The United States military invasion of Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War unleashed on the island a process that had begun to sweep the entire region: the cultural influence of the United States. This influence grew in huge strides in the measure that the United States increased and exercised its economic and military power over Central America and the Caribbean. Once Puerto Rico came under U.S. jurisdiction, it was subject to an intense process of assimilation, a process similar to the one faced by many European immigrants who came to the United States. Through the implementation of the welfare state, plus some social engineering known as the progressive movement, they were educated with the cultural tools they needed to integrate into society under U.S. social norms. This process of cultural assimilation of immigrants was called Americanization. In the colonial context of Puerto Rico, however, Americanization is a complicated and contentious concept that refers to a variety of things, depending on the social, national and ethnic perspectives of the person expressing it. Similarly, the concept has changed in meaning over time.

For most of the Puerto Rican political leadership, the “arrival of the Americans” meant the hope that the liberal social, economic and political reforms that had been fought for under the Spanish regime would be established. For that reason, political parties and civic organizations lobbied for the immediate incorporation of the island as a state in the U.S. federation. However, for the majority of Americans, especially the dominant classes, Puerto Ricans were not considered capable of governing themselves, much less assuming the rights and duties of U.S. citizens. From the imperial perspective of white, Protestant supremacy, Puerto Rico was inhabited by a racially mixed population of Spanish background with Catholicism as their religion and an aristocratic government. To them, the island was not fertile ground for developing a civilized culture. From this perspective of material and cultural superiority, the Puerto Ricans had to go through a long process of “Americanization” that would “civilize” them until they were capable of assuming the responsibilities of citizenship. Americanization, then, was the term that covered both the modern aspirations of Puerto Ricans and the civilizing mission of the imperialist Americans.

In 1900, the United States Congress approved the Foraker Act, which organized a civil government in Puerto Rico. This law was the main tool in economic and political Americanization by integrating Puerto Rico into the U.S. economic and political system. The civil government was structured under the strong control of U.S. interests because the governor, more than half the Executive Council (which also served as the upper house of the legislature) and the Supreme Court justices were Americans appointed by the president. Similarly, the act established a legal regime that reorganized the economic structure of the island for the benefit of the United States. This law approved the free market between the United States and Puerto Rico, installed the dollar as the official currency and depreciated the value of the peso (and the property) by 40%. These measures unleashed dramatic changes in the island’s social structure, changes in the ownership of productive land, and were particularly damaging to the industry that until then had been the main source of wealth: coffee.

This economic and political Americanization was accompanied by an attempt at cultural assimilation, officially implemented through the use of English as the language of instruction in public education. Public schools educated several generations of Puerto Rican children from the perspective of the dominant class in the United States, emphasizing U.S. history and transmitting the values of U.S. republicanism. There were many difficulties in implementing this policy efficiently, however. Although young Americans came to work as teachers, there weren’t enough to meet the needs of the ambitious project. The vast majority of teachers were Puerto Ricans who were not prepared to teach the various subjects in English. It should also be noted that this policy of cultural assimilation was not accompanied by censorship or persecution for using the Spanish language, nor for displays of Puerto Rican culture and daily traditions. In fact, Spanish was part of the curriculum, but as a second language. It was not until 1948 that public education changed to Spanish as the language of instruction and English as a second language.

The Protestant missionaries that came to evangelize Puerto Ricans have also been identified as an Americanizing cultural influence. Remember that in the U.S. mentality, Catholicism was an anti-democratic and retrograde religion. The structure of the U.S. Protestant churches that came to evangelize was one of broad participation in administration and decision-making in each religious community. Thus, the missionaries from the United States founded a variety of churches on the island that formed a generation of Puerto Ricans who occupied leadership positions in those communities. Over time, these Protestant churches responded to the spiritual needs of the Puerto Ricans who joined them.

Another powerful force of Americanization was seen in the imposition of U.S. citizenship through the second organic law: the Jones Act of 1917. Citizenship has given many Puerto Rican families the freedom to move to the states in search of new and better economic and professional opportunities. Many of them formed vibrant communities in several locations and, within the U.S. context, consider themselves Puerto Ricans and lovingly preserve the culture of their parents and grandparents. In a similar way, the participation of thousands of young Puerto Ricans in the United States military has served as a strong cultural influence by involving them in an environment of rigid discipline and defense of U.S. values. It should also be remembered that many Puerto Ricans have gained university or technical educations due to the military, which has provided them with various routes to social and material progress directly associated with “American ways and means.”

Americanization and globalization

After World War II, the United States consolidated its position as the main economic, political and military power in the world, and as such, its vigorous cultural industry has influenced other countries to varying degrees. The movie industry, through thousands of films, has broadcast the consumerist values of U.S. society since the early 20th century. The television networks have also had a gigantic influence, not only through the exportation of television programs, but also because they establish the parameters that rule local entertainment and advertising industries. The music industry, interactive games and the Internet are also important expressions of cultural influence. However it is also true that cultural interaction, however unequal it may be, is a two-way street, so these industries are also influenced by the culture of the receiving societies in a long and complicated cultural exchange, also known as globalization.

Despite the political and economic control of the island and the powerful U.S. cultural influence over it, Puerto Rican cultural expressions have been strong and dynamic enough to survive and evolve in their own idiosyncratic historical currents and, at the same time, adapt and even Puerto Ricanize forms of U.S. culture.

Author: Pablo Samuel Torres
Published: February 21, 2016.

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