María Guzmán, 63, moved to New York from Puerto Rico when she was 6 years old. She visits the island every year and planned to retire there — she has a house in Guánica on the southern coast. But with the island facing economic crisis, those plans have changed.
“I don’t think so. I’m going upstate, not to Puerto Rico,” said Guzmán, standing outside her apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn. “Every day, like 400 people leave Puerto Rico. Can’t nobody afford the food there. Everything is expensive.”
Guzmán said she has many family members in Puerto Rico, including her father, who moved back 12 years ago.
“My father’s about to pack up and come to New York again. He worked so many years here, went to Puerto Rico — that was his dream, buying his house, retired, being there — and he can’t even afford the medicine [anymore]. He’s 75 years old.”
Puerto Rico’s mounting debt over the past decade came to a head late last month when Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla deemed his country’s $73 billion public debt “not payable.”
But the economic crisis came as little surprise to the 4.6 million Puerto Ricans who live on the U.S. mainland, including more than 700,000 in New York City who, despite heavy migration flows to Florida in recent years, still make up the largest Puerto Rican population outside the island.
“Puerto Rico only exists when it becomes a problem and suddenly attention is galvanized in that area,” said Nelson Denis, an attorney, journalist, former New York State Assemblyman and author of the recent book War Against All Puerto Ricans.
“Doctors, teachers, they’re flying out to Miami like crazy. They don’t want to be there,” said César Fuentes, 73, a retired counselor standing outside El Cataño Community Garden while his friends played dominoes on 110th Street, aka Tito Puente Way. “What’s going to happen to a country like that? Doom.”
Puerto Rico faces regular electricity and water shortages, and high rates of poverty and crime. The government has implemented austerity measures to stave off financial crisis, including reducing pension payments, raising property and small business taxes, increasing water and gas prices, and laying off government workers. Despite these measures, Puerto Rico’s credit was downgraded to junk earlier this year, making borrowing extremely expensive. On July 1, the sales tax was raised from 7 percent to 11.5 percent — the highest in any U.S. state or territory.
“As a Nuyorican, my impression is that Puerto Rico is in the situation it’s in right now due to the politics and the mismanagement of the funds that are being available for the island,” said Fuentes, the retired counselor.
Others point to the country’s troubled political status as a U.S. territory.
“Puerto Rico’s been a colony since 1917, so anything that affects Puerto Rico is directly tied to the American system,” said Marcos Dimas, executive director of the Puerto Rican workshops at the Julia de Burgos Cultural Arts Center. “So what else can I say? I’m not a banker but I know that Puerto Rico is like a captive economy for the U.S.”
Wherever the blame lies, the fallout is record migration from the island that has surpassed the rates of the 1950s. According to American Community Survey estimates, Puerto Rico has seen a net population loss of nearly 50,000 residents per year in recent years.
While earlier generations of Puerto Ricans settled in New York City and other northeastern cities, residents leaving the island these days tend to opt for central Florida, particularly Orlando. Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, has studied the Puerto Rican diaspora. According to Duany, Florida’s Puerto Rican population has grown from slightly more than 2 percent of all U.S. Puerto Ricans in 1960 to more than 18 percent in 2010, making Puerto Ricans the second largest Latino group in Florida after Cubans.
“They are going to Orlando, Florida; Texas ... I don’t think the movement right now is to New York,” said Jorge Ayala, 51, owner of the La Fonda Boricua restaurant in East Harlem. “After they finish whatever they’re studying the need to get out to get a better job or better salary or better opportunities in other places.”
While New York is seeing fewer new arrivals from the island than other parts of the country, local Boricuas are nonetheless alarmed.
“It’s affected people who are from there and our relatives who are living over there,” said Michelle Centeno, president of the New York Chapter of the National Conference of Puerto Rican Women.
“We are suffering now ... the people who are living there and the people who are living here,” said María Cortés, 63, a part-time home aide in New York City. “We are still working and sending money to Puerto Rico to support all the family because they don’t have no way to provide on our isle.”
According to the "Puerto Rico — A Way Forward" report, written by former IMF employees and released June 29, Puerto Rico’s economy has contracted at a rate of 1 percent a year for nearly a decade. It’s a reduction the authors of the report describe as “remarkable for an economy suffering neither civil strife nor overt financial crisis.”
The report says that only 40 percent of adults in Puerto Rico — versus 63 percent on the U.S. mainland — are employed or looking for work. “The rest are economically idle or working in the gray economy,” the report adds.
Hector Cordero, a professor in the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College, has researched the demographics of low-income families on the island.
“Clearly low-income people will be asked now to bear the brunt of the challenges and pay for what needs to be paid for — cuts in services and reduction in quality of services, higher fees, higher taxes in consumption,” he said.
Still, those on the island may need to rely on those on the mainland for not just economic and housing assistance but political mobilization, according to Angelo Falcón, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy, a nonpartisan policy center that focuses on Latino issues in the U.S.
“Ironically now the politicians in Puerto Rico who have themselves ignored the community here, the diaspora, in many ways, are now having to become very dependent on possibly the Puerto Ricans here in the U.S. stateside bringing attention to the problem of Puerto Rico,” Falcón said.
José Calderón, president of the Hispanic Federation, a New York-based organization whose mission is to empower the Hispanic community, said Padilla’s announcement was a turning point that has compelled his and other organizations to focus attention on Puerto Rico.
“Like any Latino organization, our principal charge is what’s happening to Latinos in the United States and there are a multitude of issues … job creation, immigration, environment,” Calderón said. “This has made this a top priority without a question.”
The federation is busy organizing Latino and Puerto Rican leadership across the country to articulate a unified position on what the U.S. government response should be.
Meanwhile, New Yorkers like Cortés are figuring out how to make their own positions heard, perhaps at the ballot box.
“We have a very big populations of Puerto Ricans over here in the United States,” said Cortés. “We are millions. And we are looking at the President and the candidate for President in the United States about the situation on our isle.”