A Forgotten Piece of Women's History

03/08/2013 05:33 pm ET | Updated May 08, 2013

Hardly anyone remembers them anymore -- the women who helped build New York's Puerto Rican communities during the 1920s, 1930s and the 1940s. The ones paid by the piece after slaving over a factory machine sewing collars or blouses for hours and not paid for holidays. When they were fired for taking a sick day, no one seemed to notice that they were no longer there. Or the ones who stood on swelling feet all day, their hands moving rapidly to snag and wrap bite-size pieces of chocolates as the candies swept by them on the assembly belt. When at the end of the eight-hour work day, they stopped by the factory next door to pick up a few bundles of handkerchiefs to hem in the evenings for a few extra cents, no one thought twice about that. Never mind that for women with families there were also groceries to buy, houses to clean, children to attend to, and meals to prepare. It was expected that the work day would extend into the night and weekends because that is how it was for working women.

The bosses in the factories, the laundries, or the restaurants where the women worked called them "girls," these women of varying ages who braved the challenges of the uprooted to travel third class on ships bound for Brooklyn or Manhattan docks. These so called "girls" mustered the courage to trade the familiar for the unknown; left families behind and set out on well worn migrant journeys armed with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and a few extra changes in cardboard belted suitcases.

Some of them, like the one hundred and thirty women recruited directly from Puerto Rico in 1920 by the American Manufacturing Company, were met in Brooklyn by company representatives. But most of them migrated alone accompanied only by their solitary dreams of a better life. They were met on the New York end by a friend from the same hometown or a family member. In Brooklyn, Manhattan or the South Bronx, they came to live in the homes of sisters or brothers who had migrated before them. Yet others lodged with relatives or acquaintances connected to someone in the women's families. Family ties and kinship ran deep in the traditions they brought with them.

As they learned to travel on the trains and buses of the dirty, cold steeled city they now called home, first jobs paid for room and board with an extra dollar or two squirreled away in an envelope to be sent home to the family each week. Because they spoke little or no English, bosses harassed, abused or exploited them with impunity. They were, after all, interchangeable clogs in the profit making enterprises, their individuality lost in a sea of look alike "girls." There were unions, of course, that explained to them their rights, but few in the union leadership spoke their language. In time, the Puerto Rican women would become the fore ladies or shop stewards of the factories.

Over the years, the women developed informal ways of making life in the city more amenable. A grassroots system of childcare emerged that allowed working women to leave their children in the care of other Puerto Rican women who made a living by minding children. Women opened their homes to boarders providing room and board in exchange for a weekly fee. Others became entrepreneurs buying wholesale clothing, shoes, or outer wear and selling them in their neighborhoods.

Women began to cook in the back rooms of bodegas, the first businesses owned by Puerto Ricans, and found there was money to be made in selling their home cooking. Others attended night school to learn English hoping to work in better paying jobs. Not a few of the women became community organizers founding a myriad of hometown clubs that provided social and informational resources. And still others joined religious congregations where they served their communities through pastoral services.

In recent years, it seems we've tended to highlight the exceptional woman in history erasing the labors of past generations from the collective memory. Not quite realizing that behind every exceptional woman there is a community of faceless and nameless women who have helped sustain her, the legacies of the migrant women from Puerto Rico, sculptors of today's communities in New York, are all but forgotten.