Back in the day, the street corners of Latino New York City moved to the sounds of salsa and bomba y plena, restaurants featured arroz con gandules and sofrito, and everyone and their uncle owned a Roberto Clemente card.
That was then. This is now.
Salsa has been replaced by bachata and grupero, sancocho and mole poblano feed the streets, and sports heroes like Big Papi and Chicharito rule.
Move over, Boricuas. Here come the Dominicans and Mexicans.
The Big Apple is home to some 800,000 Puerto Ricans, according to the American Community Survey, still the plurality of Latinos there. But the community – a staple among all ethnic groups in the city for decades who embraced the role of trailblazer for subsequent Latino arrivals – has seemingly withered away.
The group, in fact, could be in an unfamiliar position when the Census begins releasing its numbers in the next couple of months – eclipsed in population for the first time by Dominicans.
"The Puerto Rican community at one time made up 80 percent of all Latinos in the city," said Angelo Falcón, president and co-founder of the National Institute of Latino Policy, a think tank on Latino issues. "Now it's about a third."
The downward trend has been playing out for at least two decades. In 1990, there were 896,763 Puerto Ricans in New York City, according to the Census. By 2000, there were 107,591 fewer Boricuas in the city, a 12 percent dip.
The slowdown eased a bit in the last decade. There were 782,222 Puerto Ricans in New York in 2009, according to the American Community Survey, down about 1 percent from the 2000 Census population figure.
"Their numbers have stayed the same or waned a bit," said Joseph Salvo, Ph.D., director of the population division with the New York City Department of City Planning.
Puerto Ricans leave the city as they age, become more affluent and consider other places to raise their children, studies have shown. They have resettled in New York suburbs, Florida and New England, and, in a return home of sorts, Puerto Rico, according to a 2008 study by the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños at Hunter College of the City University of New York.
Salvo called the outmigration a "natural progression."
"I wouldn't call it an exodus," he said. "Puerto Ricans have been here for a long time, and it's very common for groups to leave."
The void created by the Puerto Rican departure has been readily filled by Dominicans, Mexicans and Ecuadorians, among other Latino groups.
The Dominican population, for one, has exploded since 1990. Back then, there were 332,713 Quisqueyanos in New York City, according to the Census; today, the American Community Survey puts that number at 592,456.
Mexicans, too, have grown in presence in former Puerto Rican strongholds like Spanish Harlem in Manhattan and Williamsburg and Bushwick in Brooklyn. There are about 305,000 Mexicans in the city – that American Community Survey number is up from Census' 2000 figure of 186,872 – and those numbers, most experts agree, don't accurately reflect the number of undocumented immigrants.
Census data are expected to trickle out over the next few months. By law, apportionment counts had to be delivered to the President by Dec. 31. The counts determined redistricting and the number of seats in the House of Representatives.
By most accounts, overall Latino population numbers should increase. And with that growth, experts say, could come more political influence.
"It's an opportunity for the Latino community to take advantage," said Cesar Perales, president and general counsel of Latino Justice PRLDEF, which is planning to go to court over redistricting.
But for all the growth and opportunity for political influence, particularly in New York City, the Latino population explosion could actually lead to less.
The influx of new communities, such as Mexicans and Ecuadorians, mixed with the decline of established ones, like Puerto Ricans, could lead to the overall Latino voice becoming more "diluted," experts believe.
"In New York City, as the Latino community becomes larger, there's this feeling that we are more marginalized, politically and culturally, " Falcón, who co-authored "Boricuas in Gotham: Puerto Ricans In The Making Of New York City," said.
Falcón added that the disparate communities, among whom he sees a tension and resentment in some quarters, have not mobilized or built coalitions, and thus have unable to harness the surging population numbers into political power.
"We have the numbers to be a major political force, but we have lousy leadership," he said, citing Puerto Ricans Pedro Espada Jr. and Hiram Monserrate, former politicians whose careers were dogged by scandals and alleged crimes. "We have the potential for tremendous economic, political opportunities...and somehow we haven't been able to take those numbers and mobilize.
"The resources are there," he said, "but yet we haven't done it."
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