By Marisol LeBrón
In The Lettered Barriada: Workers, Archival Power, and the Politics of Knowledge in Puerto Rico (Duke University Press, 2021), Jorell Meléndez-Badillo details how a cohort of self-educated workers challenged the cultural elite to reshape the Puerto Rican intellectual terrain in the wake of the U.S. occupation of the archipelago. The community that these organic intellectuals crafted, what Meléndez-Badillo coins as the lettered barriada, worked to speak to the conditions of coloniality and capitalist exploitation faced by the poor and working classes, as well as theorize new forms of emancipatory politics. In addition to tracing the emergence of the lettered barriada, Meléndez-Badillo shows how these workers fundamentally changed print culture and created new archives of knowledge in early twentieth century Puerto Rico. While these “obreros ilustrados” or enlightened workers, challenged elite hegemony through their impact on print culture, politics, and national mythology, Meléndez-Badillo shows that these workers reproduced exclusions that further marginalized women and Black workers as outside of the intellectual life of the archipelago. In this way, while Meléndez-Badillo is dedicated to telling the story of the lettered barriada and its impact, he does not craft an uncritical or overly celebratory narrative. Instead, throughout the book he embraces the complicated, and sometimes contradictory, nature of these intellectuals and the political communities they built in order to paint a picture of a society in flux as new forms of colonial rule upended the existing power structure and created openings for insurgent intellectuals to transform their lives and the future of the archipelago.
Marisol LeBrón: You start and end the book talking about a desire to find your family in the stories of the Puerto Rican labor movement and being surprised about their place within it. You say that this revelation about your family and how they fit into formal narratives of labor history profoundly shaped your approach to this book. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Jorell Meléndez-Badillo: First and foremost, thank you so much for taking the time to do such a careful reading of the book. I truly appreciate your questions and engagement with the text’s main ideas.
This book is the product of many years of thinking and writing about the Puerto Rican working classes. I first became interested in the topic because of my own working-class background and politics. I was raised by my grandparents and our family was very big. Every time there was an excuse to celebrate, I would hear them talk about their upbringings. I heard stories about how they practically raised their own siblings, milked cows in the morning, and about how seven or eight of them slept in the same room. I also listened to stories about their times in the cigar workshops or my great grandparent’s work sugarcane fields.
As an adolescent, I was a part of the punk rock movement in Puerto Rico. By the age of fourteen or fifteen, I was already organizing events with local and international bands. It was an empowering experience sustained by a D.I.Y. ethos that could be read as an anarchist praxis or, at least, influenced by it. When I began studying and taking history seriously, I decided to explore the legacies of anarchism in Puerto Rico. To my surprise, there was not much written about it. I decided to write my M.A. thesis about the history of anarchism in the archipelago. During that time, I was also part of an anarchist collective that was trying to open a Social Study Center in Santurce, Puerto Rico. The thesis, which eventually became my first book, was an attempt to trace a radical genealogy to help us engage in transhistorical dialogues with those that had come before us. I saw it as a tribute to my working-class background.
I begin The Lettered Barriada with the moment when I first learned about my great grandfather’s scab days because it forced to rethink my understandings of Puerto Rico’s working-class history. Why were people like him absent in the historical narrative? As I began to think about this question, I quickly realized that it was not solely the scabs who were absent. The historical narratives written by Puerto Rico’s working class intellectuals silenced and erased women, Black folks, and non-skilled workers, among others. This realization forced me to reconceptualize my research question. Instead of seeking to explore who was absent, I began thinking about the ways that those erasures were historically produced.
The Lettered Barriada is not a history of the Puerto Rican working classes. Instead, it is a history of those that dominated the means of working-class knowledge production at the turn of the twentieth century. This small group of ragtag intellectuals saw themselves as the self-appointed interlocutors of the masses. As I demonstrate in the book, these self-identified obreros ilustrados [enlightened workers] did not challenge the patriarchal and Eurocentric logics of the cultural elite, but often reproduced them in their writings, speeches, and spaces. In the process, they created historical narratives that centered an idealized worker that was male, skilled, and raceless (i.e., white or aspiring to be whitened).
ML: One of the things I really loved about the book was the way you fight against seeing the Puerto Rican working class as incredibly isolated, and, well, insular, in relation to larger global movements and the transnational circulation of ideas. You have this great line in the book where you say that the literate obrero [workingman] could pick up a working-class newspaper and “imagine himself as a global subject, all without leaving the cafetín.” Can you tell us how the archive of labor periodicals you discuss in the book enabled working-class Puerto Ricans to participate in global phenomenon?
JMB: As nineteenth-century intellectuals began crafting their idea of the nation, the regeneration of the working-classes was seen as crucial and necessary. Workers, however, were usually excluded from these conversations. The workers whose steps I trace in the book developed complex ideas about society, the nation, and citizenship. Through newspapers, books, and theatrical plays, the obreros ilustrados not only sought to produce knowledges but also assert their identities as agents of political and social transformation.
While scholars of Puerto Rican labor history have studied these newspapers and books for decades, print media was only understood as part of workers’ class struggle or as labor propaganda. Though that is definitely the case, in the book I am reading those sources differently. I am arguing that taken together, this vibrant intellectual production signals the emergence of other aesthetic and political sensibilities. I took seriously the identities workers carefully crafted because they took themselves seriously. Workers projected themselves as journalists, poets, and sociologists, among other things. But since they were excluded from the conversations that the lettered elite were having, they began looking elsewhere.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Puerto Rican workers were not the only ones building intellectual communities. There were other lettered barriadas across the Americas, and across the world. They were connected through global networks of communication that were sustained by the circulation of working-class print media. In Puerto Rico, workers consumed these knowledges by reading them out loud in plazas, creating makeshift libraries, or reproducing articles in their local newspapers. They also became active participants by writing articles in the international press, exchanging news and ideas, and swapping newspapers. While the cultural elite ignored them, they were able to imagine themselves as part of a global community.
These interactions allowed Puerto Rican workers to craft global imaginaries while shaping their local subjectivities. Europe and the United States remained at the center of the planetary imaginary that workers developed, however. These global exchanges, then, created a desire to become modern and civilized; that is, whitened. Working-class intellectuals used print media to discursively articulate proximity to the laboring masses at times, while also distancing themselves from the “ignorant masses” at others. Instead of challenging elites’ Eurocentric, heteropatriarchal, and racist conceptions of the world, working-class intellectuals ended up reproducing them.
ML: Race and gender occupy a vexed position in the archive of obreros ilustrados you follow in the book. You show how both Blackness and femininity were erased in the publications produced by the labor movement. This silencing occurred even though some of these key figures of the labor moment were Black, such as Juan Vilar, or women, such as Luisa Capetillo and Juana Colón. I guess my question is twofold: How do we make sense of these absences? And how did you grapple with these absences as you were writing this book? In other words, how did you approach the archive in order to avoid reproducing some of these silences in your own work?
JMB: One of the things that animated the writing of the book was the question of why people like my family were absent from the historical record. When I began to conduct research and write the book, I understood that I needed to carefully interrogate the archive to avoid reproducing erasures, epistemic violences, and silences. What I did not understand back then was that I was doomed to fail for, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot noted, any historical narrative is a bundle of silences.
As I began reading primary sources and engaging in archival research, it was clear to me that race and gender were excluded from these narratives purposedly and forcefully. This had also been theorized and studied by scholars that greatly influenced me, such as María del Carmen Baerga, Eileen Findlay, and Ileana Rodríguez-Silva. What I was interested in, then, was understanding the ways that these silences were created.
Juan Vilar is a fascinating case. He was a Black cigarmaker from Caguas, an avid organizer, and the founder of Puerto Rico’s first anarchist group, Solidaridad. He was also well-known in Puerto Rico’s lettered barriada because of his activism and writings. But he died on May 1st in misery, abandoned by the Federación Libre de Trabajadores (Free Federation of Workers, FLT), the labor organization he dedicated his life to, and was quickly forgotten. Vilar is also absent from the historical narratives contemporaneous working-class intellectuals crafted. In the book, I argue that he was erased because he was Black at a moment when labor organizations articulated a “raceless” discourse. He was also an anarchist at a moment when the FLT frowned upon working-class radicalism and enforced “non-political” trade unionism.
These erasures also showed me was that there was not a single archive. There were multiple competing archives operating in early twentieth-century Puerto Rico. I am not referring to physical repositories, but to traces of the past that were collected intentionally or haphazardly, to paraphrase Antoinette Burton. Beyond the hegemonic national archive, there were minor ones that fed into it. There were also counterarchives that challenged and operated outside of these hegemonic logics. Some were erased, but others survived and can serve as ways to decenter what I have termed—following Lorgia García Peña’s work on the Dominican Republic—the archive of puertorriqueñidad.
People like Juana Colón or Paca Escabí were silenced and erased. But in the book, I did not simply want to include them into a working-class canon or to incorporate them into labor’s archive. Instead, I was interested in exploring how they were erased and, perhaps more importantly, how their lives became counterarchives that not only challenged (and continue to challenge) labor’s ideational archives, but also the archive of puertorriqueñidad.
ML: One of the most surprising chapters for me as I was reading the book was chapter 5, which details a 1933 strike at the University of Puerto Rico. A strike at the university isn’t necessarily surprising since it’s long been a site of political activism and struggle, but the reason behind the strike really shocked me. Students were protesting the appointment of Rafael Alonso Torres, who you describe as “an autodidactic labor leader turned politician” to the UPR Board of Trustees. The announcement of his appointment was immediately met with outrage as students argued he was intellectually and culturally unfit to be in a leadership position within the university, often comparing him to an ox. Students went on strike until Alonso Torres was eventually forced out. Today, the UPR is often seen as aligned with labor and indeed many of the recent struggles at the university have been about opposing austerity alongside workers and creating more opportunities for the working-class to study at the University. How does the story of the 1933 strike help us think about not only the evolution of the UPR, but also the way that workers have slowly become recognized as part of Puerto Rico’s intellectual architecture?
JMB: When I first presented the research for this chapter at a conference, an older Puerto Rican radical organizer whom I greatly respect was in the audience. He took a turn in the Q&A and asked, “where the students on the right side of history? Or where they wrong?” Focusing on this strike, however, was a way of challenging that binary logic of winners or losers, of right or wrong. The strike had been a political microcosm and had meant different things to different people.
For rank-and-file Socialist Party-members, the strike was a shame. They argued that the university had been dominated by the privileged elite, and that having an autodidact from the world of labor would facilitate the entrance of workers into the ivory tower. For Alonso Torres and the party’s leadership it was a position of power to be defended at all costs. For the governor, it was a political nightmare. But not everyone was against the strike, students were able to mobilize support from different social sectors.
Students believed that someone cultured and educated needed to occupy that position. In the process, they articulated classist attacks ridiculing Alonso Torres. But the student movement was not monolithic. Two of the participants, for example, were César Andreu Iglesias and Arturo Morales Carrión. Andreu Iglesias became one of Puerto Rico’s most prominent Marxist intellectuals while Morales Carrión later became president of the university and worked in the high echelons of the Luis Muñoz Marin and John F. Kennedy’s administrations.
A survey in a national newspaper demonstrated that many people supported the students. Communists attacked Rafael Alonso Torres and the Socialist Party’s bureaucratization, while nationalists sought to defend the university from someone that believed in the annexation of Puerto Rico the United States. Luis Muñoz Marín, who will later become Puerto Rico’s first elected governor, utilized the strike to advance his political career and the Liberal Party. He secretly met with students and the UPR’s Chancellor, Carlos Chardón, to craft the narrative through his newspaper La democracia.
To that end, I was not interested in choosing a winner or a loser. I am not claiming objectivity, for that is impossible. Instead, in this chapter, I wanted to show that a single event had multiple meanings and interpretations even as it was unraveling. The strike also demonstrated, for the sake of my book’s narrative arc, that workers were recognized as legitimate politicians, but not as legitimate intellectuals.
The strike of 1933 does not neatly fit into broader genealogies of struggles at the University of Puerto Rico. In part, this is also because the strike did not stem from a strong pro-independence movement or from a radicalized working-class as will happen in later strikes at the university. The 1933 strike does show, however, that the cross-class alliances that have taken place in university strikes during the last fifty years are not ontological but took a lot of work, organizing, and imagination. That historical outlook might provide insights into how to foster them in the future as the university is being attacked from multiple fronts including the Fiscal Control Board, the government, and internal bureaucrats.
ML: As I was reading the book, I texted to ask you about a periodical produced by the Insular Police called La Fuerza Pública, which ran from 1915 to 1916. You note in the book that there was only one surviving issue from March 21, 1916. I was dying to get my hands on it! You explained to me that the lone copy was at the University of Puerto Rico’s Humacao campus at the Centro de Documentación, which had been badly damaged during Hurricane Maria in 2017. The copy you made of that issue while doing your research is probably one of the only, if not the only, copy that currently exists since the original was likely destroyed by the storm and subsequent damage. Recently, following the passage of PROMESA and the imposition of a fiscal control board, the UPR system has undergone intense austerity and there was even talk about shutting down or consolidating some of the smaller campuses. I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about the precarity of doing archival research in Puerto Rico? How does the economic and political situation in the archipelago impact researchers?
JMB: In his essay, La memoria rota (The Broken Memory), Arcadio Díaz Quiñones argued that in the 1940s and 50s, Puerto Rico broke away from its memory to create new ones. I believe that something similar has happened with the ongoing crisis we’ve been living for almost two decades now. The State has broken away from memory once again. This time, however, there is no new historical memory to take its place. The State broke away from memory and replaced it with trauma, austerity, and colonial violence.
Conducting archival research in Puerto Rico has always been challenging. But conducting research amid colonial collapse is an uphill action. Funds for municipal and national archives have dwindled. Historical knowledge does not matter and is not part of the national project (because there is none). Those archives related to working-class knowledges matter even less.
It breaks my heart knowing that if I wanted to write this book now, it would be impossible. The bulk of my research took place in the Centro de Documentación Obrera Santiago Iglesias Pantín (CDOSIP) located in the UPR’s Humacao campus. The underfunded and understaffed collection had been suffering for years before hurricanes Irma and María hit the building with might and fury in September 2017. These hurricanes caused massive infrastructural damage and thousands of deaths in the archipelago. Lesser known is the unnatural bureaucratic catastrophe that followed and wreaked havoc in archival collections like the CDOSIP. For months after the hurricane, those collections were exposed to water-leaking roofs, humidity from lack of power, and bureaucratic inefficiency. Instead of moving the collections to another location, they were left to rot. It’ll be 2022 in a few days, and they’re still there. Scholars and researchers have not been able to access it since the storms hit in 2017. Because these collections were never fully catalogued, we might never know what has been lost forever.
To be sure, the CDOSIP was created to perpetuate the myths that I seek to challenge in my book. The name itself reproduces the idea of Santiago Iglesias Pantín, a Catalan migrant that became president of the FLT and the Socialist Party, as the “creator” of the labor movement. While the collection and the documents within it were created with a particular purpose, they also allowed for other readings. In my book, for example, I read those documents critically and against the grain to see how power was mediated through them. Thus, the destruction of collections like these, and I am sure there many others across the archipelago, constitutes an enormous loss to our historical memory. Their disappearance also adds to the transhistorical power of the archive that working-class intellectuals created in the lettered barriada.
ML: Can you tell us about what you’re working on next? Do you feel like you’re still living within the world of this book or do you feel like you’re in an entirely different space?
JMB: I am currently working on various projects. The first is a book titled Puerto Rico: A National History, under contract with Princeton University Press. The book seeks to offer a historical genealogy to understand the current fiscal and social crisis in Puerto Rico and how it is tied to five centuries of colonialism. It also seeks to demonstrate how Puerto Ricans have resisted colonialism and have also created complex, diasporic, and ever-changing ideas of the nation in the absence of a nation-state.
I have begun conducting research on another book project tentatively titled Following the Revolution: The Transnational Lives of Blanca and Juan Moncaleano. It traces the lives of two anarchist pedagogues from Colombia as they traveled and organized with anarchist communities in Cuba, Mexico, and the Los Angeles. The book seeks to explore the materiality of anarchist migration by paying attention to the role of newspapers and printing presses in facilitating these processes. It also seeks to demonstrate how even though some migrant lives have been romanticized, they were often full of hardships, heartbreaks, and difficulties.
More recently, I have finished an article where I begin to concretely think about global circulation of ideas through the concept of the Counter Republic of Letters. I also have a forthcoming book chapter exploring the genealogies of anarchism in Latin America. I am also beginning a co-authored article with a good friend, Joaquín Villanueva. Although he is a geographer, he’s good peoples. I am excited about that piece because of its collaborative dimension. There are one or two other things also brewing but in very early stages.
All these projects and publications stem from two simple questions that guide my intellectual trajectory: How is knowledge produced in the margins? And how does the circulation of ideas impact local subjectivities?
I also have scheduled “chilea y bájale un poquito” in my Passion Planner because academia is already taking a toll on my physical health. I guess that is my new year’s resolution is based in a song from Pirulo y la Tribu: “la vida no es pa ajorarse, la vida la vivo sin prisa, si hay que morirse de algo, entonces me muero de la risa.”
Jorell Meléndez-Badillo is an Assistant Professor of History at Dartmouth College. His work focuses on the global circulation of radical ideas at the turn of the twentieth century from the perspectives of working-class intellectual communities in Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, and Latin America. His most recent publications include The Lettered Barriada: Workers, Archival Power, and the Politics of Knowledge in Puerto Rico(Duke University Press, 2021) and an edited volume, Páginas libres: Breve antología del pensamiento anarquista en Puerto Rico, 1900-1919(Editora Educación Emergente, 2021). He is currently working on a book titled Puerto Rico: A National History for Princeton University Press.
Marisol LeBrón is an Associate Professor of Feminist Studies and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the author of Policing Life and Death: Race, Violence, and Resistance in Puerto Rico (University of California Press, 2019) and Against Muerto Rico: Lessons from the Verano Boricua (Editora Educación Emergente, 2021). She is also the co-editor of Aftershocks of Disaster: Puerto Rico Before and After the Storm (Haymarket Books, 2019). She is currently working on a book that explores the centrality of policing to the emergence and consolidation of Latinx identity in the United States.