The Barrio Congressman: Vito Marcantonio and the Puerto Rican migration

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A report by Jay Maeder for the New York Daily News.

What with a depression and a war and federal quotas, the great waves of the tired, poor and huddled had dried to a trickle, and in the late 1940s there was a full generation of New Yorkers quite unaccustomed to immigrants. It was at this moment that the city suddenly found itself overwhelmed by the largest influx of human beings in 40 years.

They came from the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico  catastrophically overpopulated, desperately impoverished, devastated by decades of sugar company plantationism. All at once there were many thousands of them in the city, where it was said a man might earn in a week what he labored for a year to earn at home. Thus did a new people arrive, as had the forlorn others before them.

But in fact, several things distinguished the puertorriqueos from the immigrant hordes of days past. One was that the earlier travelers had come in boom times, when, whatever their other difficulties, employment opportunities abounded; this was no longer the case, and many of the newcomers found here only wretchedness. Another was that many were of color, doomed to suffer greater daily indignities than had most of their predecessors.

Another, on the other hand, was that Puerto Ricans happened to be U.S. citizens already. Which meant that, indignities or not, they were free to travel as they pleased.

And which meant that they could vote.

This was not lost on U.S. Rep. Vito Marcantonio of Manhattan’s 18th Congressional District.

Vito Marcantonio indignantly denied suggestions that he had personally engineered the postwar Puerto Rican migration purely to pad voter rolls in his district. Still, it was a fact that in November 1946, as his public career seemed otherwise on the wane, el barrio had recently grown by nearly 15,000 newly registered voters who managed to return him to Congress by a squeak.

In 1949, as the new arrivals came and came and came, he was running for mayor.

An early protege of Fiorello LaGuardia and LaGuardia’s successor in Congress after the Little Flower became mayor in 1934, Harlem-born Marcantonio was a professional leftist reviled in Washington for his faithful adherence to the Red line in every vote. Long disavowed by Republicans and Democrats, he had won several elections as the candidate of the American Labor Party, which he had co-founded in 1936. Nobody but the Daily Worker ever supported him  except for his constituents, and even Marcantonio’s critics granted that he spent every weekend on E. 116th St., personally receiving long lines of those in need of succor and comfort.

By 1949, Marcantonio was on the skids. His politics were in disfavor, and he had been damaged by scandal: On Election Day 1946, an opposition pollworker named Joseph Scottoriggio had been beaten to death by a goon squad, and the 80th Congress had tried hard to deny Marcantonio his seat in the wake of the murder. In November 1948, he had needed every one of his voters to get reelected.

And he was going to need even more of them if he hoped to unseat Mayor William O’Dwyer in November 1949.

The “callous exploitation” of Puerto Rico’s tired, poor and huddled, wrote the Daily Mirror’s Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer in 1948, “is one of the dirtiest crimes in the long and shameful record of practical American politics. None knows better than those who have primed and prompted and financed the exodus what they are doing to their victims and what they are doing to the city where they bring them. . . . These poverty-numbed, naive natives are sold a bill. . . . They are told that here fortunes await many and the rest can quickly go on relief. . . . The result is a sullen, disappointed, disillusioned mass of people.”

Every day at the Teterboro, N.J., airfield, rattletrap charter planes disgorged impossible numbers of passengers who had paid as little as $20 for the 14-hour, standing-room-only flight from San Juan. By late 1947 there were perhaps a quarter-million Puerto Ricans in New York, and 2,000 more arrived every month.

Those who found work found it chiefly in the needle trades, in restaurant kitchens, in building services. The truth was that thousands more were unemployable  simple fieldworkers woefully unprepared for city life. It was widely believed, not altogether groundlessly, that many were on the public-relief rolls before they ever got off the plane. Many went straight into the miserable squalor of el barrio, between E. 97th and 116th Sts. in Marcantonio’s district. It was documented that no few were quickly registered as voters in circumvention of residency requirements.

“An Americanization problem of the first magnitude,” fretted a 1947 Board of Education report. New York’s Puerto Ricans inhabited “a margin between cultures,” the report said, victims of “unrealistic expectations through bald lies”  “the illusion that in New York there is abundant housing and employment for everybody” and that “even if no employment is obtained, the government takes care of the people through relief agencies.” The wave of immigration “has reached gigantic proportions. . . . It would appear inevitable that the exodus from the island to the continent will continue and that New York City will be the focal point of this migration.”

The city reeled. Welfare bills came to $12 million a year. Hospitals fought near-epidemic levels of tuberculosis and syphilis. Already overcrowded schools lurched under the burden of 35,000 new students.

Profoundly embarrassed by “the Puerto Rican problem” in New York as he partnered with the U.S. in the Operation Bootstrap program calculated to repair the island’s ruined economy, Puerto Rico’s newly elected Gov. Luis Muoz Marin by mid-1949 was pleading with his people to stay home. But Puerto Rico had a million more souls than it could sustain. Nothing was going to stop the great pilgrimage to the land of plenty.

Marcantonio had long been a hero of Puerto Rico’s nationalist leftists; leaders of the island’s Independence Party now assembled in Spanish Harlem to support his mayoral run. At the same time, Muoz Marin came to town to campaign for O’Dwyer and to beg the city’s Puerto Ricans to dissociate themselves from Marcantonio’s “Red tinge.”

There were other issues in the 1949 mayoral race; O’Dwyer came not without baggage, and Republican challenger Newbold Morris hammered hard at His Honor’s all too apparent coziness with mob boss Frank Costello. But O’Dwyer did find it useful to pledge renewed commitment to the Puerto Rican community and to promise that henceforth it would not need “Communist stooges” to represent its interests.

On Election Day, there proved to be insufficient votes to propel Marcantonio into City Hall, and it was observed that Puerto Ricans did not at this time appear to be factors in the body politic.

Assessing matters not unpresciently, one Abelardo Gonzales of E. 108th St., operator of one of the dozens of Harlem travel agencies specializing in the cheap San Juan flights, had this to say:

“A long time back, everybody was beefing about the Irish when they came over. Then they got themselves a mayor and a senator and some congressmen and people quit bothering about them.

“Then came the Jews, and they started kicking about them. They got themselves a governor and some congressmen and they let up on them. Next came the Italians, and they got guys like LaGuardia and they let up on them.

“But us, we got nobody. So they pick on us. But just you wait. After a while we’ll get some guys, and they’ll let up on us, too. That’s the way it goes.”

By November 1950, a Red tinge was a serious political liability, even in the 18th District, and this time Marcantonio was not reelected. Comeback proceedings ended in August 1954, when he dropped dead in City Hall Park at age 51.

New York’s Puerto Rican population was 610,000 in 1960, 847,000 in 1970.

First published on August 9, 1998  as part of the “Big Town” series on old New York.

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