SEPTEMBER 10, 1959
NEW YORK—As I drove through the mountains across the island of Puerto Rico last week I passed through several small villages and went by a number of isolated houses which are the homes of the agricultural laborers who do the work on coffee and sugar plantations. These people are not farmers and, in fact, know practically nothing about agriculture. They are farm laborers, used for specific jobs for which they are skilled.
These jobs, however, are open for only limited periods in the year. The rest of the year the laborers must find other work and that often means that a man must leave his family and go into the city or he must go away from his beloved island.
There is still a considerable amount of unemployment on the island, and most Americans, seeing the conditions under which many of the people live, consider the standard of living very poor. For the most part, there is no plumbing. Water is carried in tin cans either from a spring which may be some distance away, or from a spigot somewhere in a settlement. Sanitary privies are being installed, however, in more and more areas.
There is a well-defined pattern of civilization in Puerto Rico. The basic population lives in the country and is a peasant group. Then there are some native landowners who are planters and who consider themselves in a higher group, even though some of the conditions under which they live are not very far removed from those of their workers.
Families are large, and there is a tribal mode of living, so that a child often goes to an aunt or uncle to live if life at home becomes difficult. Wages are somewhat higher than they formerly were, but many of the hard-pressed people in the cities and towns were uprooted from a countryside which they have always known, from a way of life that is primitive and simple.
When there is work to be had, both the men and the women take jobs and so the children are left to roam the village streets. Everyone seems to be a relative or a friend, and the responsibility is widespread for the young. The feeling is friendly and happy, though. Life is simple but the people are happy, on the whole, when they can work and eat. They sing and dance easily.
When families are forced to leave the island and come to the United States, they bring with them the background they have known all their lives. They don't know the meaning of privacy. That was impossible on the island, with big families in houses usually of only two rooms. Life was lived outside more often than inside.
So, major adjustments are faced when they come to our big cities, in a new country with a new language. Here, too, both mother and father will go to work, leaving the children in crowded rooms, for their children are not safe in the city streets.
School is a different kind of school for the children; the world is a different kind of world. Nobody seems to understand them, and few take the time even to try. It is no wonder that the children often get into trouble.
In this regard the University of Puerto Rico is trying to bring about some exchanges between Spanish teachers in this country and some of their teachers so that they may be better able to help these little strangers who are American citizens, for Puerto Rico has a commonwealth status and is a part of the U.S.
I would like to tell you a little more about this tomorrow.