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Puerto Rico Under Early American Colonial Rule and it’s Impact on Puerto Rican Society Today

María Bruno

In 1982 a journalist by the name of Luis López Nieves published an article in La Claridad, a well-respected pro-independence news weekly in Puerto Rico. The article revealed new information concerning the history of the American invasion of Puerto Rico. According to Nieves the U.S. did not raid the island on July 25, 1898, rather a few days earlier in a town called Seva. Apparently in this town the people did not only resist the Americans but defeated the Americans by forcing them back to sea, where they then decided to reenter the island through Guanica on July 25, 1898. Once the U.S. gained control of the island the military returned to the town of Seva with the intentions of erasing its existence forever.

The majority of the people who read this article believed it was true, despite continual efforts by Puerto Rican historians to tell everyone that the article was a hoax. In fact, people were so affected by this story that thousands protested the American government, calling them murderers. Many also went to the town in Puerto Rico where Nieves claimed the town of Seva was massacred in order to give their respect to those that supposedly died in the resistance.

What was it that caused thousands of Puerto Ricans to blindly embrace this fictional story of Puerto Rican resistance? The desire to have the ability to defend their honor and say, “We have resisted the Americans,” was most likely a major reason for the strong belief in Nieves’ story. Throughout the island’s history, its people have been labeled as docile creatures. This symbol has developed because they have never been able to unite in order to fight for their independence, making it seems as if they are a submissive people. Numerous factors such as having misleading ideas concerning U.S. intentions toward the island and class divisions between the Puerto Ricans have contributed to their extensive history as a colony.

When Puerto Ricans found out that the Americans were taking control of Puerto Rico, many helped them fight off the Spaniards. They were under the impression that the land of the free was coming to liberate the island of its oppressors. As Reverend Henry Carroll reported to President McKinley in 1898 on the conditions of the island, “They expect under American sovereignty that the wrongs of centuries will be righted…(Trìas-Monge 36).

Puerto Ricans would be very surprised by the next 100 years under American colonial rule. The United States never had any intentions of giving the island its inalienable right to freedom. Puerto Rico was intended to remain a U.S. colony because it “represented the new frontier to be pacified, conquered, and stylized to fit U.S. political, business, and ideological interest in new ways (Guerra 49). Puerto Rico’s strategic location in the Caribbean added to the American motive behind obtaining its first colony in history.

Americans rationalized “imperialism based on racist principles and the inherent superiority of the North American white elite (Guerra 50). They claimed that the Puerto Rican people were not capable of governing themselves because of their racial history, specifically their direct descent from Spaniards and African slaves. In the words of Theodore Roosevelt “peace and the Anglo-Saxon civilization had to be imposed on the barbarian races of the world just as it had been on the Red Man” (Guerra 50).

In an effort to impose the “Anglo-Saxon civilization” the American government imposed self-serving laws such as the Jones Act which was an attempt at Americanizing the island and the Foraker Act that dictated the form of government that the island was to have. Through the Foraker Act the U.S. remained in ultimate control of the island by appointing most of its representatives and having the ability to take them out of office whenever they wanted without any explanation.

In an effort to remain in the elite class and possibly gain more control over political issues on the island while under U.S. control, “the elite came to present themselves to their colonizers and the Puerto Rican ‘masses’ as the success stories of Americanization” (Guerra 51). The elite would be so consumed by the American ways that they would petition time after time for the island of Puerto Rico to become a state of the United States.

Congress as well as the president heard numerous requests for statehood which were, “eloquent messages that had absolutely no impact on Congress” (Fernandez 68). For congress the objective was to keep the island in a state of limbo because everything was going fine for the Americans and as long as the Puerto Ricans could be kept with few rights, any thing they wanted to do was possible. In fact the petitions for statehood in most cases angered the Americans because they felt the Puerto Ricans were being ungrateful, claiming “it is their liberty to be governed by us” (Trìas-Monge 39).

When the former Puerto Rican elite class realized that they were now the middle class and no longer in control they decided to return to their roots. “Images of the jìbaro emerged to signify the elite’s cultural defiance of colonial mandates and their own implicit disgust with the awkward position in which they found themselves” (Guerra 47). Interestingly the jìbaro which was once looked down on by the elite were now being honoring by them for their “purity” or resistance of U.S. Colonialism.

This conversion in the significance of the jìbaro was ironic because the jìbaro which were originally seen as “lazy, degenerate vagrants” (Guerra 54) by the elite were now the “image captured in its purest form of all the essences of what it meant to be Puerto Rican” (Guerra 54). Since the beginning of Spanish colonialism there were huge class differences on the island between the rich, powerful, European descent upper class and the masses of poor, racially mixed lower class. The elite was trying to keep their role in society as authorities by presenting themselves as victims of the colonialism just as the jìbaros.

However the intent to unite with the jìbaros was deceiving because they did not glorify the entire jìbaro population but rather a small portion o the peasantry. The result was the “marginalization of Afro-mestizo culture and a glorification of a past system that served no ones interest except that of the oppressors” (Guerra 57). In addition, the elite were really only utilizing the jìbaros as “the perfect instrument for articulating elite national interest” (Guerra 107). The jìbaro’s “need to be passive, to prevent change, to muffle discontent, to strangle dissent” that they “acted as a police agent within his own community” (Guerra 107). As we can see it was not out of the love for their culture that the elite glorified the people that supposedly were untouched by Americanization, but out of selfishness. It was in their best interest to remain in control over the masses.

Throughout the island there was huge discontent with the American government. The economy was prospering better than ever before but for the majority of the Puerto Rican people this did not mean any improvement in the standards of living. While the sugar industry was booming, foreign owners controlled more that 27% of Puerto Rico’ total wealth. “The cost of foodstuffs and other staples in Puerto Rico was inflated” (Dietz 127) by the taxes and limitations imposed by the Jones Act. The cost of basic rice and beans also inflated drastically, due to the need to import since land was no longer available to grow this on the island. Health-wise there was not much progress, although far less people were dying from hookworm, there was no decline in the amount of people that contracted the disease.

To add to this people were generally very poor, their homes were usually outside of the cities constructed of wood or straw. Often they had no furniture inside their homes. On the Internet web-site American Memory Collection, there are many pictures from this period in history that can give us an idea of what the island looked like. For instance a picture called A resident street, San Juan Puerto Rico depicts the city life in Puerto Rico which very clean and modern. In another picture called Typical Puerto Rican Hut you are shown the shacks in which the majority of Puerto Rican peasants lived. Here there is little room for anything and absolutely no windows. If you wanted to look out you would spread the straw and create a window.

So why didn’t the islanders rebel and fight for their independence? The islanders were so dependent on the U.S. for everything in their daily lives that “if it came to a choice between survival and political ideals, they would probably refuse to bite the hand that fed them” (Fernandez 60). The large peasantry population had no support from the stronger forces in their culture because the elite was too busy attending to their best interest.

This added to the fact that the Puerto Ricans were given signs of hope and progress by the U.S. government finally granting Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship. “Within fifteen years of taking over the island, Americans produced such a desire for independence that congress gave the islanders U.S. citizenship to permanently eliminate their ardent desire for a divorce” (Fernandez 33).

The false hope that America would grant Puerto Ricans their freedom added to everlasting disunity within the social classes in Puerto Rican society where some of the major reasons for the lack of a large independence movement in the island’s history. The desire to have at least one story of successful resistance against their colonizers is one probable reason for the strong feelings of nationalism that can be aroused by fictional stories of resistance, much like the story published by Luis López Nieves in La Claridad in 1982.


“Puerto Rico Under Early American Colonial Rule and it’s Impact on Puerto Rican Society Today”, María Bruno, sin fecha (hallado en octubre 2004),

Volver a Bibliografía crítica sobre la obra de Luis López Nieves