Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race in Puerto Rico, 1870-1920

Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race in Puerto Rico, 1870-1920

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by Eileen J. Suárez Findlay

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Feminists, socialists, Afro-Puerto Rican activists, and elite politicians join laundresses, prostitutes, and dissatisfied wives in populating the pages of Imposing Decency. Through her analyses of Puerto Rican anti-prostitution campaigns, attempts at reforming marriage, and working-class ideas about free love, Eileen J. Suárez Findlay exposes theSee more details below


Feminists, socialists, Afro-Puerto Rican activists, and elite politicians join laundresses, prostitutes, and dissatisfied wives in populating the pages of Imposing Decency. Through her analyses of Puerto Rican anti-prostitution campaigns, attempts at reforming marriage, and working-class ideas about free love, Eileen J. Suárez Findlay exposes the race-related double standards of sexual norms and practices in Puerto Rico between 1870 and 1920, the period that witnessed Puerto Rico’s shift from Spanish to U.S. colonialism.
In showing how political projects and alliances in Puerto Rico were affected by racially contingent definitions of “decency” and “disreputability,” Findlay argues that attempts at moral reform and the state’s repression of “sexually dangerous” women were weapons used in batttles between elite and popular, American and Puerto Rican, and black and white. Based on a thorough analysis of popular and elite discourses found in both literature and official archives, Findlay contends that racialized sexual norms and practices were consistently a central component in the construction of social and political orders. The campaigns she analyzes include an attempt at moral reform by elite male liberals and a movement designed to enhance the family and cleanse urban space that ultimately translated into repression against symbollically darkened prostitutes. Findlay also explores how U.S. officials strove to construct a new colonial order by legalizing divorce and how feminist, labor, and Afro-Puerto Rican political demands escalated after World War I, often focusing on the rehabilitation and defense of prostitutes.
Imposing Decency forces us to rethink previous interpretations of political chronologies as well as reigning conceptualizations of both liberalism and the early working-class in Puerto Rico. Her work will appeal to scholars with an interest in Puerto Rican or Latin American studies, sexuality and national identity, women in Latin America, and general women’s studies.

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Imposing Decency

The Politics of Sexuality and Race in Puerto Rico, 1870â"1920

By Eileen J. Suárez Findlay

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9701-4


Respectable Ponce: Deciphering the Codes of Power, 1855–1898

My sister is a poor orphan, with no patrimony but her honor. —Presbítero Velez, "Contra Andrés Nieves Servano," 1901, AGPR

The declarant says that she has had romantic relations for about a year with Antonio Laubriel, who visited her house with her parents' consent. But people began to murmur that she was pregnant, which was untrue. Since she had already been slandered by the public, she decided to go and live with my lover.... The declarant states that Laubriel neither persuaded her nor forced her to go with him. That night she lost her virginal state, which she had carefully conserved until then.

—"Sobre rapto de Francisca Vega," 1887, AGPR

On Christmas Eve 1894, sixteen-year-old Teresa Astacio ran off in the middle of the night with Santos Vargas, a pardo laborer who had been hired to pick coffee on the farm of Teresa's father. The next morning, the news spread like wildfire in Montes Llanos, the rural sector of Ponce where the Astacios lived. After unsuccessfully searching for the two, Don Dionicio Astacio, a widowed smallholding landowner, stormed into the home of the alcalde de barrio and denounced Vargas for kidnapping his daughter and "robbing her of her purity."

When the couple was finally located and brought into court several months later, they told rather different stories. Facing the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence for having dishonored a virgin, Santos insisted that after they had established a courtship, Teresa admitted to him that she was not a virgin and asked him to take her away with him. The two left Teresa's home, had intercourse, and began living together. Despite her alleged lack ofvirginity, Santos claimed, he had intended to marry Teresa and thus redeem her stained honor. But when he left her alone one night about a week later, Teresa left Santos to take up with his good friend Balbino Zayas, who was also a landless day laborer. Balbino and Teresa had been living together at the home of Balbino's father ever since. Consequently, Santos was no longer interested in marrying his former sweetheart; he prevailed on the court to recognize his claim that he had not deflowered her and consequently to refrain from punishing him.

Teresa, on the other hand, insisted that although she had left her father's house with Vargas, intending to make love and live with the impoverished laborer after only a two-week courtship, she had indeed lost her virginity that fateful Christmas Eve and therefore was honorable. Teresa confirmed that she had left Santos to live with his pardo friend Balbino, but not, as Santos had implied, owing to her immorality. Rather, she left "because it was not convenient to continue living with Vargas. He set me up in a house that didn't even belong to him, and he made me serve him like a servant; I'm not accustomed to that."

When interrogated about his role in the drama, Balbino said that he had never asked Teresa whether she had been a virgin when she left her father's home; it had "never occurred to him to do so." A number of wealthy, white, landowning neighbors, however, did not show the same disinterest in Teresa's virginity. Their testimony centered on her "unstained" sexual reputation. Teresa had never been known to have had a romantic relationship with anyone before. Before her sexual escapades of the last few months, she had always been "properly contained" within her father's house and therefore had been considered by everyone who knew her to be a virgin and a respectable young woman.

Before the court could render a decision in the matter of marriage and the reparation of Teresa's honor, however, Don Dionicio and Teresa appeared before the judge and pardoned Santos Vargas. Teresa was no longer interested in marrying him (if she ever had been), and Don Dionicio perhaps feared that the court would either formally find that his daughter had indeed not been "pure" when she left with Santos or that it would order a socially unacceptable marriage.

Officially recorded cases of cross-class romances between poor, Afro-Puerto Rican men and daughters of allegedly white landholders, even illiterate landowners such as Don Dionicio, were rare in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, Teresa and Santos's story—and the story that each told about it—offers some fascinating glimpses into a number of issues to be explored in this chapter.

The script of female honor, based on the maintenance of a woman's virginity and sexual fidelity, which, once lost, was only reparable by marriage to the conquering male, was clearly well known by all parties involved. Teresa, Santos, Don Dionicio, and the Astacios' neighbors all employed elements of this discourse in their presentations to the magistrate. Yet each hoped to achieve different ends by appropriating the common language of honor andrespectability. Indeed, honor, as we can see from this case, could be profoundly contradictory. Restoring Teresa's honor by ordering her marriage to an impoverished pardo man would have subverted the class and race hierarchies that cemented Don Dionicio's superiority over landless Afro-Puerto Rican laborers, rather than confirming them, as the defense of female honor was intended to do. In addition, the very definition of respectability could vary widely from class to class. Balbino's acceptance of Teresa's shifting sexual alliances contrasted markedly with her white, wealthy male neighbors' preoccupation with her chastity.

Furthermore, the divergent social expectations of women across Ponce's class spectrum helped produce very different experiences of womanhood, as Teresa so pointedly stated. She had never experienced the brutal poverty of the landless laboring classes, nor had she performed the kinds of domestic labor expected of her by her plebeian lover. In fact, she may well have been accustomed to enjoying the fruits of servants' domestic labor herself. Being served, rather than having to serve others, was important to her understanding of what it meant to be a respectable woman.

Finally, Teresa's case shows that women did not passively reproduce patriarchal social codes. Rather, they struggled with the men in their lives over the precise definitions of acceptable gendered labor and sexual conduct. Even while accepting the dominant tenets of honor and gender obligations, women often attempted to manipulate them to their own advantage. And like Teresa, who took up with a man of African heritage and then challenged the accepted wisdom that he "owned" her by establishing a more satisfactory sexual alliance with another, sometimes women even dared to openly defy them.

Honor, Power, and Social Conflict

In nineteenth-century Puerto Rico, as in much of Latin America, concepts of honor were based on gendered and racialized beliefs about social ordering, appropriate behavior, and personal worth. Discourses about honor expressed, justified, and enforced the gender, race, and class hierarchies on which society was built. Honor, in other words, was an assertion of power over or in relation to others.

Honor was often invoked by nineteenth-century Ponceños, especially those who enjoyed its benefits, as "natural" and therefore unquestionably legitimate, impervious to change. When linked to the physicality of people's bodies through supposed biological givens such as race and sex, this assertion of naturalness gained added power. In the name of the "natural" privileges implicit in their honor, women and men accepted as white asserted their superiority over Puerto Ricans of African descent; parents claimed authority over their children's lives; and men of all classes insisted on their right to control women. However, neither honor nor the social codes that bestowed or denied its benefits were natural phenomena. They were the products of social contention.

As such, honor did not simply constitute a set of abstract beliefs. Rather, it was embodied in the concrete practices of people in their everyday lives—in sexual relationships, local labor and other economic relations, social interactions, and the courts. These practices had crucial material effects on people's lives, impacting on their possibilities for marriage or sexual partnership, community standing, and economic well-being. As Steve Stern has pointed out in his study of colonial Mexico, honor was only one of several axes around which gender, racial, and class power could be organized. It did, however, provide a powerful medium through which nineteenth-century Puerto Ricans understood and gave meaning to their world and its social order.

In addition, honor discourses did not constitute a singular, unitary code of social respectability that all people interpreted in the same way. Rather, as we saw in Teresa Astacio's story, a variety of discourses about honor, discernible in different groups' language and practices, existed in Puerto Rico by the mid-nineteenth century. At different points, these discourses converged, diverged, and even came into open conflict with each other. The moral norms they delineated marked the outside limits of acceptable behavior and power relations for whichever group was formulating them.

Because they sought to win, consolidate, or contest power relations, all discourses abouthonor and respectability were internally contradictory. These discourses helped order society, but they did so in defense against disorder. Moral norms had to be continually reiterated and actively enforced precisely because they were constantly contested; less powerful individualsand groups often tried to turn the precepts of respectability to their own advantage or invented their own definitions and values. The result was ongoing, multileveled struggles over the terms of "decency." These struggles in turn encoded the great societal conflicts of race, class, and gender. Puerto Ricans' practices and beliefs about respectability provided part of the tension-ridden ground out of which grew the state interventions, collective practices, and social movements that I analyze in this book.

The honor codes that I consider in this chapter were not transhistorical phenomena. They were probably consolidated in Puerto Rico during the sugar boom of 1800-1845. As Francisco Scarano has noted, the rapid expansion of plantations in Puerto Rico's coastal areas, accompanied by massive influxes of both enslaved Africans and wealthy, "white" immigrants, dramatically polarized and rigidified Ponce's racial and class hierarchies. The more fluid social relations that Scarano and others assert marked eighteenth-century Ponce may well have produced sexual norms substantially different from those examined here. In addition, enslaved peoples from various parts of Africa and the Americas, as well as free immigrants, brought their own sexual practices and conceptions of honor with them to Puerto Rico. During the early nineteenth century (1800-1830), when large numbers of people from around the globe were flooding into the island, the collision of cultures may have created a society in which it was more difficult to identify regional definitions of honor. A rigorous investigation of these hypotheses, however, lies beyond my scope here; the sources available to me were produced after the height of the sugar boom in 1845. Rather, I will decipher those honor codes produced once the plantation regime and its cultures were consolidated in Ponce. My analysis will span the pre- and post-abolition periods, since the diffuse honor codes created in Ponce's families and communities displayed a marked consistency both before and after 1873.

The Workings of Honor

Honor in Public

Honor had meaning only in relation to other people. One's ranking on the honor scale depended pardy on how one compared with those in the surrounding community in matters of lineage, wealth, and perceived racial categorization. According to dominant definitions, the whiter and wealthier, the more honorable an individual. In addition, the accomplishment of gender-appropriate behavior determined men's and women's honorability vis-à-vis their social equals. But honor depended heavily on social recognition and public opinion. Only if acknowledged as honorable and paid the proper public deference by one's community could an individual enjoy honor's benefits, no matter how much money or noble a lineage he or she might possess.

Therefore, public standing—the image of a person accepted by the community—ultimately established that person's honor or lack thereof. Indeed, reputation could be more important than one's own actions. In battles over honor, the public construction of reputation became reality. If a young woman was considered a virgin, she was one. Regardless of whether she had actually had intercourse with a man, if a woman was rumored to be "lost," her social standing and chances for marriage could be ruined. Cecilia Miranda was forced to confront this ugly reality when she insisted on attending a "society" dance to which she had pointedly not been invited. Upon her arrival, Gumersindo Beltrán informed her that many people were "disgusted" by her presence there and insisted that she leave; she "was said to be a lost woman and was not worthy of frequenting respectable society gatherings."

Even racial categorization, which supposedly was determined "naturally," could be established through the way a person or group was perceived by others. Phenotype certainly had a good deal of bearing on one's racial identity. Yet money, "good manners," a "respectable" lifestyle, and stylish dress could "whiten" a person. Juan Serrallés, for example, was the son of Juana Colón, an Afro-Puerto Rican woman who was the lover for some years of the wealthy sugar baron Don Sebastian Serrallés. At his birth, Juan was listed in the baptismal record for black and mixed-race people; this indelibly marked him as a "pardo." When he was sixteen, however, Juan was legally recognized as a "natural" (that is, illegitimate) son by his father, thus raising his social status—and probably signaling his father's willingness to provide him with at least some educational or financial support. Years later, when Juan was thirty-three, he petitioned the Crown and the Catholic Church for a certificate of legitimation. It was eventually granted, and Juan was accorded the right to use the honorific title of "Don," thus publicly claiming the status of a white person. In the 1871 census, Don Juan Serrallés appeared as the owner of substantial amounts of land, as well as a number of slaves. He had completed the journey from black to white.

Concomitantly, in sugar areas such as Ponce, outward signs of poverty—ragged dress or plebeian forms of speech—could mark a person as "blacker" than others with similar physical characteristics. "African" behaviors also "darkened." They encompassed all sorts of Afro-Puerto Rican-based cultural activities, such as dancing the bomba and practicing witchcraft, in which many phenotypically "white" plebeian people participated. Teresa Astacio, whosesexual saga opened this chapter, may well have threatened her racial status by taking up with poor, pardo men. Racial identities, then, and their accompanying social standing (or lack thereof), were socially constructed. Puerto Ricans' whiteness, in particular, needed to be perennially reasserted. Popular culture was especially important in this process, simultaneously marking Ponceños racially and providing a space where biological differences could be confounded.

The Dominant Honor Code

The honor system of Puerto Rico's nineteenth-century elites was premised on the sexual control of women and the exclusion of people who were poorer, of African heritage, or enslaved from the community of respectability. Men fought out battles over honor and social power among themselves on the racialized field of women's bodies. Women of means also sought to assert themselves as respectable members of "decent" society. Moneyed people of both sexes defined their social standing and whiteness in opposition to the people of African descent who surrounded them on the streets, in their shops, laboring in their fields, and serving them in their homes.


Control over women's sexuality was a cornerstone of the dominant honor code. Respectable women were required to be virginal before marriage and unswervingly faithful to their husbands once married, which demanded that women be carefully guarded against outside male incursions and placed under constant surveillance. Once destroyed by sexual activity,rape, or rumors of such encounters, a woman's reputation could be fully restored only by marriage, usually to the man who had "conquered" her.

One important exception to this general rule existed. It was not unheard of even for young white women of the "respectable" classes to have premarital intercourse with their boyfriends, once marriage had been promised. The extensive nature of "betrothal sex" provided the foundation for the frequent presumption that women were no longer virgins once they had established a public relationship with a man. Courting, then, for "respectable" white women was a serious business; it usually meant closing off the possibility of marrying anyone else.


Excerpted from Imposing Decency by Eileen J. Suárez Findlay. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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