- Puerto Ricans in the Empire: Tobacco Growers and U.S. Colonialism by Teresita A. Levy
This study has both a local and a global context. It is local in the sense that it closely examines “small scale, politically involved” independent producers of tobacco leaf in Puerto Rico and their engagement with the American metropolis within a framework, which even though it remains colonial, provided for dynamic negotiations. And, it is global in the sense that the subject in question is part of an imperial and colonial, global agricultural narrative which during the first third of the twentieth-century included an expanding American Empire stretching from the Philippines to Hawaii and to the Caribbean. Hence, this book is a welcome addition to the New Imperial Studies.
The new American empire brought and sought to impose its own political and economic structures while attempting to reshape the new colonial subjects by imposing its own gender, racial, and class organization patterns, as well as new forms of labor and land tenure patterns in both the formal and informal empire. The metropolis, however, had to contend with well-established cultural and socio-economic practices in its new territories. In the case of Puerto Rico, Laura Briggs (2002), Eileen Findlay (1999), and Solsiree del Moral (2013),1 among others, have addressed the contestation and negotiation of power within a colonial setting by examining education, gender and race. Teresita Levy takes the same approach addressing this understudied area of Puerto Rico’s agricultural sector.
As one of the largest employers in rural Puerto Rico during the first decades of the twentieth-century, the tobacco leaf industry is relevant for (2) both labor and agrarian studies. But Levy goes beyond the field, delves into demographics, and also discusses the political power that tobacco-growers came to yield.
Levy’s historiography section in the introduction is a tour de force. She engages with the long historiography of oppression narratives and simplistic Manichean views of Puerto Rico’s past. She questions the several unchallenged “truisms” in Puerto Rican historiography since 1898, and the seminal works that have perpetuated “the colonial mentality,” “the attitude of submission and acquiescence characteristics of Puerto [End Page 240] Ricans,” the juggernaut of “land concentration, the disappearance of the independent farmer, and the damages to the psyche of the Puerto Ricans” (7) by a capricious and intractable metropolis.
As Levy takes us through a historiography of colonial-imperial relations in Puerto Rico, she reminds us that even as the 1990s’ academic crop focused on the dramatic changes brought by the American occupation, certain themes continued to dominate almost unchanged. Among them, is the development of the sugar industry as a main goal of the “American colonial government at the expense of every other economic sector on the island”, and the insular government “acting as an agent of U.S. corporations to the detriment of the Puerto Rican people” (9). And perhaps more importantly, the damage inflicted by colonial policies to the collective self-esteem of the Puerto Ricans continued to be taken as a fact.
Levy exhorts us to move beyond these simplistic views and to conceive the Puerto Ricans as active agents within the American Empire much in tune with Ayala’s American Sugar Kingdom’s thesis (1999).2 Within this empire there is agency in the form of resistance, negotiation, and collaboration (10). Levy reminds us that “Is it for this reason that Puerto Rico is an extraordinary case for understanding the political, economic, and social structures of the American empire in the early twentieth century.” The study of tobacco cultivation in Puerto Rico allows for a close examination of “how economic expansion triggered by the new colonial policies resulted in increased political activity and demands for participation” (13).
Most studies dealing with the agricultural narratives of Puerto Rico under American sovereignty deal with sugar and the exploitative nature of the factory in the field. Levy argues that what we have learned from the sugar sector has been applied unquestioned to other agricultural...