Soldiers of the Nation: Military Service and Modern Puerto Rico, 1868–1952, by Harry Franqui-Rivera

In: New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids
Richard Smith Goldsmiths, University of London Department of Media, Communications and Cultural Studies

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Harry Franqui-Rivera, Soldiers of the Nation: Military Service and Modern Puerto Rico, 1868–1952. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018. 308 + xxix pp. (Cloth US$ 60.00)

Soldiers of the Nation enriches the literature on gender and military service in the Caribbean (most recently Dalea Bean’s, Jamaican Women and the World Wars, reviewed in NWIG 93). Shifting the focus to the Hispanophone Caribbean, the book reveals the masculine identities associated with Spanish colonial decline and U.S. imperial expansion that are often overshadowed by studies of colonial masculinity in the world wars.

Harry Franqui-Rivera explores the nuances of Puerto Rican military masculinity and the often-tentative assertions of manhood under Spanish, and then U.S., rule. Ironically, military service, as a modernizing, masculine project, has tended to erase the figure of the jíbaro—the self-reliant peasant who exemplifies Puerto Rican identity but connotes docility and unsophistication to some. The Puerto Rico Korean War memorial embodies a modern nation born of military service but symbolically consigns the jíbaro to the past, displacing the soil of Puerto Rico with “a can full of Korean earth” (p. xiv). Franqui-Rivera’s assertion that the “political entity we know as the Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico came into existence during the Korean War” (p. xv) echoes other foundational claims-making, but also presupposes the uncritical acceptance by Puerto Ricans of hegemonic codes of military service and nationhood.

The nine decades before the Korean War comprise the core of the study. Following the unsuccessful 1868 Grito de Lares uprising against Spanish rule, the local militia was disbanded, temporarily breaking the “organic” (p. 17) link between Puerto Ricans and the military. The rebellion sought to abolish the pass laws, which restricted the peasantry’s freedom of movement, and to liberate slaves who enlisted, signaling the moment when Puerto Ricans no longer regarded themselves as Spanish. The peninsulares, who resettled in Puerto Rico as Spain’s American possessions dwindled, re-asserted dominance by forming the Instituto de Voluntarios militia. Consequently, U.S. gendered, racialized discourse framed Puerto Rico, and other Spanish possessions, as “damsels in distress” (p. 41), a pretext for the 1898 interventions.

The United States believed that the “compromised manhood” (p. 43) produced by miscegenation and Catholicism made Puerto Ricans unsuited for self-government and began to groom them for statehood. Civil government was restored in 1902 and the male franchise was implemented in 1904. However, military initiatives were key to the modernization through which the United States secured the loyalty of both peninsulares and autonomistas. Between 1909 and 1934, under U.S. War Department Administration, sanitation improved, and endemic anemia caused by hookworm was eradicated.

To release U.S. troops for duty elsewhere, the Porto Rico Regiment United States Volunteers was formed in 1905. All recruits, excluding officers, were local men and usually from the impoverished classes, nonetheless diffusing “American prestige” (p. 59). Shortly before the United States entered World War I, the Jones Act granted Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship without Federal representation. Hoping for further dispensations, Puerto Rican leaders pledged men for the war effort. Although initially spurned, the draft was extended to Puerto Rican local forces in July 1917. Black and white recruits were trained in New York and South Carolina respectively, segregation becoming embedded when the 375 Regiment was formed for black Puerto Ricans. As elsewhere, Franqui-Rivera demonstrates the critical place of race within U.S. masculinity and its effects on imperial military practice.

Puerto Rican troops garrisoned the Panama Canal but did not see action overseas, and demobilization was completed by January 1919. The Porto Rico Regiment was rebadged the 65 Infantry US Army—el sesenta y cinco—becoming a pivotal symbol of masculine nationhood. After World War I, separatists insisted that Puerto Rico had shown the “capacity for self-government” (p. 89) through military service. During the 1930s, demands for independence increased, partly due to the Depression. Pedro Albizu Campos, educated in the United States and an officer during World War I, deployed the rhetoric of armed sacrifice after encountering Irish Republicanism. Paramilitary bombing and assassination campaigns followed as Puerto Rico become the “Ireland of the Caribbean.”

Puerto Ricans rejected Albizu Campos’s rediscovery of the Hispanic past, identifying instead with the U.S. values acquired in the army and educational system. Luis Muñoz Marín advocated negotiated independence, but condemned the excesses of U.S. occupation, including the 1937 Ponce massacre. He manipulated Puerto Rico’s military-strategic value during the 1940s, and following demobilization in 1945, the United States gave significant attention to economic reforms to avert nationalist insurgency. This did not prevent a resurgence of Albizu Campos’s guerrilla campaigns during the 1950s. Nevertheless, el sesenta y cinco were sent to Korea, serving for the first time as front-line troops, enhancing claims for independence through military service which, however, remain frustrated to this day.

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