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“Such Cases of Outrageous Unspeakable Abuse...”: A Puerto Rican Migrant Protests Labor Conditions During World War I

by Rafael Marchán

In 1917 the United States declared the inhabitants of Puerto Rico, a U.S. posession since 1898, to be citizens of the United States—a “gift” that many Puerto Ricans resented. Seeing an untapped source of inexpensive labor, the U.S. Labor Department worked with industry to facilitate the migration of Puerto Rican workers to America. During the First World War the War Department agreed to transport Puerto Rican workers to labor camps in the United States where they would be housed and fed while working on government construction contracts at defense plants and military bases, many of which subjected the new migrants to harsh conditions and even forced labor. Rafael Marchán was one of a group of Puerto Rican workers at Fort Bragg in North Carolina who protested to the commissioner of Puerto Rico over the intolerable conditions in the work camp. He gave this deposition in Washington, D.C., in October 1918.

RAFAEL F. MARCHAN, being first duly sworn, deposes and says: That he is a native of Porto Rico, and a citizen of the United States, twenty-seven years old, married, and temporarily residing at Camp Bragg, Fayettsville, North Carolina; that he, and some other 1700 Porto Ricans, were induced and persuaded, directly or indirectly, by Mr. F.C. Roberts, Special Agent, Bureau of Immigration, Department of Labor, to come, and did come, to this country for the purpose of cooperating within the scope of their respective ability, in the noble task of carrying on this war to a successful issue, by contributing their labor to American industries and works, it being distinctly and clearly understood at the time, that he, the affiant, RAFAEL F. MARCHAN, and the other Porto Ricans, as aforesaid, came under the aegis and protection of the Government, and that he and they were to be employed in their respective trades or such occupations as they were fit for; that it was equally and specifically understood at the said time also that the housing accommodations and living and working conditions were to be of such a kind as to insure their health and comfort, and that proper measures would be taken to provide for their welfare and protection against mistreatment and abuse while employed in such work as aforesaid; that it was further understood that the said affiant and the other Porto Ricans as aforesaid, were to be sent to such States of the Union as are farthest south, where the climate and general conditions are more similar to those under which they have been accustomed to live and work. It was also understood that if any or all of the said Porto Ricans should not be satisfied with working or living conditions or should merely wish to change to some other work for which he or they were competent or fit for or to some other place of his or their choosing, he or they could do so, and that they were not to be restrained in their personal liberty or in any way compelled to do any kind of work or live in any given place against their will.

The affiant, RAFAEL F. MARCHAN, further deposes and says, that he and the other Porto Ricans as aforesaid were brought from Porto Rico to this country in the Government Transport City of Savannah, through the port of Wilmington, Delaware, whence they were brought to Camp Bragg, at Fayettsville, North Carolina, on September 29, 1918, where they were housed in improperly constructed barracks without protection from the cold weather; that so far as he can make out they were turned over to James Stewart and Company, Inc., Contractors for the construction of the said Camp, to work for them under conditions and terms wholly unsatisfactory to them, the said affiant and the other Porto Ricans as aforesaid, who, without any distinction or discrimination as to capacity or qualifications, were on the next and successive days ordered to clear the grounds of timber and brush for the Camp, with the exception of a few of them who were detailed to hospitals, offices, etc.

The affiant, RAFAEL F. MARCHAN, further deposes and says, that owing to the improper and unsanitary conditions under which the said Porto Ricans labor and live at the said Camp Bragg their health and comfort and even their lives are not only endangered and put in jeopardy but actually broken up and destroyed as it has been the case with some twenty-two of them who have died from utter lack of proper care and medical attention. And the affiant says that at the Hospital the same drinking glass and other utensils are indiscriminately used by all without previous disinfection, with the resulting infection and contagion of such dreaded diseases as influenza, consumption, pneumonia, etc.; and the affiant further says that there have been cases of such utter and inhuman cruelty as to compel sick men under the pretext of their being lazy, to either go to work or be locked up, just because in fear of the ill treatment which they expected to receive at the hospital they would rather stay in their own beds, and when the men are sent to the hospital they are not always sure they will not be neglected and abused without any consideration or regard for their condition; and the affiant further says that there was a case of such apparent neglect and criminal negligence as to permit a man to die from a wound on his foot which was infected and aggravated by the first aid bandage which was put on it and never removed for about a week until he passed away; and that there was a notorious case of abuse of a sick man in the hospital who was ordered from his bed by the attending physician and when he would not do it as quickly as ordered, the said attending physician took him by the arm and violently threw him out of bed upon the floor. And the affiant further says that men are put to bed at the hospital with their working clothes on, that they all are given no other medicine or treatment than some “white tablets” which have become a sort of a joke among the Porto Ricans as being considered a sort of omnipresent cure-all or universal panacea for all ailments, from a simple cold to sore feet, pneumonia or rheumatism; and that the same holds true as to diet there being no difference made in this respect as between the very sick and those slightly ill.

The affiant, RAFAEL F. MARCHAN, further deposes and says, that these Porto Ricans are compelled to use mess books which are obtained at the office, and when men working far away from the said office arrive there a little late they are told to go without food because the man in charge is generally in a hurry to close up and go to town for the night, usually making some remark or excuse such as that there are no more mess books left, or that office hours are over, etc.; and the affiant says that at one time when a number of men went to work to some particular place a little ways off from the regular mess halls, they were compelled by force at the point of revolvers to take some food which they did not want because it was not satisfactory, and prevented from going to the regular mess halls, where they would prefer to go for their dinner, and those who resisted this outrageous imposition were violently pushed about and abused, and one was quite badly injured; and the affiant further says that at these regular mess halls they serve only one kind of food and if any of the men wishes to have something else within reason, such as a glass of milk, a couple of eggs or a piece of pie, etc., they are met with the invariable remark that they can not have it. And the affiant further says that, in exchange, those at the office can have most anything they wish while they pay exactly the same price for their food as the common laborers who must be contented to accept what they can get, to their detriment and with evident injustice to them.

And the affiant further deposes and says, that as illustrating the general treatment accorded these Porto Ricans at the Camp, there have been such cases of outrageous unspeakable abuse and degrading ill treatment of the men that some have positively refused to continue at the Camp and announced their intention to leave, but have been prevented to do so by sheer compulsion of force, thus being deprived of their liberty and what is still worse compelled to remain in a state of involuntary servitude; and the affiant says, that even the Fire Chief, who evidently is a regular bully at the Camp has gone so far outside the scope of his authority at different occasions that the men under him are wont to look upon him as the terror of the place, the bulldog of the Camp, who has no hesitation in striking men with his fist or brandish his revolver in their faces; and the affiant further says that the acts of cruelty committed daily against these men are too numerous to be cited here in all their repulsive and disgusting details; that as illustrative of the callousness and heartlessness of the treatment accorded to these people by some of the men in authority at the Camp the case may be cited of a poor old man who was inhumanely knocked down and made to cry by one of these fiendish individuals who afterwards, finding him asleep near the same spot where he was knocked down, set fire to the dried leaves and twigs around his helpless form in order to frighten the old man, making him believe that he was to be burned alive.

And the affiant further deposes and says that he has been instructed by a number of these Porto Ricans to lay before the Commissioner of Porto Rico their grievances with the request that the matter be taken up with the proper authorities of the Government with a view to have the proper remedy applied to a situation which has become unbearable; and the affiant says that the said petition to said Commissioner was not subscribed by all of the men, because it has to be done under secrecy in order to avoid detection at the Camp by those interested in having all these shameful things ignored and kept from the general public and the Government of the United States, even at the cost of further and greater crimes against them.

(signed) Rafael F. Marchan

Subscribed and sworn to before me this 24th day of October, 1918. (signed) illegible

Notary Public D.C.

Source: “Rafael Marchan Statement,” October 24, 1918 in: Record of the Bureau of Insular Affairs, Record Group 350, File 1493, (Washington, D.C.:National Archives), pp. 123–126

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"I Was More of a Citizen": A Puerto Rican Garment Worker Describes Discrimination in the 1920s