In Puerto Rico to tour hurricane damage and recovery efforts, President Joe Biden said there was a “large Puerto Rican population in Delaware — relative to our population” and that he was “sort of raised in the Puerto Rican community at home, politically.” Newsweek wrote that the president was “mocked” on Twitter for the comments.
Actually, there’s something to the fact that Puerto Ricans, more so than other Spanish-speaking groups, settled in Wilmington.
The president made his remarks on Oct. 3 in Ponce, Puerto Rico, in talking about federal assistance for the recovery from Hurricane Fiona, which hit the U.S. island territory on Sept. 18. In addition to money being made available for individual home repairs and lost property, Biden announced $60 million in federal funding would be used to help Puerto Rico “become better prepared” for storms.
Biden got into politics by winning a seat on the New Castle County Council — Wilmington’s county — in 1970, and two years later, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he represented Delaware for 36 years.
Wilmington news articles around the time of his early political years indicate there was a notable and growing Puerto Rican community in the city.
A Jan. 14, 1970, Wilmington Evening Journal article on the launch of a Latin American Community Center (“an outgrowth of the Wilmington Puerto Rican Association,” the paper said) reported the city’s Puerto Rican community was “about 4,000,” with most having come to the city in the prior 10 years. “[B]etween 550 and 650 Puerto Ricans settle in Wilmington each year,” the paper said, citing the president of the community center’s board and statistics he said came from Puerto Rico’s migration office.
Census documents from the time show Wilmington’s population at about 80,000, which would put the Puerto Rican community at 5% of the city’s residents.
The year before, the city’s Morning News reported that Wilmington was the third-largest port of entry on the East Coast, behind Miami and New York, for Puerto Ricans, who made up 90% of the city’s Spanish-speaking residents. That was according to community leaders working with the Latino population.
By 1975, a Morning News article said Puerto Ricans had come to Delaware “in droves,” mostly for farm work with some settling permanently. The paper reported that “at least 8 percent of the city’s population” was Spanish-speaking, “mostly Puerto Rican, with a smattering of Cubans and South Americans.” It estimated Wilmington’s Spanish-speaking community at 6,000 to 8,000 people.
Statewide these numbers don’t add up to much. Official Census counts of Delaware’s Puerto Rican population in 1970 also aren’t as high as the Wilmington news articles indicated. A 1970 Census publication on the state, highlighted by WTAM news radio in Cleveland, counted 2,154 people born in or with parents from Puerto Rico among the state’s 548,093 residents. That’s a statewide Puerto Rican population of just 0.39%.
WTAM and the New York Post reported that a 1980 Census document showed the Puerto Rican population in Delaware was 4,857, or 0.8%. That same document, though, shows that 82% of the state’s Puerto Rican population lived in New Castle County.
Census reported that 3,976 Puerto Ricans lived in New Castle County, making up the majority of the 6,826 people of “Spanish origin” in the county. Those figures generally support what the Wilmington newspaper reported in 1975.
Andrew Bates, a White House spokesperson, told us in a statement: “Since the 1970’s, when President Biden first ran for Senate, the largest Hispanic population in Delaware has been made up of Puerto Ricans – many of whom lived in his hometown, Wilmington. He was often in that community on a grassroots level, doing Senate casework, going to fairs, schools, and musical events, and attending mass. Those experiences were meaningful to him as a person and as a public servant, and, as he said, they played an important role in forming his political perspective.”
We tried, and failed, to find an old newspaper article about Biden meeting with the Puerto Rican community in Wilmington. But Ted Kaufman, Biden’s longtime Senate chief of staff who joined Biden’s Delaware office in 1973, told us Biden did so.
Kaufman said that back in the 1970s and 1980s the Puerto Rican community was a “very important political constituency” and a “big interest group in Wilmington.”
In 1972, Biden “won by meeting with groups,” Kaufman said. He couldn’t do TV, so “the way you campaigned … you went to different communities in the state … and got to know them.”
Biden had “great relations” with the Latin American Community Center in Wilmington, he added. (In 2017, Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, received the Hispanic Community Heroes Award from the center.)
More recently, in 2014, a Pew Research Center report noted that most of the Latino eligible voters in Delaware were Puerto Rican. “Unlike in the overall U.S., Hispanic eligible voters in Delaware are most likely of Puerto Rican origin. Some 55% of Hispanic eligible voters in the state are Puerto Rican, while Mexicans make up 20% of the total and another 26% claim other Hispanic origin.” Nationwide, 14% of Latino eligible voters were Puerto Rican at the time.
The latest U.S. Census figures show that 29,914 Puerto Ricans in the state in 2021 were 3% of Delaware’s population and the second-largest Hispanic or Latino group after Mexicans (38,020 people).
Biden went too far when he said, “We came here for a long time, both for business and pleasure, since you’re part of the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals and Delaware is as well.” That’s false.
Puerto Rico is part of the 1st Circuit and has been since 1915, according to the 1st Circuit’s website. Delaware, along with, notably, the Virgin Islands, is part of the 3rd Circuit. Biden was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
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