Soldiers of the Nation Chapter 3, Excerpt


A New Day Has Dawned

World War I and Mobilization of the Peasant

Downtrodden  . . . as he has been, he is now in the limelight. The testing and refining process will be hard for him. But he and his brother will become the nucleus of a new Porto Rico. The anemic disease warped man will be a thing of the past. And the domain of the jíbaro will at last come into its proper place in the great Economic and Social scheme of this island.

—Porto Rico Progress, July 12, 19181


In 1908 the U.S. government strengthened its control over the military apparatus in Puerto Rico by making the native military corps a regular regiment of the U.S. Army by an act of Congress.2 As a corollary to this measure, the Taft administration attempted to augment the political power of the colonial administration in Puerto Rico by giving full control over the island to the War Department’s Bureau of Insular Affairs (bia) and by curtailing the ability of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Delegates to challenge the presidential-appointed governor.3  After taking these steps, the U.S. colonial administration enjoyed a few years of relative political calm. Under American rule, as it had been the case under Spanish control, a crisis tended to highlight the military importance of Puerto Rico, which in turn affected the island’s political development. On the eve of World War I, the United States faced strong local political opposition in the form of demands for more self-government, self-determination, and labor organization.4

In 1917, the metropolis extended American citizenship to the natives of Puerto Rico. American citizenship preceded the first mass military mobilization of Puerto Rico’s popular sectors under U.S. rule. Since the very early days, the U.S. colonial administrators had argued that military training and values would “Americanize” and “modernize” the Puerto Rican. During the war, Puerto Rican elites, political leaders, and the press, who had supported military instruction and service since the invasion in 1898, joined the chorus arguing that serving in the military would create a new man out of the Puerto Rican. Puerto Rican elites were interested in mobilizing the  peasantry, commonly referred to as jíbaros. They viewed military service as a regenerative experience that would transform the jíbaro into a new, manlier, modern man integrated into the socioeconomic structures of the island as a productive agent.

Since the eighteenth century, the figure of the jíbaro and the role it should play in Puerto Rico’s society had preoccupied the local  elites[1]. Historically, the insular peasantry has been ambiguously represented as both capable of the most sublime nobility and as the truest icon of Puerto Rican identity, but also as a drawback for the island’s society, as “rustic” men incapable of political consciousness. Francisco Scarano has traced the development of characterizations of jibaridád and the coexistence of almost-contradictory meanings assigned to it. He explains that in “the eyes of the modernizing, rationalistic elites, the tactics of peasant survival seemed barbaric, conducive only to vagrancy, crime, and political paralysis.” However, by the middle of the nineteenth century, representations of a multiethnic jíbaro served as a type of proto-nationalist icon for elites. Liberal criollos used the “jíbaro masquerade to identify themselves as ethnically different from other members of the elite while maintaining the basic outlines of a colonial relation.”5

After the United States gained control of the island in 1898, intellectuals and political figures reimagined a jíbaro figure in opposition to American domination. The jíbaro figure, “now absolutely whitened,” was converted into the repository of a higher form of “patriotic morality, the very essence of the Puerto Rican nation.”6 As Lilian Guerra argues, the figure of the jíbaro is key for understanding the development of national identities in early twentieth-century Puerto Rico. For the modernizing elites, the peasantry’s state of illiteracy and failure to modernize was responsible for the island’s colonial status and economic maladies. Local elites thus tried to construct the figure of the jíbaro (and hence that of the popular classes) as a less threatening and more civilized “Other.”7 Up until World War I, the regeneration of the popular sectors using the figure of the jíbaro was attempted mostly through discursive narratives as Guerra points out; through mass health campaigns, and by trying to reduce the illiteracy rate among them, as Solsiree del Moral has demonstrated.8

World War I presented the local elites with the opportunity to further their projects by mobilizing the peasantry. Political leaders, elected officials, and opinion makers sought to reform or regenerate the jíbaro through military training, hoping that the peasantry’s transformation would translate into socioeconomic and political advancement. Hence elites demanded access to the U.S. military. Supporting the war effort, some thought, would prove the Puerto Ricans’ loyalty to the United States and to the ideals of democracy and freedom. Others believed that participating in the war would prove Puerto Ricans’ manhood and adulthood, which would put the United States in a very awkward position if it continued to deny them political equality and to ignore their capability of self-government and of self-determination. Whatever their reasoning, mass military service became a tool for different factions who sought to achieve their goals by modernizing the Puerto Rican jíbaro—and by extension Puerto Rico—through military training and service.

Both the local elites and the metropolis were engaging in reshaping the very essence of the Puerto Ricans’ individual and collective identities. And during the war, the United States and the native elites found themselves in a battle for control over the nation-building project via military service. Moreover, the elites had their own projects of Americanization and modernization.

Was extending American citizenship to the Puerto Ricans and the subsequent mass mobilization of the peasantry and the urban working classes a transformative experience? Did a new Puerto Rican emerge from this experience? Was the military-trained jíbaro integrated into the modern socioeconomic structures of the island? Was American colonial rule in the island as strong as it had been before the war? Did the first mass mobilization of Puerto Ricans under American rule bring political transformations?

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soldiers of the nation

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