From Yauco to Cleveland: A Brief History of Puerto Ricans in Cleveland, Ohio

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Most people don’t realize that there is a very relevant Puerto Rican population in Cleveland, Ohio. If you walk around New York City, a city with an obvious Puerto Rican presence, as a Puerto Rican from Cleveland the first reaction to “I’m actually from Cleveland not New York City” one might receive is the typical “que QUE?!” or the notorious “there’s Puerto Ricans in Cleveland?” question. The answer is yes, lots and lots. There are so many Puerto Ricans in the northeast Ohio area, that to ignore our existence while studying the Puerto Rican diaspora would be to ignore a significant part of its history. Although Cleveland is only a fraction of the size of places where Puerto Rican populations are larger, such as New York City and now parts of Central Florida, Cleveland’s Puerto Rican population is very present and strong. About 85% of the Latino population in Cleveland identify as Puerto Rican and the majority of Puerto Ricans living in inner city Cleveland live on what is called Cleveland’s near-west side (or Little Puerto Rico). Just a two minute ride across the Lorain-Carnegie bridge that goes over the Cuyahoga River from downtown Cleveland to the west side of Cleveland is one of the many ways that will take you to Little Puerto Rico. Although Puerto Ricans living in the Greater Cleveland area come from everywhere on the island, a very large population of Puerto Ricans trace either their roots or birthplaces to Yauco, Puerto Rico, and secondly to San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico.

Steelyard Commons right outside of Little Puerto Rico Source: unknown

Steelyard Commons right outside of Little Puerto Rico
Source: unknown

The first Puerto Ricans who migrated to Cleveland came right after many Puerto Ricans settled in New York City, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The original “Puerto Rican settlement” in Cleveland was on Cleveland’s east side in the Hough, Lexington and Superior neighborhoods. Puerto Ricans living in these neighborhoods were workers who, alongside their families, were recruited to work on the steel mills and in the automobile factories and greenhouses. Puerto Ricans chose to settle here for proximity to work but more so for proximity to the historical St. Paul’s Shrine and Our Lady of Fatima Catholic churches which had the city’s only Spanish-speaking priests. Historically speaking, this section of town was primarily made up of a mixture of Irish and German immigrants but drastically changed following the end of World War II. After World War II many African American soldiers and their families were displaced and could no longer afford to live in some of their original neighborhoods so they were “corralled” and provided low income public housing in the Hough/Lexington/Superior area. Racial tensions were evident during this time, and many white families immediately moved out into suburbs such as Garfield Heights. For a short time (up to the 60s) this made the Hough/Lexington/Superior neighborhood a fusion of displaced African Americans and Puerto Rican migrants, but slowly the neighborhood began to economically deteriorate, prompting a mass exodus from the east side of Cleveland to the near west side of Cleveland for Puerto Ricans.

In 1958 a new “Puerto Rican settlement” in Cleveland, Ohio was being established. Though many Puerto Ricans remained on the east side in the former Puerto Rican dominated neighborhood – even today – the vast majority moved to Cleveland’s west side. This section of town is known as Cleveland’s near-westside, Ohio City, Little Puerto Rico, and, more recently, la Villa Hispana (in order to include the small growing Dominican, Cuban and Central American populations). During the 1960s opportunities on the west side of Cleveland were more hopeful than on the east side. There was a need for businesses to start and “Little Puerto Rico” was close to the FLATS, a zone where many factories and steel mills where Puerto Ricans work existed. Many Puerto Ricans worked in these factories and, especially, Cleveland’s once economically profitable steel mills. Though this is the more popular tale of Puerto Ricans in Ohio, not all Puerto Ricans settled in Cleveland during Puerto Rico’s mass economic exodus of the 40s-60s.

Many Puerto Ricans settled in Lorain, Ohio. Lorain is located about 30 miles west of Cleveland headed towards Toledo, in the direction of Detroit, Michigan. Although Lorain, Ohio’s Puerto Rican population is smaller than that of Cleveland by size, Lorain has the most densely populated Puerto Rican community in the entire state of Ohio. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, about 500 Puerto Rican workers were recruited to work in the factory of the National Tubing Company in South Lorain. In parts of Lorain, the deplorable living conditions for Puerto Ricans during the time are still very visible as some of the barracks Puerto Rican workers were housed in on company grounds still exist. They are abandoned and empty, but they still exist and it is possible to tour some of these barracks. The S.G. Friedman Farm Labor Agency of Philadelphia was responsible for the mass recruitment, and in reports on the “economic investment” S.G. Friedman himself made it evident that Puerto Ricans were no more than bodies to be used and exploited for labor purposes. The irony is that S.G. Friedman was born on the same island as “the gooks”, as he called Puerto Rican workers. But, perhaps to little surprise, he was born to a father who was one of the US American terrorists that invaded Guánica in 1898, which just so happens to be a part of Yauco’s metropolitan statistical area, an area where some US American associates of S.G. Friedman and National Tube Company with ties to Cleveland (rather than Lorain) recruited from. This explains the heavy concentration of people coming from Yauco, Puerto Rico to Cleveland, Ohio.

Lorain and Cleveland, Ohio are crucial cities when it comes to documenting the history of the Puerto Rican diaspora in the Midwest United States, especially in regards to labor. This is a part of the mass post-World War II economic exodus from which many of us draw our roots and find our heritage. Lorain and Cleveland were some of the first cities to conduct labor recruitment in Puerto Rico and the companies that recruited Puerto Rican workers proved to be financially successful. Lorain, Ohio served as an experiment for other cities, such as Gary, Indiana, that recruited Puerto Ricans to work. Puerto Ricans worked for cheap in Lorain, “will work for two shifts instead of one”, and were “well behaved”, as explained by S.G. Friedman. This prompted representatives from Carnegie Steel Company in Indiana to travel to Lorain, Ohio to investigate how National Tube Company and other factories and industrial mills with Puerto Rican workers operated. Unlike Cleveland, many of the workers who were recruited from Puerto Rico to Lorain came from all over the island rather than just Yauco or even San Lorenzo.

As Little Puerto Rico, Cleveland grew, so did the need for Puerto Ricans to unite and preserve a Puerto Rican culture. Many Puerto Ricans began small businesses in the 50s and 60s which have served as important parts of our community. Many organizations continue to provide services to Puerto Ricans who have been established in Cleveland since as early as the 40s, and Puerto Ricans who just arrived and are looking for opportunity. Recently the Cleveland Chapter of the National Boricua Human Rights Network traveled to New York City to march for Oscar López Rivera and experienced the “Nuyorican” culture.  Many of our members fell in love with the energy of Nuyoricans and mentioned that Little Puerto Rico wasn’t as good in terms of event turnout and certainly did not have as high an energy level, to which Mr. Juan Molina Crespo, executive director of Hispanic Alliance Inc. in Cleveland and also “padrino” of the 2014 Puerto Rican Parade of Cleveland, mentioned his efforts and the efforts of other community members to keep our community intact, comfortable and great for Puerto Ricans to thrive.

Nowadays the memory of the impact of the steel mills on Cleveland’s Puerto Rican population lie within the stories of our elders and even the decoration and design of the Steelyard Commons, a shopping center located near the Westside Market on the outskirts of Little Puerto Rico. Many of the steel mills where Puerto Ricans worked were closed, relocated, or suffered budget cuts in the 80s and 90s, leaving some Puerto Ricans jobless – but the community continues to grow. Even with the economic woes left on Puerto Ricans in Cleveland by the steel mill companies, many organizations and small businesses in Cleveland continue to serve the Puerto Rican population and keep us together. La Borincana Foods, a Puerto Rican owned and operated bodega that even sells ingredients, spices, and herbs from countries in Africa, continues to sell the best spices, cafe and other pieces of the cuisine from Puerto Rico. El Rincón Criollo, El Caribe, and El Taino, are restaurants where Cleveland Puerto Ricans and non-Puerto Ricans often gather and enjoy authentic flavors of Puerto Rican food. El Barrio Center for Families and Children serves many families of Puerto Rican descent educationally and medically. Esperanza Inc. serves youth and families in the area of education, college readiness and literacy. Julia de Burgos Cultural Arts Center provides performing arts workshops and hosts some of Cleveland’s most memorable Puerto Rican events, such as an annual parade that occurs every August. Cleveland, in fact, has far too many organizations and businesses geared towards sustaining the Puerto Rican population in Cleveland and its suburbs to even mention them all in this article.

Cleveland is often overlooked when people discuss the Puerto Rican Diaspora, but in order to understand the economic history, educational history, and how an economic crisis has affected Puerto Ricans in the island, one must study and investigate the stories of Cleveland Puerto Ricans and Lorain Puerto Ricans who are former recruited workers or even the descendants of the obreros yauconos (or people with heritage from San Lorenzo). Nowadays, Puerto Ricans living in Cleveland come from everywhere – from Mayagüez to Juana Díaz, from Guayama to Utuado – but one of the most captivating of stories about Puerto Ricans in Cleveland is the story of Puerto Ricans from Yauco, one of the most popular pueblitos puertorriqueños represented in Cleveland.

Sources:
IRON AND STEEL INDUSTRY – The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, clevelandhistorical.org, Puerto Rico 2006: Memoirs of A Writer in Puerto Rico, HISPANIC COMMUNITY – The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

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Dorothy Bell Ferrer

(Also known as Dorothy Bell) is an Afrolatina (Boricua/ Dominicana) activist who has lived her life in Cleveland, Ohio exploring and learning about her culture and who she is. She is currently a senior working on a B.S. in political science with a minor in Spanish language. Dorothy is also a community organizer for National Boricua Human Rights Network in Cleveland and as a devoted independentista, often shares her political views using social media and her personal blog. In her free time she enjoys writing, dancing, learning, serving others, developing her knowledge of the African Diaspora and talking to people about their experiences. 

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