The Puerto Rican Community of Western Massachusetts, 1898-1960

By Carvalho, Joseph | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

The Puerto Rican Community of Western Massachusetts, 1898-1960


Carvalho, Joseph, Historical Journal of Massachusetts


Abstract: This article attempts to chronicle the earliest connections between Western Massachusetts and Puerto Rico, and the experiences of earliest Puerto Rican residents of the region. Regional newspapers with special emphasis on the largest three newspapers in Western Massachusetts-the .Springfield Republican, the Springfield Daily News, and the Springfield Union; the U.S. and Massachusetts State Census records for 1910-1940; city directories for the major cities of Western Massachusetts; School Department reports; and related secondary sources were consulted in the compilation of this narrative.

Although dry goods stores and tobacconists in the four western counties of Massachusetts often advertised the availability of Puerto Rican cigars, or on special occasions, "Fine Porto Rican Molasses," the island and its people were largely a mystery to the people of Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, and Berkshire Counties. The Spanish-American War in 1898 changed all that. Leading up to the U.S. declaration of war with Spain, lurid stories of Spanish atrocities and mistreatment of their colonial charges in Cuba and Puerto Rico were commonplace in the region's newspapers. Once the war broke out, hundreds of men from the region served in the 2nd Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment.1 The Regiment experienced combat notably at the Battle of El Caney in 1898 in Cuba. Several companies of the 2nd Massachusetts Regiment briefly spent time in Puerto Rico after that battle.2 The region grieved as casualty reports from the front were reported in their local newspapers and when the train inevitably brought the bodies back to their respective towns or cities to be interred, citizens lined the rail stations to honor their dead.

With the signing of the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898, ending the Spanish-American War, the United States annexed the island of Puerto Rico. Although full citizenship for the Puerto Rican population was not granted until the Jones Act of 1917, the process of bringing the island into the American economy and political process began as early as 1899. There was early resistance from the New England Tobacco Growers Association to post-war trade with the island. A Connecticut Valley tobacco grower, Alfred Francis Austin of Suffield, Connecticut, worried that tariff-free trade with Puerto Rico would cause "the ultimate ruin to the tobacco interests not only of New England but all other tobacco sections of the mainland United States." He warned that competition from Puerto Rico would "insure the swift and utter ruin to all those engaged [in the Connecticut Valley] in the production of tobacco products."3 Ironically, it was Puerto Rican farm labor that helped revive and sustain Connecticut Valley tobacco farms into the mid-20th century, as will be highlighted in the second half of this article.

But aside from the initial negative reaction from certain tobacco farmers, the earliest regional reaction to the acquisition of Puerto Rico appeared to be highly positive, at least as conveyed in the pages of the area's leading newspaper, the Springfield Republican. Soon after the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, Western Massachusetts communities appear to have become fascinated with the newly-acquired territory of Puerto Rico (or "Porto Rico" as it was referred to in those years). The pages of the Springfield Republican reveal a genuine interest in the island's people, culture, and products.

With the congressional passage of the Organic Act of 1900, known as the "Foraker Act" for the bill's sponsor, Senator Joseph B. Foraker of Ohio, free trade was established between the island and the continental United States in July of 1901. Soon after, a Puerto Rican government and business delegation was sent to the United States to explore the linkages to the mainland market. Springfield leaders were thrilled that this delegation of prominent business and civic leaders from Puerto Rico selected Springfield as one of their first destinations in their tour of major American cities in 1901. …

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