Free, Associated, Unequal: Reframing Puerto Rican Histories of Struggle

Endorsed by the OAH Committee on the Status of African American, Latino/a, Asian American, and Native American (ALANA) Historians and ALANA Histories and the Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA)

Friday, April 3, 2020, 8:00 AM - 9:30 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Immigration and Internal Migration; Latino/a; Nationalism and Transnationalism


This panel considers new perspectives on the history of Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican communities in the United States through a focus on inequality, colonialism, and struggles for justice. The panelists explore a variety of interrelated themes; each of which highlight what is unique and urgent about demands for equality and decolonization in Puerto Rico today. Individual papers consider the history of the Puerto Rico within the broader historiography of the U.S. carceral state, the historiographic impact of anti-communism in histories of Puerto Rican community organizing, as well as the often-overlooked role of Puerto Rican participation in the U.S. welfare rights movement. Together these papers build a dialogue that explores how ideas about equality and inequality have been mobilized throughout Puerto Rican history as well as the dynamic ways that Puerto Rican people have sought social transformation within and beyond U.S. empire.

These papers also examine the challenges faced by political organizers who have both demanded rights from the U.S. while also challenging U.S. imperial control or the legacies of colonialism in their communities. One of the aims of our conversation will be to tease out inequalities with roots in the pre-1898 period in relationship to ones that have emerged as a result of U.S. occupation and exploitation. Our dialogue will consider what the role of the U.S. is in Puerto Rican struggles for equality as well as a collective critical examination of the uses of the language of equality in Puerto Rico. The panel will be chaired by Lorrin Thomas, a leading scholar of Puerto Rican and Latinx history whose has written about Puerto Rican citizenship and belonging in the United States. We hope our papers spark an ongoing dialogue about the implications, across a variety of fields, of the emerging Puerto Rican historiographies to which we contribute.

Papers Presented

Puerto Rico and the History of the Carceral State

In recent years historians have produced necessary and urgent works exploring the origins of our contemporary era of racialized police terror, criminalization, and mass incarceration. This work has demonstrated how punitive technologies and logics have been mobilized to manage racial inequality and economic polarization in ways that increase social marginalization and vulnerability to violence. This presentation aims to extend the historiography of the carceral state by considering what the inclusion of Puerto Rico tells us about U.S. carceral growth over the twentieth century to the present. In particular, this paper will explore how an analysis of ongoing U.S. colonial rule in Puerto Rico and the punitive regimes that it has both imposed and facilitated in the archipelago complicate the current historiographic approach to the geography and temporality of the U.S. carceral state. Ultimately, this contribution argues for a more expansive and transnational understanding of the U.S. carceral state, which is made possible through the inclusion of Puerto Rico as a key site for American regimes of race making, capitalist development, and punitive power.

Presented By
Marisol LeBrón, University of Texas, Austin

Historiographical Legacies of Anti-Communism: The Case of the Proyecto Piloto de Trabajo con el Pueblo

The Proyecto Piloto de Trabajo con el Pueblo was an organization based in Puerto Rico that, beginning in 1967, focused on some of the most pressing issues affecting exploited communities around the world. They organized against the Vietnam War draft, they created and uplifted art that celebrated black identity, they used popular education to explain Marxist ideas about global capitalism and revolution in working-class communities, they used a sociological approach in their community work, and they were grounded in the racial, cultural, and historical realities of the Puerto Rican lumpenproletariat. The Proyecto worked across the island over a twenty-five year period, at times clandestinely, and at times in solidarity with other groups, particularly during the 1980s on campaigns related to Haitian and Nicaraguan solidarity. In addition, the Proyecto’s founder, Dr. Ana Livia Cordero, left behind organizational documents that offer a unique perspective of Puerto Rican society that was ahead of its time in terms of its analyses of the effects of imperialism, racism, and capitalism on Puerto Rico, and what the Puerto Rican people could do in response. Despite the richness of the Proyecto’s story, the group continues to be affected by various forms of silencing that I interpret as rooted in anticommunist repression. In this presentation, I will explain how the nature of the Proyecto’s activities during such a tense period of the Cold War made it the target of smear campaigns that have had significant historiographical implications.

Presented By
Sandy Placido, Queens College, City University of New York

Boricua Welfare Rights: Puerto Ricans and the National Welfare Rights Organization after 1966

Puerto Ricans were an important part of the formation of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), a group that advocated for the rights of poor people to have access to economic justice in their communities from 1966 to 1975. In recent years, scholars have documented the vibrant history of this organization and how it emerged out of the leadership and political vision of women of color. However, less attention has been paid in this literature to the role of Puerto Ricans within these coalitions. This paper begins to trace the participation of Puerto Rican community organizers and clients of social welfare programs in the NWRO. It also considers the forms of political organizing for economic justice that Puerto Ricans took part in under the umbrella of this organization in a variety of northeastern cities. In doing so, the paper traces the relationships forged between Puerto Ricans and other groups within the broad multi-ethnic and multi-racial coalition forged within the welfare rights movement. It also draws on the records of the NRWO, community organizations, oral histories, and on ongoing archival projects in New York and New England documenting local Puerto Rican histories. This work is part of a larger project on Puerto Rican organizing for welfare rights that links struggles for access to social assistance in Puerto Rican communities in the United States to ongoing demands for equality and economic justice in the archipelago.

Presented By
Emma B. Amador, University of Connecticut

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Lorrin Thomas, Rutgers University–Camden
Lorrin Thomas’s research explores ideas about rights and equality in the twentieth century Americas. Her first book, Puerto Rican Citizen: History and Political Identity in Twentieth Century New York City (University of Chicago Press, 2010; winner, Saloutos prize of the Immigration and Ethnic History Society of the OAH and honorable mention, Casa de las Américas prize), traces the complex meanings of citizenship for Puerto Ricans in the United States. Her recent book, Rethinking the Struggle for Puerto Rican Rights (Routledge, 2018), written with Aldo Lauria Santiago, surveys Puerto Ricans' civil rights activism in the U.S. since the 1940s. Professor Thomas has also conducted research about the politics of human rights in Mexico in the 1970s. Her new book project, tentatively titled Minority: Latinx Politics and the Making of Multiracial America after the 1960s, examines the ways Latinx political actors tested, implemented, and expanded the legal and policy changes of the civil rights era, negotiating new paths to social and political equality in the United States.

Professor Thomas teaches courses on Latin American history and the history of the Americas, including survey courses on Latin America, the Caribbean, and modern Mexico, and comparative courses on U.S. and Latin American relations and race and ethnicity in the Americas. She is also chair of the History Department at Rutgers University – Camden.

Presenter: Emma B. Amador, University of Connecticut
Emma Amador is a historian of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans in the United States, whose research focuses on women, gender, and sexuality. She is an Assistant Professor of History and Latino/a, Caribbean, and Latin American Studies at the University of Connecticut, Storrs with a PhD from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, an MA from UConn, and a BA from Sarah Lawrence College. She held a Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship at Brown University in the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America and the History Department from 2016 to 2018. Amador is currently working on a book manuscript Contesting Colonialism: Puerto Ricans and the Politics of Welfare in the 20th Century that explores the history of welfare, territorial social citizenship, and welfare rights in Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican diaspora. This project examines how the U.S. welfare state became a site where Puerto Ricans have struggled for social justice, labor reform, and decolonization. Her article “Organizing Puerto Rican Domestics: Resistance and Household Labor Reform in the Puerto Rican Diaspora after 1930” was published in ILWCH: International Labor and Working-Class History and a second article, “‘Women Ask Relief for Puerto Ricans’: Territorial Citizenship, the Social Security Act, and Puerto Rican Communities, 1933-1939” was published in LABOR. She has taught courses in Latino/a history and gender history, as well as Caribbean and Latin American History. She has received research and writing support from the Ford Foundation, the Rackham Graduate School of the University of Michigan, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, CUNY, and the Duke University SITPA Program.

Presenter: Marisol LeBrón, University of Texas, Austin
Marisol LeBrón is an Assistant Professor of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Policing Life and Death: Race, Violence, and Resistance in Puerto Rico (University of California Press, 2019), which examines the growth of punitive governance in contemporary Puerto Rico. She is also the co-editor, along with Yarimar Bonilla, of the forthcoming volume, Aftershocks of Disaster: Puerto Rico Before and After the Storm. She has published her research in a variety of venues including Radical History Review, Journal of Urban History, Souls: A Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society, Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, NACLA Report on the Americas, Boston Review, and the edited volume Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter. She is one of the co-creators of the Puerto Rico Syllabus, a digital resource for understanding the Puerto Rican debt crisis.

Presenter: Sandy Placido, Queens College, City University of New York
Sandy Plácido is an assistant professor of History at Queens College, City University of New York, and the Dominican Studies Scholar at the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute. She is a historian who focuses on social movements in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and other sites throughout the Americas. Dr. Plácido's book manuscript, A Global Vision: Dr. Ana Livia Cordero and the Puerto Rican Liberation Struggle, emphasizes the influential role of Puerto Ricans in Cold War-era freedom struggles by centering the life of Ana Livia Cordero, a physician and anti-imperialist activist who created substantial connections between movements throughout the “Third World.” Dr. Plácido is also working with Dr. Ramona Hernández and Dr. Diógenes Céspedes on a book which will offer innovative interpretations of women who shaped Dominican society, from the 1820s to the present. Dr. Plácido received her PhD in American Studies from Harvard University in 2017.