- Puerto Rican Labor History, 1898-1934: Revolutionary Ideals and Reformist Politics by Carlos Sanabria
In the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s, some aging labor leaders that had set the foundations for Puerto Rico's organized labor movement in the early twentieth century began writing their historical narratives. Their books—including Santiago Iglesias Pantín's Luchas emancipadoras and Rafael Alonso Torres' Cuarenta años de lucha proletaria—became foundational texts for the study of those that had been left out of national myths and grand narratives: the working classes. Beginning in the 1970s, a group of young scholars affiliated to the University of Puerto Rico, most of whom had been educated in [End Page 220] Europe and the United States, began engaging in new modes of analysis related to what was then known as New History. These scholars sought to articulate a history of those in the bottom of society through the lens of Marxist-influenced class analyses. Their works meticulously explored topics related to ideology, colonialism, and class struggle. Moreover, while these debates seemed settled or at least dormant—specially after the 1990s shift towards postmodern understandings that gave way to explore other aspects like gender, race, and identities—Puerto Rican Labor History, 1898-1934: Revolutionary Ideals and Reformist Politics seeks to continue those earlier conversations.
Carlos Sanabria's book offers a comprehensive historical study of earlier twentieth century Puerto Rico's premier labor organizations, the Federación Libre de Trabajadores (hereafter FLT) and the Socialist Party. His book stems out of his doctoral dissertation and is built upon a wide range of primary sources, including documents produced by local unions as well as the American Federation of Labor (hereafter AFL). However, beyond a general history of the labor movement, the book seeks to answer a simple yet overarching question: were these Puerto Rican labor organizations revolutionary or reformist? To answer that question, the book is divided into five thematic chapters.
The book begins with a broad historical overview of Puerto Rico's economy and its laboring masses throughout the nineteenth century until the first decades of the twentieth century. Chapter 1 sets the historical foundations on which the book will develop as it explains how the economic prosperity reflected in the growth of sugar, tobacco, cigar, and needlework production did not translate into better living conditions for workers (25). The second chapter then goes on to explore workers' intellectual production, focusing on the books produced by a handful of workers like Manuel Francisco Rojas, Luisa Capetillo, and Juan Marcano, among others. Sanabria reads these books as part of an overall anti-capitalist sentiment and critique shared by this working-class intellectual community (44). In the third chapter, Sanabria continues his textual analysis but focuses on labor theatre. Following the works of Rubén Dávila Santiago and the late Ricardo Campos, Sanabria teases out the propagandistic role of labor theatrical plays in early-twentieth-century Puerto Rico.
However, although most of the plays and books analyzed in the book thus far demonstrated workers' anti-capitalist sensibilities, the fourth chapter problematizes it by focusing on the organized labor movement's reformist orientation. To do so, Sanabria focuses on congress proceedings of both the FLT and the Socialist Party to demonstrate the contradictions that coexisted within these organizations. This is further explored in the fifth and last chapter, which relates to the influence of the AFL in Puerto Rico. Sanabria documents the AFL's economic power and influence through a series of [End Page 221] well-documented tables throughout the chapter. The chapter demonstrates the discursive influence and material power of Santiago Iglesias Pantín and Samuel Gompers over the organized labor movement in Puerto Rico.
Ultimately, the book concludes that these two tensions between revolution and reform coexisted dialectically and manifested in different ways in the FLT and the Socialist Party. However, since Carlos Sanabria frames his analysis within a binary, the book overlooks other dimensions of workers literary and aesthetic sensibilities. For example, while there are two chapters...