White, Black, Brown: Racial Formation in the Puerto Rican Diaspora, 1950–80

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 9:30 AM
Madison Room B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Michael Staudenmaier, Aurora University
In the years after World War Two, large numbers of Puerto Ricans left the island, mostly settling in large urban centers in the mainland at the same time as the second great migration of African Americans was gaining speed. In this context, the new arrivals necessarily confronted not only a new environment but also a radically different racialized social system than the one with which they were familiar in Puerto Rico. Over the course of three decades, island-born migrants and their children – in major cities like New York and Chicago, as well as smaller population centers throughout the Northeast and Midwest – experimented with and adapted to novel constructions of their racial identity.

In this paper I examine three distinct approaches to racial identity actively pursued by diasporic Puerto Ricans in the period between 1950 and 1980: whiteness, blackness, and brownness. I focus on a variety of quotidian contexts, including the search for housing and employment, interactions with local police, and efforts to organize public expressions of Puerto Rican culture. Treating racial formation as a process that involves both popular agency and external structural forces, I argue that Puerto Ricans living in the mainland skillfully navigated a dynamic landscape, helping to reshape broader conceptions of racial identity in the United States.

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