The following is an excerpt from Soldiers of the Nation: Military Service and Modern Puerto Rico, 1868-1952 (June 2018) by Harry Franqui-Rivera.
During the summer of 2001 I interviewed several Korean War veterans in Puerto Rico. Those interviews were part of my research on the renowned 65th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Borinqueneers. I hoped the interviews would bring a more personal feeling to my project. But those veterans did more than that. They opened my eyes to larger historical processes. Many described themselves as jíbaros, as humble Puerto Rican rural folks. When I met them, they no longer lived off the land. In fact, after the war many finished high school and attended vocational schools and colleges. They set up small and medium-sized businesses, from the local colmado and barra to an engineering contracting firm and everything in between. Some became local leaders or assemblymen or joined the army of technicians and technocrats in charge of carrying out the socioeconomic restructuring of the island as envisioned by the creators of the political experiment we know as the Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico (ELA), or the Commonwealth.
They had been transformed by their military service. Their professions had little to do with the romanticized figure of the Puerto Rican rural folk. However, they proudly claimed that they continued to be jíbaros. And true to form, they showed me the hospitality for which the rural folk are famous. I was invited into their houses and to their tables. I quickly figured I was going through a vetting process. At their tables I was offered a mix of imported goods and the fresh plantains, green bananas, tubers, avocados, mangoes, and oranges that they continue to grow in small plots of land (el patio) behind their cement houses. The generous meals they offered me were representative of two worlds. There was the modern world exemplified by the processed, imported food bought at the supermarket, Sam’s Club, or Costco. But there also was a world that had supposedly disappeared during the march toward a modern industrialized Puerto Rico. That world was represented by the viandas (tubers) and other products they offered me from their gardens. As I enjoyed their hospitality and broke bread with them, I realized that these veterans had not just negotiated these two worlds. They had fused them. Military service had transformed them in many ways, but it had also allowed them to subsidize that jíbaro way of living. And in that sense, they had made their colonial encounter with the military a collaborative experience in which, to borrow Michael C. Hawkins’s description of the clash between the Moros of the Southern Philippines and the U.S. military, they “established the parameters of their own modern selves.”
These soldiers did more than negotiate and establish their own identities. They were instrumental in redefining Puertoricaness and modern Puerto Rico during the transformative 1940s and 1950s. In 1952 a military news release from Korea announced that
a can full of Korean earth, hallowed by the sacrifices of Puerto Rican American soldiers, is on its way to Corozal, Puerto Rico, where it will become part of a monument to Puerto Ricans who gave their lives in Korea. The frozen, snow-covered soil was taken from ground over which the Puerto Rican Regiment has battled, and from an area where men have died. It will be placed in the cornerstone of the Corozal monument.
Corozal, a mountain town in Puerto Rico, was but one of numerous towns that erected monuments and plaques commemorating the fallen in Korea. Far from being a sad reminder of the lives lost in combat or of the disappearance of the jíbaro before the juggernaut of industrialization and modernization, these monuments recognize the role of the island’s common folk in the creation of modern Puerto Rico.
The political entity we know as the Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico came into existence during the Korean War. Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans participated in this conflict. Political figures and the press portrayed the war as a battle for the decolonization of Puerto Rico and the soldiers as the embodiment of the philosophy behind commonwealth status. Calls for more autonomy and support for the commonwealth formula appeared in mainstream local newspapers alongside articles lauding the men of the 65th as a possible catalyst in forging a new national identity. The rationale behind these articles was that the Borinqueneers’ commitment to Korea as first-line troops “will help Puerto Ricans to come out of their complexes of insularism, and erase the marks of inferiority, which are the by-product of hundreds of years of colonial type regimes.” The local press and politicians saw service as a regenerative process that would prepare the Puerto Ricans for self-government. The men of the 65th were praised as the quintessential example of what it meant to be a Puerto Rican: modern, manly, and hence deserving of self-rule and self-determination by virtue of his military training, service, and sacrifice. As local leaders equated mass participation in the Korean War with a new national identity anchored on modernity and manhood and the promise of decolonization, el sesenta y cinco, as the 65th was popularly called, became a national icon. In this sense, the foundation of the monuments symbolizes the foundation of the modern Puerto Rican state and of modern Puerto Rican national identities—at least as imagined by the new colonial entity’s ideologues.
The active participation of Puerto Rican troops in the Korean War, however, was just the climax of a long process in which Puerto Ricans, like many colonial and subaltern groups, sought to prove their manhood and right to self-determination and decolonization through military service. In this study, I analyze the impact of military service on the converging sociocultural and political histories of Puerto Rico. In particular, I explore the military mobilization and demobilization of rural and urban working- class sectors from the 1860s to the 1950s. The analysis centers on patterns of inclusion/exclusion within the military and how they transformed into socioeconomic and political disenfranchisement or enfranchisement. It is of paramount importance to analyze these processes from three perspectives. First, what compelled the metropolis to either mobilize or demobilize the Puerto Ricans? Second, what roles did the Puerto Rican elites play in these projects? Third, how did these processes affect and in turn become altered by the colonial subjects going through them? To answer these questions, I rely on an intersectional analysis of gender, race, and class to understand modernity projects driving nation-state building and identity formation processes via military service taking place in a colonial setting under two empires.