Women and Urban Change in San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1820-1868. – Review – book review
Maria Odela Lute da Silva Dias
Women and Urban Change in San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1820-1868. By Felix V. Matos Rodriguez (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999. xi plus 180pp.).
Carefully researched, informative, and pleasant to read, this book deals with women’s participation in a specific urban context, that of a colonial, slave society in a military and commercial urban center that remained under Spanish rule throughout most of the nineteenth century. We learn much about San Juan’s gradual urbanization process during a period of commercial and financial trouble, when sugar prices were declining and social tensions mounting. By the 1840s, San Juan had fallen behind other sugar growing towns as the plantations became more prosperous in other areas of Puerto Rico, such as Guayama, Ponce and Mayaguez. Nevertheless, in spite of the changes affecting the sugar economy, San Juan remained the island’s most important commercial center as well as the main hub in distribution of the slave trade, serving not only other areas of Puerto Rico but Cuba as well.
Because of its steep location and fortified walls, the city of San Juan lacked space and remained dependent on the supply of subsistence agricultural supplies and coal from the nearby countryside up to the end of the nineteenth century. Beginning in 1850, new construction consumed its few open spaces and were built over its poorer arrabaldes. Neo-classical, two-storied buildings spread over poorer clusters of wooden, single-storied houses. The austere yet modern neo-classical residences of export merchants, hacendados and Spanish military and civil officials faced the older sixteenth-century colonial buildings such as the cathedral, the Governor’s Palace, the town hall, as well as the Dominican, Carmelite and Franciscan convents. Much in the same way that the author opposes colonial and neo-classical San Juan, he also confronts two other opposite poles: on one side, the urban majority of poor slaves and flee women of African descent, and on the other, a minority of creole, peninsular or European women of the elite. “Beneficence allowed the women of San Juan to push for a double agenda. Not only were they expanding the realm of public action open to women by venturing out into philanthropy as organizers, managers, educators and partners; these sanjuaneras also pressed for their own class agenda. In doing so, they were staunch allies of men of their own class” (p. 122). This simplistic interpretation of political hegemony jeopardizes Dr. Matos Rodriguez’s efforts at gender history.
On the other hand, the author’s discovery of several censuses of San Juan’s population by quarters or barrios (for 1833 and 1840) led him to a careful scrutiny of urban population distribution by sex, occupation, and race, as well as by social status: slave and free, rich and poor, those born in San Juan and those who came from rural areas of Puerto Rico, or from Hispaniola, Cuba, Latin American countries, and, especially afrer 1860, from the Canary Islands and Spain, including mostly Basque and Catalan immigrants.
The demographic data on San Juan’s four barrios are minutely explored by this social historian, as the book is rich in details and case studies. Matos Rodriguez carefully studies and documents a female majority in San Juan’s population from the final decades of the eighteenth century to 1850. “In the
thirteen-year period between 1846 and 1859, the women’s percentage of the population decreases from 59 percent to 52 percent. The decline in the percentage of women in San Juan’s population continued into the 1860s. By 1865 men outnumbered women and the early nineteenth-century sex ratios had been reversed: women made up 42 percent of the population and men made up 58 percent” (p.45).
The chapter on the strategies of survival of poorer women as well as their living conditions in the four barrios of San Juan is finely documented. Occupations among the poorer classes involved mainly domestic work but also included street vending, or small retail commerce in foodstuffs, coal or fish. These people lived in miserable wooden huts mainly in the S. Domingos and Santa Barbara barrios, and towards the Puerta de Tierra Firme, which was the main access to town from the surrounding rural areas. The lack of space and water wells made their survival more difficult. Spanish authorities gradually moved their arrabaldes from within the fortified walls, although the housing shortage had already raised rents and the poor that were unable to afford to pay them were already moving out beyond the city limits spontaneously, towards other poor barrios like La Marina or Congrejos (pp. 45-8 and 98).
Also well documented is the chapter on the elite women’s participation in the social and economic activities of the city. Elite women were strategic in their marriage alliances, favoring the social and financial consolidation of their family’s business interests. The author examines their roles as merchant’s wives or widows, showing how they frequently owned haciendas, commercial firms and occasionally taverns and shops, and how they often took care of their husbands’ businesses in their absence. Their buying and selling of rural and urban properties as well as of slaves are well grounded by the author through notary documents. We learn that women, mainly widows, owned 261 out of a total of 708 buildings around 1820, including residential and/or rental units as well as commercial establishments, and that the percentage of women owners had declined by 1859. The historian also documents how they collected urban rents in spite of adverse conditions and raised money for charitable associations over which they had direct control, either as opposed to or in collaboration with Church charity activities.
Notwithstanding its rich documentation and close scrutiny of women’s activities within San Juan, this book presents several thorny problems, which the author does not solve. Dr. Matos Rodriguez adheres to a Gramscian conception of hegemony in a more dualistic than dialectic approach. He contents himself in schematically opposing two different classes of women. Concepts should be challenges to the historian and they have to be elaborated in their temporality and in the specificity of their historical context. It is up to the historian to explore their rich possibilities and to document them with his sources. For example, the heterogeneous nature of the social elite in San Juan presents many difficulties. The author clearly points them out (for example when he describes the members of the Junta de Damas, p.118-21), but leaves us wondering about their consequences in the daily activities of elite women of such diverse backgrounds.
Mediations in power relations as well as interest conflicts between the several sectors of the dominant group are broad themes that warrant a greater elaboration in this study. Differences between elite women and Church interests as well as their relations to state authorities should have been pursued further. For example, in their marriages with merchants, sometimes of peninsular origins, sometimes of European background, women of the planter class probably faced conflicting interests. Instead of documenting differences and opposing interests, Matos Rodriguez is misled by a simplified interpretation of the concept of social and political hegemony. This is probably what leads him into a dualistic narrative scheme of interpretation, with working women on one side and the politics of social control by the elite on the other.
Correspondingly the book tends to develop a schematic interpretation of social conflict. The main focus is on social control and political power. The differences within the diverse sectors of the dominant classes are ignored by the author in favor of hegemonic concepts like patriarchy or modernity. We emerge with a thorough documentation of how the Church and elite women kept the poorer working women under control and how they campaigned against their distinctive family structure, with laws and social measures against illegitimacy and concubinage. But the challenge of criticizing political and power relations within the families and in the context of the daily activities of women of different social classes would have guided a more profitable path for research that proposes to be a contribution to gender studies in Central America and the Caribbean.
Above all we need more attention to the process of marginalizing working women and expelling them from within the city walls, and how this relates both to partriarchy and modernity. A non manufacturing port such as San Juan depended greatly on the outside supply of foodstuffs and coal. The author doesn’t explain the relationship between liberal middle-class ideology and beneficience and the displacement of local markets in foodstuffs and other primary consumption goods. Even if the small urban space confined within the city walls favored a more efficient social control policy than in other similar colonial towns through-our Latin America, it seems unlikely that when the female population ceased to be a majority–when the population was changed by European, white immigration (or other factors; the demographic explanation is not convincing)–that the poor women disappeared from the streets and the local markers. The author informs us that after abolition in 1873, libertas started coming into the city much in th e manner that slaves and free women had moved to San Juan in the final decades of the eighteenth century.
In this book, domestic work is emphasized over other trades or forms of survival. It is as if it were the main occupation of poorer working women and made them a co-opted part of elite households. It is true that the censors might list their occupations in a simplified way (p.150n). However, probably most of the working women were street vendors and/or intermediaries in the local market, often evading taxes and selling at prices lower than municipal rates usually controlled by local authorities. At least, that has been the case in many of the studies listed by the author in his bibliography, which are always useful for comparative overviews. A certain percentage of women were in fact occupied in domestic work. But many had to complement their earnings with other activities, and these probably outweighed the domestic work available in elite households. “One can also assume that the stability in the city’s overall sex ratios was tied to San Juan’s ability to absorb domestic workers. As long as women found work attractive and available, they continued to migrate into the city” (p.45). The author almost surely underestimates the number of women occupied in different marketing activities providing supplies for the urban population. It probably was safer for them to declare themselves as domestic workers in order to protect themselves against fiscal authorities.
We need a more thorough analysis of what domestic labor meant in a city with slaves and with scarce opportunities of work outside the local market. Certainly domestic work represented an economic sphere of activities much broader than what we understand today by the same term. The author hints at a process in which subsistence agriculture zones close to San Juan were transformed into coffee plantations. One wonders how this affected local supply for San Juan’s population and also how it affected the lives of women workers who figured as a majority among the urban population up to the middle of the nineteenth century. What became of local market needs after the whitening process that European immigration introduced to San Juan’s population? One also wonders if charitable associations could have attended to the needs of the poor working women in and around San Juan, particularly in the period that followed the abolition of slavery. Among the many interesting problems raised in this intriguing study of women’s participation in San Juan’s society, also left unsolved, we should mention the unusually low number of urban slaves, around 22% of the city’s population up to the abolition of slavery in the early 1870s. This might be explained by the high demand for male slaves in the sugar producing areas of Puerto Rico, as Matos Rodriguez points out. But perhaps it had some relation to the main topic of this book, that is, to the great number of former slave women who were continually migrating to San Juan. This majority of women working for small earnings and smaller salaries may well have anticipated the abolition of slavery in the city and the turn towards a free labor market even before or in spite of European immigration. These critical observations rise from an engaged reading of this book and should enhance the reader’s interest in its contribution to social and gender historical research.
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