Puerto Rico: Colonial Suburban Home-Making


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Map of Puerto Rico. / The Funambulist (2016)

Colonial micro-aggressions are multiple and coinciding. They are often normalized and therefore difficult to locate or conceptualize. The Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, often dubbed “the oldest colony in the world”, is currently facing a very visible economic and political crisis, the starkest of its modern history. It defaulted this year when it was unable to pay a $72 billion debt, which, owing to the island’s territorial relationships to the US, cannot be legally addressed through regular bankruptcy procedures. Instead, US congress appointed a federal fiscal control board to recover the debt. Its seven unelected appointees have unrestricted powers to run the island’s economy and are officially in charge of the affairs of twenty-six different public entities including the entire local government, and the Housing Finance Authority. This “restructuring” body and its undemocratic imposition are often compared to the Troika’s coup during Greece’s financial crisis. But in Puerto Rico, the present neo-colonial situation is deeply entangled within a much longer history of violent and silencing interventions imposed “from above”— a history that is imprinted in the socio-spatial logic and fabric of suburban home spaces.

For over 400 years (1492-1898), Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony which, amongst other macro-aggressions, involved the extermination of the local indigenous (Taíno) population and the introduction of African slavery and racial classification as a form of difference. The territory was then handed over to the United States as a Spanish American war-spoil in 1898. This transformed the machinations of power and control into “modern” forms of governance that helped conceal the discourse of imperialism in the everyday cultural areas of for example, health, urban life, housing and sexuality. Key to this trajectory of normalized rule was the deal struck in 1952 between local political elites and the US government which gave Puerto Rico a unique “Free Associated State” status, consisting of partial political and economic autonomy and American citizenship for those born on the island.

This guaranteed continued US federal influence over local matters, while solidifying the kinds of political complacencies and enabling partnerships between local and metropolitan power-elites that continue to structure those same highly unequal relations today. It is no exaggeration to say that the nature of these configurations — and the everyday modes of colonial being that have resulted through it — have facilitated and entrenched the current state of crisis.

This history, then, is not just a backdrop, but a central constitutive force in the way Puerto Rican society (and its physical spaces) have developed. Specifically, demarcating space through definitions of appropriately raced and gendered national belonging became, since Spanish imperialism, an instrument of colonial control.  Nationhood was initially constructed and reproduced with male agency placed at the center of dominant racialized cultural denominations. This carried through in a more “modern” version of masculinity during US rule.

I offer here a very brief historic look into one of the many areas of life in which colonialism configured the island’s space and its representations: the construction of suburban homes, as materiality and representation. It is not a critique nor a commentary on nationalism, but rather a foray into the way in which colonial nationalist thinking and American imaginaries of space and morality have, together, influenced the social and material creation of a suburban order. I am interested in exposing these trajectories as a way to think more carefully about the veneer of American “help” or “benevolence” in times of crisis.

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(left) New suburban house on the cover of “Hoy: La Revista de Puerto Rico” (1960)
(top right) Construction of Villa Rica in the suburbs of Bayamón
(bottom right) Suburban neighborhood of Cupey in San Juan / Photograph by Andrea Bauza (2016)

In the early 1960s, the Puerto Rican magazine Hoy (Today), dedicated to “helping homeowners improve their homes” held a contest to “improve” private properties because “growing families required bigger houses” and “more space is necessary for a more comfortable life.” Amidst the twenty-one types of projects that were listed as necessary were: “Preparing a store shed in the patio […] including an apartment for grandparents […]. Letting your kid have a room […] Convert your “porch” or balcony into an ante-room […]. Make a laundry room […]. Improving the entrance […]. Adding a room to work on carpentry…” The impetus for such “improvement works” formed part of a wider suburban logic that grew exponentially from the 1950’s onward in this Caribbean colony when, despite an unfavorable economic situation, the US Federal Housing Association (FHA) guaranteed financing of new homes through long-term loans, allowing for the incorporation of masses of the working and middle classes into the private property market. Despite similar patterns of rural to urban migration in other Caribbean and Latin American contexts, the intensive private suburbanization that these loans permitted had no comparison in the region.  The emphasis these placed on private housing development must be located within the U.S. anti-communist logic which saw home-ownership as strengthening the values of private property and capitalism. It strategically (and internationally) portrayed Puerto Rico as an example of democracy that focused on the individual welfare, visibly verifiable through housing. Other factors influencing the island’s suburban sprawl were: the abundance of cheap land which made all terrain appear “urbanize-able,” legitimating, in turn, the belief in the right to private property; and the mass return of veterans from European wars and the Korean war.

According to the influential local members of the Planning Board of the time, “the family has to be able to live-up to the standards of the housing itself; to count with the means with which to improve it, so as to make it evolve” (Passalacqua, 1951).  Back then, the official philosophy of the government’s Housing Authority Agency (called Corporación de Renovación Urbana y Vivienda (CRUV)) was that private property was an investment that protected families’ futures through inheritance. That is to say, that the success and economic progress of the idealized family had to manifest itself through not just the purchase, but also the continuous care and physical evolution of the individual home.

In a different publication, the Puerto Rican government’s Housing Investigation Board used the American uni-familiar suburban home as a scientific referent point through which to speak about the island’s ideal (suburban) home. It should be both close to the center and embedded in an ambiance of “quietness and stillness.”  It has wide-enough free spaces for future expansion and from which to isolate the household conveniently (with trees) so as to serve the rural “touch” and give feeling of exclusivity. The color and vegetation of the immediate surroundings should be taken into account to generate a sense of amplitude, and construction materials should be simple and inexpensive (for example, plywood and masonite). The “suburban mobility” idea, which likened homeownership of a free-standing house to personal satisfaction, was founded upon the mythical imaginary of the “American-way of life.” In Puerto Rico, the government was able to create this imaginary of prosperity and progress through capitalist symbols of home and property by playing on the desire of rural migrants during the industrializing period to access urban life without losing their little piece of land; and to migrant second-generations” desire for security following histories of slum-eradication and relocation.

The home was also an architectural and cultural artifact that served as a mechanism of domestication, codifying the spaces and uses of the suburban home in highly gendered ways. For instance, in the report quoted above, the Planning Board recommended ideal spatial relations between domestic rooms: “Access to bathroom without crossing spaces — to be accessed through hallways to ensure more privacy […]; direct connection to the living room and kitchen to save the ‘ama de casa’ (female home-maker) from long and arduous trips, with the kitchen conceived as the center of the domestic economic unit […] enough closet space; separate the children according to sex by constructing three rooms.” Here, the materiality of the modern home — its inside and out — is used to reproduce and discipline the traditional binary pairs that link the public with work and masculine (the cognitive) and the private with the domestic and feminine (the body). The suburban “family comfort” that was being promoted by these kinds of publications were supported by these dualisms, which rendered the work of social reproduction conducted by women invisible while male’s remunerated labor was valorized for its “bread-winning” function. Residential design therefore sought to guarantee domestic bliss according to traditional social parameters and imperatives (“room for rest,” “screen walls for fun in the garden,” “kitchen for the female head of household,” “hallways for privacy,” etc.) based on the American “Home Sweet Home” model. Within the colonial context of Puerto Rico, this supplanted white, middle-class, heterosexual vision responded, on the one hand, to social transformations that were taking place inside and outside the home and, on the other, to a growing moral anxiety regarding dark, poor bodies that would live inside these new suburbs.

Gender, Progress and National Development ///

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Residencial San Antonio. / Fuente: (Roskam) Feb. 1946 Colección de Instucción Pública. Archivo General de Puerto Rico. Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueño.

The mass migration of rural populations during the island’s industrialization was officially projected as an uncontrollable disorder that impoverished the urban landscape. The shantytown aesthetic that came to dominate large swathes of land did not match up to the modern notion of upward mobility being promoted, and economic underdevelopment in general came to be presented as produced by that over-population. Two opposing discursive figures emerged in that context: the poor woman/mother, racialized as black and blocking of progress and capital formation through her dangerous sexuality and excessive and irresponsible fertility; and that of the white middle-class woman that improved the nation by virtue of her feminine decency as a mother that could reproduce traditional gendered models at the same time that she reproduced the nation with her new nuclear and reduced family.

Although this nuclear model produced a larger number of working women, it did not eliminate their “private” responsibility to reproduce the family, nor the need and invisibility for their domestic labor and the conflictive relations between men and women within the home. The changes that did occur and destabilized traditional norms were described popularly as evidence of the fragmentation of traditional culture. This is how, like in so many other colonial projects of (masculine) nation-production, the sexualized body of the Puerto Rican woman  (the “mother” of the nation) became one of the focal points of cultural and political debates. Within this framework, the Puerto Rican woman faced two simultaneous tasks: that of ensuring an idealized past and a modern present/future. Urban planning served a special function within that logic since housing construction was a central domesticating aspect of the larger socio-spatial project that sought to civilize and modernize the new Puerto Rican.

Visual Imaginaries and the New Suburban Woman ///

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(left) Sunday San Juan Star Magazine (September 29, 1963). (right) “A ‘typical’ family in Villa Kennedy public housing.” / Supplement 31, October 1971, Proyecto Digitalización “El Mundo.”

A brief visual analysis of the cover of the Sunday San Juan Star Magazine of 1963 (whose audience was limited to English-speakers) and of an archival image of a new public housing project allows us to see how some of the dynamics described above were represented and spread during the time. In the first, a white and happy mother of a nuclear family is center stage. She looks at us, standing, from the center of her suburban garden, as if she were in sole control of the elements that surround her. The information we have is ambiguous. On the one hand, her clothes and actions (weekend BBQ) suggest that she could be a modern worker that retains her role as wife, mother and home-maker. On the other hand, the man that is sitting and being served by the woman could signify the “resting time” of the head of the household. By situating her in the middle of the Sunday scene, her place between the modern and the traditional is highlighted. This, together with the isolation and greenery of the suburban garden, and the American BBQ alludes to the idealized cultural hybrid that the spaces and modes of suburban life promised.  Visual productions only help us see half of the story, and the implicit one that is not shown tends to be as or more significant. Here, whatever conflict may have emerged from her re-definition of woman as modern worker is omitted. By invisibilizing her possible public work and reinserting her feminine body (with modern pants) firmly within the domestic nuclear family picture serves to perpetuate the traditional model while hiding the real struggle at the time to harmonize women’s roles as citizen, mother and worker.

In the right photograph, we can also see this success from the perspective of the interior of a public housing apartment that emulates the suburban socio-material domesticity. Here, the furniture and decoration establish a non-conflictive contrast between the modern (television, leather sofa to read the newspaper) and the traditional (religious paintings, women working over the living room table). At the same time, gender roles are explicit: the living/dining room is sealed by feminine curtains and contains all the action (and our gaze) in the interior, but the smiling man’s bodily position and the lounge chairs suggest that he is the public worker and head of the family. The role of the women, whose faces we do not see, is (like the curtains) clear and relational: they exist to serve and give space and comfort to him.

In both photographs, we can see how the concepts of comfort offered by the spaces and design of the suburban home are materialized and traversed by gendered, racialized and classed dimensions; while the figure of the citizen/worker is also attached to gendered and racialized logics of appropriate private and domestic morality. In the happy worlds of these images, where the fantasy of property is achieved, the “other” woman — the black, poor, urban — and her modes of life remain out of sight, rejected.

In this briefest of historical ventures, the suburban home was presented as a socio-technical hybrid that collects heterogeneous trajectories, both visible and invisible. A key element to its success was the granting of American finance that helped materialize a US-centric notion of domestic propriety in tropical suburban space. Today, as Puerto Rican residents and government officials struggle to eke out a space of control over decision-making in all arenas of public life including housing and planning, it is worth reconsidering the subtle everyday micro-practices that enables colonialism to flourish relatively undisturbed. Linking histories of power and representation then and now can help us dig deeper into the current climate of brutal austerity, massive suburban homeowner defaults, evictions and repressions, reverse mortgages and other new financial home products – all forming part of a new colonial crisis-citizen and his/her “defaulting” spatiality.