statistics 2010 – Chicago, Illinois 15.pdf

Centro de Estudios Avanzados de Puerto Rico y el Caribe (CEAPRC)

Encycopedia of Chicago:

“Puerto Rican Dropuots in Chicago: Numbers an Motivation” by Isidro Lucas. On 1981.

Puerto Rican Festival & Parade, Committee of Chicago;

Puerto Rican Population Declines on Island, Grows on U.S. Mainland:

23 u-s-mainland/

The Puerto Rican Agenda:


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