Exploring U.S. Colonization of Puerto Rico

Last class, Professor Alamo ended the discussion by asking us to resist the urge to vaguely abhor the United State’s colonialism. Part of what he meant was that we should think critically about the specific, evil-doing (here meaning racist, classist, and sexist) mechanisms that gave U.S. colonialism a dirty reputation. But he also meant that if we demonize U.S. colonialism, we must also critically analyze other imperialist endeavors, such as those of Spain in South America.
The editorial cartoons published in Harper’s Weekly between 1898 and 1900 address U.S. colonialism in relation to Spanish colonialism. The cartoons’ overarching opinion on this topic is that territories like Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines make the decision and are in favor of transferring colonial power from Spain to the U.S. (as in the cartoon She Can’t Resist Him). In other cartoons, Uncle Sam is seen as providing a ticket to the “winning team,” or to the side of prosperity and vitality when he offers political control of an area. The message that these cartoons convey is that these territories, which are personified by small, dark-skinned, ragged caricatures, believe that they would prosper more under American rule than Spanish rule. This feeds directly into the problematic narrative of Americans as perceiving their colonialism as positive for other cultures.
The term “benevolent assimilation” was meant to portray U.S. involvement in Puerto Rico as a chance to improve Puerto Rico’s economy, sanitize its citizens (as was the case with VD-infected prostitutes), and offer Puerto Rico a chance to side with them, the perceived dominators of global affairs. Yet as almost every article in “Reactions to the U.S. Takeover in Puerto Rico 1900-1917” shows, most Puerto Ricans opposed U.S. “occupation,” as one called it.
The American attitude of perceived goodness in its colonialism is ironic because it marks a complete transformation from American colonials as victims of the British crown to perpetrators of harmful colonialism abroad. The question that these cartoons unearth, alongside professor Alamo’s question, is how the American’s perceived “benevolent” assimilation and colonization during this time period is linked to how Spain’ perceived its own colonization. Also, it can call into question how America views its own, former subjugation to British colonization centuries before. Also, when a country reverses its role in the machine of colonialism, how does this change the way it views its past involvement in it?
If we think of the U.S. as a body, the transformation from victim of colonization to perpetrator of colonization reminds us of a common psychological path taken by those who have suffered in the past. According to Abbe Smith, “Although victims do not always become perpetrators, a truism repeated by prosecutors at sentencing as if it were a profound revelation never before put into words, it is the rare serious perpetrator who was not also a victim” (369).
Thinking of the U.S’s reversal of roles in this context, did our route to aggression result from past trauma as a nation at the hands of the British?

Works Cited:
Smith, Abbe, “The “Monster” in All of Us: When Victims Become Perpetrators” (2005). Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. Paper 219.

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