American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations

The Colonia Next Door: Puerto Ricans in the Harlem Community, 1917-1948

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies

First Advisor

Susana Peña (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Lara Lengel (Other)

Third Advisor

Vibha Bhalla (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Nicole Jackson (Committee Member)


This study examines the community-based political work of the pionero generation of Puerto Rican migrants to New York City from their collective naturalization under the Jones Act in 1917 to 1948, when political changes on the island changed migration flows to North America. Through discourse analysis of media narratives in black, white mainstream, and Spanish-language newspapers, as well as an examination of histories of Puerto Rican and allied activism in Harlem, I analyze how Puerto Ricans of this era utilized and articulated their own citizenship- both as a formal legal status and as a broader sense of belonging. By viewing this political work through the perspectives of a range of Harlem political actors, I offer new insights as to how the overlapping and interconnected multicultural communities in Harlem contributed to New York's status (in the words of historian Juan Flores) as a "diaspora city."

I argue that as Puerto Ricans came to constitute a greater social force in the city, dominant narratives within their discursive and political work shifted from a search for recognition by the rest of society to a demand for empowerment from the bottom up and emanating from the Puerto Rican community outward, leading to a diasporic consciousness which encompassed both the quotidian problems of life in the diaspora and the political and economic issues of the island. A localized process of community-building bound diaspora Puerto Ricans more closely together and re-constituted internal social connections, supported an analysis of social problems shared with other Latinx people and African Americans, and utilized ideological solidarities to encourage coalitional politics as a means for mutual empowerment.

In drawing Puerto Ricans into a broad and rich history of Harlem, I consider the insights of a range of neighborhood individuals and groups, including African American and West Indian (im)migrants, allied white populations such as progressive Italians and pacifist organizers, and Puerto Ricans themselves. The resulting analysis from the spaces between Harlem's diverse communities in the early 20th century offers contributions to a range of disciplines and fields, including Puerto Rican and Latinx Studies, African American Studies, Urban History, Media Studies/History, and Sociology.