In this lesson plan drawing on material from Latino Americans, students examine Puerto Rican experiences of the United States throughout the 20th century. How did the Spanish American War shape the connection between the island and the U.S.? How has this shaped the question of identity for Puerto Ricans? What are the issues surrounding Puerto Rican migration and settlement in New York? Four extensions available.
- Analyze the motivations and outcomes of the Spanish American War, especially with regard to the implications for Puerto Rico.
- Explore and examine Puerto Rican stories of arrival to New York.
- Compare and contrast the positive and negative impacts of the hit, West Side Story.
- Describe challenges and successes of the Puerto Rican community in New York, particularly during the 1940s-70s.
Grade Levels: 7-12+
- 30-45 minutes if discussion based; 1-2 hours if written
- Spanish-American War (video)
- Bernardo Vega (video)
- Puerto Rico to New York (video)
- Rita Moreno & West Side Story (video)
- Herman Badillo (video)
- Intenet access for viewing segments and research
- Pencil and paper for notes (and responses, if assigned as written)
To open, ask students what they know about Puerto Rico and its connection to the United States.
View Spanish American War and Bernardo Vega clips. After viewing segments and taking notes, have students complete the following discussion questions, either in writing or debate/discussion format. Repeat process for Puerto Rico to New York, Rita Moreno & West Side Story, Herman Badillo Clips.
Spanish American War Clip & Bernardo Vega Clip
1. Many groups come to the U.S. as immigrants. In the case of Puerto Ricans, the U.S. came to them. Describe how the United States came to control the island of Puerto Rico.
2. Historian Gary Gerstle describes the contradiction of the U.S. exercising imperial impulses as it does in the Spanish American War. What is the contradiction? How is this question later played out in the status of Puerto Ricans after the war? How does Luis Muñoz Rivera describe living this contradiction?
3. Once Puerto Ricans have the opportunity to move about the United States, which port do most set out for? What are their initial intentions and how do their plans change over time?
4. Analyze and explain the meaning of Puerto Rico’s “Accidental imperial heritage of the Spanish American War?”
5. Explain the concept of a nation with two shores, in relation to the Puerto Rican experience.
Puerto Rico to New York, Rita Moreno & West Side Story, Herman Badillo Clips
1. Describe the setting in Puerto Rico in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
2. What did “Operation Bootstrap” mean for Puerto Rico?
3. What was the role of “el barrio” for Puerto Ricans living in New York City?
4. How were Puerto Ricans viewed in New York in the 1950s? Specifically how did the press portray Puerto Rican youth? Are there any parallels to how youth are sometimes portrayed in today’s media?
5. How did West Side Story and Rita Moreno’s success contribute to perceptions of Puerto Ricans in the mainstream of United States culture? Describe both positive and negative effects of West Side Story.
6. What were common practices in the education of Puerto Rican and Black youth during the childhood of Herman Badillo? What choices did Badillo make to alter his future opportunities? Can something as simple as deciding which class to register for still make a difference in your future as a student?
7. What was the impact of practices like “Literacy Tests” in shaping Puerto Rican voter participation?
8. What issues did Badillo champion during his political career? Are any of these still important issues today?
EXTENSION I: Headlines Yesterday and Today
The media played an important role in shaping the public’s view of Puerto Rican youth. Though youth from many different ethnicities participated in the 1950s gang culture, Puerto Rican youth were especially associated with this trend. Is this still an issue for particular groups of youth? Research newspaper archives online to compare headlines from New York in the 1950s with headlines about youth today. What is similar or different? How is media shaping perceptions about young people? What parts of the story are being emphasized or under-emphasized? Would you alter the way the media reports on youth? How?
EXTENSION II: Nuyorican State of Mind
Given the number of Puerto Ricans in New York over many generations, some use the term “Nuyorican” to describe this particular identity and experience. Research the term and its use in poetry, music, art, and community activism. How did the term come about? Who are its proponents? While pop culture includes many prominent Puerto Rican New Yorkers such as Jenifer Lopez, Willie Colón and others, larger society does not always understand who they are. For example, in summer 2013 Marc Anthony performed at an NBA game and a social media storm took place in its wake. What was the commotion about?
EXTENSION III: Voting Rights
In a good part of U.S. history, literacy tests were used to determine who could participate in the democratic practice of voting. In particular, these tests have been a tool to control the participation of particular groups such as African Americans in the South, Puerto Ricans in New York and Mexican American migrants as far north as Washington State. Find a copy of a voting literacy test using online archives. Take the test. How do you feel after taking it? What might this test mean to you if English was not your first language? What might it mean to you if you did not have access to a quality education or had to drop out of school at a young age to work and support your family?
The questions of who can vote and how is anything but resolved. In the summer of 2013 the Supreme Court struck down a sizeable portion of the Voting Rights Act and activists on one side of the debate see this as an issue of voter suppression while the other side sees it as a question of protecting from voter fraud. Individual states are reacting with new voting legislation which some see as protecting the vote while others see it as steps taken to limit the voter participation of particular communities. Following the summer 2013 ruling, North Carolina passed controversial voter legislation.
Using a research and presentation or in-class debate, address the following questions:
- What are some of the current issues and main actors in the debate over voting rights?
- Literacy tests may not be one of the tactics to control who has access to the ballot box today, but there are other measures being used and under debate. What practices do states use today to determine who can vote and when?
- How do different factions see the use of these measures?
- How will history view the actions of today, compared with those of the era of Herman Badillo and the Voting Rights Act?
EXTENSION IV: Island Issues
Much of the discussion about Puerto Ricans has focused on those who have relocated to the contiguous U.S. But, Puerto Rico itself continues to have a unique status in its connection to the States. Take the pulse of Puerto Rico: What is its political status? What are key social, political and economic issues on the island today?