Puerto Rican Civil Rights, Citizenship, and Culture in Postwar Urban America

AHA Session 68
Friday, January 8, 2016: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Crystal Ballroom B (Hilton Atlanta, First Floor)
Aldo Lauria Santiago, Rutgers University-New Brunswick
Aldo Lauria Santiago, Rutgers University-New Brunswick

Session Abstract

Puerto Rican Civil Rights, Citizenship, and Culture in Postwar Urban America

In the last two decades, scholars have done much to reshape our understanding of “the civil rights movement.” Investigating previously untapped local leaders and campaigns, as well as new chronologies and geographical spaces, historians have introduced a series of new considerations into accounts of social and political transformation in postwar America. Most recently, scholars have devoted serious attention to the points of convergence and divergence between the struggle for African-American and Puerto Rican civil rights, examining the degree to which Puerto Ricans, wedged between “the worlds of the racially ‘in-between’ European immigrants as well as the Afro-Caribbean diaspora,” embraced a racially distinct cultural and political identity.[1] This process revealed both internal and external debates regarding Puerto Ricans’ place in the United States and exposed the various ways in which Puerto Ricans sought to attain political power in post-1945 America.

Taking these broader considerations as a jumping off point, our panel examines how Puerto Ricans attempted to achieve political recognition as a distinct minority group in urban America in the 1960s, 70s, and beyond. We specifically analyze how Puerto Rican efforts to secure legal protection for bilingual voters, students, and residents impacted America’s broader shift toward a new “rights-based” liberalism in the postwar period. Examining this development from the perspective of both top-down legal activism and grassroots organizing, we suggest that “language rights” signaled for Puerto Ricans the potential for political influence and, connectedly, cultural recognition. The issue of bilingualism, at the same time, illustrated Puerto Rican efforts to secure control of both physical – school districts and voting booths – and imagined – the El Spirit Republic de Puerto Rico – spaces in various urban locales.

In so doing, Puerto Ricans sought control of important political and cultural institutions. Often utilizing the language and spirit of the ongoing Black freedom struggle, Puerto Ricans played a definitive role in shaping and constructing America’s “long” civil rights movement. Representing a growing and substantial minority group, Puerto Rican leaders, often implicitly or explicitly citing histories of colonialism and imperialism, at times embraced and distanced themselves from an idealized narrative of white ethnic immigrant mobility and advancement. Examining judicial and social activism for new bilingual programs in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as the related processes of Jewish-Puerto Rican coalition building and the creation of new cultural institutions on the Lower East Side, we outline potentially new directions for the study of Puerto Rican civil rights activism in postwar America.

[1] Sonia Song-Ha Lee, Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement: Puerto Ricans, African-Americans, and the Pursuit of Racial Justice in New York City (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2014), 7.

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