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Anthropological Quarterly 76.3 (2003) 531-538

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Performing the Nation in Chicago

Bonnie Urciuoli
Hamilton College

Ana Yolanda Ramos-Zayas. 2003. National Performance: The Politics of Class, Race and Space in Puerto Rican Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

In National Performance: The Politics of Class, Race and Space in Puerto Rican Chicago, Ana Yolanda Ramos-Zayas confronts a central problem of cultural representation; that is, who is being represented? This study of Puerto Rican nationalism in Chicago, based on fieldwork carried out in the mid to late 1990s, focuses on the ways in which elements of Puerto Rican identity are selected, foregrounded and performed. Such performance of national identity makes available for analysis the complex, sometimes oppositional elements of class position, racialization and geopolitical location that constitutes the range of people who identify as Puerto [End Page 531] Rican. The central question in this study is the nature of representation of that national imaginary. The history of Puerto Rico shows how complicated that question can be.

Let us start with some relevant background about Puerto Rico. Originally a colony of Spain, Puerto Rico had achieved a significant measure of autonomy just as the Spanish-American war began in 1898. When that war ended a few months later, Puerto Rico had become a U.S. overseas territory along with the Philippines and Guam. The U.S. thus gained its first geopolitical stakes in the Caribbean and Latin America, and in the Pacific. From the U.S. point of view, Puerto Rico was a territory. From the point of view of those who defined themselves as Puerto Rican, particularly those who had been instrumental in establishing the terms of autonomy from Spain in1897, Puerto Rico was a nation. The sense of Puerto Rico as a nation has persisted ever since, in various ways for different parts of the population, depending on the class, race and geopolitical distinctions that have emerged over the hundred-plus years of U.S. political, economic and racial hegemony. There are those, and have been throughout that century, for whom Puerto Rico should by rights be politically independent. There are others whose political convictions are less radical but who have a profound and lasting sense of cultural uniqueness, and for whom Puerto Rico is an absolutely distinct entity. As a political entity—first territory, then commonwealth—Puerto Rico is enclosed by its island boundaries in the Caribbean with no effective representation in U.S. national process. Participation in specifically Puerto Rican political process has meant participation in a very contained process. At the same time, Puerto Ricans have a long diasporic history. At present, the population of Puerto Rico is about 3.8 million and the number of Puerto Ricans living in the mainland U.S. is about 2.9 million, meaning that of the 6.7 million people who define themselves as Puerto Rican, over 40% live in the U.S. outside Puerto Rico, afuera as people say. (This is a fluid population—many currently living afuera have lived or will live in Puerto Rico, and vice versa.) Those living afuera are in a position to take part in political process as U.S. citizens (which Puerto Ricans have been since 1917) but nothing structural distinguishes that participation as Puerto Rican. Nevertheless, the sense of Puerto Rico as a nation—in Ramos-Zayas' terms, a diasporic nationalism—has been deeply pervasive.

At various points over the past century, the U.S. has attempted, with little investment in the interests of actual Puerto Ricans (as opposed to, e.g., tax breaks for U.S. corporations operating in Puerto Rico), to turn the educational and economic institutions of Puerto Rico itself into little models of U.S. policy-craft. The most pervasive outcome of U.S.- sponsored economic policy has been the use of Puerto Ricans as a reserve labor force, either within Puerto Rico or by recruiting Puerto Rican labor to various secondary sector locales, particularly since World War II. Hence, Puerto Rican diasporic populations have grown in the urban northeast and northern Midwest, drawing heavily from rural or urban working class...


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