Jorell A. Meléndez-Badillo’s The Lettered Barriada: Workers, Archival Power, and the Politics of Knowledge in Puerto Rico (Duke University Press, 2021) describes a movement of self-educated working-class intellectuals who over the course of thirty years moved from the picket line to the halls of power. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Obreros Ilustrados (Enlightened Workingmen) created a vibrant working-class culture in Puerto Rico that manifest itself in unions, newspapers, theater, and popular education centers. Many of these obreros ilustrados would go on to serve in leadership positions in the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, which dominated Puerto Rican politics in the 1920s and 1930s, and governed the U.S. colony as part of “la coalición,” a pro-statehood coalition with the conservative Republican Party.
Nearly a century later, Puerto Rico is experiencing a major political and economic crisis that has led to a loss of legitimacy for the two major parties that have governed the island since the establishment of el estado libre asociado (Associated Free State) in 1952. The 2020 election resulted in the unprecedented growth of non-traditional political parties with the progressive Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana (Citizen’s Victory Movement) and the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (Puerto Rican Independence Party) collectively winning almost 28 percent of the vote.
In this interview, activist-scholar, Jorell A. Meléndez-Badillo explains how the history of Puerto Rico’s obreros ilustrados and the rapid growth of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party can shed light on forgotten forms of resistance in Puerto Rico and the current political crossroads the country is at.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
CBM: The Lettered Barriada focuses on obreros ilustrados, or, as you translate it, “enlightened workingmen,” and the ways they used their extra-political power to become respected politicians and statesmen. Can you describe more in-depth who they were? What differentiates this concept from Gramsci’s organic intellectual?
JMB: The book mainly focuses on a handful of urban skilled workers. Oftentimes when we think about Puerto Rican labor history we often imagine it as an abstract working class. In the book, I wanted to look at the intellectuals producing working class knowledges, ideas, and historical narratives. What I found out with the research was that it was a very small group of people and all of them were connected.
So who were they? Obreros ilustrados were a group of skilled workingmen in the typesetter’s unions and unions that came from the tobacco sector, painters, and carpenters in urban centers.
The difference between obreros ilustrados and organic intellectuals is that obreros ilustrados was a term that they used themselves. It was a term used to distance themselves from the laboring masses. One of the things that I write about in the book was the tension between enlightened workingmen, and I’ll talk a bit about why I call them workingmen instead of workers in a bit.
Oftentimes they would use knowledge, ideas, and access to books as a way to distance themselves from the masses when they were trying to relate to the intellectual and cultural elite. But other times they used their working-class status and identity to claim proximity to the working masses. This tension became more pronounced after 1915 with the emergence of the Socialist Party in which they’re articulating their working-class identity to attract votes.
What I found was that many were not necessarily proud to be part of the working class and wanted social mobility. One example was Santiago Iglesias Pantín, a worker from Spain that came to Puerto Rico via Cuba in 1897. The last time he worked as a carpenter was in 1903. By the 1930s he was a statesman shaking hands with the U.S. President and the U.S. political elite. But he claimed that he was a carpenter when talking to workers.
Using the term obreros ilustrados, or enlightened workingmen, allowed me to not only think about the modes of production but also the modes of intellectual production. I was interested in understanding how this cluster or small group of urban skilled workers—most of them male—not only wanted to take the means of production but they succeeded in taking the intellectual means of production.
Another thing that I wanted to highlight was the ways that women, gender, unskilled workers, and blackness were erased. For example, oftentimes when we translate trabajadores we just use the genderless noun workers but in reality, when they were using trabajadores they were addressing men. By using the term I wanted to highlight the gender dynamics and the masculine ethos of the working-class movement in the twentieth century.
Studying obreros ilustrados gave me the opportunity to see what it meant for them to occupy la palabra, the discourse to shape those historical narratives.
CBM: In the book, you describe an active left with a lot of political power, both institutional through the Socialist Party but also through autonomous spaces like workers centers, but Puerto Rican history often glosses over this to focus on the status question and male figures associated with certain positions like Luis Muñoz Marín (autonomism) and Pedro Albizu Campos (independence). Is that why you chose to skirt around the question of status in the book?
JMB: Thank you for that question! Actually one of the anonymous reviewers for the book inquired about why I did not make empire and colonialism the central analytical axis of the book; I did so consciously.
When we study Puerto Rico we can look at it from different lenses: Puerto Rican historiography, Caribbean Historiography, American studies, Latinx studies. Oftentimes what ends up happening, particularly in American studies and Latinx Studies, is that it is looked through the lens of empire. This is a very rich period in order to think about how empire and imperialism operate and to think about colonialism in that post-1898 moment. But I wanted to showcase the agency of working-class militants in that period. Because when we look through the binary of resistance or integration we fail to look at the other ways they were doing politics and it oftentimes was quite radical.
One of the things that happened with the Socialist Party, for example, is that nationalist historiography glossed over the party’s history because most of its leaders were pro-statehood. That is a historical fact. What ends up happening, however, is that because of their status preference they often erased or downplayed the Socialist Party’s history. This erasure overlooks, for example, the ways that the party pushed for the abolition of police and prisons. It was a time of great radicalism, both inside and outside of the party. The party stemmed from a culture of resistance created by vibrant social study centers that produced leftist theater, and of labor militancy, in terms of strikes and organization, in terms of burning sugarcane fields.
In the book, I didn’t want to limit myself to look at the role of empire, something that other people have done amazingly. It’s a very important question but that was not the question that I wanted to address. I did it on purpose knowing that the majority of people that I studied favored the annexation of Puerto Rico to the United States. That’s contrary to my own political ideology but that did not take away the fact that they were doing quite radical things. I wanted to look at the radical politics and dynamics and radical cultures that they were creating beyond the status.
The AFL (American Federation of Labor) and FLT (Federación Libre de Trabajadores) made Puerto Rico a colonial hub and that’s an important fact. But I’m not trying to make a history of the FLT. That doesn’t take away the fact that, yes the AFL made the FLT a colonial hub and silenced any sort of radicalism that was not aligned with them.
That’s also why I think the silencing of gender and race in working-class historical narratives is still so powerful. There were people like Juan Vilar, who I talk about in the second and third chapters of the book. He was a black cigar maker from Caguas who was a total badass. He was one of the first anarchist organizers in Puerto Rico. He organized a social studies center and led a bunch of strikes yet he died and became anonymous.
I argue that he was forgotten by Puerto Rican historiography because he was a threat to FLT in two ways. First, he was an anarchist at a moment when the AFL following the Samuel Gompers line promoted union reformism. So he was a threat because he was an anarchist. Second, he was Black in a moment when obreros ilustrados were erasing blackness from their discourses. I think that your question is so important in framing the book because I consciously did not want to make the status question the guiding force in the narrative.
CBM: As I read the book, I couldn’t help but think about how this resurgent period of leftism in Puerto Rico resembles the current political situation with the growth of the Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana (Citizen’s Victory Movement) and the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (Puerto Rican Independence Party). Do you think there are lessons that the left can learn from the growth and institutionalization of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party in the early 20th century?
JMB: I don’t know how much I should say. This book came out of my doctoral dissertation and when I was writing my dissertation, el Partido del Pueblo Trabajador (Working People’s Party) was joining forces with other sectors to create MVC. At the moment I was looking at sources and studying the 1930s when the Partido Socialista joined their class enemies el Partido Republicano to create la coalición. They won in 1932 and 1936. While victorious, those elections ripped the party apart from the inside.
I think that the 1932 elections in Puerto Rico can still echo what el Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana could become. In the 1920s the Socialist Party reshaped electoral politics in Puerto Rico. The Socialist Party was created in 1915. By 1919, the bourgeois political establishment understood that the Socialist Party was becoming a force to be reckoned with. Traditional parties changed the electoral law in order for them to merge to curtail the power of the Socialist Party. They feared the Socialists.
All of that to say that in the early twentieth century there were vibrant radical communities in Puerto Rico organizing in different ways and advocating for revolution in various ways: anarchists, socialists, and later on in the 30s Marxists. But once the party consolidated itself and won through a coalition, I don’t want to say killed the movement, but it had a huge impact.
We should be cautious when thinking about how we create coalitions. If we look at el Partido Socialista in the 1920s, they wanted to control every working-class newspaper that was produced and centralize knowledge production. While they thought they were building working-class hegemony through their party, they were basically curtailing the radical possibilities of their most radical projects and objectives. There are a lot of resemblances between the 1932 and 1936 elections and Puerto Rican politics right now.
Jorell A. Meléndez-Badillo is an Assistant Professor of History at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. He is the author of The Lettered Barriada: Workers, Archival Power, and the Politics of Knowledge in Puerto Rico and Voces libertarias: Orígenes del anarquismo en Puerto Rico.
Cruz Bonlarron Martínez is an independent writer and researcher. He writes on politics, human rights, and culture in Latin America and the Latin American diaspora.