Commentary on Jorell Meléndez Badillo’s The Lettered Barriada: Workers, Archival Power, and the Politics of Knowledge in Puerto Rico

Rosa E. Cordero Cruz (Ph.D. Student, Latin American History)

[Commentary to Jorell Melendez Badillo's book talk hosted by CLAS's Caribbean Studies Working Group]

Thank you, Dr. Melendez Badillo, for such a wonderful presentation. I’m going to present my comments and, once I am done, we can move on to the Q&A.

As stated by Dr. Melendez Badillo, this book follows the story of a cluster of obreros ilustrados as they transitioned from workingmen in the margins of Puerto Rico’s cultural and intellectual elite to becoming highly respected and influential politicians and statemen. It details how they challenged the intellectual elite, yet in the process, erased the experiences and contributions of women and Afro-Puerto Ricans from the labor historiography.

Amongst the many fascinating phenomena this book details, one of the themes that stood out to me was his tracing of the myth of La Gran Familia Puertorriquena, or the early-twentieth century transition into racelessness which successfully promoted a publicly racially harmonious society that simultaneously afforded white or non-Black workingmen dominance through racially charged, yet outwardly raceless, discourses of Puertorriqueñidad.

In the process, Dr. Melendez offers a rich history that highlights the racial and class undertones that Black workingmen and women navigated. He also acknowledges the complexities and, at times contradictions that surged from marginalized individual’s interactions with systems of social exclusion.

For example, the book tells the story of José Ferrer y Ferrer, which Dr. Melendez Badillo introduces as one of the lettered barriada’s main architects.

Amongst his many contributions, Ferrer y Ferrer published a fictional work in Ensayo Obrero, that detailed the story of Anselmo. In this story, Anselmo, after toasting to the country’s “Muertos illustres” proceeded to praise his fiancé, Marianita, for her exemplary domesticity.

Moreover, the story takes a turn when an onlooker, angered by Anselmo’s speech called him a “Mambí” (a term used to reference the members (who were mainly of African descent) of the Cuban Liberation Army). To use the words of Dr. Melendez: It was then that the author provided an important insight: Anselmo, just like Ferrer y Ferrer, is Black.

As stated by Dr. Melendez Badillo, Ferrer y Ferrer’s story echoes nineteenth-century codes of honor that promoted male civility and female domesticity. The story also demonstrates the speculative work historian’s of early twentieth century Puerto Rico engage in when confronted with the raceless “archives of Puertorriquenidad”. The term “Mambi” was the only part of the text that hinted at Anselmo’s race and Dr. Badillo utilized it as an opportunity to imagine the racial status of the fictional character created by an Afro-Puerto Rican man. Through that analysis, the Lettered Barriada demonstrates the interaction between early twentieth century codes of honor and race. It also hints at how, although essentially exclusionary, the myth of La Gran Familia Puertorriquena, through its intimate relationship with discourses of respectability and morality, left Black men feeling like they could somehow negotiate the systems of social exclusion through their embodiment and performance of white patriarchal standards of manliness.

The list of examples goes on with Dr. Melendez including the stories of Juan Vilar, a Black workingman who never included race in his critiques even when speaking about slavery, and Mateo Perez Sanjuri, a Black agricultural worker-turned-landowner who would perform respectability through his clothes. In Melendez’s book, Perez Sanjuri was quoted stating, “I was Black, but I was always well dressed.” In that sense, it could be said that Black actors somewhat assisted in the whitening of Puerto Rico’s labor movement by asserting a De Africanized and dignified Blackness through their navigation of early twentieth-century understandings of a respectable masculinity. They also performed their respectability (as is observed through the fictional Anselmo and his relationship with his fiancé) by establishing an intimate proximity to partners who embodied a complacent and feminine domesticity

In that sense, Dr. Melendez, who, on one dimension, is telling the story of the obreros ilustrados who existed within the margins of the intellectual elites, also includes a story about the margins within the margins or the multiple grey areas and aspects of working-class knowledge-productions. In other words, he demonstrates how the individuals who were excluded from the (white) archives of Puertorriqueñidad also created their own ideational archives (or counterarchives) and engaged in certain exclusionary practices.

This analysis continues when looking into the hidden gendered dimensions of the Lettered Barriada

As stated before, amongst those excluded and silenced from the same parties they dedicated their lives to were women, especially Black working-class women like Juana Colón. She is represented in the artwork used as this book’s cover.

However, one woman who is not entirely forgotten and who is the most famous in Puerto Rican historiography and popular discourse for her militancy is Luisa Capetillo, the white daughter of French and Spanish immigrants. She is represented as the only workingwoman whose male counterparts considered an obrera illustrada.

Just like the men, she mobilized print media to articulate and immortalize her ideas on women’s rights and education as well as free love. Today, we remember her as the queer icon who caused a scandal- or two- because of her keenness for male fashion.

But even though we’ve come to know her as this radical, militant, and feminist icon, Badillo challenges those representations by forcing us to wonder about the limitations that might exist behind our memory of her. By casting doubt over whether Capetillo’s rebellious antics were a transgression or a maneuvering of her male-dominated surroundings, Dr. Melendez makes us wonder if her knowledge-production and the counterarchive that surged because of it worked, not against, but with the official archive of Puertorriqueñidad. While Melendez doesn’t deny the importance of Capetillo or her work, he subtly encourages us to reconsider her role whithin the general narrative as she is the only women – the only *white* woman -who was able to somewhat form a part of the archives of Puertorriquenidad.

Again, I use all of these examples provided in Melendez Badillo’s book to say that this is a work that really delves into the complexities, nuances, and contradictions that framed these subjects’ lives and illuminates the limitations and infinite unknowns that we are faced with when struggling to reconstruct excluded and forgotten contributions and knowledge-productions.