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La Carreta (The Oxcart) tells the story of a family of Puerto Rican jibaro (traditional farmers) in the early 1950s. Due to economic changes stemming from Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship to the United States, they migrate from the Puerto Rican countryside to San Juan, and then to New York City.

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The World’s Oldest Colony

Puerto Rico has the unique distinction of being the world’s oldest colony, having been under some form of military occupation or protectorate status since 1508. Europeans first learned of the island’s existence when Christopher Columbus happened upon it during his second voyage across the Atlantic. He found the island populated by approximately 30,000 Indigenous Taino people, who called the island Borikén, or “land of the brave lord.” Columbus disregarded this and renamed the island San Juan Baptista (St. John the Baptist).

In 1508, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce De León established the first European settlement on San Juan Baptista and began the subjugation of the Indigenous people. They were reduced to the status of a forced labor class, subject to the will of their Spanish conquerors, and many were forced to work in gold mines on the island. The Indigenous people of the island suffered a high death rate due to this enslavement, as well as from the newly arrived European diseases the Spanish had brought with them. In 1513, to offset this incredible loss of life, the Spanish brought enslaved Africans to the island. In the 1520s the island was renamed Puerto Rico, which means “rich port”, after the island’s most important port and military outpost. During this time, the Taino people were emancipated by royal decree, a decision influenced by lobbying from members of the Catholic clergy. It was too little, too late: their population had been reduced to approximately 2,000, and a class system persisted between the Spanish settlers and Indigenous Taino. By 1540, the island had been almost completely stripped of gold by the Spanish. Farms, originally created to supply mining camps with food, started cultivating cash crops, using enslaved Africans as laborers. It was not until 1873 that Spain abolished slavery in Puerto Rico.

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Annexation by the United States

In 1898, the United States annexed Puerto Rico (along with the Philippines and Guam) during the Spanish-American War. Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States, and the island was put under military control. Pre-annexation, Puerto Rico had a largely agricultural economy that included crops like sugar, tobacco, and coffee. Farming was conducted mostly on Puerto Rican-owned large plantations, as well as some small-to-medium-scale farms. Crops were exported mainly to Cuba, France, and Germany, while imports came roughly equally from Spain, the United States, and Great Britain. Post-annexation, the island’s economy was transformed. The island’s farming quickly moved to a sugar monoculture, meaning that they cultivated only one crop. As early as 1901, just three years after annexation, sugar was the dominant crop, accounting for 55% of Puerto Rico’s exports. In La Carreta, Doña Gabriela, the family matriarch, reflects on her late husband’s response to farming sugar, “Then the sugar cane spread up to the mountains. And he never understood sugar cane. He didn’t like it. He always dreamed of coffee.”

This agricultural shift was mainly due to investment by US sugar companies, which also transferred much of the Puerto Rican land ownership out of the hands of local owner/producers into the hands of these companies. Along with this shift came an increasing reliance on the United States economy. Post-annexation, Puerto Rico sent 84% of their exports to the United States, and brought in 85% of their imports from the United States. In 1929, when the Great Depression hit, the Puerto Rican sugar industry collapsed and the economy was devastated, due to how dependent it had become on the US.

Politically, there were some steps towards giving Puerto Ricans more rights and autonomy under US rule, although still within a colonial framework. The US government established a civil government in Puerto Rico in 1901, made up of a Governor and Executive Council–however, all of these positions were appointed directly by the US President, making the civil government effectively under the control of the US government. In 1917, US citizenship was imposed on Puerto Ricans without their input or consent. The ultimate purpose of this move was not to give Puerto Ricans equal rights under the law, but to draft them for military service in World War I. In 1949, Puerto Rico was finally granted the power to elect its own government and write its own constitution. That year, Puerto Ricans elected their first native governor, Luis Muñoz Marín, who campaigned on a platform of modernizing the Puerto Rican economy. While originally an advocate for Puerto Rican independence, Muñoz Marín came to believe that the best way to improve the lives of the Puerto Rican people was within the island’s colonial relationship to the United States.

In 1952, Puerto Rico’s newly-written constitution established the island as a commonwealth of the United States, with a US-style three-branch system of government (legislative, judicial, executive). While this new status gave Puerto Ricans more power over domestic affairs, they were still a territory of the United States, subject to federal laws and control. This relationship continues to this day. Over the years there have been several referendums on Puerto Rico’s status within the United States. In the most recent referendum in 2020, 53% of Puerto Ricans voted “Yes” in response to the question, “Should Puerto Rico be admitted immediately into the Union as a State?”

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Operation Bootstrap

Once elected, Governor Muñoz Marín set about to create the next transformation of the Puerto Rican economy. Speaking to Congress shortly after his election, he said, “In the last few years we have abandoned what we might call ‘Operation Lament’ and are now in the midst of ‘Operation Bootstrap’…We are trying to lift ourselves by our own bootstraps.”

Operation Bootstrap was a massive plan to refocus Puerto Rico’s economy from agriculture to manufacturing. This was achieved primarily through foreign investments, through measures such as tax-breaks and below minimum wage labor costs. These new industrial jobs, as well as the beginnings of a tourism industry, drew huge numbers of poor Puerto Ricans, many of them farmers, from rural areas into the cities, particularly San Juan. It is against this backdrop that we first meet the characters of La Carreta, as they pack up their mountain home for a move to San Juan. These traditional farmers, or jibaro, would have used an ox to cultivate their land and an oxcart to take their crops for sale in nearby towns. When an oxcart transports them away from their home at the end of Act I, the stage directions read, “…the creaking of the departing oxcart can still be heard in the distance.”

Like many other new arrivals to San Juan at that time, Doña Gabriela and her children settle in the neighborhood of La Perla (The Pearl). A shanty town outside of the city, it had historically been the site of the city’s slaughterhouse and cemetery, as dictated by Spanish colonial laws, which forbid them from being inside the city walls. As migration to San Juan from rural areas increased, the population of this area swelled and it became the neighborhood of the newly-urban poor. Living conditions in La Perla were not unlike the tenements of New York City’s Lower East Side, being characterized by overcrowding and unsafe living conditions. The arrival of so many new people to San Juan made work hard to come by, and unemployment was high. Luis, Doña Gabriela’s eldest son, laments to his mother in Act II of La Carreta: “I’m the one to blame. For bringin’ you to the city. And then for havin’ such bad luck at work. Five jobs in a year. And so many weeks outta work.”

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The Great Migration

Starting in the late 1940s, a large number of Puerto Ricans migrated to the United States, in what is now known as the Great Puerto Rican Migration. There were numerous causes for this. Despite the efforts of Operation Bootstrap to modernize the Puerto Rican economy, unemployment in Puerto Rico was still high, particularly among former farm workers left behind by the move towards industrialization. Migration to the United States was in fact encouraged by the Puerto Rican government as a way to lower the unemployment rate. Puerto Ricans were also recruited by American factory owners as they were considered cheaper to employ than mainland Americans, because they were not subject to the federal minimum wage. Additionally, after World War II, air travel was more affordable and accessible, making the journey more feasible than in past generations.

In the US, newly arrived Puerto Ricans settled in places like Chicago, Philadelphia, and Newark, but the majority went to New York City. By 1956, one report estimated that 550,000 Puerto Ricans lived in New York City. In Act III of La Carreta, Doña Gabriela and her son Luis live in a tenement in Morrisania, a Spanish-speaking neighborhood in the South Bronx. In addition to the South Bronx, Puerto Ricans also settled in neighborhoods like East Harlem, which became known as Spanish Harlem and the Lower East Side, informally known as Loisaida. They formed communities with other arrivals from Spanish-speaking countries.

While there was freedom to migrate, as Puerto Ricans were United States citizens, they experienced many of the same challenges as immigrants from a foreign country. Puerto Ricans were relegated to mostly low paying, blue collar jobs working in factories, construction sites, hotels, or as house cleaners. The public school system was not prepared to educate the large population of Spanish-speaking children in its classrooms. Puerto Ricans experienced racial discrimination; there were signs in many restaurants that said, “No dogs or Puerto Ricans allowed.” Abuse at the hands of the police was not uncommon.

Unlike many immigrants from a foreign country, Puerto Ricans had the freedom to migrate back to the island, as Doña Gabriela chooses to do at the end of La Carreta:

I’ll return with my son to the land from where we came. And I’ll sink my hands in the red earth of my village as my father sunk his to plant the seeds. And my hands will be strong again. And my house will smell once more of patchouli and peppermint. And there’ll be land outside.

Because the Great Migration was primarily caused by economic opportunity, and not conflict, persecution, or natural disaster, many Puerto Ricans considered the migration to be only temporary. They returned to Puerto Rico for retirement, freedom from discrimination, better job opportunities, to raise their children, and, as Doña Gabriela says, to return to the land. By 1964, it was reported that the same number of Puerto Ricans were expected to return to the island as were leaving for the United States.

Migration back and forth between Puerto Rico and the United States has continued until the present day. However, in recent decades, this dynamic has shifted disproportionately in favor of leaving the island. Between 2010 and 2020, the Puerto Rican population fell by 11.8%. This is due in large part to the island’s poverty rate, which has stayed above 40% for over 15 years, which is far higher than the US national rate of 13.1%. Starting in 1996, the United States government phased out tax exemptions for corporations conducting business in Puerto Rico, which caused a massive loss of manufacturing jobs. The Puerto Rican economy also never truly rebounded from the Great Recession, in large part due to a lack of federal funding, and a federal law which banned the Puerto Rican government from declaring bankruptcy. In 2017, the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria. The response of the United States government was heavily criticized, which included delays in federal aid, poorly trained response teams, and improper hurricane season preparations by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

In many ways, the Puerto Rican story is inextricably linked with the story of migration to the United States. The first Puerto Rican migration to the United States occurred in 1901, when 5,000 Puerto Ricans made their way by boat to Hawaii in the aftermath of two hurricanes that hit the island, and there are nearly 40,000 Puerto Ricans living in Hawaii today. More Puerto Ricans now live outside Puerto Rico, with 64% residing in the United States and 36% on the island.

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