"The funnel system in which his is the little end." The technological transformation of the sugar industry and American protectionism in the emergence of the colonos in Caguas, Puerto Rico, 1898--1928

Date of Completion

January 2004


History, Latin American




Throughout the twentieth century scholarship regarding the impact of United States rule in Puerto Rico was based on the idea that the complexities of colonialism could be viewed in two poles: the monopolistic power of American capital and its supporting apparatus on the island, and the socio-economic struggle of the impoverished proletariat. This paradigm shaped most of the scholarly works between the 1930s and the 1980s. This dissertation attempts to re-think the understanding of American colonialism on the island by focusing on the technological transformation of the sugar industry during the first three decades of the twentieth century. American colonialism was hegemonic in Puerto Rico, and domination was accomplished by consent rather than by violent force. In Puerto Rico, American colonial rule was the outcome of mediation and negotiation. Within this colonial condition the Puerto Rican sugar elite collaborated without entirely compromising their political legitimacy. After 1898, through an infusion of American capital and the eventual incorporation of Puerto Rico's economy into the United States, the sugar industry began to expand. The technological transformation of this industry led to the emergence of a new type of farmer in Puerto Rico, the colono. ^ The colono emerged during the second half of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century as the technological modernization of the sugar industry separated manufacturing from agriculture. The colonos were a special kind of farmer because they produced sugar under a contract with a central (sugar mill). In Puerto Rico the colono emerged after 1898 as the contractual relationship with mill changed with the transformation of sugar industry. With the United States government granting duty free status to Puerto Rican sugarcane this process of conversion from sugar farmer to colono was accelerated. In Caguas that transformation started in 1904 when a Belgian corporation built a central, Santa Juana. This dissertation explores how the construction of Central Santa Juana led to the expansion of a colono system whereby these individuals owned the land in which sugar was cultivated. Many of these colonos belonged to the most prominent families in Caguas and they were actively participating in the construction and perpetuation of the colonial system in Puerto Rico. This work views the colonos as a group who aggressively used their political connections to maintain the colonial apparatus that granted them duty free status to the sugar market. ^ With time the colonos developed their identity as a group and created a new political project. As their identity developed, colonos began to question the system that sustained them. Their role as intermediaries in the sugar industry, and most of all, as mediators in the colonial system would be transformed through the development of colono-focused projects such as a central and the creation of the Associacón de Agricultores. By the 1930s the colonos were one of the most important economic and political groups in Puerto Rico who were questioning the legitimacy of the American colonial system in the island, and at the same time searching for new economic alternatives to maintain their privileged position in society. New strategies to maintain economic power while embarking in a redefinition of their political participation marked the colonos' entry into the turbulent decade of 1930. ^