July 2017 Spotlight On: Revolutions

American Consumer Empire in Puerto Rico

Puerto Ricans were forced to become “Porto Ricans” – adopting Anglo customs and holidays all while subsidizing American profits – without the hope of equality.

For more on Americans’ long history of treating the Fourth of July as a celebration of what we hope to become, see Eric Morgenson’s “A Patriotic Day of Protest.”

by William Horne

During the night of October 28, 1898, about twenty armed men approached the home of a wealthy Creole coffee planter, Prudencio Méndez, near Ponce, Puerto Rico. The men held Méndez at gunpoint and demanded 10,000 pesos. When Méndez told them that he did not have such a large sum available, they shot and killed him, chopped up his body with machetes, and forced his two daughters to dance with them around his corpse. Similar bands of vigilante tiznados, carrying guns and machetes, their faces blackened with charcoal, terrorized Puerto Rican elites following the American invasion in July 1898. They set fire to planters’ property, destroyed the account books in which debts were recorded, and even demanded higher wages for plantation laborers as they departed. As part of this larger movement, Méndez’s death was more a function of an internal revolution than the U.S. invasion that preceded it. Méndez’s tiznado attackers, in search of economic justice and social equality, went first to his home and then, like many revolutionaries before them, to the garrote.[1]

The prosecution of revolutionary tiznados, including the ones that killed Méndez, revealed the unclear political status of Puerto Rico. The Washington Post ran an article announcing the execution of Méndez’s attackers which insinuated that garroting was a gruesome and inferior form of punishment and questioned whether Spanish or American legal precedents should govern the island. Puerto Rican officials seemed uncertain as well, refusing to try cases involving the tiznados, suggesting instead that they fell under U.S. military authority. The Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the state of war on the island and ceded the territory to the United States, failed to resolve the relationship of Puerto Ricans to state power or its expression in legal precedent and judicial authority. American accounts indicate not only that they had trouble comprehending the tiznados, but more generally had trouble understanding Puerto Ricans’ relationship to the U.S. Did the Treaty of Paris transform Puerto Ricans into Americans? Did they first have to adopt American customs? In many respects, these questions remain unresolved, both regarding Puerto Rico, which the U.S. has long used to extract profits and warehouse debts, and in the ongoing public dysfunction over race, religious affiliation, and citizenship.[2]

Did the Treaty of Paris transform Puerto Ricans into Americans? Did they first have to adopt American customs?

Even before the first American troops invaded Puerto Rico on July 25, 1898, U.S. newspapers were already weighing the costs and benefits of annexing the island. S. Desmond Segur, more than a month before the first American troops would reach Spanish-controlled soil in Cuba, wrote of the potential profits of an American-controlled Puerto Rico in a piece he called “Puerto Rico: The Rich Fruit in the Caribbean that Uncle Sam is About to Pick.” Segur suggested that Puerto Rico was a tropical paradise overflowing with exotic produce and natural wealth and that the rich soil made plantation agriculture highly profitable. “The beautiful island is so fertile and life so easy,” he wrote, “there should not have been a pauper on it, but laziness and disease make many.” For Segur, American supervision would overcome Puerto Rican “laziness,” benefiting the islanders and American investors alike. It is worth noting that Segur’s schema formulated Americans as the driving force behind Puerto Rican production, importing its resources and labor power and exporting a seemingly superior American work ethic and national identity.[3]

Well I hardly Know which to take first
Here, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines are imagined as items on a menu in language reminiscent of Segur’s “rich fruit Uncle Sam is about to pick.” “Well I hardly know which to take first,” The Boston Globe, May 28, 1898. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Segur’s analysis of Puerto Rico—ripe with opportunity—was also laced with caution. He wrote that the climate, which he believed contributed to lethargy, posed a threat to Americans’ lifestyles and productivity. He argued that just as white Americans were more susceptible to Puerto Rican tropical diseases (a common white supremacist myth), American national identity was susceptible to the political dangers of including a foreign people in the nation. Segur wondered whether Puerto Ricans would “welcome a good rule bestowed forcibly by the United States.” He considered it unlikely, arguing “race instinct is very strong. Latin will side with Latin, and Anglo-Saxon will side with Anglo-Saxon.” The most significant danger for Americans, according to Segur, was Puerto Ricans themselves, who were racially distinct and could never become fully American. Their “race instinct” was the only obstacle to Americans’ full enjoyment of the “rich fruit” of Puerto Rico.[4]

Puerto Ricans were outraged to find the United States continued to treat the island as a foreign economy.

As American readers clamored for signs of Puerto Rican Americanization in the wake of the U.S. invasion, which they believed would increase American profits, Puerto Ricans looked to be included in the benefits of this new relationship. Local planters and merchants expected to be incorporated into the domestic American economy following American acquisition while workers hoped for more control over their wages outside of Spanish mercantilism. Instead, as many Puerto Ricans were outraged to find, the United States continued to treat the island as a foreign economy. An article in La Correspondencia de Puerto Rico, claiming to provide “Opiniones americanas,” imagined the difficulty as a conversation between two Puerto Rican children:

Why are we subject to a certain modification of the McKinley-Dingley tariff? asks one. Because we do not belong to the United States, replied the other.
But then, why do they [have] this exception and impose a 15 percent [tariff] on our products? Well it must be because we belong to the United States.[5]

If Puerto Rico was a foreign country, the author implied, it would be able to erect its own tariff barriers; if it was a territory of the United States, it would not be subject to American tariffs. The inconsistent logic of the American policy defining Puerto Rican exports as foreign and its imports as domestic left Puerto Rican workers unprotected and its capital subject to American profit margins in much the same way that U.S. law disadvantages the island’s government and economy today.[6]

Pabst Beer Ad
This ad for Pabst Beer from a Spanish-language newspaper in Puerto Rico indicates a significant American influence on the island. The United States flooded the Puerto Rican market with American goods but kept Puerto Rican products from competing on American soil. “Ask for Pabst Beer,” La Correspondencia de Puerto Rico, Jan. 22, 1900, Library of Congress.

American imperialists not only wrested Puerto Ricans’ political autonomy and economic independence from them, but also changed the island’s name. In perhaps the most bizarre dispute over the island’s future and its relationship to the U.S., American politicians, officials, editors, and readers engaged in a protracted debate over the proper spelling of Puerto Rico. An article in The Washington Post, for example, bemoaned the inconsistent usage of “Puerto Rico” and “Porto Rico” in official documents. The Board on Geographic Names, attempting to resolve the dispute, “requested from President McKinley an expression of his views, and in making the decision he says the name should be Puerto Rico.” The Post neglected to mention on what basis McKinley might decide the name of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans, though it was doubtless his authority as president of a conquering nation that justified his declaration. From this perspective, Americans, not Puerto Ricans, were qualified to make even the most basic decisions about the island.[7]

Defenders of the “Porto Rico” spelling tended to focus their arguments on English, rather than Spanish, as the ultimate authority for determining the island’s name. B.C. Gallup, for instance, incorrectly defended the use of “Porto Rico” in a Washington Post article as an older form of Spanish and “the name originally given the island by the Spaniards.” More significantly, however, he claimed that the correct English spelling is Porto Rico and that the official spelling should be in English. For Gallup, “Porto Rico and Portoricans [were] simpler and better- sounding names than Puerto Rico and Puertoriquenos.” Similar logic inspired a Los Angeles Times article claiming that since “Porto Rico… had become a possession of the United States it was not proper to drop the American orthography and adopt the Spanish.” Here, the superiority of English spelling and pronunciation seemed to be of paramount importance. It was, in this sense, incumbent on “Puerto Ricans” as colonial subjects to become “Porto Ricans” and adopt the implicitly superior Anglo-Saxon diction over what Gallup wrongly claimed were inferior and adulterated forms of Spanish. According to the eventually-victorious “Porto Rico” advocates, U.S. possession of the island demonstrated American superiority and implied a right to remake Puerto Rico in its image. As with Segur’s “rich fruit” fantasies, “Puerto Ricans” were the primary obstacles to “Porto Rico’s” rewards for Americans.[8]

Porto Rico Fourth (chicks)
Udo Keppler depicts Puerto Rico as a chick on the far right under the wing of the American eagle, signifying a subordinate relationship whereby Puerto Ricans might eventually gain equal status under American tutelage. Udo Keppler, July 4th 1901, N.Y.: J. Ottmann Lith. Co., Puck Bldg., 1901 July 3. Courtesy Library of Congress.

The negation of Puerto Rican linguistic traditions for English combined with the negation of the island’s revolutionary traditions, displacing the tiznado for the Declaration of Independence. In Puerto Rico, residents – and especially elites who hoped to benefit from partnering with the U.S. – balanced their own traditions with the expectations of their American occupiers. In 1899, they created a Commission, advertised in La Correspondencia, “with the aim of honorably celebrating the anniversary of one of the most beautiful and greatest events recorded in the history of mankind:” Independence Day.[9] The difficulty for the Commission, however, was that its mission was in part “to bring to the attention of the people of Puerto Rico the blessings which have arisen from that Declaration” to those who had yet to access them.[10] Further, the Commission tasked with planning the Fourth of July festivities was composed of three Americans and two Puerto Ricans. It seems that the opportunity for instructing “todas las clases sociales” was too important to be left to the Puerto Ricans themselves.[11]

Puerto Rico Fourth of July
Here, Keppler imagines explosions as celebrations of, rather than threats to, American power. Two striking features stand out in this highly racialized image depicting colonies at play with Anglo-American regions and states. First, the Philippines, seen climbing over a wall, alludes to the 1899 Philippine Insurrection. Second, a stateless, region-less African American in the foreground watches but appears unable to participate in the celebration, indicating the extent to which black Americans were viewed as a permanent Other within the nation. Udo Keppler, A false alarm on the fourth, N.Y.: J. Ottmann Lith. Co., Puck Bldg., 1902 July 2.  Courtesy Library of Congress.

If the press coverage of the planning and execution of Independence Day in 1900 are any indication, it’s likely that the celebrations designed by the Commission may not have gone as planned. According to a New York Times piece, the American-appointed Governor Charles Allen had to issue a proclamation that the holiday be observed on the island as an “express[ion] of loyalty to the United States.” Subsequent reports by the Times and the Washington Post reveal that only a handful of Puerto Ricans observed the Fourth, preferring instead to celebrate a Catholic Saint of Spain. The Times indignantly reported, with language reminiscent of their coverage of the tiznados, that “bands of hoodlums paraded the streets… carrying Spanish flags and shouting ‘Viva Español.’” Several days later, the Post reprinted an explanation of “why the day means so little to the Island of Porto Rico” translated from La Correspondencia. The author found that while Puerto Rico sought liberty and equality under the American flag, it “found [instead] her ancient liberties restricted and her political entity destroyed.”[12]

From the perspective of the U.S. imperialists, revolutionary tiznados were not possible colonial subjects just as Puerto Ricans themselves were unthinkable as fully American.

Puerto Ricans had revolutionary traditions and aspirations. They did not, however, see themselves as inheritors of an American Revolutionary legacy steeped in bourgeois values of property and social hierarchy. Instead, they imagined their struggle as one against elite planters and bureaucrats from Spain, the very group Americans hoped to court and eventually displace when they invaded the island. As an anonymous poet wrote in La Correspondencia, Washington and other Founders deserved praise their valiant struggle and sacrifice for American liberation from Britain. However, “if that righteous man [Washington] returns to life, the eagle stands as jailer, not to see the sunken claw, in the poor corpse of a sheep.”[13] The American eagle had been transformed into a vulture, preying on the corpse of Puerto Rico just as the United States had been transformed from the nation of Washington to that of McKinley. But from the perspective of the U.S. imperialists, revolutionary tiznados were not possible colonial subjects just as Puerto Ricans themselves were unthinkable as fully American. Puerto Ricans were forced to become “Porto Ricans”—adopting Anglo customs and holidays all while subsidizing American profits—without the hope of equality.

While President Trump complains that “Democrats are trying to bail out insurance companies from disastrous #ObamaCare, and Puerto Rico with your tax dollars. Sad!” and conservative columnists clutch their pearls over a potential bailout, perhaps we would do well to remember how we fed on “the poor corpse” of the island for generations. There is no greater betrayal of the Declaration, the Fourth, and the ideals they embody than that.

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[1] The term tiznados literally means “blackened-ones” or “dirty-ones,” referring to the use of charcoal smeared on their hands and faces meant to conceal their identities. “The Garrote in Porto Rico: Five Men Implicated in Murder Sentenced to Death in Ponce,” The Washington Post, December 29, 1899, p. 1. “Fatal Scene at Ponce: The Garroting of Five Men Made the Occasion of a Holiday,” The Washington Post, April 8, 1900, p. 1. The garrote was an execution device, used throughout the Spanish Empire and during the early period of American colonial rule in Puerto Rico and the Phillippines, in which a convict was seated and a metal bracket was tightened around his neck resulting in asphyxiation. Only five of the group that attacked Méndez were garroted, one died in prison, one escaped prison, and the remainder were never identified. For more on post-invasion unrest and violence, see Fernando Picó, Puerto Rico 1898: The War After the War, translated by Sylvia Korwek and Psique Arana Guzmán (Princeton: Marcus Weiner Publishers, 2004) pp. 54-59, 64-65, 74-75.

[2] Luis Figaroa’s exhaustive exploration of the racial and socio-economic divisions in nineteenth-century Guayama underscores the fundamental divisions in Puerto Rican society Fernando Picó likewise finds that scholarship idealizing the Puerto Rican past “does little justice to the need of every Puerto Rican to understand 1898.” For Picó and Figaroa, understanding Puerto Rican identity, refracted American racial norms and occupation, innately involves understanding the fundamental divisions in Puerto Rican society and the tension between these divisions and the need to contextualize the island’s folk in relation to Americanness. César Ayala, for example, outlines the destructive force of the American National Sugar Refining Company (NSRC). He finds that the NSRC actively lobbied to keep Puerto Rico from statehood in order to keep prices on Puerto Rican unrefined sugar low while protecting itself from competition with Puerto Rican refined sugar, ultimately boosting business for its refineries in the U.S. Luis Figaroa, Sugar, Slavery, and Freedom in Nineteenth-Century Puerto Rico (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 1-12; Picó, p. xi;. César Ayala, American Sugar Kingdom: The Plantation Economy of the Spanish Caribbean, 1898-1934 (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1999), 60-68; César Ayala and Rafael Bernabe, Puerto Rico in the American Century: A History since 1898 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 33-41.

[3] Segur, “Puerto Rico: The Rich Fruit,” p. 21. For the War of 1898 and its many repercussions, see Alfred McCoy and Francisco Scarano, Colonial Crucible: Empire in the Making of the Modern American State (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009).  For arguments similar to Segur’s, see A. Solomon, “Porto Rico as a Field for Investors,” The Independent, September 29, 1898, p. 903; Frank G. Carpenter, “Scenes in Porto Rico: Uncle Sam’s New Fruit Garden: How Bananas, Pineapples, and Cocoanuts can be Turned into Fortunes;” “Scenes in Porto Rico: How to Make Them into Good Americans,” Los Angeles Times, September 10, 1899; October 8, 1899, p. 14, 16. Carpenter’s analysis is especially interesting in this regard as it ties the project of Americanizing Puerto Ricans with the island’s material benefits for Americans.

[4] Segur, “Puerto Rico: The Rich Fruit,” p. 21.  Segur wrote just 24 days after the beginning of the war with Spain. Amy Kaplan outlines the legal and cultural ambiguities of the American imperial project in the War of 1898 and its aftermath. For Kaplan, Insular Cases and similar legal mechanisms of American imperialism provided the space through which Americans defined citizenship reciprocally in opposition to the “foreignness” of a domestic “Other.” Amy Kaplan, The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture (Harvard University Press, 2002), pp. 1-10.

[5] Original: ¿Por qué se nos sujeta á cierta modificación de la tarifa McKinley-Dingley? pregunta uno. Porque no pertenecemos á los Estados Unidos, contesta el otro / ¿Pero, entonces, porqué se hace esa excepción y se nos impone el 15 por ciento sobre nuestros productos? Pues debe ser porque pertene cemos á los Estados Unidos. “Opinas Americanas,” La Correspondencia de Puerto Rico, July 2, 1900, p. 2.

[6] The specific policy the Correspondencia author critiqued was the Foraker Act, which subjected Puerto Ricans to the tariff and granted extremely limited representation in Congress. For more, see Ayala and Bernabe, 26-27; Nancy Morris, Puerto Rico: Culture, Politics, and Identity (Praeger, 1995), 26-27.

[7] “Official Spelling is ‘Puerto Rico,’” The Washington Post, December 21, 1899, p. 3. Historians and social scientists suggest that officially renaming “Puerto Rico” as “Porto Rico” signified Americans’ disregard and even psychological need to suppress local cultural expression. For Patricia Gherovici, the re-naming represented “a colonial act that involved a destitution, an effacement of a singularity, a form of erasing their history,” while Morris viewed it as a legal quirk and an outgrowth of a misspelling in the Treaty of Paris. Patricia Gherovici, The Puerto Rican Syndrome (New York: Other Press, 2003), 140-143, 143 (quote); Morris, 27.

[8] B.C. Gallup, “Spelling of Porto Rico,” The Washington Post, November 22, 1898, p. 9; “Porto Rico: The Official Spelling of Our New Island’s Name,” Los Angeles Times, April 27, 1900, p. 18. For similar arguments, see “Porto Rico or Puerto Rico,” Chicago Daily Tribune, November 19, 1898, p. 12; “Official Spelling of Porto Rico,” Chicago Daily Tribune, April 18, 1900, p. 12; “Official Spelling of Puerto Rico,” New York Times, April 22, 1900, p. 5. See Gherovici, 140-144.

[9] Original: “con objeto de celebrar dignamente el aniversario de uno de los sucesos más hermosos y más grandes que registra la historia de la humanidad.” “Fiestas del 4 de Julio: Informe de la Comisión,” La Correspondencia de Puerto Rico, June 8, 1899, p. 2.

[10] Original “con el fin de llevar á conocimiento del pueblo de Puerto Rico, las bendiciones que han surgido de ese Declaración.”

[11] “Fiestas del 4 de Julio: Informe de la Comisión,” La Correspondencia de Puerto Rico, June 8, 1899, p. 2.

[12] “The Fourth in Porto Rico,” New York Times, July 2, 1900, p. 6. “Porto Rico Celebrates – Spain’s Patron Saint Honored by Spaniards in San Juan – Fourth of July Eclipsed,” New York Times, July 26, 1900, p. 7.

[13] Original: Si aquel justo varón torna á la vida, del águila se erige en carcelero, para no verla con la garra hundida en el pobre cadaver de un cordero. “El 4 de Julio,” La Correspondencia de Puerto Rico, July 4, 1900, p. 2.

1 comment on “American Consumer Empire in Puerto Rico

  1. Pingback: Who Counts as a Worker and Who Deserves Help? – The Activist History Review

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