Puerto Rican Youth In NYC: Outlook Not So Good


It’s been a week since the Community Service Society of New York released their report, a policy brief titled New York City’s Future Looks Latino: Latino Youth In New York City. Examined in the report are the work, education, and poverty rates of Latino youth in NYC, a population with which I work almost exclusively on a daily basis. This is not so much commentary on the research, I will do that, but I also want to have us rethink the research we are doing on our own communities and in those communities of which we are not a part, specifically Puerto Rican and Dominican populations.

One of my many issues with (this) research is that the researchers view “Latinos” as a racial group instead of using this term as an ethnic identifier.  As a result, Latinos like myself who racially identify as Black are excluded. Why must my ethnicity trump my racial classification and identity? On a regular basis I’m treated more like a woman of Color, a Black woman (or racially ambiguous to some) than I am as a Latina. This becomes a problem when “Latinos” are compared as a group to racially “Black” people living in NYC. We are a part of both groups, and our lived realities and complex identities are oversimplified which eliminates any opportunity to have a fully complete understanding of what is going on within our communities.

And I get it, they, the Community Service Society of New York, didn’t collect the data themselves, they took what was available via the US Census. Yet, with the data demonstrating that Dominicans and Puerto Ricans are the largest ethnic subgroup in NYC, and we are also people from the Caribbean (where the triangle slave trade hit up on a regular basis) how is it that racial classification is nowhere to be found in this document?

I also want to point out that the document identifies “youth” as people ages 16-24, so when they ask about attending school, and find that Puerto Rican youth are not attending school as often compared to other ethnic Latinos, they examine completing high school or less, graduating high school and/or obtaining higher education.  When reporting that Puerto Rican males have the least amount of “formal” education with regards to school enrollment, there is no examination of juvenile detention facilities (which in NYC can hold a youth until they are 21 years old). There is also no discussion of the work that many scholars have discussed, the fact that for many youth of Color (NYC) public schools can be direct “pipelines to prison.” (I just did a quick online search and this was one the first links I found, there’s TONS more research and data if this is new to you).

Another aspect that has yet to really be examined in such research is a look at how Puerto Rican identity is seen as a commodity. Yes, when I say commodity, I mean something that is bought and sold. How are Puerto Rican youth expected to purchase their ethnic identity by large and small corporations, even some non-profits?  One of the first times I read about this idea was in Arlene M. Davila’s book Sponsored Identities: Cultural Politics In Puerto Rico. Davila begins the introductory portion of her book, “Making And Marketing National Identities,” with a discussion of how culture is being sold to Puerto Ricans, and many times by us and what impact this has on us collectively. She uses the following Fanon quote, which I greatly appreciate, to begin her first chapter. She cites from his work On National Culture the following:

It is not enough to try to get back to the people in that past out of which they have already emerged; rather we must join them in that fluctuating movement which they are just giving a shape to, and which, as soon as it has started, will be the signal for everything to be called into question.”

One sentence from this Fanon piece that Davila doesn’t quote, but that I find fitting is: “It is the colonialists that become the defenders of the native style.”

This ties into ideas of co-opting and commodification of an identity, an art, a “native style” that may become fads. Music and performers are good examples of what is being presented here.

Frances Negrón-Montener’s text Boricua Pop! Puerto Ricans And The Latinization of  American Culture explores this connection and commodification. She builds her argument and discussion on the idea of shame. Negrón-Montener writes “modern Puerto Rican ethno-national identity has been constituted in shame as a result of a transnational history of colonial domination in the Caribbean and the contradictory ways boricuas have negotiated with a metropolis at once contemptuous and ostensibly benevolent” (italics in original). Mmmhmmm

As my home girl Maegan “La Mamita Mala” Ortiz points out at VivirLatino.com when she covered this story:

“While many hate to admit it, clinging to colonial citizenship, the Puerto Rican experience, that of my parents, for example, is an immigrant experience, and that should draw all Latinos to work more closely together understanding that we are all being targeted by the state and that the only way we will grow in power as we grow in numbers is together.”

Finally, there is no discussion of sexuality or reproductive health and their connection to work, education and poverty. How could this report have been completed without such a discussion, or even mention? Here at RH Reality Check, we know how access to reproductive health, solid and accurate information about sexuality and sexual health from a culturally affirming space can be an important part of an a young person’s life. We also know this information can save their lives.

Questions/Suggestions I offer not just for this research, but for future research as well. I see this as a sort of wish list/let’s get it together!:

1.    What if we view Puerto Rican and Dominican youth as Caribbean? What findings will we discover that may be different? How will putting these two groups in the same space as Jamaicans, Bajan, and other Caribe people shift our understanding and grouping of them?

2.    What would happen if we examine how Puerto Rican and Dominican youth may also be migrating back to the Caribbean and not staying in NYC? What’s it mean that we assume people want to stay in the US, when for many, assimilation is NOT what they desire and thus leave the US?

3.    Why do we CONTINUE to compare ourselves to other racial groups when we don’t even recognize the racial classification and differences within our community? Have we considered what these approaches do to the youth and people who identify as both/all/more than what we can imagine/work with? And this is beyond identifying as racially Black as Latinos can identify as any racial group!

4.    Have we considered what YOUTH LED research may discover and how that may teach US, researchers/professors/activists/scholars/etc., how to rethink how we conduct research, collect, and examine data?

5.    How can we ensure that this data does not continue to perpetuate Oscar Lewis’ “culture of poverty” that many Puerto Ricans continue to challenge? (I’m not even linking to that nonsense because the fact that I even had to mention it makes me ill and tired.)

6.    Why is there no discussion of “shame” or how our society shames its youth, especially youth of Color? When will we, as adults/researchers/people “in power” examine and recognize the role we play in shaming our youth and include that in the discussion?

7.    In what ways can we make sure that “being Puerto Rican” does not become a risk factor when research like this is conducted and similar findings discovered?

8.    When will more work and research that includes the “psychology of liberation” be used to explore the experiences and national identities of Puerto Ricans, especially youth like that done by Nelson Varas-Díaz and Irma Serrano-García?

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  • maegan-mala-ortiz

    Interestingly enough, or not, the buzz around this report has died down. No se if it’s because people aren’t taking the report seriously or if it’s a sign of something deeper. Could also just be a victim of the ultrafast news cycle that spits out stories with no focus on the follow up.