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Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.3&4 (2001) 546-547

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Book Review

Imposing Decency:
The Politics of Sexuality and Race in Puerto Rico, 1870-1920

Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race in Puerto Rico, 1870-1920. By Eileen J. Suárez Findlay. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001. Pp. 316. $ 54.95 (cloth). $18.95 (paper).

Historians of Puerto Rico have largely ignored "private" issues such as marriage and sexuality, suggests Eileen Suárez Findlay, who takes on this task, exploring in particular the emancipatory limits and possibilities of sexual politics on the island. Findlay sets out to uncover how discourses about respectability and racial purity shaped sexual regulatory practices while emphasizing the always constant existence of alternative discourses and divergent practices. Such alternative discourses, however, do little to challenge the island's and the larger Caribbean pattern of valuing lighter over darker, though such intra-Caribbean connections are rarely made by Findlay, who draws instead upon the work of scholars of colonialism and sexuality in South Asia and beyond. The result is a story that will ring familiar to scholars acquainted with the workings of sexuality in colonial situations, where practices and discourses of and about color, race, and sexuality are directly intertwined in serving as a primary basis for social and economic mobility and power.

The book is set in Ponce between 1870 and 1920 and reviews the city's history as a stronghold of the sugar economy and its role as a hub for Puerto Rico's Liberal Project, under which the island achieved its short-lived autonomy from Spain prior to falling under U.S. colonial control. It starts with a review of the honor codes structuring marriage, sexuality, and gender roles in nineteenth-century Ponce and quickly moves to a discussion of how sexuality, women's honor, and morality are contested by Liberals, bourgeois feminists, and intellectuals, among other interests. Specifically, Findlay notes how Liberal male elites sought to control female sexuality by turning women into the proper mothers and keepers of the nation who were needed for the program of a virile "gran familia puertorriqueña," or encompassing Puerto Rican family. Findlay notes how this program quickly degenerated into repression and into campaigns aimed at regulating prostitution. "Prostitutes" and "loose women" became loaded signifiers strategically deployed to repress and maintain women "in check." Alternative discourses of sexuality and of proper conduct, marriage, sex, and cohabitation--all of which are always active and, in fact, serve important economic functions, particularly among the working classes and the poor--experienced a backlash at this time, as did the gains of bourgeois feminists and their defense of women's right to pleasure and equality in romantic relationships. We see similar processes at the end of the book, which takes us to World War I. Then, in the midst of labor unrest and local demands for empowerment, prostitution and loose moralities again became primary targets, this time by the island's U.S. colonial government, keen on containing social dissent. [End Page 546]

Because her study covers the island's change of colonial administrations, Findlay considers the policies on marriage and divorce introduced by the United States and how these changes impacted popular reception of U.S. colonialism as well as dominant constructs of the family. As she notes, the new policies made marriage more available and instituted divorce, which provided a level of liberty to women, who could now free themselves from abusive husbands. These policies made Americans seem more democratic and less despotic in the public eye, in turn helping "normalize" Puerto Ricans into nuclear families and dominant norms of sexuality and respectability.

Given the rich stories Findlay relates, this reader was left wanting to hear more about the historical actors contained in her pages, in their own words and uttering their own discourses. Findlay's narrative is elegantly composed, linear, and most of all part of an eloquent argument, but the historical material was often treated as secondary and peripheral to the...


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pp. 546-547
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