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