New England’s Forgotten Puerto Rican Riots

From 1967 to 1979, Puerto Rican riots broke out in New England cities from Waterbury, Conn., to Worcester, Mass.

Outsiders didn’t understand them at the time, and people have mostly forgotten them since.

Aaron G. Fountain, Jr., a PhD student at Indiana University, in 2016 chronicled the Mexican-American and Puerto Rican riots throughout the United States from the late 1960s through the early 1990s.

From 1964 to 1992, he counted 43 riots that had at least 100 participants, triggered a police response and resulted in damage to buildings and vehicles. While most – 17 – broke out in New Jersey, at least nine Puerto Rican riots erupted in New England cities.

Puerto Rican Festival in Lowell, Mass. Courtesy Library of Congress.

In Connecticut, Puerto Ricans rioted in Waterbury, New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford. In Massachusetts, Puerto Rican riots burst forth in Boston, Springfield, New Bedford and Worcester.

White and Puerto Rican teenagers threw rocks at each other in Woburn, Mass., in August 1973.

“Unlike Black riots of the 1960s, Latino riots occurred mostly in the 1970s, and they continued well into the early 1990s,” wrote Fountain. “Over two-thirds of them were in Puerto Rican communities. They occurred in major cities and in communities as small as Coachella, California, which had about 9,000 residents in 1970.”

Few people have written about them because they fall outside the category of black-white race relations, Fountain concluded.

The First Puerto Rican Riot

On Aug. 19, 1967, hundreds of Puerto Rican and African-American youths stunned New Haven by rioting. The violence continued for several days until the governor called up the National Guard to restore order.

Reformers considered New Haven a model city because of its urban renewal and anti-poverty programs. But tensions had been building since World War II.

Puerto Rican flag and American flag at the Puerto Rican Festival in Lowell, Mass.

Many Puerto Ricans, all American citizens, moved to the Northeast during the war seeking work in defense plants and harvesting fruits, vegetables and tobacco. Many Puerto Ricans came to Connecticut after arriving in New York City.

The Puerto Rican population continued to grow in the Northeast during the 1950s and 1960s. Today, Connecticut has the densest population of Puerto Ricans in the country. Half of the Puerto Ricans in New England live along the Interstate-91 corridor, from New Haven to Holyoke in Massachusetts. In fact, Holyoke has the highest percentage of Puerto Ricans in the country.

Most were poor when they arrived and had to live in substandard housing. When war work dried up, many found themselves unemployed and living in neighborhoods that decayed when middle-class whites moved to the suburbs.

In New Haven that summer day in 1967, simmering resentment boiled over when Edward Thomas, a white snack bar owner, shot Julio Diaz after Diaz threatened him with a knife.

Word spread quickly, and rioters broke windows, looted stores, started fires and fought with police. In the end, police arrested nearly 400 people.

More Puerto Rican Riots

Two years later, on July 30, 1969, a Puerto Rican riot erupted in Waterbury. The news media gave it little coverage.

On Sept. 1, 1969, two nights of Puerto Rican riots started in Hartford’s North End and spread downtown. Buildings were looted and set on fire. Firefighters required police protection as rioters threw rocks and bottles at them. The disturbance was attributed to poor housing, high rents and an article in the Hartford Times quoting an anonymous firefighter calling Puerto Ricans ‘Pigs.’

In July 1970, there were Puerto Rican riots in New Bedford and Hartford. In May 1971 a riot broke out in Bridgeport. Three days of riots erupted in Boston’s South End in July 1972.

The Boston Globe reported a minor scuffle at the Puerto Rican Day celebration grew into a confrontation between bystanders and more than 100 policemen. Mostly young Puerto Ricans set buildings on fire, damaged police cruisers and stoned passing cars. The police were criticized for aggravating the situation.

‘Called me a spic’

Luis Palmarin, a South End resident, told the Globe:

The cop arrested me when I tried to stop him from beating a man who was bleeding badly. He threw me in the car, grabbed a soda bottle from the floor, called me a spic and hit me in the face with the bottle.

Boston City Councilman Albert “Dapper” O’Neil made the situation worse by ordering the police to “club those maggots and leeches out of the park.”

On the third night of violence, riot police were diverted from the South End because a city officials feared a melee near Boston Garden. Police had arrested the Rolling Stones in Rhode Island, which delayed the  concert at the Garden..

Carlos Mora, director of the Concilio drug program, said, “The Puerto Rican population has been mistreated for a long time. Our people just want respect, and then they’ll give respect.” Forty percent of Boston’s Puerto Ricans lived in poverty.

Puerto Ricans in the United States

Puerto Ricans in the United States

Changing Demographics

Two more Puerto Rican riots broke out in Massachusetts. One happened in Springfield in late August 1975 and one in Worcester in June 1979.

But then immigration patterns changed. Other Latino groups have moved to the Northeast. In Massachusetts, for example, Puerto Ricans comprised 75 percent of the commonwealth’s Latino population. That fell to only 49 percent by 2000.

In 1984, a riot broke out in the Tower Hill neighborhood of Lawrence, Mass. Fountain characterized the disturbance as “Hispanic.” Dominicans had moved into the largely Puerto Rican section of the city.

Buildings were burned, people were injured and police used tear gas and clubs over several days of Dominican and Puerto Rican riots.

“They don’t want to know anything about us – the way we live,” 24-year-old Ramon Rodriguez, told the Boston Globe.   “One day you just get tired of it all and say enough. It has always been this way as long as I’ve been here.  It’s just now that were getting tired of it.”

This story about Puerto Rican riots was updated in 2021. Images: Denatale, D., Rankin, T. & Montaño, M. (1987) Puerto Rican Festival, Lowell, Massachusetts. United States Lowell Massachusetts, 1987. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

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