“Foreign in a Domestic Sense,”

Félix Córdova Dávila of Puerto Rico with other island leaders/tiles/non-collection/i/intro_06_davila_pr_officials_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Resident Commissioner Félix Córdova Dávila of Puerto Rico (far left) visits the White House in 1924 with other leaders from the island. The delegation pressed President Calvin Coolidge to grant Puerto Ricans the right to elect their own governor. Until the 1940s, Puerto Rican governors were appointed by U.S. Presidents.
The Spanish-American War of 1898 refashioned Hispanic representation in Congress. The short-lived war quickened America’s rise as a world power and expanded its overseas empire to include the Philippines and Guam in the far Pacific and, closer to home, Puerto Rico in the Caribbean basin. Of the 15 Hispanic Americans who were elected or appointed to Congress in this era, eight were statutory representatives. (One was from the New Mexico Territory before its admission into the Union as a state in 1912, and seven were from Puerto Rico.)

For decades, territories on the North American continent had been organized with the understanding that they would eventually be incorporated as states. U.S. colonialism forced Congress to decide how overseas territories and peoples who were never expected to be admitted into the Union would be treated in the national legislature. Congress’s solution to this problem was to create a piecemeal colonial administrative structure through a series of organic governing acts. Even the U.S. Supreme Court, in determining that such territories would remain unincorporated in a series of decisions known as the Insular Cases, was ambiguous about the status question: Puerto Ricans, the justices reasoned, were “foreign in a domestic sense.”9

Congress set the administrative landscape for U.S. colonial rule in these far-flung locations—particularly in the case of Puerto Rico by the Foraker Act of 1900 and the Jones Act of 1917. Initially, the Foraker Act, which created the office of Resident Commissioner, greatly circumscribed Puerto Rico’s representation in the U.S. federal government. Most officials, including the governor, and key administrators in the colonial government were presidential appointees, and Congress had authority to overrule any law passed by Puerto Rico’s legislature. The Jones Act of 1917, while extending citizenship to Puerto Ricans, left the island’s long-term status uncertain.

During this era, Resident Commissioners arguably had less power than Territorial Delegates. The first Resident Commissioner, Federico Degetau, could not even sit with other Members in the chamber. Eventually, Resident Commissioners were granted this privilege, along with a seat on the Insular Affairs Committee, which had jurisdiction over territories and overseas possessions. But the early Resident Commissioners were not permitted to join party caucuses, they could not vote in committee, and they had no vote on final legislation that reached the House Floor. Like earlier Territorial Delegates, they were not at their core legislators. Rather, they functioned like lobbyists or envoys, who could educate, debate, and testify on behalf of legislation, but were unable to vote their constituents’ will.

U.S. delegation to the Pan-American Conference with Tulio Larrínaga/tiles/non-collection/i/intro_07_panam_delegates_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress An image of the U.S. delegation to the Pan-American Conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1906. Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner Tulio Larrínaga is seated in the front row at the far left.

Early Puerto Rican Resident Commissioners faced an uphill battle in making the case that territorial residents should participate in U.S. society and earn full citizenship rights. “A good deal has been said about the unpreparedness and the unfitness of our people for self-government,” Tulio Larrínaga, the island’s second Resident Commissioner, told congressional colleagues. “I wish every honest man … to answer me this question: If every Territory and every State that has been admitted into this Union was better prepared than the island of Porto Rico is to-day? Look back to the different portions of this country which have been made States by acts of Congress. What was their population; what was their literacy; what was their wealth; what was their civilization as compared with the civilization of four hundred years of Porto Rico?”10 Complicating matters was the fact that the Puerto Ricans themselves were divided nearly evenly into three factions regarding their future status: statehood, complete independence, or autonomy within a commonwealth structure.

Dennis Chavez of New Mexico/tiles/non-collection/i/intro_08_chavez_dennis_sho.xml Image courtesy of the U.S. Senate Historical Office Dennis Chavez of New Mexico was the first Hispanic American to serve in both the U.S. House (1931–1935) and Senate (1935–1962). Chavez was an early proponent of Hispanic civil rights nationally.
Hispanic-American Members of Congress made notable gains in this era. Though he served only briefly and symbolically as the first Hispanic Senator, Octaviano Larrazolo of New Mexico (1928–1929) rose to prominence because of his long career as an advocate for nuevomexicanos, who he felt were marginalized and manipulated by the state’s party structures. The next Hispanic to follow him—and the first to serve in both chambers—Dennis Chavez of New Mexico was arguably the first surrogate representative for Hispanics nationally; for instance, Chavez led a Senate panel that pushed for reforms in Puerto Rico during the early 1940s. As Hispanic Americans entered this apprenticeship phase on Capitol Hill, they gained more-prominent committee assignments. Joachim O. Fernández of Louisiana held powerful posts on the House Naval Affairs and Appropriations Committees in the 1930s, and during his brief stint in the U.S. House, Chavez chaired the Committee on Irrigation and Reclamation, which had a strong influence on policy in the Western states.

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9For overviews of the Insular Cases, see James E. Kerr, The Insular Cases: The Role of the Judiciary in American Expansionism (Kennikat, NY: Kennikat Press, 1982): 3–13; Christina Duffy Burnett and Burke Marshall, “Between the Foreign and the Domestic: The Doctrine of Territorial Incorporation, Invented and Reinvented,” in Christina Duffy Burnett and Burke Marshall, eds., Foreign in a Domestic Sense: Puerto Rico, American Expansion, and the Constitution (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001): 1–36.

10Congressional Record, House, 61st Cong., 2nd sess. (1 June 1910): 7241.