The investigations by the Chavez and Bell committees were a prelude to a new era in which Puerto Ricans took greater control over their local affairs. While the committees’ recommendations provided the framework for a modified set of insular guidelines, Puerto Rico retained its uncertain status in the annals of American policy. It remained stuck between annexation and independence, and much of the confusion stemmed from diplomatic and cultural misunderstandings between lawmakers and the island’s inhabitants.188 “Puerto Rico is a Protean affair,” said Senator Homer Bone of Washington, who sat on the Chavez committee. “Just as you think you have sized it up, it turns into something else.” He spoke for many in Congress when he concluded, “I am slightly confused.”189 Even Senator Chavez had once called Puerto Rico’s situation “baffling.”190
Congressional action regarding Puerto Rico for the first half of the 19th century proved to be a series of experiments in colonial policy. Puerto Rican Resident Commissioners navigated these waters from a position of relative isolation and little power, in an attempt to protect the needs and the heritage of their constituents while appealing to American markets and protection. Like other statutory representatives, Resident Commissioners were limited; their ability to legislate was in the hands of their colleagues. One such colleague, Senator Chavez, sought to aid and clarify the mainland’s relationship with Puerto Rico. Chavez promoted increased autonomy for the island, and surprised many Puerto Ricans when he advocated incorporating the territory into the national narrative. “I want Puerto Rico to take a place in the American scheme of things as Americans,” he told the press. “On independence, as far as I’m concerned, you can forget about it.” Puerto Rico’s economy, he believed, would be better served if Puerto Rico remained a U.S. affiliate rather than an independent country.191 “I would like to see Puerto Rico run her own affairs—as Americans,” Chavez said.192
“A place in the American scheme of things as Americans” was the impulse behind the post–World War II Hispanic civil rights movement, as returning veterans sought to advance Hispanic political participation to promote a more egalitarian society. Dennis Chavez himself would turn away from Puerto Rican issues to focus on national concerns and the needs of his New Mexican constituents. The island would undergo a significant political transformation under the dominant Popular Democratic Party. Advancing in the ever-present struggle between local and federal control, Puerto Ricans would win by 1950 the right to elect their own governor and write their own constitution. Though the establishment of the Puerto Rican commonwealth in 1952 would provide Puerto Ricans a measure of autonomy, many of the difficulties that arose from the island’s arbitrary relationship with the United States in the first half of the century would persist. And though Resident Commissioners would experience only incremental changes in their ability to participate in Congress, an increasing overall number of Hispanic Members would result in better organization. The creation of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in 1976 would partially alleviate the “tomb-like isolation” lamented by Luis Muñoz Rivera more than a half-century before.193
188Ayala and Bernabe, Puerto Rico in the American Century: 208.
189Homer T. Bone to B. W. Thoron, 17 May 1944, Bethesda, MD., 9-8-59-Social & Economic Conditions-Investigations-Bell Committee (Part No. 1); RG 126; NACP.
190Chavez Subcommittee to William A. Brophy, unknown date, 9-8-68 (Part No. 4)-Government-Organic Act-Amendments- Advisory Committee to the President- General; RG 126; NACP.
191“Puerto Ricans Hail Prospect of Self Rule,” 10 March 1943, Christian Science Monitor: 3; Ayala and Bernabe, Puerto Rico in the American Century: 150.
192“U.S. Senate Investigators in Puerto Rico,” 10 February 1943, Christian Science Monitor: 3.
193Quoted in Reynolds, Puerto Rican Patriot: 87.