Exposed in the fields

We Are Left Without A Father: Masculinity, Domesticity, and Migration in Postwar Puerto Rico
Eileen J Suárez Findlay
2015, Duke University Press
300 pages, plates, paperback

IF GENDER is at the heart of this study of a little known period in Perto Rico’s postwar history, it also offers a fascinating insight into the deeply exploitative nature of the island’s colonial relationship with the US and the almost parasitic ties that developed between domestic populism and American priorities. As author Eileen Suárez Findlay notes, that relationship, and indeed Puerto Rican patriarchy more broadly, confirmed the colonial relationship rather than contested it.

We Are Left Without A Father examines Operation Farmlift, a migrant labour programme hailed as a solution to mutual problems that went badly wrong. In the summer of 1950 more than 5,000 Puerto Rican agricultural working men were airlifted to Michigan to cultivate and harvest sugar beet at the behest of Puerto Rico’s populist government. The migrant labour programme, seen as crucial by both sides in this equation, aimed at inaugurating a permanent cyclical movement of labour from the Caribbean to the US Midwest. It would help impoverished Puerto Rican families while rescuing the Michigan sugar beet industry. It would help to consolidate the migratory flow of labour that was seen as crucial to Puerto Rico’s development, while directing it away from New York where a large concentration of migrants was beginning to experience a hostile backlash.

However, as Suárez Findlay, notes, the men themselves were responding not only to postwar promises of fruitful labour, but also to a gendered understanding of their role as male breadwinners. She exposes “the effervescent years of populist politics in Puerto Rico as a deeply masculinist project constructed by both working people and political elites.” The idealised family man and his “benevolently patriarchal reign over an idealized domesticity” was a central element in the colonial populism of the ruling Partido Popular Democratico (PPD), similar to that employed by Juan Perón and his glamorous wife Eva in Argentina.

The populist regime we are referring to here was that of Luis Muñoz Marín (1949–65), the first governor of Puerto Rico considered to be the architect of the country’s commonwealth status under US control – and more responsible than any figure in history for destroying the independence movement through his clampdown on nationalist activity. Muñoz Marín and his peers played on the notion of Puerto Rican men travelling abroad to send home fat paycheques as responsible husbands and fathers forging a new domesticity on the poor island.

Huge hopes and expectations were, as a result, invested in Operation Farmlift, hailed at the time as the “biggest mass migration in commercial aviation history”, but it soon went awry because of the appalling working and living conditions inflicted on the migrants by their US masters, and the self-evident lies they had been told by the ruling PPD politicians back home.

Suárez Findlay writes: “… the Puerto Ricans’ anticipation of collaborative hard work, helping to sustain the US sugar beet industry while sending ample paychecks back to create domesticity and prosperity in the island, quickly shattered. Colonial-like abuses, they found, were alive and well in the fields of Michigan. Equal, dignified US citizenship was a chimera. Luis Muñoz Marín, their trusted political father, had failed them. Their enraged responses … would soon create a crisis for their beloved governor and his North American allies.” [p 120]

Protests, desertions and eventually political clashes in Puerto Rico and Washington threatened to kill at birth any aspirations the governor had to rewrite the Puerto Rican constitution in order to consolidate the island’s colonial status within the US commonwealth. The slave-like conditions endured by men involved in Operation Farmlift rocked the ground on which the populists were trying to build their constructive yet subservient relationship with the empire, leading to long struggles for back pay and compensation and ultimately ending the PPD’s larger push for massive Puerto Rican migration to the rural Midwest.

Perhaps most significantly, it united both men and women in opposition to the populistic paternalism that had been so spuriously employed by Muñoz Marín and the PPD to help fetter their country to the metropolis.

The author writes: “The postwar domesticity discourses, begun as an attempt at island uplift and invoked internationally by Puerto Rican officials in order to manage the 1930s crisis of the island’s relationship with its colonial metropolis, also spun out of the state’s control. Masking their own longstanding tensions over the garnering and distribution of family economic resources, labouring Puerto Rican women and men united in 1950 to wield the domesticity rhetoric against their government’s betrayal of its paternalistic promises.” [pp 182–83]