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Puerto Rico History - Colonial Society

The saddest picture presented by the island was its social order. Puerto Rico at this time had a population of 158,000 inhabitants - less than 3 persons per square league. But as a result of existing conditions, the greater part of the population struggled under the weight of an environment whose possibilities for progress and incentives for achievement were severely restricted.

The apex of the social order was dominated by a small group of privileged individuals who, due largely to their Spanish origin, held public office and were adept at taking advantage of the meager reality of the colony. The initial advantages of this merchant community were enhanced through the cooperation proffered by the colonial bureaucratic element. With the incorporation of wealthier and more cultured members, the organization perfected itself until it became a closed circle representing stability and prominence.

No longer satisfied with mere protection of wealth and property, they sought to influence and to participate in public affairs in exchange for their support of the colonial regime, representing a necessary factor in the maintenance of the Governor's authority. In this way, the monopoly of a group of Spaniards, most of whom were Catalans, became a source of political power.

According to Governor Melandez Bruna, the only effective counterweight to such a corporation would be a similar one composed of native merchants and laborers with equal resources. The Puerto Ricans, however, seldom dedicated themselves to this type of enterprise due to a lack of funds. Thus the money of the Spanish corporation did not circulate beyond commercial circles, controlled by those who neither worked the land, nor established haciendas, nor married on the island.

For those individuals, as with the first seekers of gold, the main goal was profit and power. Thus monopolized business became an artificial and anti-social process, and as such activity becomes the very center of life and the exclusive instrument of utility and power, the hierarchy of human values became perverted and displaced.

At the base of the social pyramid were the great masses of people, composed of the native-born Puerto Ricans and subdivided into two levels: that of the well-to-do and that of the poor. On the first level were the landowners and the professionals, as well as the small farmers, cattle owners, industrialists, and native merchants. On the second was the vast proletariat, largely composed of free agricultural workers who had suffered multiple hardships since the beginning of the colonial experiment.

About mid-16th century, with mining exhausted and migration increasing in the direction of the continent, the population of PuertoRico had decreased rapidly. Meanwhile herds of wild cattle had multiplied in the fertile zone of the island. Such potential wealth quickened the interest of the "criollo" who, with no fixed occupation, lived impoverished in the interior of the island. Pressed by necessity, he dedicated himself to the arduous task of rounding up the cattle, which were destined to supply the local leather market.

Under such difficult conditions, the country dweller came to appreciate good horsemanship, canine companionship, and lastly, the versatility of the machete, which was essential not only in terms of daily survival and the protection of his private interests, but as a deadly weapon in the defense of the island against foreign invasion.

Thus, they fought on an equal footing against the French, the English, and the Dutch, cooperating with the Spanish authorities or under the leadership of fellow countrymen such as don Juan de Amezquita Quijano and don Antniode los Reyes Correa, who distinguished themselves in combat for their bravery and courage.

However, with the appearance of new settlements and the establishment of land rights, the scope of action of these farmer groups became increasingly limited. Vigilante forces put an end to their restless wandering, dispersing them throughout the countryside, until either through generosity or convenience, the landowners would offer a subsistence return in exchange for working the land. The result was the loss of those qualities basic to their formerly independent existence as they settled into a state of dependency as tenants on the land of another.

Finally, on the last rung of the social ladder was the African slave, who, whether in the settlement or in the field, was used for every task.

This division of insular society, in evidence since the beginning, was discussed in a letter by attorney don Miguel de Zuazo addressed to Monsieur Xvreson January 22, 1518.

"... and in order to protect their interests in the West Indies those landowners in a position of authority entrusted their plantations to the treasurer Pasamonte; the latter handled things on his own, since to address himself to your Highness meant that such affairs would be taken care of by Conchillos, for whom he had little use. This kind of partiality created a schism on the island and in other provinces ; those who supported the treasurer were termed loyal and those who were servants or close to Columbus were considered disloyal. Such terminology was the basis for taking Indians away from whoever had them, resulting in a redistribution among the cities and haciendas, which today are largely owned by single individuals."

Examining this letter much later, don Francisco Cepeda Taborcias commented :

"The loyalists, then, were those who wanted to distribute Indians and "encomiendas" at will ; those who wanted everything done according to the pattern traced by Columbus and Queen Elizabeth were considered disloyal. Those gentlemen who were undermining the interests of Spain by calling themselves loyalists did as they pleased, since they could count on the support of the island's authorities; and in cases where complaints about their behavior reached the throne, they defended themselves with the argument that all acts were performed in defense of His Highness' interests :

"Your magnanimous lordship may see the services which these judges and treasurer and officials home performed; the basic division reflects, as I have mentioned above, the issues of loyalty and disloyalty * * *."

Such a regime was founded on fear and deep distrust ; an effective spy system was the means used to keep the balance. The Viceroy spied upon the Audiencia ; the Audiencia, which included among its duties direct contact with the council of the Indies, spied in turn on the Viceroy ; the latter spied upon the local mayors or native chiefs; the Spaniard spied on the criollo, the african spied on the Indian, the civil authorities on the ecclesiastic, and the Bishop on both Viceroy and the Audiencia.

And above them all loomed the inquisition, extending its network to include all levels of government and private life.

As for the criollos, Cepeda added, who were considered to be inferior to the Spaniards, the supreme authority kept its iron fist ready to crush the least sign of protest. The initiative of the government could not be extended to allow freedom of public expression and action, but was tied to the policy of Phillip II, based on the philosophy that time resolves all issues.

If the so-called loyalists were chiefly concerned with enhancing their individual interests while maintaining themselves aloof from involvement or identification with the island, such was not the case with those who were ironically labeled as disloyal. Bound to the land by virtue of their labor and hopeful of reaping the fruit of their efforts, the latter felt a strong desire to possess the land, accepting the responsibility for its improvement.

This, then, served from the early period as the basis for the creation of a collective society. The effort of improved transport and communication stimulated a sense of closeness among the island's inhabitants. The establishment of corporations, too, served to bring a civilizing influence to the hinter-land of the island, underscoring the growing sense of solidarity and interdependence, reducing frictions and cementing ties among families.

Meanwhile, the wealth of experiences acquired in a common setting was the basis for an awareness of aspirations shared by the criollo element and molded by an intellectual elite whose acquaintance with Western thought and ideals stemmed from direct contact with Spain, and was stimulated by students who had returned to the island following their study abroad, as well as via the medium of commerce.

The result of three centuries came to be reflected in the creation of a criollo physiognomy. The fundamental elements which had contributed to its formation, such as race, language, customs, norms of conduct, and ideas, were of noble Hispanic stock. But if the process of intermarriage which had taken place on the island had resulted in the loss by the Indian and the African of some of their unique characteristics, they nevertheless exerted a decisive and permanent influence in the outlining of the collective Puerto Rican personality.

In fact, it was precisely this tendency toward interchange and cooperation among groups of different racial backgrounds which served to integrate the community as a whole, incorporating characteristics and contributions from each group.

A number of scholars have maintained the thesis that sociologically,the Puerto Rican people are the product of the Hispanic, the Indian,and the African races. These scholars include don Jos Pablo Morales Miranda, don Francisco del Valle Atiles, don Salvador Brau Asencio, don Rameon Ruiz Arnau, don Augustin Nevarrete, and Trumbull White. Don Jose de Diego shared the same point of view, maintaining that a visit to the mountainous zone is sufficient evidence of the strong Indian influence in Puerto Rico.





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