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Dealing with the real America

August 1, 2014

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Dealing with Puerto Rico means dealing with the key issues of the 21st century. Few in the U.S. government may have the stomach for that rollercoaster.
A review essay by Fernando Ortiz Jr.

Discussed in this essay:
Puerto Rican Citizen: History and Political Identity in Twentieth-Century New York City. By Lorrin Thomas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. Pp. 354, $35.00

*****

Throughout the twentieth century, Puerto Ricans yearned for political respect from the United States. In Puerto Rican Citizen: History and Political Identity in Twentieth-Century New York City, Lorrin Thomas explores how the demand for equal citizenship evolved into a larger, more noble demand for political recognition when Puerto Ricans realized the mere status of citizen would never sufficiently fulfill their political, social, and economic expectations as conquered members of the American republic.1

The U.S., Thomas explains, conquered Puerto Rico as part of its victorious 1898 war against the remnants of the Spanish Empire. Civilian island government was restored in 1900, and in 1917 the Jones Act declared Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens. Few were happy with the arrangement. The American political elite didn’t want a whole new set of minorities integrated into the U.S. social and political calculus, and islander nationalists wanted independence from their conqueror. Some moderates looked forward to what membership among the U.S. states might offer, but those first rays of hope were quickly clouded. Puerto Ricans were marginalized as colonial Caribbean illiterates who could not rise to the level of political involvement equaling their mainland step-siblings. They were dismissed as one more set of brown or black people who needed “guidance” from experienced Anglo Americans in order to build a proper democratic community. Thomas persuasively argues that Puerto Ricans “wanted recognition beyond citizenship, a recognition that promises not just formal equality within the state but also the respect and dignity that come from real equality.” She uses Puerto Ricans living in New York as a core sample of the overall relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico, in all its torment, tragedy, and unrest.2

Thomas uses an interesting variety of primary and secondary sources, including oral histories, news articles, memoirs, and personal interviews, to illustrate the evolution of Puerto Rican political sensibilities throughout the twentieth century. In the two decades before World War II, Puerto Ricans migrated to the U.S., especially New York, and built new communities from which they hoped to participate fully in the citizenship Congress unilaterally granted them. Instead, Puerto Ricans engaged in choques — clashes with other minority groups who saw them as a threat. Some Puerto Ricans embraced the concept of latinidad, a working-class identity that elevated their self-perception from U.S. citizen to citizen of the U.S. and Latin America, a politically transcendent entity equipped to move easily across ethnic, racial, and political barriers. Some Puerto Rican leftists even reached out to support allies in the Spanish Civil War. As the Great Depression ravaged U.S. communities, Puerto Ricans demanded equal access to jobs and government assistance. They also plugged their political discourse into national debates and concerns over European fascism and Asian imperialism, pointing to themselves as the discrepancy in the U.S. view of itself as the glowing torch of morality, idealism, and freedom guiding the world out of its darkest age. “Discourses of human rights and recognition,” Thomas deftly highlights, “shared a sometimes paradoxical balance of demands: both called for universal equality as well as the acknowledgement of particular group difference … both sought to elevate the idea of the category of ‘citizen’ in a flawed, liberal democracy.” The Puerto Rican debates anticipated by a decade the nationalist, imperialist, and human rights debates that animated the bloodied ash heaps of Europe, Africa, and South and Southeast Asia.3

By the 1950s, Puerto Rican hopes for independence faded. The Cold War began, Thomas explains, and Puerto Rico needed to be a showcase of what the U.S. could do for Latin American societies tempted to ally themselves with the Soviet Union. The dominant Puerto Rican discourses looked beyond the empty promise of citizenship to political and social recognition as new liberalist activism aimed to “save” Puerto Rican through economic and social development.4

The failure of American democracy to fulfill New York Puerto Ricans’ expectations of equal access to decent housing, failure to provide bilingual education, failure to provide jobs, and failure to live up to the tenets of its most attractive idealism all combined to convince Puerto Rican political leaders that even with the guarantee of citizenship, even with the opportunity to serve in the military, and even with the option of building a new life on the mainland, Puerto Ricans would never been seen as a part of the U.S. except on a map. Puerto Ricans, Thomas explains, supported politicians who fought for them within the government, like New York legislator Oscar Garcia Rivera, U.S. Rep. Vito Marcantonio, and Puerto Rico Gov. Jesus Pinero. They also supported advocates who took their voices to the streets, like the Young Lords, and labor leaders who staged strikes. In the ivory towers, academics tried to formulate curricula to properly teach Puerto Rico-specific issues of empty citizenship, imperialism, economic development, migration, and Caribbean racism. Puerto Ricans, Thomas argues, hoped to fully enjoy the benefits of “inclusion, belonging, and rights,” especially after World War II, when the U.S. pledged to support freedom and nationalism for all nations, but Puerto Ricans could never escape the realities that proved far more potent and damaging than the dreaminess of liberal American promises.5

Thomas deftly points out that Puerto Ricans “challenged the United States’ liberal democracy to acknowledge the reasons that their group experienced such persistent failures of justice.” Puerto Ricans remain the ultimate reminder to liberal idealists of the failure of a “democratic liberal society” that cannot fully acknowledge the “injustices of recognition.”6

By the 1970s, the energy coursing through Puerto Rican activism came from the grassroots, as “garbage strikes, rent strikes, [and] university takeovers” replaced measured political and academic debates as Puerto Rican expressions of frustration. Thomas paints a vibrant portrait of the blossoming Nuyorican cultural movements, dominated by playwrights and poets, though it’s also an example of the fragmentation of the overall fight for Puerto Rican recognition. Thomas explains that the old sense of multiple groups working together had generally faded, necessitating the renewal spearheaded by the arts. By the 1980s, Thomas explains, academics trying to establish Puerto Rican studies as a necessary field for U.S. history, government, and politics found themselves isolated or shuffled away under dismissive ethnic studies categories, their arguments thrown into a heap of identity politics with all the intellectual dignity of a demolition derby.7

By the end of the twentieth century, the academic world still struggled for a dignified place for Puerto Rico at the U.S. table. The Latino Cultural Studies Working Group embraced the concept of “cultural citizenship,” arguing that anyone who contributed to the “economic and cultural wealth of the country” should be recognized as citizens. It was a political view embracing Puerto Ricans, undocumented immigrants, and other marginalized groups whose treatment in the U.S. set aflame the very banner of ideals the U.S. officially waved to the world’s tired masses.8

The root of the resistance to granting what Puerto Ricans demanded and deserved, Thomas argues throughout, is the cost of recognition. Would recognition merely acknowledge a differentiating quality of the Puerto Rican entity, or would that simply be the key unlocking a necessary “redistribution of economic resources and social and political power”? Would the elevating recognition change the U.S. more than it would Puerto Rico? Do citizens now recognized with full equality have the right to demand more from not just their government, but also from their fellow mainland citizens? Does their recognition also require that the U.S. admit its own culpability in the mistreatment of Puerto Ricans and the contradictions inherent in its own internationally advertised moral superiority?9

Thomas hints that the U.S.-Puerto Rican relationship is so weighed down by history, economic scaffolding, a nascent political discrimination that Puerto Ricans have little hope of achieving their goal of recognition. It is a sad tribute to the power of the Puerto Rican argument. Whatever aspect of political debate it touches, it promises (some would say threatens) to redefine the stakes, to demand a realistic recognition of the limits of a democratic republic and its failings, and to unveil a properly complex calculation of what it means to be a citizen in a globalized society. Dealing with Puerto Rico means dealing with the key issues of the 21st century. Few in the U.S. government may have the stomach for that rollercoaster.


1. Lorrin Thomas, Puerto Rican Citizen: History and Political Identity in Twentieth-Century New York City (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).
2. Thomas, Puerto Rican Citizen, 250.
3. Thomas, Puerto Rican Citizen, 8, 53, 129, 5.
4. Laura Briggs, Reproducing Empire: Race, Empire, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002). Her online book is an excellent illustration of medical and social development projects in postwar Puerto Rico.
5. Thomas, Puerto Rican Citizen, 12-13, 21.
6. Thomas, Puerto Rican Citizen, 21.
7. Thomas, Puerto Rican Citizen, 251.
8. Thomas, Puerto Rican Citizen, 17.
9. Thomas, Puerto Rican Citizen, 16.
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5 Comments
  1. Well written, very informative, Thank You for sharing.

  2. Great sources! Well written, clear and concise! 🙂 I always wondered what the perspectives of any group of people in the U.S. Territories was regarding their recognition and rights within the United States system.

  3. Muy interesante todo esto.

  4. Wow, this is very interesting! I am definitely following now! 🙂

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