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Organized Agriculture and the Labor Movement before the UFW

Organized Agriculture and the Labor Movement before the UFW
Puerto Rico, Hawaii, California

This pioneering comparative study investigates how agricultural workers in Puerto Rico, Hawai'i, and California struggled to organize and create a place for themselves in the institutional life of the United States.

July 2011
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323 pages | 6 x 9 | 8 b&w photos, 3 maps |

Puerto Rico, Hawai'i, and California share the experiences of conquest and annexation to the United States in the nineteenth century and mass organizational struggles by rural workers in the twentieth. Organized Agriculture and the Labor Movement before the UFW offers a comparative examination of those struggles, which were the era's longest and most protracted campaigns by agricultural workers, supported by organized labor, to establish a collective presence and realize the fruits of democracy.

Dionicio Nodín Valdés examines critical links between the earlier conquests and the later organizing campaigns while he corrects a number of popular misconceptions about agriculture, farmworkers, and organized labor. He shows that agricultural workers have engaged in continuous efforts to gain a place in the institutional life of the nation, that unions succeeded before the United Farm Workers and César Chávez, and that the labor movement played a major role in those efforts. He also offers a window into understanding crucial limitations of institutional democracy in the United States, and demonstrates that the widespread lack of participation in the nation's institutions by agricultural workers has not been due to a lack of volition, but rather to employers' continuous efforts to prevent worker empowerment.

Organized Agriculture and the Labor Movement before the UFW demonstrates how employers benefitted not only from power and wealth, but also from imperialism in both its domestic and international manifestations. It also demonstrates how workers at times successfully overcame growers' advantages, although they were ultimately unable to sustain movements and gain a permanent institutional presence in Puerto Rico and California.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Colonizing a Movement: The Federación Libre de Trabajo in Puerto Rico
  • Chapter 2. Dreams of Democratic Unionism: The Confederación General de Trabajadores and Puerto Rican Agricultural Workers
  • Chapter 3. Up from Colonialism: Hawaiian Plantation Agriculture and the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union
  • Chapter 4. Challenges and Survival: Sustaining Agricultural Unionism in Hawai'i
  • Chapter 5. Marked in the Annals of the Labor Movement: The National Farm Labor Union, Organized Labor, and the DiGiorgio Strike
  • Chapter 6. From Factory to Industrial Area: Areawide Organizing in the San Joaquin and Imperial Valleys
  • Retrospective and Prospectus
  • Notes
  • Glossary: Acronyms, Abbreviations, and Short Terms
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Dionicio Nodín Valdés is Professor of History at Michigan State University. He has written extensively on labor and social history, including the books Barrios Norteños: St. Paul and Midwestern Mexican Communities in the Twentieth Century and Al Norte: Agricultural Workers in the Great Lakes Region, 1917–1990.


Conquest is never civilized.

Ernesto Galarza, National Farm Labor Union

California, Hawai'i, and Puerto Rico, sites of the most concerted organizational campaigns by agricultural workers in lands under U.S. dominion in the early twentieth century, shared the experience of military and economic conquest and annexation in the nineteenth. This introduction will examine rural dimensions of those conquests, with a particular focus on the resulting social formations that agricultural workers faced in each setting. The conquerors promised that they would bring civilization and democracy to the lands they annexed, and more than a century later it is still widely believed the promise was central to their mission. The story I examine demonstrates that agricultural workers in the conquered lands were aware of the promises but quickly realized that their only hope of experiencing them would result from their own conscious collective struggles.

The nineteenth-century conquests of Mexico, Hawai'i, and Puerto Rico had distinct military and economic dimensions. Military conquest was well understood by one of its leading advocates and beneficiaries, Charles Magoon, military governor of the Panama Canal Zone (1905–1906) and appointed governor of the Cuban Republic (1906–1909). As an attorney for the War Department's Bureau of Insular Affairs, the agency responsible for the colonies, Magoon defined a military conquest as "a property seized as a spoil of war, and held to reimburse this nation for the loss of blood and treasure occasioned by the war." A second type of conquest, economic, involved investors, supported and often encouraged by government officials from the United States and other major world powers, gaining economic domination over foreign lands but not necessarily through direct rule. The late nineteenth century marked a critical period for economic conquests. The 1846–1848 U.S. military invasion of Mexico that culminated in the annexation of California preceded the economic conquest that subordinated the Mexican nation to its northern neighbor. In Hawai'i economic conquest preceded military conquest, while in Puerto Rico government strategists planned a military conquest, which set the stage for economic conquest. Through military and economic conquests, the United States gained strategic and commercial advantage in competition with European powers, involving both formal and informal imperialism, "coercion... to extort profits above what simple exchange can procure."

Continental Empire

The earliest military conquest of the three was California, which many considered the real "prize" the U.S. government sought when it provoked war with Mexico in 1846. The U.S. military conquest and annexation of California predated the economic conquest and modern corporations, and its leaders were not as concerned with global commerce or tapping labor pools as were their successors. But agriculture was important, and Anglo American land speculators and ranchers, led by military officers paid by the U.S. government, stood in the forefront of the earliest provocations against Mexicans in California, including the so-called Bear Flag Republic.

In the aftermath of annexation in 1848, agricultural interests, including land speculators and bankers supported by politicians and bureaucrats representing local, state, and federal governments, enacted legislation and taxation policies and condoned violence that subordinated and marginalized former Mexican citizens. Even the ricos, the wealthy Mexican Californios, were dispossessed of most of their lands, and although they were United States citizens, they became increasingly marginalized from political and institutional life. They and their descendants did not belong to the class of large growers with whom organized workers periodically struggled in the twentieth century. Nor would a substantial working class descended from the Mexican Californios or Native Americans appear in the subsequent agricultural labor history of the state. But the military conquest and its immediate aftermath reinforced assumptions among European Americans that Mexicans were inferior while the ideology stemming from it subordinated them in the racial hierarchy into which they were incorporated. The conquerors deemed Mexicans less capable people, characterized by political incapacity and irresponsibility, which justified taking over their land. But the military conquerors did not speak to the capacity of Mexicans as workers. European Americans would have to re-imagine Mexicans as potential wage laborers in conjunction with the later economic conquest of Mexico.

The military conquest was not a prerequisite for the economic conquest, but it reinforced notions of Mexican inferiority and helped convince both investors in the United States and elites in Mexico, often re-imagined as Spaniards, that the U.S. economic model contained what Mexico needed. Accepting the underlying notion of the model—U.S. superiority—Mexican elites, the comprador caciques, were willing to accept the role of junior partners. Both became convinced that they as individuals as well as their nations stood to gain from the exploitation of Mexico's resources and its working people. The economic conquest was conceived in the 1860s and reached fruition during the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, the Porfiriato (1876–1910). Investors from the United States established corporations through which they set up banks, established railroads, purchased and refurbished mines, located oil wells, and acquired millions of acres of land for commercial agriculture.

The corporations in Mexico provided raw materials of the industrial revolution, typically unprocessed or semi-processed, destined for the United States, where workers considered more highly skilled transformed them for industrial purposes and commodity consumption. European Americans were also interested in culture as they pondered, gazed, and re-imagined Mexico's distant past, which they portrayed as continuing into the present, simultaneously exotic, partly civilized, but practically unchanging. Unlike the military conquerors of the 1840s, they were deeply interested in Mexico's peasantry, whom they imagined as a fixture of the rural landscape, backward but malleable. While the economic conquistadores considered Mexicans inferior, as their predecessors had, the earlier invaders considered them an impediment to their acquisition of land and a potential threat to the institution of slavery in the South. The captains of the economic conquest, in contrast, were very interested in their economic potential, and depicted them as peons, naturally subservient and generally docile, who could provide labor on the railroads, in the mines, and on the haciendas, ranches, and plantations. They were, according to Gilbert González and Raul Fernández, "the first victims of Mexico's modernization—that is, economic conquest."

The economic subordination of Mexico to the United States in the late nineteenth century was taking place in tandem with the global industrial revolution, highlighted by European military and economic conquests of territories in Asia and Africa. In its relations with Mexico, the United States accomplished similar goals as the European nations—expansion of markets, extraction of raw materials destined for the metropolis, and exploitation of labor under conditions of extreme control. In both, the relationship of metropolitan and peripheral settings intensified in conjunction with greater capitalist penetration. The major distinction between formal European colonial empires and the informal United States economic empire in Mexico was that in the latter case the metropolitan government was not the political administrator, a function performed by collaborating Mexican elites. The era of the Porfiriato marked an early phase in the neocolonial relationship between the two countries, of the informal empire.

While the economic subordination of Mexico afforded wealth and power to foreign investors and benefits for the Mexican elite, it disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of rural Mexicans, displacing them from their lands and making it more difficult for them to produce their own subsistence. They were increasingly compelled to turn to wage labor in the expanding transportation, extractive, and agricultural sectors of Mexico, and they soon had linked international labor histories. Employers who invested in and managed Mexican railroads, mines, and cotton plantations had little difficulty being convinced that Mexicans were capable workers. Not surprisingly, the trains that transported products soon would be bringing workers living near those routes along the densely inhabited sections of central and western Mexico through the sparsely populated northern desert to the booming Mexican north. By the first years of the twentieth century, capitalists were recruiting the same workers into the United States for employment in sectors of the economy where they had already established large-scale operations in Mexico—particularly the railroads, the mines, commercial cotton ranches, and other sectors of agriculture.

The international labor migration that burst forth geographically extended the neocolonial labor system based on Mexico's economic subordination to the United States. It had much in common with contemporary colonial labor systems elsewhere—owners and bosses of European origin, differential wages between workers from metropolitan and peripheral settings justified by elaborate racial discourses, a job hierarchy unfavorable to Mexicans, unstable employment, and inequality sustained through the law and state-sponsored violence. The unfolding unequal relationship between the United States at the core, and Mexico at the periphery, was gradually intensifying.

In California, agricultural investors were quick to take advantage of opportunities for profit as they and allies in government framed favorable legislation as well as banking and tax policies and made deals that ensured additional public investments in infrastructure and crop experimentation. The huge commercial ranches they acquired enjoyed many public subsidies. Their labor problems were more complicated because the local pool of agricultural workers was inadequate—neither the direct descendants of Mexican Californios nor Native Americans would be available in sufficient numbers. So again, operating in concert with government assistance, growers experimented with different groups of workers and labor regimes to meet their escalating demands. They sought U.S. citizen and European immigrant workers from different parts of the nation and even from Europe. More importantly, they turned to East Asia—particularly China, later Japan, and in the early twentieth century the Philippines. While recruiting from new lands, owners and managers constantly racialized workers to keep them divided and maintain control. Soon they were looking increasingly to and experimenting with workers from Mexico, able to take advantage of unequal economic relations between the two nations. Their search for the ideal, hard-working, low-paid, tractable, invisible worker never did cease.

It is not surprising that under the circumstances—massive numbers of workers, instability of employment, and harsh working and living conditions—agricultural laborers in California organized and struck repeatedly. They often formed unions and frequently sought support from the mainstream of organized labor. But the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in most instances lived up to its reputation as a decentralized, exclusive organization for the "aristocrats of labor," skilled workers, only infrequently showing interest in the marginalized immigrant workers in the California fields. Consequently, in the early twentieth century, agricultural workers more often formed their own ethnic unions or joined more radical organizations, including the Industrial Workers of the World, and at the onset of the Great Depression, the Communist Party.

Organizers affiliated with the Communists demonstrated a commitment to workers of all backgrounds. A major party-led campaign among agricultural workers in California in the early years of the Great Depression stimulated and challenged other labor organizations, and it influenced the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). For a brief period between 1937 and 1939 the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA), a CIO affiliate, actively organized farmworkers, particularly in California. The widespread organizing and the interest expressed by agricultural workers posed a challenge even to the AFL, which granted local charters, particularly of its decentralized affiliate, the Agricultural Workers Union, to workers in California and other states. The Great Depression thus marked a surge in organizing and strike activity throughout the nation. Stuart Jamieson reported more than 275 agricultural strikes in the United States during the 1930s, half of them in California. Continued pressure from within finally convinced the AFL to commit to a serious, sustained campaign to organize California's farmworkers at the end of World War II. It was coincidentally an unusual moment in the labor history of the state, when the majority of workers in large agricultural operations were European Americans, a condition that never occurred in the history of Hawai'i.

Empire in the Pacific

In the islands of the mid-Pacific, the economic conquest by the United States was a gradual process and had been largely accomplished by the time of the military conquest in 1893 and annexation in 1898. As economist Frank R. Rutter observed shortly after the islands were annexed, both conquests were "more closely connected with the sugar trade than is commonly supposed."

Global sugar consumption escalated after the Civil War and was intimately linked with the industrial revolution in both rural and urban settings. Sugar was an important battleground in the economic competition between the United States and Europe, as many governments invested heavily in research and technology and supported labor practices that encouraged sugar production in order to achieve national self-sufficiency. During the final three decades of the nineteenth century, beet sugar production in the world increased sixfold, while the industry's share of the total rose from less than four-tenths to nearly two-thirds. By the early 1880s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was engaged in a campaign of research and promotion aimed at achieving domestic self-sufficiency, which involved increasing sugarcane production in Louisiana and establishing a domestic beet sugar industry in sections of the nation where it was feasible. However, domestic sugar consumption was escalating far beyond the capacity of government researchers and promoters, and by the 1880s, the cost of importing sugar had become the nation's "largest single item of foreign expenditure." As U.S. capitalists looked to foreign settings to satisfy the nation's growing demand, they quickly turned to Hawai'i.

The sugarcane industry was the driving force behind the economic conquest of the Hawaiian Islands, and native Hawaiians were the first workers in the fields. However, from the moment of initial contact in the late eighteenth century, foreigners disrupted their lives in countless ways, leading to a shocking demographic holocaust comparable to that of the Caribbean following the arrival of Columbus, central Mexico in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and elsewhere in the Americans through the end of the nineteenth. Among the foreigners, those from the United States quickly gained the upper hand politically and economically, starting in the 1820s, when missionaries became advisors to the Hawaiian royalty and brought an ethnocentric and arrogant "imperialism of the spirit" to the land. They introduced a New England–centered Christian morality to the islands. But as Dr. G. Trousseau, former physician to King William Lunalilo, observed critically in 1893, the missionaries "brought exactly nothing," while they imposed an additional drain on the labor of Hawaiians who built their houses, tended to their needs, and "did most menial work without compensation."

As advisors to the monarchy in the 1830s and 1840s, foreigners from the United States also introduced a new legal code based on a New England morality and legal universe of worker discipline, disrupting reproductive and familial patterns and further subjugating native Hawaiians. A critical moment was the Great Mahele of 1848 and accompanying legislation, which privatized lands of the kingdom. The privatization had at least three profound consequences. First, it made the Hawaiian nobility "largely indebted to the whites" who interpreted the laws. Second, it made it possible for European Americans to trade the chiefs out of a large portion of their shares. It happened so quickly that by 1851, H. L. Severance reported, "three-fourths, at least of the business done here is by Americans, and they already own much of the real estate. The sugar-planters are nearly all Americans, and have a strong interest in annexation to the United States." Third, despite its professed intent of creating small farmers, the vast majority of the native population, at whom the law ostensibly was directed, did not receive any lands. Hunger and want accelerated as people were displaced from the use of land that formerly offered them security and subsistence.

Native Hawaiian population decline continued as the islands were drawn into the economic orbit of the United States. A critical moment occurred when the foreign advisors convinced the Hawaiian monarchy to agree to the 1876 Reciprocity Treaty, which enabled the United States to establish a naval station at Pearl Harbor and to gain a near monopoly in commercial shipping. In 1902 economist Frank Rutter noted that while the original purpose was to obtain a coaling station, U.S. investment "soon became a stronger reason for maintaining the treaty," which permitted the tariff-free importation of unrefined sugar into the United States. Commerce between the two nations accelerated, and "the sugar industry went into the hands of corporations" owned overwhelmingly by citizens of the United States or their descendants.

The Reciprocity Treaty sealed the economic conquest as Hawai'i experienced "an intoxicating increase of wealth, a new labor system, an Asiatic population, an alienation between the native and white races, an impoverishment of the former, an enrichment of the latter, and the many so-called revolutions." United States minister to Hawai'i John L. Stevens confirmed, "sugar is the chief source of the financial life—is the banking capital—on which the present and future prosperity of this country depends." The group to benefit most from the Reciprocity Treaty was the small community identified with the United States, which owned three-fourths of the value of the sugar plantations. Furthermore, in the aftermath of the Reciprocity Treaty, the Hawaiian government directly spent approximately two-thirds of the total cost for the importation of foreign laborers on behalf of the planters.

Because of escalating sugar production, the Reciprocity Treaty encouraged planters to expand landholdings rapidly, further displacing small farmers and resulting in dependency on foreign trade from the United States for "nearly all of the articles required in daily life and in the industries of the islands." While the sugar industry was booming, a contemporary critic observed, apart from one large sugar interest, "none of the American firms or planters ever brought a cent from the United States here. In dividends and investments they have exported millions of dollars."

As the Hawaiian economy boomed, its planter-dominated monarchy wrote increasingly elaborate legislation to maintain control over workers that included a system of fines and imprisonment for those who failed to obey commands, refused to work, or were unwilling to complete the terms of their contracts. The combination of displacement from the land, intensification of the labor process, and expanding production contributed further to native Hawaiian population decline, which compelled planters to look abroad. Like their counterparts in California, planters in Hawai'i experimented with workers from around the world and with distinct labor relations. In the late 1870s and early 1880s, many of them sought out Europeans. In one experiment, a small group recruited from Norway quickly gained attention because they used the law and gained popular support to protect themselves from the terrible conditions of employment. While their treatment as plantation workers was not atypical, what was unusual was their willingness to challenge authority and abuse, along with the sympathetic attention they received. Not surprisingly, the planters' experiment with Norwegian workers ended quickly. Reflecting on employers' overall experience with Europeans, plantation manager William Blaisdell concluded that "they did not seem suitable. They could not stand working in the sugar cane."

The exception was a large contingent of Portuguese workers imported by the Hawaiian government. Manager Blaisdell reported that planters considered them "a more desirable class of employees than any other class of laborers" brought to Hawai'i, but they were considered too expensive. This was attributable in part to the higher cost of importation from Portugal than from East Asia. But it was also standard practice to recruit adult Portuguese men along with their wives and children, who rarely worked in the fields, in contrast with Asians, usually recruited as adult men who came alone. Furthermore, the Portuguese men "received higher rates of wages" along with "free house room, fuel, [and] medical attendance for the whole family." It was a self-fulfilling prophecy that plantation manager C. B. Wells unwittingly formulated, suggesting that the Portuguese are "the best class of labor we have.... The only drawback is you have to pay them more wages. They can not live as cheaply as the Japanese and Chinese. For that reason we have quit bringing them."

The economic boom wreaked further havoc on native Hawaiians and instilled fear of total loss of control in the monarchy, which was increasingly dominated by foreigners. Interested in the simple survival of its subjects, in the late 1880s the monarchy attempted to regain control by insuring native Hawaiian representation in the cabinet and other government posts, which upset planters and their allies, who turned directly to politicians and diplomats from the United States who had long coveted Hawai'i. As J. M. Stevens, minister plenipotentiary to Hawai'i, observed, since the days of John Quincy Adams and Daniel Webster, "we have avowed the superiority of our interests to those of all other nations, and have always refused to embarrass our freedom of action by any alliance or arrangement with other powers as to the ultimate possession and government of the islands."

The foreigners provoked a crisis over a proposed change in the cabinet that resulted in the 1887 Revolution, in which the monarchy backed down, resulting in a pro-planter cabinet. Then in 1890, the proposed McKinley tariff, which would have rescinded the 1876 Reciprocity Treaty and abrogated planters' privileged access to the U.S. market, convinced many to seek annexation in the expectation of permanent free trade. The proposed tariff frightened planters and caused a sharp decline in the price of sugar. In early 1893 a nervous Queen Lydia Lili'uokalani, upset with rising haole (white) arrogance and disdain for the Hawaiian elite and commoners, again proposed a change in her cabinet to ensure a more equitable representation of the native majority. Her proposal became the pretext for a group of foreign conspirators, prodded by Foreign Minister Stevens, to stage a coup against the monarchy and seek immediate annexation to the United States. Stevens plotted openly and promised the conspirators protection from possible arrest and imprisonment, as well as support from the U.S. Navy and Marines stationed in Honolulu. The February 1893 coup succeeded, the conspirators took control without a battle, and the U.S. government promptly recognized the Hawaiian Republic.

As U.S. Secretary of State Walter Q. Gresham reported later in the year: "the troops were landed not to protect American life and property, but to aid in overthrowing the existing government." The Hawaiian monarchy "surrendered its authority under threat of war" with the United States. John F. Colburn, a member of the cabinet of the Queen, explained that the coup leaders lacked either popular or military support, and "we would have annihilated them were it not for the United States troops and minister Stevens." Sugar magnate Claus Spreckles acknowledged that the coup occurred against the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the population, and that the planters "do not want the natives to vote." William Cornwall, a planter and U.S. citizen, concluded that the proposed McKinley Tariff of 1890, which caused sugar prices to plummet, along with sugar planters' fear of the loss of power, "were the only and true reasons for the revolution. The prospects of the sugar bounty is the main motive for the desire to be annexed," along with an expectation that an economic boom would follow. But annexationist efforts in Congress were opposed by Democrats upset about the flagrant violation of international law in the overthrow of a friendly government.

A new round of imperial politics, involving the struggles for independence in Cuba and the Philippines shortly prior to the U.S. declaration of war against Spain, again thrust Hawai'i into the limelight. Hawaiian annexation was stalled in Congress in late 1897 and early 1898, as Democrats were not swayed by racist fears that with "the silent invasion of Asiatics the people would lapse into barbarism and even the confiscation of American property might result." In fact, "annexation was well-nigh a dead issue until the victory of Commodore Dewey at Manila brought more clearly to light American interests in the Pacific." The war demonstrated the strategic value of Hawai'i when the government of the Hawaiian Republic, "in violation of the international laws of neutrality, permitted American ships to coal at Honolulu and to make the city a base of war and naval supplies" for the U.S. Pacific fleet in preparation for its invasion of the Philippines. Continued control of Hawai'i would make it easier for the United States to expand its political and economic empire in the Pacific. Journalist Amos Fiske wrote on July 3, 1898, "if we are to look for a large extension of our commercial relations, to extend political relations will necessarily accompany the naval power that has to guard commerce in the present stage of the world's development... if in the end we are to keep the Philippines, most surely we must have the Hawaiians." The United States annexed Hawai'i three days later as an incorporated territory.

As Claus Spreckles recognized in 1891, Hawai'i was already under the economic and cultural sway of the United States:

The Hawaiian Islands are American in sentiment and sympathy. Visitors from the United States to Honolulu feel themselves at home the moment they land from the steamship. There is nothing in the social conditions to remind them that they are on foreign soil. Hotels and stores are conducted on the American plan. American money is the circulating medium. Outdoor sports and popular amusements are fashioned on the American pattern, and the Fourth of July is a national holiday.... The native Hawaiian people look to America as their best friend.

The overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy had important parallels to the uprising that resulted in the formation of the Republic of Texas in 1836. In both settings European American leaders staged a "revolution" in which they sought immediate annexation to the United States. When internal divisions in Congress stalled their efforts, the "revolutionaries" declared a Republic that the United States government soon recognized. Another parallel was the relative economic, political, and social decline of the native Mexican and Hawaiian populations following annexation. In both settings commoners were marginalized while elites shared few of the fruits of the boom in commercial agriculture, primarily plantation cotton in Texas and sugar in Hawai'i. Still another similarity was that in neither setting were the new citizens of the United States, formerly citizens of Mexico and Hawai'i, sufficient in numbers to contribute substantially to the rapidly expanding agricultural labor force.

Following annexation Hawaiian planters, recognizing that their attempts to lure Europeans yielded little, realized that workers from East Asia would be their most important source of labor. As they turned away from Chinese workers, in the 1890s they focused mostly on Japanese immigrants, who quickly became the majority in the fields. But Japan was not subordinated by European or U.S. imperialism, and employers soon became convinced that Japanese workers were not tractable enough, particularly after the conquest and subjugation of the Philippines offered them a more pliant force of rural workers, subjects but not citizens of the United States. An early experiment with Puerto Rican colonial subjects had very modest success, and plantation owners almost immediately turned to Filipinos, whose recruitment peaked between the early years of the century and the early 1930s. Planters could exclude Japanese immigrants and Filipino colonial subjects from a presence in institutional political life that citizens enjoyed, while contributing in their own ways to the anti-Asian racism rampant in the continental United States and pervasive in the American Federation of Labor. Organized labor showed little interest in Hawaiian plantation workers, who were thus compelled to form their own ethnic organizations when they organized to protest.

The Asian workers were fortunate to arrive in a context of sharply escalating demand for labor due to expanding sugar production and the geography of Hawai'i, isolated in the middle of the Pacific and distant from large populations, which made labor recruitment expensive. Growers decided to establish paternalistic relations, which allowed them a great deal of control but with some positive features for workers including steady and long-term employment and residence in stable plantation communities with housing provided. Following annexation a majority of Asians who were recruited remained on the islands, some staying on the plantations and others moving into towns and cities. As long as they were noncitizen workers barred from participation in institutional political affairs and racial minorities excluded from the mainstream of organized labor, growers could tolerate their occasional protests and strikes, aware that the too frequent use of blacklisting or deportation was counterproductive because of the expense of recruitment and transportation of replacements. While workers faced a distinctly Hawaiian version of European American racism and limits imposed by the designation of Hawai'i as an incorporated territory, they were fortunate to reside in a richly multiethnic setting where they encountered less competition from the demographic minority haole population. Furthermore, in the stable communities where they lived and worked, at least they could hope for a better life for their citizen children. Their working and organizational experiences in the fields contrasted sharply with those of the resident sugarcane workers of Puerto Rico, which was annexed only a few months after Hawai'i.

Imperialism and the War of 1898

Puerto Rico had attracted the interest of annexationists since the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, but the occasion for military conquest arose only in the late 1890s in conjunction with the Cuban War of Independence (1895–1898). To many observers it is puzzling that a protracted, brutal war broke out in Cuba while very little happened in neighboring Puerto Rico. Much attention has focused on leaders, particularly the hardened combatants involved in the Guerra de Diez Años (Ten Years' War, 1868–1878) and the Guerra Chiquita (Little War, 1879–1880), who fought for political independence and the abolition of slavery. Leaders could conceive, plan, inspire, and gain support from the outside, but the staying power of war would require the support of thousands of soldiers and other local residents, overwhelmingly rural working people. To understand what became a war of military conquest for the United States in 1898, it is necessary to examine the political economy and its impact on the rural working people of the two islands.

While both Cuba and Puerto Rico were overwhelmingly agricultural, their late-nineteenth-century economies followed substantially different trajectories. Cuba's links with the world economy intensified sharply in response to the rapid increase in demand for sugar. Production increased sharply, and with it the self-sufficient agricultural hacienda, with its accompanying steam-powered sugar mill (ingenio), was replaced by the huge sugar processing factory (central), separated from the capitalist plantation, whose product was oriented for export. Cuban dependence on sugar production accelerated with rising international consumption in the 1880s and early 1890s. It was the world's leading producer of sugar, almost all exported to the United States. While Cuba was still a political colony of Spain, it was becoming an economic colony of the United States. But the intensive focus on sugarcane took place at the expense of other crops, particularly those for subsistence, and required massive imports of foodstuffs from abroad to feed plantation workers. By the early 1890s, one observer noted that sugar had become "the staple industry of Cuba and gives employment to nearly two-thirds of the population." The Cuban economy and its rural wage-earning workers were dependent on a single industry and vulnerable to economic cycles that influenced prices and levels of production.

Meanwhile Puerto Rico did not share in the late-nineteenth-century sugar boom, had a more diverse agriculture, and was less dependent on the world economy. Its rural proletarianization was driven by coffee, which did not dominate the island's economy to the same degree as did sugar in Cuba. Puerto Rican coffee went primarily to markets in Europe, while a much smaller sugar crop went to the United States. The Puerto Rican economy was not reeling from the economic depression, as historian Laird Bergad observes, and "wage rates rose considerably in the 1890s when labor demand was most intense because of rising coffee prices." The island also benefited from substantial exports of other items, including tobacco and cattle, reflecting a much more balanced trading profile than Cuba's. Its diverse agricultural economy involved commercial links with Spain, Germany, France, Great Britain, and Cuba, as well as the United States, whose merchants and investors were much less familiar with the island than with Cuba and held comparatively little control over its commerce.

Furthermore, rural proletarianization proceeded more slowly than in Cuba, as Puerto Rico was still "essentially the land of the small farmer" and "the great majority of these little farms are owned by their occupants." In contrast with Cuba, in Puerto Rico "the agriculture is so diversified that sufficient food is produced for the sustenance of the inhabitants." According to one study there were eleven hundred large holdings devoted to tobacco, coffee, and sugar, functioning as self-sufficient haciendas whose residents could survive economic downturns. The study added that "the greater proportion of the island is cultivated in individual holdings," including thirteen thousand smaller farms in fruits and vegetables; four thousand in fruits and coffee; and four thousand in miscellaneous crops. Its crop diversity was indeed impressive, as farmers on the island produced, among other items, tomatoes, potatoes, yams, peas, maize, numerous varieties of oranges and bananas, plantains, lemons, limes, coconuts, guavas, alligator pears, pineapples, avocados, guavas, honey, and root crops including sweet potatoes, yams, and yautia. They also raised mules, asses, sheep, hogs, goats, cattle, and horses. The average Puerto Rican farm in 1890 was forty-five acres, of which twelve were cultivated. Of the area under cultivation 41 percent was devoted to coffee, 15 percent to sugar, crops that went mostly to market; while 14 percent were for bananas and 8 percent for sweet potatoes, primarily for subsistence. Coffee was the main cash crop on the haciendas and the small farms but could not be grown alone, as the sensitive coffee bushes had to be shaded, most often by larger banana trees.

As commercial production increased, hacendados adopted a range of mechanisms to gain greater control over land and labor. Among the most important, they "'graciously' allowed peasants the use of land under their dominion in exchange for work by the peasants in the hacienda." Whether or not they had formal title to the land, the coffee farmers in the hilly sections and mountainsides in the interior of the island were compelled to engage in intercropping, which allowed them space for fruits, vegetables, chickens, and grazing animals, for both consumption and for sale. The rural people of Puerto Rico relied for subsistence on a "banana diet," the fruit of which was a medium of exchange in the island's cash-poor economy, so producing coffee for the market did not interfere with growing food for personal consumption. In many locations, fifty bananas constituted a standard day's wages for workers being drawn into the world economy. Because of its self-sufficiency in food production, one contemporary observer noted, prior to the War of 1898 and the devastating hurricane of 1899, despite poverty in Puerto Rico, "there was no actual starvation."

But Azel Ames, a sanitary engineer and surgeon researching on behalf of the U.S. Department of Labor during the military occupation of 1898–1900, recognized that the economic self-sufficiency of the Puerto Rican peasantry was an obstacle to the large-scale capitalist agriculture of the plantation, which government planners considered key to the island's future. He observed that "until the natives could be made to want something there was no available means for reaching them." Elaborating on the matter, Frank Colby, a professor of history and economics, observed that "the great drawback to developing the agricultural possibilities of the island, and thus furthering the well-being of the people, is that the laborers are not in absolute need of anything more than they have." Meanwhile, wage labor was not attractive, as the major commercial crops, coffee, tobacco, and sugar, "have not been capable of paying more than the smallest wages." As long as rural working people could produce for themselves or otherwise obtain a major portion of their subsistence needs, they would not have to work for others and would not be willing to work on the sugarcane plantations. The survival of haciendas and small peasant holdings and the paucity of sugar centrales with separate plantations, coupled with the lack of dependence on wage labor, further suggest that the economic conquest of Puerto Rico had not kept pace with that of Cuba, which had important implications in the struggles for independence.

The war-hardened veteranos of the earlier wars in Cuba spent more than a decade and a half planning and plotting before they again launched an offensive against Spain, the War of Independence, in 1895. They consciously chose a moment in the midst of the severe worldwide economic depression that began with the Panic of 1893 and the loss of reciprocity in 1894, as the Cuban economy went into a tailspin and the world price of sugar sank to its lowest level yet. Not surprisingly, the depression "seriously affected the sugar trade," and as planters found production unprofitable, massive numbers of agricultural workers were "thrown out of employment." The economic collapse, as Massachusetts-born planter Edward Atkins, owner of a sugar estate near Cienfuegos, observed, "offered the best encouragement to [José] Martí and other Cubans who had long been working to foment insurrection." Cuban revolutionary leaders found "ready recruits among the unemployed."

The revolutionary leaders immediately focused on the rural economy and "made it their first object to destroy the most important class of capital in Cuba; from the outset they relied for success on the power to stop the planters from making sugar." They sought to "halt cultivation and manufacture of sugar which they did not themselves sanction," and to "burn canefields and ruin factories" of planters who refused to cooperate. Consequently, "many thousands of labourers were thrown out of employment, and for these emigration or revolution were practically the only alternative." The movement spread rapidly from its initial base in Oriente, the easternmost province, to the central and western provinces, heart of the sugar industry where anti-Spanish forces during the earlier Ten Years' War had failed to establish a foothold, unable to gain support from rural peasants or plantation workers. Not surprisingly, the majority of the soldiers and guerrillas fighting for independence were Afro Cubans.

The war in Cuba intensified the economic depression. Sugar production on the island fell from more than 1 million tons in fiscal 1894 to only 212,000 tons by 1897. The economic impact was most telling on its major market, the United States, where Cuban exports fell in value from $89 million to $18 million.

Why the uprising in Cuba was not replicated in Puerto Rico has often been explained by the roles of political leaders. Many Puerto Ricans were mollified by the offer of an Autonomista (Autonomous) government by the Spanish Crown in 1897, which granted universal male suffrage. The Autonomista government was dominated by hacendados, particularly coffee growers who were faring well economically during the 1890s. Furthermore, hacendados controlled the lives of agricultural workers and peasants not only through economic means, but also through mutual services and ritual ceremonies, creating "a culture based on deference and paternalism." Peasants and workers were also faring comparatively well at the time, making it easier for the hacendado class to win their vote in the local elections of 1898 under the Autonomista government. But Puerto Rico also had pro-independentista (pro-independence) exiles in Europe and throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and there were Puerto Rican independentista organizations, often operating in conjunction with Cuban counterparts in the United States. It is important to emphasize that the Puerto Rican political elite were not hardened by war in the 1860s and 1870s, let alone in the 1890s. The experience of fighting would have afforded them greater understanding as well as the esteem of rural workers. Among Puerto Ricans, there was a sharp class rift between middle-class independentista leaders and the majority population of peasants and workers that hindered the realization of warfare against Spain and profoundly influenced early-twentieth-century political and labor activities in the colony.

Also important in understanding the immediate course of the struggles against Spain was the impact of the economic depression on the two islands. The economic downturn did not hurt coffee exports to Europe, which actually increased in the mid-1890s. Unlike the struggling sugar planters of Cuba, who were upset that the Spanish government was not assisting them, the coffee growers of Puerto Rico were experiencing good times economically and had little motivation to sever relations with Spain. The impact on workers also differed profoundly. Cuba's large rural working population, heavily dependent on employment in the sugar industry, was devastated by the economic depression and driven by hunger to join the revolution. Puerto Rican rural coffee workers were employed in an expanding industry and enjoyed rising wages even during the nadir of the economic depression. A much larger portion of them were still peasants who produced their own food, and even rural workers who labored on haciendas were granted garden plots, and they could survive by growing and exchanging the abundantly available local foods, particularly bananas, root crops, coconuts, seafood for those who lived near the coast, and other items of easy access but lacking a profitable commercial market.

The combined staying power of the Cuban insurgents and their scorched earth policy, which intensified the economic devastation and the impact of tropical diseases on Spanish soldiers, were taking their toll. As historian Louis Pérez argues, by the end of 1897, there was a widespread perception in Spain and Cuba that the days of Spanish rule were numbered, and that the exhausted Spanish troops had lost their will to fight. For the Spanish cause, as the war dragged on, domestic opposition intensified and the resolve of the monarchy to continue was wearing down.

Meanwhile, opinion in the United States became increasingly divided. There was strong support for Cuba Libre, Cuban independence. In late 1897, even the former United States minister to Spain, Hannis Taylor, was arguing that the "time had arrived for the United States to recognize the independence of Cuba." But the voices of annexationists in Congress and the administration were becoming increasingly shrill. The Naval War College had been preparing contingency plans for a possible war with Spain since 1894, and those plans became more elaborate following the outbreak of the Cuban War of Independence. Neither the administration of Grover Cleveland nor that of William McKinley supported Cuba Libre, and both worked feverishly to prevent its success. By the end of 1897 the administration was overtly supporting an updated version of Manifest Destiny as "starving reconcentrados (Cuban civilians herded into concentration camps to prevent them from supporting insurgents) and struggling Cubans crowded quite into the background of our imagination to make room for our own larger prospects and ambitions."

The sinking of the battleship Maine in mid-February emboldened annexationists, but advocates of Cuba Libre remained committed. The rift between the two was ultimately resolved by a compromise—the Teller Amendment, enacted on April 16, 1898, only nine days before the United States declared war. The Amendment explicitly disclaimed interest in exercising "sovereignty, jurisdiction or control" over Cuba, and at the end of its pacification promised "to leave the government and control of the island to its people." It was a compromise on several levels. First, the United States disavowed intent to establish a formal colony on Cuba and thus appeased advocates of Cuba Libre. But it left the door open for the United States to establish a four-year military occupation (1898–1902), ending with the Platt Amendment (1902–1934), which made Cuba a protectorate, appeasing annexationists. Repeated political interference and interventions by the United States throughout the period compromised the sovereignty of the Cuban Republic. The Teller Amendment further placated annexationists because it was silent on the status of the Philippines and Puerto Rico, permitting Congress to declare them unincorporated territories, formal colonies whose residents were not automatically considered citizens of the United States, in contrast to legal residents of incorporated territories like Hawai'i. They were the prizes of war obtained by military conquest. Prior to the Teller Amendment some military planners were still interested primarily in coaling stations and military bases, but immediately afterward, "the question of Porto Rico seems quite inevitable and meets little opposition." From that moment forward it was openly recognized that annexing Puerto Rico as a colony of the United States "has been the plan from the first." Immediately before the United States declared war with Spain, the administration had determined that after the war it would establish a military government of occupation in Puerto Rico and that it would annex the island.

The war strategy of the administration was to avoid any peace negotiations with Spain until it could bolster claims on the territories through military conquest. In its first bellicose act after declaring war on April 25, the United States Pacific Squadron bombarded Manila on May 1, and Spain agreed to surrender the entire Philippines archipelago with little further ado. War planners hoped to repeat their success at Manila by adopting the "naval option" for Puerto Rico. But the bombing of San Juan on May 12 did not achieve the desired effect, as the city was heavily fortified and Spanish military officers were unwilling to surrender the entire island on such a flimsy pretext. The following week, Acting Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt urged a friend in the Senate: "Do not make peace until we get Porto Rico." The McKinley administration realized that if it wanted to stake a claim on the island it would have to stage an invasion. But there were not enough trained troops available, so the attack would have to be placed on hold for a few more weeks. On May 24, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, an imperialist, was also adamant: "Porto Rico is not forgotten and we mean to have it."

In early June U.S. troops invaded the south coast of Cuba at Guantánamo and soon gained control of Santiago de Cuba and the surrounding region. Spain again attempted to negotiate to end the hostilities, but McKinley again instructed negotiators not to accept a truce until the U.S. military could claim Puerto Rico, a sine qua non of peace. Time was of the essence, Secretary of State William Rufus Day recognized in early June, to "capture Puerto Rico before Spain sues for peace." Occupation would be necessary, he insisted, because Puerto Rico "is the indemnity" of war. Finally, U.S. troops landed on the southwestern coast of the island at Guánica on June 25, an event depicted as "uneventful," and within two weeks they had gained control of much of the south and west, with little resistance from Spain. It is notable that when the armistice was declared on August 12, U.S. forces occupied neither Havana nor San Juan, the capital cities, nor their surrounding regions, and had obtained a Spanish surrender of the Philippines after a single day of bombing. Understandably, some Spanish military leaders protested that there were more battles to be fought, but the Crown had long lost the will to fight, without regard to the wishes of some military leaders or the inhabitants of the island colonies.

Puerto Rican leaders who advocated independence—much less experienced in military warfare and with a much smaller community in the United States than Cuban leaders like José Martí—were surprised by the military conquest and annexation. Julio Henna, the president of the Revolutionary Committee of Puerto Rico, advocating independence, supported the invading troops because like many of his countrymen he believed that the United States was the "classic land of liberty" and lacked territorial ambitions. Another influential Puerto Rican, General Antonio Mattei Lluveras, who joined General Nelson Miles at Guánica, assumed that the invaders would not seek to place a person from the United States "at the head of affairs in the island." But the McKinley administration had already determined that the island would be occupied and held indefinitely.

Puerto Rico was the prize of war, as a strategic location that could serve as a base for expansion of the U.S. commercial empire into the Caribbean and Latin America, a "natural stepping stone to South America," and a "laboratory for Americanization." But investors were not familiar with the island. So the military government hired engineers and researchers, who, along with the commercial press and travelers, unveiled its promise and promoted its commercial potential. Even before the declaration of war, the promotion had begun, as it was widely asserted that "Puerto Rico is unusually fertile." In March 1898 the press was lauding Puerto Rico for "the most healthful climate and the most productive soil... the plains and the lowlands are exceedingly productive... foreigners become easily acclimated." Less than two weeks before the invasion, Amos K. Fiske of the New York Times reported that "the soil is most prolific and the climate especially salubrious," but "the real need is enterprise and industry." A few days later, he reassured investors that local Puerto Ricans offered great potential as workers: "the labor force already there has never been half utilized.... The population is not ignorant or indolent or in any way degraded. It is not turbulent or intractable, and there is every reason to believe, under encouraging conditions it would become industrious, thrifty and prosperous."

Economic conquest was intertwined with military conquest, and a leading imperialist, Senator Joseph Foraker of Ohio, claimed in October: "as a matter of simple business policy we owe it to ourselves to retain the whole of the Philippines and Porto Rico," and not just acquire coaling stations. The fate of the two former Spanish colonies was up to the Congress, as Article IX of the Treaty of Paris of December 10, 1898, declared: "the civil rights and political status of the native inhabitants of the territories hereby ceded to the United States will be determined by Congress." It was the culmination of the turn-of-the-century version of Manifest Destiny, as economist H. H. Powers argued in 1898, and it was "not accidental or capricious, scarcely even voluntary." Rather, it was "the natural outcome of forces constantly at work in the race and exceptionally characteristic of the American people," namely of annexing empires while "disguising our ambitious commercial schemes under pretexts that are now forgotten."

Following the treaty, the military government of 1898–1900, while concerned about pacifying the country, devoted most of its energy and resources to creating conditions for opening new markets "to American producers and manufacturers." The administration sent engineers, researchers, and social scientists to study the people and the land. A member of one government expedition, geologist Herbert Wilson, wrote in 1900 that the group of which he was a part, "with the energy and thirst for knowledge which characterizes our people, commenced a scientific crusade against the oblivious which envelopes our knowledge of the resources of Porto Rico." The researchers, like other policy makers, recognized that each territory of "which we have lately come into possession is the natural habitat of the sugar cane." Furthermore "the commodity of which we stand most in need is produced in the greatest abundance in the new possessions... it is only necessary to stimulate the production of sugar in the colonies" to supply those needs.

The metropolitan state meanwhile "designed policies to encourage national capital to invest in the colony," "laws to protect the property and privileges of United States business and citizens," tariff, fiscal, land tenure, and monetary measures and cheap labor policies that "converted Puerto Rico into an investor's paradise." The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed or widened roads, built dams, drained swamps, cleaned up trash, eliminated or contained certain tropical diseases to increase workers' productivity, and set up schools aimed at Americanization, which meant for colonized people, "above all, remaining in your place." The efforts ensured that the United States would control trade and that investors would find certain profits in the planned expansion of the sugar industry. The primary geographic focus was the south, centered on the commercial city of Ponce, and including the port of Guánica, the initial site of the invasion, which had the largest anchorage on the south shore. The north coast, including the capital of San Juan, was portrayed in less favorable terms, as a bureaucratic city, although friendly to commercial possibilities. Not surprisingly, during military occupation the two largest sugar complexes in the colony were set up on the southern coast: Central Aguirre Sugar Syndicate (1899) headquartered in Salinas, and the South Porto Rico Sugar Company (1900) in Guánica, which was incorporated in the United States. Both promptly established classic company towns.

The promoters of enterprise portrayed Puerto Rico differently in some important ways than their predecessors in California a half century earlier. The lack of knowledge that had turned the former Mexican north into a "Virgin Land" converted Puerto Rico into an "undeveloped country." The difference was that the military conquerors of 1846 and 1847 were trying to erase and remove Mexicans and native Americans from their midst, while those of 1898 were clearly aware of Puerto Ricans' presence and importance to ensure development—as workers. It involved manipulating race much differently, and geologist Herbert Wilson was up to the task, explaining that the Puerto Rican peasants, "Gibaros," were of mixed racial stock, but with "Spanish blood evidently predominating.... The negro is rarely seen," and so "the negro problem is practically eliminated from the island."

Government promotion of the sugarcane industry was made easier not only by legislation, investments, and researchers; nature was also on its side. The 1899 hurricane devastated the coffee industry, and it did some damage to sugarcane. However, with cane lands planted year after year in the same location, the soil "is much impoverished in many places," so the hurricane was actually a blessing in disguise, "bringing down silt and fine sand or organic matter" to the fields below. As military governor Brigadier-General George W. Davis reported in December 1899, as a result of the hurricane the previous August, "sugar-cane was greatly injured by overflows and sedimentation, but was benefited—that is, fertilized—by the same for future crops." Following military conquest, the metropolitan government ensured that in Puerto Rico, sugarcane would be the driving force of economic conquest.

The economic and political conquests by the United States in California, Hawai'i, and Puerto Rico did not widen political participation or spread democracy to the rural working people newly incorporated into the empire. In the case of California, the intrusion of a government that lauded its form of electoral democracy nevertheless disenfranchised Mexican Californios, including the elite. In Hawai'i, conquest created a republic dominated by plantation owners who were able to displace native Hawaiians from significant influence in politics. With annexation, the haoles in control were even more effective in excluding the growing majority, sugarcane workers from East Asia, from a voice in institutional affairs. In the Caribbean, the economic conquest played a central role in stimulating a revolution in Cuba that was largely thwarted by military conquest, while in Puerto Rico, the military conquest eliminated the autonomous government that had granted universal adult male suffrage. Instead it created a classic colonial state that "was neither representative nor accountable to the colonized people." But rural Puerto Ricans were neither strangers nor immigrants, and as the cane sugar industry spread across their island, they were disappointed but ready to struggle for a place in the island's institutional life, and they soon found an ally from the metropolis in the American Federation of Labor.


“This book is an extremely well-researched history with a compelling mission to bring three distinct areas of the United States together into a single story…Valdés’s study is an important contribution to the field of agricultural labor history.”
American Historical Review


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