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The Americas 59.3 (2003) 421-423

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Shaping the Discourse on Space: Charity and its Wards in 19th Century San Juan, Puerto Rico. By Teresita Martínez-Vergne. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999. Pp. xv, 235. Notes. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $32.50 cloth; $17.95 paper.

In her project "to unmask, lay bare, and disjoin covert manifestations of power" (p. xi) in nineteenth-century San Juan, Teresita Martínez-Vergne takes a theoretical [End Page 421] route more often followed by literary scholars of Latin America than by historians. She employs some of the central concepts of Michel Foucault, especially the production of a discourse that fashions power relations and the mechanisms of social control, to examine the ways in which the Liberal elite and the new middle class attempted to reorder one of the last colonial cities of Spanish America.

This concise, densely written book is comprised of five chapters that explore the contested social space at the margins of this small city that the author describes as "predominantly female and colored, a situation that challenged male and White hegemony and also put pressure on the social hierarchy" (p. 12). After an introduction to the theoretical concerns of the study and some of the social and economic features of San Juan during this era, she elaborates four sequential cases in which the bourgeoisie attempted to impose a particular urban behavioral order through the promulgation of ordinances and codes regulating the movement and activities of vagrants, free black laborers, prostitutes and children. The state, taking over what had been the domain of the church, became a disciplinary fabric of workhouses, hospitals, jails, orphanages and schools which established a set of social norms for the city's poor by articulating a complex and ultimately contradictory modernist ideology based on the French Enlightenment, but transposed to a tropical colonial setting. The central conundrum for Martínez-Vergne is how the Liberal elite reconciled its obsession for order and private property with the principle of equality of opportunity that led it to intervene in the private and public lives of the working class. Drawing on the work of James Scott and Peter Burke, Martínez-Vergne makes the case that this evolving urban order was less an imposition than a negotiation with the poor, who sometimes resisted or avoided the reforms and processes, designed both as a form of welfare and as a way of preserving the social hierarchy demarcated along gender, race and class lines. One of the major Liberal failures, in her view, was the construction of a public school system that was met with spotty attendance. But if the poor of San Juan exercised historical agency in the battle over space, the resistance tended to be more hidden than overt, more individual than collective, and its overall effectiveness is left in question.

The book's focus on discourse, ideology, and morality leads to the conception of space in largely abstract terms. For Martínez-Vergne, space is often figurative or symbolic and refers primarily to the location of groups within a social hierarchy rather than within the physical landscape of the city. "The gradual but undeviating move from the amorphous space called 'the city' to the specific bodies and minds of its inhabitants reached its culmination in the Liberal obsession with children" (p. 151). She traces the ways in which the bodies and the homes of the poor are invaded by the reformers who "medicalize" deviance from social norms through a discourse on space that leads into the sphere of public health and sanitation. But instead of a shifting spectrum, the notion of public vs. private space is marked out a bit too rigidly, perhaps because of the reliance on proscriptive sources. There are some tantalizing allusions in the text to a vibrant if disorderly streetlife that surrounded beggars and children, and there are a handful of photographs from the early twentieth century that draw the reader into the world of the street, but these are not developed [End Page 422...


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