Follow the Footnotes: Unearthing Puerto Rican History After the U.S. invasion

November 20, 2020

In their new book, Professor Laird Bergad and his co-author debunk common notions about how U.S. control affected Puerto Rico's agrarian economy and society in the early 20th century.

Laird Bergad and his book "Agrarian Puerto Rico: Reconsidering Rural Economy and Society, 1899-1940"
Laird Bergad and his book "Agrarian Puerto Rico: Reconsidering Rural Economy and Society, 1899-1940"

In their new book, Agrarian Puerto Rico: Reconsidering Rural Economy and Society, 1899-1940, Professor Laird Bergad (GC/Lehman, Latin American and Latino Studies/History) and co-author César Ayala, professor of sociology at UCLA, present a forceful revision to the history of rural Puerto Rico in the period after United States invasion of 1898. By systematically investigating the statistical record, including some newly available sources, they debunk the notions that U.S. control led to the disappearance of small farms and to massive dispossession of land. To understand Puerto Rico, it is also essential to look beyond sugar, they assert. 

“You cannot generalize about an island with such a nuanced economy,” Bergad said. He emphasized that long-accepted “conclusions about Puerto Rican agrarian history were erroneous and based largely on a misreading of published census records as well as using the sugar sector as a paradigm for understanding economic change on the island.”

The book presents a historical picture of Puerto Rico after 1898 that emphasizes regional and economic complexity. The authors analyze socioeconomic systems and landownership in different zones to understand the impact of American colonialism on the island’s economic structure. As the authors write in their introduction, their research revealed that “Landownership patterns were very different in each zone, and this fact alone challenges prevailing interpretations of early twentieth-century Puerto Rican socioeconomic history that have revolved around sweeping generalizations as if the island’s rural society were somehow homogenous.”

The history of the sugar economy has been the paradigm that prevailed when examining the island. Puerto Ricans played a critical role in the sugar economy, and Bergad and Ayala emphasize that the success of the industry was not just about the large absentee U.S. corporations. They indicate that Puerto Rican cane planters and sugar producers played a more significant role than previously acknowledged, in fact controlling a greater share of production collectively than the absentee U.S.-based sugar companies. And the story of Puerto Rico’s economic development during the 20th century is not just about sugar. Coffee, tobacco, and food crops for urban markets were part of a more complex socioeconomic history. 

One long-standing assumption about the historiography was that the U.S. arrival resulted in massive dispossession of land from Puerto Ricans. For the authors, understanding Puerto Rico before the Americans arrived was critical to analyzing the impact of U.S. colonialism. Landlessness was extreme before 1898, and their research overturned the long-accepted theory that many Puerto Ricans lost their land as a result of U.S. colonialism. Bergad explains that “the Spanish colonial period had already deprived Puerto Ricans of land.” 

Another long-held theory was that small-scale farmers in the sugar region disappeared with the American invasion. Bergad and Ayala wanted to test this empirically. They rigorously examined sources, including tax records never before studied and expanded census materials, down to the footnotes. In fact, a footnote to the 1920 census was critical to their research. While the census figures had been examined by earlier historians, Bergad and Ayala found through a footnote that the census did not count small farmers who owned less than three acres of land that produced under $100 in value. Those small farms had not been wiped out after the United States took control of the island as was erroneously indicated by the 1920 census data. They had simply not been counted. Bergad says that in the 1930 census records, small farmers mysteriously reappeared. “Cataclysmic changes in land ownership don’t just happen over such a short period of time unless there were destructive wars or natural disasters,” he said. “We began questioning that fundamental assumption of land loss on the part of Puerto Rican farmers, a staple interpretation of nearly every work written on early 20th century histories of the island.”

Reviewers have lauded the book for the breadth and depth of its scholarship, calling it a “riveting study of Puerto Rico's rural economy and society in the early 1900s” and citing it as a work that “will have a major impact on interpreting both Puerto Rican history and the evolution of the American empire in the twentieth-century.”

Bergad said that the book is a social, demographic, and economic history concerned with “real-life issues for people living in rural Puerto Rico.” The information is derived from an enormous amount of statistical evidence, and Bergad says that one of the lessons he teaches his students is to “look at systematic evidence.” And don’t ignore the footnotes.  

Bergad is also distinguished professor in the Department of Latin American and Latino Studies  at Herbert H. Lehman College and founding director of The Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies at The Graduate Center. He has written extensively about Puerto Rico and the Caribbean and is the author or co-author of many studies, including Hispanics in the United States: A Demographic, Social, and Economic History, 1980 – 2005 and The Comparative Histories of Slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States