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The Origins of Puerto Rican Migration: U.S. Employment Service Bulletin (1918)

In 1898 the United States acquired Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island 1,000 miles southeast of Miami, after victory in the Spanish-Cuban-American War. After an initial military occupation, the United States granted Puerto Rico limited local autonomy. In 1917, the U.S. responded to local pressure for independence by declaring Puerto Ricans citizens of the United States—a “gift” that many Puerto Ricans resented. Large, corporate-financed sugar plantations transformed Puerto Rico’s agricultural economy and displaced thousands of subsistence farmers from their own land, forcing them into the rural wage labor force. These dramatic changes in the rural economy in the years before World War I pushed unemployment levels in Puerto Rico to crisis proportions. At the same time, American entry into the war created labor shortages in many industries on the mainland. This Labor Department bulletin from May 1918 set out plans for bringing more than 10,000 Puerto Rican laborers to the U.S. to work on war-related projects.

Government Work for 10,000 Already Arranged and First Arrivals Will Land Within Month. 75,000 Islanders Now Available.

As one of its means of augmenting the common-labor supply, the Department of Labor, through the United States Employment Service, will shortly begin bringing Porto Rican laborers to continental United States. Within a month the first arrivals will be engaged in construction work on Government contracts, and the Employment Service already has arranged for the employment of more than 10,000 islanders on war work at Norfolk, Newport News, and Baltimore and vicinity. Approximately 75,000 Porto Rican laborers already are available for work in the mainland.

The Porto Rican laborers will receive 35 cents an hour, with time and a half for overtime work. They will be fed by the Government commissary, each man paying 25 cents a meal. Housing will be furnished to these men without cost, and a representative of the Department of Labor now is in the cities in which they will be employed arranging housing accommodations in advance of their arrival.

Army Transports Used

The transfer of this labor, which brings American common labor into the continent, has been heldup for some months through lack of shipping accommodations. The War Department, however, has just agreed to bring over the islanders on the home trips of transports carrying supplies to the mobilization base at San Juan. The possibilities of Porto Rico as a source of common-labor supply were investigated last October by the department through F.C. Roberts, a special representative, who went to the island.

His estimate of 75,000 available men was subsequently confirmed by Santiago Iglesias, member of the Porto Rico Senate and President of the Free Federation of Labor for Porto Rico, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Labor.

Source: "To increase common labor supply with Porto Rican," U.S. Employment Service Bulletin,Department of Labor, Washington, D.C., May 21, 1918 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives).

See Also:Puerto Rican Laborers during World War I: The Deposition of Rafael Marchán