Habits of Empire: Neglect and Control in the Caribbean and Mainland

“Cuba y Puerto Rico son

de un pájaro las dos alas,

reciben flores y balas

sobre el mismo corazón…”

Lola Rodríguez de Tió

Those 19th century prophetic words by Lola Rodríguez de Tió, the first prominent  Puerto Rican-born female poet, not only say that Cuba and Puerto Rico are the wings of the same wounded bird but that they are also the recipients of violence: “bullets in the heart.” Poverty and hunger are such forms of violence. The heart can be viewed as a symbol of the economy and culture of both islands. While birds are conventionally symbols of flight, of freedom, in the context of the literary movement known as romanticism, birds are a symbol of restoration. A return to a life of simplicity, God and nature.

The bird is also a symbol of both beauty and the challenges of the colonial enterprises in the poem. It is a metaphor that comments on the present situation of Puerto Ricans and Cubans on the islands and the mainland. This year’s presidential election has seen a promise of change in the relationships between the United States and Cuba, but not much else has been accomplished up to this moment. In light of the 56-year-long relationship between the United States and communist Cuba, this essay offers readers an educational history to contrast how the conditions of Puerto Ricans living on the island and mainland have improved compared to Cuba.

To borrow a phrase from Charles Duhigg, we can say that one of the keystone habits – or customs that are at the heart of all other routines – of the United States is its misunderstanding, mocking, neglect and outright discrimination of Hispanics. Even after incorporating all the Native American territories of the 13 original colonies in the 17th century, this is being continued with the annexation of one half of Mexican territory in the mid 19th century and the occupation of Cuba and Puerto Rico after 1898. This behavioral habit is still present in the United States’ inability to assimilate with equal rights and conditions for Latinos in the mainland of the United States. When we look at the relationship between the United States and Hispanic nations in the Americas, the scarce dialogue between them is based on an indisputable relationship of control, domination and neglect. Yet, the impasse of this long history has become central to the future of the United States because of the sheer numbers of Latinos in the United States.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau there are about 55 million Latin Americans and Latinos living in this country presently, and their numbers are growing. This fact is not due to immigration but to reproduction.

The presence of Latinos is an undeniable reality in this nation. Therefore, their potential participation in the creation of revenue via taxes as consumers and employees has a significant effect on the economy of the nation. This keystone habit of neglect and discrimination can be studied by looking at two islands of the Caribbean that were part of the Spanish empire until 1898. Puerto Rico became a colony of the United States and continues to be one. Cuba, on the other hand became an informal colony until 1959.

Puerto Rico remains a classic example of what the late Tulio Halperin-Donghi, an Argentine historian, called the colonial compact: minimum investment with maximum extraction. And, like the rest of the main jewels of the Spanish and American empires, Puerto Rico has been a source of material goods and human labor.

Seen as a resource, the people of Puerto Rico were treated like test subjects in a laboratory of uncertain chemistry. Between 1900 and 1970,  about one third of Puerto Rican women in Puerto Rico and the mainland were part of a great effort to sterilize women in the name of population control. Many of those pharmaceutical companies are still located located in Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico has low levels of education and high levels of poverty, unemployment and migration. While the bilingual and bicultural nature of Puerto Ricans is an asset to the United States, Puerto Ricans have a hard life in this nation. Movies about the Puerto Rican experience in the mainland, such as Manito and Nuyorican Dreams, show that a large percentage of Puerto Ricans are excluded from the American dream.

Puerto Ricans leave the island and return to the island according to the labor needs of the mainland, that is to say when employment goes up, then migration of Puerto Ricans goes up. Like Mexicans and Central Americans then, we can say that Puerto Ricans are a reserve labor pool located in the fringes of cities. Like many other Latinos, we can echo Juan Gonzalez, writer of Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America,  that Puerto Ricans remain largely invisible to Anglo society living in buffer zones between blacks and whites.

I propose that the United States begin to see the position of Puerto Ricans in Latin America and the United States as an opportunity. Breaking the stubborn habit of discrimination and ignorance, United States’ citizens could accept and include Puerto Ricans and other Latino/Latin Americans as equals.

The Puerto Rican experience in the mainland and on the island is an allegory of the experience of bilingual Hispanics in the United States. The habit of discrimination of bilingual and bicultural people is behind the depreciation of people who are an asset to the global culture of the twenty-first century. Gonzalez would say that in the United States the experience of Puerto Ricans was “closer to Algerians in France before independence, or to Irish Catholics in England today.”

This long relationship of neglect and discrimination is the product of more than 500 years of colonialism by Spain and the current virtual colonialism of the United States. Puerto Ricans in the United States mainland, are predominantly in the largest urban centers of the East Coast and the Midwest, and economically, are the poorest of all Latin American migrants in this nation. This reveals the consistent brutality of colonialism that Cuban writer, Jose Martí, pointed to and that Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío foreshadowed in his writing.

Culturally, Puerto Rico is a precious asset because Puerto Ricans are mostly bilingual and, in a society like the United States, being bilingual and being bicultural should be appreciated and promoted in the educational system. And yet, because of the habits of empire, this position is used as a way to discriminate against people. To the point that being bilingual, in the case of Puerto Ricans bringing prosperity instead, corresponds to the highest levels of poverty among all Latin Americans in the United States.

The Declaration of Independence of the United States proclaims that all men are created equal, that they all have the inalienable right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And yet, the United States’ habits of empire in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the Americas lead to the uprooting of people and forcing them to live without access to education, in neighborhoods where crime is rampant and economic violence is a way of life. This leads to patterns of migration and suffering caused by lack of hope. The United States should invest in improving the lives of Puerto Ricans and other Latinos here. Instead of continuing the business of unending wars in other parts of the world, the United States should look at the inner cities in its own borders.

Let’s hope that American leadership becomes more enlightened while we fight for the right to educate people about the advantages of bilingualism and multiculturalism in a twenty-first century. Where we need to pay attention to greater evils such as the imbalance in the distribution of wealth, and the destruction of the planet and species. Just like when the United States began talking about the relaxation of the antiquated and detrimental embargo laws to Cuba, a product of old mentalities of empire, the United States must work to improve the education and quality of lives of Puerto Ricans living on the island and the United States.

The habits of racism and discrimination can be broken. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes that the golden rule of changing habits is to insert a new routine in the minds of people. A new routine for the population at large in the United States would be to learn about Latino people, about the great contributions of Latin America to the world. To name a few : the domestication of corn, chocolate, potato, vanilla and so many other achievements.To also learn about the long-standing asymmetrical relationships between the United States and Latin American nations and Latinos in the United States. Since education on foundational issues is not usually the direction empires gravitate toward. In addition to hoping, we must fight for the right to be understood and for the right to have a life of dignity and respect. A fight against Puerto Rican and Latino poverty is a fight against discrimination and disrespect.

Racism, sexism and discrimination are the building blocks of an oppressive empire; let’s work to change that long history! Bilingual peoples are a resource rather than a nuisance. If this appreciation is accepted as a new habit, the possibilities of growth and understanding between Anglo and Hispanic cultures would be full of the possibilities of setting a new example for other conflicted regions of the world.

Patricio Rizzo-Vast

BA in Latin American Studies with a minor in Chicano Studies, University of California, Berkeley. Clear Teaching Credential in Spanish and MA in Spanish, San Francisco State University. PhD in Spanish with a specialization in Latin American poetry, University of California, Davis.

Patricio has published five poetry books and a book on literary criticism. He has a deep commitment to teaching Latino and Latin American Studies, Spanish and Portuguese. He has traveled all over Latin America and has lived in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico.


Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit. New York: Random House, 2012.

Duhigg, Charles. Smarter Faster Better. New York: Random House, 2016.

Gonzalez, Juan. Harvest of Empire. New York: Penguin Books, 2011.

Halperin-Donghi, Tulio. The Contemporary History of Latin America. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.