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A Visit to the Puerto Ricans in Spanish Harlem


New York Puerto Ricans still dream of independence
For the past hour, Stephen and I had been strolling through the streets of Spanish Harlem, enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells. Brightly colored murals were so big they stretched from the sidewalks to the rooftops. We heard Spanish music coming from people's houses, and we smelled the wonderful smells of beans, rice, and deep-fried plantains cooking in people's kitchens. It was our first visit in this largely Puerto Rican neighborhood, and we were really enjoying it.

Puerto Rico, an island off the east coast of the United States, is a commonwealth of the United States. The people of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens, but they cannot vote in elections unless they are living in one of the 50 United States. If another country attacks Puerto Rico, the United States will defend the tiny island. But, Puerto Rico is not a state.

Puerto Rico's Past

For a long time, Puerto Rico was ruled by Spain. Then, in 1898, it finally won its independence, which meant it had freedom to be it's own country. That only lasted one week, because the U.S. military took over the country.


Garlic juice! Spanish and salsa are ricocheting off the walls. Beans are burning on the grill .

The Spanish-American War was starting, and the United States decided to buy Puerto Rico. You can see, if you look at a map, that Puerto Rico is not too far from Cuba. The United States thought that if it bought Puerto Rico and stationed soldiers there, it could protect Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland from invasions by armies and navies from other countries.

Spanish Harlem street art
After the U.S. bought Puerto Rico, it built highways and schools on the tiny island. The U.S. government passed a law saying only English could be taught in school. This was upsetting for many Puerto Ricans, because they spoke only Spanish. Some Puerto Ricans were afraid that soon they would not be allowed to have their own culture, and that they would become just like the United States. They liked many things about the U.S., but they also realized that they were different, and they like that, too!

Pros and Cons of U.S. Statehood

In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson passed the Jones Act, which made all Puerto Ricans citizens of the United States. That meant that Puerto Ricans had to serve in the military. In 1952, the island became a commonwealth. Today, many Puerto Ricans want Puerto Rico to become the 51st state of the United States. Many others want Puerto Rico to remain a commonwealth.

Artist James De La Vega has transformed Spanish Harlem
Spanish Harlem, in New York, is where some people from Puerto Rico have come to live. Everyone I talked to there said Puerto Rico should stay a commonwealth, not become a state. Some Puerto Ricans are rather poor, as are some in Spanish Harlem.

One artist named James De La Vega paints murals of revolutionary heroes who helped Puerto Rico gain its independence.

"I also write lots of thoughts on the ground with chalk to get people to think about things," he says. "I want them to understand that they can be what they want to be regardless of how bad their situation is."

Stephen and I left Spanish Harlem feeling the same way.


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Jen - The first U.S. president of Nicaragua!
Neda - A little taste of the Philippines - at the mall food court
Stephen - Cuba Libre! The sweet taste of freedom
Stephen - The Great Panama Canal Grab