On Oct. 6 at 7 p.m., students, staff, faculty, and Springfield College community members were welcomed via Zoom for a speaker presentation by Jorell Melendéz-Badillo, an Assistant Professor of History at Dartmouth College.
His presentation was titled “Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans, and Puerto Ricanness: Historical Roots and Today’s Challenges.” Melendéz-Badillo brought audience members through the history of Puerto Rico and discussed the different transitions it made from becoming a U.S. territory to its political strife and recent protests.
He began by distinguishing the differing histories that Puerto Rico has, from the perspective of both the indigenous people and the conquistadors when they took over.
“The history of Puerto Rico is a history of 500 centuries of colonialism, however, it is also a history of 500 centuries of resistance to colonialism. I hope that tonight I can offer a brief introduction to that history,” Melendéz-Badillo said.
The early days of Puerto Rico consisted of conquest and rebellion, and by the 19th century was a slave colony. “El Grito de Lares,” was an uprising of the people of Lares in 1868.
“This was part of an underground movement that had at least 20 secret cells throughout the island,” Melendéz-Badillo said. “The revolution lasted no more than 48 hours… however the Lares revolution was a huge symbolic victory that is still celebrated in Puerto Rico today.”
The United States waged war against Spain, and as a result, Cuba and Puerto Rico both became territories of the U.S., and after two years they passed the Foraker Act to create a democratic government within Puerto Rico.
With the new U.S. occupation in Puerto Rico, there were many new laws, taxes, and other regulations being put on the territory. However, people in Puerto Rico worked to have protection in their jobs to ensure their rights on the island.
“The state created new social and legal structures to control the island’s populous…Now the U.S. occupation provided a legal structure for the creation of labor unions,” Melendéz-Badillo said.
The federal labor unions also led to the creation of the socialist party.
“The party became a force to be reckoned with during the 1920s, hunkering electoral success in 1932 and 1936 after forming a political alliance with the republican party,” Melendéz-Badillo said. “The socialist party’s radicalism has been overlooked by historians because its leadership supported the annexation of Puerto Rico to the United States.”
Now with modern-day Puerto Rico, there continues to be a rebellious generation of civilians. May Day, “a traditional workers’ holiday that commemorates the life of martyrs and is used to protest capitalist exploitation,” had a monumental impact in 2017, when the protests turned violent and clashed against the police force.
“The historical moment in which these events took place are important to contextualize the collective rage that materialized on that day,” Melendéz-Badillo said. Following these events in September were the close call of Hurricane Irma, and the ambush of Hurricane Maria.
“The country went dark for months, it was one of the biggest catastrophes in the history of Puerto Rico… [it] triggered a structural and systemic catastrophe that left more than 4,645 people dead,” Melendéz-Badillo said.
Continuing into recent years, there were more massive protests in the summer of 2019 due to a conversation between the president and his inner circle being leaked.
“The leaked document had more than 900 pages and served as a lens to understand the ways Puerto Rico was being governed through colonialism, coloniality, and the politics,” said Melendéz-Badillo. “The former governor and his close group of friends and colleagues made fun of Maria’s dead, making homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, racist and classist comments and showcased the high level of corruption that took place under his administration.”
The news of this infuriated people and is what sparked the outbreak of protests last year. Social media played a huge role in connecting people from across the globe to speak and act out for these topics, and even a hashtag regarding the protests trended globally.
Puerto Rico and its history is rich, engaging, and something many are not taught thoroughly in school. Jorell Melendéz-Badillo’s introduction of this history provided students with the basic knowledge of Puerto Rico, but also a deeper understanding of the changing political climate, similar to what’s been occurring in the U.S. this past summer. It allows individuals to understand the ideas of revolting and protesting and that it is an ongoing process to be able to grow as a community.
Photo: Springfield College