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U.S. Citizens by Birth, City Residents by Choice, Puerto Ricans Find Themselves a Strictly Legal but Alienated Minority Here, Struggling for a Sense of Community. They Are . . . : ONE OF L.A.'S BEST KEPT SECRETS



Despite the city's huge Latino population, it is impossible to find a Puerto Rican community organization. There are no Puerto Rican barrios or baseball teams. And as best as can be determined, there are no Puerto Rican restaurants.

Conversations in Spanish are filled with slang unfamiliar to "puertorriquenos," also known as "boricuas." Festivals feature mariachis far more often than salsa. Bank tellers hesitate to cash checks from Puerto Rico, where the currency is the U.S. dollar. And grocery stores with Latino food rarely carry Puerto Rican products.

To top it off, many local residents, including Latinos, are unaware that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens at birth. That may cause a special problem considering the sentiment surrounding Proposition 187, the initiative to restrict services for illegal immigrants in California.

"It will hurt everybody who is not white," said Jorge Pineiro, 61, a longtime activist statewide who is treasurer of the San Jose-based Western Region Puerto Rican Council. "There are many Puerto Ricans who are brown or black or speak with an accent. I'm a citizen."

To Pineiro and others, the debate over immigration reform is only the latest example of how the Puerto Rican experience in Los Angeles and other parts of the state differs from that of all other Latino groups.

One basic problem, activists say, is that the Puerto Rican community in Los Angeles is small and dispersed compared to the region's massive Mexican and Central American communities. Many Puerto Ricans are either too preoccupied professionally, too busy with family responsibilities or struggling too much to organize as a community.

But the situation in Los Angeles is considered shameful by those who point out that Puerto Ricans have a history in California that dates back to at least the early 1900s. Active Puerto Rican advocacy groups exist in other communities such as San Diego or San Francisco, but not Los Angeles.

"There's no agency to help a Puerto Rican who arrives (in Los Angeles) from Hawaii or San Juan or Chicago," Pineiro said. "There should be a center to at least provide referrals."

In Los Angeles County, the 1990 U.S. Census counted more than 40,000 Puerto Ricans, with nearly 14,500 living in the city itself. Small pockets of Puerto Ricans were counted in surrounding municipalities such as South Gate, where there were about 1,000, Huntington Park, where there were more than 500, and Bell Gardens, where there were about 120.

Activists say that if one figures in the hundreds of Puerto Ricans the census probably missed, the need for Puerto Rican unity is even more evident. Already clear is that Puerto Ricans in Los Angeles exist at all economic levels as entertainers, professionals, laborers and the unemployed, they are spread about in various neighborhoods, and relatively few know each other.

Carlos Vega, 43, of Echo Park, said he was unaware of any Puerto Ricans in the area besides a few relatives. That's the way it has been since he came to Los Angeles from New York about 15 years ago.

"There aren't that many," said Vega, who was born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, but was raised mainly in New York. "If there are I don't know where they usually go or hang out."

Vega, who is unemployed, said he keeps busy by working odd jobs, preparing for job opportunities such as being a truck driver, and by volunteering at a local youth program where his girlfriend works.

Overall, Puerto Rican households seem to be doing about as well as the area's Mexican American households at making ends meet.

In the city, the census showed, the median household income for Puerto Ricans was about $23,800, compared to about $24,200 for Mexican Americans and about $31,000 for all residents. In the county, the median household income for Puerto Ricans was about $29,600, compared to about $28,000 for Mexican Americans and about $35,000 overall.

Still, the feeling of isolation hits home in different ways. Some Puerto Ricans miss the lively politics and cultural events found on the island or in the Northeast, where Puerto Ricans are the dominant Latino group in cities like New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Hartford, Conn.

Still others get cravings for traditional foods like " bacalaitos " (cod fritters) or " alcapurrias " (ground plantain or yucca filled with meat and then fried). Even the name for beans is different: Puerto Ricans call them " habichuelas ," while most Latinos in Los Angeles know them as "frijoles."

It is the kind of isolation, several local Puerto Ricans said, that tugs at one's insides from time to time but normally would not cause someone to leave a good job or the California sunshine.

"It's a little sad," said Ivette Rodriguez, 28, who came to Los Angeles less than two years ago from New York and is a field manager promoting the film "I Like It Like That" for Columbia Pictures. "Whenever I meet somebody who's Puerto Rican it's a treat for me."

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