Puerto Ricans came to Cleveland in the 1950s, drawn to a booming post-war US. Word quickly spread back home about the well-paying jobs at the steel and auto plants that were once the backbone of this Midwestern industrial city.
The family of Ariel Castro, the man charged with kidnapping three women and raping them in captivity for nearly 10 years, was among the first wave of immigrants to settle Cleveland’s Puerto Rican community.
His case has drawn attention to a lesser-known part of the Puerto Rican diaspora, more often associated with larger communities in New York, Orlando, Philadelphia and Chicago.
Puerto Rico, with a population of about 3.7 million, is a former Spanish colony that is now a US territory.
Its people can migrate freely to the US, giving the tiny island an outsized influence in Hispanic American culture.
A tightly knit group mostly from the same southern region on the Caribbean island, Puerto Ricans in Cleveland have cheered Monday’s rescue of the women. They also worry it will cast a long shadow over their community.
“No one shouted louder than I did when they announced the girls were found,” said Wanda DeLeon, a 27-year-old homemaker. “But I am already anticipating the stares.”
A judge has ordered Castro, a 52-year-old former school bus driver, held on a US$8 million bond. He is charged with four counts of kidnapping and three counts of rape.
An Ohio prosecutor on Thursday said he would seek additional aggravated murder charges related to the forced miscarriages that police say Castro inflicted on one of the women.
The emergence of Castro as the suspect in the case stunned many Cleveland Puerto Ricans. The Castro family is well-known in the community and Castro’s uncle, Julio Cesar Castro, runs a mom-and-pop grocery store, or bodega, seen by many as a symbol of the city’s working-class Puerto Rican neighborhood.
Jose Feliciano, a prominent Cleveland lawyer whose parents also migrated from Puerto Rico in the 1950s, described Julio Cesar Castro as a “beloved” man who often helped new immigrants.
“He has given away more food from that bodega,” Feliciano said. “If people were short on rent or needed cash to get their car repaired, they knew they could always count on him for a loan or credit.”
Julio Cesar Castro, known by his nickname Cesi, said he had grown distant with his nephew in recent years.
“In the last five or six years he separated from me,” he said. “I don’t know the reason. He appeared to be one thing, and was something else.”
The first Puerto Rican families arrived in Cleveland seeking work at factories for companies such as Republic Steel and automakers Chevrolet and Ford whose plants helped transform Cleveland into the sixth-largest city in the US at the time.
“The city was teeming,” Feliciano said.
Some Puerto Rican workers were even recruited because of a labor shortage.