Ismael García-Colón. Land Reform in Puerto Rico: Modernizing the Colonial State, 1941-1969. New Directions in Puerto Rican Studies. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009. 184 pp. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-3363-1.
Reviewed by Jaime Partsch
Published on H-LatAm (November, 2009)
Commissioned by Kenneth Kincaid
Hegemony, Space, and Community in a Colonial State: Parcelas in Puerto Rico
In the introduction to Land Reform in Puerto Rico, author Ismael García-Colón informs the reader that the work is the product of a combination of several theoretical approaches: social anthropology, historical anthropology, political science, and history. García-Colón makes use of oral history interviews, participant-observation, and the study of historical documents to analyze a specific historical process that contributed to the consolidation of a new, "modern," colonial state in Puerto Rico. He writes that his "purpose with this approach is to help create a bridge between Puerto Rican, Latino, Caribbean and Latin American studies" (p. 6). In this regard, García-Colón accomplishes his goal in an admirable way.
García-Colón studies the impact of a particular series of land reforms in Puerto Rico starting with the Land Act of 1941. He analyzes the changes brought about as a result of this and other legislative acts in the context of global efforts from the 1940s to the 1960s to "modernize" rural populations, particularly in Latin America. In his analysis, the author looks at the landless agricultural workers of Puerto Rico as subalterns within a social system in which there is a dynamic and conflictive process surrounding the use and meaning of land. He strives to demonstrate how the agregados (landless farm workers) were not only the beneficiaries of governmental programs designed to incorporate them into a "modern colonial state" but also protagonists in their own processes of constructing community, organizing their economy, and finding meaning in their newfound circumstances, themselves a result of land reform. The author utilizes the hegemony theories of Antonio Gramsci to explain the relationships between the agregado communities and the renovated colonial bureaucracy in Puerto Rico. García-Colón presents the development of these communities as an example of the consent and coercion factors that make up hegemonic dynamics in Gramsci's vision. Even though parcela residents may have initially accepted the government's objectives for these reforms, during the following decades, both residents and bureaucrats adapted means and objectives to the changing economic situation on the island. In the end, he demonstrates how the industrialization plans for a modern Puerto Rico, plans that included the redistribution of land, failed to incorporate these workers into the labor force necessary for the success of a manufacturing economy.
The author proposes a "bottom-up analysis" of the topic of land reform in Puerto Rico. He makes a great effort to describe the process of change that took place in these communities from the point of view of the parceleros (the name given to the thousands of landless Puerto Ricans who received plots as part of the government’s reform program). Dozens of oral history interviews provide a glimpse into the mentality of the residents. In doing so, he brings his personal experiences to the process. He, himself, is the son of a parcelero. Although land parcels were distributed beginning in the 1930s under New Deal programs, it was not until the mid-1940s that a wide-scale effort was made to bring landless farmers into the reform process. García-Colón's work is based specifically on the experiences of his home community, Parcelas Gándaras in the town of Cidra, located in the center of Puerto Rico. From this background he looks at the role that the residents of parcelas had in the construction of their own communities. This position of "insider" gives the book a strong sense of empathy toward the situations of the agregados and parceleros.
The work is clear in its organization and in the development of major topics. The second chapter provides the reader with the necessary background information about the economic and political processes at work in Cidra. Chapter 3 effectively summarizes efforts that were made to bring about land reform prior to the 1941 law. The fourth chapter describes the initial stages of land distribution under the Agregado Resettlement Program, including the Parcelas Gándaras community. Chapter 5 examines one of the major efforts that was directed to form a new type of "citizen" in the agregado communities. Here, the work of the Social Programs Administration is analyzed. Chapters 6 and 7 deal with some of the unintended results of the land reform programs. In these two chapters, the author pays particular attention to the many ways in which the residents of these government-sponsored communities adapted to their new surroundings and effectively organized their environments to suit their particular objectives, oftentimes in direct conflict with government aims. In chapter 7, García-Colón illustrates how the land distribution program had become, by the decade of 1960, a housing program and had effectively lost any linkage to agricultural production or rural development. The industrialization program begun in the later 1940s and expanded into the Operation Bootstrap Program of the Luis Muñoz-Marín administration made industrial development a priority for the island's economy. Government officials sought to establish parcela communities near the new industrial facilities to provide sources of cheap labor as well as higher income jobs for former agricultural workers. In the course of two decades, the parcela residents lost their connections to agricultural activities effectively becoming salaried factory employees. Nevertheless, the situation was further complicated by the fact that Operation Bootstrap was never able to create a firm industrial base with strong island roots. Consequently, the downturn in manufacturing during the last decades has left parcela residents without employment and without land to cultivate. The text concludes with an examination of how this thirty-year-long program put in place many of the characteristics of contemporary Puerto Rico.
In his conclusion, García-Colón states that most scholars who have investigated land reform and twentieth-century political processes in Puerto Rico have underestimated the importance of the Agregado Resettlement Program. Recent events on the island have served to confirm the continuing relevance of the topics brought up in this work. Land rights and the use of the distribution of land titles by political leaders for personal benefit continue to make headlines on the island. The most recent example of this practice is the threat made by the mayor of San Juan to cut off municipal services to some thirty-five thousand residents of several neighborhoods who have challenged his decision to personally distribute property deeds to residents in their area. In addition, island newspapers report daily on the threats of the commonwealth government to dislodge by force the residents of a squatter community in the town of Toa Baja. The political significance that land distribution had in 1941 has varied in its manifestations, but the struggle between hegemonic and subaltern groups to establish effective controls over disputed spaces continues to be a crucial part of Puerto Rico in the twenty-first century.
Land Reform in Puerto Rico should be of interest to anyone who wishes to learn more about Latin American land reform projects of the mid-twentieth century. The interweaving of personal testimonies, historical documentation, and well-presented analysis makes this book well worth reading.
. "Preparado Santini para repartir títulos de propiedad Caño Martín Peña," El Vocero de Puerto Rico, June 25, 2009.
: Modernizing the Colonial State, 1941 - 1949
--the name given to the thousands of landless Puerto Ricans who received plots as part of the government’s reform program
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Jaime Partsch. Review of García-Colón, Ismael, Land Reform in Puerto Rico: Modernizing the Colonial State, 1941-1969.
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