Capturing Puerto Rico: a “Nation on the Move”

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Those who study Puerto Rico are familiar with the phrase La nación en vaivén (Nation on the move). This phrase described the Puerto Rican diaspora, how Puerto Ricans would move “back and forth” between the Caribbean island, the United States and elsewhere.

Frank Espada (1930-2014) was a Puerto Rican leader and activist who captured the soul of Puerto Rican politics and culture with his photography. In 2006, Espada released his book of photographs The Puerto Rican Diaspora: Themes in the Survival of a People; an extensive photographic project that chronicled the lives of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. and abroad.

In his photographic analysis of the Puerto Rican diaspora, Frank Espada visited over thirty-four communities across the U.S. from 1979-1981. He created priceless photographic records documenting the journey that thousands of Boricuas started when they left their beloved island for the urban struggles of New York, or the sugar cane plantations of Hawaii. His photographic journey aimed to understand the quality of life that the Puerto Rican migrants were able to achieve outside of the island.

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“My activism goes back a long way,” he said. “I’m old enough to remember my father crying — the only time he did — when he went out looking for a job, and it was ‘no Puerto Ricans wanted.’ People really don’t realize how close we were to all that.”

The Rubenstein Library’s Archive of Documentary Arts acquired the Frank Espada Photographs and Papers Collection in 2011. Collection materials include exhibit prints, work prints, contact sheets, negatives, oral history interviews, transcripts, and papers.

Frank Espada died on February 16, 2014 in California. He was 84.

By Carol Sainthilaire

M.S. Candidate in Urban Policy Analysis and Management, 2014


Leave a comment


  1. rina3

     /  November 1, 2014

    It is really good to know there was a Puerto Rican (Latino) equivalent to Jacob Riis an early 20th century photographer who documented communities across NYC. Today, even more so there is more Puerto Rican’s on the move especially from the homeland to the United States to escape the worsening conditions on the island.


  2. Liz T

     /  November 12, 2014

    Thanks for this. I’ve always been impressed by how he was able to take quiet moments in the lives of individuals and make them feel empowering. Frank Espada’s work brought a unique perspective of thousands of people’s lives many people won’t ever see to a pretty large audience.


  3. Very interesting story. I first heard about the issue with circular migration from an article written by a Fordham professor. I actually dug the citation up if anyone is interested.
    Acevedo, G (2004). Neither here nor there: Puerto Rican circular migration. Journal of Immigrant and Refugee Services, 2(1-2), 69-85.


  4. Nicolas

     /  November 18, 2014

    As a student in political science I read my fair share of academic journal articles on various diaspora. While they all have their place, the photography of Frank Espada adds another level altogether. The format of the portrait, which is so personal and intimate brings in a whole new dimension. This mixed with the photographs of daily life keeps a continued balance in Espada’s work between seeing the whole of the Puerto Rican Diaspora and seeing the individual in each photograph as individuals.



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