Documenting a Puerto Rican Identity
Of all the former Spanish colonies in the Americas, Puerto Rico, the smallest island of the Greater Antilles in the Caribbean Sea, was the only territory that never gained its political independence. The years between 1800 and 1930, however, paved the way for the formation and development of its political institutions and national identity. The keys to the internal dynamics and the dramatic socio-economic transformation that the island experienced throughout this period were the political and economic struggles of a decaying Spanish Empire and the formal transfer of the island to the United States at the end of the 1898 Spanish-American War. It is in this context that Puerto Rico's traditions, political institutions, and economic system evolved so that it may be considered a "modern" nation. This essay highlights some of the most important historical events, beginning in the 1800s, that contributed to the definition of Puerto Rico's historical and cultural identity.
The introduction of the printing press to Puerto Rico in 1806 permitted the publication of a wealth of historical and political material throughout the 1800s. The result was the development of a national political discourse and the definition of a Puerto Rican cultural identity. Publications from the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century, including chronicles, historical essays, political debates, memoirs, government records, and newspaper articles, document the socio-political dynamics on the island during the last century of Spanish rule and the early period of colonial government under the United States. Puerto Rico at the Dawn of the Modern Age: Nineteenth- and Early-Twentieth-Century Perspectives includes a wide range of publications from the early 1800s through the 1930s, revealing the richness and complexity of Puerto Rico's political and socio-economic realities during a critical historical period and the steady progression of a national project that has defined Puerto Ricans as a people.
Puerto Rican Migration and Political Participation
By the 1950s, the flow of Puerto Ricans to the mainland United States had increased so drastically that historians dubbed the phenomenon the “Great Migration.” An estimated 470,000 people—or 21 percent of the island’s total population—left Puerto Rico for the United States between 1950 and 1960.116 By the end of the decade, 30 percent of all native-born Puerto Ricans were living on the mainland, primarily in colonias, dense, centralized neighborhoods inhabited predominantly by Puerto Ricans and other Hispanic Americans.117 The earliest Puerto Rican migrants settled in New York City; before 1920 they clustered in East Harlem on the Upper East Side, an area that came to be known as Spanish Harlem or El Barrio.118 In 1950, 80 percent of mainland Puerto Ricans lived in New York City.119 By the mid-1970s, 12 percent of New York City’s inhabitants claimed Puerto Rican roots.120
Puerto Rican migrants in the mid-20th century occupied the lower rungs of the U.S. labor market, taking jobs as domestic workers, in manufacturing, and in the service and maintenance industries.121 Generally, Puerto Ricans did not fare as well as other migrant groups. A 1976 report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights stated that within the Puerto Rican community on the mainland, the “incidence of poverty and unemployment … is more severe than that of virtually any ethnic group in the United States.”122 By the late 1960s and early 1970s, both New York-based Puerto Ricans and new migrants began moving out of New York City, which was hit hard by the recession. Large migrant populations settled in industrial Northeastern and Midwestern cities, including Philadelphia, Chicago, Gary (Indiana), Lorain (Ohio), Paterson (New Jersey), and Hartford and Bridgeport (Connecticut). By the early 1970s, more than 30 U.S. cities had populations of more than 10,000 Puerto Ricans.123
Puerto Rico’s insular government contributed to this exchange of people and goods. Machines replaced men as the preferred form of labor on the island’s sugar plantations, and Puerto Rico began hemorrhaging agricultural jobs. Its manufacturing industry struggled to compensate, and the island was left with catastrophic unemployment rates. With more workers than available work, island officials sought ways to alleviate the pressure on the island’s economy. Invoking his medical training, Resident Commissioner Antonio Fernós-Isern sought policies for “a good emergency ‘bloodletting,’ scientifically carried out” to spark the economy. He hoped encouraging islanders to move to the mainland would help reduce what he called Puerto Rico’s “hypertension.”124 Officials in New York noted that the new migrants were unprepared for life on the mainland; they spoke very little English and arrived with few job prospects.
In 1947 Puerto Rican officials opened the Migration Office in response to these problems. (In 1951 the office became the Migration Division of the Puerto Rico department of labor.) The office served to recruit Puerto Rican labor for growing industries in the mainland United States, to regulate the flow of new migrants and help them find jobs, and to defend laborers from abuse.125 One Puerto Rican cabinet official observed, “You cannot stop Puerto Rican people from coming to the United States, for they are citizens. They have been coming to New York City by themselves without Government aid in the past. We want to step in to give them some guidance about the housing, the weather and where they can find a job.”126
Most historians agree that the major American political parties were slow to embrace Puerto Ricans as a constituency. “Neither of the two parties, not the Democratic nor the Republican, was seriously interested in the support of the Puerto Ricans,” Vega observed.132 Puerto Ricans’ earliest link to American politics was between its extreme Nationalist wing and the leftist American Labor Party. Represented most vocally by U.S. Congressman Vito Marcantonio—an American Labor Party member who represented East Harlem in the late 1930s and 1940s—New York-based Puerto Ricans developed a “troublesome” reputation that was unwelcome in the post–World War II, anticommunist, Cold War atmosphere.133
About this objectElected to the U.S. House in 1970, Herman Badillo of New York was the first person of Puerto Rican descent to serve as a full-fledged voting Representative.
The first generation of Puerto Rican politicians within the U.S. party system gained influence by using a measured approach, rising through the ranks and avoiding issues that were strictly Puerto Rican. Representative Badillo, for example, entered New York City politics through the reform wing of the Democratic Party, focusing on stemming corruption and promoting government efficiency. “Badillo’s political entree with this group therefore reflected a moderate orientation toward working in a middle-class, relatively mainstream context rather than a political identity limited to a Latino constituency,” writes historian Sherrie Baver.134 Though he addressed issues affecting Puerto Ricans in his district, Badillo distanced himself from El Barrio’s radical heritage. For example, he vocally opposed naming a Harlem public school after Pedro Albizu Campos, an activist for Puerto Rican independence who had endorsed terrorist activities in the 1930s.135 Badillo also worried that federally funded antipoverty programs in New York City encouraged ethnic isolation rather than cooperation.136
Before long, the civil rights movement revived a more radical Puerto Rican political community, especially in New York. The adoption of the Estado Libre Asociado (Free Associated State) in Puerto Rico in the early 1950s not only undercut the independence movement, but it also sparked renewed migration to the mainland, where urban industrialization had flourished after the war. Consequently, many leaders in and around Manhattan began addressing the economic needs of El Barrio and other popular Puerto Rican enclaves.137 On the national level, the political mobilization of African Americans made the Democratic Party more amenable to minority interests, and by the 1960s Puerto Ricans, as people of color, confronted the notion of social justice.138
Antecedents of the Estado Libre Asociado (ELA)
As early as 1943, the Puerto Rican legislature requested that islanders be permitted to elect their governor as the next step toward self-government. Muñoz Marín and his PPD ally Antonio Fernós-Isern sought this right as a step toward greater autonomy, and the move seemed appropriate after President Truman’s appointment of the first native-born governor, Jesús Piñero, in 1946. The men’s congressional allies—Chairman of the House Insular Affairs Subcommittee on Territories and Insular Possessions Fred Crawford of Michigan and Senator Hugh Butler of Nebraska—introduced a bill permitting the island’s voters to elect their own governor in 1947. Reported favorably by committees in both houses, the Crawford–Butler Elected Governor Act (P.L. 80-362) passed with widespread bipartisan support in the final minutes of the first session of the 80th Congress (1947–1949).145 The measure was the first major change to Puerto Rican governance since the Jones Act in 1917.146 “Indeed,” wrote a historian, “the climate in Congress for insular autonomy was remarkably favorable.”147
“In the Nature of a Compact”: The Development of ELA
Despite the new legislation, the federal-insular relationship remained confusing and outdated. Attempts to tack a status referendum onto the Crawford–Butler Act failed before the bill came to the floor, but supporters used debate over the legislation to promote the idea of a “compact” between the United States and Puerto Rico.148 Fernós-Isern outlined his views on this political relationship in an address at Princeton University on May 5, 1948, redefining Puerto Rico not as a state of the union or as an independent republic, but as an intermediate “Autonomous State” or a “Federated Republic.”149 A fixation on independence or statehood had created “worshippers of different sects,” Fernós-Isern said the following October. He called on Puerto Ricans to unite, not as a colony but as a dominion of the United States, aligned with the mainland with regard to international matters but governed locally under its own constitution.150
Historians credit Muñoz Marín and Fernós-Isern with navigating the autonomous option, which became the ELA, through treacherous political waters in Congress and Puerto Rico.151 Fernós-Isern, a physician, and Muñoz Marín, a writer, bonded over a “non-legalistic, non-doctrinaire approach” to Puerto Rico’s status issues. In the Resident Commissioner’s estimation, the key to shepherding a status change through Congress was to simplify the legislation.152 The two PPD leaders abandoned the aggressive tactics that were pursued in previous status fights; instead of attacking past U.S. policy toward its “shameful colony,” the two argued that Puerto Rico had earned the right to escape “centuries of poverty and injustice.”153
Introduced on March 13, 1950, Fernós-Isern’s 59-line bill (H.R. 7674) followed his simple, straightforward strategy.154 “In the nature of a compact” between the United States and Puerto Rico, the bill authorized Puerto Ricans to conduct a plebiscite on the bill’s basic provisions. If voters approved, the Puerto Rican legislature would call a constitutional convention to draft a document that would require popular consent before its submission to the U.S. Congress for final approval.155 “This is not statehood,” Fernós-Isern explained to his colleagues. “Puerto Rico will continue to be represented in Congress by its Resident Commissioner. This is not independence. Puerto Ricans will continue proudly to be American citizens, in a common loyalty to our common institutions.… Mr. Chairman, I confidently say that the present political aspirations of the people of Puerto Rico are embodied in this bill.”156
Fernós-Isern presided over the subsequent constitutional convention, but Muñoz Marín himself drafted the document’s preamble, which along with the first and second articles, was deemed a “value-oriented” provision, defining the island’s ideals and political culture.165 The third, fourth, and fifth articles of the bill distributed power among the legislature, executive branch, and judicial system.166 The convention overwhelmingly approved a final draft, 88 to 3, on February 5, 1952.167
Section 20 of the constitution contained a bill of rights that extended beyond the U.S. Constitution’s. Borrowed from the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it protected the right to work, a standard of living “adequate for health and well-being,” social services, and special care for women and children.168 “The Constitution contains a comprehensive Bill of Rights which not only incorporates the traditional American guarantees to the individual, but also reflects recent advances in respect to social and economic matters,” Fernós-Isern explained. “With respect to the latter, however, it is worth noting that the Constitution carefully adapts its statement of social and economic rights to the realities of the Puerto Rican situation,” he said.169 Fernós-Isern counted on the Puerto Rican electorate’s ability to create and amend its own constitution to justify the island’s new status with no interference from Congress beyond its assurance that the document was within the parameters of U.S. law.170 Puerto Rican voters approved the constitution by a margin of more than 4 to 1 in a plebiscite on March 3, 1952.171
The meaning of Puerto Rican sovereignty and Congress’s future role on the island became the focus of debate in the U.S. House during the 82nd Congress (1951–1953). Given that congressional oversight was limited to ensuring that the Puerto Rican constitution fit the parameters of Public Law 600, the objectives were to create a republican government, include a bill of rights, and attain majority approval by the Puerto Rican people before submitting the document to Congress and the President for final approval.172 It was unclear whether Congress could amend articles it deemed unacceptable, but both houses soon took this approach over Fernós-Isern’s objections.173
About this objectRepresentative Reva Bosone of Utah favored granting Puerto Rico greater autonomy in crafting its constitution in the early 1950s. Bosone reasoned that such a policy would promote stronger ties between the United States and the island and, by extension, South American nations.
Though Cold War rhetoric provided a strong rationale to pass the constitution, it also drove the desire to strike Section 20. Insular Affairs Committee Chairman Murdock eventually submitted an amendment to delete this portion of the bill of rights.179 Supporters included Republican Representative John Wood of Idaho, who called “this strange bill of rights” an “entirely unworkable thing in our form of society.”180 Most Members who spoke favored Murdock’s amendment, which passed on voice vote, and argued that Congress’s right to reject the constitution extended to rejecting portions of it.181
The Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs upheld the House amendment in its report on S.J. Res. 151. South Carolina Senator Olin Johnston’s attempt to assert absolute congressional authority to approve or reject the Puerto Rican constitutional amendment under the ELA provoked a sharp exchange with Dennis Chavez of New Mexico.182 But the amendment, which some observers described as a “poison pill,” passed by voice vote.183 The House-Senate conference committee deleted the Johnston amendment, but in doing so also struck Section 20. Furthermore, any additional amendments could not alter the arrangements made under Public Law 600 and the remainder of the Jones Act.184
To Fernós-Isern, the final measure represented a significant victory and proved that the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States was a balanced “compact.” Congress still maintained ultimate oversight over Puerto Rico’s internal affairs, and with the Jones Act in place, the final law created a “moral” compact between Puerto Rico and the United States rather than fundamentally altering their legal relationship.185 Moreover, Fernós-Isern’s strategy had achieved a resolution to the status issue, which many Puerto Ricans had sought for half a century.186 With President Truman’s signature, the ELA took effect July 25, 1952, the anniversary of the American invasion of Puerto Rico in the Spanish-American War.187 Fernós-Isern and Muñoz Marín joined 35,000 people in front of the capitol in San Juan to raise the new flag, which boasted five red and white horizontal stripes with a single white star in a blue triangle, a design that Puerto Rican revolutionaries had hoisted against Spain in 1895.188
Reactions to the ELA
Yet support for the ELA was far from universal. Detractors noted that the underlying status structure remained unchanged; Puerto Rico was still a U.S. territory. “The Congress of the United States … agreed to accept the Commonwealth status on the understanding that the phrase ‘in the nature of a compact’ did not mean that Congress was irrevocably giving up its jurisdiction over Puerto Rican matters, internal and external,” historian Surendra Bhana concludes.192 The ELA faced several court challenges in the late 20th century.193
The honeymoon period that followed the adoption of the ELA barely lasted into the next decade. As early as 1959, Fernós-Isern, under pressure from statehood advocates in Puerto Rico, introduced H.R. 9234, popularly known as the Fernós–Murray Bill, to clarify the intent of Public Law 600. The measure died in committee, but within the next five years Fernós-Isern served on a congressionally established commission to study the future relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico.194 The commission’s findings concluded that three alternatives—statehood, commonwealth, and independence—were viable. The results, announced in 1966, sparked a plebiscite on July 23, 1967, wherein a relatively low turnout of voters chose to continue under the auspices of the ELA.195 Given the pro-commonwealth results, pro-statehood Resident Commissioner Jorge Luis Córdova-Díaz, who won office in 1968, estimated that building enough support for statehood to convince Congress to act would take 25 more years. “The time is not yet ripe [for statehood],” he said in 1970, “but surely it is coming when the great preponderance of our people will clearly express its will in this sense.”196 Future Resident Commissioner Jaime Benítez continued to support commonwealth status. “I believe that the immense majority of my fellow Puerto Ricans are now and will continue to be as far as one may foresee into the future spiritually committed, soberly and progressively so, in spite of intervening confusions, exasperations, difficulties, and misunderstandings, to permanent association and union with the U.S,” he said in 1968. The key feature of the island’s status, he reiterated, was its flexibility as a “middle of the road approach.”197 The idea of statehood, he said later, was “unmitigated nonsense.”198 Benítez defeated the incumbent, Córdova-Díaz, as the PPD’s candidate for Resident Commissioner in 1972, indicating that after 20 years, status remained one of the most contentious issues on the island.
The Nationalists and the ELA
The most vocal and violent detractors of Public Law 600 and the ELA was the Partido Nacionalista (Nationalist Party). As early as the fall of 1950, radical Nacionalistas launched two attacks in Puerto Rico: On October 27, they led an armed uprising in at least seven Puerto Rican towns; three days later, they attempted to assassinate Muñoz Marín at the governor’s mansion in San Juan. A total of 33 Nacionalistas died.199
Nacionalistas also struck in Washington during the debate on Public Law 600. On November 1, 1950, New York-based Puerto Rican Nacionalistas attacked Blair House, President Truman’s temporary home on Lafayette Square, across from the White House. Though the President was unharmed, one of the two assassins and a White House police officer were killed. Resident Commissioner Fernós-Isern condemned the attack as the work of a small, extremist minority and was quick to distance Puerto Rico from the violence. “I am a physician. Perhaps I might find in the intricacies of psychiatry an explanation for this type of behavior and for the reasoning or lack of reasoning behind it,” he told his colleagues on the House Floor. “But outside of that, I can say this: Thank God this type of behavior and reasoning is not typical of the people of Puerto Rico.”200 He linked the violent wing of the Partido Nacionalista with “traitorous” United States communists in an “unholy marriage.”201 In a visit to the White House on November 17, Fernós-Isern delivered a letter to President Truman expressing the regrets of the Puerto Rican people.202 After the remaining assassin was sentenced to execution, Fernós-Isern delivered a letter that was signed by 119,000 Puerto Ricans who were thankful the President had been spared. Weighing 57 pounds, the letter denounced the “arbitrary act of violence … by a small group of fanatic Nationalists.”203
Governor Muñoz Marín also flew to Washington on March 2 to express his condolences. The governor visited all the wounded Congressmen, except Michigan Representative Alvin Bentley, who was unable to receive visitors, and called on President Eisenhower at the White House.207 Later Muñoz Marín stood in the well of the House, shook hands with Members, and received a standing ovation. Speaker Joe Martin of Massachusetts, who had ducked behind the rostrum to avoid the rampage, voiced his support for the Puerto Rican government. “A few gangsters can’t break up the friendship of great nations,” he said.208
Changes in the Role of the Resident Commissioner
While the passage of Public Law 600 did not legally change the duties or privileges of the Resident Commissioner, scholar José Rios notes that the Resident Commissioner assumed two additional obligations under the new Puerto Rican constitution: the “legal obligation to insure that Congress did not approve legislation that could be in conflict with the status of the Commonwealth” and “the obligation to support those changes in the association with the United States that the people of Puerto Rico should propose.”210 Fernós-Isern, with the support of Senator James Murray of Montana, tried to enhance the Resident Commissioner’s role as an ambassador to the executive branch, among other things, by sponsoring H.R. 9234 during the 86th Congress (1959–1961), but the bill never passed.211 Greater autonomy for Puerto Rico also meant that the other elective offices, including those of the governor and the insular legislature, took on increased stature in Puerto Rico. For example, when the speaker of the insular house, Santiago Polanco-Abreu, was handpicked by Muñoz Marín as the PPD candidate for Resident Commissioner, many of his supporters viewed his selection as a career step backward and akin to “political exile” because it isolated him from the party during a crucial transition period.212 But with the U.S. Congress expected to tackle the question of Puerto Rico’s status, others believed the Resident Commissioner’s job was more important than ever.213
Expanding the Rights of Territorial Delegates and the Resident Commissioner
The growing number of statutory representatives made great strides in obtaining more rights within the legislative process. Political tremors in Puerto Rico during the late 1960s sent shock waves from San Juan to Washington. For nearly 20 years, the PPD, which was responsible for creating and nurturing the island’s commonwealth status, remained virtually unchallenged. The pro-commonwealth plebiscite in 1967 seemed to reaffirm the island’s confidence in the Popular Democrats and to solidify Puerto Rico’s unique relationship with the federal government. But less than a year later, the PPD lost elections islandwide to the upstart, pro-statehood Partido Nuevo Progresista (New Progressive Party, or PNP). Social ills like poverty, crime, and corruption hurt the PPD’s popularity, and the new PNP administration provided an ambitious, new agenda that included statehood. “The depth and desire for change in the Puerto Rican electorate was underestimated by all the politicians,” said an editorial in San Juan’s leading English-language newspaper shortly after the election.217
The Puerto Rican electorate’s “desire for change” extended the duties and responsibilities of the Resident Commissioner, which had been a talking point during the 1968 campaign for the office. Until that point, the Resident Commissioner’s role in the House had been unique. The Resident Commissioner sat on committees whose jurisdictions affected Puerto Rico, but could not gain seniority or vote during markup. He could introduce legislation on the House Floor but was unable to vote on its final passage. Thus, the office of the Resident Commissioner often functioned more like a lobbying operation than a seat in the national legislature.218 For nearly a generation, this arrangement satisfied the PPD’s commonwealth program; Puerto Ricans maintained U.S. citizenship, their cultural identity, and a degree of independence in exchange for a muted role in federal politics.
But such thinking began to change with the retirement of the initial group of PPD leaders. Amid the rise of the pro-statehood PNP in the late 1960s, many voters reassessed their expectations for the office of Resident Commissioner. Whereas the PPD tended to concern itself only with legislation that might influence Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status, the PNP promised to refashion the Resident Commissioner’s seat.219 When Jorge Luis Córdova-Díaz won election in 1968, he set in motion a series of events that made the office of Resident Commissioner significantly more influential.
Like earlier Resident Commissioners, Córdova-Díaz lamented his nonvoting status. “I can sit in the chamber and have my colleagues tell me how lucky I am not to have to vote on a controversial issue,” he said in 1970. “But I itch to vote. I don’t have any political muscle.” It all made “getting even the smallest of things” for Puerto Rico difficult, not to mention larger items, such as food stamps, which he struggled to procure.220 Córdova-Díaz considered the office of Resident Commissioner to be unequal to representing nearly three million people.221 Even future Speaker Carl Albert of Oklahoma conceded, “I think it is important to note that the role of Resident Commissioner is unique in the Congress. The man who serves in this capacity must find his own way among men and women whose status is rather different and in many ways easier.”222
About this objectCarl Albert of Oklahoma was Speaker of the House when the chamber adopted new rules that expanded the powers of Delegates and Resident Commissioners.
Córdova-Díaz offered an amendment as part of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 (P.L. 91-510) that permitted the Resident Commissioner to vote in committee. Córdova-Díaz was certain the amendment would fail in the Senate. “I can’t complain that I’ve been ignored,” he said after the bill passed the House, “but I feel if the bill is passed [by the Senate] the chances are better that I’ll be listened to. These department heads are well aware that I haven’t had the vote and now they’ll realize that someday they might need me. So I feel they’ll be more responsive when I ask them for something.”223 When the amendment unexpectedly cleared the Senate, the office of Resident Commissioner assumed more direct power than ever before.224 On the Opening Day of the 92nd Congress (1971–1973), the House implemented the rights that were won by Córdova-Díaz, declaring that statutory Members would “serve on standing committees in the same manner as Members of the House” and would have the right to accrue seniority.225 Statutory representatives intended to continue to try to obtain more rights in Congress, especially the right to vote on the House Floor. Asked about full voting rights for Delegates on the House Floor, de Lugo responded, “The fact that I’m here shows you how far we’ve come.”226