Puerto Rican Citizen: History and Political Identity in the Twentieth Century

By Rivera-Rideau, Petra R. | Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies, January 2011 | Go to article overview

Puerto Rican Citizen: History and Political Identity in the Twentieth Century


Rivera-Rideau, Petra R., Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies


Lorrin Thomas Puerto Rican Citizen: History and Political Identity in the Twentieth Century Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010, x + 354 pp.

In Puerto Rican Citizen, historian Lorrin Thomas presents a nuanced account of Puerto Rican politics in New York from 1917 through the 1960s. Weaving together sources that include academic texts, newspapers, editorials, oral histories, and personal correspondence, Thomas details the multiple actors involved in a variety of politicized activities centred on what she terms "recognition." She focuses her analysis on the Puerto Rican "colony" of New York City, the US metropolis that, historically, has been home to the largest concentration of Puerto Rican migrants in North America. What results is a complex and detailed analysis that not only retells the story of Puerto Rican migration to New York, but also ties Puerto Rican politics in the United States to broader anti-colonial movements.

Thomas begins her narrative after the passing of the Jones Act in 1917. This act granted US citizenship to all Puerto Ricans, regardless of whether they lived on the island of Puerto Rico or resided on the US mainland. However, as Thomas and others have pointed out, Puerto Ricans, like other minority groups in the United States, suffered from racial, class, and ethnic discrimination that precluded their ability to enjoy full citizenship rights. Thomas makes the critical observation that Puerto Rican politics in the mid-20th century extended beyond a call for "traditional liberal individual rights," going on to press claims for group rights and, most importantly, Puerto Rican sovereignty. She writes, "What [Puerto Ricans] sought was a status that would protect them from the harms of discrimination and empower them with the freedom of self-determination, both for themselves as individuals (just like other citizens of the liberal democracy) and for their homeland (just like other nations recognized as sovereign by the United States)" (8).

By focusing on this "politics of recognition," Thomas centres Puerto Rican independence as an essential aspect of Puerto Rican politics, both on the island and on the United States mainland. Additionally, she underscores the structural inequalities rooted in colonial processes that impacted Puerto Ricans in New York. This point is crucial, especially considering the controversial theory around the "Puerto Rican exception," which posited that Puerto Ricans did not "assimilate" into US society as quickly as other immigrants supposedly did because of the group's presumed lack of organization, political orientation, and access to welfare benefits. By identifying colonialism and structural inequalities as the basis for the conditions in which Puerto Ricans lived, Thomas directly counters the "blame the victim" premise of the "Puerto Rican exception." She demonstrates that Puerto Ricans were far from "passive" citizens, but rather contested their citizenship through a variety of strategic political tactics.

Thomas incorporates several key themes that address the possibilities and limitations of Puerto Ricans' politics of recognition. First, she pays close attention to the multiple institutions developed by US Americans and Puerto Ricans (the latter from both the island and New York) that were actively involved with the Puerto Rican community. These institutions ranged from local social clubs such as the Liga Puertorriquena e Hispana, to US political entities such as the Democratic Party, to Puerto Rican government agencies such as the Office of Employment and Identification. …

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