US Neglect of Puerto Rico is in the News, but the Main Historical Relationship has been AbuseBreaking News
tags: eugenics, Puerto Rico, Latino/a history
Jaquira Díaz is the author of Ordinary Girls, which won a Whiting Award and a Florida Book Awards Gold Medal. It was also a Lambda Literary Awards finalist. Díaz was born in Humacao, Puerto Rico.
Even Americans familiar with some of Puerto Rico’s history may be unaware of major episodes—for instance, the U.S.-imposed population-control policies, starting in the 1930s, that promoted the mass sterilization of Puerto Rican women and used Puerto Ricans for medical experiments.
In 1937, under Blanton Winship, the U.S.-appointed governor, Law 116 came into force, creating the Puerto Rican Eugenics Board and subsidizing the sterilization of Puerto Ricans. Sterilization, particularly of poor women, had been proposed by the U.S. government as a solution for the archipelago’s rising unemployment rate, which, according to the colonial government, was caused by overpopulation. In the 1920s and ’30s, according to the historian Laura Briggs, “the term overpopulation had acquired another meaning, one that blamed excessive sexuality and fertility for the poverty of [Puerto Rico] as a whole.”
In truth, blame for the archipelago’s unemployment and poverty lies with the United States. After taking control of Puerto Rico, the U.S. disrupted the coffee industry, which employed much of the working class, devaluing the currency and inflating the cost of coffee production. American sugar companies supplanted Puerto Rican coffee growers, converting about half of all arable land into sugar plantations and displacing small landholders. In a variety of ways, the economy was upended. By the 1930s, more than a third of Puerto Ricans found themselves out of a job and without an income. Panic about “overpopulation” was used to indict Puerto Ricans for their own dispossession.
The idea of overpopulation drove the eugenics regime. From 1937 to 1960, when Law 116 was repealed, the Puerto Rican Eugenics Board directly forced 97 sterilizations by means of tubal ligation or hysterectomy, but many thousands of other women were effectively coerced into the same procedures—led to believe that sterilization was reversible, or told that they would not be employed unless they had been sterilized. When healthy pregnant women arrived at hospitals ready to deliver their babies, many were turned away unless they agreed to be sterilized after giving birth. It became common practice for women to have “la operación” following delivery, even after the repeal of Law 116. The 1982 Fertility and Family Planning Assessment, published in the journal Population Today, found that 41 percent of married women in Puerto Rico had been sterilized. Puerto Rican women of childbearing age had the world’s highest sterilization rate. Decades later, the sterilization rate in Puerto Rico is still among the highest. “They wanted to exterminate us,” López Rivera maintained.
From the start, the fight for Puerto Rican independence was inextricable from the movements in the archipelago to abolish slavery and demand racial equality. In 1856, the Afro Puerto Rican diplomat and doctor Ramón Emeterio Betances helped found a secret abolitionist society to liberate enslaved people by securing their passage to other countries or paying for their freedom. At the same time, the society promised freedom to enslaved people who joined the independence movement, and the struggle against Spanish colonial rule was embraced early by many Black Puerto Ricans. For their efforts, Betances and others were exiled to the Dominican Republic by the Spanish crown. Working abroad, Betances and his partner, Segundo Ruiz Belvís, founded the Revolutionary Committee of Puerto Rico, which demanded both abolition and independence—together. From the Dominican Republic, the group plotted an uprising. In September 1868, pro-independence rebels carried out their plans, but the revolt was quickly quelled by the Spanish. Betances fled to New York. The uprising, still commemorated, is known as El Grito de Lares. Slavery was abolished in Puerto Rico in 1873.
In 1897, Spain granted Puerto Rico a form of sovereignty under a statute called the Carta Autonómica, but when the United States seized the archipelago the following year, it dissolved the new Parliament and brushed aside the new charter, establishing its own colonial government. Under military occupation, Puerto Ricans saw their land taken, their industries destroyed, their currency devalued. They were forced to live as subjects of a nation whose Supreme Court had just promulgated the racist doctrine of “separate but equal.” Six months into the occupation, the same troops that had been called to fight in Puerto Rico were mobilized in Wilmington, North Carolina, where they helped massacre Black citizens and elected officials amid the violent overthrow of the city’s multiracial government by white supremacists.
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