Americanizing the New Colony

Excerpt from Soldiers of the Nation: Military Service and Modern Puerto Rico, 1868-1952

Americanizing the New Colony

[Part of Introduction to Chapter 2: Puerto Rican a la Americana: A Hearts and Minds Campaign, 1898-1914]

As discussed above, Puerto Rico, like the other territories acquired during the war, was not to be incorporated into the United States, but that did not mean that the population and the territory itself should not be molded into something more “American.” In this regard on February 16, 1899, President McKinley accepted the “burden of the Philippines, to safeguard the happiness of their inhabitants,” and later included the other territories, as he proclaimed a campaign of “benevolent assimilation.”53  The United States would rule the new territories, and in exchange it would civilize and modernize the natives. From socioeconomic structures to individuals, the U.S. colonial administration attempted to reshape the new territories in the image of the continental United States.54  The new project of nation-building would seek to Americanize but not to include the natives as part of the American nation. U.S. colonial policies of assimilation seemed aimed at creating satellite nations orbiting the U.S. mainland.

In 1898, most Puerto Ricans were Catholic, spoke Spanish, and had deep cultural differences with mainstream Americans, who were perceived as being English-speaking, Anglo-Saxon, And Protestant. They were well on their way to developing strong national identities mostly due to the exclusionary policies followed by the Spanish colonial authorities after the Lares revolt of 1868. It has been noted that the development of strong national identities occurs in opposition to a more discernible Other.55  In the aftermath of the war of 1898, the U.S. soldiers on the island and the subsequent colonial administrators presented the Puerto Ricans with a different Other. However, the Americans were soon gone and replaced by local troops. The new metropolis did not send English-speaking settlers to displace the natives as it had been the case during the westward expansion. The new colonial bureaucracy was indeed small and dependent on local elites.56 The U.S. officials did not pose a socioeconomic challenge to the local elites as the peninsulares once did to the criollos.

There were cultural differences between the new metropolis and the natives. The United States tried to overcome them with material superiority, which allowed the new metropolis to project cultural superiority.57 U.S. economic resources enabled it to embark on infrastructure projects, to launch health and relief campaigns, and to create a public education system where the Puerto Rican youth could be Americanized. Moreover, political enfranchisement became a reality for previously marginalized groups, and the criollo elite actively participated in the political institutions. More important, perhaps, is that the military remobilization of the Puerto Ricans began during the first months of the American occupation. All this served to create a sense of inclusion as opposed to Spanish policies of exclusion and displacement.

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