Unapologetically Black: Challenging Racial Silencing in Puerto Rican Labor History

Friday, January 4, 2019: 10:50 AM
Salon 2 (Palmer House Hilton)
Jorell Meléndez-Badillo, Dartmouth College
During the first two decades of the twentieth century, a cluster of urban skilled workers experimented with different means of knowledge production, successfully crafting historical narratives that excluded working women and blackness. While feminist scholars created counterachives of labor that paid attention to workingwomen, blackness has rarely been acknowledged in Puerto Rico’s labor historiography. This paper seeks to disrupt labor’s intellectual archive to yield light on how the class-based discourses promoted by labor organizations created strategic silences rooted in anti-blackness.

This paper offers a contrapunteo between two members of the Federación Libre and the Socialist Party whose lives challenged both organizations’ racial silencing practices: Mateo Pérez Sanjurjo and Juana Colón. The former was a black landowner that appropriated a working-class identity while the latter was an illiterate socialist organizer from a slave-descendant family. Their experiences allow the formulation of questions that challenge our historical understanding of early twentieth century Puerto Rico.

While absent from the historical narratives written by her working-class peers, local activists rescued Juana Colón’s story. Nowadays, her hometown has a cultural center and a school named after their black, illiterate, and working-class Joan of Arc, as she was locally known. Similarly, an interview that took place in the 1970s documented Mateo Pérez Sanjurjo’s life. In that interview, Pérez Sanjurjo talked about how he negotiated multiple identities as a landowner, labor organizer, and as a self-educated black man. He reproduced a black respectability discourse that did not necessarily challenge the era’s racial hierarchies. Yet, by upholding his black identity, he challenged labor organizations’ silencing practices. This paper uses the stories of those silenced as counterarchives to demonstrate how labor’s intellectual archive played a crucial part in reproducing the myth racial democracy in Puerto Rico.