Home Culture Puerto Rico: 525 Years of Colonial Status

Puerto Rico: 525 Years of Colonial Status

Supporters of the Puerto Rican Independence Party shout slogans as they march in Guanica, Puerto Rico Saturday, July 25, 1998 to protest the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico in Guanica 100 years ago. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Since the Spanish arrived in Puerto Rico in 1493 (525 years ago), the island has only known conquest and colonial status. In a recent essay written by Esmeralda Santiago “The Invasion and its Consequences: July 25, 1898, she describes the life of the people on the island after slavery was abolished, and the soon after United States invasion of the island.

I think it’s interesting how people often cite the annexation of Puerto Rico and the Jones Act as primary drivers of inequality in the island’s status, and often neglect to address the 500+ years of colonialism that has existed in the new world since the arrival of the Europeans. Until we address the deeper underlying inequities of indigenous people and former slaves who were brought here against their own will, we will continue to see our problems through the lens of righteous bringers of light to the dark places, and not as the true oppression and conquest of savage lands.

In the meantime, the essay is actually a really good read, which is why we’re posting it here. Enjoy.


(A condensed chapter from a work in progress by Esmeralda Santiago)

My great-grandfather José Santiago was thirty-two years old when slavery was abolished in Puerto Rico in 1873. The hacienda owner offered the more skilled workers small plots so long as they built their own homes, cultivated the land and paid one-third of their harvest as rent. Now free, José and his wife, Josefa, could have sought work anywhere in Puerto Rico like many of their friends did, but eventually agreed to don Nicanor’s offer. They felt more comfortable where they were known and where most of their extended family lived.

José was a cane worker and Josefa the nanny for don Nicanor’s children. After emancipation, they built a palm-board and straw cottage where they raised their nine children. By 1898, José was fifty-six years old and had retired from the canebrakes but worked in a variety of jobs around the hacienda.

Landowners often lived in towns or cities, returning to their plantations for holidays and vacations. Don Nicanor and his sons liked to oversee the sugarcane harvest, and during the zafra, they sent José on important errands to their families in San Juan.

In May 1898, José was delivering a cartful of farm-made supplies to don Nicanor’s wife and daughters-in-law in San Juan. He’d been on this road many times in the same kind of mission, but as he approached the city, he was surprised by the number of people heading in the opposite direction.

“Go back,” a man said. He rode ahead of a cart loaded with boxes, rocking chairs and other furniture precariously roped to the sides. “They blocked the harbor and are threatening to bomb the city.”

José had no idea who “they” were. He considered turning around, but don Nicanor’s family might need his help, so he rode against the current of those fleeing the city.

He argued with the sentries and invoked don Nicanor’s name to get beyond the city walls. Soldiers, horses, and military vehicles clattered over the cobblestones adding to the chaos in the citadel under siege. When he reached the house, doña Inés was in a panic. She’d never expected a Yankee armada blockading the harbor and threatening the citizens. José helped the family load what they could on his cart. As they packed, a militia commander rode up to inform doña Inés the cart and bullocks were requisitioned for the imminent battle. Instead, she offered silver candelabra as a gesture of her solidarity with the Spanish crown and its brave soldiers.

Soon, José guided the bullocks pulling the cart away from the home. As they came through the bridge between the city and the rest of the island, they heard the first of the blasts from the Yankee gun ships. By the next evening, José had delivered them safely.

As soon as don Nicanor settled his family and city servants, he mustered every male fourteen or older living in his hacienda to report to his yard. Among them was José and Josefa’s twenty-three year old son, Higinio, who would someday be my grandfather.

Don Nicanor had no arms for his impromptu soldiers but organized bands to patrol the perimeter of the hacienda, with instructions to alert him when the Yankee soldiers were sighted.

Spain had governed Puerto Rico for over four hundred years, quelling local unrest, insurrections and short-lived uprisings for independence with strictly enforced censorship, exile, imprisonment, and hangings. The Spanish were less prepared for an attack from beyond the island’s shores. Years of neglect by the peninsular government meant that military supplies, including bullets and gunpowder, were scarce for the professionals, almost impossible to get by civilians.

Don Nicanor and the local landowners formed brigades with their workers. Alongside his father José, my grandfather Higinio drilled with the other men in the hacienda yard in the event Yankee cannons and heavy artillery breached the capital’s centuries’ old fortifications and marched on the residents in the interior. Campesinos with no prior experience in warfare were determined to defend their patria with what they had at hand: agricultural implements, well-honed machetes, and intimate knowledge of the terrain. While José and Higinio had little loyalty toward the Spanish, they felt a deep and abiding love for the land they tilled. Higinio was a young man who welcomed the opportunity to protect the ground that nourished him, even if it meant his last living act was to soak its dirt with his own blood. Though some on the island prepared to fight alongside Spain and a few welcomed the idea of a Puerto Rico Americano, Higinio, like his parents was willing to kill and to die before allowing a foreigner to take his piece of Puerto Rico from him.  

In the early morning hours of July 25, 1898 another patriotic young man, twenty-year old Carl Sandburg slept fitfully in his bunk on an United States Army transport. Like most of the other newly minted soldiers aboard the ship, he’d volunteered to fight in the Spanish-American War because he belonged to a generation bereft of its own. The Civil War had ended thirty-three years earlier, within the memory of grandfathers, fathers, uncles and neighbors. Their privations and sufferings had receded into legend but rather than teach their sons and grandsons that war is horror, they’d instilled the opposite sentiment: War makes men. Carl and his cohorts wanted to prove themselves on the battlefield.

The lumber-hauling Rita was the first vessel captured in the conflict that had begun less than four months earlier. Six days after they steamed from Charleston, Company C, Sixth Infantry Regiment of Illinois Volunteers arrived in Havana to learn that Cuba’s eastern province had been taken. Not only were their services unnecessary, the command ordered them to stay on board the Rita because an epidemic of yellow fever had already felled over four hundred troops on the ground.

The Rita put out with no sense by the soldiers about their destination. They learned they were in Puerto Rico after they’d taken a town whose single road was lined with ramshackle dwellings, their roofs and walls made from palm leaves. Carl had never seen a coconut tree up close and marveled this was his first steps on foreign soil. The Spanish American War was the first time the United States had transported soldiers to foreign lands for the purpose of expanding its territory.

The regiment tramped into a field as the sun reached its zenith, unloaded their knapsacks and tried to find shade among the trees where they ate cold canned beans and hardtack. The field echoed with the moaning and groaning of weary men, their colorful swears, the clatter of gear as it hit the ground. Below stretched a valley of incomparable beauty, plowed fields and jungle coexisting side by side, and in the distance, the turquoise-colored Caribbean sea. Menacing the harbor were nine US Navy and Army transports as well as four gun ships.

No one challenged their march. Company C stopped after it was too dark to see the road, set up camp and waited for an attack. Instead, they were swarmed by insects. The most consistent sound was hands slapping the back of necks followed by cursing. Distant gunfire died as suddenly as it started. Most of the soldiers dozed, but Carl was kept awake by the buzzing and stinging. His fair skin was sunburned in every exposed part of his body and painfully alive with heat sores, rash and mosquito bites.

On the third night of their march, rain fell over Puerto Rico. The dry, stacked palm fronds that served as walls and roofs in my grandparents’ homes acquired a ripe smell, and water seeped through to soak the hammocks strung between rafters, the clothes hanging from nails, the homemade tables and splintery shelves. Leaks sprang and the family placed cans, chamber pots, or gourd bowls beneath them. Rain fell on Higinio and the other campesinos skulking in the forests and in the canebrakes, waiting for the order to defend their homeland against the Yankee invaders. Rain fell on José feeding cattle in the stalls. Rain fell on Josefa walking from their hut to the outdoor kitchen to struggle with the smoldering fire in the fogón as she prepared a meal of cornmeal boiled in banana leaves, mashed plantains, and chunks of ñame or yautía that her children delivered to José and their sons at their defensive posts.

Rain fell on Company C, Sixth Infantry Regiment of Illinois Volunteers camped wet and miserable in the slopes, among them Carl, drenched to the bone, hunched under a tattered pup tent, his left eye swollen closed by mosquito bites. Rain was not unusual in Puerto Rico in July and August during hurricane season. But given the circumstances, to some people at least, the rain, so insistent to get into every corner, protected or unprotected, seemed like a baptism, a cleansing in preparation for a new order.

For three days my ancestors in Bayamón, and ten miles south, Carl and his fellows waited for the order to battle. But on Thursday, July 28, 1898, three days after troops landed in Guánica, Major General Nelson A. Miles, commander of the invasion, issued a general proclamation in the only language he spoke to the people of Puerto Rico, who could not understand him even if they could hear him. It was the first public statement from his government on the island:

“In the prosecution of the war against the kingdom of Spain by the people of the United States, in the cause of liberty, justice and humanity, its military forces have come to occupy the island of Puerto Rico…They bring the fostering arm of a free people, whose greatest power is in its justice and humanity to all those living within its fold.”

On the same day of the speech, news reached Company C that a Protocol of Peace between the United States and Spain had been signed. The soldiers were steamed back to the United States. They arrived home hollow eyed, sunburnt, malarial, and fifteen to twenty pounds lighter.

In San Juan, military administrators set about creating the newly annexed United States territory into Puerto Rico Americano. The generals changed the spelling to Porto Rico to make it easier for English speakers to pronounce. They changed the official language from Spanish to English so the natives could learn to obey their commands, demands, laws and rules as if legislating the language also legislated their tongues. Strong opposition forced those two laws to be repealed. But without consultation from the native population, and in spite of expectations they would be citizens of an independent nation, the United States government decreed American citizenship without voting representation. Ignoring their own Constitution’s First Amendment, the United States censored the press and free speech, imposing penalties, including imprisonment, for anyone who advocated independence. They made it unlawful to fly the Puerto Rican flag anywhere on the island, but the Stars and Stripes now flapped over every official building.

My great-grandfather José had been born into slavery and emancipated in 1873, two years before my grandfather, Higinio, was born. Neither saw any action in defense of their home. The estadounidenses marched around the bigger towns, strutted in their high boots, seduced the white elite with promises and contracts, and squelched opposition with their guns. José and Josefa died less than a year after becoming United States citizens. By then, their son, Higinio, had married and had begun their large family, among them, my father.


Papi’s older brother, Vidal, dedicated his life to an independent Puerto Rico, demonstrating, making speeches, resisting the effects of the American invasion and colonizing statutes that had transformed the island during its occupation. Uncle Vidal’s political activities constantly ran afoul the authorities who followed him everywhere believing he harbored revolutionaries and nationalists. In 1952, he was shot in the head by the police during a siege of his barber shop in a working class neighborhood, claiming his place in the history of opposition against United States’ colonizing the island.


On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, one of the invaders, Carl Sandburg, also made history. He became a famous poet, journalist, and the celebrated biographer of Abraham Lincoln. Years after his return home from his short stint as a soldier, while working as a reporter covering a speech by President Theodore Roosevelt, Carl perked up when he heard mention of the Spanish American War. The President’s eyes twinkled, he noticed. “It wasn’t much of a war,” Roosevelt grinned, “but it was all the war there was.”

By then Carl understood that even though there was little fighting, he had been part of a historical event. “It was a small war,” he wrote in his autobiography, “edging toward immense consequences.”

Neither Sandburg or the other nine-thousand troops who set boots on Puerto Rican soil could have imagined their dreams of glory would result in a United States colony. Carl understood there would be consequences, but didn’t foresee they would weigh and oppress generations of Puerto Ricans like my family. We didn’t invite the United States to rescue us from Spanish tyranny. We didn’t give up our rights as a nation and didn’t ask to be citizens of the United States but we have carried the burden of decisions by men who didn’t know us, didn’t respect us, and who bribed local leaders who ultimately betrayed decades of struggle toward independence and who killed, maimed and imprisoned men like my uncle Vidal for fighting for a Puerto Rican nation.

Millions of us are now scattered around the world, forced from our homeland as our resources are plundered and our heritage is devoured by business interests. Those Puerto Ricans who couldn’t or wouldn’t leave the island, were abandoned once tax breaks created for estadounidense enterprises disappeared. Working class Puerto Ricans pay taxes into the federal system, but receive lower benefits than those in the continent. In the last half century, speculators have eagerly extended credit, envisioning high interest percentages on loans without asking how an already strained economy could repay them. The United States continues to impose extortionate taxes on all goods brought into the island and have disallowed free trade.

Puerto Ricans on the island cannot vote for the Commander in Chief but have sent tens of thousands of our sons and daughters into other United States sanctioned foreign wars. They return to a forsaken land. Our home island, like the lumber-hauling ship that carried Carl Sandburg and Company C, Sixth Infantry Regiment of Illinois Volunteers was war booty and like the Rita, Puerto Rico has been ravished, abandoned and neglected by the United States’ hubris.

Through all this we, the descendants of the men and women who lived during the 1898 invasion continue to suffer the consequences, one hundred twenty years later, screaming into the vortex of a hurricane, waiting for the promise the United States made of “justice and humanity to all those living within its fold.”



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here