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Discourse 23.3 (2001) 24-51

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Subjects and Immigrants During the Progressive Era

Pedro Cabán

After the United States acquired Puerto Rico as war booty from Spain, it quickly embarked on a campaign to transform the country and its people. Less than a year after U.S. troops landed in Guánica on July 25, 1898, Dr. Henry K. Carroll, President McKinley's special commissioner to Puerto Rico, declared that the island "is American and will be Americanized" (Carroll 61). Although U.S. officials acknowledged that Puerto Rico had a functioning government, according to William Willoughby, a key colonial policy maker, the principles on which it was based "were so completely at variance with American theory and practice that it was inevitable that radical changes would have to be made at the earliest possible moment" (119).

In this article I examine the program of social engineering known as Americanization that U.S. officials zealously and optimistically pursued in Puerto Rico from 1898 to 1917. Since this campaign was devised in the aftermath of massive European immigration to the United States, I trace the development of federal and state programs to Americanize the immigrants and indicate parallels with the Americanization program in Puerto Rico. I also discuss how Puerto Rico's political leadership responded to the profoundly disruptive U.S. program to transform the island and its people.

During the turbulent years between 1898 and 1917, the U.S. attained the status of a global economic power that was determined [End Page 24] to establish unquestioned hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. But the very quest for empire threatened the racial recasting of society and was potentially disruptive to domestic political stability. In 1898 the United States claimed sovereignty over eleven million inhabitants of the former Spanish colonies. They joined the millions of European immigrants to form a huge non-citizen population of non-English speaking peoples who were unfamiliar with U.S. political institutions and civic values. By "Americanizing" the recent immigrants and the subject peoples the United States hoped to impose national unity and thus mitigate the demographically disruptive consequences of empire.

The process of Americanizing the new immigrants and colonial subjects was interrelated. The experience of assimilating millions of Southern and Eastern European immigrants influenced the U.S. government's efforts to Americanize the inhabitants of Puerto Rico and other colonial possessions. In turn, the experiences acquired during the first two decades of colonial rule also influenced the Americanization campaigns on the continent during the years preceding U.S. entry into World War I and until about 1920

The goals and content of the Americanization campaign in the United States and in Puerto Rico were similar in that both emphasized English language instruction and sought to build loyalty for the nation and its institutions. While Americanization entailed absorption into the dominant culture and acceptance of a new political identity in both Puerto Rico and the United States, in the latter Americanization focused on individual assimilation. In Puerto Rico it entailed the transformation of an entire people and the imposition of new institutions. The Americanization of Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Cuba was the U.S. empire's first attempt to implant its legal and government overseas. Americanization of the inhabitants of the former Spanish colonies was predicated on the militaristic ideology of Anglo-Saxon racial superiority. It also relied on a morally based judgment that the people of the tropics were culturally inferior and consequently should be denied those political rights reserved for the white male citizens of the United States.

In the Philippines and Puerto Rico Americanization included implanting a new system of governance and law and an educational campaign to win acceptance of the legitimacy of the new sovereign power. The ambitious Americanization program included compulsory universal public education that included mandatory English language instruction, patriotic exercises, civic classes and gender-based manual training programs (see Cabán). Through the education system Puerto Rico's youth would learn to accept the legitimacy [End Page 25] of the radically different economic and political order that the United States...


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