Luis Felipe Dessús and US Citizenship for Black Puerto Ricans

• October 2017

The year 1917 marked three important events in the life of Puerto Rican Luis Felipe Dessús: on 2 March the United States granted citizenship to all Puerto Ricans; he traveled to the United States; and he founded his literary and political magazine, Pancho Ibero.1 These three seemingly unrelated events provided the experience and platform Dessús needed to take aim directly at the United States as a primary threat to Afro-descendants on the island and broadly in the Caribbean. This discussion essay examines a series of twenty-two articles titled “La raza de color y la independencia de Puerto Rico,” in which Dessús presents his motives for independence along with a reaffirmation of a positive black identity.2 The articles foreground Dessús’s preoccupation about the United States taking Puerto Rico as a territory and the impact on “la raza de color.” Dessús highlights the practices of legal segregation and violence against blacks in the United States, warning his readers that such practices would soon arrive on the island. Dessús’s work, though marginal, provides a critique of recolonization, identifying the colonial strategies used by the United States that have unequivocally caused harm to people of color on the island.

Luis Felipe Dessús was born in the southern, sugar-growing region of Juana Díaz in 1875. An autodidact, he wrote across many genres and espoused a fierce political critique in his writings, which once landed him in prison.3 He died in Ponce on 15 December 1920. Near the end of his life, he had achieved some political success, serving in Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives.4 He published two books—Flores y balas (1916) and Album de Guayama (1918)—and contributed to multiple periodicals, such as La Justicia, La Democracia, El Mundo, and Puerto Rico Ilustrado. His magazine Pancho Ibero became the primary platform to voice his political views, which, although marginal at the time, today reveal telling implications for Puerto Ricans of color who were silenced in popular discourses.

Dessús understood that the US capitalist colonial enterprise was masked by what Ramón Grosfoguel calls “civilizational and cultural strategies to gain consent and demonstrate the ‘superiority’ of the ‘West.’”5 Dessús, who was acutely aware of the persuasive promise of the development-and-progress rhetoric that many of the island’s upper- and middle-class citizens bought into, recognized that complicity between the US and Puerto Rican elites would disproportionately take advantage of black Puerto Ricans. Dessús did not bite his tongue when he described the mixture of elite landowners and their loyal political representatives as “el podrido ambiente de una demagogia insoportable.”6 This critical stance accurately identified the leaders orchestrating the annexation that would allow Puerto Ricans to become increasingly dependent on US imports and investments. 

Dessús claimed that both annexation and statehood would inevitably bring a racist, “false democracy” to the island. He argued that an independent Puerto Rico was the only way for blacks and mulattoes to attain self-determination. Even though Dessús recognized the near impossibility of independence at that time, he advocated for the “ideal” as an emancipatory move, a libertad that could be achieved both individually and collectively. Intentional about reclaiming a sense of humanity that had been stolen by the early colonizers and now again by a new form of colonization, Dessús contrasts the racist assumption that African descendants and indigenous peoples of the Americas lacked civilization represented by the “progress” of the European West. The writer reminds his readers that humankind had its origins in Africa, affirming that “la raza negra es la raza madre de la humanidad, y fue ella la que sentó en el mundo los cimientos de la civilización.”7 While members of the elite classes who read this may have simply ignored or scoffed at this statement, it spoke directly to black Puerto Ricans, articulating a silenced truth about their role in developing the Americas. Dessús’s simple assertion resisted the denial of humanity that he considered to be the greatest threat to the people of the New World. Independence may have been the least attainable option at the time without a veritable violent overthrow; nonetheless, Dessús articulated the need for the ideal of sovereignty in Puerto Rico as the only viable struggle for blacks. In order to uphold this ideal, the writer attempted to undo the complex web of forces that he viewed as the most harmful to black Puerto Ricans.

In his series of articles, Dessús treads carefully when parsing out the implications of US “democracy” on the population of color. At times, he argues that the harmonious social relations in Puerto Rico are under threat, other times he prioritizes the effects that will unfairly target people of color. Dessús walks this discursive tightrope to prevent alienating himself from his readership. To further appeal to a general audience and unify the island’s residents, Dessús uses the horrific mob violence against blacks to demonize the US application of democracy. Citing an article from the Crisis, Dessús translated: “Juan Hartfield fué lynchado . . . porque él y [una] mujer blanca sostenían relaciones amorosas . . . Se dice que gran número de personas de color fueron muertas por el motín durante los diez días que duró la búsqueda de Hartfield. . . . Cuando Hartfield empezó a explicar a los amotinados sus relaciones con la mujer la turba le sacó la lengua.”8 The violent images are intended to shock his readership and imply a threat to the way of life in Puerto Rico. Dessús shows the gruesome result of an interracial relationship in the United States to exemplify the incompatibility with the mixed population of the island. He utilized translations of black press from the United States to show Puerto Ricans of color what they could expect from the imposed US policies, such as forced segregation, mob violence, and lynching.

The fact that Dessús traveled to New York before writing these articles may have been essential in his articulation of a positive black identity in his writing. In Puerto Rico, the act of publicly discussing racial issues was generally considered divisive and a “racist” practice.9 However, Dessús broke from this practice, frequently referring to “negros puertorriqueños,” “la raza negra,” and “la gente de color,” thus marking a distinction between European and Afro/indigenous descendants and resisting the typical homogenization of Puerto Ricans, which was used to silence the unequal social conditions among the population and further the myth of racial harmony on the island. His noteworthy use of language referring to Puerto Ricans of color indicates a likely influence from black discourses within the United States or at least an attempt to participate in the black international networks of the time.10   

Dessús looked to the characteristics of black soldiers in Cuba’s wars for independence and US black regiments during WWI to create a positive black identity. He devotes five articles of his series to the concept of the black soldier. In the final article he attributes the leadership of black soldiers to the success of the Cuban independence: “Los hermanos Maceo, Moncada, Guillermón, Qui[n]tín Banderas . . . fueron los que firme el brazo y el ideal inmaculado, se agitaron entre los peligros de la espesura para darle a la gran Antilla la libertad de q. hoy disfruta.”11 While the figures of Cuban independence provided an archetype for Puerto Ricans of color to emulate, Dessús also saw a marked change in the disposition of US blacks, whom he suggests had a renewed purpose on returning home from military service in World War I, having shed their fear of death and having gained valuable tools to fight for ideals of liberty.12 While Dessús ultimately alerts his readers to the glaring inequalities brought by the United States with segregated military regiments in the National Guard, he argues that black Puerto Ricans should fight for independence following the example of black Cubans (fighting against US intervention), though he does not adequately resolve the incongruities that US military conscription would inflict on the black population.

Noting that black Puerto Ricans were willing to enlist in the US regiments during WWI, Dessús draws attention to the prohibition of blacks from serving as officers to argue that the National Guard would not provide a fair platform for blacks to protect their own interests. Rather, he claims that this newly created branch of defense would be used to further inhibit blacks’ self-determination, merely conscripting them as muscle to enforce racist US policies against their own countrymen. Dessús thus suggests that blacks boycott enlisting in the National Guard to demonstrate that they are indispensable. He mocks the absurdity of an all-white Puerto Rican regiment and reinforces the historic contributions that blacks have always played in the development of the island.13

Dessús’s proindependence arguments resound one hundred years later, underscoring the complexity of multilayered and unequal relationships between the island and the US mainland. As the Puerto Rican population continues to decline each year, as its compounding debt grows exponentially out of control with no means of declaring bankruptcy, as the damage from hurricanes leave millions in the dark because of aging infrastructure, as the public education system is forced to close hundreds of public schools, the territorial relation to the wealthy United States does not seem to favor the residents of the island. Given this growing inequality, Dessús’s assertion about the effects of US citizenship and reaffirmation of a positive black identity deserve to be revisited today.

 

Satty Flaherty-Echeverría is an assistant professor of Spanish at Centre College. Her research focuses on race and black intellectual histories in the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking diasporas. She has published her work in the C. L. R. James Journal, the Interdisciplinary Journal of Portuguese Diaspora Studies, and Letras Hispanas.

 


1 Pancho Ibero as a proper name represents one of the first attempts to define the Puerto Rican national subject. See César J. Ayala and Rafael Bernabe, Puerto Rico in the American Century: A History since 1898 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009). According to Ayala and Bernabe, “The very name of this fictional character allowed for little appreciation of the African dimension of Puerto Rican culture”(78). This lack of appreciation was expressed in the adjective ibero (Iberian), which solely claimed Spanish heritage. However, Dessús used this archetype to name his magazine in which he published his most critical work against the racist imperial agenda of the United States. José I. Fusté explains that the publication “combined a nationalist/separatist editorial slant with an occasional focus on black internationalism.” José I. Fusté, “Unsettling Citizenship/Circumventing Sovereignty: Reexamining the Quandaries of Contemporary Anticolonialism in the United States through Black Puerto Rican Antiracist Thought,” American Quarterly 66, no. 1 (2014): 166.

2 In 2011, Roberto Ramos-Perea included a reprint of fragments of the series in Literatura puertorriqueña negra del siglo XIX escrita por negros as an attempt to make the text known. According to the footnote on the text, Ramos-Perea’s choice of publishing only part of the series was because of the lack of resources he had; however, he mentions that there is one copy of the original magazine from 1917–20—the only set remaining in the Ateneo Library in Puerto Rico—that contains the series. See Roberto Ramos-Perea, Literatura puertorriqueña negra del siglo XIX escrita por negros (San Juan: Ateneo Puertorriqueño, 2009), 473. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a research library of the New York Public Library, contains a microfilm of the magazine issues that include the series; however, article number XV is missing.

3 In 1905, Dessús went to jail for six months because he had, under the pseudonym Marat, written an article in the Puerto Rico Eagle directly criticizing the education official of Juana Díaz, Santa Isabel, and Coamo for his abuse of authority. In his book Flores y balas (1916), Dessús explains that he wrote some of the poems during his time in jail. See Laurence E. Prescott, “Nacionalismo y conciencia racial en los escritos de Luis Felipe Dessús: El viaje de un afro-puertorriqueño hacia la liberación,” Cuadernos de Literatura 19, no. 38 (2015): 230.

4 Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro–Latin American Biography (2016), s.v. “Dessús, Luis Felipe.”

5 Ramón Grosfoguel, Colonial Subjects: Puerto Ricans in a Global Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 3.

6 “The rotten environment of an unbearable demagoguery”; Luis Felipe Dessús, “La raza de color y la independencia de Puerto Rico, XXI,” Pancho Ibero, 31 January 1920, 2. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are mine.

7 “The black race is the mother of humanity; it was the one that established in the world the foundations of civilization”; Luis Felipe Dessú, “La raza de color y la independencia de Puerto Rico, I,” Pancho Ibero 23 August 1919, 2.

8 Luis Felipe Dessús, “La raza de color y la independencia de Puerto Rico, IX,” Pancho Ibero, 19 October 1919, 2. “John Hartfield was lynched . . . because he and the white woman were lovers. . . . It is said that a large number of colored people were put to death by the mob during the ten days in which they were searching for Hartfield. When Hartfield started to tell the mob about his relations with the woman, his tongue was cut out”; Crisis 18, no. 6 (1919); reprinted in The Crisis, Volumes 15–18 (Crisis Publishing, 1919), 309.

9 Ileana M. Rodríguez-Silva, Silencing Race: Disentangling Blackness, Colonialism, and National Identities in Puerto Rico (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 238.

10 The asymmetrical exchange between African Americans and black Puerto Ricans can be exemplified in the two lines that mentioned Dessús’s book Flores y balas in the Crisis. See W. E. B. Du Bois, ed., Crisis 16, no.1 (May 1918): 21. Even though there is little information on the relationship of Dessús with African American intellectuals, he might have established a relationship with Arturo Schomburg during his visit to New York City in August 1917.

11 “The brothers Maceo, Moncada, Guillermón, Qui[n]tin Banderas . . . were the firm arm and the immaculate ideal, they risen amongst the dangers of the bushes to give the great Antille the liberty that enjoys today”; Dessús, “La raza de color y la independencia de Puerto Rico, XXII,” Pancho Ibero, 7 February 1920, 2.

12 See Luis Felipe Dessú, “La raza de color y la independencia de Puerto Rico, X,” Pancho Ibero, 25 October 1919, 2.

 

13 Dessús states, “La hora es para pensar . . . ¿Se formará la Guardia Nacional con portorriqueños blancos de color? Tengan cuidado los blancos. Abran los ojos los negros” (“It is the time for thinking . . . Would the National Guard be formed with white Puerto Ricans? Whites, be careful! Blacks, open your eyes!”); Luis Felipe Dessú, “La raza de color y la independencia de Puerto Rico, XI,” Pancho Ibero, 8 November 1919, 2.

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