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Organizing Puerto Rican Domestics: Resistance and Household Labor Reform in the Puerto Rican Diaspora after 1930

  • Emma Amador (a1)

On November 28, 1946, a group of Puerto Rican women picketed the Chicago offices of Castle, Barton, and Associates, a private employment agency that had brought them to the city to become domestic workers. They protested low wages, long hours, and deductions from their pay for transportation and other costs. Their resistance challenged the Puerto Rican and United States governments to both recognize local labor exploitation and grapple with Puerto Rican rights as those of migrant United States citizens. These women made demands on the Puerto Rican state to regulate migrant contract work and sponsor training programs for domestic work. They would succeed as colonial subjects to gain recognition as workers. Nonetheless, they failed to win well-paid, safe, and desirable jobs. This history of Puerto Rican women's domestic work and their struggle for regulation illuminates a formative moment in the history of Puerto Rican women's organizing and activism for labor rights.

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1. This article builds on a rich tradition of Puerto Rican labor histories that have explored Puerto Rican migration, the central role of Puerto Rican women as founders of Puerto Rican migrant communities, and the important role that domestic workers played in this history. See, for example, Toro-Morn, Maura I., “Gender, Class, Family, and Migration: Puerto Rican Women in Chicago,” Gender & Society 6 (1995): 712–26; Morn, Maura I. Toro, “Género, trabajo y migración: las empleadas domésticas puertoriqueñas en Chicago,” Revista de Ciencias Sociales 7 (1999): 102–25; Toro-Morn, Maura I.Yo era muy arriesgada: A Historical Overview of the Work Experiences of Puerto Rican Women in Chicago,” CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies 13 (2001): 2543 ; Carmen Teresa Whalen, From Puerto Rico to Philadelphia: Puerto Rican Workers and Postwar Economies (Philadelphia, 2001); Ana Y. Ramos-Zayas, National Performances: The Politics of Class, Race, and Space in Puerto Rican Chicago (Chicago, 2003); Gina M. Pérez, The Near Northwest Side Story: Migration, Displacement, and Puerto Rican Families (Berkeley, 2004); Mérida M. Rúa, Latino Urban Ethnography and the Work of Elena Padilla (Urbana, IL, 2010); Mérida M. Rúa, A Grounded Identidad: Making New Lives in Chicago's Puerto Rican Neighborhoods (Oxford, 2012); Lilia Fernandez, Brown in the Windy City: Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Postwar Chicago (Chicago, 2012).

2. For an overview, see Mérida M. Rúa's history of the Puerto Rican diaspora in Chicago: Rúa, A Grounded Identidad.

3. On the history of Puerto Rican United States territorial citizenship, the right of Puerto Ricans to move to the US, and the construction of differences in citizenship rights, see, Charles R. Venator Santiago, Puerto Rico and the Origins of U.S. Global Empire: The Disembodied Shade (New York, NY, 2015).

4. Most labor histories have centered on the important role of women in needlework. See, for example, Altagracia Ortiz, Puerto Rican Women and Work: Bridges in Transnational Labor History (Philadelphia, 1996). Puerto Rican histories that investigate domestic work with a focus on earlier periods include Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, Women and Urban Change in San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1820–1868. (Gainesville, FL, 1999); Terestia Martínez Vergne, Shaping the Discourse on Space: Charity and Its Wards in Nineteenth-Century San Juan, Puerto Rico (Austin, TX, 1999).

5. For an overview of this critique see, Crespo, Elizabeth, “Domestic Work and Racial Divisions in Women's Employment in Puerto Rico, 1899–1930,” CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies 8 (1996): 3041 . On the need for histories of women of African descent in Puerto Rico, see Idsa E. Alegría Ortega and Palmira N. Ríos-González, Contrapunto de género y raza en Puerto Rico (San Juan, Puerto Rico, 2005).

6. For more on Puerto Rican history after US intervention, see César J. Ayala and Rafael Bernabe, Puerto Rico in the American Century: A History Since 1898 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2007).

7. On the history of Puerto Rican migration to the United States, see Virginia Sánchez Korrol, From Colonia to Community: The History of Puerto Ricans in New York City (Berkeley, CA, 1994); Jorge Duany, The Puerto Rican Nation on the Move: Identities on the Island & in the United States (Chapel Hill, NC, 2002); Carmen Teresa Whalen and Víctor Vázquez-Hernández, The Puerto Rican Diaspora: Historical Perspectives (Philadelphia, 2005); Jorge Duany, Blurred Borders: Transnational Migration between the Hispanic Caribbean and the United States (Chapel Hill, NC 2011).

8. On the economic history of Puerto Rico, see James L. Dietz, Economic History of Puerto Rico: Institutional Change and Capitalist Development (Princeton, NJ, 1986).

9. See, for example, María del Carmen Baerga, ed., Género y trabajo: la industria de la aguja en Puerto Rico y el Caribe hispánico (San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1993); Lydia Milagros González García, Una puntada en el tiempo la industria de la aguja en Puerto Rico, 1900–1929 (Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, 1990); Eileen Boris, “Needlewomen under the New Deal in Puerto Rico, 1920–1945,” in Puerto Rican Women and Work: Bridges in Transnational Labor (Philadelphia, 1996), 33–54. Felix V. Matos-Rodriguez and Linda C. Delgado, eds., Puerto Rican Women's History: New Perspectives (New York, 1998).

10. On women's labor organizing and activism during the 1930s, see Blanca Silvestrini-Pacheco, “Women as Workers: The Experience of the Puerto Rican Women in the 1930s,” in Cross-Cultural Perspectives on the Women's Movement, ed. Ruby Leavitt (Le Hague, 1975), 247–61.

11. Whalen, From Puerto Rico to Philadelphia. Whalen, Carmen Teresa, “Sweatshops Here and There: The Garment Industry, Latinas, and Labor Migrations,” International Labor and Working-Class History 61 (2002): 4568 .

12. Sánchez Korrol, From Colonia to Community.

13. On Puerto Ricans and race in the United States, see Clara E. Rodriguez, Puerto Ricans: Born in the USA (New York, 1989); Duany, Jorge, “The Rough Edges of Puerto Rican Identities: Race, Gender, and Transnationalism,” Latin American Research Review 40 (2005): 177–90.

14. For more on the history of Puerto Rican migration to New York, see Lorrin Thomas, Puerto Rican Citizen: History and Political Identity in Twentieth-Century New York City (Chicago, 2010).

15. Scholars have explored how European immigrants to the United States gradually became “white” through their incorporation in US economies during this period: David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (New York, 1991); Thomas Guglielmo, White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890–1940 (New York, 2004). Puerto Rican studies scholars have noted how this was not the case for Puerto Rican migrants: Jorge Duany, The Puerto Rican Nation on the Move: Identities on the Island and in the United States (Chapel Hill, NC 2002).

16. For more on social activism and labor organizing in the Puerto Rican migrant community in New York, see Jesús Colón, A Puerto Rican in New York (New York, 1982); Virginia Sánchez Korrol, From Colonia to Community; Thomas, Puerto Rican Citizen (Chicago, 2010).

17. In Lawrence Chenault's study of Puerto Rican migration published in 1938 he wrote that the Puerto Rican Employment Agency was “[to] the Puerto Rican. … much more than just an employment agency. It may help him collect his wages, advise him about a pension, assist him with a problem or relief, or perform any of various other necessary services for him.” The Puerto Rico Migrant in New York City (New York, 1938), 75.

18. As Puerto Rican government officials issued identification documents, they grappled with deploying racial categories. Thomas, Puerto Rican Citizen, 71–75.

19. Ibid.

20. On the history of employment agencies placing domestic workers, see Phyllis M. Palmer, Domesticity and Dirt: Housewives and Domestic Servants in the United States, 1920–1945 (Philadelphia, 1989); Vanessa H. May Unprotected Labor: Household Workers, Politics, and Middle-Class Reform in New York, 1870–1940 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2011); Alana Erickson Coble, Cleaning Up: The Transformation of Domestic Service in Twentieth Century New York City (New York, 2006).

21. May, Unprotected Labor; Coble, Cleaning Up.

22. Chenault, The Puerto Rico Migrant.

23. For more on the raced and gendered history of care and domestic work, see Evelyn Nakano Glenn, Unequal Freedom: How Race and Gender Shaped American Citizenship and Labor (Cambridge, MA, 2012); Eileen Boris and Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, Intimate Labors: Cultures, Technologies, and the Politics of Care (Stanford, CA, 2010).

24. Chenault, The Puerto Rican Migrant, 77.

25. For more on the history of Americanization and home economics in the Puerto Rican public education system, see Aida Negrón de Montilla, Americanization in Puerto Rico and the Public-School System, 1900–1930 (Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, 1975); José-Manuel Navarro, Creating Tropical Yankees: Social Science Textbooks and U.S. Ideological Control in Puerto Rico, 1898–1908 (New York, 2002).

26. See Palmer, Domesticity and Dirt, 102. The Works Progress Administration trained black women in household work: Victoria W. Wolcott, Remaking Respectability: African American Women in Interwar Detroit (Chapel Hill, NC, 2001), 226–29; Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present (New York, 1985), 181–85.

27. For more on Casita Maria, see Virginia Sanchez-Korrol, “The Forgotten Migrant: Educated Puerto Rican Women in New York City, 1920–1940,” in The Puerto Rican Woman: Perspectives on Culture, History and Society (Santa Barbara, CA, 1986), 170–79. See also, “Open House Held by Casita Maria,” New York Times, November 20, 1939, 16.

28. Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics in Washington, D.C., 1910–1940 (Washington, DC, 1994); Tera Hunter, To ‘joy my Freedom: Southern Black Women's Lives and Labors after the Civil War (Cambridge, MA, 1997).

29. Between 1930 and 1936 the agency placed 1,537 women as domestic workers, a number equivalent to those placed as needleworkers and hand sewers (699) and garment workers (694) combined. Moreover, overall far more women were placed (3,641) than men (1,977). Chenault, The Puerto Rico Migrant, 74.

30. On the PPD modernization programs, see Ayala and Bernabe, Puerto Rico in the American Century. Duany, Blurred Borders.

31. For more on how working-class Puerto Rican women became the subjects of state-sponsored social reform projects that rested upon discourses about overpopulation, see Laura Briggs, Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico (Berkeley, CA, 2002).

32. James L. Dietz, Economic History of Puerto Rico.

33. On the contract labor program, see Maldonado, Edwin, “Contract Labor and the Origins of Puerto Rican Communities in the United States,” International Migration Review 13 (1979): 103121 . City University of New York, Labor Migration Under Capitalism: The Puerto Rican Experience (New York, 1979); Duany, Blurred Borders; Whalen, From Puerto Rico to Philadelphia.

34. Whalen, From Puerto Rico to Philadelphia.

35. For more on the migration of domestic workers to Chicago, see, for example, Toro-Morn, “Gender, Class, Family, and Migration;” Toro-Morn, “Yo era muy arriesgada;” Toro-Morn, “Género, trabajo y migración;” Rúa, Latino Urban Ethnography; Rúa, A Grounded Identidad.

36. Rúa, Latino Urban Ethnography.

37. Toro-Morn, “Género, trabajo y migración.”

38. Mérida M. Rúa notes that the racialization of the workers was one of the central concerns of Puerto Rican anthropologist Elena Padilla's thesis on Puerto Rican workers: Rúa, Latino Urban Ethnography; Elena Padilla, “Puerto Rican Immigrants in New York and Chicago: A Study in Comparative Assimilation” (MA thesis, University of Chicago, 1947).

39. “60 Puerto Ricans Picked up by Vice Squads,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 5, 1947. Employers also threatened some domestic workers with “deportation” if they left their jobs. Rúa, A Grounded Identidad, 8.

40. Nichoas De Genova, “‘White’ Puerto Rican Migrants, the Mexican Colony, ‘Americanization,’ and Latino History,” in Latino Urban Ethnography and the Work of Elena Padilla, ed. Mérida M. Rúa (Urbana, 2010), 157–77.

41. Ibid.

42. Phyllis Palmer, Domesticity and Dirt.

43. Rúa, A Grounded Identidad, 7.

44. Merida Rúa has documented the network of professional Puerto Rican women and students at the University of Chicago who allied themselves with the Puerto Rican domestic workers. Rúa, Latino Urban Ethnography.

45. According to Rúa a group of more than fifty domestic workers held a protest on Thanksgiving Day where they “refused to work or speak English,” and the protest was also attended by “members of the United States Progressives and the Worker's Defense League.” Rúa, A Grounded Identidad, 11–13.

46. Ibid.

47. Cros, Fernando and Quintero, Ana Helvia, “Entrevista a Carmen Isales,” Revista del Consejo General de Educación 1 (1992–1993). From the Fundación Luis Muñoz Marín, Puerto Rico, DIVEDCO Collection, Folder: Juan Dávila Díaz.

48. Ibid.

49. Carmen Isales was a social worker who built social welfare programs in Puerto Rico and was later hired by the Puerto Rican government to study and write about Puerto Rican migration. Clarence Ollson Senior and Carmen Isales, The Puerto Ricans of New York City (New York, 1948.)

50. Merida Rúa references Isales report: Carmen Isales, “Report on Cases of Puerto Rican Laborers Brought to Chicago to Work as Domestics and Foundry Workers Under Contract with Castle, Barton and Associates, Inc,”(Confidential), March 22, 1947 (Section IV, series 2, subseries 9B, folder 277), Fundación Luis Muñoz Marín; Mérida M. Rúa, A Grounded Identidad, 159.

51. Puerto Rican government representative Vicente Giégel-Polanco traveled to Chicago to investigate the case and stated that he “would recommend better contracts for the Puerto Rican workers who come to the United States in groups.” See also, “Puerto Rican Senator Here to Aid Natives,” Chicago Daily Tribune, January 10, 1947, 26. Also see Carmen Whalen, From Puerto Rico to Philadelphia, 58.

52. For example, this question was raised during Congressional hearings on the Federal Security Appropriations Bill in 1948, within which field agents of the Women's Bureau discussed their role intervening in the domestic work scandal in Chicago. See Supplemental Hearing On Labor-Federal Security Appropriation Bill for 1949: Hearings Before the Subcommittee of the Committee On Appropriations, United States Senate, Eightieth Congress, Second Session, On H.R. 5728, an Act Making Appropriations for the Dept. of Labor, the Federal Security Agency, And Related Independent Agencies, for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1949, And for Other Purposes. Public Health Service; Construction of Research Facilities. March 23, 1948, 81st Cong, 2d Session (1948) (testimony of Miss Freida S. Miller, Director of the Women's Bureau U.S. Department of Labor), 138–146. The original transcription of Frieda Miller's testimony is located in Frieda Miller Papers, Schlesinger Library, box 8, folder 168.

53. Ibid.

54. See García-Colón, Ismael, “Claiming Equality: Puerto Rican Farmworkers in Western New York.” Latino Studies 6 (2008): 269–89. On the Migration Division, see Michael Lapp, “Managing Migration: The Migration Division of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans in New York City, 1948–1968” (PhD diss., Johns Hopkins University, 1991).

55. The black press published a number of articles about Frances Phillips’ departure to Puerto Rico. “Frances Phillips Leaves for Post,” New York Amsterdam News, August 28, 1948, 30; “Honored on Eve of Leaving for Assignment in Puerto Rico,” Afro-American, August 28, 1948, 1; “Fete Gotham Expert Who Takes Puerto Rican Post,” The Chicago Defender, September 4, 1949.

56. On home economics in Puerto Rico, see José Enrique Flores Ramos, “Mujer, familia y prostitución: La construcción del género bajo la hegemonía del Partido Popular Democrático, 1940–1968” (PhD diss., University of Puerto Rico, 2002).

57. Flores Ramos, “Mujer, familia y prostitución.”

58. “Fete Gotham Expert Who Takes Puerto Rican Post,” The Chicago Defender, September 4, 1948, 17.

59. “Puerto Ricans Train for U.S. Domestic Jobs,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 8, 1947, 15.

60. “Household Workers from Puerto Rico Arrive in New York: First Group in Island Government's Project Go to Scarsdale,” Labor Information Bulletin, May 1948. For more on this program, see Whalen, From Puerto Rico to Philadelphia, 59. For more on the role of these reformers in the creation of the Migration Division, see Lapp, “Managing Migration.”

61. “Household Workers from Puerto Rico Arrive in New York.”

62. Whalen, From Puerto Rico to Philadelphia.

63. For a history of black women's struggle to move away from live-in domestic work, see Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, Living in, Living Out: African American Domestics in Washington, D.C., 1910–1940 (Washington, DC, 1994).

64. On alternative forms of labor resistance developed by black women domestic workers, see Tera W. Hunter, To ‘joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women's Lives and Labors After the Civil War (Cambridge, MA, 1997).

65. Petroamerica Pagán de Colón was a social worker, labor reformer, and Migration Division agent, see: Michael Lapp, “Managing Migration.”

66. The records of the job orders kept by the Household Worker Program are a part of the records of the Migration Division housed at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies. The role of the agency in placing domestic workers was also discussed in reports by the regional offices of the Migration Division in different cities. The Institutional Records of the Offices of the Government of Puerto Rico in the United States (OGPRUS), 1950–1988, Job Orders: Household Records, Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, Center for Puerto Rican Studies. For example: Midwest Office, Monthly Report, Director, 1954, Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, Center for Puerto Rican Studies, OGPRUS Migration Division box 2262, folder 1.

67. Michael Lapp, “Managing Migration,” 122.

68. There are numerous mentions of the circulation of these types of files in the records of the Migration Division located in the Office of the Puerto Rican Government in the United States (OGPRUS) collection housed in the Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College. See, for example, OGPRUS, Social Service Program, Box 2367, Folder 1.

69. Eileen Boris and Jennifer Klein, Caring for America: Home Health Workers in the Shadow of the Welfare State (New York, 2012).

70. Boris and Klein, Caring for America.

71. On the participation of Puerto Ricans in the welfare rights movement, see Sonia Song-Ha Lee, Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement: Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and the Pursuit of Racial Justice in New York City (Chapel Hill, NC, 2014). Felicia Kornbluh, The Battle for Welfare Rights: Politics and Poverty in Modern America (Philadelphia, 2007). On welfare rights more generally, Premilla Nadasen, Rethinking the Welfare Rights Movement (New York, 2012).

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International Labor and Working-Class History
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