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Seams of EmpireRace and Radicalism in Puerto Rico and the United States$

Carlos Alamo-Pastrana

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780813062563

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: January 2017

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813062563.001.0001

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The Republic of the Penniless

The Republic of the Penniless

(p.86) 4 The Republic of the Penniless
Seams of Empire

Carlos Alamo-Pastrana

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

Edwin Rosskam worked during the New Deal as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) before working in a variety of capacities for the Puerto Rican government throughout the 1940s and 1950s. In 1964 Rosskam published The Alien, a novel about his time in Puerto Rico. A liberal like Preece, Rosskam depicted Puerto Rico as a place where American progressives could comfortably settle without having to be burdened by all the cultural and political baggage of U.S. race relations. This chapter illustrates how Rosskam used Puerto Rican racial insularity and other sociological tropes in order to rationalize the connections he hoped to make between the continental United States and the island. While Rosskam’s novel explored the productive possibilities of class-based color–blind politics, its emphasis on insularity simultaneously reinforced whiteness and characterized the Puerto Rican diaspora as a contaminated and racialized class of outsiders to the nation.

Keywords:   White liberalism, color-blindness, American sociology, post-racialism, Puerto Rican diaspora

“I must have looked damned queer to the people of the district when I first moved in,” states Emil Bluemelein in one of the opening scenes of Edwin Rosskam’s 1964 novel The Alien. Set in the 1950s, the novel tells the story of Bluemelein’s journey to El Fanguito (The Little Mud), a squatter slum just outside of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Bluemelein understands that, as a former colonial bureaucrat, his presence raises suspicions in a shantytown among Puerto Rico’s poorest population. “They were afraid of me, no doubt about that. Some thought me a treasury agent looking for numbers runners. Other conceived the idea that I was a detective, different kinds of detective depending on who was talking.” But the residents of El Fanguito are not simply afraid of Bluemelein. His presence in El Fanguito suggests a default on the promise of upward mobility in the United States. They demand an explanation.1

Rosskam tackles this glaring problem by likening his lead protagonist to the residents of the slum. “At least I have just about nothing to lose,” explains Bluemelein, “since I gave up my standing as a non-Negro, non-Caribbean resident of impeccable Continental origins and said the hell with that and moved to the muddy edge of the city where nobody has much of anything except the marvelous final security of being on the bottom.”2 Bluemelein at once claims an entirely new class identity, renounces his status as an American, and more importantly, renounces what George Lipsitz terms his “possessive investment in whiteness.”3 Even more brazenly, Bluemelein’s estrangement from the (white) American colonial project is likened to the poverty and violence that El Fanguito’s residents (p.87) experience. Rosskam’s depiction of a 1950s post-racial (white) subject, however, was symptomatic of a larger move away from race among U.S. and Puerto Rican academics and the larger American political Left.

In this chapter I argue that Puerto Rico served as an ideal space to promote class-based typologies that overlooked or entirely ignored racial difference. Beginning in the mid-1940s, the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) developed into an important research arm of the PPD modernization efforts and of U.S. models of governance. The research at UPR earned the praise of American colonial bureaucrats who used Puerto Rico as a model for capitalist development against the looming threat of socialist expansion after World War II. In contrast, Rosskam and American social scientists challenged the positive depictions of the PPD modernization efforts.

American social scientists and activists within the U.S. political Left, including Rosskam, critiqued the forms of social and economic disorganization produced by capitalist expansion. Both groups weighed the adverse effects of capitalist-oriented industrialization on rural populations. Studying the massive displacement in the rural countryside, U.S. social scientists documented how uneven colonial development and dispossession increased alienation and fractured homogenous understandings of Puerto Rican national identity and culture.

Using Rosskam’s novel as a sociological resource, I discuss in the second half of this chapter how Rosskam’s career as a Farm Security Administration photographer and editor of several significant photo-books trained him to think about the racialized, capitalist-induced crisis in the countryside. However, Rosskam disregarded the ways in which capitalist practices shaped race relations on the island. By deploying sociological interpretative mechanisms Rosskam also sidestepped deeper questions about the contours of racial capitalism on the island. Using sociological typologies meant to explain social and cultural disorganization, Rosskam portrayed estrangement as a race-neutral and universal condition. Rosskam’s false class equivalencies ignored the outcomes of racial capitalism and ultimately reinscribed categories of racial difference through his discussions of the Puerto Rican diaspora.

(p.88) The Puerto Rican Research Laboratory

On June 5, 1950, President Truman approved the creation of the Point Four Program as part of the Act for International Development. The Department of the Interior launched the Point Four Program as a means to provide U.S. aid and technological training to elite and professional classes in more than thirty-two countries in the Global South. The program’s goals emerged as direct responses to the growing sphere of influence of the Soviet Union. Communism, claimed the Department of the Interior, could not be stopped by brute force alone. Securing American hegemony required an economic strategy to “maintain freedom and offset the appeal of Communism to the hungry, poverty-stricken, and distressed.”4 The Department of the Interior utilized all of the methods of scientific inquiry to approach these problems while promoting capitalist development.

The roots of the Point Four Program reached back years earlier in Puerto Rico, to when the Truman and Muñoz Marín administrations agreed to use the island as a training ground for initiatives to be implemented later throughout the rest of the world.5 Given incursions of radicalized socialism into other parts of the Americas after the end of World War II, American policy analysts visualized Puerto Rico as the antisocialist model for countries in transition from the clutches of traditional colonial domination. Puerto Rico’s colonial status, high rate of poverty, health and sanitation problems, and growing population made the island an appealing site for U.S. government researchers. Numerous prominent social scientists from U.S. institutions, foremost among them the University of Chicago and Columbia University, began arriving at UPR in the early 1940s. They used UPR as a research base to launch a massive modernization program based on capitalist-driven industrialization. U.S. government officials charged academics in Puerto Rico with raising the island’s standard of living and governance using strategies they could extend to other countries without appearing to infringe upon national cultures or sovereignty.6 By 1964 the number of people receiving training in Puerto Rico as part of the Point Four program ballooned to more than 23,000 foreign government officials from 137 different countries in the Global South.7

Within UPR, the Centro de Investigaciones Sociales (CIS; Social Science Research Center) “provide[d] the public university with a means of investigating the country’s fundamental problems.”8 A large number of (p.89) the research projects and reports originating from the CIS supported the mission of the colonial government, including the PPD, which had begun to secure its standing as the ruling hegemonic political bloc. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, for example, devoted a special issue to the research being done at the CIS and the changes in Puerto Rico under the PPD. CIS director Millard Hansen and Yale professor Henry Wells presented Puerto Rico’s success and symbolic importance in the foreword: “Puerto Rico’s achievements are significant because they are at once common and grave. They are to be encountered in many parts of the troubled globe, and nowhere are they being attacked so confidently or so successfully that lessons cannot be drawn from the Puerto Rican experience.”9 American policy analysts and researchers who assisted the PPD or served as members of the PPD administration filled the remainder of the special issue with articles touting Puerto Rico’s progress.

Not all CIS scholarship, however, supported the PPD’s agenda or the desires of the State Department. Among the better known studies and publications to emerge from the CIS is The People of Puerto Rico. Originally proposed by Clarence Senior and directed by Columbia University anthropologist Julian Steward, the project utilized modern social science techniques to address the social and economic problems of Puerto Rico.10 Scholars have critiqued CIS projects like this one as “colonialist enterprises” but this characterization does not fully capture the complicated political relationship that Puerto Rican and U.S. researchers had with the island.11 Whereas some researchers certainly wished to keep Puerto Rico in a subjugated colonial position, others viewed their work as a part of Puerto Rico’s larger decolonization project.12

The People of Puerto Rico project studied two significant strands of inquiry. To begin, it considered how changes in the modes of production increased class polarization and affected cultural practices. More specifically, the project measured the impact of technological transformations in different regions dependent on monocultural production of coffee, tobacco, and sugar as the national economy moved to industrial manufacturing. As the island’s agricultural economy collapsed, new industrial factories emerged in the cities of Ponce and San Juan. However, the limited number of factories that opened on the island did not provide a sufficient number of jobs for the migrants from the rural countryside.13

Secondly, the project’s interdisciplinary approach presented a more (p.90)

The Republic of the Penniless

Figure 4.1. “Do not let the dollar emigrate from your country,” 1938.

Photo by Edwin Rosskam. FSA Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress.

nuanced account of subcultural variation within national populations than Puerto Rican government accounts did. Specifically, the research team examined the ways in which class, racial, and gender differences rooted in local modes of production fractured presumed nationalist affinities. Somewhat ironically, however, at the same time technological innovations such as radio and increased access to transportation expedited cultural exchange.14

The project’s emphasis on the relationship between capitalist development and class polarization of society pointed the team toward a Marxist analysis of social relations on the island. Given the strength of external pressure from the PPD to produce a pro-capitalist development study, (p.91) anthropologist Antonio Lauria-Perricelli argues that the project disguised its Marxist orientation in the final published book.15 More plainly stated, the project did not present the favorable view of the transition to capitalist industrialization or the romantic nationalist narrative about culture and sovereignty that the PPD and Truman wanted to hear.

In order to give Truman and the PPD what they wanted, the team would have had to deliberately overlook the poverty they encountered in Puerto Rico. In 1948 more than one-third of the land owned or leased by the government remained committed to sugar production.16 Furthermore, more than 88 percent of Puerto Ricans lived below the poverty line as late as 1953.17 The migration of unemployed rural workers into urban

The Republic of the Penniless

Figure 4.2. Child in workers’ quarter of Puerto de Tierra, San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1938.

Photo by Edwin Rosskam. FSA, Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress.


The Republic of the Penniless

Figure 4.3. Water supply in the workers’ quarter of Puerto de Tierra, 1938.

Photo by Edwin Rosskam. FSA, Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress.

centers illustrated the shortcomings of the PPD’s land reform initiatives. According to a 1943 Puerto Rico Office of Information report, more than a quarter million families in Puerto Rico lived in substandard, small, and poorly built housing. American academics, politicians, and journalists zeroed in on Puerto Rico’s shantytowns.

The social and economic conditions of Puerto Rico’s slums fed liberal critiques of the American racial and colonial regime. Urban slums like El Fanguito, built on swamplands outside of San Juan, absorbed displaced workers from the rural countryside. During the first half of the 1940s alone, Puerto Rico’s urban population ballooned at a rate of more than 30,000 people per year.18 In 1943, close to 6,800 families resettled in El Fanguito. The number of families moving to the slum continued to climb throughout the remainder of the decade.19 The March 8, 1943, issue of Life (p.93) magazine referred to El Fanguito as one of the world’s “slimier slums” and a “shocking disgrace.” In the ultimate show of colonial paternalism, the article questioned the United States’ ability to solve the island’s problems and bring “order out of the chaos in the rest of the world.”20

El Fanguito’s denizens consisted of displaced poor, rural, and uneducated workers. The shacks were constructed of discarded pieces of wood and zinc, and were elevated above the swampland on large wooden stilts, making them highly susceptible to natural disasters such as hurricanes. An intricate and unstable web of wooden planks connected many of the homes. The lack of basic public utilities including running water, trash disposal, and electricity left families—especially children—vulnerable to intestinal diseases such as hookworm, tuberculosis, and malaria. In 1939, the death rate from tuberculosis stood at 258 deaths per 100,000 persons on the island; by comparison, the death rate in the United States was only 47.2 people per 100,000. Intestinal diseases such as diarrhea and enteritis killed even more Puerto Ricans than tuberculosis did.21

William Foster, national chairman of the CPUSA, left El Fanguito deeply disturbed following his 1948 visit to the slum. One month after his trip, Foster drafted a letter to President Truman in which he described the inhumane conditions he witnessed and the U.S. failure to address them. Referencing Truman’s own February 1948 trip to the island, Foster emphasized the burden of colonial responsibility:

Mr. President, although you as the head of the great imperialist country which holds Puerto Rico as a colony, coldly ignored the grave slum problem of the Puerto Rican people by callously riding past El Fanguito, I, as an American citizen conscious of our nation’s heavy responsibility to this oppressed people did not ride past. I went into this most wretched of slums with its immense population and talked to many of its miserable inhabitants. And I saw sights and heard stories of extreme poverty that will stay with me until my dying day. I burned with shame that such outrageous conditions exist on Puerto Rico and are caused by us. … A modern Dante, seeking to write a new Inferno, need go no further than El Fanguito.22

Foster visited with numerous families during his time in the slum, speaking with single-parent families and with orphans who “lived by picking up whatever food they could find among their impoverished neighbors.”23

(p.94) The leading figure in the Puerto Rican Communist Party, César Andreu Iglesias, invited Foster to Puerto Rico to meet with local party officials and talk to more than two thousand workers at the Teatro Puerto Rico in San Juan. In his speech (a version of the letter he sent Truman) Foster demanded that the United States respect Puerto Rican sovereignty. He also called on Truman to acknowledge the responsibility of American sugar companies and capitalist practices for fomenting the massive exodus from the countryside that produced the immense poverty he witnessed.

Foster also lamented the segregation experienced by racially mixed Puerto Rican soldiers. The “democratic fraternal ties between Black and White Puerto Ricans (i.e., mestizaje),” believed Foster, “were sufficient to defeat this racist attack.”24 Foster informed his audience that the bonds among Puerto Rico’s racially mixed working class would be impossible to replicate under American racial capitalism. Capitalism, he claimed, did not respect any nation or people that did not have an “Anglo-Saxon historical and cultural tradition.” Foster even labeled organized labor and progressives in the United States as not “up to par in their solidarity efforts with the struggles of the oppressed people of Puerto Rico.”25 Taken together, Foster’s analysis pointed to the ways in which he understood Puerto Rican labor as an ideal model for American workers because of its class composition and ability to work through racial difference.

The CPUSA party leadership believed that addressing the race question could broaden the labor movement domestically and internationally. Journalist James Allen, who published what is arguably the most complete analysis of the party’s position on the “Negro Question,” reiterated the necessity of a “central Negro people’s front,” arguing that “other groups and forces [would] gravitate towards it as towards a magnet.” Allen’s optimism about a multiracial labor movement remained problematically linked to the idea that racism was a product of the “economic super-exploitation of the Negro,” overlooking how race also shaped the very terms of exploitative labor and living conditions.26

Allen structured his class analysis in starkly black-and-white terms, conceptualizing the race question within a Black Nationalist frame. In spite of this, his study hinted at how the CPUSA viewed other racialized and colonized countries such as Puerto Rico. “The Negro question in the United States,” argued Allen, “is essentially the same as that of retarded and oppressed peoples … in the colonies. Like these peoples the American (p.95) Negro has been retarded in their social development under American imperialism.”27 Like the African American journalists discussed in chapters 1 and 2, Allen used the colonies as a point of departure to analyze the colonial relations and corresponding racialization that American imperialism produced domestically.

Foster drew on the CPUSA’s position on race in his 1948 letter to Truman. Puerto Ricans, he maintained, “hate us for compelling them to teach their children in English instead of Spanish; they hate our attempts to force the infamous Jim Crow system upon their people. In a word they are demanding their national independence.”28 Connecting Jim Crow segregation, Puerto Rican sovereignty, and the impoverished Puerto Ricans he encountered on his visit to the island, Foster tacitly characterized Puerto Rico’s dispossessed population as a racially tolerant and unified class of workers.

It is instructive at this point to return to the People of Puerto Rico project and its attention to race and class. Different members of the research team analyzed race relations in the various regions they studied. Supporting Foster’s position, three of the ethnographic chapters on regional and subcultural variation observed racial differences between classes but not within a class group. Elena Padilla, for example, concluded that in the government-owned sugar plantation “members of this [lower] class are very conscious of racial characteristics, especially skin color, to which they frequently refer. But within their class, color differences do not usually form the basis for discrimination.”29

Padilla’s conclusion is instructive because it demonstrates that race remained a crucial index of social and economic difference across class groups. The lower-class workers described by Padilla were not detached from ideas about race, especially the ways in which presumed biological markers positioned individuals within the prevailing class strata. Despite this hyperawareness, Padilla quickly moves past “color difference” and minimizes its prevalence within a given class group. Padilla states only that race “usually” does not lead to discrimination. As such, the reader is left to wonder when race is a significant variable in experiences of discrimination and what is significant about the racial consciousness she describes.

Contrary to Foster’s and Padilla’s findings, Eric Wolf’s and Sidney Mintz’s regional studies documented racial difference within class groups (p.96)

The Republic of the Penniless

Figure 4.4. Negro workers in front of their homes near Ponce, Puerto Rico, 1938.

Photo by Edwin Rosskam. FSA, Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress.

and across regional spaces. Wolf described the racialized fears that coffee plantation workers had about moving to work in the sugar fields along the coast. In particular, they feared the “Negroes who live on the coast” whom they believed to be “witches” that would poison and kill them.30 Mintz similarly observed that workers from the highlands dreaded Puerto Rico’s coastal regions because of the large concentrations of Blacks there, whom they too considered to be witches. Mintz did mention that these intraclass racial tensions dissipated somewhat once workers labored side by side on the coastal sugar plantations. Nonetheless, Mintz maintained that whiteness remained the ideal among Puerto Rico’s rural proletariat.31

(p.97) The relationship between race and space outlined the limits of a cohesive and racially integrated class of workers in Puerto Rico. The racial composition of Puerto Rico’s slums appeared to support these claims. In her brief 1949 study about race and prejudice in Puerto Rico, the American sociologist Maxine Gordon observed that major slum areas on the island housed “predominantly … large numbers of low paid colored workers.” Echoing Wolf’s and Mintz’s critiques of the presumed absence of racism among Puerto Rico’s proletariat, Gordon scrutinized the methodology of an unnamed project that aspired to prove racism did not exist on the island. Given her observations of Puerto Rico’s slums, Gordon ruled out an economic approach for the study since it “[robbed] the project of its original purpose: to demonstrate that Negro and white Puerto Rican [sic] have the same way of life.”32 Importantly then, Puerto Rico’s proletariat was not in fact a racially tolerant and unified class, as Foster and others claimed. Instead, informal segregation and cultural assumptions about racial difference thrived within Puerto Rico’s proletariat throughout the 1940s.

Wolf’s, Mintz’s, and Gordon’s investigations stand out as exceptions among the plethora of studies completed at the UPR during the 1940s and 1950s. Their work countered prevailing nationalist narratives about Puerto Rico, especially the myth that racism did not exist in Puerto Rican working-class communities and within labor groups. But there should have been more accounts and critiques that delved deeper into these preliminary findings about intra-class race relations on the island. Using Edwin Rosskam as an example, in the sections that follow I consider how and why American liberals did not take more critical approaches to race relations in Puerto Rico. Despite his career as a photographer of various racial and ethnic groups, Rosskam eschewed discussions about race in Puerto Rico through his use of sociological mechanisms and typologies common at the time.

Photographing Race

Detachment and alienation defined much of Edwin Rosskam’s personal biography. Born in 1903 to American parents, Rosskam lived the first fifteen years of his life in Germany. On returning to the United States, (p.98) Rosskam completed high school and enrolled in Haverford College, only to transfer to the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts. Ultimately, Rosskam took an avid interest in photojournalism and landed a job with the liberal newspaper the Philadelphia Record. In 1936 Rosskam married his second wife, Louise Rosenbaum Rosskam, who traveled and worked alongside Edwin as a photographer.33

Like other liberals of their day, the Rosskams displayed a profound sensibility to class conflict and to inequality more generally. Art historian Laura Katzman wrote that Edwin appeared to have been “well versed in theories of class struggle.” For her part, Louise sympathized with “the pressing problems of the day: unemployment, poverty, hunger, disease, racial and class inequality and the threats to democracy posed by the war and fascism raging abroad.”34

In 1937 Edwin Rosskam’s friend and longtime editor for Life magazine, Roger Butterfield, helped Rosskam land a job with Life. The editors at Life sent Rosskam to Puerto Rico to cover the Ponce Massacre of March 21, 1937. On that day members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party assembled a peaceful demonstration in the city of Ponce to commemorate the abolition of slavery and protest the jailing of nationalist leaders. On the orders of Blanton Winship, the appointed American governor, local police callously gunned down fourteen nationalists and five bystanders. The Life editors wanted Rosskam to produce a photo essay about the independentistas on the island.35 Rosskam’s lifelong fixation with Puerto Rico began during this brief stint with Life early in his career.36

The conservative editors at Life considered Rosskam’s account of the massacre politically unsuitable for their readership. They especially disapproved of Rosskam’s support for Senator Muñoz Marín, who at that point had begun to distinguish himself in the Puerto Rican Senate. The editors supported another, unnamed local politician and condemned the article’s “critical evaluation” of Puerto Rico’s colonial status.37 Rosskam’s article about Puerto Rico was never published, but during this trip he met Muñoz Marín in an apartment above a local newspaper’s office, and the two became lifelong friends.38

The FSA soon hired the Rosskams to work as photographers and editors of their massive photo file. FSA director Rexford Tugwell tapped his former student at Columbia University, Roy Stryker, to lead the agency’s Historical Section. The Historical Section used photography to document (p.99) and promote the resettlement of displaced rural families onto land provided by federally approved loans.39 Most importantly, the FSA file gave the American public a class-based vision of America defined by rural displacement and urban poverty.

At times, the FSA file did not accurately reflect the face of American poverty because it strategically limited the number of projects that focused on nonwhite racial and ethnic groups. FSA historian Nicholas Natanson reports that Stryker carefully managed the race question so as not to antagonize southern congressmen who opposed funding large segments of the New Deal state apparatus. In all, 10 percent of the file’s total collection of photographs depicted African Americans. This percentage is surprising given that there was no formal directive for FSA photographers to focus on African Americans. The coverage of African Americans appears instead to have arisen organically from the political interests of the FSA photographers, who chose to avoid such a gap in their work.40

Rosskam and fellow photographer Jack Delano (who later joined the Rosskams in Puerto Rico with his wife, Irene), for example, proposed a photographic study of Black urban life to Stryker in 1941. “We have pictures of farmer’s meetings … and town meetings, but we are almost completely lacking in the urban counterpart,” stated Rosskam and Delano.41 Rosskam also desired to publish photo-books about every U.S. minority group.42 Though Stryker did not respond to the memo from Rosskam and Delano, Rosskam finally got the opportunity to carry out an FSA collaborative project on Black urban life in 1941 when he took the photographs for the renowned Black writer Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices.

Prior to the publication of 12 Million Black Voices, Rosskam edited Oliver La Farge’s 1940 book of photographs by Helen Post, As Long as the Grass Shall Grow. Read alongside each other, the two photo-books underscore the limitations of American racial liberalism. By focusing on the racialized outcomes of modernization and industrialization, they illustrated that the status of subjugated groups within the American racial regime remained precarious at best. At worst, marginalized communities within the American racial regime experienced segregated housing, cultural genocide, and social dispossession.

La Farge and Post’s photographic study focused on the difficult position of Native American tribes facing continual incursions into their land and sovereignty. The captions for the final seven photographs in the book, (p.100) most likely written by Rosskam, read: “We shall learn all of these devices the white man has, we shall handle his tools for ourselves. We shall master his machinery. His inventions. His planning. And still be Indians.”43 The captions provide insight into Rosskam’s thinking about Native American acculturation and the threat to Native cultural practices and identity posed by modernization efforts. Rosskam linked Native Americans’ agency to their ability to adapt to modern technology rather than completely rejecting assimilation to dominant modes of American life.

12 Million Black Voices continued this intellectual thread through its attention to the plight of African Americans during the Great Migration to urban centers throughout the North and Midwest. Rosskam’s partnership with Wright trained him to think about photographing race through a sociological lens. In the acknowledgments, Rosskam thanked Stryker as well as University of Chicago sociologist Horace Cayton. Cayton, who went on to coauthor Black Metropolis with John Gibbs St. Clair Drake, introduced Rosskam and Wright to the methods and theories about urbanization, assimilation, and alienation that were central features of the Chicago School of Sociology. Rosskam pulled many details for his photo captions from Cayton’s 1940 study, Negro Housing in Chicago.

Wright’s familiarity with Chicago enhanced Rosskam’s understanding of the structural challenges faced by African Americans moving to urban centers. Wright, observed Rosskam years later, “knew where everybody was, and he knew everybody in the Negro world of Chicago. And I don’t know if many white men had the opportunity to see it the way we saw it.”44 Given his perhaps unprecedented access, Rosskam critically reflected on how subjects of Wright and Rosskam’s joint venture perceived him as a white outsider. “The challenge for Ed, working in the ghetto,” observed Louise Rosskam, “was not fear. … What he tried to avoid, at all costs, was condescension toward ‘poor’ subjects. What he liked to do … was to try and melt into the background, photographing the world as it went by.”45 Louise’s comments point to the sociological deliberations about race that emerged in Edwin’s work and were facilitated by his relationship with Wright.

In 1945 Tugwell, who had assumed the governorship of Puerto Rico, recruited the Rosskams to work in the Office of Information for Puerto Rico (OIPR). The OIPR mirrored the FSA’s mission in that it disseminated information about Puerto Rico’s problems to the larger American public. (p.101)

The Republic of the Penniless

Figure 4.5. Portrait of Edwin and Louise Rosskam, full length, posed with cameras sitting on a wall by the sea, Puerto Rico.

Photo by Charles Rotkin. Library of Congress.

It organized traveling photo exhibits documenting the suffering on the island, which Tugwell used to secure additional federal funding for future projects in Puerto Rico.

Frustrated that the OIPR focused solely on the island’s difficulties, Rosskam proposed to Senator Muñoz Marín and Governor Tugwell that a new agency be created.46 Following his election as governor in 1949, Muñoz Marín signed Law 372, which established the División de Educación de la Comunidad (DIVEDCO). With Rosskam as its director, DIVEDCO combatted the island’s most pressing problems through public education campaigns that used informative booklets and traveling photo exhibits and films.47

These films and photos captured the attention of the Puerto Rican police. Local police disapproved of the Rosskams’ work as photographers and remained suspicious of how they intended to use their photos, given their political sensibilities.48 A series of confidential letters forwarded directly to Governor Muñoz Marín from Chief of Police Salvador Roig identified (p.102) the Rosskams as intimate associates of Charles Rotkin and the Delanos. In addition to Rotkin being a member of the CPUSA, his wife, Adele Diamond Rotkin, was secretary of the Heights Unity Club, a communist political group.49

The Rosskams’ political affinities with the American Left annoyed Muñoz Marín, whose political outlook had become increasingly conservative over time. A 1950 news brief, for example, remarked that the governor appeared to “leave unsatisfied” after viewing DIVEDCO’s film Vecinos. “From what we have been told,” commented longtime El Mundo reporter Eliseo Combas Guerra, “the film had some scenes and dialogue resembling communist propaganda and others that had an intense colonial flavor.”50

The police never charged the Rosskams with any crime, and there is no mention in the archive of a public falling-out between Muñoz Marín and Edwin over his photos and films. Nonetheless, the Rosskams left the island in 1952 after the local Catholic church accused them of being communists. According to photography critics Laura Katzman and Beverly Brannan, the allegations surfaced in the midst of an election year, so the Rosskams decided to leave Puerto Rico in order to avoid embroiling Muñoz Marín in a political scandal.51

Back in the United States, the Rosskams settled in Roosevelt, New Jersey. A New Deal–era township, Roosevelt had quickly gained a reputation as a “left-wing enclave.” New Jersey experienced the same racial tensions and upheavals as the rest of the country. For example, urban rebellions in Elizabeth, Patterson, and Newark, New Jersey, challenged state practices of exclusion and violence around the time that Rosskam was completing his novel, The Alien.52 In Newark, the unwarranted arrest and beating of Black taxi driver John Smith led to violent protests that resulted in twenty-six deaths and more than fifteen hundred arrests.53

The social unrest surrounding Roosevelt prevented a smooth transition to the mainland for the Rosskams. Even though the couple felt welcomed in Roosevelt, Edwin missed the political connections and impact of his work in Puerto Rico.54 Rosskam opened up to Muñoz Marín and his wife, Inés Mendoza, in several letters that chronicled his estrangement from Puerto Rico. In a November 1960 missive he confessed that he and Louise were “dying of nostalgia” for Puerto Rico.55 One month later Rosskam disclosed more feelings of nostalgia: “Frankly, Don Luis, I find it difficult to think of my future divorced from the island, the people, and (p.103) the movement which have given meaning to the last dozen years of my life.”56

Louise Rosskam recounted that Edwin fell into a “real decline” in their first year in Roosevelt because “he could not adjust to leaving Puerto Rico … it was very serious.” A family friend and psychiatrist attended to Rosskam and recommended that he work through his yearning for Puerto Rico by writing. This prescription motivated Rosskam to immerse himself in writing and led to the publication of his little known novel The Alien.57

The Emergent Post-Racial Subject

The Alien tells the story of Emil Bluemelein’s journey from rural Montana to El Fanguito. The novel shares striking similarities with Rosskam’s own biography, including his feelings of displacement and his work with the FSA and the OIPR. Given these parallels, the novel’s preface cautions readers that the story is simply “an image in the mind, not a document.” The novel, he continues, “pursues personal truths and fancies, not facts” as well as characters that “have never existed.”58 The distinction between autobiography and fiction is, however, blurred. Years later Rosskam confessed that the documentary detail in the novel is “starkingly [sic] complete … because I have photographs of it. No memory can do this for itself.”59

Bluemelein is the son of a German immigrant and former watch repairman who sells his business in Philadelphia and moves the family to Montana to become a homesteader. Against his father’s wishes, Bluemelein spurns working the family homestead and opts to become a government bureaucrat in Washington. He ultimately lands a job with the State Department’s Division of Territories and Island Possessions. This decision is significant because it is the first of several moments in the novel where he detaches himself from the symbolic and material importance attached to the acquisition of property within the American imaginary.

Bluemelein’s rejection of landownership and life in rural America is strategically meant to evoke parallels between him and the denizens of El Fanguito. As mentioned, large segments of El Fanguito’s population were dispossessed workers forced to move to urban centers in search of work as the island transformed its market-dependent economy based on agricultural monocultures. The characters in the novel have all unwillingly (p.104) relocated from towns throughout the island, such as Peñuelas, and from interior mountainous regions such as Orocovis and Adjuntas. They are all either themselves displaced sugar, coffee, or tobacco workers or the children of displaced workers. It is important, however, to note that, unlike everyone else in El Fanguito, Bluemelein voluntarily relocates to the slum. This significant detail speaks to the underlying disconnect that the Puerto Rican residents of El Fanguito can see but Bluemelein is blind to.

Following CPUSA chairman William Foster, Rosskam criticized the role of U.S. colonial policy in creating a class of displaced workers. Rosskam’s portrayal of Puerto Rico’s landless proletariat did not just repeat the then-accepted truths about Puerto Rican poverty. Rather, like the People of Puerto Rico Project, the descriptions of poverty that saturate the novel point at uneven colonial development as the structure undergirding the economic and racial marginalization being experienced by Puerto Rican workers. “Were there ever under the Stars and Stripes such beggars?” asks Bluemelein after being reassigned to Puerto Rico from the Washington office. “The ragged women with eroded faces carrying babies too sickly to be true,” provide a grisly picture of the extreme poverty on the island more than half a century after the U.S. occupation of the island began.60

Despite the overwhelming presence of poor, displaced workers, Rosskam recognized that alleviation of poverty remained a distant second priority behind the promotion of capitalist development on the island. “Not that beggars matter. … The cane fields and cane mills matter, the tobacco slopes, the coffee plantations in the western mountains, the docks, the warehouses, the banks.”61 Foreign capital invested in agriculture depended heavily on a large class of migrant workers to perform the work required in different growing and harvest seasons. Positioning capitalist priorities against the paupers in the streets of urban slums, Rosskam accurately critiqued the outcomes of U.S. economic colonial policy. In short, the novel was first and foremost an indictment of colonialism in Puerto Rico. But Rosskam’s depictions of Puerto Rico’s economic crisis centered on class difference and, through Bluemelein, framed race through an exclusively white lens.

Bluemelein abandons his post as a colonial bureaucrat and opts to settle in El Fanguito after witnessing the Ponce Massacre. This “displacement” from the American colonial project is married in the novel to the displacement of the workers in El Fanguito. Even more, it explains why (p.105)

The Republic of the Penniless

Figure 4.6. Sugar worker taking a drink of water on a plantation, 1938.

Photo by Edwin Rosskam. FSA, Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress.

someone like him lives and is accepted in the multiracial slum. The relationship between the two imbricates sociological typologies that conflate Bluemelein’s estrangement with class-based disorganization. Unexamined beneath these overlapping phenomena, however, is the articulation of an emergent white class subjectivity. Specifically, the contrast between Bluemelein’s displacement from the United States and the material dispossession of workers of color in El Fanguito impels Rosskam to construct Bluemelein as a post-racial subject who “gave up [his] standing as a non-Negro, non-Caribbean resident of impeccable Continental origins.”62

Bluemelein’s estrangement from the U.S. rural countryside is most evident during the funeral of his younger brother, Charley, who dies by being sucked headfirst into a baler. Bluemelein interprets burial as an act (p.106) of being “forsaken and imprisoned forever in the earth.” Even more significantly, the land “had meaning for the older men who settled this country, but not for me and now certainly not for [Charley].”63 As Bluemelein grieves his brother’s passing and his own separation from the land, he gets his very “first and pretty desperate glimpse of island.” The trope of island, or the ways one is materially and symbolically disaffected within a space one inhabits, runs through the entire novel. Puerto Rican intellectuals also used (cultural and political) insularity resulting from national shifts in economic priorities as a popular trope for understanding Puerto Rico’s colonial predicament. In the next section I consider the ways in which these uses of Puerto Rican insularity overlapped with sociological typologies—including “the marginal man” and “the mulatto”—which were meant to describe the alienation resulting from contact between different groups.

Insularity and the Marginal Man

Antonio Pedreira’s canonical text, Insularismo: ensayos de interpretación puertorriqueña (1934), weighed the effects of colonialism and the contact between different national and racial groups on Puerto Rican national culture. Unapologetically Eurocentric and patriarchal, Pedreira’s study callously dismissed the contributions of women and of Puerto Rico’s early native and African populations. Distinguishing between the desirable traits of European blood and the undesirable traits of African blood, Pedreira proposed whiteness as a corrective to Puerto Rican cultural lag.64

Key thinkers who shaped Pedreira’s thinking included his professor at Columbia University, Spanish Hispanophile Federico de Onís, and Oswald Spengler in his Decline of the West. Onís argued that, as the frontier of Spanish civilization, the Americas maintained the vitality and legacy of the former Spanish Empire. Onís’s view of the colonial frontier as a regenerative space influenced Pedreira’s thoughts about the relationship between Puerto Rico’s limited geographical space and its ability to stimulate national culture.65 In Spengler’s Decline of the West, Pedreira admired the distinction between civilization, where economic considerations and efficiency take precedence, and the spirit of national culture. According to Pedreira, the nexus between capitalist economic development, urbanization, and the need for cultural protectionism constituted the central tension of (p.107) Puerto Rican insularity. In short, Puerto Rico’s limited territory—exacerbated by the selling of public land under capitalist development—hampered the possibilities for cultural regeneration. “Only yesterday we took the land to heart and embraced it,” lamented Pedreira, “today it is slipping out of our hands in a seesaw of sales, changing its patriotic value for an exclusively economic one.”66

The monopolization of land by absentee U.S. corporations and Puerto Rico’s dual colonial history left a displaced, culturally marginalized, and racially hybrid (mulatto) subject in the urban shantytowns. Insularismo traced the history of the mulatto back to the moment of contact of Puerto Rico’s indigenous population with Spanish colonizers and subsequently with African slaves. Pedreira argued that the Spanish (especially the lowest classes) gave in to “overindulgences” (that is, sexual violence) through which they “fused” with African slaves and became “con-fused mulattoes.”67

Pedreira’s description of Puerto Rican biracialism and mestizaje reads like a battle between racial strands: “The mulatto … not one thing or the other, is at bottom undefined and wavering, in conflict, maintaining both racial dispositions without ever defining himself socially. … He is prudent but indecisive, like a man who finds himself caught in the fire between two warring camps.” To resolve this racialized schism Pedreira suggested that mulattos decide which racial camp they wished to belong to. The choice to side with Europe is facilitated by Pedreira’s portrayal of Blacks as culturally impotent and irrational. Despite his supposedly nationalist sentiments, Pedreira’s articulation of the Puerto Rican mulatto shares striking similarities with the ways in which American social scientists wrote about racial mixture.

In the same year as Pedreira published Insularismo, sociologist Edward B. Reuter released his edited volume Race and Culture Contacts. A southerner from Missouri, Reuter studied how modernization and urban migration created physical, sexual, and cultural exchanges that opened up possibilities for individual freedom and thereby enabled the advancement of society as a whole. But because the new freedoms that came with modernization challenged and destabilized established norms, they also produced feelings of estrangement and social disorganization, especially in urban centers.68

Reuter’s advisor at the University of Chicago, Robert Park, evoked the (p.108) sociological concept of the “marginal man” to explain the social disorganization resulting from migration and cultural contact. Based on German sociologist Georg Simmel’s “stranger” and citing Spengler extensively, Park defined the marginal subject as torn between the “cultural life and traditions of two distinct peoples, never quite willing to break … with his past traditions, and not quite accepted, because of racial prejudice, in the new society.”69 The Chicago School sociologists (like Simmel) often cited the Jew as the ideal of the “marginal man,” but they also believed that the mulatto exemplified the in-betweenness they described.

Similar conceptualizations of the mulatto conjoin Pedreira’s, Reuter’s, and Park’s scholarship on race. Despite Park’s and Reuter’s best efforts to distance themselves from biological explanations of group achievement, their notes on the mulatto at times resorted to making weak correlations between biology, culture, and group outcomes—results not supported by data.70 Park, echoing Pedreira’s own description, depicted the mulatto as someone who “feels the conflict of warring ancestry in his veins. The conflict of color is embodied, so to speak, in his person. His mind is the melting pot in which the lower and higher cultures meet and fuse.”71 Reuter, who spent a year at the UPR as a visiting professor, extended his pseudo-biological observations on cultural achievements to Latin America and the Caribbean. “The half-breeds,” wrote Reuter, “form a more or less distinct and separate class somewhat inferior to the whites and distinctly superior to the pure blood natives.”72

Reuter considered Puerto Rico a prime example of cultural contact between traditionalism and modernity. Focusing on the tension between mechanization and culture on the island, Reuter deployed hybridity as a racialized trope to make sense of this material and cultural dissonance: “Puerto Rico is neither Spanish nor American; it is a mixture of both. … The [Puerto Rican’s] state of mind is one of painful confusion. The Puerto Rican is often divided between his sentiments and his interests; economically he turns to the United States; sentimentally he turns to Spain and Latin America.”73 Using a history of racial contact equivalent to that given by Pedreira, Reuter characterized Puerto Rico as a socially and culturally disorganized mulatto nation.74 According to all three thinkers, Puerto Rico’s urban proletariat constituted a racially and socially marginalized class.

(p.109) Interestingly, in 1934 Park eliminated racial discrimination as a characteristic of the marginal subject. He claimed that the alienation experienced by marginalized groups of color could just as easily apply to poor whites in Appalachia. He confirmed this shift when speaking about the mulatto and the marginal man in American race relations. “Race conflicts in the modern world … will be more and more in the future confused with, and eventually superseded by, the conflict of classes.”75 In other words, if Park believed the mulatto to be an example of the alienated person in a violent, racially segregated, and capitalist-driven urban context he also considered the mulatto as the harbinger of an equally racially tolerant world. More than expanding the parameters of the marginal subject, Park’s reformulation points to the ways in which sociological typologies ignored race even as they were meant to highlight the social disorganization and estrangement triggered by racial capitalism.

In The Alien Rosskam asked readers to view the estrangement resulting from economic crisis as a condition of uneven class relations at best and as a universal condition at worst. But throughout the novel there are traces of structural advantages that facilitate Bluemelein’s arrival in El Fanguito. Importantly, these traces are informative because they problematize the parallels Rosskam hoped to draw between Bluemelein and the Puerto Ricans in El Fanguito. For example, following the death of his father Blue-melein inherits half of one of the largest wheat and barley homesteads in Montana. Yet Rosskam does not reveal how Bluemelein’s father acquired this homestead. Readers are led to believe that the family simply moved west and worked hard as farmers.

Government homesteading policy, however, was steeped in exclusionary and discriminatory practices. Beginning with the passage of the original 1862 Homestead Act, white Americans benefited exponentially more than Black Americans from the distribution of 246 million acres of federal lands at no or very little cost. The procurement of these lands provided the base for significant future wealth accumulation. As social policy analyst Trina Williams shows, the current beneficiaries of these asset-building policies are almost entirely white because many homestead policies carried restrictions that prohibited African Americans and other racial and ethnic groups from participating until 1930.76

Bluemelein sells his portion of the inheritance to his brother-in-law for (p.110) an undisclosed sum. Using the land as a transformative asset, Bluemelein decides to quit his job with the Department of the Interior and purchases a home in Puerto Rico.77 Even his decision to settle in El Fanguito is dependent on his capacity to mobilize his assets to find a residence. Following the Ponce Massacre, Bluemelein purchases a trash and bottle business from a local resident in exchange for a one-way plane ticket to New York. Once in El Fanguito, Bluemelein is one of the few unemployed residents able to participate in the local informal economy.

Ignoring the lessons about the racialized outcomes of displacement he learned in his earlier work on African Americans and indigenous groups, Rosskam subscribed to a liberal misreading of alienation that attempted to conceal the material benefits of his own whiteness. He conflated Blue-melein’s estrangement with that of El Fanguito’s proletariat and thereby diminished his novel’s criticism of white supremacy and colonial development. His desire to approach alienation as a post-racial typology led Rosskam to overlook the ways in which the residents of El Fanguito were already racialized within the national imaginary. As I argue in the next section, Rosskam mobilized racialized understandings of the Puerto Rican diaspora in order to further the parallels he drew between Bluemelein and El Fanguito’s poor denizens.

Criminalizing the Diaspora

Between 1950 and 1965 almost 530,000 Puerto Ricans migrated to the United States as part of Operation Bootstrap, a government-facilitated economic strategy meant to attract foreign industrial capital and alleviate unemployment on the island.78 C. Wright Mills, Clarence Senior, and Rose Kohn Goldsen’s 1950 book, The Puerto Rican Journey, surveyed Puerto Rican migration to New York and compared how Puerto Ricans fared relative to their counterparts on the island and to other U.S. ethnic and racial groups. As he did for Pedreira and the Chicago School sociologists, the mulatto proved a useful typology for analysis. The authors thought Puerto Ricans to be worth studying because, as mulattoes, they were at “once Negro and foreign.” The racial difference of Puerto Ricans, claimed the authors, told the story of contact and conflict between Latin American migrants and North American groups.79 They argued that these tensions were resolved through Puerto Ricans’ ability to become “functioning” and (p.111) “inconspicuous” strangers, or more simply, “conventional members of society.”

Rosskam did not believe in the redemptive possibilities of the diaspora. His depiction of El Fanguito as a post-racial space of social disorganization is heavily dependent on his treatment of racism as a social phenomenon found only in the continental United States. Accordingly, Bluemelein’s tenuous inclusion in El Fanguito stands in contrast to the racialized exclusion of the Puerto Rican diaspora living in the United States.

Rosskam, for example, strategically begins his novel with two strangers: Bluemelein and a government bureaucrat investigating someone who listed Bluemelein as a job reference. “I know why you’re here,” Bluemelein interrupts as the stranger approaches. “I’m an embarrassment and this is no way for my kind to live.”80 The reader is given only a physical description of the anonymous twenty-eight-year-old bureaucrat, a man with a “mouse of a dark mustache and big dark rimmed spectacles”—in other words, an academic.81 The bureaucrat admits later that he attended university at Fordham. This confession links him to the large cadre of American social scientists conducting research on the island at the time.

Readers learn that the young bureaucrat’s parents are “New York Puerto Ricans” after he passes out from the stench in the slum. For the young émigré, Puerto Rico is not as his parents described it. His disappointment suggests his middle-to upper-class sensibility and upbringing. Bluemelein is particularly surprised to find out that this is the man’s “first visit to what could be called his country of origin.”82 The americano’s presumed association with a detached trans-local Puerto Rican elite racializes him as an outsider on the island.

The denial of a Puerto Rican diasporic subjectivity also scaffolds the novel’s ending. In the novel’s final scene, Bluemelein is happy to be alive after nearly being shot by Gaspar, a scrawny typist and local resident. Gaspar goes into a rage after his common-law wife, Modesta, leaves him for Eloy. Described as a “Negro” with the “face of an easily hurt boy,” Eloy is the novel’s most physically imposing figure, with hands that signal others to “keep out of trouble with him.” Later Bluemelein saves Eloy and Modesta’s home from being burned to the ground by Gaspar, earning the praise of the people of El Fanguito. His near-death experience and bravery bring his desire for inclusion in El Fanguito despite being a former colonial bureaucrat into sharper focus.83

(p.112) As Bluemelein receives the acceptance he longed for, the diaspora reemerges to challenge his tenuous sense of belonging. Overwhelmed by his recognition, Bluemelein stumbles and Eloy catches him to prevent him from falling. A “city colored adolescent” with a “pinkish-purple satiny zipper jacket” laughs like a “horse [with] all teeth and heehaw and no mirth.”84 Turning toward the menacing adolescent, Bluemelein stumbles again and this time slips into the mud. Eloy pushes the young man away, sparing Bluemelein further humiliation. As the young man runs away Bluemelein notices the name Viscounts written in English on the back of his jacket. Rosskam’s description of the young “city colored adolescent” and his affiliation with a street gang (the Viscounts) racializes the diaspora as a criminal class.

Eloy’s response when Bluemelein questions him about the young man’s identity is even more telling. “Who knows? Could be one of the gang that hangs out near the cathedral. Big shots. Because they’ve been to New York. Great men they think they are.”85 Eloy’s words echo those of local urban planners who linked housing issues with criminality. “Bad housing,” commented the OIPR in 1943 (the government agency Rosskam worked for years earlier), “also represents a social problem … the everpresent [sic] overcrowding results in family instability and moral laxity … lack of community facilities and opportunities for wholesome recreation contribute to juvenile delinquency and crime.”86 Urban sociologist Zaire Dinzey-Flores details that these concerns about non-normativity pushed government officials to create public housing on the island as a preliminary and temporary step (“staircase to housing”) meant to promote upward class mobility.87

The racialization of youth in the novel is not linked to San Juan specifically but to the urban spaces inhabited by the diaspora. Revealing his new sense of belonging in the community, Bluemelein responds to Eloy: “I remember the place. Three foot high inscriptions of a gang name smeared sloppily over the ancient Spanish walls. Imported defiance, as though we didn’t have enough of our own; the displaced, the corrupted feckless young shipped back where they came from with little to their names except very special greetings from the side walks of New York. The unofficial Peace Corps.”88 Yet even as Bluemelein characterizes the diaspora as a criminal class, Rosskam maintains his implicit critique of colonial policy. (p.113) Colonialism had not ameliorated local poverty, and the return migration of Puerto Ricans from the U.S. mainland speaks to their having experienced similar forms of dispossession there.

The troubled adolescent returns later in the evening with the rest of the “screaming Saracens from the East Side, West Side and all other color ghettoes” to beat Bluemelein and vandalize his garden. As they roll Blue-melein around in the mud, one of the attackers mocks the older American’s transformation into a “brown … cigar.”89 Thus, the novel begins with Bluemelein renouncing his whiteness and concludes with his simulated racialization through the Viscounts’ assault.

Rosskam’s unpublished work reflected similar suspicions of the Puerto Rican diaspora. In the late 1950s, he helped Puerto Rican secretary of labor Fernando Sierra Berdecia to complete a series of educational films for Puerto Ricans who planned to migrate to New York. Feeling that a series of films to educate New Yorkers about Puerto Ricans was also needed, Rosskam wrote a preliminary script for a “major film for use in theatres, on T.V. and with interested groups.”90

His script, “But This Family I Know,” tells the family drama of Magdalena Cruz de Burgos. Cruz de Burgos’s husband, Pepe, migrates to New York. He is offered a job as a sewing machine operator. Offended by this offer to do “women’s work,” he sends for Magdalena so that she can take the job. Unable to accept the fact that his wife makes more money than he does, Pepe abandons Magdalena and their four children shortly after their arrival in New York.

The center of the plot is the search for Magdalena and Pepe’s oldest son, Pepito, who has gone missing. Pepito struggles to adjust to life in New York as a neighborhood gang harasses him. The gang eventually accepts Pepito and he begins acting out before he disappears. Eventually finding a badly beaten Pepito in the territory of a rival gang, Magdalena learns the pain experienced by “all mothers whose children have been trapped in the incomprehensible forces of the city.” Rosskam positions Puerto Rico as a “counterpoint to the tensions and the clash of big New York; a residual image of a smaller place where the ways of the fathers still manage to survive, however precariously, the flood of imported American food and goods.”91

Pairing this portion of the script with Bluemelein’s final conversation (p.114) with Eloy in The Alien (“the great men they think they are”) demonstrates how gender relations also shaped the marginalization of the diaspora from the Puerto Rican nation. The racialized masculinity of returnees to the island and, more implicitly, their feminization, is directly correlated to New York’s urban space. The simultaneous feminization and masculinization of the diaspora is an example of what Puerto Rican studies cultural critic Frances Negrón-Muntaner has described as the blurring of traditional gendered binaries between imperial arrangements and colonial subjectivities.92

In the plot of “But This Family I Know,” Pepe’s inability to adapt to his loss of status as the primary wage earner symbolizes the disintegration of the Puerto Rican nuclear family throughout the diaspora. American studies scholar Roderick Ferguson explains that modernity’s underside promotes various forms of social disorganization, including sexual transgressions, that are at once racialized and disciplined. Bluemelein benefits the most from the struggle between Eloy and the diaspora, since his own whiteness and masculinity remain unexamined and unchallenged. Concerned about the threats posed by American colonial modernity to Puerto Rico’s presumed patriarchal traditionalism, Rosskam reinscribed the dominant ways in which both U.S. social scientists and Puerto Rican writers like Pedreira understood the adverse effects of modernity and urbanization on traditional family structures, gender, and different racial groups.


At around 3 a.m. on October 26, 1974, a series of bombs exploded at five banks in Manhattan. The bombs caused significant structural damage to the banks but did not injure anyone. Members of the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN, Armed Forces for National Liberation), a militant Puerto Rican anticolonial group, claimed responsibility for the bombings. FALN released a statement demanding the release of five Puerto Rican political prisoners and the immediate independence of Puerto Rico.93

Despite the New York Times labeling the bombings as acts of terrorism, more than twenty thousand people packed Madison Square Garden two days later at a rally calling for Puerto Rico’s independence. Well-known (p.115) attendees included Black radical Angela Davis; actress and activist Jane Fonda; and Juan Mari Brás, the secretary general of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party. Mari Brás refused to condemn the bombings, declaring defiantly, “There is a diversity of forms and means by which the people of Puerto Rico are striving for independence.”94

A week later an angry Rosskam wrote to Luis Muñoz Marín and his wife, Inés Mendoza, to discuss his feelings about the bombings. He characterized FALN as a “band of lunatics” and dismissed their actions as not “remarkable” given the recent “fashionable” nature of bombings. Juan Mari Brás’s speech angered Rosskam more. “Of course I have no knowledge how Juan Mari Bras’ manoeuvres are being received in Puerto Rico,” admitted Rosskam. But “in New York and California he seems to be attracting considerable attention and … support.”95

True to form, Rosskam’s letter conveyed a deeper anxiety about his continued separation from Puerto Rico and Muñoz Marín’s political project. “Even though you are no longer in a position of power, you still represent the legitimacy of the Commonwealth, and this remains the chief target of the nationalist fanatics. Please be careful,” he warned. Rosskam closed his letter with a hopeful postscript alerting them that he and Louise planned to visit Puerto Rico soon.96

In the opening line of The Alien, Bluemelein says of the Puerto Rican émigré: “I knew about him long before he reached me. The community of the Little Mud is suspicious of outsiders.”97 Rosskam’s haunting words are symbolic of the perversions he believed Puerto Ricans brought back to the island after living in New York. But they are also emblematic of the ways in which ideas about Puerto Ricans were literally created and disseminated by American liberals. Aided by American sociology, these narratives prioritized class-based typologies that ignored or minimized racial difference on the island. Rosskam imagined Puerto Rico’s slums as spaces that were both color-blind and socially disorganized. A colonial bureaucrat to the end, Rosskam romanticized El Fanguito, the space that most represented the devastating effects of racial capitalism.

Both Rosskam and Mari Brás criticized the uneven capitalist development that ravaged Puerto Rico. They both also believed in the political possibilities for a better and sovereign Puerto Rico. But Mari Brás’s internationalism and openness to alliances with American radicals differed (p.116) drastically from Rosskam’s exclusive, class-based insularity. As I show in the next chapter, however, Mari Brás and the broader Puerto Rican Left to which he belonged were not immune to complicated and often contradictory understandings of race. The unknown history of race and the fracturing of the Puerto Rican Left is the story that follows.


(2.) Ibid., 11.

(p.171) (5.) Grosfoguel, Colonial Subjects, 107–9. The use of Puerto Rico as a testing ground for U.S. medicine, including the forced sterilization of and administration of birth control pharmaceuticals to Puerto Rican women, serves as a case in point. See, for example, Lopez, Matters of Choice; and Briggs, Reproducing Empire.

(6.) For example, in his study of Puerto Rico, Earl Parker Hanson, the director of the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration, recalled a discussion with a diplomat from an unidentified African country about the competition between capitalist and socialist models of development:

He could see no way in which his country could effectively improve its standard of living without borrowing from the socialism which is so often anathema to the democratic West. I replied that the Puerto Rican experience shows the main problem to be not that of adhering strictly to this or that doctrine. … The task in hand is to keep the job’s twin goals—that of raising standards of living and that of strengthening democracy—always in mind and unseparated.

Hanson, Puerto Rico, 3.

(7.) Hansen and Wells, Puerto Rico, 112. This trend continued to accelerate such that by January 1964 “there had been 23,000 such visitors: teachers, engineers, public health and sanitation officials, economists, and many other professionals from 137 underdeveloped countries.” Senior, Our Citizens from the Caribbean, 4.

(8.) Lauria-Perricelli, “Study in Historical and Critical Anthropology,” 18. Directors of the CIS included prominent government officials and academics such as Rexford Tugwell (1946–47), Clarence Senior (1947–48), Simon Rottenberg (1948–49), and Millard Hansen (1949–65).

(9.) Hansen and Wells, foreword to Puerto Rico, vii. Wells assisted the PPD in two important respects: he helped draft Puerto Rico’s first constitution and was a strong supporter of the PPD’s modernization efforts via industrialization. See, for example, his 1969 book Modernization of Puerto Rico.

(10.) Steward, People of Puerto Rico, v. The chapters of this book contain dissertations of graduate students who later played a significant role in the formation of American anthropology, including Sidney Mintz, Elena Padilla, and Eric Wolf.

(11.) Santiago-Valles, “Subject People,” 224. Though Santiago-Valles’s assertion is certainly valid, the colonialist narratives of “subject peoples” were nothing new and, in fact, extend back to the Spanish colonial regime in Puerto Rico. See, for example, Lillian Guerra’s wonderful study Popular Expression and National Identity in Puerto Rico.

(12.) For example, People of Puerto Rico project researcher Elena Padilla was ultimately “kicked out” (botada) of the UPR due to her campus activism and political opposition to the PPD-supported university administration. Additionally, the claim that Padilla worked on a colonialist project speaks to the patriarchal (p.172) relationships within the university and the nation regarding who was allowed to represent and study the nation (i.e., White Puerto Rican men) and who was not (Latina women). See Rúa, Latino Urban Ethnography and the Work of Elena Padilla.

(14.) Steward, People of Puerto Rico, 486–88, 497. Millard Hansen explicitly wrote against this strand of thought in his special issue. “In yet another sense Puerto Rico exhibits a not uncommon modern problem: that of accommodating a long-established culture … to the unsettling forces of rapid Americanization. … The impact of these influences has increased each year, but the conflict between the old culture and the new has gradually lessened as patterns of adjustment have worked themselves out.” Hansen and Wells, Puerto Rico, vii.

(15.) Lauria-Perricelli also demonstrates that pro-PPD chancellor Jaime Benítez kept a very close watch on Steward and his team of researchers. Benítez even went so far as to delay the manuscript’s publication because many of the project’s findings implicitly countered central tenets of the PPD platform. Lauria-Perricelli, “Study in Historical and Critical Anthropology,” 369, 214.

(22.) Foster, Crime of El Fanguito, 5. Truman’s travel log of his trip to Puerto Rico briefly mentions his passing of the “notorious El Fanguito slums.”

(23.) Ibid., 22.

(25.) Ibid., 7, 11.

(27.) Ibid., 174.

(30.) Wolf, “San José,” 227. “A third [worker] mentions that the sugar fields offer an opportunity for a man able and willing to work, but he is afraid of the Negroes who live on the coast: ‘The people who go down to the coast to cut cane must be careful, always vigilant. The people there are witches. They are waiting for a chance to offer a man a meal, but they put something in the food. Then you sicken and die.”

(p.173) (33.) For an outstanding study of the life of Louise Rosskam, especially her photography and the ways in which it has been historically marginalized relative to Edwin’s work, see Katzman and Brannan, Re-viewing Documentary.

(34.) Ibid., 22–27. Like other progressives of her day, Louise Rosskam also flirted with communist politics. In an interview years later, Louise Rosskam noted, “I thought that communism must be wonderful, if that whole country was, this huge country [Russia], was turning everything to the workers. … And this idea of communism sounded as if everybody was going to be treated equally and everybody was going to have a job. … I just thought it was a great idea, but I took a long time to realize that it wasn’t working, and that especially in the United States it wasn’t working” (181 n. 45, emphasis added).

(35.) Rosskam struggled to accomplish this assignment given his limited competency in Spanish and lack of connections on the island. Prior to departing for Puerto Rico, Rosskam met with Congressman Vito Marcantonio from East Harlem. A Leftist and advocate of Puerto Rican independence, Marcantonio was well connected in Puerto Rico through his dealings with the growing Puerto Rican constituency in his district. Saretzky, “Interview with Louise Rosskam.”

(36.) Rosskam had a general fascination with islands. Years earlier, he visited the West Indies on his way to Tahiti and Raiatea. Rosskam admitted that his stop in Martinique and his three years in French Polynesia initiated his fascination with islands and “had some bearing on all the rest of his life.” Saretzky, “Interview with Louise Rosskam”; Richard Doud, “Interview with Edwin and Louise Rosskam,” Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, August 3, 1965, www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-edwin-and-louise-rosskam-13112 (accessed August 21, 2015).

(38.) Edwin Rosskam to Luis Muñoz Marín, May 14, 1976, Fundación Luis Muñoz Marín, Section: Memorias, Folder 1131, Document 18. In a 1965 interview Rosskam confirmed that he and Muñoz Marín shared a mutual love of brandy. Doud, “Interview with Edwin and Louise Rosskam.”

(41.) Ibid., 71.

(43.) La Farge and Post, As Long As the Grass Shall Grow, 134–40. In his early years as a photographer, Rosskam provided extended and detailed captions for his photographs, unlike the short phrases that typically accompanied photos during the era.

(p.174) (46.) Tugwell balked at Rosskam’s request due to various unnamed “political complications.” Doud, “Interview with Edwin and Louise Rosskam.”

(48.) The Rosskams’ police file made special mention of the “5,280 aerial negatives of all the towns, cities, neighborhoods, and strategic points of the island” that the couple “took ownership of.” Combas Guerra, “En torno a la fortaleza.”

(49.) The Rotkins were already under surveillance by the Puerto Rican Police Department. As early as 1948 the department observed that the Rotkins hosted a going-away party for Puerto Rican communist writer José Luis González attended by a number of prominent American and Puerto Rican radicals. The insular police also documented the “official and social relationships” between the Rosskams and other known communists, including Jules Korchein and suspected Soviet spies Mary Jane Keeney and Phillip Olin Keeney. See Salvador Roig to Luis Muñoz Marín, with attachments, March 12, 1951, Fundación Luis Muñoz Marín, Section V; Series 1, Folder 218, Documents 2, 5, and 6.

(50.) Muñoz Marín’s displeasure led to the film being sent back to DIVEDCO for extensive revisions and editing prior to its wider release. Combas Guerra, “En torno a la fortaleza.”

(51.) Even after Edwin Rosskam left the island in 1952, he returned intermittently to do special projects, and to him the island became an important literal and symbolic space for thinking about his personal feelings of alienation. Katzman and Brannan, Re-viewing Documentary, 107, 145.

(52.) In Trenton, located less than a half hour from Roosevelt, six young Black men were accused on trumped-up evidence of the murder of a local white shopkeeper and sentenced to death in 1948. Following their swift convictions, the CPUSA intervened and provided legal counsel for the “Trenton Six.” Five of the six men were eventually released. Knepper, Jersey Justice.

(55.) Edwin Rosskam to Inés Mendoza Rivera de Muñoz Marín, November 16, 1960, Fundación Luis Muñoz Marín, Section VII, Series 1, Folder 524, Document 4.

(56.) Edwin Rosskam to Luis Muñoz Marín, December 26, 1960, Fundación Luis Muñoz Marín, Section VII, Series 1, Folder 524, Document 5.

(p.175) (61.) Ibid., 114–16.

(62.) Ibid., 11.

(63.) Ibid., 52.

(64.) Consider, for example, one of the quotations most frequently cited to understand Pedreira’s thinking about race: “During transcendental historical moments when the martial rhythms of our European blood blossom in our acts we are capable of the grandest and most heroic feats. But when these actions are drenched under the waves of African blood we are indecisive, almost stupefied by the colors and threatened by the cinematic visions of witches and ghosts.” Pedreira, Insularismo, 29.

(65.) Onís’s theorization about the relationship between the frontier and culture is strikingly similar to Frederick Jackson Turner’s classic treatise, The Significance of the Frontier in American History (1893). Even more interesting is how Onís conjoins the history of Spain and of the American South in his scholarship without discussing race. Onís, “España y el sudoeste de Estados Unidos,” 25–31.

(67.) Ibid., 12.

(70.) For example, Reuter does not present any evidence to validate his assertions about the supposedly different values and attitudes of “medieval” Puerto Ricans versus “modern” Americans. Instead, he depends on racialized assumptions about Puerto Rican difference. Reuter, “Culture Contacts in Puerto Rico,” 96.

(72.) Reuter, “Superiority of the Mulatto,” 133. A decade after his time in Puerto Rico, Reuter published “Culture Contacts in Puerto Rico,” which rehashed many of his earlier conclusions about the cultural and social disorganization produced by economic development. Such repetitive presentations of old arguments plagued Reuter’s career. In 1940, the anthropologist Melville Herskovits took Reuter to task for re-presenting the same conclusions in his newest edition of The American Race Problem while ignoring recent breakthroughs in labor relations and writings about race. See Herskovits, “The American Race Problem, by E. B. Reuter.”

(74.) Reuter also labeled Blacks “culturally retarded” in his earlier work, measuring their cultural development according to their capacity to adopt European and White American culture and values. However, unlike Pedreira, Reuter considered northern European culture as the benchmark. He did not consider Spain to be an example of economic progress and modernity, calling it instead (p.176) “increasingly backward.” See, for example, Reuter, American Race Problem, 12, 26, and “Culture Contacts in Puerto Rico,” 94.

(76.) Feagin and McKinney, Many Costs of Racism, 24. See also T. Williams, “Homestead Act,” 1–5, 8–10. For more on the correlations among race, wealth, and asset accumulation see Lipsitz, Possessive Investment in Whiteness.

(77.) On transformative assets see Shapiro, Hidden Cost of Being African American.

(81.) Ibid., 5.

(82.) Ibid., 8–9.

(83.) Ibid., 5, 198.

(84.) Ibid., 198.

(85.) Ibid., 199.

(87.) Dinzey-Flores, “Temporary Housing, Permanent Communities,” 468–69. See also her excellent history and ethnography of public housing and gated communities in Puerto Rico, Locked in, Locked Out.

(88.) Rosskam, Alien, 199, emphasis added.

(89.) Ibid., 208.

(90.) Edwin Rosskam to Inés Mendoza Rivera de Muñoz Marín, November 16, 1960, Fundación Luis Muñoz Marín.

(91.) Rosskam, “But This Family I Know,” 11, 4. Fundación Luis Muñoz Marín, Section VII, Series 1, Folder 524, Document 6.

(95.) Edwin Rosskam to Luis Muñoz Marín and Inés Mendoza Rivera de Muñoz Marín, November 4, 1974, Fundación Luis Muñoz Marín, Section VII, Series 1, Folder 524, Document 14.