The “Gateway” to the Antilles:
Some Historical Considerations of Puerto Rican Place and Space
Puerto Rico’s strategic location overshadowed its economic significance. . . . Puerto Rico was to become a Caribbean “Christian Rhodes”, a bulwark ready to repel intruders and infidels into the new Spanish Mare Nostrum; and, as the crown officials stated, “the strongest foothold of Spain in America.”
(Morales Carrión, Puerto Rico 8)
Geography - note: important location along the Mona Passage - a key shipping lane to the Panama Canal; San Juan is one of the biggest and best natural harbors in the Caribbean. . . .
(“Puerto Rico,” The World Factbook)
The island once known as San Juan Bautista was never a Mexico, Peru or Cuba in the Spanish Empire. As cited above, Puerto Rico’s existence within the Spanish vision of empire was that of an armored “gateway,” a metaphor that throughout the island’s dual colonial histories has been adapted to circumstance, subsequently influencing the development of the island’s national self-image. While the “gateway” has been interpretive of Puerto Rico’s global place, the physical parameters of the island itself, or its space, have ceased to be simple territorial interpretations, instead functioning more like territorial mediations of Puerto Rican national identity. In this article I trace some of the historical foundations of the “gateway” metaphor through Puerto Rico’s early social, cultural and economic development. I then discuss the over-determinance of the metaphor and its re-articulation within the nineteenth-century City/Country or civilización/barbarie dichotomy by one of the Caribbean’s most famous fin-de-siècle writers, Eugenio María de Hostos. Finally, I briefly touch upon the refashioning of Hostos’ “gateway” model in the 20th century.
Columbus arrived in Borinquén on November 19, 1493 but it would be “[s]everal years...before colonization was attempted. A permanent foothold was finally established in 1508, when Juan Ponce de León led a group of settlers from Hispaniola. . . .” (Morales Carrión, Puerto Rico and the Non Hispanic Caribbean 6). In 1521, however, Ponce de León decided to seek his fortune in Florida which should not entirely be blamed on the search for the Fountain of Youth. Puerto Rico’s lack of immediate economic possibilities and Spanish politics constituted other factors into De León’s departure, especially as the descendants of Christopher Columbus challenged his and other conquistadors’ right to rule in the New World.
In Mexico Under Spain: 1521-1556 Liss explains that almost from the first moment of legislation between mater patria and colony there was tension between monarchical and colonist control of economic markets. The Crown legislated accordingly to better centralize its power and fill its treasury. Meanwhile conquistadors like Ponce de León promised loyalty to the Crown yet more often than not disregarded royal legislation when it suited them. The Crown excluded the foreigner from the entire colonizing adventure. According to Morales-Carrión, it was this principle of exclusivism that fell upon a Spain only just emerging from The Middle Ages to extend “far beyond the geographical limits and historical experience of any western state before…” (8). Exclusivism had to be adapted to the challenges of the geography so colonial administrative policies ended up being more like experiments based on hypothesis. These policies, however, when coupled with administrative squabbling within colonial government itself, had a negative effect in the long term on the Puerto Rican economy. It seems, then, that Ponce de León’s abandonment of Puerto Rico set a sinister precedent in that no one wanted to stay in Puerto Rico. Morales-Carrión lays partial blame firstly with the conquistador archetype that brought a type of settler who was not a farmer but adventuresome and a risk-taker, someone lured by the promise of quick riches in the New World (4). Moreover, those who followed the conquistador were government appointees, minor clergy, military personnel, slaves and escaped slaves, criminals and pirates. Administrative chaos, a weak economy, and the prospects of fabulous riches offered by the recent conquest of the Incan Empire made Spanish colonists eager to leave Puerto Rico (7).
Armed conflict also negatively impacted settlement on the island. In 1528 officials communicated to the Crown that Puerto Rico was being deserted due to both Carib and French corsair threats (13). Morales Carrión comments that what was “remarkable in this cycle of foreign aggression” was “the tenacity with which the early settlers of Puerto Rico, dispersed, neglected and abused, clung to the land, trying desperately to eke out an existence” (33). This sense of fluidity and impermanence may also be best evinced by the peculiar, somewhat ironic, state of affairs in San Germán, which had “a nomadic existence up to 1569” (33). San Germán was the second most important port city in Puerto Rico but curiously enough it did not have a permanent locale and could actually change place in case of attack. While Morales Carrión concludes that one cannot expect “normal” or “peaceful” development on the island (33), some might argue that both the lack of economic stability and the unique cultural formation of present-day Puerto Rico might be attributed to more complex factors than simply a history full of conquistadors and pirates. One thing, however, is clear: While displaying interest in mainly military fortifications, the Spaniard’s vision of “the island citadel” impeding rival Europeans’ passage to the Caribbean gave way to the geographic and economic realities of colonial life. Puerto Rico allowed more people in than it kept out. A relevant example of this would be the presence of free Africans who fled to Puerto Rico because the island was known as a safe haven. Escaped slaves who made it to Puerto Rico were as good as lost to their owners. The mountains were famous for their impenetrability as shown by the Taíno flight in the 1500s. Spanish authorities also displayed little interest in pursuing slaves not belonging to them. Such a policy irritated neighboring non-Spanish colonists because they felt that it encouraged their slaves to flee. Interestingly enough, at a time when slavery in the Caribbean was at its height, a mulatto or African not born a slave or purchased as a slave in Puerto Rico was considered a freeman. Spanish officials even later gave a number of these freemen lands for cultivation in order to stabilize the population.
Yet in 1767 there were only 44,883 people in Puerto Rico (González Vales 51). Colonists tried their hand at various agricultural pursuits but none yielded sufficient revenues. The government of Puerto Rico was constantly asking for funds from Spain via Mexico, and it was often the case that neither government officials nor soldiers could be paid without these funds. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries European conflicts also played out in the theater of the Caribbean. For example, after the French corsair crisis, the English famously engaged in royally-sanctioned forays into Spanish territories which continued on-and-off throughout the century. The Dutch also evolved into a European power in the 17th century, their privateers establishing an even worse reputation among the Puerto Ricans than their English and French counterparts (Morales Carrión, 31). The English and the Dutch viewed Puerto Rico as a “gateway” but it did not really overlap with the Spanish vision of “island citadel.” The English and Dutch vision of “gateway” was more economic, a bid to control the all-important Caribbean shipping lanes and thus have better trade with Latin America as a whole. Puerto Ricans may have repelled English and Dutch ships in San Juan Harbor in the north, but everyone knew that the stranglehold policy of Spanish exclusivism meant the English and Dutch often simply sailed south to trade with the southern islanders. While the comparison is modern in tone and evocative of a U.S. understanding of history, Spanish colonial Puerto Rico was the equivalent of a “Wild West” outpost.
Spain’s various half-hearted attempts at reform in the 19th century resulted in growing unrest among the island’s Creole population. Yet while other Latin American colonies were taking advantage of the political upheaval in order to declare independence or to decidedly move towards independence, Puerto Rico did not. One explanation for this relative lack of independence fervor may have been the sudden increase of royalists from neighboring nations, particularly Venezuela. While sympathetic to the other Latin American nations, and especially Venezuela, the majority of Puerto Ricans did not seriously consider independence. They did not do so even with the appearance in the 19th century of one of the greatest and most respected Latin American intellectuals, Eugenio María de Hostos.
Puerto Rican Creoles had identified a uniquely Puerto Rican culture but did not necessarily believe it separate from or in opposition to that of Spain. The island’s precious little literary output at this time followed European Romantic, costumbrista, and Naturalist trends, overall treating local differences in the insular culture as exotic curiosities. Hostos, in consonance with most of the Creoles of his time, first sought a political and economic compromise with Spain. Later he would become an independentista. His subsequent literary and rhetorical efforts promoting independence would make him into one of the first Puerto Rican Creoles to identify, develop and solidify not necessarily a uniquely Puerto Rican culture because he believed it to be in formation, its true expression only coming about post-independence. However, he was instrumental in identifying and articulating a uniquely pan-Antillean political consciousness.
Through letters, journal entries, and essays, Hostos espoused a pan-American ideology, ideas that were not particularly unique for Bolívar himself had envisioned a united Latin America. Hostos’ own vision for a united Caribbean also overlapped considerably with that of contemporary José Martí. Nevertheless, Hostos armed Caribbean, and especially Puerto Rican intellectuals and artists with certain important ideas, the echoes of which still reverberate today. One of those ideas, a bit shocking for the era, he envisioned the mixture of races as a positive force. Hostos argued that miscegenation was actually an expression of the developing Antillean character as evidenced by its own geography. Miscegenation, therefore, is part of the natural progression in the development of a cohesive and uniquely Caribbean identity in the ever-fluid, constantly moving Antilles:
En las Antillas, es natural y necesaria y conveniente y civilizadora esa fusión y confusión de razas, porque de ella ha de salir la sociedad sui generis que en condiciones fisiológicas y morales corresponda al medio geográfico. Los españoles, que afectan un desdén español por esas mezclas sirven también a la fusión y han servido, no sólo por debilidad de la naturaleza humana, sino hasta por especulación. Una esclava, como una gallina o una yegua, vale más cuanto más procrea, pues cada fruto de su procreación es un valor aparte” (“Plácido” 272).
The call for racial equality, however, most likely had more pragmatic roots. Martí and Hostos understood that a successful revolution in either Cuba or Puerto Rico could not be accomplished without contributions from all sectors of society. Consequently, the Afro-Antillean had to be invited to participate more fully in the family model that Creoles promoted and used as symbol for the nation.
As important as the pro-miscegenation declaration is, Hostos also developed and promoted two other ideas that laid the groundwork for the later generations’ understanding and subsequent theorization of Puerto Rico’s place and spatial self-image. First, he repositioned Puerto Rican culture not in the city like Manuel Alonso and other Creoles, but in the countryside; and second, he reworked the “gateway” metaphor. In the context of mid- to late-nineteenth-century Puerto Rican political thought, there certainly was a fundamental difference between Hostos’ and his compatriots’ conceptualization of Puerto Rico. The Creole elite conceived of the island within its strict geographical limits, believing Puerto Rico was too small to be on its own. Hostos, however, saw Puerto Rico and the Antilles as a whole and as a connection between the continents. He did not, however, articulate that connection strictly in economic terms. Hostos’ “gateway” model emphasized an exchange of culture and ideas, grounded in the plurality of races. As Maldonado Denis writes: “Para Hostos, las Antillas constituyen una entidad cultural con personalidad propia, o para ser más preciso, una nacionalidad. Su ubicación geográfica, su composición étnica, sus comunes experiencias históricas, así lo han determinado” (“Introducción,” 38). This mixture of bloodlines is ultimately beneficial, acting as a unifying force in the Caribbean and Latin America. Dominant perception of the era described societies as “organisms” with “a biology,” and so one logical extension of this thinking would argue that should we all carry the same blood --African, European and indigenous-- it would seem to follow that we are all thus of the same race and therefore cannot discriminate.
By contrast, Hostos’ contemporaries on the continents tended to believe that racial homogeneity was a source of social stability in the nation. Learned men of colonies often attempted to emulate what they saw as European values and racial paradigms. José Enrique Rodó would create a complex and contradictory allegory out of the The Tempest, whereby Ariel symbolized spirit and intellect or all that is European, while Calibán symbolized the body and instinct or the non-European. More specifically, Calibán was a savage Afro-indigenous man with a witch for a mother. The allegory he created, however, fit nicely with the 19th-century City/Country model that also functioned as another social and national metaphor. The city was Arielian, while the countryside was the wild territory of Calibán. Intellectuals vacillated between positive and negative interpretations of the countryside, as Skurski and Coronil show in their article on Venezuelan nationalism and the appropriation of the llanos as national symbol. Hostos, however, clearly allied himself with the countryside, arguing that cultural authenticity and the maturing sense of national cohesion in Caribbean identity could be found there. In “Retrato de Francisco V. Aguilera” he points out that in Cuba “[la revolución] empezó en el campo, y con los elementos rurales de la sociedad; continuó por una ciudad rural, se extendió por los distritos rurales, y su nervio y su vida y su alma ha sido, desde el principio hasta hoy, la población rural” (76). Almost one hundred years later, Puerto Rican writer Luis Rafael Sánchez would say something very similar about a supposed “authentic” Puerto Rican culture situated in the countryside (Americas Series: Builders of Images).
Hostos’ was decidedly in the minority of Puerto Rican political opinion and his steady procession of newspaper articles and essays went unheeded in San Juan. The island’s resistance left him deeply disappointed: “La patria se me escapa de las manos. Siendo vanos mis esfuerzos. . . el modo de seguir amándola y sirviéndola es seguir trabajando por el ideal” (“Retrato de Francisco V. Aguilera” 210). He was also in a complicated position, since Puerto Rican Creoles lauded his intellect but considered independence inconceivable because Puerto Rico was too small as an island geographically and too poor economically in resources. Moreover, Hostos had already spent most of his adult life outside of Puerto Rico, establishing residence in the Dominican Republic and even requesting that upon his death his remains stay there until Puerto Rico was set free. Hostos’ exile, then, had not only been a matter of physical and geographic distance but a cultural one as well. His impact during the time in which he lived was felt more in the rest of Latin America and not in Puerto Rico. Nevertheless, later historical revisions and resuscitations in the search for what defines Puerto Rico would time and again cast Hostos as a significant and somewhat fatherly figure for later Puerto Rican generations.
Interpretations of Puerto Rico’s place and space become even more important when they are co-opted by another rising power, one whose traditional imperial tendencies would fade for a while once truly engaged in the complicated and sometimes deadly task of far-away colonial administration or domination. The Spanish-American War of 1898 revealed the United States’ fledgling aspirations of empire, its desire to compete with 19th -century European powers (Crucible of Empire). The war was an extension of Manifest Destiny thanks to the closed western frontier but it was also a new addendum to the tenets of an almost century-old Monroe Doctrine. There was a strategic rationale too: the United States was concerned about key geographical locations in the Caribbean and the Pacific.
In general, Spain was considered friendly and the U.S. government felt that the islands should remain in Spain’s possession for as long as possible. By the late nineteenth century, however, the U.S. questioned Spain’s ability to hold Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, and doubted the ability of these islands to maintain their sovereignty should they become independent. The United States would prefer outright control of these islands rather than allow other European powers to control them. A good example of the European mentality of the era is this incident which occurred soon after the conquest of the Philippines. Unlike Cuba, where it was clear that the island would be given political independence, the U.S. government did not know quite what to do because a volatile Filipino population had already developed its own nationalism and wanted foreigners to cease their meddling, while the U.S. still wanted to establish naval bases there. The general American populace also felt uncomfortable in the new role of conqueror. Americans had been able to rationalize the 1898 war by imagining themselves as the liberators and protectors of Cuba but actual colonial administration seemed anathema to them. It was this indecision that prompted the Germans to aggressively sail into Manila Harbor just after the war and the German threat put an end to the Filipino question: The U.S. troops and officials stayed.
Unlike its Pacific counterpart, Puerto Rico gave practically no resistance to the U.S. invasion. The “conquest of Puerto Rico was . . . a peculiar offshoot of the Spanish-American War, a sideshow of the international crisis over Cuba which had been brewing for years” (González Vales 133). Edward Berbusse writes that the mayor of Yauco, Francisco Mejía, “came out to meet the American forces and gave the following welcome: ‘Fellow citizens, long life to the United States of America! Hurrah for its valiant troops! Viva Puerto Rico Americano!’” (65). Alex Maldonado also makes a reference to “the acting mayor” of “one small town” who “greeted the Americans by making a speech in the village plaza” (47). This man “asserted that the U.S. occupation . . .was an ‘act of God’ designed to bring Puerto Ricans back to the ‘bosom of America’” (47). Maybe Maldonado and Berbusse speak of the same man. We cannot be sure. What is of interest, though, is the political discussion of Puerto Rico’s status at the turn of the century present in the above statements. The first has already been mentioned: Creoles wanted continued affiliation with a major power because they considered their island too small and too poor, but self-government and total control of local economic activity. By 1897, they had already achieved such an agreement with Spain through “The Autonomous Charter” but with the war, they lost that arrangement. Another faction of Creoles arose during and after the war that favored annexation by the U.S. Like their Latin American counterparts, Puerto Ricans too admired the United States’ democratic system and as most of the population suffered from crushing poverty, the rationale also went that if Puerto Rico became a state, then they would be able to share in American affluence thus enabling the island to become a modern, industrial, and democratic society. It is no surprise that Hostos wrote against annexation.
If before he had complimented the United States by calling it the most “positivistic” of nations, that opinion then disintegrates entirely:
Los norteamericanos. . . no parecen ya los salvadores de la dignidad humana. . . .
¿Son ellos esos que hoy, en vez de atender en Puerto Rico a salvar la dignidad y a establecer la libertad, atienden con fría premeditación a cómo se mueren y se matan los puertorriqueños?. . . .
[E]s una convicción inconfesa de los bárbaros que intentan desde el Ejecutivo de la Federación popularizar la conquista y el imperialismo, que para absober a Puerto Rico es necesario exterminarlo. . . (“Carta al Director de ‘La Correspondencia de Puerto Rico’” 212)
The extermination to which Hostos refers is meant to dramatize a cultural annihilation that he believed would occur should Puerto Rico remain under U.S. rule and become a state; but such a strong use of terminology would have far-reaching consequences for this powerful word, “extermination,” would be used by many Puerto Ricans throughout the twentieth century. For example, Luis Rafael Sánchez uses similar terminology to describe Puerto Rican culture in the PBS documentary Builders of Images. A musician living in New York repeats Sánchez’ words almost verbatim in the same film, stating that Puerto Rican national identity “is under constant attack” (Americas Series: The Latin American and Caribbean Presence in the United States). Cultural extermination, genocide even, have become code-words for the way some sectors of the Puerto Rican population have come to view their relationship to the United States. Independence, then, becomes not a question of national pride or economics, but a question of cultural survival within a perceived colonial regime. Where is Puerto Rico’s place, if it has one, in the United States?
Both Hostos and Martí interpreted U.S. designs on Caribbean in a somewhat prophetic manner, anticipating Cuba’s and Puerto Rico’s new militaristic roles in the new global, political and imperial contexts. Puerto Rico in particular would function much in the same fashion as it had before. It would again be the “gateway” but more a bottleneck or stopgap affording the United States control of military, economic and even demographic movements in the region. Puerto Rico would also become home to one of the few live-ammunition, training bases for the U.S. Navy (the controversial and now-defunct base on Vieques). The island “citadel” would be the first line of defense --or intimidation—for the United States, a role that would become even more important with the post-World War II communist threat as perceived in the emerging conflicts in Latin America and the Cuban Revolution.
In all fairness, fin-de-siècle United States held a view of Puerto Rico that was not completely discordant with the view the Puerto Ricans held of themselves. A. Maldonado writes that “[u]nlike Cuba, Puerto Rico was thought to be too small and too poor to be granted independence: its culture was considered by most Americans to be so foreign as to make it ineligible for statehood. . .” (47) Also consider this proclamation made just after the invasion on July 28, 1898 by General Nelson A. Miles:
We have not come to make war upon the people of a country that for centuries has been oppressed, but, on the contrary, to bring you protection, not only to yourselves but to your property, to promote your prosperity, and to bestow upon you the immunities and blessings of the liberal institutions of our government. It is not our purpose to interfere with any existing laws and customs that are wholesome and beneficial to your people as long as they conform to the rules of military administration, of order and justice. This is not a war of devastation, but one to give all within the control of its military and naval forces the advantages and blessings of enlightened civilization. (González Vales 133; Annual Reports of the War Department, 13-5)
The language of Miles’ speech reveals some of the patronizing attitude the United States maintained towards Puerto Rico. He frames the United States the “Great Liberator” who has come to bestow prosperity and peace on Puerto Rico. Although this excerpt does not specifically state it, in other readings and materials discussing the Spanish-American War the size of the island is a huge factor influencing the United States’ attitude. Even now, the “too-small-too-poor” argument is still in play, an argument that had and still has dual functions. The geographic size of Puerto Rico obviously makes it small and weak by comparison, but it influences the perception of Puerto Rican culture in that the people themselves are then seen as small and weak. Finally, the island and its people, being small and weak, quickly become equated with women or children as evidenced by editorial cartoons in American newspapers of the day (Crucible of Empire). Because Puerto Ricans are children and/or feminine, they are ultimately dependents who require paternal care in that “father knows best.” Following the logic of the era, Puerto Rico must then be ruled and protected by a much larger (in terms of territory), more powerful and therefore more “masculine” (paternal) nation, who would be more “enlightened.” The “too-small-too-poor” argument was clearly an imperial apology for the United States meant to justify its new role, but it is important to remember that the U.S. did not impose the original territorial image of Puerto Rico onto the Puerto Ricans. The U.S. and pro-American Creoles did, however, appropriate and reinterpret the “too-small-too-poor” argument in accordance with the new situation.
Oddly enough, the image of Puerto Rico as a dependant produced an unexpected, ambivalent reaction in Americans for on the one hand they felt responsible for Puerto Rico in their role as protector, but on the other hand they believed themselves to be a democracy of anti-imperialists, a “Good Neighbor.” According to Alex Maldonado there was a sense of altruism mixed into the American public’s attitude towards Puerto Rico, imbued with a high dose of superiority. Just as under Spain, the Puerto Rican reality was much different from the rhetoric espoused inside the new mater patria proper: “Whatever illusions Puerto Rican liberals may have cherished about American rule were soon to vanish. The Puerto Rican parliament was dissolved, native officials were replaced by Americans, and military rule was instituted” (A. Maldonado 47). Despite the evidence, Americans continued to believe that they were not imperialists. They believed they were serving a higher purpose that would surely bring about peace, prosperity, and democracy in Puerto Rico, an attitude which resulted in their inability to comprehend their failure at colonial government. Americans simply could not believe that their policies were actually making Puerto Rico poorer and more dependent instead of the reverse.
Laura Briggs’ Reproducing Empire (2003) analyzes some of the United States’ complex historical responses to its new role as imperial power, as well as its continued negation of Puerto Rico’s true political status, even its very existence, within the American Union. Briggs argues that because Puerto Rico did not improve under its period of U.S. “tutelage” there arose a strong need to “rationalize,” “study,” and “analyze” Puerto Rico’s poverty. Numerous reports made by government institutions and private organizations alike co-opted the scientific method and the language of science in the twentieth century in order to explain the social and cultural roots of Puerto Rican poverty. Puerto Rico’s poverty then became the Puerto Ricans’ fault primarily because they had inadequate family structures (a lack of fathers), and there were too many Puerto Ricans. In sum, Puerto Rican women and especially those of the working-class were simply having too many children. More importantly and in keeping with the patriarchal mentality of the time, they were having and raising children without the proper paternal supervision. These factors, then, were thought to hinder the island’s modernization. Thanks to Briggs’ work on the supposedly “deviant” Puerto Rican sexuality as the root of all evil in Puerto Rican society, it came to my attention that this “deviance” was coupled with a fear of overpopulation. Briggs does not quite come this far, does not fully discuss the fact that overpopulation as a cause of the island’s poverty also stemmed from the long-held perception of very limited space based on a geographic concept of the island’s diameters held by both Puerto Ricans and Americans alike. Puerto Rico’s 100 miles of length and 35 miles of width (160 km by 56 km) are a fatalistic condition, something that can never be overcome, and the inherent danger of such small space is uncontrolled population growth. As a consequence, Puerto Rican families should be ever monitored by “authorities,” their sexuality and supposed fecundity always threatening to tip a fragile balance towards economic catastrophe.
Puerto Rico began its existence in Western history as a “bulwark,” an “outpost of empire,” an insignificant piece of land that happens to be next to the very important Mona Passage. Nineteenth-century intellectual and educator Eugenio María de Hostos tried to liberate Puerto Ricans from their “small” mentality by articulating the metaphor of the “gateway” and thus defining the island in terms of its relations to the Antilles. It is but another step in this chain of islands. Puerto Rico would thus be another link in the geographic chain that would act as a cultural conduit between the continents, as well as a racial paradigm to be emulated. Hostos also resituated Puerto Rican culture in the countryside and away from the too-Europeanized cultural elite or Creoles situated in the city. These are ideas that have since been resuscitated in more contemporary authors’ work, one example being El país de cuatro pisos y otros ensayos (1980) in which José Luis González argues that not only does Puerto Rico have much in common culturally with its Antillean neighbors, but that the first true Puerto Ricans were African Creoles and that the foundations of Puerto Rican culture can be found in Africa (which recent ethnic and genetic studies have proved to be not entirely true but again, it is another articulation of a nationalistic imaginary grounded in race that continues to resonate in Puerto Rican Studies). Maybe of more importance is the second articulation of the old “gateway” metaphor which arrived with the United States and was adapted to its emerging role as world superpower. First Puerto Rico was to help further U.S. influence in the Caribbean and Latin America. Then, with the onset of the Cold War, a new layer or interpretation was added that almost replaced the old one (at least for a while). Puerto Rico as the “gateway” was now to be heralded as the vitrina or “showcase” of the Caribbean as the island had become another experiment in colonial administration. This time it was to be a grand exercise in capitalism and industrialization, and its purpose was to demonstrate the supremacy of the U.S. economic model to the world.
In 1998, leading literary lady Rosario Ferré refashioned the “gateway” model into more globalized context in an article titled “Writing in Between.” Puerto Rico not only becomes a cultural and linguistic mediator, but a technological mediator:
As a bilingual, technologically advanced community, we can set the pace for our neighboring Latin American countries, help them enter the modern world, and at the same time help the United States become more cosmopolitan. We can help Anglo-Americans deal with the Latino “problem,” for example, by setting their minds at ease when, like peoples of every age before them, they hear in the unfamiliar languages spoken around them the sounds of the barbarians at the gates.
Puerto Ricans are heroes of modernity; in spite of our poverty of resources and limited land, our “passivity,” “indecision,” and “plasticity”–our bending over to please the powerful as those envious of us say—we have achieved what some of our richer and more powerful neighbors have not. (53)
Ferré lauds the adaptability of the Puerto Ricans which has resulted in more comfortable economic conditions and an advanced technological society that is the envy of the Caribbean. She also touches upon the “too-small-too-poor” argument when she refers to “our poverty of resources and limited land” and in the same sentence makes reference to Puerto Rico’s current political status as a Free Associated State. I conclude that the attitude Puerto Ricans have long held about their own territory has influenced their choices in self-governance, creating a national perception of a limited territorial space so strong as to influence policy in favor of a “special relationship” with the United States. It is a relationship, thanks to the continued and gross misperception worldwide, that is referred to as a Commonwealth status when it is most decidedly not. Ultimately Ferré resorts to the favored territorial metaphor that continues to mediate Puerto Rican identity and culture (as Puerto Rico must act as a mediator itself), which in turn becomes the basis of her argument in favor the island’s continued status as a U.S. territory. It was probably no accident that Ferré published her article exactly 100 years after the Spanish-American War. For Puerto Rico, the constant recycling of the “gateway” metaphor and the “too-small-too-poor” argument seem to have become cultural and historical legacies seemingly impossible to leave behind.
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