For the Latinos who have been toughing it out in Massachusetts for the past two decades, almost any recognition is long overdue and much savored. “We’ve been so left out that even a drop of water will help,” says Felix Arroyo, a teacher and social worker who ran for the Boston School Committee two years ago and will do so again this year. “We have functioned with so little money that the opportunity of being treated equally is a big step.”
There has been no great economic miracle since the days when Iglesias visited the rodent-infested apartment houses. Half of the 32,000 Latino families in Massachusetts make less than $10,000 a year. (The federal poverty level least year for a family of four was $9860.) Whereas one in 10 white students fails to meet basic-skill standards set by local school districts, the rate for blacks is one in five, and for Latinos, one in four. In Boston, 65 percent of the Latino kids come from families with incomes of less than $7000 a year. The jobless rate for Latinos in the Lawrence area generally has run twice the overall rate. In Holyoke, Latinos live in the worst housing, and two Hispanic agencies there have accused the city in court of selectively enforcing housing and sanitary codes in an attempt to push Latinos out of the city.
The condition of Latinos in Massachusetts is a reflection of their status nationally. There are more than 141,000 Latinos in the state, and, as in the US, they are the fastest-growing ethnic group. Latinos amount to about 6.5 percent of the national population, or about 14.6 million people, but soon they may account for as much as 25 percent of the nation’s population growth. More than half the Latino population in the US is Mexican, but that profile changes as you move northeast. Most Latinos in New Jersey, New York, and New England are Puerto Ricans, many of them born on the island itself or in what they jokingly refer to as “Puerto Rico North” - the South Bronx.
Migration from the island to the mainland and back has ebbed and flowed over the years, usually depending on how tough life happens to be on the island. For years, the island economy boomed because its commonwealth status enabled mainland industries to operate there tax-free. The postwar economic-development program that Puerto Rican leaders called “Operation Bootstrap” didn’t abolish poverty, but it did build a large middle class on the island. A combination of world recession, a threatened end to tax breaks for industrialists, and Reagan budget cuts has knocked the wind out of the Puerto Rican economy of late. Unemployment there has risen from 17 percent in 1981 to 24 percent, and some say migration to the mainland is up again.