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  • Natalia Estela

Root's Roots: Puerto Rican Identity and Colonialism

A NY State historical sign next to Buttrick Hall, noting the birthplace of Elihu Root, a Hamilton graduate, US Senator, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State. | Anne Petrova '27 for Monitor

Puerto Rico is one of 5 inhabited territories administered by the U.S. This territorial status of Puerto Rico (including the other 4 populated territories) is a multi-dimensional issue that reflects the complexities of colonialism and its enduring impact on a people's identity and culture. Back home, even though I was surrounded by all of these different aspects of Puerto Rican culture and traditions, I found myself stuck in a limbo between the popular US culture and the Boricua culture.

This dualism in my culture appeared really odd to me, considering over one century had passed since Puerto Rico became a territory. Shouldn’t the American and Puerto Rican culture have mixed by then? Why did I feel like there was a gap between the two cultures? I learned later in life that this sense of between-ship was just the effects of colonialism Puerto Rico was still undergoing for over 125 years by the U.S.

The pressure to choose between the Puerto Rican culture I grew up in and the American culture I’m currently living in came from a place of internalized racism.

This internalized racism developed over time as I became aware of many unjust political and social issues my country faced. We aren’t exactly on equal footing with state-born U.S. citizens. One perfect example of this is the absolute lack of representation in presidential elections and in the U.S. Congress. We have no word over government decisions in the U.S. that in the long run can impact our country, but the U.S. has full legislative, judicial, and executive control of us.

Now, add to this the payment of taxes, social security, medicare, and import/export taxes to the U.S. And despite this, we receive fewer federal funds and benefits compared to U.S. states. For example, we receive lower levels of Medicaid funding and fewer resources for programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). This has caused many primary care providers to leave the island, hence a health crisis is ongoing right now as we speak.

After learning about these complex problems, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why were we subjected to such unfair conditions?

I wanted to believe that the reasons were justified, but as I read more I thought it came from a place of discrimination. This was especially evident during the ruling of the Insular Cases of 1901. These were a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that established the legal framework for how certain constitutional rights apply to territories acquired by the United States.

One of the most famous of these was the Downes vs Bidwell case of 1901 where Downes (plaintiff) paid a tax, under protest, on goods shipped to him from Puerto Rico. Downes brought suit against the tax collector arguing that Puerto Rico was a part of the United States and therefore he shouldn't have to pay a different amount of tax, rather the same congressional tax as the other states. The Supreme Court decided that this did not apply to Puerto Rico. The language used by many jurists during this case was inherently racist. Some referred to the inhabitants of Puerto Rico as "alien races'' and "savage tribes."

It hit me that the rational fact-based justification I was looking for didn’t exist. These court cases rooted in pure discrimination allow deeply embedded systematic racism to continue for millions of people to this day. It denies them constitutional rights and protections that mainland other U.S. citizens enjoy.

Elihu Root House holds the Dean of Students Office. | Anne Petrova '27 for Monitor

This system, and Hamilton College’s direct connection to it, cannot be overlooked. As a Hamilton College student, I’m utterly shocked that the man known for commanding racist practices towards people of color in U.S. territories, Elihu Root, is celebrated on this campus. He was directly responsible for much of the suffering Puerto Ricans did, and still do, endure under the American colonial government.

Root, born on campus and a member of the Class of 1864, is honored in many ways by Hamilton. The Dean of Students Office is housed in Elihu Root House, cannons he seized during the Spanish-American War sit prominently next to the Library and Admissions Office, and many other areas of campus bear his family name. He is also proudly listed as one of our “Notable Alumni.”

Yet many of his policies and decisions as the Secretary of War and State had detrimental effects on Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories. Root's policies in Puerto Rico, particularly those relating to economic matters, often favored American business interests over the well-being of the Puerto Rican people. For instance, the ratification of the Jones Act of 1917, which required that all goods transported between U.S. ports be carried on American ships, significantly inflated the cost of living in Puerto Rico and hindered the island's economic development.

Puerto Rico wasn’t Root’s only victim: Cuba and the Philippines suffered immensely under Root’s administration, resulting in thousands of civilian deaths. Why is Hamilton placing this man on a pedestal? Why has this not changed?

Cannons seized during the Spanish-American War, donated by Elihu Root, sit near the Burke Library and Admissions Office. | Anne Petrova '27 for Monitor

Hamilton’s fellow student community has been very welcoming, I can’t say what’s not true. However, as a Puerto Rican student seeing someone with such detrimental effects on my country being acclaimed in the 21st century after all these atrocities have been publicly known is deeply concerning. We are preaching for a new era of diversity, inclusion, and equity. Yet, we fail to deliver the most basic of steps: acknowledging the historical oppression of minorities.

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