Haití vodú y calabaza,
Puerto Rico, burundanga.
— Luis Palés Matos.
The following essay on Puerto Rico continues a historical journey attempting to make some sense of our Burundanga (muddle). It focuses on the ideological and political roots established in 1898 with the change of ownership. Topics of such importance cannot be dealt briefly, so four essays are advanced: the first attends the racism incipient to territorial possession and the invasion and the establishment of a civil government. The second one describes the state of affairs in Puerto Rico, based on the First Annual Report on governor Charles H. Allen. The third recounts the finances and organization of civil government, the fourth and last encompasses the arguments that led to the transformation of this bureaucrat into the Sugar Baron who established a most shameful precedent in the administration of the territory.
Racism, territories and government
I do not claim Burundanga to be exclusive to Puerto Rico, for us it has its origin in the poem by one of our foremost poets, Luis Palés Matos (see above). If we approach it from a political standpoint, it applies to all North American territories that lack full constitutional rights and the consequences that it has in its culture. Truly a muddle. Its meaning also includes the conflicts and contradictions found in any culture, particularly those where power is abused. Burundanga applies to many places; ours is certainly a specific one that invites reflection and calls to action.
Burundanga was not the same during the centuries Spain ruled, in those times we did not have doubts about our colonial nature, nor any other form of government that military rule. Abandonment and bad administration led to uprisings and the pursuit of autonomy, granted in 1898, the year of the Invasion.
Crucial to our Burundanga is the legal fact that in the acquisition we became property of, but not part of The United States of America. A fact intimately related to the racist ideas of the time when we were taken as spoils of war. Yes, a true muddle.
The Supreme Court
The racist thought prevailing in the epoch is patently expressed in jurisprudence dictated by Judge Billings Brown in his (in)famous 1896 ruling in Plessey v. Ferguson. If a race is socially inferior to another, the Constitution can not place them on the same level. Recognizing social differences does not violate the principle of equality in the Constitution, as long as there are facilities for all. This turned to be the legal basis for the Jim Crow Laws, instrumental to the segregation of the South. A principle sustained in the racially segregated military groups. A principle applied to the recently acquired territories in the Spanish American War.
The best description of the war is to be found in the words of governor Allen. “At the time of the arrival of the occupation army, Porto Rico turned to be an easy conquest. A brief campaign of 19 days since landing in Guanica to the signing of the protocol that put more than half the Island in our possession…after five or six short but intense encounters, hostilities ended with the President announcing the peace agreement.”
On June 28, 1898, three days after the Invasion, General in Chief Nelson Miles made his first proclamation to the inhabitants of the Island:
“We have not come to make war with a country that for centuries has been oppressed; on the contrary, we come to bring you protection, not only to you but to your properties, promoting and demanding the assurances and blessings of the liberal institutions of our government.
Our purpose is not to intervene in the laws and customs of the land that are good for the people, as long as they adjust to the principles of military administration, order and justice.”
Another very important statement at the turn of the century are the words of Commander in Chief General Davis. The words of the last military governor of the Island on the establishment of civil government are revealing, worthy of quoting extensively:
” To this impressive ceremony I bring to the inhabitants of the always devoted island of Puerto Rico, congratulations and the best wishes of the people of the United States. Imposing as the occasion is, and of profound significance for the future of this beautiful island, for it marks the establishment of a civil government under the American flag and the blessings and opportunities this means.
A page has been turned in your history; a new era is inaugurated in the development of the Island. If it turns good or bad depends mostly on you. The greatest constitutionalist can only submit the foundations. The edification of the superstructure, although beautiful and lasting, should rest in the industry and wisdom of the people.
I bring the message of the President, with which I am entirely in agreement, it is his intention to give you, regarding officials, let them be chosen among yourselves or from outside, men of character and stature, enthusiast, diligent and industrious; men with the highest regard for honor, that will not procure the advancement of their own fortunes at the cost of others; men who see justice and honesty for all, whose only subject of attention is the well being of Porto Rico and the honor of the American government in their doings.
I am confident that working together, with the blessings of Divine Providence so this land will not only be the gem of the Antilles for its marvelous natural resources, an example of the achievements of an industrious and honest people, with the adequate direction of civil policy of government.
I bring assurances that all men, big and small, rich or poor, under the administration of this form of government and under the sovereignty of the United States will be treated with justice and his rights will be respected… together we will move in the great American current of advancing civilization. Loving our country, animated by a high sense of honor, devoted to the common humanity, we take our place in the world and call on God.”
The first thing to take notice is how, with the omission of one letter and substitution of another, we ceased being what we were (Puerto Rico) and became something else: Porto Rico, a sign of things to come. It also very noteworthy that the commanding generals presented a romanticized idealism, flagrantly contradicted with the first civil governor of the Island and the ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States that established in 1901 that not all constitutional rights apply in the territories acquired in the Spanish American War.
So, how could the natives not get restless when the constitutional premise lies in prejudice and condescension. How could we not feel indignant when so much was promised and so little delivered. How could we not ask for retribution, when the first civil governor was a living denial of all the virtues Brigadier General promised for our officers. The evidence to sustain the accusation follows.
Copyright 2015 by Jose M. Umpirre. Book cover used under “fair use’ proviso of the copyright law. Old San Juan photo copyrighted by Jose Umpierre. All other photos in the public domain.