The Colonial Gospel in Puerto Rico

in Politics by

Authors Note: This piece was originally written in 2017 in response to PROMESA and Puerto Rico’s debt crisis. Since then the realities of climate catastrophe expressed through two historic hurricanes and months of seismic activity have merely made clear the long-term effects of colonialism in all its forms. Indeed, as Yarimar Bonilla and Marisol LeBrón remind us in Aftershocks of Disaster, these disasters are not “singular events” but rather reveal the wide reach of colonialism’s compounded effects—the lack of infrastructure, lack of political and economic resources, lack of care. Thus, I offer this piece for republication with an updated bibliography in the hopes that we can continue learning our history, and in it find lessons for creating a world that encourages the flourishing of all life. May we one day be free…

My mother land of Puerto Rico is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. Crippling debt has ravaged infrastructure and social institutions. While media has largely presented this as an abstract economic problem, the real effects of this catastrophe are witnessed in what Ada María Isasi-Díaz calls lo cotidiano: the everydayness of life. They are witnessed as one walks through my mother’s pueblo of Barranquitas and notices the overwhelming amount of closed and/or abandoned Puerto Rican businesses. They are witnessed when teachers have to choose between using the lights or computers in their classrooms. It will be witnessed when, in accordance to the PROMESA Bill passed this summer, 20-24 year old Puerto Rican workers will struggle on a minimum wage of $4.25 per hour. And though the history that brought us here is directly tied to white, U.S. Protestant denominations, many Protestants in the United States are unaware of this story.

The 1915 issue of Fuente: The Missionary Review of the World featured a map of Puerto Rico carved out to depict “zones of influence” for nine major Protestant denominations: Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Congregational, United Brethren, Christian Church, Lutheran, Missionary Alliance, and Disciples of Christ. Each zone was established in an 1899 comity agreement between these groups. That year leaders from each met in New York City to discuss how to engage the “new mission field” acquired in the “Spanish-American War” without “stepping on each others’ toes.” Their solution was to set parameters for where each particular denomination could evangelize and establish institutions. Presbyterians took the West, Disciples the Mid-North, Baptists parts of the island’s center, etc.

Their collective mission was clear. As the United Brethren Church of Christ officially reported, their agenda was:

“To inaugurate a work that assures the Americanization of the island, similar to the work of welcoming individuals into the joys and privileges of being a Christian disciple…we should inaugurate schools that will reach hundreds of children who can be formed through these institutions in the responsibilities of being an American citizen.”

Missionary impulse, articulated as “spreading the gospel,” was to push dominant U.S. American (read: white, Anglo, Protestant) values of individualism, the separation of church and state, the English language, and consumer capitalism onto the (allegedly) “un-churched” and “uneducated” Puerto Ricans. Protestant missionaries did so by working alongside U.S. corporations to integrate Puerto Ricans into the capitalist market, founding hospitals that later became sites for eugenically testing Puerto Rican women, and by establishing schools that demanded English-only of Spanish-speaking students. While many missionaries claimed “good intentions” in sharing what they deemed “salvific,” the reality was that their “gospel” was tied to dominant U.S. American values which they embedded in social institutions.

Because the values promoted were tied to “the gospel,” they were viewed as “salvific” and thus as ushering in a new era of “progress” for Puerto Ricans. According to Ramón Grosfoguel this “message of salvation and progress” quelled nationalist sentiment and masked the United States’ colonial agenda. Indeed, if U.S. ideals and institutions were painted as salvific and progressive, U.S. corporations taking over 60 percent of Puerto Rican land, U.S. appointed governors quelling Puerto Rican attempts at self-governance, and U.S. military officials placing Puerto Ricans on the front lines of U.S. wars could be read as “ethically altruistic” or even as part of a “divine plan.”

And in the early 20th century it was. Samuel Silva Gotay notes that as early as 1906 many converted Protestant Puerto Ricans called U.S. entrance into Puerto Rico part of “God’s divine plan.” By 1914, some converted Puerto Rican Protestants were even asking when “Tío Sam” would grant Puerto Ricans the “gift of American citizenship”! This is not to say there weren’t detractors—indeed many questioned both Protestant and U.S. encroachment on the island. Yet, particularly in the early 20th century, these were few and far between. For this reason, Silva Gotay calls Protestant missionaries the assimilationist arm of U.S. colonialism.

Today, many individual Puerto Ricans express a vibrant Protestant faith that cannot and ought not be dismissed. Native American theologian Tink Tinker suggests the same about First Nations Christians noting that faith is complex, personal, and speaks to a reality beyond ourselves. As a result, faith cannot be dismissed merely as imposition or appropriation but as something much deeper. Yet, Tinker also explicitly states that faith does not dismiss historical reality. And even though today many Puerto Ricans hold deep Protestant convictions that have even led some in recent history to oppose colonialism, the fact remains that Protestant churches are historically and structurally implicated in the colonization of Puerto Rico that continues to this day. After the Spanish-American War, the United States government could not have spread capitalism, the English language, and dominant U.S. culture to Puerto Rico without Protestant missionaries. Their ability to infiltrate locally and establish institutions made them more effective at this task than government agencies. These values and institutions undergirded the U.S. colonial project that has contributed to the present socioeconomic crisis in Puerto Rico.

Those connected to the Protestant tradition are implicated in this history because it was Protestant leaders and their particular missionary impulse that aided colonial objectives. This legacy demands that we educate ourselves on the past realities and present injustices in Puerto Rico. We should look at future solutions that are being offered not by the latest iteration of U.S. colonization—guised as “benevolent saviors” on a financial control board—but by the people of Puerto Rico who daily resist colonization.

¡Que viva Puerto Rico libre!

 

The following is a short list of resources (from Puerto Rico and the Diaspora) to begin the process of (un)learning about the island

For more on Protestant missionaries and/or religion in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, see:

For more on Puerto Rican history, see:

For more on eugenics and Puerto Rico, see:

For more on PROMESA and the Puerto Rico debt crisis, see:

For more on Puerto Rican resistance to colonization, see:

Just some amazing people to follow on Twitter, but there are so, so many more: 

 

Featured image: Map featured in ‘Protestantismo y Política En Puerto Rico: 1898-1930’ by Samuel Silva Gotay

Jorge—the son of two Puerto Rican migrants—grew up with his parents, grandmother, and uncle in a small affordable housing community in urban Manchester, Connecticut. He holds degrees in biblical studies, social theory, liberation theologies and is a Ph.D. Candidate in History of Religion and Latin American and Caribbean History at Union Theological Seminary where he is writing a dissertation on lived religion and the New York Young Lords.

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