The effect of colonialism on a colonized people can often result in a situation better known to us today as an “identity crisis.” Studying the history of Puerto Rico under Spanish rule helps us to identify the problems found within modern notions of Puerto Rican identity. Such notions of national identity stem from the belief that Puerto Rico is a “self-defined community of people who share a sense of solidarity based on a belief in a common heritage and who claim political rights that may include self-determination” (Morris 12). However, such modern notions of solidarity contradict the fact that by 1898 Puerto Rican society was characterized by great racial and class differences. As claimed by Jose Luis Gonzalez in his Puerto Rico: The Four Storeyed Country, these differences made “Puerto Rico a country so divided racially, socially, economically and culturally that it should be described as two countries rather than one” (Gonzalez14). The rise and fall of the international sugar market, and the subsequent ascendancy of the coffee market in the Puerto Rican economy, helped to create the “foreign elements” within Puerto Rico that make modern views of Puerto Rican identity extremely problematic.
The study and use of history has played an important role in helping to construct the concept of Puerto Rican national heritage. Francisco Scarano, in his Sugar and Slavery in Puerto Rico, 1815-1949: An Overview, asserts that notions of Puerto Rican national heritage have been portrayed as being an “anomalous case” within the Americas. He writes that many historians have claimed that Puerto Rico had an “economy and society which developed an advanced sugar industry during times of fairly open Atlantic slave trade, yet did not rely to any significant degree on the labor of African slaves” (Scarano 25). This suggests that the racial “heritage” of Puerto Ricans is not predominately black, and therefore, other races must have attributed to this hybridity, as well. Moreover, it also suggests that because forced slavery was not widely practiced on the island, a notion of solidarity could have existed amongst the Puerto Rican people during the 19th Century. However, could this example also serve as a precedent for modern uses of history to reinforce perceptions of national identity?
Unfortunately, the details surrounding the island’s social and economic structure at that particular time prevent its history from serving as a model for national unity. In the 1840s, sugar became very important in the international market. New technologies resulted from both the European and American Industrial Revolutions, and as a result, sugarcane producers were able to process their crops more efficiently. This dramatic increase in the consumption of sugarcane created a greater demand for labor by the Spanish Empire, transforming Puerto Rico from a dependent colony on the outskirts of an empire, to a profit-making enterprise. However, did an alternative free labor force exist in 19th Century Puerto Rico to substantiate the claims that African slave labor was not important to its sugar economy?
Evidence suggests that the native population could not fulfill the economic goals of the Spanish Empire. Scarano claims that “the haciendas needed a mass of inexpensive disciplined workers, and for nearly three decades after 1815, the African slave trade satisfied that demand. Except on very small farms using a balanced combination of slaves and jornaleros, slaves constituted the majority of sugar workers in the principal producing districts until well beyond the middle of the century” (Scarano 26). These ideas demonstrate that modern constructions of Puerto Rican heritage are incomplete without a discussion of the strong African heritage in Puerto Rican culture.
Internal domestic conditions concerning Puerto Rican labor discipline problems also contributed to the large importations of African slaves. The large “hinterland” area of central Puerto Rico, for centuries, had created a respite for free population in which they could live their day to day lives fairly autonomous from Spanish rule (Scarano 4). The Vagrancy Laws of 1838 and 1849, and the policies against “amancibamiento,” suggest that Spaniards recognized the impending end of the African Slave trade, and thus tried to turn the free population into a reliable labor force. This evidence indicates that “there is every reason to believe that the planters would have employed free workers instead of slaves if the cost and work discipline of the former matched that of the enslaved blacks” (Scarano 32). However, since the free population was not widely used, the culture of the African slaves is integral to understanding the historical heritage of modern Puerto Rico.
If the above statements are true, what does this say about the possibility of there having ever existed a “self-defined community of people who share a sense of solidarity” in Puerto Rico under Spanish rule (Morris 12)? Can one with pride claim both the heritage of a 19th Century creole plantation owner and that of a slave? Clearly, these two people would not view themselves as having a similar “Puerto Rican identity” (if they would define themselves as Puerto Ricans at all). The above analysis of the effects of the sugar economy in Puerto Rico validates Gonzalez’ claims that in the 19th Century there were “two countries rather than one,” thus making it difficult to claim one single Puerto Rican heritage today (Gonzalez 14).
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Similarly, one must question the complex nature of viewing those “who claim political rights that may or may not include self-determination,” as an essential part of a modern definition for Puerto Rican identity (Morris 12). Upon examining Puerto Rico throughout the second half of the 19th Century we see how Gonzalez’ vision of two Puerto Rican societies consist really of three or more segregated societies, each with their own separate interests. The rigid class hierarchies characterizing Puerto Rico during this time period would have meant that the individuals most able to claim political rights would not have represented most Puerto Ricans. This reality may also be the case in Puerto Rico today. For example, the Spanish Empire was governed by a hierarchical structure that favored peninsulares such as the merchants born in Spain over the creoles born on the island. Often, the peninsulare merchants were appointed to distinguished political positions, while the creoles were forced to serve in positions of substantially lesser power. Subsequently, the creole plantations owners found themselves in “secondary economic positions occupied by the agrarian sector of the Puerto Rican economy” (Bergad 152). Clearly, the creoles felt discriminated against, both politically and economically. Their feelings of “Puertoricanness” would have been strengthened in the face of this discrimination by peninsulares whose “selfish” goals were to “return to Europe either to retire or continue their merchant careersbecause the immigrant merchants of Lares were not interested in diversifying their investments or in the long-term development of the colony of Puerto Rico” (Bergad 163).
The creoles would have most likely been the first class to perpetuate the feelings of a national identity, but what exactly was the nature of their self-defined “Puertoricanness”? Although they would have considered themselves to be “more Puerto Rican” than the peninsulares, would they have also considered their former slaves, the jibaros, who “still had used the words that modern Spanish had forgotten,” to be Puerto Rican just as they were (de Valle Atiles 95)? It can be concluded then, that the creoles did, in fact, view themselves as a distinct group of Puerto Ricans. This again points out that, although the desire for political recognition may have been strong amongst the creoles, it did not mean that they served the interests of a united Puerto Rican people. Such issues are very important when discussing notions of identity while studying Puerto Rico under Spanish colonialism.
Upon continuing the discussion of what it means to be Puerto Rican, it is clear that early U.S. colonial rule fundamentally shaped the character of this definition, as well. At the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, the island became a possession of the United States, subject only to the privileges that the U.S. was willing to grant it. The dichotomy between Puerto Rico’s expectations and what it actually became after 1898, also helped to formulate the definition of what it meant to be Puerto Rican. This new Puerto Rican identity, which was in large part based upon historical myths, served as a defense mechanism to combat the island’s dissatisfaction with its new political, social, and economic relationships under U.S. rule.
The U.S. imperial policy was indeed arrogant and racist, yet the response by the Puerto Rican elite in no way made an effective challenge against the political domination of the United States. Instead, these elites idealized the Spanish colonial experience in which “Spain had forgotten about Puerto Rico” (Fernandez 28). Yes, the elites may have received nominal political duties from Spain, but they were still a colony under the direct rule of the Spanish Monarchy. The source of the elites praises toward their former colonizer was merely a way to justify their dissatisfaction with what Puerto Rico had become after two decades of U.S. colonial rule. This experience created an important part of the liberal Puerto Rican identity, which even today continues to assert strong nationalism without struggling for an independent nation.
Disregarding the ideals outlined in the U. S. Constitution, the United States used racism to justify its political control over Puerto Rico. In addition to being devalued for their Spanish, Indian, and mestizo heritage, Puerto Ricans were primarily stigmatized for being black. This connection with African backwardness helped to clarify U.S. perceptions of Puerto Rico’s inability to develop socially after 1898. Puerto Rico is also portrayed as having changed very little, racially, from 1890 to the 1940s. Given the racial stereotypes prevalent in the United States’ imperialist ideology at the turn of the century, the message was quite clear – “we Americans will try to civilize you, however, your racial backwardness will continue to hold you back” (Trias-Monges 78).
Although modern perceptions of Puerto Rican identity tend to call for homogeneity, the historical reality of Puerto Rico has been characterized by a diversity of races, classes, interests and identities. Unfortunately, the Puerto Rican elites have never accurately been able to create a nationalist identity that could effectively challenge the capitalist interest of the United States. Perhaps, this is due to the fact that the U.S. recognized that exploiting “the island’s class divisions was a way to foster support for the authority of the United States” (Fernandez 40). Still, one must be critical of these Puerto Rican elites because they have historically exhibited a failure to recognize that race and class are fundamentally tied into issues of identity. The details presented throughout this account, are essential not only in considering what it means to be Puerto Rican, but also in considering what Puerto Rico is expected to become today, some 500 years after its initial colonization.
Bergad, Laird. “The Coffee Boom, 1885-1897.” Coffee and Agrarian Capitalism in Nineteenth-Century Puerto Rico. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983. 145-203.
de Valle Atiles, Francisco. “The Spiritual Life of the Jibaro.” The Intellectual Roots of Independence: An Anthology of Puerto Rican Political Essays. Eds. Iris M. Zavala and Rafael Rodriguez. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1980. 95-103.
Gonzales, Jose Luis. Puerto Rico: The Four Storeyed Country and Other Essays. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishing Inc., 1993. 1-30.
Fernandez, Ronald. The Disenchanted Island. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 1996. 1-83.
Scarano, Francisco. “Sugar and Slavery in Puerto Rico, 1815-1849: An Overview.” Sugar and Slavery in Puerto Rico: Plantation Economy of Ponce, 1800-1850. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984. 3-34.
Trias-Monge, Jose. “The Shaping of a Colonial Policy.” Puerto Rico: The Trials of the Oldest Colony in the World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997. 45-121.