Laboring Female Identities: Examinations of Mexican and Puerto Rican Familial Relations, 1840 – 1940

When speaking about the impact of U.S. labor on early twentieth-century Latinos, one must consider how labor affected Latinos differently depending on the location, time and purpose of creating a labor capital. I would like to speak about various unique locales where U.S. labor transformed, or perhaps, imposed, notions of modernity onto Latinos – Mexicans in the Southwest and Puerto Ricans on the island. These locations are special in their proximity to  two separate countries (PR and U.S./Mexico and Arizona) as well as how U.S. imperial influence transformed the family.

Scholars such as Linda Gordon contend that the transformation of modern Southwest Mexican-American familial relations can be traced through Arizona’s mining industry. This Mining industry – located in the area stretching from Arizona to Texas to Northern Mexico – created a shift in Mexican familial relations as the industry ejected males out of the household and placed them into the mines, away from home and family. This unique situation began in 1840s but became highly prevalent during the 1890s and early 1900s. In The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction, Linda Gordon writes that “Sonoran and Chihuahuan peasants hung on to their remaining lands and often developed a kind of family mixed economy; men began commuting to mining jobs, thereby hoping to accumulate wages that could be invested back in their village” (Gordon 49). Families separated; mothers had to care for their children and tend to the home as their husbands left for work. Most of all, these women not only had to take over traditionally “male” roles, but also had to navigate the Anglo social and economic spheres outside their houses.

With the completion of the U.S. Transcontinental Railroad in the mid 1880, the United States affected Mexican familial relations through the exploitation of Mexicans in various jobs. In The White Scourge, Neil Foley explains that “Mexican immigrants were among the most exploited workers – the conditions were unendurable. As individuals, Mexicans had little bargaining power” (Foley 49). The proletarianization of Mexican jobs and the subsequent treatment from Anglo employers trapped Mexicans employed in atrocious conditions, as they had no other opportunities for work. This limbo, in turn, contributed to the scripted identity of ‘dirty Mexican’ who worked the dirty jobs Anglos would not handle, as William Deverell states in Whitewashing Adobe. Further, as Mexican males were deemed “dirty,” so too were their Mexican female counterparts. Jobs for women became increasingly scarce.

One of the earliest disruptions of Puerto Rican familial relations is seen in the U.S. occupation of Puerto Rico (PR) and its subsequent founding of Sugar companies.  In Imposing Decency, Eileen Suarez-Findlay contends that “Puerto Rican males were autonomous sexually; they were able to maintain multiple partners” years before the U.S. occupation (Suarez-Findlay 61, 67). Labor in turn, affected Puerto Rican women dynamically; Suarez-Findlay places prostitution as the main form of labor in PR: “prostitution served as a female alternative to proletarianization and their opposing empowering of sexual autonomy against men” (Suarez-Findlay 91). During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the only opportunity for Puerto Rican women to excel in their society was to elevate their social mobility, which could be achieved either through marriage and prostitution. This entrapment was perpetuated, first by the heterosexist ideology propagated through U.S. intervention, but also through Luisa Capetillo’s theory of Puerto Rican colonial masculinity. The U.S. “educated” (or once again, imposed) onto Puerto Rican women literature concerning marital rights and it is argued that the cases of divorce on the island began to rise, as women learned that they too had sexual autonomy. The U.S. occupation created new jobs and more opportunities for males while redefining female roles, moving their labor practices of prostitution into secretarial and hospitality jobs such as lodging.

Puerto Rican familial relations in NYC were similar in many ways to the relations on the island; labor affected Puerto Ricans, especially during the WWI era. In From Colonia to Community, Virginia Sanchez Korrol highlights the role of women in Puerto Rican settlements of NYC. The concept of shared childcare – compadrazgo also existed in NYC, the same compadrazgo system is seen in Linda Gordon’s study of Mexican societies in Clifton-Morenci mining district in Arizona. We see this act of shared kinship evolve with the introduction of lodgers and lodging. Lodging (our modern day hostel) at the time was a lucrative industry, with many males coming in and out due to the jobs within the area. Sanchez Korrol describes numerous female lodgers who worked while their husbands went away to war. Labor influenced Puerto Rican familial relations as the lodgings spread ideas and customs among other Puerto Ricans: “lodgers kept open the networks of communication between the island and mainland enclaves; they contributed to the financial support of the household” (Sanchez Korrol 106). At the same time, many females worked as cigar makers, typists, stenographers and as agricultural workers in the U.S. These women had to work and supply their households as their husbands served in the war and became the heads of their households.

The effects of U.S. Imperialism on Mexican and Puerto Rican societies helped transform Latino familial relations through the imposition of labor on Mexican males and Puerto Rican females, which split families and created ambiguity between gender roles. Later, WWI would provide newly created jobs for both males and females, further altering preconceived notions of gender. When gender roles and relations change, identities evolve and birth new ideas about life and purpose. This change in identity is one of many that (dis)located culture and transformed modern Mexican and Puerto Rican familial relations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

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One thought on “Laboring Female Identities: Examinations of Mexican and Puerto Rican Familial Relations, 1840 – 1940

  1. Jennifer Seman

    Thank-you for posting this! I am working on a lecture for “Women in the West” during the last decades of the 19th century, and this very much helps me with the section on Mexican women and families in the West.

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