Storytelling is universal and is as ancient as humankind. Before there was writing, there was storytelling. It occurs in every culture and from every age. It exists (and existed) to entertain, to inform, to promulgate cultural traditions and values, to share our united humanness, and often, to speak truth to power.
The story below serves not just as an informative guide but as an invitation. An invitation to delve deeper, to question more, and to immerse oneself in the myriad stories that lie within the heart of Puerto Rico. It's a call to acknowledge the sacrifices made, the battles fought, and the heritage preserved. As we come full circle, let us remember that to truly celebrate a culture, we must be willing to embrace both its beauty and its pain, and most importantly, ensure that the legacies and lessons are passed down for generations to come.
Below is one such invitation from Sister Karen Campenella that we heard recently during our Sunday worship time.
First, a word...
Every Hispanic Heritage Month, we come together to celebrate a rich tapestry of cultures that make up the Hispanic community. But how often do we pause and delve into the profound depths of these celebrations? Do we truly understand the essence of what we celebrate? As we embark on this journey today, we're not just celebrating a culture; we're diving deep into the stories, struggles, and histories that shape it. Today's focus will be on Puerto Rico, a land of beauty, resilience, and a confluence of identities.
"... my heart has always felt the rhythmic pull of Puerto Rican beats. This duality of identity – being wholly Puerto Rican and wholly American – has often left me in a cultural limbo. How can one straddle two worlds and yet feel an outsider in both?"
Allow me to introduce myself as Karen Campanella. However, by birth, I am Karen Enid Caraballo Mendez. My story is emblematic of many in our community. Although I have spent most of my life in the States since I was four, my heart has always felt the rhythmic pull of Puerto Rican beats. This duality of identity – being wholly Puerto Rican and wholly American – has often left me in a cultural limbo. How can one straddle two worlds and yet feel an outsider in both? This feeling was only amplified during visits to Puerto Rico, where even kin would refer to my brother and me as “son de afuera,” or those from outside. Such experiences spurred me on a quest, not just to find my place but to understand the history of my people. In this pursuit, I encountered "War Against All Puerto Ricans," a book by Nelson Antonio Denis that would open my eyes to layers of Puerto Rican history I had yet to uncover. Today, I will be sharing insights from this book and my personal journey to discovering what it truly means to be Puerto Rican.
"From the lush canopies of the El Yunque rainforest to the sun-kissed beaches that glisten like gold and the rugged terrains that tell tales of time, Puerto Rico is a testament to nature's grandeur."
Transitioning into the heart of our presentation, let's take a moment to appreciate the unparalleled natural beauty of Puerto Rico. Often referred to as a compact paradise, the island boasts diverse landscapes, all waiting to be explored in just a few hours’ drive. From the lush canopies of the El Yunque rainforest to the sun-kissed beaches that glisten like gold and the rugged terrains that tell tales of time, Puerto Rico is a testament to nature's grandeur. Furthermore, the island’s geographical diversity is astounding. In just a day, one can journey from the dense tropical jungles of El Yunque to the contrasting arid terrains of Guánica, experiencing a spectrum of climates and vistas.
But beyond its breathtaking landscapes, Puerto Rico's geographical position holds significant strategic importance, especially from a global perspective. Located near the equator and nestled comfortably in the Caribbean Sea, Puerto Rico's climate is largely influenced by its prime location. But there's more to this location than meets the eye. Historically, this strategic positioning was a key reason the USA desired the island, moving beyond just its natural allure. The U.S. military recognized Puerto Rico as a vantage point to assert power in the Caribbean and safeguard the future Panama Canal, a critical trade and military passage. This geostrategic importance, combined with its natural beauty, makes Puerto Rico a gem in both ecological and geopolitical realms.
"Venturing further into Puerto Rico's past, we reach a pivotal moment that transformed the island's destiny: the Spanish-American War's culmination in 1898."
Venturing further into Puerto Rico's past, we reach a pivotal moment that transformed the island's destiny: the Spanish-American War's culmination in 1898. The Treaty of Paris that year saw Spain cede Puerto Rico to the United States. However, it's essential to grasp the weight of this transition by reflecting on the events just a year before. In 1897, after enduring four centuries under Spanish dominion, Puerto Rico had been granted the Carta de Autonomia or Charter of Autonomy, marking its first taste of freedom and self-governance. The island's inaugural autonomous government came to life on July 17, 1898, a beacon of hope for Puerto Ricans. But as we see in slide 9, this newfound autonomy was short-lived.
Merely eight days after establishing their autonomous government, the tranquility of Puerto Rico was disrupted. On July 25, the United States, under the leadership of Commanding General Nelson A. Miles, landed on Puerto Rican shores with a force of 16,000 soldiers. This invasion, forming a crucial chapter of the Spanish-American War, was not merely an act of opportunism following the war's conclusion. The Americans had long had their sights set on Puerto Rico, understanding its strategic significance. This meticulous planning and military maneuvering concluded with the Treaty of Versailles.
"With the change in sovereignty, Puerto Rico's economic landscape underwent a massive transformation. "
With the change in sovereignty, Puerto Rico's economic landscape underwent a massive transformation. In 1899, marking a significant alteration in the island's financial structure, the U.S. established the American Colonial Bank and made a decisive move to replace the Spanish Peso with the U.S. dollar. This decision had a direct impact on the Puerto Rican economy: the value of the Spanish Peso was reduced by 40%, meaning every peso was now equivalent to only 60 cents in U.S. currency. This had profound implications, especially for the local farmers. Despite the peso maintaining its worth on the international stage, the immediate depreciation left many farmers in an economic quagmire.
To salvage their livelihoods, they sought loans from American banks. However, these banks charged exorbitant interest rates, and there was a notable absence of protective laws for Puerto Rican borrowers. As we progress into the early 20th century, by 1910, the crippling debt led many farmers to default on their loans, and consequently, they lost ownership of their lands to these banks.
The repercussions of these economic policies were felt deeply throughout the 1930s. By this time, an overwhelming majority of Puerto Rican farms—almost all, in fact—had come under the ownership of 41 sugar syndicates, with 80% of them being U.S.-owned. This shift saw a drastic change in agricultural practices: fertile lands previously used for diverse crops were now converted to vast sugar plantations. This monocultural focus on sugar meant the island was producing less varied food, leading to malnutrition among the native population. The Puerto Ricans, devoid of land and resources, sought employment opportunities in cities. Yet, even in urban centers, their plight continued. They earned less than half of their previous wages under Spanish rule.
Attempts to seek economic relief, such as introducing a minimum wage law akin to the mainland U.S., were thwarted. The U.S. Supreme Court deemed such measures unconstitutional for Puerto Rico. This judicial decision catalyzed further economic inflation on the island, spiking prices by 15%-20%. With limited options and resources, the Puerto Rican populace found themselves helpless against this institutional price-fixing.
"The American influence on Puerto Rico extended beyond its economic and political spheres, deeply embedding itself in the education system as well.
The American influence on Puerto Rico extended beyond its economic and political spheres, deeply embedding itself in the education system as well. By 1908, a mere decade after the U.S. took control, the island's schools underwent a profound linguistic transition: English became the sole medium of instruction. For many Puerto Rican educators, this change was not only unfamiliar but often incomprehensible. In Old San Juan's Central Grammar School, for instance, Misses Del Toro, like many of her peers, grappled with teaching subjects in English. Children, instead of delving into the rich history and culture of their homeland, began their days reciting the American pledge of allegiance.
The curriculum itself bore no relevance to their daily lives, emphasizing the consumption of foods like broccoli, meatloaf, and iceberg lettuce — foods foreign to the Puerto Rican palate and soil. This alien curriculum wasn't restricted to dietary habits. When pupils dared to question the irrelevance of their lessons, they were met with punitive measures in the form of intricate math problems sourced from English textbooks. These materials, laden with unfamiliar language and complex procedures, left the students bewildered. They were learning geography and history, not of their beloved island, but of a distant land over 2000 miles away.
The result? An erasure of their native history, culture, and knowledge. By 1909, a directive explicitly forbade the use of Spanish in all public schools. This monolingual mandate was so strictly enforced that both educators and students faced disciplinary actions for any transgressions. Initially, this English-only approach seemed beneficial for the U.S. agenda. Yet, the tangible fallout was that scores of children, disheartened by consistently poor report cards, chose to abandon their schooling altogether. The prospect of facing familial reprimands at home was far more palatable than enduring the daily struggles in classrooms. However, by the grace of God, the indomitable spirit of the Puerto Rican children shone through. Their resistance bore fruit, and by 1915, elementary schools once again echoed with the familiar cadence of Spanish, even as high schools continued their English-only instruction.
"A dark, often unspoken chapter in Puerto Rico's history, which resonates deeply in the annals of medical ethics, is the appalling experimentation on its citizens. "
A dark, often unspoken chapter in Puerto Rico's history, which resonates deeply in the annals of medical ethics, is the appalling experimentation on its citizens. This grievous topic surfaces most prominently with the investigations of Pedro Albizu Campos, who uncovered chilling practices at the San Juan Presbyterian Hospital. Dr. Cornelius P. Rhoads, a physician at this hospital, wasn't just subjecting Puerto Rican patients to medical experiments; he was injecting them with live cancer cells. At least 13 of these patients lost their lives due to these malevolent actions.
This horrifying revelation was further compounded when a self-incriminating letter penned by Dr. Rhoads was discovered. His words chillingly boasted, "The Porto Ricans are the dirtiest, laziest, most degenerate and thievish race... I have done my best to further the process of extermination..." Shockingly, instead of condemnation, the U.S. press lauded Dr. Rhoads, even featuring him prominently on the cover of Time Magazine.
However, the medical infringements didn't end with him. From the 1930s to the 1950s, Puerto Rican women became the primary subjects for tests involving IUDs and birth control pills. By the 1970s, about a third of the island's childbearing women had undergone sterilization - a staggering rate unparalleled anywhere else in the world. Regrettably, many of these women underwent these procedures without informed consent, often shortly after giving birth.
"The motivation behind these mass sterilizations can be traced back to the sinister agenda of the Human Betterment Association of America."
The motivation behind these mass sterilizations can be traced back to the sinister agenda of the Human Betterment Association of America. Promoting eugenics, eerily reminiscent of Nazi racial ideologies, this association championed sterilizations, targeting not just Puerto Ricans but also African Americans on the U.S. mainland. Through extensive research and documentation, we uncover the depths of this colonial transgression, revealing the extent to which external powers exploited and marginalized Puerto Rico's populace. It has only been by God’s grace that the Puerto Rican people have survived and thrived in spite of this ongoing exploitation.
As we wrap up this journey through the intricate tapestry of Puerto Rican history, we are left with poignant reminders of the resilience, beauty, and challenges that define this vibrant community. The tale of Puerto Rico is not merely a chapter in the history of the Hispanic diaspora, but a testament to the indomitable spirit of its people. From the lush landscapes that showcase nature's magnificence to the socio-political challenges stemming from foreign interventions, every aspect paints a vivid picture of endurance and identity. It's imperative, especially during Hispanic Heritage Month, to not just commemorate but also to deeply reflect on these narratives. By understanding the adversities faced and the triumphs achieved, we can truly honor and appreciate the multifaceted richness of Puerto Rican culture.