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Black Flag BoricuasAnarchism, Antiauthoritarianism, and the Left in Puerto Rico, 1897-1921$

Kirwin R. Shaffer

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780252037641

Published to Illinois Scholarship Online: April 2017

DOI: 10.5406/illinois/9780252037641.001.0001

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Cultural Politics and Transnational Anarchism in Puerto Rico

(p.1) Introduction
Black Flag Boricuas

Kirwin R. Shaffer

University of Illinois Press

Abstract and Keywords

This introductory chapter positions anarchism in Puerto Rico as a unique entity in the movement's history. In Puerto Rico, anarchists expressed their concerns and visions through their own brand of cultural politics, which was directed against Puerto Rican and U.S. colonial rulers in order to promote an antiauthoritarian spirit and countercultural struggle over how the island was being run and the future directions that it should pursue. Alongside this was a consistent anticlericalism against one of the perceived central pillars of cultural authoritarianism in Puerto Rico dating to the days of Spanish rule: the Roman Catholic Church. Moreover, while cultural politics reflected one way that anarchists engaged in debates over Puerto Rico-specific issues, many of these cultural debates were actually linked transnationally.

Keywords:   Puerto Rico, United States, cultural politics, transnational anarchism, antiauthoritarianism, anticlericalism, cultural debates, cultural authoritarianism, colonialism

Today, in the latest manifestation of capitalist globalization, the traveler to the Caribbean more likely visits the islands to vacation than to work, more likely luxuriates in the bounty acquired from global capitalism than organizes to fight against global capitalism, more likely tries to forget the mindless bickering of politicians and religious pundits on the television each night than seeks to resist or even topple these rambling rubes. Yet, over a century ago, international anarchists made their way to the Caribbean during an earlier wave of capitalist globalization that swept the Atlantic world from the 1890s to 1920s. There migrants joined homegrown anarchists to fight against what they saw as the growing authoritarian, freedom-denying actions of international and national capitalists, religious zealots, and island politicians acting in concert with U.S. government officials.

In Puerto Rico, anarchists expressed their concerns and visions through their own brand of cultural politics. Some anarchists published collections of their poetry, complete with calls for revolutionary uprisings. Others published plays and short stories that highlighted class antagonisms, promoted worker revolts, and celebrated revolutionary violence to destroy the last vestiges of bourgeois society while planting the seeds for a new egalitarian future. Women—especially teenage girls—figured prominently in anarchist and leftist culture. Anarchist cultural politics included more than fiction. Anarchists also worked in educational realms to create schools and learning opportunities for both adults and children. Related to this was their consistent anticlericalism against one of the perceived central pillars of cultural authoritarianism in Puerto Rico dating to the days of Spanish rule: the Roman Catholic Church. Anarchists in Puerto Rico joined these educational experiments, anticlericalism, (p.2) and literary works with critiques of the island’s political economy that was increasingly subservient to U.S. interests. As a result, anarchists forged a cultural politics directed against Puerto Rican and U.S. colonial rulers to promote an antiauthoritarian spirit and countercultural struggle over how the island was being run and the future directions that it should pursue.

While cultural politics reflected one way that anarchists engaged in debates over Puerto Rico–specific issues, many of these cultural debates were actually linked transnationally. For instance, when leftists in Puerto Rico staged plays, they were mostly written by leftists in Cuba, Spain, and the United States. When they engaged in anticlerical actions, they did so as part of a broader international movement of freethinkers that included globally famous activists such as the Spanish-born, Puerto Rican–raised Belén de Sárraga—a freethinking radical who spoke throughout the island in 1912. Thus, this book explores how cultural politics both reflected the island-specific reality that anarchists encountered, as well as the role that cultural politics played in larger transnational radical movements.

One cannot do transnational history without beginning from a solid understanding of local and national dimensions from which anarchists emerged as well as into which anarchists crossed and where they worked. Thus, the historian’s interest in transnational history is still very reliant on country-specific approaches. Those approaches help us better understand the issues that fueled anarchist migration, newspaper distribution, and monetary flows. At the same time, the transborder dimensions of anarchism help us better understand how the global anarchist community and the anarchists who wrote for and traveled within that community impacted local and national expressions of anarchism. Ultimately, one can best understand local and national anarchist organizations by understanding their transnational infusions and vice versa.

In the 1890s, “revolutionary socialists,” “libertarian socialists,” and “anarchists” launched the labor movement in Puerto Rico and remained active in organized labor for decades. However, the island’s anarchists did not limit their focus, energies, attentions, or presence merely to the island proper. Rather, as anarchists engaged in antiauthoritarian struggles against Puerto Rican elites, U.S. colonial officials, and labor rivals, they linked themselves to international anarchists in Havana, Tampa, and New York. To unlock these radicals’ histories, I trace the movements of the island’s anarchist men and women as they traveled around and beyond Puerto Rico, associating with anarchists in other locations and becoming in the process the flesh and blood of both Puerto Rican and transnational anarchism. These individual stories illustrate the importance of personal contact of these (p.3) “militant go-betweens” as their presence in different countries helped to put a face on the international struggle in different parts of the world generally and the Americas specifically.1

In Puerto Rico, anarchists mainly grew out of the tobacco industry. Caguas, Bayamón, and San Juan were anarchist centers largely because most of the leading anarchist writers and activists worked in the tobacco industry in these cities. But this tobacco-centered anarchism in Puerto Rico also facilitated the transnationalism of Puerto Rico–based activists who could circularly migrate between the island and other tobacco cities, especially Havana, Tampa, and New York. These cities allowed anarchist migrants a means to earn a living while away from the island and put them in touch with fellow tobacco workers, cigar rollers, and Spanish-speaking anarchists.

As a result, we see that anarchists—true to their internationalist orientations—stressed the importance of looking beyond the national boundaries of any given country. Meanwhile, their presence away from the island brought a Puerto Rican perspective to these other arenas. Workers and activists in New York, Tampa, and Havana gained a broader understanding of the issues facing their Puerto Rican comrades elsewhere, while at the same time these migrating anarchists were exposed to situations abroad that they could then relate to their Puerto Rican comrades upon return or through correspondence to the Puerto Rican press. Ultimately, the histories of these anarchist migrants from Puerto Rico helped to create an international consciousness in Cuba, the United States, and Puerto Rico, assuring readers of their works and audiences for their speeches that seemingly local problems were actually global in both scope and origin.

Recovering anarchists from their largely forgotten history on the island requires not just following a handful of radicals traveling around, to, and from Puerto Rico. Historically, a key source for reconstructing the history of anarchism around the world has been the anarchist press. For Puerto Rico, this becomes a challenge. Anarchists rarely published their own newspapers, and those that were published did not last more than a year. These few newspapers, however, are invaluable for understanding the anarchist attacks against their enemies and for anarchist visions of Puerto Rico’s future. In the 1890s, the first two labor organizations—Federación Regional de Trabajadores (FRT, Regional Federation of Workers) and the FLT—published Ensayo Obrero (Labor experiment) and El Porvenir Social (The social future). While not explicitly anarchist, the papers reflected a late-nineteenth-century all-encompassing concept of “socialism” that included anarchist writers and analyses. A few years later, Juan Vilar published Voz Humana in Caguas from 1905 to 1906, and there were short-term newspapers in the succeeding years (p.4) in Caguas and Bayamón. Not until 1920 did anarchists again regularly publish another periodical, when the Bayamón-based El Comunista (The communist) became the most successful anarchist newspaper in the island’s history and the most internationally read. As such it became a tool to link Puerto Ricans with anarchists mainly throughout the United States. It also serves as a major source for understanding the local issues and transnational networks of Puerto Rican anarchism during the radical early years of the Bolshevik Revolution, which the editors supported. Finally, the El Comunista group represents a new chapter in the historiography of the Puerto Rican Left. Until now, historians of the Left and labor have ignored this group and their radical agenda. The Bayamón anarchists were no obscure group, as they became a specific target of U.S. government repression in 1920 during the post–World War I Red Scare. That was also the period in which El Comunista began to appear in Spanish-speaking anarchist communities across the United States and money from around the United States arrived in Bayamón.

Yet, because of the brief runs of these newspapers, anarchists had to use other publications to express their criticisms and visions. Over the decades, anarchist writers regularly published in the union newspapers of the AFL-linked FLT, reflecting anarchist willingness to cooperate in broad alliances with the FLT even while criticizing the labor federation for its timidity and its links to the AFL. Some anarchists also published in newspapers linked to more moderate, often middle-class-oriented groups, such as the freethinkers. Such an association between anarchists and freethinkers—as well as followers of the “scientific religion” of spiritism, which some anarchists followed—was not uncommon in the Americas, and again it reflected the willingness of Puerto Rico’s anarchists to work in cross-sectarian alliances when issues of concern overlapped with fellow progressives.

While they had their own limited press and used the publications of the FLT and the freethinkers, anarchists needed more consistent radical journalism to win the hearts of potential followers. To this end the island’s anarchists had another media outlet: the international anarchist press—a key tool to unlock the transnational relations between Puerto Rican anarchists and their global brethren. In the late 1890s, they initially linked themselves to New York City’s El Despertar (The awakening)—the first Spanish-language anarchist newspaper in the United States. In the coming decades, island-based anarchists submitted columns, monetary contributions for anarchist causes, and various communiques to anarchist publications mainly in Havana and New York.

Until 1915, the most important of these international newspapers was Havana’s ¡Tierra! Over a twelve-and-a-half-year span, anarchists in Puerto Rico sent columns and money to ¡Tierra! and the paper was returned to the (p.5) island for sale and distribution. The Havana anarchists published 583 issues of ¡Tierra! during this time. Of the 436 issues that have survived, 137 issues recorded monetary contributions from Puerto Rican anarchists. The first contact was in October 1903, but not until early 1905 was there consistent contact between anarchists on the two islands, with most letters, columns, and money coming from San Juan and Caguas, with much of that money coming from Juan Vilar and Pablo Vega Santos. In fact, Puerto Rican money arrived for 99 of the 194 issues of ¡Tierra! published from 1905 to 1910. Over the years, this money came from small communities to the largest cities across the island, including Caguas, Ponce, San Juan, Guayama, Mayagüez, Juncos, Arecibo, San Lorenzo, Cabo Rojo, Cayey, Bayamón, Utuado, and Río Grande. The weekly contributions varied. In some issues, less than 1 percent of total reported income from a particular issue of ¡Tierra! came from Puerto Rico. The largest percentage of the paper’s income was reported on July 28, 1906, when 28 percent of the newspaper’s income came from Puerto Rico. When weekly averages are examined, the Puerto Rican anarchist contribution to ¡Tierra! represented an average of 6.5 percent of total weekly income for those issues reporting Puerto Rican monetary contributions.2 However, with the closure of the Havana newspaper in early 1915, anarchists had to look elsewhere. In the early 1910s, Puerto Rican anarchists increasingly traveled to New York City, where they became involved with anarchist groups aligned with Spanish-born anarchist and publisher Pedro Esteve. These working relationships provided new transnational links between Puerto Rico and New York as the island’s anarchists increasingly utilized the New York–based Cultura Obrera (Labor culture) and Cultura Proletaria (Proletarian culture) newspapers for their own agitation on the island.

When Puerto Rico–based anarchists read about issues abroad, they often became internationally involved by sending money to a newspaper in the United States or Cuba. The money sent abroad was used to support international anarchist campaigns to free political prisoners and support their families, to raise money for a newspaper’s constant debt relief efforts, and to purchase subscriptions. Those newspapers from New York and Havana were then sent to Puerto Rico, where they were read aloud in cigar-rolling factories, sold or given away in cafés and restaurants frequented by the working class, made available for free in the libraries of the CESs, and passed out to interested workers. Just as migrant anarchists from the island helped to internationalize the movement wherever they went and to discuss international topics upon return to Puerto Rico, the international press functioned the same way. Puerto Rican columns helped readers in New York and Cuba understand their situations in larger transnational dimensions. At the same (p.6) time, readers of these newspapers in Puerto Rico read critiques of their own situation while coming to understand that they faced cultural, economic, and political struggles similar to those of their comrades abroad. As a result, for much of the early twentieth century, the Cuban and the New York anarchist press functioned as the Puerto Rican anarchist press. Thus, we cannot understand “Puerto Rican” anarchism by focusing only on the island. Rather, anarchists across the Caribbean and along the East Coast of the United States functioned in overlapping networks. As a result, anarchists in Puerto Rico did not operate in global isolation.

While anarchists in Puerto Rico operated in networks with anarchists elsewhere, it is important to consider the fact that anarchism in Puerto Rico occupied a unique trajectory in the history of anarchism in Latin America in two ways. First, Puerto Rico–based anarchists were colonial subjects of the United States. Throughout Latin America, anarchists emerged in countries that had been politically independent since the 1810s and 1820s. By 1898, Cuba and Puerto Rico were the only Spanish colonies left in the hemisphere. Cuba would become independent in 1902 but still suffer under various aspects of U.S. rule and coercion. In 1903, Panama became the newest independent country after seceding from Colombia, but the ten-mile-wide swath cut through the middle of the country for construction of the Panama Canal would be controlled by the United States, and the Republic of Panama became essentially a U.S. protectorate.

In their path-breaking edited volume on global anarchism, Steven Hirsch and Lucien van der Walt refer to Latin American anarchist movements operating in a “postcolonial” context as “ex-colonies that, despite independent polities, remain profoundly influenced by legacies of colonialism … [and] subject to a clear (but widely varying and contested) degree of indirect external control and of relative economic dependence within the world capitalist economy’s division of labour. These external constraints condition, but do not determine, internal systems of domination by class, race, culture, and gender.”3 Yet, when one speaks of anarchism in postcolonial societies in Latin America, such a description only superficially fits the Caribbean and does not describe Puerto Rico. Cuba and Panama were U.S. neocolonial possessions. Their political, economic, legal, and trade institutions were quite determined by the United States and were not merely constraints, exemplified by the fact that both countries’ constitutions authorized military intervention by the United States. Meanwhile, the Panama Canal Zone and Puerto Rico were wholly owned and controlled by the United States. In this sense, there was nothing “post” or “neo” about the colonial relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. Rather, Boricua anarchists, unlike anarchists anywhere (p.7) else in Latin America (with the exception of the Canal Zone), operated in a colonial setting where legal, political, and educational systems were run or overseen by the U.S. government. Meanwhile, the island was increasingly taken over by U.S.-based big business, while the island’s labor movement became a colonial offshoot of the U.S.-based AFL.

Second, throughout the hemisphere, anarchists constantly adopted global anarchist ideas and adapted them to fit national and subnational realities. For instance, anarchists in Cuba adapted anarchism to fit the reality of a large Afro-Cuban population. Peruvian anarchists did the same to fit the subnational reality of that country’s large indigenous population, while anarchists in Brazil were challenged to adapt ideals to fit Afro-Brazilian populations as well as migrant workers from throughout Europe.4 One finds no such adaptation to fit ethnic diversity in Puerto Rico. Rather, the island’s anarchists were mostly homegrown and from a wide racial representation. Until 1898, anarchist influences arrived in Puerto Rico with Spanish migrant workers. However, large, consistent Spanish migration to the island ended with the war. In fact, the 1910 U.S. Census found that out of a total population of over 1.1 million people on the island, there were only 11,766 residents who were foreign born. While 56.3 percent of these were born in Spain, over 7,400 of the total foreign born arrived before 1901.5 While Spanish laborers and anarchist activists continued to migrate in the early 1900s to anarchist outposts throughout the Caribbean, such as the Panama Canal Zone, Cuba, and southern Florida, they did not migrate to Puerto Rico. And, unlike the fresh waves of Spanish and Italian anarchists who reinforced the ranks of anarchists in Cuba, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and the United States, no such international reinforcement occurred in Puerto Rico.

Anarchist Histories

Studies of anarchist migration, anarchist activism in colonial settings, and anarchist cultural politics are central to emerging lines of inquiry into the history of global anarchism. These new histories not only employ an array of methodological approaches, including biography, counter culture, labor, and transnationalism; they also decenter the study of anarchism away from the historiographical focus on North America and Western Europe to describe and analyze anarchism throughout Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where capitalist exploitation and coercive state institutions were equally harsh if not more so. At the same time, these new approaches (especially those linked to transnationalism) shed light on the interconnectedness of anarchist organizations around the world.

(p.8) It took a while to get this point, though. The history of anarchism from the 1880s to the 1930s once fell into two broad and often overlapping camps. Marxist historians portrayed anarchists as backward, millenarian, and out of touch.6 At the same time, Marxist and non-Marxist scholars focused almost exclusively on anarchism in Western Europe and the United States. While a few studies from 1980 to 1990 addressed anarchism broadly in Latin America, these were rare and focused on just a handful of countries.7 Periodically, new “global” histories emerged: George Woodcock (1962), Peter Marshall (1992), and Alex Butterworth (2010), but these focus overwhelmingly on the anarchist world of the North Atlantic. The best exception to this general rule is Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt’s Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism (2009), which masterfully weaves the history of anarchism from around the globe into their analyses of anarchist strategies, tactics, and social themes from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries.8 Besides their narrow focus on the “West,” the early historians tended to write their studies from one of three approaches: biographies of anarchists, labor studies that portrayed anarchists primarily as one dimension of a country’s labor movement, and one-country studies that framed these radicals (who actually thought simultaneously in national, federative, and international terms) as actors operating almost exclusively within the confines of geopolitical borders.

The interest in “great” men and women cuts across most geographical areas of history, and the study of anarchism is no exception. Historians’ biographical portraits of anarchists include the insightful studies by Paul Avrich of lesser-known activists in the United States and famous ones such as Sacco and Vanzetti, or biographies of famous anarchists Peter Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin, Errico Malatesta, Emma Goldman, and others.9 While the biography can be seen as a traditional bourgeois approach that privileges the individual, such an approach nevertheless is appropriate for studying anarchists. After all, anarchism champions individual freedom within the context of a free society, and the renewed interest in biography (noted below) is important for helping researchers track the transnational migrations of these men and women. This biographical approach would eventually be adopted by historians exploring other parts of the world, especially Latin America, where from the 1970s to the early 1990s historians examined the individual lives and activism of anarchists, such as Rafael Barrett in Paraguay, Ricardo Flores Magón and Práxedis Guerrero in the United States and Mexico, Manuel González Prada in Peru, and Luisa Capetillo in Puerto Rico.10

While some biographies trace the lives of anarchists as they migrated around the world, the focus is as often as not on the role of these individuals (p.9) in labor movements of a particular country. This national focus soon characterizes histories of anarchism that center on how anarchists functioned within national political contexts and challenged (or were repressed) by local and national forces. Central to these one-country studies is the tendency to interpret anarchists primarily as part of a country’s labor movement. Such studies focus largely on anarchism as a feature of national labor movement struggles, anarchist roles in strikes and boycotts, or as challengers to more reformist labor union groups and leaders—all within the nation-state context.11

These labor histories of anarchism derive largely from the turn toward social history that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Beginning in the 1980s, that social history focus spurred historians to examine new social dimensions of anarchism. Historians began to explore anarchists beyond the workplace and in other realms of the public as well as the private spheres. For example, historians write on anarchist women, anarcho-feminism, and larger ways in which anarchists dealt with gender issues. Martha Ackelsberg, Margaret Marsh, Maxine Molyneux, Dora Barrancos, and I illustrate how female anarchists in Spain, the United States, Argentina, and Cuba transcended traditional male-female social divides and played roles in the global anarchist movement as organizers, speakers, teachers, and fighters in armed struggle, while Richard Sonn explores anarchist rhetoric and action over birth control in France between the World Wars. These histories underscore that not all was rosy for these women who operated in male-dominated movements that—despite their egalitarian rhetoric—were often patriarchal.12

At the same time, building on Paul Avrich’s earlier pioneering work on the Modern School movement in the United States and Ángel Cappelletti’s study of Francisco Ferrer y Guardia in Spain, historians began to investigate anarchist educational initiatives in Argentina, Cuba, the Eastern Mediterranean, and elsewhere.13 Historians explored how anarchists supplemented these educational venues with anarchist culture that included social gatherings, theater troupes, choirs, and bands. Anarchists published plays, short stories, and novels too. As a result, historians began turning to these often overlooked sources to explore the cultural work of anarchists as forms of consciousness-raising and popular education. “Labor” frequently was central to these cultural productions. For instance, in fiction and plays, workers and prostitutes were often the heroes. Also, in countries where cigar rolling was important, rollers elected a reader to read worker-selected books and newspapers that often included these cultural productions. These histories of anarchist culture are complemented by histories that explore anarchists and their relationships to art, highlighted especially by Allan Antliff’s study of the influence of anarchism on modernism in the United States. Yet, anarchist (p.10) culture was not focused just on labor, women, or art. In fact, by the new millennium, historians began to look at how anarchists lived a form of prefigurative politics by developing—often in collaboration with other progressives—alternative lifestyles. Thus, Eduard Masjuan’s seminal study of naturism and nudism in Spain lays the groundwork for other alternative lifestyle histories.14

Cultural studies illustrate how anarchists were more than just one aspect of the labor movement. That is not to say that labor histories are no longer important; they are. But the social and cultural approaches to anarchism illustrate how anarchists were not one-dimensional. Anarchists labored beyond the workplace, too. At picnics, social gatherings, and theaters, anarchists sought to politicize public spaces where people spent their free time. For instance, as Tom Goyens illustrates, German anarchists in New York City turned the beer halls into spaces for politicization outside the shop and factory. In fact, anarchists around the world engaged in a wide range of countercultural struggles against the dominant culture wherever they organized.15 They worked to educate men, women, and children and in the process devoted considerable hours of the week and their own limited resources to agitate beyond the labor union by creating art and culture while addressing a wide range of issues that included lifestyle, education, and the roles of women in the movements.

These newer approaches to anarchism—whether they focused on labor, social, or cultural history—coincide with the growth in studies of anarchism in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.16 Without doubt, the old Eurocentric focus on anarchism—though by no means dead—has increasingly been matched. In addition, social history approaches developed first in the Northern Hemisphere were being employed globally so that, by the 2010s, historians of anarchism had created an impressive body of scholarship that allowed one to compare histories of anarchists around the world in terms of labor politics, approaches to social issues of the day, and countercultural challenges to domestic forces via anarchist cultural productions.

Then the rest of the world rediscovered anarchists. In 1999, an alliance of counter-globalization activists—spearheaded by anarchists—brought turmoil to downtown Seattle and prevented the World Trade Organization from hosting its opening ceremonies. Perhaps for the first time in history, anarchists in action were beamed live and in reruns around the world. Even a movie was made about the event.17 Anarchists were mobilizing across borders to challenge the newest wave of neoliberal, capitalist globalization. This transnational activism was almost simultaneously replicated in a new wave of histories about anarchism that employed transnational approaches. It is (p.11) important to note, though, that the transnational approach rarely completely replaced earlier biographical, labor, or cultural approaches nor completely supplanted a focus on the “national.” Instead, transnational approaches have incorporated the best of these previous methods as the focus has been to look beyond national settings without ignoring national settings, and to look at national contexts as they were impacted and in turn impacted anarchists beyond political borders.

The blending of biographical and transnational approaches can be seen in studies by Benedict Anderson on José Rizal, Constance Bantman on Émile Pouget, and both Carl Levy and Davide Turcato on Errico Malatesta. Anderson’s Under Three Flags uses the political life of the Philippines-based writer Rizal to illustrate the links between nationalism, anticolonialism, and anarchism as radicals in the late Spanish colonial world at the end of the nineteenth century traveled, wrote, and agitated for freedom. As Bantman puts it, well-known itinerant anarchists were “militant go-betweens” whose journeys between national movements and agitation in each locale helped to solidify anarchist transnational networks. For small and embryonic groups, the presence of important global figures in their midst helped to galvanize fund-raising campaigns, bring a certain international “legitimacy” to their local and national efforts, and resurrected old friendships from previous militant campaigns in other countries. In addition, anarchists migrated or people migrated and became anarchists in new national contexts. Frequently, these migrants maintained strong links with their countries of origin, organizing campaigns specifically to deal with issues not only in their adopted countries but also back home with former comrades. This is especially relevant among Italian anarchists and their best-known activist, Malatesta.18

Transnational approaches to previously studied countries and organizations have brought a better understanding to how anarchists in one country operated within larger regional and global contexts. For instance, Dongyoun Hwang, Arif Dirlik, and Kenyon Zimmer explore the transnational dimensions that facilitated organizing of Asian anarchists, whether in Asia itself or back and forth across the Pacific to California. Anthony Gorman’s work on Italians in Egypt as well as Ilham Khuri-Makdisi’s study of radicals and their transnational linkages between Beirut, Cairo, and Alexandria demonstrate how networks facilitated cultural sharing, financial exchanges, and migration between Italy and Egypt on the one hand and between Southern and Eastern Mediterranean cities on the other. Historians of anarchism in Latin America have been particularly active in adopting transnational and transregional studies. José Moya’s history of European migration to Argentina and the consequences of mass migration on anarchist organizing opened the flood gates (p.12) to explore migration’s role in network formation and transnational influences on national movements in Argentina, Brazil, and Cuba in particular.19 At the same time, historians have illustrated how anarchists within Latin America reached beyond national boundaries to anarchists throughout the Americas to build networks that spanned the Caribbean Basin, the Andes, and the Río de la Plata region.20

The transnational turn has also incorporated cultural approaches. For instance, Khuri-Makdisi has shown how Mediterranean radicals shared anarchist plays and culture across the region. Likewise, I have explored thematic similarities of anarchist fiction and theater throughout the Caribbean. The importance of Francisco Ferrer y Guardia to anarchist education experiments, especially in the Americas, cannot be overstated. Of equal importance is the transnational impact of Ferrer y Guardia’s death in 1909 that led to a surge in educational experiments in the Americas. Finally, anarchist fiction often was transnational in its production, distribution, and subject matter. For instance, while anarchists in particular countries published fiction in local presses and newspapers that never saw an international audience, the opposite was also true. Fiction from throughout Europe and the Americas was distributed to anarchist libraries worldwide, published in serial form in anarchist newspapers globally, and was available by mail order. The best examples of anarchist cultural transnationalism were the two series of short novels (La Novela Ideal and La Novela Libre) published in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. More than 650 novels were distributed throughout the Spanish-speaking world, and the anarchist Adrián del Valle—a quintessential transnationalist born in Spain, exiled to London, and bouncing back and forth between Havana and New York City—published the first story in each series while living in Havana.21

The transnational lens with a particular focus on groups outside the United States and Europe also has spawned interest in how anarchists challenged another transnational entity: U.S. and European imperialism. While anarchists were adept at fighting the unholy trinity of church-state-capital, many anarchists around the world struggled against a fourth foe: colonialism in various guises. Besides Anderson’s Under Three Flags, Hirsch and van der Walt’s edited collection,Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1870–1940, focused centrally on this issue that seems to be absent from anarchist discourse in the Global North, at least judging by silence on the subject in histories of northern anarchism. The volume showcases how anarchists in Asia and Africa rejected colonial rule while anarchists in Latin America—operating primarily in independent countries with the exception of Puerto Rico and the Panama Canal Zone—fought against postcolonial situations. While anarchists in one country challenged these imperialist forces and (p.13) linked themselves to anarchists around the world, one transnational organization did both: the Wobblies (members of the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW). The anarcho-syndicalist IWW has been largely studied within the confines of one country—Australia, Canada, Chile, or the United States. However, as Anton Rosenthal demonstrates, the IWW not only operated in countries around the world, but its Spanish-language newspapers were vital to organizing Wobblies across borders throughout the Americas.22

Civil war and revolution long have been conceived of within national frame-works. However, a transnational focus on anarchists in violent scenarios has opened new avenues of understanding about anarchist networks. As Gerald Poyo, Evan Daniel, Joan Casanovas Codina, and I have shown, the Cuban War for Independence (1895–98) involved anarchists in three countries: Spain, Cuba, and the United States. From there, anarchists funded, wrote in support of, or fought in the war to liberate Cuba from Spanish tyranny.23 Anarchists also played roles in the Mexican Revolution. Radicals from around the Americas raised money and fought in the revolution, most joining Ricardo Flores Magón’s Partido Liberal Mexicano based in the U.S. Southwest but crossing into and fighting in Mexico. Historians have analyzed the role of individual anarchists, their efforts to create an autonomous province in Baja California, and the treacherous peril of how some of this blended into a race war and fueled ethnic tensions along the U.S.-Mexico border.24 In addition, anarchists joined in revolutionary struggles in Russia and China, and historians are beginning to reevaluate these historical episodes.25

All of this is not to say that transnationalism—or internationalism (I like to think of internationalism as the anarchist ideal and transnationalism as living that ideal in addition to the historian’s methodological approach)—has completely replaced histories rooted in national contexts. In fact, transnational histories that do not contextualize national settings are unsatisfying. After all, the networks could not have existed without local and national groups and actors. When people traveled along these networks to work, live, publish, and agitate, they had to deal with national realities. When anarchist ideas traveled the global circuit, they had to be adapted to fit local and national contexts to appeal to potential followers and make the international message relevant. As a result, the national and the local retain a privileged place in anarchist studies. However, the influence of transnational approaches cannot be ignored. Just as we need to know the local and national contexts to understand how the networks operated, those same local and national contexts did not exist in isolation. They were constantly receiving and sending new migrants and new newspapers, and appealing to the international community for financial assistance. Thus, just as transnational networks are rooted in communities, (p.14) cities, and nation-states, so too are these local and national environments part of the larger world. The interactions between the various dimensions—individuals, cities, nations, regions, and transregions—are key to unlocking the history of anarchism.

Writing the History of Anarchism in Puerto Rico

Until the 1990s and early 2000s, anarchism in the Caribbean attracted little attention except in some brief, often ideologically driven accounts. Then, in a ten-year span, three books, two dissertations, and several articles emerged, exploring various dimensions of anarchism in Cuba.26 However, the rest of the Caribbean Basin continued largely to be ignored, but this is not to say that anarchists and anarchist groups did not emerge elsewhere in the region. Research is beginning to show that there was a regional outbreak of anarchism that encompassed Cuba, South Florida, Puerto Rico, coastal Mexico, and Panama, as these locations were part of transnational networks that crisscrossed the Caribbean, linked to the U.S. East Coast, traversed the Atlantic to Spain, and even stretched along the Pacific Coast of South America to Peru and Chile.27

Little has been written on anarchism in Puerto Rico. In the 1970s and 1980s, Ángel Quintero Rivera launched pioneering work into the history of the Puerto Rican Left with his studies on the labor movement, the creation of the Partido Socialista (PS) and the electoral campaigns of the Socialists after 1915. Other studies built on this work, focusing on different aspects of Puerto Rican labor, such as the rebellious autonomy of the artisans, efforts to forge working-class consciousness, labor strikes, early relations between Puerto Rican and U.S. unions, the impact of Puerto Rican contract labor, and the roles of organized labor and the PS during the Depression of the 1930s. From the late 1980s to the end of the century, Gervasio García and A. G. Quintero Rivera, José Alberty Monroig, and Juan José Baldrich published insightful histories of labor resistance. Finally, one finds a handful of works, including that by Juan Ángel Silén, that provide a clear, broad overview of the island’s labor history, while the work of Arturo Bird Carmona reveals the world of tobacco workers in one locale—Puerta de Tierra on the outskirts of San Juan. Nevertheless, in most of these works, anarchists were largely absent, mentioned only in passing as part of the various labor struggles and organizations or as early—but soon outdated—influences on Puerto Rican labor. In his work on Puerta de Tierra, Bird Carmona devotes perhaps the most pages on anarchism in these labor histories by exploring the influence of anarchists on tobacco workers. He focuses mainly on their work as (p.15) consciousness raisers within the labor movement. Yet, even in his account, anarchists disappear from the pages of leftist history as the PS is formed.28 In addition, these works are Puerto Rico–specific; exploring the links between labor and radical politics on the island with other cities and countries is limited primarily to relations between the FLT and the AFL.

Into this mix, Rubén Dávila Santiago published a number of studies in the 1980s looking at labor culture and labor’s intellectual foundations. These works on the rise of cultural institutions such as the CESs and working-class theater began to explore the workers’ movement beyond the struggles for better wages and away from the workplace. Dávila Santiago’s anthology of working-class theater brought attention to the writings and creative efforts of radicals, including Ramón Romero Rosa (whose 1899 play Rebeldías [Defiances] was written while he still considered himself a “revolutionary socialist”) and two plays by the most well-known anarchist from the island, Luisa Capetillo. In 2005, Carmen Centeno Añeses built on Dávila Santiago’s cultural studies by examining the works of several working-class writers, including Romero Rosa, Venancio Cruz, and Luisa Capetillo, from the first decade of the twentieth century.29

The occasional biography overlapped these trends in the historiography of the Puerto Rican Left. Three figures stand out: Santiago Iglesias Pantín (a former anarchist who became an AFL loyalist and then the first elected Socialist senator on the island in 1917), Romero Rosa (an early confidante of Iglesias who moved away from anarchist direct action to parliamentary socialism when he was elected to the island congress in 1904), and Capetillo. Certainly, for those who know anything about anarchism in Puerto Rico, Capetillo’s name is probably the one that people most quickly recognize as the Red Emma Goldman of the Caribbean. Her work and biography have been the subject of more study than those of any single person in the island’s labor and leftist histories—even Iglesias. As a result, ironically, while the study of anarchism on the island has been quite limited and sporadic, one of the most widely studied persons on the Puerto Rican Left—thanks largely to the pioneering efforts of Norma Valle Ferrer—was the itinerant anarchist Luisa Capetillo, who journeyed between Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the United States.30

The Black Flag of Boricua Antiauthoritarianism

The black flag of anarchism dates to at least the late 1800s, symbolizing, among other things, misery and poverty. Thus, to fly the flag was to express one’s solidarity with those most abused by the state, by capital, and by religion. In addition, black is a noncolor, so the black flag contrasts with national (p.16) flags that are filled with color and symbols. In this sense, the black flag represents all poor and exploited peoples regardless of national and political borders. While anarchists by the beginning of the twenty-first century adopted the black flag almost uniformly, this was not always the case historically. Even though the black flag dates to the late nineteenth century, anarchists just as frequently—actually maybe more frequently—carried the red flag of socialism into strikes, rallies, and demonstrations in the early twentieth century. After all, anarchism is a form of socialism. In the early 1900s, anarchists often referred to themselves as “socialists”—revolutionary socialists, libertarian socialists, and more. Thus, in much of the world, including Puerto Rico, the red flag was used by various socialist groups, including anarchists. I’ve used the term black flag here as a way to distinguish the anarchists in Puerto Rico from their leftist friends and socialist rivals both before and after the creation of the PS in 1915. As the reader will see, anarchists frequently cooperated with Socialists in various political, economic, and cultural endeavors; however, they always distinguished themselves and remained a separate ideological strand of activists on the island. Thus, the black-flag symbolism reflects this distinction within the Puerto Rican Left.

Those familiar with Caribbean and especially Puerto Rican history will know that the island’s pre-Columbian inhabitants referred to themselves as Boricuas—residents of the island they called Borinquen or Boriquén. The name has been resurrected over the past century by numerous peoples to express an ethnic identity of being from Puerto Rico or of Puerto Rican descent. Such sentiment is equally strong among Puerto Ricans on the island and in the mainland United States. Since 1898, the island has had a unique status in the hemisphere—neither independent, nor a U.S state, nor an officially recognized colony. Because the island has belonged to the United States since 1898, Puerto Rico’s history has been shaped as much by political, cultural, and economic developments emanating from the United States as it has from the Caribbean or Latin America.

Yet, Boricua is a term with its own political baggage. It can take on a nationalistic, patriotic, and even jingoistic connotation linked to various attempts to found independence movements; or, it can be used more broadly to represent the history, culture, and people of Puerto Rico. The latter usage is particularly relevant to anarchism. Almost universally, anarchists condemned political nationalism and the efforts by states to own and control the definition of a people as well as the symbols and cultural icons of that people. One of the fathers of modern anarchism and a central influence in the Spanish-speaking anarchist world was Mikhail Bakunin. Bakunin rejected nationalism but supported “nationality.” While Bakunin condemned the former as a (p.17) patriotic political scheme by some to control the many, he urged anarchists to embrace the latter—an identity forged over time by a collectivity sharing a sense of common experiences and desires for freedom and autonomy. Such a collectivity could exist beyond any specific geographical setting and beyond any particular political borders.31

In a colonial setting, nationality could be a valuable, decentralized way to unite people in opposition to imperial rule. In Puerto Rico, economic and cultural resistance appeared throughout centuries of Spanish rule and into the first decades of U.S. control. Juan Manuel García Passalacqua describes the “geocultural history of Puerto Rican national affirmation” in which the masses throughout Puerto Rico slowly developed self-consciousness by the 1700s rooted in opposing first Spanish military rule, then by buying and selling contraband as a way to challenge Spanish economic restrictions.32 While the island’s elites all too easily cooperated with colonial rulers in Madrid and then Washington, “[I]t is in the masses, given our culture of resistance, where the nation will reside.”33

In other words, “Boricua” can be less about a project of political nationalism and more about a collective identity of resistance—in short, a distinct form of antiauthoritarianism rooted in the island people’s collective nationality against colonialism. Boricuas forged a culture of resistance to colonial rule throughout Puerto Rico’s history of subjugation. A quick Boricua antiauthoritarian timeline should give the reader a hint of this history. In 1511, the Taíno Indians rose against early Spanish colonists. Over the centuries, Spanish mercantile control over the island economy resulted in widespread contraband activities as mentioned above. In 1868, the Grito de Lares (the Proclamation of Lares) was the first major uprising against Spanish rule that called for independence. In 1873, African chattel slavery ended (despite a three-year obligatory service contract that followed). From the 1870s to 1898, islanders pressed for autonomy within the Spanish Empire, gaining it for elections in 1898 that were thwarted when the United States invaded and took control. By the 1890s, organized labor, led by anarchists and socialists, increasingly resisted the growing capitalist control and reorganization of the economy. Finally, as is the subject of this book, anarchists, some PS members, and other progressives resisted U.S. authorities, U.S. labor unions, local elites, and the Roman Catholic Church from the 1890s to 1920s in various efforts to shape an island truer to the masses’ idea of “nation.”

Anarchists fused this Boricua identity forged from resistance with international anarchism’s antiauthoritarian ideals of a stateless, nonreligious, anticapitalist society. One had to be cautious, though, about how to interpret this idea of a Puerto Rican nation in an era where one colonial master (Spain) (p.18) had been replaced by another (the United States). As the historian of anarchism Daniel Guérin notes in a summary of Bakunin’s thinking, “[I]t would be regrettable if the decolonized countries were to cast off the foreign yoke only to fall into indigenous political or religious servitude.”34 Thus, anarchists never jumped on the nationalist, Puerto Rican independence movement bandwagon. To do so would have been to fall into the “servitude” about which Bakunin warned. After all, anarchists had been burned before on this issue. In neighboring Cuba, anarchists supported the war for independence against Spain from 1895 to 1898, seeing it not as a nationalist war but an anticolonial war. Throwing off colonial shackles seemed like a legitimate anarchist endeavor to achieve collective freedom. Yet after 1898, Caribbean anarchists saw how Cuban independence had been hijacked by political and economic leaders in Cuba, the symbols of the war for independence had been co-opted by the state, and Cuban leaders had colluded with their U.S. allies. As a result, most anarchists in Puerto Rico wanted nothing to do with those pushing for independence from the United States. This was the danger of a Boricua concept rooted in patriotism and nationalism: one elite-run state replacing another that lacked any regard for the interests of the popular and laboring classes; all it could offer were hollow symbols and empty words that would mask a new kind of authoritarianism.

Thus, the name Boricua and the free choice that many Puerto Ricans make to call themselves this—a name rooted in precolonial (i.e., pre-Spanish and pre-U.S.) control—epitomizes a concept of freedom and independence that the term “Puerto Rican” lacks since “Puerto Rico” is after all a colonial name. Boricua anarchists waged an antiauthoritarian campaign against foreign and domestic exploitation and perceived injustices similar to what islanders had been doing since the Taíno uprising in 1511. Consequently, in this history of freedom-fighting anarchists on the island and abroad, it seems perfectly reasonable to use the terms Black Flag and Boricua. Plus, the alliteration works well.

Black Flag Boricuas

This book unfolds chronologically. Chapter 1 illustrates the status of organized labor and the Left in Puerto Rico in the final decades of Spanish rule. It focuses on the tradition of artisanal autonomy and resistance, the rise of artisan and worker-based centers to develop class consciousness, and the emergence of the island’s first important labor organizations in the 1890s. Central to the story is the arrival of Santiago Iglesias Pantín, a carpenter from Spain who had worked with anarchist groups in Spain and Cuba before (p.19) fleeing from the latter in late 1896 as colonial authorities ramped up their repression against Cuban anarchists due to their support for the independence struggle. Upon arriving in San Juan, he joined forces with libertarian socialists to form the first two labor unions and the first two important left-wing newspapers from 1897 to 1899. Iglesias soon rose to lead these organizations, and after the U.S. occupation began in 1898, he traveled to the U. S. mainland to join forces first with Socialists and then the AFL.

Though Iglesias personally abandoned anarchism, neither anarchists nor anarchist ideas disappeared from the island. Chapter 2 illustrates that during the first decade of U.S. rule anarchists cautiously joined the AFL-linked Federación Libre de Trabajadores, assuming leadership roles in local unions, publishing in union newspapers, and printing anarchist newspapers through the union presses. From within the union, anarchists criticized the FLT’s pro-Americanization project, the rise of republican political institutions and electoral politics on the island, and the union’s occasional attempts to engage in elections. These critiques, sometimes published at home and sometimes published in the international anarchist press in Cuba that was then mailed back to Puerto Rico, often found anarchists on the margins of union politics. However, anarchists knew that since the FLT was the largest labor organization in Puerto Rico, they could not remain outside of the union and still hope to have any influence in leftist politics or among the working masses. So, they worked as best as they could with the reformers while continuing to put forth a more radical agenda achieved by direct action, not parliamentary politics.

The need to work with more conservative labor elements reflected the larger anarchist project of working in cross-sectarian alliances with nonanarchists who shared certain beliefs. Chapter 3 explores how some anarchists aligned themselves with the emerging freethinkers’ movement centered in the southern city of Ponce to address educational issues on the island. The Puerto Rican Left had been founding CESs since the end of the nineteenth century. Such centers were refuges for workers to read radical newspapers, books, and pamphlets or to see performances of radical theater and hear talks. On occasion, these centers offered classes to adults and children. While the freethinkers were mostly middle-class professionals, they shared with anarchists a fervent belief in free expression and freedom of speech. In addition, both anarchists and freethinkers condemned what they saw as the influence of religion on society, especially in education. As a result both called for rationalist education modeled after the ideals and Modern Schools in Spain developed by Francisco Ferrer y Guardia. Although freethinkers never put up money for the schools, anarchists and their leftist allies in the FLT did, (p.20) founding schools in the years after Ferrer’s execution in 1909, only to see them collapse due to both economic and political repression.

The anarchist-freethinker alliance also centered on their equally fervent hatred of the Catholic Church. Chapter 4 explores the links between anarchists and other progressive factions on the island as they attacked and condemned the church. However, one of these factions—the spiritists—caused a dilemma within anarchist ranks. While rejecting the Catholic Church, espiritistas believed in reincarnation and the teachings of Jesus, which they believed had been bastardized by the church. Most freethinkers and some anarchists could be counted in the spiritist movement; however, not all leftists were comfortable with this “scientific religion.” Nevertheless, from 1909 to 1912, this alliance often worked together to challenge representatives of Catholic authoritarianism, culminating in the 1912 islandwide speaking tour of international freethinker Belén de Sárraga.

Chapters 5 and 6 examine more closely the relationships between anarchists and their sometime-allies, sometime-antagonists in the emerging PS in the 1910s. Around the world, anarchists were prolific creators of cultural productions, including novels, plays, poetry, and short stories. A handful of anarchists in Puerto Rico carried on this tradition. In particular, they focused on two overriding themes: gender and the role of violence or violent imagery in bringing forth a new era. Many leftists who joined the PS or took more mainstream approaches to the island’s politics likewise followed anarchistinspired interpretations of these themes. The focus on cultural productions illustrates that the left wing of the PS and the anarchists understood their reality and their visions for a future Puerto Rico in similar terms. These friendly relations between anarchists and PS members continued throughout much of the decade, especially as wave after wave of strike actions crippled the island from 1916 to 1918. However, by 1918, anarchists centered in the city of Bayamón took an increasingly hard line against all aspects of the PS, especially concerning the relevance of electoral politics for the future of Puerto Rican workers, the appropriate responses to militarism, and the new military draft for the Great War that some PS leaders such as the elected Socialist senator Santiago Iglesias supported.

Chapter 7 investigates these Bayamón anarchists in 1920 and early 1921. An anarchist cell had existed in the tobacco factory city since at least 1906, headed by Alfredo Negrín and others. Negrín and his comrades remained radicalized over the coming decade and a half, publishing newspapers, fighting off police attempts to storm the local FLT offices, traveling to Cuba to work with anarchists there, and, beginning in 1918, organizing Bayamón-based radical groups that found their inspiration in the Bolshevik Revolution. (p.21) In 1920, the Bayamón bloc founded the newspaper El Comunista. The paper became the longest-running, most financially successful anarchist newspaper in the island’s history. The Bayamón bloc’s newspaper stridently attacked U.S. militarism and interventionism in the Caribbean Basin, offered a qualified opposition to calls for Puerto Rican independence, and found growing distribution throughout and financial backing from Spanish-speaking anarchist groups in the United States. The distribution, support for the Bolsheviks, and fervent attacks on U.S. policies led the Wilson administration in Washington to target the Bayamón anarchists during the Red Scare. The resulting closure of the newspaper spelled the end to the most successful anarchist organization to emerge on the island.

The epilogue explores the legacy of anarchism in Puerto Rico. While anarchist agitation and organizing came to an end in the early 1920s, individual anarchists continued to write to anarchist publications in New York and Havana. Other anarchists were absorbed into the Socialist Party and then the Communist Party. Over the coming decades, anarchists were few and far between on the island, with the occasional anarchist group emerging for a short time. However, the global economic recession that began in 2008, coupled with efforts by the Puerto Rican government and the Universidad de Puerto Rico to impose new fees on university students in 2010, gave birth to new interest in anarchism on the island as anarchist groups took to the internet, the cafés, and the university grounds. They began working with other groups in cross-sectarian alliances, offering classes on anarchism, reviving anarchist theatre, and drawing attention to the ravages of joint state-corporate attempts to seize private lands. In short, these new Black Flag Boricuas were resurrecting in the present the very history of anarchist agitation and antiauthoritarianism developed a century earlier. (p.22)


(2.) Figures derived from examination of the published financial statements of ¡Tierra! on page 4. The average weekly contribution took the sum of the weekly averages (893) and divided it by 137 issues.

(6.) The most famous of these is Eric Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels.

(11.) Countless examples abound. In fact, this national focus dominates the historiography of anarchism around the world and often is couched in terms of a “national” anarchism, that is, “French,” “Spanish,” “Italian,” “Argentine,” “Chinese,” or “Indian” anarchism.

(17.) Battle in Seattle.

(19.) See these authors’ works cited above and Zimmer’s chapter on San Francisco in “‘The Whole World Is Our Country.’”

(25.) See Lai, “Anarchism, Communism, and China’s National Revolution”; and Dirlik, Anarchism and the Chinese Revolution. Much attention has been paid to Ukraine, where Nestor Makhno and his comrades organized the region along anarchist principles until the Bolsheviks crushed the Makhnovists. See in particular Shubin, “Makhnovist Movement and the National Question.”

(29.) See Dávila Santiago, El derribo de las murallas, “El pensamiento social obrero,” and Teatro obrero en Puerto Rico. Also see Centeno Añeses, Modernidad y resistencia.

(34.) Guérin, Anarchism, 69. The best work on Bakunin’s life and work is Leier, Bakunin.