Puerto Rican Needle Workers and Colonial Migrations: Deindustrialization as Pathways Lost


Aimee Loiselle, Smith College Northampton, MA


The dominant narrative of U.S. deindustrialization opens with the Northeast as the definitive starting point for industry followed by a direct linear relocation to the South and then the Global South. In this framework, deindustrialization appears to have a logic, a rational pathway following cheaper and compliant labor. When Puerto Rican needleworkers become visible in the history of the textile and garment industry, however, their colonial migrations complicate deindustrialization, and its linear logic collapses. From the perspective of these colonial women, industrialization of Puerto Rico began at the turn of the twentieth century – the same time factories and mills increased in the South. Thousands of women also migrated to the Northeast mainland, especially from the 1950s to the 1970s, when many white workers were mourning the loss of textile and garment jobs. Puerto Rican women moved to the old factories of the Northeast, which had become outposts for large transnational corporations that did not relocate their manufacturing in a direct geographic path but rather spread their processes over any arrangement that offered the best cost-benefit analysis. For Puerto Rican women, employment in the plants of the Northeast during the 1960s and 1970s offered hope rather than despair, and many took pride in meeting their quotas and providing wages for their families. In the 1980s, when the Reagan administration initiated major reforms to financial policies and the practices of leveraged buyouts made closing old plants a better return on investment, Puerto Rican women mourned the loss of jobs in an industry many experts had already declared ‘dead.’e

Fragmentation of the archives between Puerto Rican studies and U.S. labor history have allowed for a simplistic narrative of deindustrialization and an erasure of the losses and disappointments of women who left Puerto Rico for the promise of higher wages in the postwar Northeast mainland. When the oral histories and documents related to the migrations of Puerto Rican needleworkers become visible in the larger history of the ‘American working class’, we see deindustrialization as sprawling and contingent rather than as linear and naturalized. Puerto Rican studies scholars have written about needleworkers as part of their field with particular attention to gender as it relates to notions of motherhood, but this article sets the women as American workers into the losses of the textile and garment industry without eliding their specificity as migrating and racialized colonial labor. In addition, the women expressed grief that went beyond losing a specific job – many of these workers lost their place in the U.S. workforce and the promise of financial stability as they became associated with racialized poverty and welfare debates.

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