Defending ourselves from "progress": The political cultures of Caguas, Puerto Rico, 1880--1898

Date of Completion

January 2001


History, Latin American




This work researches structures of power of the rural society of Caguas, Puerto Rico, between 1880 and 1898. The municipal law of 1878, the property laws of 1880 and 1884, the 1881 issue of “cédulas de vecindad” (identification cards), sought state centralization, land privatization, and to restrict mobility rights of the majority of the population. A series of health campaigns and familial regulations supported the transformation of common folk into productive beings. The execution of these laws and campaigns translated, in actuality, into an attack on the culture of the rural poor that touched every aspect of life. ^ Members of the landed peasantry, sharecroppers and rural laborers developed a community of action in order to mitigate the most devastating effects of land privatization, in which necessity and work, rather than title of ownership represented the basis for claiming access to land. While intermediary sectors of the rural population and the landed peasantry showed some tolerance toward this phenomenon, large landowners not only condemned this community of action but also persecuted its practitioners as criminals. The Ayuntamiento (the municipal government) also created a series of projects of covert, symbolic violence in order to change people's behavior and ideas about land, work and agriculture, family relations and health. For example, a strategy to impose capitalist discipline upon laborers consisted of the promotion of bourgeois family values among the rural population. The Ayuntamiento maintained that monogamous and heterosexual relations within legal marriage contributed to the ordering of society so that the rural poor would accept the moral guidance of the nation's self-proclaimed wealthy leaders. These family ideas and values informed day-to-day execution of the law. ^ The Ayuntamiento also stressed family ideas in the areas of personal care so that each family was responsible for safeguarding its member's health. However, the Ayuntamiento adopted an aggressive policy of intervention in the areas of hygiene and contagious diseases. Medical and government authorities strongly believed in the environmental origin of diseases; therefore, the maintenance of high levels of hygiene became a public duty. In 1882, the government established the Provincial Vaccine Institute. Cagüeños, like most Puerto Ricans, distrusted vaccination and avoided the vaccine whenever possible. Eventually, government vaccination reached almost every person in the rural areas of Caguas as did the anemia campaign in the twentieth century. ^