“Foreign in a Domestic Sense:” Hispanic Americans in Congress During the Age of U.S. Colonialism and Global Expansion, 1898–1945
On October 15, 1900, La correspondencia, a San Juan daily newspaper, described the qualities of a Resident Commissioner, a position recently created by the Foraker Act (31 Stat. 77–86) to provide Puerto Rico with representation in the U.S. House. The writer stated that such a “representative must be worthy of the trust of those he represents. He must earn that trust through his history, which is a record of the things he has accomplished for the good of the homeland, a justification of his intellectual qualities, a demonstration of his character, and evidence of his love of freedom.”1 Yet, the first Resident Commissioner, Federico Degetau, was not even allowed to set foot on the House Floor when the 57th Congress (1901–1903) assembled in December 1901. Many in Congress questioned the very existence of the position of Resident Commissioner and the ability of Puerto Ricans to participate in a democratic society. Many Members of Congress were confused by the island’s ambiguous position within the United States, classified as neither a state nor a territory. “Now, Mr. Chairman, Puerto Rico is either in the United States or out of it,” Representative Amos Cummings of New York declared during debate on the Foraker Act. “If the island is out of the United States, we have no business legislating for her here in any way whatever, and if she is in the United States, she is in the same condition as Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and the other Territories.” He concluded by suggesting facetiously that the Foraker Act “ought to be amended so as to be entitled, ‘An act to make a temporary purgatory for the island of Puerto Rico.’”2
The colonial conquests of the late 19th century, particularly in Puerto Rico and the Philippines, marked the first time the U.S. took control over large indigenous populations outside the continental United States. The newly acquired territories had little or nothing in common with Anglo-American culture and political traditions, and the United States sought to manage them on a long-term basis, with the expectation that they would remain territories rather than incorporated states. Their assimilation was particularly difficult given the prevailing race relations in the United States, which led to the systematic disfranchisement and segregation of African-American citizens. An influx of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, as well as Asia, changed the racial and ethnic composition of many U.S. regions and heightened nativist fears about increasing urban poverty and labor tension.3
Of all the Hispanic Americans elected to Congress before the end of the Second World War, the overwhelming majority (17 of 25, or 68 percent) were statutory representatives, Delegates or Resident Commissioners with circumscribed legislative powers that were defined by Congress rather than the Constitution. A century of American hemispheric expansion and colonial acquisition shaped these positions. Not until 1913, when Ladislas Lazaro of Louisiana entered the House, did a Hispanic American represent in Congress a state or territory that had not been ceded by the Spanish empire or the Mexican government.
More than half the Hispanic Members of Congress who were first elected between 1898 and 1945 were Puerto Rican Resident Commissioners, a new class of statutory representative. Their story dominates that of the Hispanic Members during this era, and their careers were characterized by their attempts to balance the island’s local needs with its economic, political, and cultural interests, which were all increasingly intertwined with the United States. The story of New Mexican Members is separate but parallel to that of the Puerto Ricans in the early 20th century. Only Senator Dennis Chavez of New Mexico bridged the gap in the 1940s. In the first clear example of surrogate representation among Latino Members, Chavez addressed issues that were significant to Hispanics beyond his prescribed state boundary when he focused on the economic needs of Puerto Ricans following World War II.4
But with no more than three Hispanic individuals serving simultaneously throughout this era—an insufficient number to create a voting bloc or an issues caucus—legislating was often lonely and isolating. Luis Muñoz Rivera, the poet-turned-politician, clearly understood this reality. Like the New Mexico Delegates before him and the Resident Commissioners who would follow him, he labored under the constraints of House Rules that limited his ability to represent and legislate. His awareness of being relegated to the margins of institutional power magnified Muñoz Rivera’s sense that he was engaged in a solitary undertaking. Serving as Resident Commissioner in the 1910s, he wrote a friend in Puerto Rico, “I am here alone, in tomb-like isolation, mixing with people who speak a different tongue, who have no affinity with my way of life, who are not even hostile … but indifferent, cold, and rough as the granite stones which support their big Capitol.”5
1“El representante debe merecer la confianza del representado: esa confianza ha debido obteneria con su historia, en la cual estén consignados los hechos que ha realizado en la lucha por el bien de la patria, justificadas sus condiciones intelectuales, demostrado su carácter, y evidenciado su amor a la libertad.” Un Imparcial, “Gatell y Degetau: A elegir,” 15 October 1900, La correspondencia (San Juan, PR): 2. Translated as “Gatell and Degetau: To the Polls,” by Translations International, Inc. (May 2009).
2Congressional Record, House, 56th Cong., 1st sess. (28 February 1900): 2420.
3Many historians consider this era the age of “scientific racism,” that is, the systematic exclusion of nonwhites due to white supremacism, from participation in America’s politics, economy, and society. For an overview, see Devon G. Peña, “Scientific Racism,” in Suzanne Oboler and Deena J. González, eds., The Oxford Encyclopedia of Latinos and Latinas in the United States, vol. 4 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005): 87–93. Eric T. L. Love thoroughly examines the historiography of race and empire in Race over Empire: Racism & U.S. Imperialism, 1865–1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004): 1–26.
4For a discussion of surrogate representation using modern examples, see Jane Mansbridge, “Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent ‘Yes,’” Journal of Politics 61 (1999): 628–657.
5Quoted in Mack Reynolds, Puerto Rican Patriot: The Life of Luis Muñoz Rivera (New York: Crowell-Collier Press, 1969): 87.