The Battle for Boricua

Is Puerto Rico the battleground for America’s intellectual future?
A review by Fernando Ortiz Jr.

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Is Puerto Rico the battleground for America’s intellectual future?
A review by Fernando Ortiz Jr.

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Discussed in this essay:

Laura Briggs. Reproducing Empire: Race, Empire, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. Pp. 304. $29.95.

I.

Puerto Rico was one of the prizes the U.S. won in its 1898 victory over the Spanish Empire. The U.S. made Puerto Ricans citizens in 1917 and granted the territory an upgrade to commonwealth status in 1952. Debate has raged ever since over how, when, or if Puerto Rico should attempt to move in a new political direction, and over how it should cope with the degree of control the U.S. still wields over its economic and political systems. Like a moon trapped in planetary orbit, bathed only in the solar light reflected from that planet’s surface, struggles for self-definition and conflicting political visions dominate the island’s history.1

Laura Briggs extravagantly explores key components of Puerto Rico’s lurching political evolution in Reproducing Empire, a 2002 book based on her 1998 doctoral thesis composed at Brown University. Her book, standing tall among the work uniting colonial control and gender roles, illustrates Anglo American rulers at first disgusted with Puerto Rico, viewing the island territory as a cesspool of tropical subhumans blinded by rampant sexual desires and staggered by venereal disease, overpopulation endangering their natural and imported resources, and desperate, whether they knew it or not, for American guidance.

Puerto Rico’s social and economic problems were both caused and worsened, Briggs argues, by colonizing Americans who only saw themselves as solutions to those problems. She creatively examines the grinding conflict between the colonizer and the colonized through the prism of Puerto Rican sexuality, particularly the symbolically sexual body of the working-class Puerto Rican woman, whose propensity for sexual “deviancy” was blamed for spreading disease, for having too many children, and for essentially standing in the way of Puerto Rico’s proper Americanization. The fights waged over her sexual body became, Briggs argues, fights over Puerto Rican identity, political autonomy, ethnic equality, forced modernization, and Puerto Rican resistance. The Puerto Rican woman was the greatest battlefield in the titanic struggle over the island, which Briggs calls “the most important place in the world,” where she believes today’s essential debates over globalization issues are rooted in U.S. colonial attitudes.2

Americans saw prostitutes swarming over the men training to fight in World War I, posing their own venereal threat not just to the men but also to the women and children on the mainland, who would eventually be infected by the hapless victims of female Puerto Rican sexuality. U.S. incarceration policies on prostitution, Briggs argues, were one more supplement to colonial control and one more way Americans saw Puerto Ricans as foreigners, as people of lesser value to be kept apart from Americans, and as primitives who needed benevolent guidance. Puerto Rican women were either threats or weaklings needing protection. Islanders protested these prostitution policies, and Briggs sees in the rhetoric islander resistance not simply to the policies but also to the overall colonial project and later over their muddled citizenship.3

Americans saw overpopulation as also caused by these naturally promiscuous and illiterate women, prone to disease, doomed to poverty, and overly attached to the ideal of large hungry families. So, Briggs explains, American scientists developed new sterilization and birth control methods – diaphragms, contraceptive foams and jellies, and eventually the pill – and tested their effectiveness on Puerto Rican women, turning the island into “a social science laboratory.”4

II.

Throughout the Cold War, Briggs argues that Puerto Rico became a “political showcase,” advertising to Latin American nations vulnerable to Soviet seduction the beauty of a society that could result from an alliance (re: economic and military control) with the U.S. Puerto Rico was subjected to development projects — population control, industrialization, export control — again serving as a laboratory where models were analyzed before being sold to Third World nations.5

But the islanders had direct effects on the mainland too. Most importantly, Americans saw a huge post-World War II movement of Puerto Ricans into mainland cities, particularly into New York. The arrival of so many people in only a few decades permanently changed the racial and ethnic makeup of countless neighborhoods, sparked ethnic and political tensions, and re-engineered political activism. New arguments and alliances were born as these citizens struggled to live alongside Americans who saw them as anything but citizens and anything but white.

Overall, despite its strengths and creativity — particularly her intriguing view that the tentacles of colonization in Puerto Rico were only shorter and younger versions of the long American tentacles of globalization now strangling the globe — Briggs could have used a better editor to tighten a muddled narrative that often seems off balance and that could have been much shorter. Briggs often repeats the same points again and again, as if chapters were written months apart and she had to remind herself of the main thesis the latest chapter was supposed to be supporting. Also, the narrative needed more biographical sketches to bring alive the issues of sexuality, gender, and colonial victimization. Her ideas would have been so much more effective if the consequences of colonial decisions were shown in the wreckage of Puerto Rican lives, identities, and outlooks. Briggs bases her arguments on an impressive mountain of essays, books, and governmental studies. She complements a generally solid book with thirty-one pages of entertaining and informative notes and a 23-page bibliography.

One of the book’s best moments comes at the end, when Briggs argues that Puerto Rico illustrates “the explicit disalignment of the components of a nation.” The multidimensional identity of the Puerto Rican man and woman, Briggs seems to say, transcends maps, definitions of nationality, and concepts of national and international place. Imagine a map of the world laid out on a picnic table next to neatly typed definitions of every aspect of foreign affairs, U.S. government, and Latino identity. And then imagine the aurora borealis glowing in the night sky above. Puerto Rico, Briggs essentially argues, is the aurora. The rest of the world is the boring, ordered, defined arrangement on the table far below that celestial beauty.

Alternatively, the unique people of Puerto Ricans must find a unique solution to their unique “ethno-nation” quandary, effectively placing them on the cutting edge in terms of designing effective political entities for the twenty-first century. In that sense, at least, Briggs is absolutely right: Puerto Rico truly is the most important place in the world.6


1. Juan Gonzalez, Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America (New York: Penguin, 2000), 62-63. The Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917 granted citizenship to all Puerto Ricans and established a three-branch government system. An online image of the bill is accessible here: http://tinyurl.com/93rbfx4. A PDF of the commonwealth constitution is accessible here: http://tinyurl.com/yjvo25z.
2. Laura Briggs, Reproducing Empire: Race, Empire, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 194.
3. Briggs, 17.
4. Briggs, 9.
5. Briggs, 2.
6. Briggs, 195-196.

Kate Stone’s Civil War: The first desideratum

The first rays of happiness in 1864 come in the form of a letter from Stone’s brother and the hope for a new carriage.

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From 2012 to 2015, Stillness of Heart will share interesting excerpts from the extraordinary diary of Kate Stone, who chronicled her Louisiana family’s turbulent experiences throughout the Civil War era.

Learn more about Stone’s amazing life in 1861, 1862, 1863, 1864, 1865 and beyond. Click on each year to read more about her experiences. You can read the entire journal online here.

(Photo edited by Bob Rowen)

The first rays of happiness in 1864 come in the form of a letter from Stone’s brother and the hope for a new carriage.

Jan. 13, 1864

Tyler, Texas

Good news from My Dearest Brother today. He is almost well and has rejoined his regiment. We heard through a letter from Capt. Manlove December 8. Flora Manlove, Tom’s wife, sent a nice little note to me in the letter. How sweet of her to write. We have only a slight acquaintance, but she knows My Brother well and saw him, quite recently in Virginia. Capt. Manlove is so kind. He writes Mamma by every opportunity.

A letter from My Brother, written in March. Other letters for Mrs. Carson urging her to come North. Different Yankees at Monroe and Vicksburg will send her on, but she will not hear of it. It is a good thing. She is wise enough to see that such schemes for abandoning all that they have are foolish in the extreme.

Dr. Wylie is spending the evening and night. What a sordid soul that man has. Did he ever perform a generous action in his life of forty years? …

Mamma sent a letter to Mr. Smith yesterday, and if he can get what she writes for we shall feel quite independent. The first desideratum is a carriage.

Kate Stone’s Civil War: Trouble and distress

A week of brutal Texas winter weather brings Stone and her family depression, boredom, and frustration as she dreads what the future may hold.

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From 2012 to 2015, Stillness of Heart will share interesting excerpts from the extraordinary diary of Kate Stone, who chronicled her Louisiana family’s turbulent experiences throughout the Civil War era.

Learn more about Stone’s amazing life in 1861, 1862, 1863, 1864, 1865 and beyond. Click on each year to read more about her experiences. You can read the entire journal online here.

(Photo edited by Bob Rowen)

A week of brutal Texas winter weather brings Stone and her family depression, boredom, and frustration as she dreads what the future may hold.

Jan. 7, 1864

Tyler, Texas

All the unimportant days so far fall on Friday, Christmas, New Year’s, and my twenty-third birthday, the day of ill omen, all on luckless Friday. Let us see what reputation we can give it on the last of the year, when we can scan the record.

In the last twelve months trouble and distress have been our portion. “We have swallowed our tears like water” and have sunk beneath the chastisement of Our Lord. “His hands hath been heavy upon us yet … He hath not utterly forsaken us,” and we can thank Him for many blessings left.

A monotonous week to all closely housed by the extreme cold. Mamma and Mrs. Carson both depressed. Jimmy more than usually solemn. Eddie silent and subdued. The little girls tired of their usual pursuits, even cats and dolls have lost their charm. Even Johnny, the merriest and most mirth-loving of boys, has quieted down and is busy with his books and studies. He misses his great chum, Jimmy Carson, who is still away much to his mother’s annoyance.

No news from My Brother for so many months. When will he come? We are weary watching for the sight of his face and the sound of his voice. Gen. Morgan’s daring escape is one piece of good news.

Looking Back: Shadows of war

Today in 1925, Andrew Aguirre was born in Vinton, Texas. The Marine served during World War II and the Korean War, facing challenges he never imagined.

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Today in 1925, Andrew Aguirre was born in Vinton, Texas. The Marine served during World War II and the Korean War, facing challenges he never imagined.

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The Looking Back series
During my time as a contributing editor to the magnificent Voces Oral History Project at the University of Texas at Austin, I came across some amazing stories. The project, which I celebrated in 2011, collects the stories of Latino veterans and civilians who saw and felt the effects of war, from World War II to Vietnam. This occasional series will highlight a few of these fascinating lives.

Andrew Aguirre, born on Jan. 4, 1925, joined the Marine Corps in 1944, delivered supplies to Marine units on Pacific islands, and helped move out the dead. He joined U.S. forces in China in November 1945, and was discharged in 1946.

Military life, he recalled, gave him a new lease on life and professional ambition.

But by 1950, he was back in uniform, this time in Korea. As he faced down battle-hardened North Korean soldiers, Aguirre had no idea what he was about to experience. Read his dramatic profile here.

Visit the Voces website. Like them on Facebook. Follow them on Twitter.

Kate Stone’s Civil War: A noted flirt

Stone distracts herself from the new year’s cold beginning with some wry observations of an attractive young woman who, she fears, will break many hearts.

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From 2012 to 2015, Stillness of Heart will share interesting excerpts from the extraordinary diary of Kate Stone, who chronicled her Louisiana family’s turbulent experiences throughout the Civil War era.

Learn more about Stone’s amazing life in 1861, 1862, 1863, 1864, 1865 and beyond. Click on each year to read more about her experiences. You can read the entire journal online here.

(Photo edited by Bob Rowen)

Stone distracts herself from the new year’s cold beginning with some wry observations of an attractive young woman who, she fears, will break many hearts.

Jan. 4, 1864

Tyler, Texas

We were glad to see the Old Year go. It had been a year of trial to us, and we rejoiced when we caught the last glimpse of the sail bearing him on to the dim Ocean of Eternity. The New Year came wailing in, borne on the wings of a freezing norther. God grant it may bring peace to our war-worn land and those we love home again.

Mrs. Savage and her cortege, with Dr. Meagher in the train, arrived Tuesday and are busy settling in their new quarters. The little girls have been staying in here with us until today. We found five in the room with insufficient bedclothes rather too much for comfort in this freezing weather. I very foolishly allowed myself to be persuaded to spend the first night out in camp with them, and I have not recovered from it yet. I feel like blushing every time I think of it as we all practically slept together with only a curtain separating the tent into two rooms and the mattresses touching each other. I never felt so out of place.

Anna is the same as ever, but Emily Norris has outgrown the name of little girl. She has developed very rapidly and promises to be a noted flirt. She already has her “trot lines” out for all these boys. Think Jimmy Stone and Eddie will fall easy victims, but I doubt her ability to land such shy, wild specimens as Johnny and Jimmy Carson.

We are so glad to have Johnny and Jimmy start to school today. It worried us all the time seeing Jimmy losing his last year at home learning nothing. We did not mind so much about Johnny’s idleness. He is well advanced and the brightest child I ever saw. He takes the lead. Jimmy Carson and Eddie will follow him anywhere and applaud all he says or does.

Jimmy Carson has been away for a week on business connected with Anderson’s killing that Negro, a dreadful affair, and Mrs. Carson has fretted over his absence as she alone can fret. It is a terrible spell of weather to be traveling. The snow is several inches deep and frozen hard with the keenest wind howling around the house.

Capt. King, the exquisite, has paid us several visits and beaten me a game of chess by my connivance. He came by to tell us good-bye Tuesday on his way to Shreveport and Camden. Sent letters by him and one of introduction to Julia and Carrie Lowry.

1864: Day to Day

Exiled in Texas, Kate Stone refused to dwell on death. ‘People do not mourn their dead as they used to,’ she wrote. ‘Everyone seems to live only in the present — just from day to day — otherwise I fancy many would go crazy.’

This is Part 4 of a five-part essay series on Kate Stone and her Civil War which was modified from a paper I presented at the New York Military Affairs Symposium in October 2011.

Learn more about Stone’s amazing life in 1861, 1862, 1863, 1865 and beyond. Click on each year to read more about her experiences.

As the war ground on into 1864, the men and women around Stone made the most of their lives of exile in East Texas. Dances were held. Men and women married. new boys studied for classes.

In Tyler, Texas, Stone cleaned the house, played chess, and read. The wall Stone built in her mind to hold back the crush of mounting tragedies in the Eastern Theater became a permanent fixture. Not even the drama of death breached the barrier anymore.

(Photo edited by Bob Rowen)

“People do not mourn their dead as they used to,” she wrote. “Everyone seems to live only in the present — just from day to day — otherwise I fancy many would go crazy.”

In 1864, Confederate victories brightened the situation in the Trans-Mississippi Theater. In the spring of 1864, Federal forces under Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks began the Red River Campaign, in which Federal forces from Vicksburg, New Orleans and Arkansas were supposed to meet near Shreveport, seize Louisiana once and for all, amputate Texas from the Confederacy, and then abort any nascent relationship between the Confederacy and the French-controlled Mexican government.

But the plan failed to consider Confederate audacity. In early April 1864, Maj. Gen. Taylor beat back the Federal invasion at the Battles of Mansfield and Pleasant Hill.

Stone practically leapt for joy in her journal. “It is our first great success on this side of the river. … We will never laugh at our soldiers on this side of the Mississippi again. …”

The Confederate conscription act lowered the age range for enlistment to seventeen, and in August, Kate Stone lost a third brother to the Confederate Army. James Stone joined a unit named Harrison’s Brigade at Monroe, La.

She and her mother accompanied him to Louisiana, and Federal raids through the area frightened her, especially when conducted by black soldiers.

“The Paternal Government at Washington,” she wrote, “has done all in its power to incite a general insurrection throughout the South, in the hopes of thus getting rid of the women and children in one grand holocaust. We would be practically helpless should the Negroes rise, since there are so few men left at home.”

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Works cited or consulted for this essay series:
Faust, Drew Gilpin. Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War. Chapel Hill: North Carolina UP, 1996. Print.
. Southern Stories: Slaveholders in Peace and War. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri, 1992. Print.
Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative. New York: Vintage, 1986. Print.
Johnson, Ludwell H. Red River Campaign: Politics and Cotton in the Civil War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1958. Print.
Kronk, Gary W. “C/1861 J1 (Great Comet of 1861).” Cometography.com. n.d. Web. 11 Sept. 2011.
Long, E.B. and Barbara Long. The Civil War: Day by Day. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971. Print.
McPherson, James M., ed. The Atlas of the Civil War. New York: Macmillan, 1994. Print.
. Battle Cry of Freedom. New York: Oxford UP. 1988. Print.
Parrish, T. Michael. Richard Taylor: Soldier Prince of Dixie. Chapel Hill: North Carolina UP. 1992. Print.
Stone, Kate. Brokenburn: The Journal of Kate Stone, 1861-1868. Ed. John Q. Anderson. Baton Rouge: Louisiana UP. 1995. Print.
Sullivan, Walter. The War the Women Lived: Female Voices from the Confederate South. Nashville: J.S. Sanders & Company. 1995. Print.
Wilson, Edmund. Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War. New York: W.W. Norton, 1962. Print.
Wooster, Ralph A. Civil War Texas. Texas State Historical Association. 199. Print.