The National Puerto Rican Day Parade may have been cancelled this year due to COVID-19, but this weekend is still a time to reflect on the island’s history—and how one woman’s activism paved the way for Puerto Ricans to claim American citizenship. When Isabel González, then a 21-year-old pregnant widow, sailed from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to New York City in 1902, she was unexpectedly detained. She sued in court, and her case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1904. González v. Williams would call into question the relationship between American citizenship and empire in the years following the U.S. acquisition of territories.
To mark the occasion, we sat down for a virtual conversation with Sam Erman, the University of Southern California professor of law who uncovered her story in his new book, Almost Citizens: Puerto Rico, the U.S. Constitution, and Empire.
The story that you’ve uncovered about Isabel González is fascinating because on one hand, here is this narrative of a remarkable woman who pushed back against her detainment by immigration authorities, and brought her claim to American citizenship all the way to the Supreme Court. On the other hand, this isn’t just the story of an individual: Her case, as you’ve written, had much broader implications. But let’s start at the beginning: Who was Isabel González?
Thanks for inviting me to participate! I’m thrilled to have the chance to speak about Isabel González, who I’ve now been living with as a central topic of study for more years than she could claim at the time of her first marriage.
To answer your question, González was the named plaintiff in Gonzales v. Williams (1904), a Supreme Court decision that declared that Puerto Ricans were not aliens, hence not subject to immigration laws. The justices declined to decide whether Puerto Ricans were citizens. To many, this suggested that the Court was open to Puerto Ricans being U.S. nationals who were not U.S. citizens.
What brought her to the United States, and what led her to contest the order that she return to Puerto Rico?
González arrived in the United States as a woman seeking to bounce back from a stunning reversal of fortune. She was born a Spaniard in 1882 to a respectable family in the colony of Puerto Rico. She was the rare islander who was literate with married parents of some means.
Then, everything turned upside down. Spain went to war with the United States, which invaded and annexed Puerto Rico. The massive San Ciriaco Hurricane of 1899 devastated the island. Not yet 18, González married a man more than a dozen years her senior. Sixteen months later, tuberculosis felled her husband, leaving her an impoverished teenaged widow with a daughter and another on the way.
Seeking opportunity, González left her daughter with her mother and boarded a steamship to join her brother on Staten Island. Puerto Ricans were freely entering the mainland when she departed, but while she was en route, immigration officials changed the rules to treat Puerto Ricans as aliens. Ellis Island inspectors decided that González was likely to need public assistance, so judged her an “undesirable alien” and ordered her deported.
She fought back. Her mother was in dire straits, and she had little opportunity back in Puerto Rico, so she wanted to stay. Immigration inspectors had dishonored her and all Puerto Ricans, so she sought redemption. As the niece of a remarkable Puerto Rican politician, journalist, and activist named Domingo Collazo, González had the connections to try. Collazo had organized for a revolution against Spain, formed a racially egalitarian newspaper, joined the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico, and now helped González file suit, gain counsel, and secure media coverage.
How do we know about her?
Hard work! (And technology. And luck.) González left traces in a wide variety of archives, so the trick was finding them. I unearthed some with age-old historians’ tools: reading newspapers, pulling court records, sifting through military and immigration files, combing through personal papers, and visiting municipal archives. Others surfaced through the more recent technology of text searching digitized sources: newspapers, church records, census sheets, civil repositories, ship manifests, city directories, tombstones, and books galore. But the big break came out of the blue—an email from Belinda Torres-Mary identifying herself as González’s great-granddaughter. It turns out that she is a gifted genealogist. She shared photos, stories, and documents. Soon, we were connecting some dots and uncovering more. The outline of González that I had started to sketch became a pointillist portrait and then a fully drawn historical actor.
Is there a difference between how she portrayed herself in legal documents—or how her lawyers portrayed her—and who she actually was?
Absolutely. Immigration and judicial officials described González as a passive woman with a dishonorable domestic situation. To win judicial sympathy, her lawyer played up her feminine vulnerability. Historians initially repeated this story. There’s an irony there. González was a determined woman who shaped events in line with her own sophisticated legal–political ideas. It was these traits that caused her to appear at all in the judicial records and historical accounts that erased her gumption.
Here’s the real story. When González arrived at Ellis Island, she held the honorable and sympathetic station of widow. Yet officials there demanded that she produce a fiancé or husband, and they excluded her when she could not. She sued, was paroled pending a decision, and remarried. This was grounds to stay, but González hid the marriage to continue seeking judicial recognition of all Puerto Ricans as U.S. citizens. She secured the best lawyer in the country for her case. He had just argued in a law review article that courts should categorize Puerto Ricans as noncitizen nationals. But González wanted citizenship, and she seems to have exercised her prerogative as client to secure a brief from the lawyers making that claim. After the Supreme Court ruled that she was not an alien and therefore could stay stateside, she launched a media campaign. Through it, she sought to restore her honor by revealing her marriage and rebutting immigration inspectors’ prediction that she would require public benefits. She also indicted the United States for its hypocrisy in claiming the mantle of liberator while playing the role of colonizer.
González’s case is steeped in the language of dependency. What can the use of this trope tell us about the gendered contours of citizenship at the turn of the century?
In popular discourse, citizenship was associated with rights, voting, and autonomy—all domains that coded masculine. But as a matter of judicially enforceable rights, citizenship meant little, as African Americans and women well knew. The status was perfectly consistent with dependency— which was coded feminine. All the briefs in the case worked within this framework. To gain rights and self-government along with citizenship meant portraying Puerto Ricans as independent, liberal, white, male, civilized, elites experienced in politics—which is just what the island’s elected representative did in a friend-of-the-court brief. The government took the opposite tack, casting Puerto Ricans as dependent and arguing that they did not merit citizenship. González’s lawyer emphasized that dependence and citizenship could co-exist. He cast González as a damsel in distress seeking the shelter and protection of citizenship.
Might the court have come to a different decision in her case if she had been a man?
I’ve often wondered about that. I think that the answer is no. I doubt that a male litigant would have driven the Court to find that Puerto Ricans were aliens. Negative portrayals of Puerto Ricans regularly cast the island as a woman, so switching the litigant’s sex might not have hurt the case. But it might not have helped either. The elected representative of Puerto Rico in Washington, D.C., appeared as a friend of the Court. He was a highly cultured, greatly respected, brilliant lawyer. It is harder to imagine that another Puerto Rican man would have improved upon that impression. Moreover, by the time the case reached the Court the arguments had largely abstracted away from Gonzales as an individual. Sex still mattered, but mostly because citizenship and Puerto Rico were understood in gendered terms.
How did the González case fit into broader questions about Puerto Ricans’ legal status in the United States at the time? How did race shape these contours?
Prior to 1898, it was conventional legal wisdom that all Americans other than American Indians were U.S. citizens. After all, the Fourteenth Amendment declared, “All persons born . . . in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.” But when the Supreme Court unanimously and explicitly declined to decide whether Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens, it signaled openness to Puerto Ricans also being noncitizen Americans. The reason for the shift was transparently racist. All three briefs in the case argued within the logics of racism. Justices bluntly stated that their concerns with the racial inferiority of island peoples shaped the doctrines that they espoused.
In your book’s title, you refer to Puerto Ricans as “almost citizens:” neither full citizens nor aliens. What are some of the consequences of this ambiguous status, especially in recent years during and after Hurricane Maria in 2017, and now in our current public health crisis?
A string of recent crises has revealed how vulnerable Puerto Ricans are as a result of their continuing colonial condition. When Hurricane Maria struck, the response on the island was a shadow of that on the mainland. The island is also in the midst of a massive debt crisis that would have garnered a much swifter and generous response had the island been a state. Instead, core governmental decisions have been put into the hands of a federally appointed oversight board. Since then, the island has resembled Job in its tribulations. First, earthquakes drove people from their homes. Now, the island’s fragile infrastructure must confront the coronavirus pandemic.
The colonial condition of Puerto Rico and the “almost citizenship” of its populace has placed solutions to the island’s crises beyond reach. One reason is disfranchisement. Puerto Rico has no representation in the federal government, so lacks leverage in Washington. Islanders do elect their governor and legislature, but both are subject to congressional override and now, to a federally appointed oversight board. A second reason is racism. Although Congress collectively naturalized Puerto Ricans more than a century ago, many mainlanders continue to see Puerto Ricans as a foreign, inferior people. Political norms against racism are also eroding in key circles, facilitating a politics of anti-Puerto Rico discrimination. Third, U.S. commitments to decolonization and fair play have waned. The current administration’s Puerto Rico policy prioritizes neither self-government nor well-being.
Written by Anna Danziger Halperin, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History