Bitter Harvest: A Puerto Rican Farmer Laments U.S. Control of the Island
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Bitter Harvest: A Puerto Rican Farmer Laments U.S. Control of the Island

In 1898, the United States took control of the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, intending to use it as a base for strategic naval operations. Most of the island’s 900,000 inhabitants welcomed the end of Spanish rule. But they were divided about the U.S. presence. Some hoped links with the United States would lead to increased trade and prosperity; others wanted total independence. Some who initially welcomed the United States quickly became disillusioned. Severo Tulier, a small farmer from Vega Baja, had to sell his farm in 1899; he worked first as a field laborer, and then moved to San Juan to learn a trade. He described the conditions of life among farm workers to Henry K. Carroll, the special commissioner for the United States to Puerto Rico, who interviewed hundreds of Puerto Ricans as part of his effort to formulate U.S. policy for governing the island.

Puerto Rican farm laborer Severo Tulier expresses his disappointment with the U.S. presence in his homeland in this 1899 interview with Henry K. Carroll, the Special Commissioner for the United States to Puerto Rico.

Tulier: The usual rate [of wages] is 25 centavos and breakfast, and 37 1/2 centavos to the better class of workmen. A few laborers who have some special skill receive as high as 50 centavos a day, but it should be borne in mind that where 50 centavos is paid, payment is made in vales, which are mere tokens.......redeemable at the company’s store.......

The customary hours of work are from six to six; that is, for work in the field. For work in the shops and on the sugar machinery, they have to go earlier, sometimes as early as 4 o’clock in the morning.......

Carroll: What do they have to eat in the evenings?

Tulier: The basis of their evening meal is a big plantain, which they sometimes make into a mess with rice and beans........They have meat only on Sundays........Their food improves a little during the corn season, as that forms an addition to the daily diet. Their three chief articles of food, it may be said, are sweet potatoes, plantains, and corn.......

Carroll: What about their houses?

Tulier: The house is made of poles, thatched about with palm, and about 4 or 5 varas square [a vara is about 33 inches] partitioned off into a parlor, a bedroom and a kitchen........The kitchen has no flooring, and the parlor and bedroom flooring is badly laid. Frequently the house lets in the rain........Their wardrobe consists of two changes—one that is being worn and the other that is being washed........The children, as a rule, have only one shirt, and while the mother is washing that one they must run about without any clothing.......

The number of [infant] deaths caused from want of medical assistance is not considerable, because the women lead a free, out-of-door life, but owing to want of proper nourishing food, a great many [infants] succumb from weakness........The poor people are absolutely in want of medical assistance in the country places, and if they go to the village to obtain medical aid they can only do so through the charity of the doctors, as they are not able to pay for such services.......

Usually about five persons live in a house of the kind I have described. They all sleep together—father, mother, grown-up sons and daughters—and when they haven’t sufficient beds, they sleep on piles of palm leaves........The peasant is naturally intelligent, and his mind is as fertile as the land which he works and is only waiting the implements of education. As a proof of this I will cite an instance. When it was known that autonomy was to be granted and that suffrage was limited to men of 25 years of age who knew how to read and write, I formed a class in my district and offered to teach free all men of that age and over, to fit them to vote. I had men in the class whose ages ranged from 25 to 60 years, and some of them after a few lessons knew the letters of the alphabet at sight and could write them. This was done without the aid of any modern appliances used in teaching, a piece of rough board and chalk being the only materials at hand. . . . The desire of everybody to learn was manifest.

Source: "The Field Laborer," Testimony of Severo Tulier, in Henry K. Carroll, Report On The Island of Puerto Rico, U.S. Treasury Department Document 2118 (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1899; reprint, Arno Press, 1975), 724–726.