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Nadjah Ríos-Villarini

Universidad de Puerto Rico, Río Piedras

[Translated by Aitza Maldonado Martich]

      When we think about the Puerto Rican diaspora, we traditionally locate it in continental US in cities like New York, Chicago, and most recently in Orlando. Nonetheless, we barely remember a Puerto Rican migratory movement that since the 1920s found in the United States Virgin Islands, particularly in Saint Croix, an economical, climatic, and cultural refuge. Who are these Puerto Ricans? What motivated them to migrate? How did they work and what cultural traditions do they preserve? These are some questions we try to answer in this edition of Cento Voices: Barrios.

From here to there:

      The 1920s dramatically stressed the economy of the nearby Puerto Rican islands of Vieques and Culebra. The military presence of the United States Navy on both islands propelled the rapid decay of the sugar cane industry motivating the movement of the workforce in two directions: the big island and Saint Croix. The movement to the nearby island was possible because in 1917, the United States had acquired the islands of Saint Croix, Saint Thomas, and Saint John for $25 million as part of a strategic measure to protect the Panama Canal and the Caribbean.

      The island of Saint Croix offered several advantages such as: the transportation between islands was trouble-free, the climatic conditions were very similar, there was a need for someone to work the land, and the United States government was searching to promote an American ideology in a recently acquired territory. However, the Puerto Ricans faced obstacles that troubled this migration, marking a unique hue on this Diaspora. Among the distinctive elements between these islands, the linguistic factor and the cultural customs were the first manifested.

Saint Croix, cultural meeting point:

      At present times, the United States Virgin Islands have been administered by Spain, Great Britain, Holland, France, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, Denmark, and the United States. Each administration has imprinted characteristics that even today can be observed in the architecture, gastronomy, and cultural practices of the inhabitants.

      Saint Croix is divided into two main towns: Christiansted and Frederiksted. Initially, the Puerto Ricans arrived at Frederiksted where they were processed and examined by a doctor which certified that new immigrants were in good health. There, they were received by family members or acquaintances already established on the island. They immediately began to work the land and harvest sugar cane until collecting enough capital to bring the rest of their family. The Bethlehem Central was a home to these first immigrants.

      Other Puerto Ricans arrived at Saint Croix as merchants and established small businesses such as markets, clothing stores and selling of essential articles. The production of coal was an industry that emerged among Puerto Ricans. Some say that a Puerto Rican man called Don Capuleto organized all the charcoal producers until he formed a type of cooperative for the selling and distribution of what they called “electricity” during those times.

      This workforce migration lasted until the end of the 1950s. By then, the Puerto Rican population was so numerous that the Department of Education began recruiting teachers for the establishment of the Bilingual Education Program. This program mainly looked after the educational and linguistic difficulties produced by the cultural shock experimented by new migrants. This second migratory wave was constituted by teachers knowledgeable in all subjects, arriving at Saint Croix with an academic and professional preparation that gave prestige and recognition to the community. This political phenomenon arrived at its highest level toward the end of the 1970s when Juan Francisco Luis, a viequense raised in the Virgin Islands, was elected governor in 1978; he was reelected on several occasions and his administration lasted nine years.

Puerto Crusians, Crusian Rican y Papa Them:

      Currently, the population of Saint Croix is recorded to be 53,324 inhabitants. According to the Census on 2000, this is almost half of the population of the Virgin Islands, which is estimated to be 108,612 inhabitants. From the total of inhabitants, 15,196 were identified as Hispanic, and from this amount, 8,558 specified to be Puerto Rican. These numbers have to be handled carefully because the concepts of ethnicity and race are object of negotiation in everyday life and they are manifested in multiple ways.

      Aside from the Puerto Ricans, other groups converged in this diaspora proceeding from the islands of Saint Kitts, Nevis, Antigua, Bermuda, Saint Lucia, and Dominica. Although American English is the official language, we can also listen to several inhabitants’ dialectic variants of Spanish and two other Creole languages, one with an English base and the other one with a French base.

Santa Cruz @ Centro Voices: Barrios:

      This edition of Barrios offers to our readers historical articles regarding to Saint Croix Puerto Rican diaspora that includes "Relaciones históricas entre Vieques y Santa Cruz" by Roberto Rabin, as well as ethnographic accounts of the diasporic community in "Alianzas, tensiones y contradicciones en la vida social de migrantes puertorriqueñas en Santa Cruz, Islas Vírgenes Americanas: tres experiencias de vida" by Mirerza Gonzalez.

      In addition you will have the opportunity to read life stories in the articles "Narrative of People from the Puerto Rican Community in St. Croix" written by Brenda Dominguez Rosado. Another interesting contribution form an ethnographic point of view is the work of graduate student Kathering Miranda. Finally you will find an interview with distinguished photographer Diego Conde who has spent the last 40 years documenting with images the history of this migration.