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Decency and democracy: the politics of prostitution in Ponce, Puerto Rico, 1890-1900.

The poor count among themselves many highly honorable families, but despite this, the Mayor and the Municipal Council have ordered prostitution among them. The poor have been obliged to accept prostitution as a neighbor. Prostitution now resides within honor.

Tired of invoking the law, which has refused to come to their aid, honor and decency will fall vanquished at the feet of prostitution, who struts about crowing of her impending triumph. Decency and honor, humiliated and ashamed, flee to hide in the fortress of justice, but in vain.

- Canta Claro, 1898

During the 1890s the Liberal Autonomist Party of Puerto Rico launched a concerted, and ultimately successful, campaign to win both autonomy from Spain and universal male suffrage. Much of the Liberal Autonomists' organizing and most fervent popular support was focused in the important sugar-producing municipality of Ponce; indeed, Ponce has been identified as the birthplace of Puerto Rican national identity.(1) The 1890s also witnessed a systematic, draconian state crackdown in Ponce against plebeian women suspected of "immorality"; by 1896, working women accused of nonmonogamy or unruly behavior in Ponce were immediately labeled prostitutes and as a result suffered public harassment, fines, and imprisonment. How can historians understand this paradox - the simultaneous emergence of a great political opening to working men and rather vicious state repression against urban working women, focused on their alleged sexual practices and characters? It is my contention that this convergence was not a mere coincidence; the Ponce municipal government's campaign to regulate prostitution was intimately linked to the beginnings of modern democracy in Puerto Rico.

The central question in many recent studies of the history of political democracy has been - who was left out? Historians now recognize that from its inception, liberal democracy has been partial at best. Enslaved people of both sexes, plebeian men, women of all classes and races - all were denied the right to participate in the body politic until their political struggles forced a broadening of the definition of democracy.(2) "Who was left out?" is obviously an important question, but this article seeks to take the discussion a step further. The central question here will be - how did social stigmatization of specific groups help to gain social equilibrium as new groups were challenging the status quo and/or entering the body politic? In other words, not just who was incorporated into and who was excluded from the electorate, but how was the transition to a broadened body politic managed? And what did gender, and particularly sexuality, have to do with it?(3)

As we shall see, definitions of democracy in late-nineteenth-century Ponce were rooted in the increasingly powerful concept of decency or respectability. The campaign to regulate prostitution, in turn, played a central role in creating a cross-class, cross-gender consensus about the terms of decency and who its proper guardians should be. This article will explore how the sexually wayward woman, crystallized in the image of the prostitute, became a potent political symbol during the 1890s in Ponce. This symbol and the highly charged political currents that swirled around it ultimately helped consolidate elite male Liberal Autonomist power, even as the terms of the political game in Puerto Rico began to shift profoundly.

The moral panic about prostitution that swept through the streets and salons of the city was not a conscious creation of male elites, however well it may have eventually served their political interests. Rather, the drive to cleanse "decent" (wealthy, white) neighborhoods of "unruly," mainly mulata women arose out of a convergence of a number of groups' interests, pressures, and reactions to unnerving social change. Just as the campaign to regulate prostitution had no single, identifiable cause, it also had a number of unforeseeable political, material, and cultural effects.

The Puerto Rican example has a number of historical analogues. Scholars of anticolonial movements have noted that fear of women's sexual disorder has often been a rallying point for those attempting to construct viable national identities.4 Historians are also beginning to explore how a new republican political culture in the early United States went hand in hand with a gendered redefinition of qualities such as "virtue," "independence," and "dependency." Like "decency" in 1890s' Ponce, these qualities both became important markers of men's formal citizenship rights and increasingly delineated domesticity as women's sole sphere of respectable activities. Insistently "public" or economically independent women provoked anxiety among men in the early North American republic and frequently were denounced as prostitutes.(5)

Finally, a few historians have interrogated how shifting understandings of sexual and racial categories have shaped democracy itself. David Halperin argues that prostitution's institutionalization was integral to both defining the terms of citizenship among men and consolidating a democratic, decidedly antiwoman, male body politic in ancient Athens.(6) Catherine Hall's recent work does not analyze prostitution but insightfully demonstrates how democratic political openings are sometimes facilitated and managed by excoriation of a constructed "other." Hall has examined how liberal middle-class British reformers turned from an ambivalent identification with enslaved Blacks during the abolitionist movement of the 1830s, to a heightened racial identification with "whiteness" several decades later. This exclusive racial solidarity with white workers, built on a newly hostile definition of freedmen and women in the colonies as "absolutely other," strengthened the bourgeois reformers' support for universal male suffrage in England during the 1860s.(7)

This article will explore a similar process in turn-of-the-century Puerto Rico, when the creation of a new enemy simultaneously fostered and complicated new political alliances. This article, however, will examine popular as well as elite fashioning of the consensus around decency and democracy. Also, racial lines could not be as neatly drawn within Puerto Rico as between residents of England and ex-slaves in the Caribbean. Many of the "respectable" male workers entering the expanded national political community, and even some Liberal Autonomist professionals, were mulatto or Black. Many other plebeian men who claimed white racial status lived in consensual or formal unions with Afro-Puerto Rican women; Canta Claro, Ponce's most passionate popular advocate of antiprostitution repression, was a case in point. Once men of the laboring classes were included in the body politic, publicly articulated racially based distinctions became difficult, if not downright politically dangerous. Consequently, racial issues were submerged in the debates over decency and democracy in late-nineteenth-century Ponce. Although many of the women targeted by the campaign to regulate prostitution were undoubtedly of African descent, judging from the racial makeup of Ponce's urban poor, mentions of race were conspicuously absent from the moral panic of the 1890s. This silence held fast in both the public discourses articulated in newspaper reports, political debates, and legislation, and the less public (but often quite revealing) drone of police records. Gender, and implicitly class, became the primary axes along which the changing terms of "decency" became defined.


The 1890s were an unsettling time in Ponce. Despite efforts to modernize the sugar industry, the region's economy had contracted throughout the 1870s and 1880s. By the 1890s, coffee from the highlands comprised the bulk of Puerto Rico's exports, and Ponce's coastal sugar economy was in the depths of a profound crisis. The masses of Ponce laborers, especially urban working people, suffered the brunt of the economic crunch. Artisans and wage laborers - the plebeian population of the city-faced unemployment, low wages, and increasing costs of basic imports.(8)

The rate of urbanization after the abolition of slavery in 1873 also increased dramatically, swelled by libertos (ex-slaves) and migrants from smaller towns seeking work and the relative freedom they hoped the city could offer them. Ponce's urban population practically tripled in the space of twenty-five years - it grew from 9,166 residents on the eve of abolition in 1871 to 24,654 in 1897.(9) For the wealthy, white people who held economic and political power in Ponce, the dramatic increase of poor people in "their" city was quite frightening-complaints abounded of homeless people sleeping on "decent" families' porches, of disrespectful poor people stoning police officers, and the like.(10) Perhaps most disturbing of all were the working-class women - many of them Afro-Puerto Rican - who crowded Ponce's streets. Women moved to Ponce in great numbers, for the first time able to earn enough to live outside the extended family settings that had marked most rural women's lives. Their labor, mainly as laundresses, market women, and seamstresses, swelled the burgeoning informal economy.(11)

In many respects, plebeian femininity did not conform to dominant standards of female respectability which demanded that women be demure, obedient, and virginal.(12) Working-class women settled their conflicts with fisticuffs and shouting matches in their yards.(13) They often lived in consensual unions or set up households with other women and their children, rather than join in "the holy state of matrimony."(14) And in the urban space of Ponce, poor women's "disreputable" behavior was present for everyone to see. Working women, the majority of them of African descent, not only filled Ponce's great marketplace and walked the streets hawking foodstuffs, sweets, and other goods during the day, they also socialized at night without chaperones, often renting coaches with groups of girl friends, flirting and sometimes drinking at neighborhood taverns.(15) On weekends they attended bomba dances, where the drums beat on until dawn.(16)

In 1891, complaints about these "rowdy, unruly, immoral women," who wealthy, white residents of Ponce insisted must be prostitutes, began to appear in the local newspapers. "Decent" residents called on the city government to cleanse their neighborhoods of these nasty beings.(17) The municipal government quickly complied, passing a number of regulations requiring "scandalous women" to be removed from the sight of "respectable" folk.(18)

Although elite men penned most of the initial complaints, they were not the only ones unnerved by these unequivocally public, unattached women. White women of Puerto Rico's middle and upper classes, including the early feminists, defined their own respectability in opposition to working women's supposed inherent degeneracy.(19) And many working men also must have been disturbed by their increasing inability to control plebeian women's sexual and economic activity. A Ponce artisan newspaper of the period denounced the "scandals" caused by disrespectful women.(20)

The growth of an unruly urban underclass - and especially unruly Afro-Puerto Rican women - in the midst of a profound economic crisis was not the only unsettling development in 1890s' Ponce, however. Bourgeois feminists and male artisans were also beginning to organize. Feminist networks were strong enough by 1894 to support the island's first women-run newspaper, La Mujer. Ponce was home to many of the paper's contributors and subscribers. The early feminists advocated female education, increased economic autonomy for women, and sexual restraint for men of their own classes.(21) Male artisans' publications, mutual aid and trade organizations mushroomed during this period as well.(22) In response, Ponce's Liberal Autonomist newspaper regularly featured articles which worriedly discussed the growing threats of feminism and socialism on the island, as well as in Europe and the United States. The authors exhorted Puerto Rican artisans and "honorable women" to reject the radical tenets of such dangerous movements.(23)

Liberal men worried about feminine disorder; the rowdy women of the streets were the quintessential symbol of what rebellious women of their own classes could become. Such a threat had to be contained, as this 1893 quotation from Luis Munoz Rivera, the "father" of Puerto Rican Autonomist Liberalism, illustrates:

We pity the fallen woman, but we must avoid at all costs her contact with the honorable woman. Let us offer shelter and bread to the Magdalene who repents. But total rejection is the only possible response to the Magdalene who persists in dirtying herself. In this way, her contaminating spray will not reach our faces, nor tarnish the purity of our society.(24)

Drawing very clear lines between "respectable" and "disreputable" women seemed of paramount importance in this time of bourgeois women's challenge to the legitimacy of Liberal Autonomist men's authority. One way to do this was to physically eject troublesome working women from "decent" people's milieu. Over the course of the decade, the attempts to demonize and segregate allegedly sexually wayward women from "decent" society, and especially "decent" bourgeois women, would quite effectively reinforce the limits of respectable womanhood for the middling and upper classes.

The male artisans' growing organization also could not be ignored. In 1887, the Liberal Autonomists had been brutally driven out of political power in Ponce's municipal council by Spanish officials and the pro-Spanish Incondicional Party. Many Liberal Autonomists lost property and employment and were even jailed. After that year, it became clear to Liberal Autonomist leaders that they could no longer expect political inclusion on equal terms with the Incondicionales. In order to regain the political clout they had previously exercised, they would have to broaden the electorate and win the support of the increasingly organized working classes.

During the 1890s, then, Liberal Autonomists began to develop a new discourse about the plebeian men, particularly urban artisans, who they hoped to incorporate into an active political constituency. Autonomists and their supporters began to concede respectable status to male artisans, as long as the workers could be counted on to follow wealthier men's political lead. In 1891, Salvador Brau, a leading Liberal Autonomist, penned an eloquent ode to the Afro-Puerto Rican teacher Rafael Cordero, in which he posited the artisan intellectual's classroom as the model of harmonious, interracial paternalism.(25) Liberal Autonomists wrote of "honorable artisans . . . that industrious class, in which a modest virtue shines with all its splendor, and work is a beloved pastime."(26) Elite Liberal Autonomists also began to advocate jury trials, freedom of the press, and universal male suffrage. When they finally won a charter for the implementation of autonomy from Spain for Puerto Rico in 1897, universal male suffrage was one of its key tenets.(27) And a few months later, male workers rewarded their efforts by voting them overwhelmingly into office.

Interestingly enough, the crackdown against "public" plebeian women in Ponce occurred just as the public sphere of formal democracy for men was broadening. While attempting to safely incorporate into the body politic male artisans who could be granted the status of dignified, respectable, yet subordinate, citizens, sharp gendered lines were drawn to distinguish the "respectable," urban poor from "dishonorable" plebeians. Liberal Autonomists could not advocate consistent repression against the very men with whom they were forging a new political pact, however unequal. Instead, those who were most politically and economically vulnerable - poor urban women - became the targets of sexual control campaigns.

Liberal Autonomists and pro-Spanish Incondicionales, the white men who made up the opposing ends of the elite political spectrum, may have differed on questions such as the scope of male suffrage, but they consistently displayed a wholehearted consensus on the necessity of isolating unruly plebeian women. The Liberal Autonomists enthusiastically supported the regulation of prostitution beginning in 1891 under Incondicional rule and intensified the campaign once they gained control of Ponce's municipal government in 1898. This crackdown, they hoped, would separate entirely what they defined as disreputable urban working women from the new national community they were attempting to form. In a society where women's character and worth were defined largely by their sexual reputations, it is not surprising that the exclusion of unruly plebeian women from the community of genre decente would be carried out in a campaign to regulate sexuality.

Thus, the fervor to regulate prostitution originally sprang from the increasing anxiety about economic crisis, urban growth, and potentially radical social movements which characterized Puerto Rico's late-nineteenth-century sugar regions. Plebeian women's unregulated labor, increasingly autonomous sexual practices, and loud public presence posed a disturbing challenge to male elites and also unnerved wealthy women and many working men. In addition, bourgeois women and male artisans were beginning to organize. The exclusion of "disreputable" public women from the rest of urban Ponce society both expressed elite male fears of the subversive potential of feminism and the popular classes and safely demarcated loyal wives and male workers as "respectable" members of la gran familia. The Puerto Rican proto-nation, as it came to be defined in the 1890s, had no place for uncontrollable women of the popular classes.


By 1894, the initial attempts to eject plebeian women suspected of being prostitutes from "decent" neighborhoods converged with a growing public hygiene movement within the Puerto Rican medical profession. This movement was primarily concerned with public health issues and especially with altering the personal and sexual habits of the poor. Hygiene physicians' interest in prostitution, specifically, sprang from concerns about controlling venereal disease. Syphilis and gonorrhea remained extremely common afflictions, with frightening long-term effects on the body-oozing sores, swelling and often loss of limbs, blindness, sterility, and insanity.(28) Prostitutes, however, not the men who bought their services, were believed to be the root of the incurable venereal disease "plague" that raged in Puerto Rico. Thus, women, not men, would be the object of the regulatory campaign.(29)

The influence of the hygiene movement systematized and gave scientific, medical legitimacy to state attempts to regulate prostitution. From 1894, when the Ponce municipal council passed the first "prostitution hygiene" legislation, until the campaign ended in 1900, police and medical surveillance of working women's sexuality would take precedence over the informal family and community methods of surveillance, which until then had kept women more or less in check.(30)

After 1894, women suspected of being prostitutes were required to register on an official list, pay a "hygiene tax," and submit to biweekly pelvic exams by designated hygiene physicians. All registered women had to carry a special passbook, which confirmed their residence and clean bill of health. If found to be infected with a venereal disease, women were involuntarily isolated in a special "hygiene hospital." The exams were painful, humiliating events, often carried out in police stations, in full view of policemen and bystanders.(31) As the campaign, as well as alleged prostitutes' resistance to it, intensified through the second half of the decade, vaginal exams were even officially sanctioned as "appropriate punishment" for "disrespectful" behavior on the part of targeted women.(32)

In addition, the Reglamento, as the regulatory legislation was called, created a special hygiene police task force for identifying and tracking suspected prostitutes. Several plebeian neighborhoods were designated as special prostitution zones, into which all "public women" were to be forcibly relocated. It became illegal for anyone alleged to be a prostitute to live or move about in "decent" sections of the city.(33)

After the promulgation of the Reglamento in 1894, state intervention in the lives of poor women exploded. No proof of prostitution had to be provided for a woman to be harassed by the police, "suspicion of immorality" was sufficient grounds for arrest. Police began arresting and fining working-class women by the hundreds, hauling them into court and accusing them of being unregistered prostitutes.(34) By 1898, the penalties for such suspicion had escalated; fifty-two percent of the alleged prostitutes were jailed in addition to being charged the customary fines. In 1898, the blueprint for a proposed new jail included for the first time an entire section set aside for women, complete with a venereal disease examination and isolation room. Clearly, women were swelling the prison population as a result of the police crackdowns against prostitution.(35) Serving a jail sentence was no small matter in those days. Rape by prison guards was not uncommon, and the conditions were horrid - the food was often putrid, pools of fecal matter lay about on the floors, and there was little to no ventilation.(36)

Certainly, many women did register and ostensibly submit to routine medical examinations as a result of the Reglamento's enforcement. Fifty-four initially signed up on the prostitution rolls in 1894, and in the ensuing years, hundreds more appear as registered in police delinquency lists and court cases, although often only after being harassed, fined, and even jailed. It seems that intensified police repression in the later years pushed a good number of women on to the official register. Of the eighty women who appeared in the surviving police records and court cases more than once during or after 1896, 82.5 percent eventually registered.

Unfortunately, we cannot tell with any certainty how many women eventually enrolled as officially recognized prostitutes. The police records are incomplete, and, except for the initial 1894 registry list, no prostitution rolls or medical reports were preserved. Also, the women appearing in police records were only the most unruly, requiring overt disciplinary attempts; many more may have registered and lived relatively peacefully within the Reglamento's parameters.

It is clear, however, that the targeted women did not all comply with the state's attempt to regulate their sexual and economic practices. They fought back in any number of ways. Many of those arrested by the police refused to register on the official lists.(37) They often failed to appear in court or pay the fines routinely levied upon them by magistrates; more than 60 percent of the fines were never paid.(38) Those who did register as prostitutes manufactured counterfeit passbooks and handed them off to each other in order to avoid the hated exams.(39) The scores of denunciations lodged against registered women are ample testimony to the fact that they continued to live, move about, and practice their trade outside the designated zones. Hygiene physicians complained that the registered women "refused to accept their authority" and often refused to "submit" to the exams.(40)

Hospitalizations of poor, "sexually suspicious" women also increased; as noted earlier, those found to be infected with venereal disease were summarily locked away in a special hospital set aside for that purpose. It is worth emphasizing here that there was no cure for venereal disease in the nineteenth century. Often the "treatments" were even more toxic than the diseases. Available "therapies" were limited to injections of massive doses of mercury, arsenic, and other toxic chemicals. The treatments were often lethal, and when patients survived them, they produced horribly painful side effects such as tongue fissures, massive hemorrhaging of the bowels, and loss of teeth. Thus, internment in the hygiene hospital was done for the sole purpose of isolating infected women from society - not for curing them. This was made quite clear by the high, spiked fences, barred windows, and perpetually locked doors which kept the hospital and the women within it "secure," and prevented family and friends of the "patients" from visiting.(41)

But just as they resisted police attempts at surveillance, the women accused of prostitution did not submit passively to the conditions imposed upon them by an ever-more invasive medical profession. It was precisely their ongoing subversion of the hospital's control mechanisms that generated such a constant concern for security among medical authorities. The women shouted to people passing by in the streets and loudly cursed the hospital staff, causing "unbearable scandals."(42) The head of the Hygiene Hospital complained of frequent escapes made by sick women. Police records mention women "fleeing" the hospital without authorization. Two made an especially spectacular break by climbing out an unguarded window and down a rope made of sheets knotted together.(43)

Clearly, the Reglamento and the state campaign it authorized translated into the creation of whole new arms of state bureaucracy and interventionist bodies-hospitals, medical groups, police forces - as well as a rapid expansion of state intrusion into the lives of working-class women - all built on the regulation of sexuality. Despite the rapid proliferation of its surveillance and repressive apparatuses, however, the state was never able to effectively control many of the women it targeted.

Significantly, it remains nearly impossible to piece together any conclusions about the male patrons; they are conspicuously absent from the historical record. Police, politicians, and concerned private citizens alike studiously ignored the role of men in prostitution. The hygiene police never denounced a man for purchasing sex or sent a man to the hygiene hospital for being infected with venereal disease, although they, too, passed the diseases on to their sexual partners. Men visiting prostitutes presumably could still enjoy respectable status. Only women bore the weight of this highly gendered campaign.


There is little reliable evidence that the number of women actually selling sex increased through the course of the campaign. No records were kept of prostitution in Ponce prior to the 1890s. Even if they had existed, they probably would not have been very accurate, because some urban working women seem to have exchanged sex for cash on an occasional basis - they did not consider themselves "prostitutes" and neither did their neighbors.(44) The enforcement of the Reglamento pushed many women who had earned their living from a variety of sources, such as washing, sewing, cleaning houses, as well as the occasional sexual encounter, into a much more rigid, full-time occupation and identity - that of registered prostitute.(45)

But although we cannot tell with any certainty whether the actual number of women selling sex increased, we can identify an explosion in moral panic about prostitution in Ponce during the 1890s. The press began to publish reports of all police arrests of women, identifying the women by name. After 1895, when the regulation campaign really picked up steam, newspaper editors consistently equated women who "caused a ruckus" with prostitutes.(46) No actual sale of sex had to be established, even by police accusation, in order for a woman to be publicly labeled as beyond the moral pale.

With the press whipping up fears about the "plague" of prostitution that had supposedly descended upon Ponce's "decent" sectors, individual neighbors seem to have also become much more disposed toward accusing unattached women of being prostitutes. Daily denunciations of "suspicious" looking or too-loud women were made to the police and the mayor's office, where before almost none had been made.(47)

Even though most poor Poncenos were illiterate, they clearly were aware of the local newspapers' contents. Once female "scandal" - or disturbing the peace - became synonymous with "prostitute," women began to appear at the offices of local papers to publicly defend theft sexual reputations and insist that they were not, in fact, whores. Delfina Vasquez, like many other working women, was denounced by the police as a prostitute for letting men into her house and "causing a scandal." When the incident was reported by La Democracia, Delfina protested in person to the newspaper's editors. They printed her declaration:

As her neighbors and all those who know her can testify, she has never caused disturbances of any kind. This error, [she insists] without a doubt, is due to the bad faith of those responsible for the enforcement of the Hygiene Reglamento, who often overstep their bounds in their zeal to comply with their duty.

The meeting which took place last night in her house, Miss Vasquez adds, was not at all scandalous. Rather, it was nothing more than she and her sister, accompanied by two male friends, singing and playing the guitar, without disturbing any of the neighbors.(48)

For working-class women, almost any behavior that drew attention to oneself could now mean police harassment and public stigmatization as a prostitute. Within a year after the Reglamento's implementation, talking back to store owners, allowing men in one's home, dancing in an "unseemly" way, or being on the streets too late at night could mean denunciation and even arrest as a prostitute as well as prompt reporting of police citations and judgments in the press. In 1895, police repression against working people's bomba dances, now labeled bailes de prostitutas, became commonplace.(49)

Association with women identified as prostitutes was also dangerous. The police assumed that Luisa Arias was a prostitute and denounced her when they discovered her dancing with some registered women. Felicita Martinez was denounced along with her two registered relatives for paseando por las calles, although she had not been seen soliciting and was not on the prostitution rolls.(50) The gravity of being marked in such a way was graphically illustrated in 1898. A young working-class woman, driving in a carriage one evening with another woman and two jovenes alegres, was arrested by the hygiene police. Desperate to escape the public censure and shame sure to follow such an experience, the woman tried to poison herself.

After this incident, some local newspapers criticized the hygiene police for arresting innocent women.(51) The Liberal Autonomist newspaper La Democracia insisted, however, that after further investigation, the police clearly had not been in error. The girls had engineered "nocturnal escapes" from their parents' houses before; therefore, they could not possibly be honorable. In the eyes of the wealthy Liberal Autonomist editors, being out at night branded women as prostitutes. Clear lines must be drawn, the editors continued, between women who carefully preserved their "reputations, worthy of consideration and respect," and those who, like the suicide victim, were "victims of their own imprudences."(52) Women who did not remain within the bounds of respectable femininity had no one to blame but themselves. And the costs of pushing the limits had become terribly heavy.

The Reglamento created other ways to damage women's sexual reputations. After its implementation in 1894, plebeian men began to denounce women to the police as infected with venereal diseases. The receipt of such an accusation, founded or not, was sufficient to "prove" a woman's status as a prostitute and immediately subjected her to police harassment, involuntary vaginal examinations, and court orders to register.(53) A woman's sexual reputation now could be linked to her supposed state of health, and the word of men, whether embittered ex-lovers, actual sex purchasers, or hygiene physicians, had the weight of law. For poor women, being sick had become criminalized, and the inference of disease had become another weapon in men's arsenal of sexual control.

The campaign to "contain" prostitution seems to have reinforced the boundaries of male control over women in other ways as well. After 1898, it became impossible for a registered woman to remove herself from the official prostitution list without proving that she was in a long-term monogamous relationship with a man, who would take "responsibility for her behavior and public conduct." The state would only relinquish its sexual surveillance "rights" if control were effectively exercised by individual men.(54)

The Reglamento pushed not only prostitutes more firmly into patriarchal sexual and economic arrangements. It also increasingly accused working-class women of prostitution, whether or not they actually sold sex. In order to refute these charges, a woman typically had to prove that she was "owned" and "supervised" by a man. Josefa Torres, for example, only escaped arrest by proving that she lived in a consensual union; she brought her lover in to testify that she was indeed monogamous.(55) In December 1898, Maria Vega caught the attention of the hygiene police when she caused a ruckus in a small restaurant; she was eventually arrested for "exercising the hygiene traffic" after not heeding the initial denunciation. But Maria insisted to the judge that she had never been a prostitute, and that her lover, Juan Mendez, supported her financially. Only after getting Juan to come into court as well, and obtaining a note from their comisario de barrio (the neighborhood representative of the municipal government) confirming that she was "living honorably with Juan Mendez," was Maria able to win her release from jail.(56)

If starting a relationship could save one from charges of prostitution, leaving the partnership might turn out to be another matter. In the 1890s, when proof of having a steady man in one's life could be the only protection against police harassment, plebeian women may have been less willing to contemplate leaving unsatisfactory, or even abusive, relationships. Clearly, the campaign to cleanse decent Ponce neighborhoods of threatening, "immoral" women had a disturbing impact on the lives of many urban working women. But its effects did not stop there. The campaign also affected working-class moral norms.

Nineteenth-century popular codes of respectability remained more flexible than the elite honor code. The popular classes did not view marriage as the only honorable option for cohabitation - they considered serial monogamy (for women) and consensual union eminently respectable. A woman's community standing was not determined solely by her status as a virgin. Crucial components of feminine worth included hard work in the home, earning wages, good mothering, and monogamy while one was in a relationship. Thus, working people, unlike the dominant classes in Ponce, did not so clearly draw the line between "respectable" and "disreputable" women.(57)

However, popular cedes of respectability still centered around male control of women, although plebeian men were not able to exercise this control nearly as tightly as men of the upper and middle classes. For example, although women could and did leave abusive or unsatisfactory relationships, community norms required monogamy from women not men. "Slut" or "whore" remained the worst insults that could be slung at a woman of the working classes.(58) Thus, the moral panic created during the 1890s in Ponce, with its intense stigmatization of alleged prostitutes, found echoes among the laboring classes as well.

The continual repressive police intervention against women suspected of selling sex probably placed a strain on plebeian moral norms. Alleged prostitutes were harassed by the police, and registered women were visited by hygiene physicians and kept under surveillance by hygiene inspectors; all this set them apart from the communities in which they lived. Discreetly allowing different male visitors in one's home was one thing; but once this sort of behavior began to attract police attention, it may well have become an intolerable presence. In addition, the fear of being dragged into the municipal jail, denounced in court, or written up in the press for visiting or socializing with friends or neighbors who were "confirmed" sellers of sex must have made it more difficult to maintain close relationships with them.

Finally, the creation of special zones for prostitutes placed a special stress on low-income communities. After the Reglamento's promulgation and the subsequent crackdown to push alleged prostitutes out of the central, wealthier areas of town, increasing numbers of prostitutes and unruly women moved to the poor neighborhoods designated as prostitution zones.(59) After 1894, residents of plebeian sections of the city, especially those included in the Reglamento zones, for the first time began to complain to the police and local newspapers about prostitutes' disturbances.(60)

Laboring people did not only complain about prostitutes to the press. The rocketing rate of police intervention against "suspicious" women also must have been based, at least in part, on information provided by the women's low-income neighbors. Despite working people's general distrust of the Guardia, they seem to have called on the police with escalating frequency once the presence of "troublesome" women increased in poor sectors of the city. The unequivocal labeling of unattached, rowdy women as prostitutes by the press and police may well have fed resentment against these women, especially among plebeian women in established relationships who had no desire to lose precious portions of their lovers' and husbands' wages to alleged "traffickers in sex." Thus, self-defined "respectable" working women may have played a key role in the intensifying cycle of repression against unruly or nonmonogamous women.

All in all, then, the Reglamento's zealous enforcement generated a hardening of plebeian moral norms; although the campaign began as a response to elite calls for cleansing their urban space, it also resonated with some aspects of popular codes of respectability. For the first time, working-class people began to participate in large-scale denunciations of alleged prostitutes.


The protests of Ramon Mayoral Barnes, a young clerk who lived with his lover and children in Vista Alegre, an impoverished section of Ponce that had been designated as one of the prostitute zones, were perhaps the sharpest expression of the plebeian reaction to the regulatory campaign. Throughout 1898 and 1899, under the pseudonym of Canta Claro, Mayoral mounted a vitriolic campaign against both the unruly women, who he claimed were destroying the fabric of plebeian communities, and against the elite Liberal Autonomists, who had supported and intensified the campaign which, as Canta Claro saw it, had created the prostitution problem in the first place. Through this popular intellectual's intervention, prostitution became a central arena for discursive battles over class privilege and definitions of respectability and democracy.

Mayoral Barnes's campaign against prostitution in his community began in mid-1898, when he wrote a series of letters to the Ponce Ayuntamiento (city council) dominated by elite Liberal Autonomists. He complained that prostitutes had flooded the humble Vista Alegre sector as a result of its designation as an acceptable red-light district in 1894 and demanded that the Municipal Council take action to control or relocate the women and their clients. After several months of government inaction, he began to pen satirical columns in the Liberal Autonomist daily newspaper La Democracia using the pseudonym of Canta Claro.

Mayoral's acerbic wit and unrelentingly stinging critiques of the Liberal Autonomist political establishment caused an uproar in Ponce; the issue of prostitution exploded into public political controversy all over the city. La Nueva Era and other Ponce newspapers engaged Canta Claro in debate. Mayoral organized his neighbors to carry various petitions to the mayor. Several of his most blistering columns were printed up as leaflets and distributed in the main plaza and throughout poor neighborhoods. Flyers attempting to discredit Mayoral were in turn plastered to the walls of several public buildings.(61)

Mayoral's campaign created ripples throughout the municipal government. On December 6, 1898, La Democracia listed control of prostitution as one of the top three priorities established by the new Liberal Autonomist administration in Ponce. Police intensified their arrests and harassment of women during November and December of 1898 as the Alcaldia (City Hall) received daily complaints about the unsavory presence of prostitutes in the city; as we have seen, general popular concern with prostitution seems to have escalated sharply with the appearance of pitched public discussion.(62)

Three basic points are key to understanding the political explosion which Canta Claro fueled in Ponce. First, as the first clear urban working-class critique of Liberal Autonomist rule in Ponce, the protests marked a political watershed. In Ponce, prostitution had become the trope through which sharpening male working-class consciousness was expressed.

Second, Canta Claro developed a passionate public discourse about the meaning of democracy and its connection to prostitution. This discourse centered on vindicating male working-class respectability as the true repository of democratic values. Both the rich, who falsely claimed to be "decent," and the prostitutes, considered a "scourge" in working-class communities, provided counterpoints to this popular male respectability.

The law, Canta Claro insisted at every turn, did not universally protect all citizens, as the wealthy Liberal Autonomists claimed. Rather, it remained a weapon of the ruling classes to be used against the poor, and the Reglamento provided the prime example of this hypocrisy. In the name of the "decency of the people and highly cultured nature of the great city of Ponce," the ruling Liberal Autonomists had cleansed their neighborhoods of boisterous women, only to foist them off in unbearable numbers on the poor. The rich's definition of "the people," Canta Claro trumpeted, excluded the vast majority of Ponce's inhabitants.(63)

By proceeding in this way, the aristocratic elements of the city have sought to benefit solely themselves, while prejudicing the principles of democracy; and since democracy almost never has a mouth with which to complain, nor a hand with which to write, the aristocrats don't think twice before approving regulations which exalt wealth at the expense of poverty.(64)

In actions such as the promulgation of the hygiene regulations, the Ponce elites had betrayed their promises to serve the people. In the process, they had proved themselves unfit to govern anyone. Turning dominant moral presumptions on their head, Canta Claro insisted that those who claimed respectability and thus social legitimacy based on their economic and political dominance were, in fact, immoral.

Thus, Mayoral attempted to wrench the definition of both decency and democracy from the hands of Ponce's dominant classes. He loudly proclaimed that the rich did not have a monopoly on either respectability or political rights. "Don't as many decent families live outside the 'zone of stone' as within it? Don't these families pay taxes, the same as those who live within the zone of stone?" Poor, forthright folk were the true standard bearers of respectability, fighting against the moral corruption fomented by the rich. This superior popular decency, Canta Claro warned, might soon "fall at the feet of prostitution, ashamed and vanquished."(65)

Indeed, the poor's respectability legitimated their claims on the state and demands for political rights. Mayoral's writings were saturated with references to "poor and decent" people and with calls to defend "the Law, Morality, and Order." He referred to himself frequently as "a peaceful and honorable citizen," seeking justice "in the name of the poor and honorable class."(65) In Mayoral's rhetoric of rights and justice, "civilized" governments owed equal treatment to all honorable citizens, whether rich or poor. Citizenship should no longer be based on wealth, but rather on decency, which, as defined by Mayoral, was potentially available to all men.

Men, in turn, should regulate the "proper" behavior of women. In this, the third key tenet of Mayoral's protests, he shared a central assumption with the men who drained the Hygiene Regulations. For Canta Claro, as for the police and elite commentators of the period, any woman who stepped outside the bounds of acceptable feminine behavior was a prostitute. And once "identified," prostitutes should be shown no mercy. These women were immoral stains on the community, making a previously respectable collectivity a "fount of infection."(67) The women themselves were to blame, not the circumstances that might have caused their behavior.(68) They should be hounded from the city entirely and held in camps in the countryside.(69)

Thus, for all his criticisms of the Liberal Autonomists and their prostitution policies, Canta Claro heartily concurred with them and all the other parties who had produced the regulatory campaign that prostitutes were "disgusting scum," who should be separated from respectable folk. To this standard bearer of working-class male political expression, the greatest danger to the health of the new democratic body politic was troublesome women, and they could only be dealt with effectively by repression. Ultimately, then, Canta Claro concurred, however conflictually, with Liberal Autonomist strategies toward threatening women.

Mayoral Barnes did not stand alone in his position on unruly women, especially after the implementation of the Reglamento. A Ponce artisan newspaper from 1889 complained about "scandalous" women who were not disciplined sufficiently by police. Similar protests accelerated in the artisan-edited La Bomba, "the organ of the people," in 1895 and 1896.(70) Eighty percent of the neighbors who signed Mayoral's petitions and accompanied him on his frequent visits to City Hall were men.(71) He founded his own newspaper, Canta Claro, to protest "the scourge of prostitution" along with seven other young artisans. And Mayoral held frequent discussions with his artisan neighbors in a corner barber shop, where he no doubt held forth about the evils of prostitution.(72) Thus, it seems safe to say that Canta Claro's writings crystallized attitudes about sexuality and gender circulating among many of Ponce's laboring men.

Regardless of whether Canta Claro can be proven to be truly representative of "respectable" plebeian male opinion of this period, he certainly emerged as the city's dominant popular political voice of the time. During 1898 and 1899, the vociferousness of his writings combined with post-Reglamento resentment in poor neighborhoods to drown out less restrictive attitudes about female morality and prostitution. By proclaiming himself the sole voice of the disenfranchised, Canta Claro silenced alternative plebeian discourses, at least in the public debates of the late 1890s. We can see, then, that popular intellectuals such as Mayoral are not sui generis liberatory voices. Discourses advocating greater democracy can also enforce hierarchies of privilege and power - in this case one that sought to consolidate male control over female sexual practice, public behavior, and economic activity.


The Ponce campaign to regulate prostitution emerged at a crucial time - a period that saw an economy in crisis, society in great flux, a public hygiene movement that lent the appearance of scientific legitimacy to state intervention into the sexual practices of the poor, new political actors, and the Liberal Autonomist opposition's push for expanded democratic rights. The regulatory campaign was not a conscious strategy of male elites to contain the challenges to their authority. Rather, it emerged out of a rather messy convergence of all these elements. However, it ended up playing a pivotal role in the political alliances and conflicts of the period.

The moral panic that built up around the presence of unruly, supposedly immoral plebeian women in the heart of "decent" Ponce had a complicated ripple effect. In addition to having a profound negative impact on the lives of the women targeted by police and their neighbors, it produced a closer convergence of elite and popular moral norms than ever before. By the late 1890s, almost everyone in Ponce, from "respectable" working-class women and men, to bourgeois feminists, to elite men from all positions on the political spectrum, could unite in their excoriation of "the prostitute." All these groups were "decent" in relation to the "scandalous women" who were now unequivocally defined as beyond the moral pale.

In addition to uniting many diverse groups, however conflictually, in a common discourse about "decency," the regulatory campaign also hardened and reinforced the boundaries of feminine respectability. No "honorable" woman would dare step outside their limits, for fear of being labeled a prostitute. Therefore, the potentially radical edge of the burgeoning elite feminist circles on the island was blunted, and their more challenging critiques of male Liberal Autonomist authority, which had centered around questions of morality and sexuality, were effectively silenced.(73)

Many working men, as well, although they may have disagreed with aspects of the regulatory campaign, concurred with the basic reasoning behind it. Even within Mayoral and his supporters' sharpening class consciousness, concern for the maintenance of male privilege and control over women could provide a powerful glue binding them to elite men. Ultimately, then, both feminists and urban male workers, the potential organized threats to the Liberal Autonomist project of "the great Puerto Rican family," made common, although conflictual, cause with those elites who strove to exclude unruly poor women from the Puerto Rico being fashioned in the 1890s. Both groups defined themselves as much by their rejection of "dangerous" women of the popular classes as by their oppression at the hands of wealthy men.

Consequently, the campaign to regulate prostitution and the moral panic which spun off from it ended up enabling the Liberal Autonomists to "manage" this very tricky moment of political and cultural flux. They did not plan it this way, but, ultimately, the campaign worked to their advantage. Liberal Autonomists could safely admit new groups into the nascent proto-national community to varying degrees, since the ripple effects of the prostitution panic neutralized many of their challenges.

Thus, the combination of the blossoming of modern democracy in Puerto Rico with draconian repression and sexual regulation against working-class women was not a paradox at all. Rather, Puerto Rican democracy was built on this repression - the stigmatization of an already vulnerable group gave the political and cultural order a crucial element of stability and prevented previously excluded groups from posing too radical a threat to Liberal Autonomist power. Ultimately, the great political opening to "decent" Puerto Rican working men went hand in hand with the exclusion of "unruly" working women.


Puerto Rican archival sources are identified by a lengthy series of classifications. For the sake of brevity, I am using the following abbreviations in my notes: AMP (Archivo Municipal de Ponce); AGPR (Archivo General de Puerto Rico); Ay. (Ayuntamiento); Sec. (Secretariado); Ar. (Archivo); Cen. (Censo); Hab. (Habitantes); Ben. (Beneficiencia); S.P. (Seguridad Publica); Tr. (Tratado); De. (Denuncias); O.P. (Obras Publicas); Pro. (Proyecto); Car. (Carceles); Inv. (Investigacion); Inf. (Informe); FGE (Fondo de Gobernadores Espanoles); Crim. (Criminales); Jud. (Judicial); Rel. (Relaciones); List. (Listados); Pros. (Prostitucion); J de S (Junta de Sanidad); Juic. (Juicios); Ver. (Verbales).

1. Ramon Mayoral Barnes, "La honradez vencida por la prostitucion," La Democracia, 29 Dec. 1898, p. 3.

2. Angel Quintero Rivera, Patricios y plebeyos: Burgueses, hacendados, artesanos, y obreros. Las relaciones de clase en el Puerto Rico de cambio de siglo (Rio Piedras: Ediciones Huracan, 1988), 47-98.

3. For a few examples, see Carole Pateman, The Disorder of Women: Democracy, Feminism, and Political Theory (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989); Linda K. Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980); Joan Landes, Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988); Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: W.W. Norton, 1975); Orlando Patterson, Freedom in the Making of Western Culture (New York: Harper Collins, 1991).

For the struggles of Latin American women and people of African descent for inclusion in the body politic, see Asuncion Lavrin, Women, Feminism, and Social Change in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, 1890-1940 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995); K. Lynn Stoner, From the House to the Streets: The Cuban Woman's Movement for Legal Reform, 1898-1940 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991); June E. Hahner, Emancipating the Female Sex: The Struggle for Women's Rights in Brazil, 1850-1940 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990); Yamila Azize, La mujer en la lucha (Rio Piedras: Editorial Cultural, 1985); and Aline Helg, Our Rightful Share: The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 1886-1912 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

4. Donna J. Guy analyzes the convergence of debates over women's citizenship rights and prostitution in turn-of-the-century Argentina in "White Slavery, Citizenship, and Nationality in Argentina," in Nationalisms and Sexualities, ed. Andrew Parker et al. (New York: Routledge, 1992), 201-17. Such debates in Argentina revolved partly around the country's reputation in Europe as a barbaric center of "white slavery." In Ponce, however, the political volatility that prostitution acquired was focused on internal conflicts over the terms of democracy and citizenship, not on the international arena.

5. In Arab nationalisms, however, most of these debates centered on the veil, rather than prostitution. See Joanna de Groot, "The Dialectics of Gender: Women, Men, and Political Discourses in Iran c. 1890-1930," Gender and History 5 (summer 1993): 256-68; Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).

6. Joan R. Gundersen, "Independence, Citizenship, and the American Revolution," Signs 13 (spring 1987): 59-77; Ruth H. Bloch, "The Gendered Meanings of Virtue in Revolutionary America," Signs 13 (spring 1987): 37-58; Jeanne Boydston, "The Woman Who Wasn't There: Women's Market Labor and the Transition to Capitalism in the United States," Journal of the Early Republic 16 (summer 1996): 183-206.

7. David Halperin, "The Democratic Body: Prostitution and Citizenship in Classical Athens," Differences 2 (spring 1990): 2-28.

8. Catherine Hall, "'From Greenland's Icy Mountains . . . to Africa's Golden Sand': Ethnicity, Race, and Nation in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England," Gender and History 5 (summer 1993): 212-30. See also Edmund Morgan's classic work on race and the birth of democracy in colonial North America, American Slavery, American Freedom.

9. Astrid Cubano Iguina, El hilo en el laberinto: Claves de la lucha politica en Puerto Rico (Siglo XIX) (Rio Piedras: Ediciones Huracan, 1990), 88-103. See also Andres Ramos Mattei's La sociedad del azucar en Puerto Rico, 1870-1910 (Rio Piedras: Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1988), for a discussion of Ponce's changing social and economic relations during the late nineteenth century.

10. "Villa de Ponce, Ano 1871, Censo general de habitantes," Ay., Sec., Ar., Cen., Hab., AMP; Eduardo Neumann, Verdadera y autentica historia de la ciudad de Ponce, desde sus primitivos tiempos hasta la epoca contemporanea (1911; rpt. ed., San Juan: Instituto de Cultura Puertorriquena, 1987).

11. "Ponce y su termino municipal: Observaciones generales," 20 Mar. 1887, folios 2-4, FGE, box 535, entry 290, AGPR. The "Noticias" section of La Democracia had notices of this sort almost daily throughout the 1890s. For plebeians' confrontations with the Spanish Guardia Civil, see "Por disparo de arma de fuego y lesiones, contra Ramon Rey Jusino," Sentencia 191, Causa 113, Rollo 173, box 48; and "Por lesiones contra Venancio Medina y Moran," Sentencia 161, Causa 568, Tomo de Sentencias del 1892, abril-mayo, box 35. Both in Ponce, Crim., AGPR (hereinafter AGPR, Cr.).

12. "Villa de Ponce Padron de habitantes, 1897," Ay., Sec., At., Cen., Hab., AMP.

13. The elite and middling classes' obsession with the sexual control of women was rooted in desires to preserve racial precedence and material patrimony as well as interests in consolidating male power over women. Enforcing female virginity and marital fidelity ensured that children of an undesirable race would not be introduced into the family's "legitimate" bloodline. Honorable daughters had potentially high value as readily tradable items on the marriage market; stained reputations ruined opportunities for the economic and political alliance building which accompanied marriage. Patriarchs also depended to a great extent on the sexual restriction of "their" women in the creation of a home and family over which they exercised control. Thus, sexual regulation of "respectable" women was a crucial linchpin in defining group identity, maintaining families' social positions, and confirming male dominance. For fuller analyses of these aspects of the dominant honor system in colonial New Mexico and Cuba, see Ramon Gutierrez, When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990); and Verena Stolcke, Marriage, Class, and Color in Nineteenth-Century Cuba: A Study of Racial Attitudes and Sexual Values in a Slave Society, 2d ed. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989).

14. See, for example, "Por lesiones contra Carlos Martinez (a) Chulin, Juana Rosaly y Robles, y Eustaquia Navarro y Velasquez (a) Guachinanga," Sentencia 190, "Audiencia de lo Criminal de Ponce; Sentencias dictadas el Segundo

Trimestre, 1891," box 66, AGPR, Cr. See also the "Noticias" section in La Democracia, during the 1890s.

15. See, for example, "Sobre lesiones a Justina Gonzalez," 24 July 1895, box 33; ""Sobre hurto de seis pesos a Lorenza Moro," 1892, box 90, both in AGPR, Cr.

16. For rich testimony about poor urban women's social lives and nocturnal physical mobility, see "Por rapto de Ercilia Reyes," 1896, box 19; "Sobre rapto de Ramona Caraballo," 1902, box 100, both in AGPR, Cr.

17. Today, elderly residents of Ponce's Black working-class neighborhood of San Anton tell stories passed on to them by their parents of how young Afro-Puerto Ricans would walk for miles to attend one of these dances; "it was one of the only times they felt free, those bombas. They'd dance until the rising sun sent them home!" Interviews with Dora Librada Roque and Dona Josefina Cabrera, 14 Apr. 1992, Ponce, Puerto Rico.

18. See, for example, "Carta al Sr. Alcalde de Ponce," La Democracia, 5 June 1893.

19. "Oficial: Al pueblo," La Democracia, 31 Oct. 1891.

20. These issues are explored in depth in Eileen J. Findlay, "Domination, Decency, and Desire: The Politics of Sexuality in Ponce, Puerto Rico, 1840-1920" (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin at Madison, 1995), 41-49, 137-67.

21. "Seccion local," El obrero, 19 Nov. 1889.

22. Findlay, 112-67.

23. Artisans' newspapers published in Ponce included El Artesano (1874), Heraldo del Trabajo (1878-80), El obrero (1889-90), and Revista obrera (1893). The Circulo Ponceno de Artesanos and the Sociedad Protectora de la Inteligencia del Obrero nourished worker culture in Ponce during the late nineteenth century. Mutual societies, such as the Taller Benefico de Artesanos, and cooperatives were founded by Ponce tobacco workers, shoemakers, and masons in the 1890s. See Rivera, 71; and Gervasio L. Garcia and A.G. Quintero Rivera, Desafio y solidaridad: Breve historia del movimiento obrero puertorriqueno (Rio Piedras: Ediciones Huracan, 1982), 18-23.

24. For some examples of the threat of feminism, see "Marimachos," 19 Feb. 1898; "Curiosa costumbre," 10 Mar. 1898; and "El feminismo triunfa," 27 May 1898, all in La Democracia. For Liberal Autonomist warnings against socialism, see Luis Munoz Rivera, "El uno de mayo," 1 May 1893; "Augurios tristes," 26 Jan. 1895; and "A la revista," 10 Apr. 1894, all in La Democracia.

25. Luis Munoz Rivera, "El dedo en la ilaga," La Democracia, 5 June 1893.

26. Salvador Brau, "Rafael Cordero" (San Juan: Tipografia de Arturo Cordova, 1891).

27. J.N. Bouilly, "El obrador filial," La Mujer, 2 Feb, 1894. See also "Pongamonos en lo cierto," La Mujer, 10 June 1894.

28. "La savia democratica," 29 Nov. 1890; "La cuestion electoral," 14 Aug. 1890; "Como empieza y como acaba," 8 July 1890; "Palabras . . . palabras," 31 May 1894; and Luis Munoz Rivera's articles: "El Contraste," 18 Feb. 1892; "El insulto," 3 Jan. 1893; and "Mas abajo," 21 July 1896, all in La Democracia.

29. The advertisements for quack cures of syphilis and gonorrhea which literally littered the newspapers of Puerto Rico in the 1890s are ample testimony to the diseases' widespread impact on society. Weekly and sometimes daily ads appeared in every newspaper I reviewed. A syphilis clinic on the Calle Comercio in Ponce was also advertised during 1898 in La Democracia.

30. Puerto Rican hygienist physicians published a number of books and articles during this period, in which they detailed their concerns. See the journal Salud, as well as Francisco del Valle Atiles, El campesino puertorriqueno: Sus Condiciones fisicas, intelectuales y morales, causas que las determinan y medios para mejorarlas (San Juan: Tipografia de J. Gonzalez Font, 1887), 12-13, 20-25, 59-61, 72-75.

For hygiene movements in other areas of the Americas during the nineteenth century, see Donna Guy, Sex and Danger in Buenos Aires: Prostitution, Family, and Nation in Argentina (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991); Hector Recalde, "Prostitutas Reglamentadas en Buenos Aires, 1875-1934," Todo es historia 24 (March 1991): 72-94; Nancy Leys Stepan, "The Hour of Eugenics": Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991); Allan M. Brandt, No Magic Bullet: A Social History of Venereal Disease in the United States since 1880 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

31. The informal methods of sexual surveillance employed in nineteenth-century plebeian communities are examined in depth in Findlay, 49-111.

32. Reglamento de higiene de la prostitucion de Ponce: Aprobado por el Excmo. Sr. Gobernador General de la Provincia en 19 de junio de 1894 (Ponce: Imprenta de M. Lopez, 1895), Article I.

33. Ciudad de Ponce: Reglamento de higiene de la prostitucion, 12 Aug. 1898, Article 24, Puertorriquena, Recinto de Rio, Universidad de Puerto Rico.

34. Reglamento de higiene de la prostitucion de Ponce, 1894.

35. See, for example, "Relaciones de las denuncias dadas por la Policia Municipal desde el dia 13 de enero hasta el 30 de abril de 1895; and "Libro diario, 1896, Anotaciones de hechos acontecidos diariamente," both in Ay., Sec., Jud., List., Den., AMP (hereinafter Denun.).

36. "Proyecto de Carcel del partido judicial de Ponce: Modificaciones, 1898," 2, Ay., Sec., O.P., Pro., Car., AMP.

37. "Incoado por orden del ultimo Sr. Alcalde Vice Presidente de la Junta Auxiliar de Carceles en averiguacion de ciertos hechos ocurridos en el Departamento de las Mujeres," 1888, Ay., Sec., Jud., Inv., AMP; and Manuel N. Domenech, Arquitecto Municipal, "Memoria," 1 Feb. 1898, Ay., Sec., Jud., Inf., AMP.

38. These cases can be found in the Archivo Municipal de Ponce, in the Beneficencia, Judicial, or Seguridad Publica sections of the Ayuntamiento, Secretaria division.

39. Some examples are "Relacion de las casas de pupilas, citas, y meretrices que deben abonar sus cuotas del mes de Octubre de 1894," Ay., Sec., Ben., Tr., AMP (hereinafter Trat.); and "Cuerpo de Policia Municipal de la Ciudad de Pence, Relacion que se cita," 17 Oct. 1894, Ay., Sec., S.P., Rel., List., AMP.

For a more detailed discussion of the escalating crackdown against alleged prostitutes, and the targeted women's resistance to it, see Findlay, 221-56.

40. Reglamento de higiene de la prostitucion de Ponce, 1894, Article 6. See, for ample, "Relaciones de las denuncias dadas por la Policia Municipal desde el dia 13 de Enero hasta el 30 del Abril de 1895," Denun, 28 Jan. 1895, Carmen Mayoral; ibid., 23 March 1895, Eugenia Fornier; "Contra Dominga Velasquez," June 1896, box 1894-1897, Ay., Sec., Ben., Den., Pros., AMP (hereinafter Prost.); "Contra Carmen Mayoral pot pasear pot las calles centricas de la poblacion," 8 Oct. 1896, ibid.; "Contra Adela Gonzalez @ Cubana, Petra Morales, Ana Teresa Pena, Eusebia Gonzalez, y Regina Duboy [Duboig] @ Sumbi por Infraccion al Regl. de higiene," August 1898, box 1897-1899, Prost. See also Reglamento de higiene, 1898, Article 24 and Article 31.

41. "Libro Diario," 14 July 1896; "Sobre oficio del Doctor Rendon interesando se disponga la completa incomunicacion del Asilo de Higiene," 21 Nov. 1899, box 18931917, Trat. For the widespread reliance on isolation rather than effective therapeutic treatment of infectious diseases, see Actas de la Junta local de Sanidad, 20 Nov. 1887 and 21 Nov. 1890, Ay., Sec., Ben., J. de S., AMP.

42. Ibid. See also Reglamento de higiene, 1898, Article 31.

43. "Relaciones de las denuncias," February 1895, Felipa Rodriguez and Maria Torni; "Libro Diario," 20 Aug. 1895. See also "Estafeta de Ponce," 1 Feb. 1895; and "Noticias Generales," 10 Dec. 1898, both in La Democracia.

44. In 1890, for example, prior to the prostitution panic, Maria Rodriguez identified herself - and was considered as such by her neighbors, as well - as a lavandera, not a prostitute, although she had occasional sexual encounters with different men for which she accepted money. See "Por hurto contra Anabel Melendez," 1890, box 24, AGPR, Cr.

45. There is some evidence that once the register was established in 1894, women's stints as identifiable prostitutes may have begun to lengthen. Seventy-five of the 103 women on the 1893 (pre-Reglamento) police list of prostitutes residing in the city never appeared again, whether in surveillance records or denunciations. In stark contrast, only 35 percent of the women named in Ponce's only surviving list of registered prostitutes, drawn up several months after the promulgation of the Reglamento, did not reappear. Sixty-five percent of the women recognized as prostitutes in the early post-Reglamento months, as opposed to 25 percent a year earlier, were still acting out within the net of police harassment and registry enforcement in subsequent years.

Historians of prostitution have noted similar trends elsewhere in Europe and the Americas. The stigmatization and repression of regulatory campaigns seems to have consistently created an identity and full-time occupation of prostitute for many women who previously exchanged sex for cash as only one of a variety of income-generating strategies. For a few examples, see Guy; David McCreery, "'This Life of Misery and Shame': Female Prostitution in Guatemala City, 1880-1920," Journal of Latin American Studies 18 (November 1986): 333-53; Judith R. Walkowitz, Prostitution in Victorian Society: Women, Class, and the State (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980); Jill Harsin, Policing Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century Paris (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985); Laurie Bernstein, Sonia's Daughters: Prostitutes and Their Regulation in Imperial Russia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

46. See, for example, "Estafeta de Ponce," 2, 15, 16, and 17 Apr. 1895, all in La Democracia.

47. For example, see the denunciation of "Magdalena" to the police by "respectable families" living on the poverty-stricken Aurora Street, the center of one of the new prostitution zones. Magdalena allowed different men into her house at various times. No such complaint ever arose from poor families prior to 1894. "Contra Magdalena Usera pot Egercer el trafico de higiene," July 1897, box 1897-1899, Prost. See also "Metralla," 23 Feb. 1895; "Bombas y Bombos," 13 Mar. 1895; "Metralla," 16 Mar.; 7 Apr. 1895, all in La Bomba. See "La estafeta de Ponce," 8 Jan., 16 Jan., and 23 Jan. 1895, all in La Democracia.

48. "Cartera de Ponce," 19 June 1895, also 26 Mar. 1894; "Noticias," 11 Apr. 1894; and "Cartera de Ponce," 14 June 1895, all in La Democracia.

49. See, for example, La Democracia, 5, 18, 2 June 1895, 29 Apr., 19 June 1895; "Libro Diario," 21 Sept. 1896; "Contra Adelina Cueva por dedicarse al trafico de higiene sin estar inscrita," October 1896, box 1894-1897, Prost. For references to the bombas, see "Estafeta de Ponce," La Democracia, 29 Apr. and 2 June 1895.

50. "Estafeta de Ponce," La Democracia, 29 Apr. 1895; "Libro Diario," 7 Feb. 1895, Denun.

51. Unfortunately, these newspapers have not been preserved in local archives. I only know that there were protests from La Democracia's scornful reply to them.

52. "La estafeta de Ponce," La Democracia, 28 June 1898.

53. "Relaciones de las denuncias," 12 Feb. 1895; "Contra Gervasia Rodriguez y Monserrate Nazario por ejercer el trafico de higiene sin autorizacion," December 1896; "Contra Isabel Salguero por ejercer el trafico de higiene," 30 Dec. 1896, box 1894-1897, Prost.

54. Reglamento de higiene, 1898; "Relacion de las meretrices que han sido dadas de baja por orden del Senor Alcade . . .," 31 July 1899, Ay., Sec, Ben., AMP; "Dando de baja a la meretriz Ezequiela Saldano," 10 Jan. 1899, box 1893-1917, Trat.

55. "Contra las individuas Eugenia Bautista y Josefa Torres, por ejercer el trafico de higiene sin estar inscrita para ello," December 1898, box 1897-1899, Prost.

56. "Contra Maria Vega por Infraccion Regl. Higiene," 7 Dec. 1898, ibid.

57. Popular moral norms during the nineteenth-century are examined in detail in Findlay, 49-109.

58. See, for example, 3 Aug. 1857, no. 229; Cayetano Cambreleng con su hija menor Belen en representacion de ella demandando a Jose Jaime Napoleoni, 22 Aug. 1857, both in Cuaderno de juicios verbales por el Corregimiento, Ay., Sec., Jud., Juic., Ver.

59. "At present," a resident of the Vista Alegre section wrote, [Vista Alegre] "has one registered live-in brothel, one house for sexual trysts, six houses owned by a wealthy man who fixes them up to rent them to prostitutes, and 7 houses rented by prostitutes and owned by different people." ("Victoria de las mesalinas," La Democracia, 2 Dec, 1898. See also "Libro Diario," September 1896, Dominga Velasquez, "Olvidada diez y nueve anos," La Democracia, 28 Nov. 1898.)

60. See, for example, La Bomba, 7 Feb. 1895.

61. Unfortunately, La Nueva Era and its counterparts in the local press have not been preserved in accessible archives. The exchanges between Mayoral and various local newspapers are only traceable in the Canta Claro columns' responses. The few numbers of the Ponce Republican paper, La Patria, however, which have survived from this period refer to Canta Claro's campaign as a familiar part of Ponce political culture. "Astrea," La Patria, 2 Apr. 1899.

"Me salio al encuentro," 16 Nov. 1898; "Justicia para el pobre, hermano," 27 Dec. 1898; "Remitido: Primer apuro de Canta Claro," 18 Nov. 1898; "Segundo Apuro de Canta Claro," 21 Nov. 1898, all in La Democracia. See "Sobre instancia de Don Ramon Mayoral para que se destinen a otro sitio las meretrices que viven en 'Vista Alegre' por no poderse sufrir los escandalos que proporcionan al vecindario," 4 Sept. 1898; "Por virtud de escrito del vecino D. Ramon Mayoral Barnes al Senor Presidente del concejo de Secretarios de esta Isla, quejandose del Reglamento de Higiene de la prostitucion de la misma," 21 Jan. 1899 to 17 Mar. 1899; "Sobre escrito de D. Ramon Mayoral pidiendo la traslacion a otro sitio de las prostitutas de Vista Alegre," 30 Jan. 1899, all in box 1893-1918, Trat.

62. "Actuales Gestiones de la Alcaldia de Ponce," La Democracia, 6 Dec. 1898; "Citaciones," November 1898, AMP, uncatalogued at the time of my research.

63. "Por virtud de escrito del vecino D. Ramon Mayoral Barnes al Senor Presidente del concejo de Secretarios de esta Isla, quejandose del Reglamento de Higiene de la prostitucion de la misma," 21 Jan. 1899, box 1893-1917, Trat. "Estallo la bomba," 10 Nov. 1898; "Castigada por un error," 8 Nov. 1898; "Abusar de la humildad," 14 Nov. 1898; "Me salio al encuentro," 16 Nov. 1898; - "La educacion y la ley," 20 Dec. 1898, all in La Democracia.

64. "Un alcalde satisfecho," 30 Nov. 1898; and see also "A los que no les va, ni les viene," 7 Dec. 1898, both in La Democracia.

65. "Confirmacion de la arbitrariedad," La Democracia, 14 Dec. 1898. Mayoral's phrase "zone of stone" refers to the wealthy center of the city, where residents could afford large homes built of stone. "La honradez vencida por la prostitucion," La Democracia, 29 Dec. 1898.

66. "Por virtud de escrito del vecino D. Ramon Mayoral Barnes al Senor Presidente del concejo de Secretarios de esta Isla," 21 Jan. 1899; see also "Sobre instancia de Don Ramon Mayoral para que se destinen a otro sitio las meretrices que viven en 'Vista Alegre' por no poderse sufrir los escandalos que proporcionan al vecindario," 4 Sept. 1898, and his columns in La Democracia.

67. "Sobre instancia de Don Ramon Mayoral para que se destinen a otro sitio las meretrices que viven en 'Vista Alegre' por no poderse sufrir los escandalos que proporcionan al vecindario," 4 Sept. 1898.

68. "Al democrata gacetillero," 13 Dec. 1898; see also, "Remitido," 18 Nov. 1898; "La residencia de las hetairas," 25 Nov. 1898; and "Noticias generales," 8 Dec. 1898, all in La Democracia.

69. Note that to Mayoral, an urban worker, rural areas were empty of decency, just as his community had been for the urban elites. "Tercer apuro de Canta Claro," La Democracia, 22 Nov. 1898. See also "La residencia de las hetairas," 25 Nov. 1898; "Me salio al encuentro," 16 Nov. 1898; "Levanto ampolla el caustico," 24 Dec. 1898, all in La Democracia.

70. "Seccion local," El Obrero: Eco de la clase obrera de la provincia, 19 Nov. 1889. See also 7 Feb. 1895; "Metralla," 23 Feb. 1895; "Bombas y bombos," 13 Mar. 1895; "Metralla," 16 Mar. 1895; "Bombas y bombos," 28 Mar. 1895; 7 Apr. 1895, all in La Bomba.

71. "Sobre escrito de D. Ramon Mayoral pidiendo la traslacion a otro sitio de las prostitutas de Vista Alegre," 30 Jan. 1899, box 1893-1917, Trat.

72. "Remitido: Primer apuro de Canta Claro," La Democracia, 18 Nov. 1898.

73. It is surely no coincidence that the leading feminist Aria Roque de Duprey's novel, Luz y sombra, in which she laid out her theory of women's right to sexual pleasure, was originally written in 1894 but not published for another decade. During the height of the antiprostitution fervor such ideas could not be safely expressed by women who wished to remain "honorable."

Eileen J. Findlay is an assistant professor of Latin American and Caribbean History at American University in Washington, D.C. She is finishing a book on morality, political culture, and social movements in turn-of-the-century Puerto Rico, to be published by Duke University Press.
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Author:Findlay, Eileen J.
Publication:Feminist Studies
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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