In the Name of Modernization:
Racial Erasure, Biopower, and Systems of US Control in 20th Century Puerto Rico
By Olivia O’Brien
Delia Mestre was raised in the eastern coastal lands of Puerto Rico mythologized as “La Perla del Oriente.” In English, the “The Pearl of the Orient.” Officially, “La Perla del Oriente” is called Humacao, a name derived from the Taíno chief Jumacao, who once ruled the municipality. Surrounded by the Cerro and Labarbera mountains, Delia was quite literally nestled in the oyster shell of her village’s geography. The Antón Ruiz, Humacao and Candelero rivers, and the Frontera brook twist and flow into the Vieques Passage. Mangroves grow in red, white, and black.
Delia lived and breathed the tragic irony of Humacao: her village was both a jewel treasured for its bountiful richness, and a site of struggle and suffering. The natural gifts of her environment could not solve for malnutrition. Nor could it prevent young children from working in the sugar-cane fields. It could not provide the concrete homes in her barrio with indoor plumbing. The doctors and social workers that visited her community would tell her that her poverty was a strain endemic to her fellow rural women. Their prescription for her suffering was simple enough: stop having children. These narratives snaked their way through Delia’s community and to similar farming towns across Puerto Rico. In the face of her suffering, Delia placed her faith in the word of the medical authorities. Thus in 1955, salvation arrived at “La Perla del Oriente” in the form of a magic capsule.
Unbeknownst to Delia was that this magic capsule was part of Enovid’s early clinical trials in the development of the modern birth control pill. Humacao was a site for testing and improving upon the pill. The pill in this form was imperfect, and the bodies of Delia and other humaceñas were sacrificed as potential casualties. Prior to the humaceñas and other Puerto Rican women, the synthetic estrogen and progesterone had only been tested on mice and rabbits. Years later in a 2004 interview with The Orlando Sentinel, Delia and other humaceña women reflected on their unknowing participation in the pill’s clinical trials. Aches, pains, depression. These were some of the side-effects of the not-yet-for-sale, proto-pill. Many described their realization over the years that the consent they had given was in fact not consent at all.
To some, Delia’s story may seem like a lone-standing blemish on United States history—an aberrant mistake by its pharmaceutical companies. Yet a closer inspection of 20th century United States modernization projects in Puerto Rico suggests that her tragic tale fits neatly within the historical narrative.
Following Puerto Rico’s first elections in 1948, Luis Muñoz Marín assumed the position as first governor. He came from a family entrenched in politics. His father served as the Secretary of State, Chief of the Cabinet for the Government of Puerto Rico, and member of the House of Delegates. Due to his father’s positions, Muñoz Marín received the majority of his education on the mainland at Georgetown Preparatory School in Washington, DC. Although educated in the far off classrooms of the mainland United States, Muñoz Marín spoke confidently of his plans for the island. At first, Muñoz Marín had advocated for independence from the United States until he was expelled from the Liberal Party. Out of self-interest to preserve his political power, Muñoz Marín reformulated his vision
In the aftermath of his political ostracisation, Muñoz Marín abandoned the cause for Puerto Rican independence. In an exact reversal of his previously held convictions, he founded El Partido Popular Democrático (PPD), which sought to maintain Puerto Rico’s status as a territory. He asserted that as a territory, Puerto Rico could receive foreign investment while simultaneously maintaining a degree of autonomy. “Pan, tierra, y libertad” (bread, land and liberty”), these were the promises of Muñoz Marín to the Puerto Rican people. Muñoz Marín’s defection, however, soon turned to cruelty. Puerto Rico’s Law 53, known as La Mordaza, criminalized any activity that appeared to promote independence. Under the auspices of Muñoz Marín, Puerto Ricans couldn’t even sing their national anthem “La Borinqueña” without fear of prosecution.
Contemporaneously to Muñoz Marín’s sudden shift on the question of the island’s status, policy architects on the mainland forged their own plans for the future of Puerto Rico. In the wake of World War II, during the 1950s and 1960s, Operation Bootstrap emerged as the central economic policy of the United States in Puerto Rico. This expressed program of “modernization” purported to lift Puerto Rico out of its poverty by way of export-led industrialization and foreign private investment. If Puerto Rico could simply pull itself by the bootstraps, the American Dream would also be granted to its once-colony, now-territory of Puerto Rico. From his seat of power, the mercurial Muñoz Marín latched on to the golden promises of Operation Bootstrap and espoused the possibilities of modernization.
In order to attract foreign investors, Muñoz Marín worked to craft a marketable image of the island. This idealized, investment-worthy Puerto Rico, designed and sold by Muñoz Marín, was distinct from the mainland United States in one way in particular: race, he declared, was nonexistent. Whereas racism seeped into all corners of the social, economic and political cultures of the United States, Muñoz Marín argued that Puerto Rico transcended such problems to the level of racial utopia. This post-racial image of Puerto Rico was literally codified into the demographic breakdown of the island during el censo criollo of the 1950s. During this census count, which Puerto Rico was granted to conduct independently, the question of racial identification was eliminated. In the absence of the race question, Muñoz Marín believed he had done away with centuries of Puerto Rican history, wherein race and racism existed as meaningful constructs and systems.
Yet despite Muñoz Marín’s official pronouncement of the death of race in Puerto Rico, Operation Bootstrap depended on both the creation and manipulation of race as a real category. The core issue that Operation Bootstrap purported to solve was the problem of “overpopulation.” The term “overpopulation” became a tool of United States political actors. This single word worked to erase the colonial history that created social and economic disruption on the island, and instead placed blame on Puerto Rican reproduction. This prescription relied on the logic that Puerto Rican women were having children at a rate that strained the island’s resources. Operation Bootstrap utilized the red herring of “overpopulation” to promote its economic strategy. Migration of Puerto Rican laborers to the United States mainland was one component of this strategy. In the name of modernization and progress, migration to areas like New York were promoted and facilitated to address the supposed issue of capacity on the island. In reality, migration relied on the colonial framework to serve the labor needs of post-World War II US society.
The mid-20th century migration programs out of Puerto Rico became a racialized process. On December 26th, 1942, Jaime Bagué and Commissioner of Labor Santiago Iglesias Jr.—two Puerto Rican officials—met with four North American functionaries to produce a report on Puerto Rican migration to the United States. During this meeting, the committee defined the ideal migrant for US labor needs. The report states: “only white workers should be encouraged to migrate to Southern states although this policy should not be formally incorporated in any statements or documents.” In the same breath, the report stated that the migrants should also be “younger, single, skilled workers whether proficient in agriculture or industry.” The recommendations of Bagué, Iglesias, and the four functionaries would possess great power over the negotiation of race in Puerto Rico. By way of migration, the possibility of economic mobility was granted almost exclusively to white Puerto Ricans. Yet, despite this privilege, these migrants were fundamentally marginalized because of their reduction as a disposable workforce.
Operation Bootstrap utilized alternative ways to exact its control over the labor pool on the island of Puerto Rico. Birth control became a technology of biopower that enabled the control of bodies, while disguised as a modernization project. The idea of birth control as a way to address supposed “overpopulation” echoed conversations that transpired earlier in the twentieth century. In 1932, Theodore Schroeder wrote a piece called “Porto Rico’s Population Problem” for Margaret Sanger’s Birth Control Review. Schroeder, a mainland writer, detailed the various problems with Puerto Rico, such as unemployment, disease, and overall poverty, and warned that such factors could produce unrest on the island. Schroeder argued that birth control was the only solution. If Puerto Rico did not comply, Schroeder said that the US would impose it by force. He went so far as to say that if Puerto Rico did not reduce its population on its own, the United States would intervene with military force. The writings of Schroeder reveal the continued imperialist framework: birth control, in this context, was explicitly a stand in for guns.
Premised on the progressive idea of “family planning,” birth control campaigns that popped up in rural communities in Puerto Rico during the mid-twentieth century were rooted in deception, racism, and classism. Working-class women and women of color became the targets of these eugenist birth control campaigns. With the creation of new factories in Puerto Rico through Operation Bootstrap, birth control projects had the underlying goal of maintaining a disposable, non-childbearing female workforce. As a result, sterilization, commonly known as “la operación,” became such a common practice that between the 1930s and 1970s, around one third of the Puerto Rican female population had been sterilized. Many of the women that became sterilized later expressed the lack of information that went into the procedure.
The hospital social worker that visited Delia Mestre’s barrio in Humacao is a singular manifestation of the island-wide political and economic agenda to exert control over Puerto Rico. As feminist critic and historian of reproductive politics and US empire Laura Brigg puts it, “Puerto Rico was explicitly a “laboratory” in which development—foreign aid, industrialization (a.k.a. the “global assembly line”), import substitution, and population control—was being tested as a global policy.” From the structural level to individual bodies, Puerto Rico became a petri-dish for United States experimentation. All the while, the urgings of Luis Muñoz Marín reverberated throughout the island. The man who once supported Puerto Rican independence, now gave the United States free reign to control the reproductive health of Puerto Rican women.
By 1962, when the birth control projects were in full operation in Puerto Rico, Muñoz Marín had been governor of the island for 16 years. The sinister reality of Operation Bootstrap had long reared its ugly head under his unceasing reign. In the name of modernization, the creole elite supported the United States in exacting economic control over Puerto Rico. Emerging from the systems of colonialism and imperialism, “modernization” projects weaponized race, class, and gender as a way to sustain the extractive framework. In the face of this reality, young members of El Partido Popular Democrático came to believe in the value of officials’ term limits. Referring to themselves as the “twenty-twos,” the group, which included Muñoz Marín’s own daughter, Victoria, suggested that he resign. After years of supporting and propagating policy that simply created the illusion of Puerto Rican autonomy, Muñoz Marín’s authority was finally called into question.
Delia’s village of Humacao, lauded as the “La Perla del Oriente,” or the “Pearl of the Orient,” also goes by two other, lesser known names. “La Ciudad Gris” y “Los Roye Huesos.” In Spanish, these names translate to “The Gray City” and “Bone-Gnawers.” These names perhaps complicate the vision of Humacao as purely a region of awe-inspiring biodiversity and natural beauty. They conjure Brigg’s idea of the “laboratory,” rather more specifically a mortuary. “La Ciudad Gris” y “Roye Hueso” are evocative of the darkness, the grotesque, and the destruction that emerged from the violent project of modernization in Humacao and Puerto Rico at large.
The doctors and social workers that visited her community would tell her that her poverty was a strain endemic to her fellow rural women. Their prescription for her suffering was simple enough: stop having children.
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