Puerto Rican Farm Workers
by Ruth Glasser
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A young man hangs batches of sewn tobacco
leaves to dry. September 1968. Photo by Ellery Kingston.
there's a harvest, you've got Puerto Ricans working there,"
observes Néstor Morales. Morales knows what he's talking
about-he first came to Connecticut from his native Cataño
to work on a tobacco farm.
It was 1964. Morales was a veteran of the United States Army. He
was a trained cook, but unemployment was high in Puerto Rico and
he couldn't find a job. So he went to his regional employment office
in Bayamón and filled out an application to be a farm worker
on the United States mainland.
Morales didn't know where he would be going until he was on the
plane. "It could be Florida, it could be Chicago, it could
be New Jersey. I wound up in Connecticut." But he and his companions
were so desperate that, "We didn't care where they sent us.
We just wanted to work."
In late April, Morales and his fellow recruits arrived at the Hartford/Windsor
Locks airport. Buses took them to a camp surrounded by barbed wire
and patrolled by armed guards. From there, the workers were sent
to different tobacco farms in northern Connecticut and southern
Néstor Morales was just one of tens of thousands of Puerto
Rican farm workers who came to Connecticut in the post-World War
II era. Why did Morales and so many others feel a desperation that
made them leave their homes, families, and friends behind in Puerto
Rico? What was it like to be an agricultural contract worker in
Before the Spanish-American War of 1898, most Puerto Ricans were
struggling small farmers or plantation workers. The defeat of the
Spanish and the beginning of United States occupation of Puerto
Rico only made their situation worse. Puerto Rico's coffee farmers were not protected by United States tariff
laws and could not compete in the world market against other coffee
producers. When Hurricane San Ciriaco hit the island in 1899, it destroyed
that year's crop and put many farmers over the edge financially.
En términos de quienes venían
a las fincas, el emigrante de los años 40 era un hombre
más avanzado en edad que tenía mucha experienca
en el cultivo. Y eran más propensos a ir y venir. Al
envejecer, menos de ellos venían, y eran reemplazados
por hombres más jóvenes, quienes frecuentemente
buscaban viviendas y asentamiento en el área. Pienso
también que las mujeres comienzan a llegar a partir
de los años 70. Antes de eso la inmensa mayoría
In terms of who was coming to the farms,
the migrant of the 40s was an older man who had a great deal
of experience in farming. And they were more likely to go
back and forth. As they got older, fewer of them came, and
they were replaced by the younger men, and it was the younger
men very often who then sought housing and settling into the
area. I think also that in the 70s you have women coming.
Prior to that it was overwhelmingly men.
In the meantime, the island's huge sugar industry was increasingly
controlled by United States companies. During the first half of
the 20th century, United States sugar plantations swallowed up many
acres of land formerly belonging to small farmers. As these big
growers used more sophisticated machinery to cultivate, harvest,
and process the sugar, they also hired fewer and fewer workers.
Small farmers and plantation workers displaced by the decline of
coffee production and the corporatization of the sugar industry
poured into Puerto Rico's cities.
Sonye Davis sews tobacco leaves, Windsor,
CT ,1975. Sewing was generally done by women on machines set
up in the drying barns. Photograph by N. Roy.
Bootstrap was a post-World War II economic development program formulated
by the Puerto Rican government. It attracted manufacturing concerns,
mainly from the United States, with the promise of land, tax breaks,
and cheap labor. But the companies coming to Puerto Rico did not
provide nearly enough jobs. Even Puerto Rican government officials
admitted that Operation Bootstrap could not alleviate unemployment
unless as many as 60,000 people left the island each year.
There was a strong precedent for such a migration. In the early
part of the 20th century, Puerto Ricans had worked in agriculture
and industry in places as far flung as Ecuador, Hawaii, Venezuela,
and Arizona. Since becoming United States citizens in 1917, many
had come to the mainland in search of jobs. Most settled in New
York City. By 1947, the New York daily press sounded an alarm over
the tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans flowing into the city. They
claimed that there would not be enough jobs and social services
to accommodate the migrants.
In the meantime, large-scale United States farmers were looking
for workers. Since the 19th century, they had benefited from an
almost unrestricted flow of overseas labor to work their low wage,
undesirable jobs. But beginning in the 1920s, a series of federal
laws severely limited the number of immigrants into the United States.
By the post-World War II era, there were few United States residents
willing to labor in agriculture.
It was not surprising, therefore, that both island and mainland
government officials would see Puerto Ricans as a solution to the
labor needs of United States growers. In 1947, the Department of
Labor of Puerto Rico established its Migration Division to arrange
contracts between mainland farmers and unemployed Puerto Ricans.
Division recruiters traveled the winding island roads in cars with
bullhorns, distributed leaflets, and placed ads in newspapers announcing
good jobs in the United States. By 1955, the Migration Division
had also established offices in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey,
Massachusetts, Ohio-and Hartford, Connecticut.
Llegamos a Connecticut (en 1958) porque
mi padre fue contratado como capellán para los trabajadores
migrantes por el Greater Hartford Council of Churches (Concilio
de Iglesias de la Región de Hartford). Cuando mi padre
iba a los campamentos, llevaba la familia entera, a nosotros
cinco, porque los hombres estaban tan aislados y esos campamentos
eran tan estériles, eran horribles. No tenían
a donde ir, no tenían carros, imagínate, un
campamento de tabaco en Windsor, ahí no hay nada que
We came to Connecticut (in 1958) because
my father was hired as a chaplain for the migrant workers
by the Greater Hartford Council of Churches. When my dad went
to the camps, he would take the whole family, the five of
us, because the men were so lonely and the camps were so barren,
they were awful. They had nowhere to go, they had no cars,
I mean a Windsor tobacco camp, there's nothing to do.
Thus, in 1948, 4,906 Puerto Ricans came to the United States to
work under contracts with the Puerto Rican Department of Labor.
By 1968, 22,902 workers came to 14 states, mostly on the East Coast.
By the mid-1960s, 25% of these workers went to Connecticut, second
only to New Jersey at 45%. Tens of thousands of other workers came
through illegal private contracts or with no contract at all.
Most of the Connecticut-bound were hired by local growers to work
from spring to fall. This extended season coincided with the tiempo
muerto, or "dead time," of the sugar industry, enabling
migrants to work half a year on U.S. mainland farms and then return
to the island to labor in cane fields or sugar mills.
Puerto Rican farm workers labored in many parts of Connecticut.
They pruned trees and watered plants in nurseries in Meriden, weeded
tomatoes in Cheshire, and picked mushrooms near Willimantic. Most,
however, came to work tobacco in the Connecticut River Valley. The
region, known as "Tobacco Valley," once extended from
Hartford, Connecticut, to Springfield, Massachusetts, covering an
area 30 miles wide and 90 miles long. Changes in tobacco growing
at the end of the 19th century had created a great demand for workers.
In 1899, one year after United States troops stepped onto Puerto
Rican soil, the same year that Hurricane San Ciriaco devastated
the island's coffee crop, Connecticut farmers were experimenting
with new ways of cultivating tobacco. For centuries, the rich soil
of their valley had produced a good crop. Now tobacco farmers tried
to duplicate tropical conditions by growing their plants under white
netting. This process shielded plants from direct sunlight, created
a humid atmosphere, and produced high quality leaves. After an elaborate
cutting, sorting, and curing process that took several years, these
"shade tobacco" leaves were then used to wrap the most
A tobacco worker reading in his bunk in
what is described by the Hartford Times as "Roomette Housing."
Windsor Farm Labor Supply. No date.
shortages of labor plagued Connecticut's tobacco industry. During
the early part of the 20th century, growers employed many Polish,
Lithuanian, and Italian immigrants. But post-World War I immigration
restrictions and the lure of factory jobs depleted that workforce.
The growers began to recruit African-American college students from
the South. Among those coming in 1944, in fact, was the young Martin
Luther King, Jr. During World War II, this student labor force was
joined by thousands of Jamaican contract workers.
While the peak years for Connecticut shade tobacco cultivation
were in the 1920s, close to 200 farms were still growing it in the
post-World War II era. Three giant companies and several smaller
ones made up the Shade Tobacco Growers Association. The Association
petitioned the Puerto Rican Department of Labor for workers who
were "strong in physical stature, in good health, free from
communicable diseases, accustomed to hard work."
As the growers' request for laborers implied, the work was strenuous.
Tobacco plants and leaves were fragile and had to be handled carefully.
Moreover, both the tenting process and the curing of leaves in heated
sheds made the work unbearably hot and humid. A high level of stress
and accidents resulted from the constant pressure to work faster.
Although the growers were supposed to abide by a Puerto Rican Department
of Labor contract that was renegotiated every year, they often violated
contract terms. The 1969 contract, for example, said that the workers
were to be paid at least $1.60 per hour for work in the fields and
warehouses of the tobacco companies. They would work 40 hours per
week, with time-and-a-half pay for overtime. The contract required
three "adequate" daily meals at a cost of $2.20 per day.
In reality, however, a farm worker's day of labor might be 10 to
14 hours, 6 or even 7 days a week, with no overtime pay. Moreover,
exorbitant deductions for plane fare from Puerto Rico (to be reimbursed
only if the workers completed their contracts), meals, health care,
and other expenses whittled down already modest wages by as much
Los que vivían en la finca propiamente,
vivían en condiciones pésimas. Eran como unas
barracas y allí pues, habían doce o catorce
hombres en unos catres uno encima del otro. No había
calefacción, a veces no había agua potable.
Those who lived on the farm lived in
the most horrible conditions. There were like barracks with
12 or 14 men in cots that were on top of one another. There
was no heat, sometimes there was no drinkable water.
Accommodations usually consisted of large barns or barracks where
as many as 50 or 60 men slept on flimsy cots. In the still-cold
nights of April or the growing chill of October, the workers frequently
suffered from lack of heat and adequate blankets. Plumbing and sanitation
were often rudimentary at best.
Workers who protested such conditions were labeled "troublemakers,"
unceremoniously ejected from their camps, with no money, food, or
way to get to the nearest town. While some accepted the situation
with resignation, many workers' anger over their treatment was intense,
based not only on Connecticut conditions but also on prior experiences
in Puerto Rico. Tobacco had been cultivated for centuries in Puerto
Rico's own version of Tobacco Valley, an area flanked by the east-central
towns of Comerío, Caguas, and Cayey. While most tobacco growers
were Puerto Rican small farmers, after 1898 cigar production was
dominated by United States companies. Many of Connecticut's Puerto
Rican tobacco workers came from those areas and had worked for companies
such as General Cigar and Consolidated Cigar, two of Connecticut's
giants. Maintaining strictly anti-union and low wage policies in
their Puerto Rican fields and processing plants, these companies
earned huge profits and paid no corporate tax.
The ties between the tobacco giants and Puerto Rico may have had
something to do with the Migration Division's apparent inability
or unwillingness to enforce contract provisions. Officials likely
feared that if the cigar manufacturers were pressured, they would
both close their operations on the island and stop bringing migrant
workers to Connecticut.
Organizing the Farm Workers
Workers sewing and repairing nets, a job
that needed to be done each spring before planting. No date.
the absence of government protection, other groups stepped in to
help the farm workers. Several coalitions of church, union, and
political groups formed to improve camp and work conditions. CAMP,
the Comité de Apoyo al Migrante Puertorriqueño (Puerto
Rican Migrant Support Committee), formed in Puerto Rico in 1969
by the Industrial Mission of the Episcopal Church. By the early
1970s, Connecticut's farm worker advocates included a spectrum of
local churches, the Young Lords (a radical Puerto Rican youth group
inspired by the Black Panthers), the Puerto Rican Socialist Party
of Connecticut, and Legal Services lawyers from around the state.
In 1972, META, the Ministerio Ecuménico de Trabajadores
Agrícolas (Ecumenical Ministry of Agricultural Workers),
replaced CAMP. In August of 1973, some 100 Puerto Rican workers
gathered outside of Camp Windsor and declared the formation of a
union, ATA, the Asociación de Trabajadores Agrícolas
(Agricultural Workers Association). These organizations challenged
the law giving Puerto Rico's Secretary of Labor sole authority to
negotiate with the growers on behalf of the workers and filed lawsuits
against the government of Puerto Rico and the Tobacco Growers' Association.
META and ATA claimed that the yearly contract bargaining sessions
between government and the growers were really "sweetheart"
negotiations, that there was a "conflict of interest in [the
government] negotiating contracts with the same firms they seek
to attract to the Island."
Since access to the tobacco camps was restricted, organizers contacted
the "day haulers" who lived in Hartford or visited workers
back in Puerto Rico during the winter months. Churches gave spiritual
help to the migrants, took their complaints to farm managers and
tried to educate the general public about the problems on the farms.
Farm workers and their allies advocated for better living conditions
and health care, increased wages, sick and overtime pay, and unrestricted
outsider access to the camps, threatening strikes and boycotts if
their stipulations were not met.
The growers were, of course, infuriated by these activities. But
the more they tried to suppress worker protest, the more it emerged.
Throughout 1973, hundreds of Puerto Rican tobacco workers struck
over poor food and the firing of co-workers involved in earlier
actions. A Good Friday celebration in Windsor Locks, led by visiting
clergy, turned into a demonstration. Later that year, growers had
a minister and a nun arrested for entering Camp Windsor without
permission. In turn, META filed a suit on behalf of these arrested
ATA's and META's attempts to get a farm workers' rights bill passed
in the Connecticut General Assembly met with frustration. The powerful
Tobacco Growers Association and other farmer groups successfully
lobbied against it, insisting on an anti-strike clause and threatening
to close down their operations.
The Connecticut farm workers' movement was given a boost, however,
when United Farm Workers (UFW) founder César Chávez
came to the state in the summer of 1974, fresh from his triumphs
organizing grape and lettuce workers in California. Meeting with
clergy and Puerto Rican activists throughout Connecticut, he gave
his blessing and some funds to the tobacco workers' struggle. ATA
decided in 1975 to affiliate with the UFW, but that union's own
pressing financial and organizational needs in the West prevented
it from working effectively in the Northeast. Without that critical
UFW support, the movement for unionization of Connecticut's Puerto
Rican agricultural workers faded away.
A group of men and women workers riding
behind a tractor. July, 1967.
all the newspaper articles, protests, and court cases had focused
a great deal of attention on the situation of Puerto Rican farm
workers in Connecticut. META and ATA had successfully sued the Shade
Tobacco Growers Association for the right to freely enter the workers'
camps. The Connecticut Labor Council, along with the United Auto
Workers and many unions in Puerto Rico, had declared their support
for the farm workers' right to organize. The Puerto Rican Department
of Labor, while still not recognizing ATA, had agreed to stop using
misleading radio ads that enticed workers from Puerto Rico, to revise
the contracts and to add more staff to deal with farm worker complaints.
Embarrassed by charges that they were not protecting their own workers,
the Department drastically shrank the agricultural contract program.
In 1974, 12,760 workers came through the program, but the following
year it was down to 5,639. By 1984, there were only 1,954 participants. Many farmers also found that it was now easier and cheaper to get
some of their tasks done by machines-or move production overseas-than
to deal with a workforce that demanded better wages and treatment.
Others increased the numbers of "day haul" workers, often
students or Puerto Rican men and women who lived in nearby towns.
Many Puerto Rican farm workers decided to improve their conditions
by "voting with their feet." They left the fields and
found factory jobs in the nearest cities. Just as surely as they
had planted and tended the crops in Tobacco Valley, Puerto Rican
farm workers began to put down their own roots in Hartford and other
cities throughout Connecticut. Together, with other Puerto Rican
migrants who had come to labor in factories, these former agricultural
workers helped form the nuclei of entirely new communities. This
aspect of their history is but one thread in the varied and lively
tapestry of Puerto Rican experiences that is Connecticut's legacy.
1 Interview by author, December 12, 1991.
2 Luis Nieves Falcón, El emigrante puertorriqueño
(Río Piedras, Puerto Rico: Editorial Edil, 1975), 15.
3 History Task Force, Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Labor Migration
Under Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979), 244; Michael
Lapp, "Managing Migration: The Migration Division of Puerto
Rico and Puerto Ricans in New York City, 1948-1968." Ph.D.
Dissertation, Johns Hopkins University, 1990, p.185.
4 Richard Arthur Newfield, "Tobacco and the Tobacco Laborer
in the Connecticut Valley." Senior Research Thesis, Department
of Industry, Wharton School of Finance and Commerce, 1936, pp.13-15;
"Shaping Character: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Tobacco Summer,
Connecticut," August 2000, p.144; Fay Clarke Johnson, Soldiers
of the Soil (New York: Vantage Press, 1995).
5 Glenn Collins, "The Perfect Place to Make a Good Cigar,"
New York Times, August 13, 1995.
6 Labor contract, December 20, 1969. Archives of the Commonwealth
of Puerto Rico, Center for Puerto Rican Studies, New York City.
7 Dan Gottlieb, "Puerto Ricans Come by Air to Harvest Tobacco
Crops," Hartford Times, September 13, 1958.
8 Guillermo Segarra, Letter to Editor, Claridad, July 15, 1972.
9 James Nash, "Migrant Farmworkers in Massachusetts: A Report
with Recommendations," Massachusetts Council of Churches, Strategy
and Action Commission, March 1974, p.65.
10 "Agricultural Workers Association," flyer, n.p., n.d.
11 Lapp, "Managing Migration," p.184.
Ruth Glasser's book Aqui Me Quedo: Puerto Ricans in Connecticut/Los
Puertorriqueños en Connecticut can be purchased from the
Connecticut Humanities Council for $19.95 plus tax. Order by phone
860-685-2260 or online at www.ctculture.org/store/book.htm
All photographs from the Hartford Times
Archive, located in the Hartford Collection at the Hartford