Chapter 10 : I Go to Puerto Rico
Bread upon the Waters
I Go to Puerto Rico
BACK IN NEW YORK after the Chicago convention, I explained to President Dubinsky that I had done everything in Los Angeles that I had promised, and now intended to go back to work in a dressmaking shop.
"Anything to prevent it?"
"No," he said, "I wish some of our other vise-presidents would do that. It would be good for them. But I think you'd be wasting your time. I can give you something better to do."
"You heard William Lopez's speech about Puerto Rico?"
"Would you like to go there?"
Would I? . . . For me the Lopez speech had been one of the high lights of the convention. Here was a chance for vital missionary work.
"Lopez is in town," D.D. said when I agreed. "See him and he'll give you a line on what needs to be done."
Next day I lunched with Lopez and Jacob Potofsky of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, who had visited Puerto Rico in the spring for the NRA and helped frame a Needle Trades Code which now awaited President Roosevelt's signature. Both were pleased at the prospect of action in Puerto Rico by the International.
It was pleasant to contemplate going to this tropical mountain paradise which Christopher Columbus had discovered in 1493 and which Ponce de Leon, seeker of the Fountain of Eternal Youth, had colonized. This was the only land now under the Stars and Stripes on which Columbus had actually set foot.
Three and a half days from New York by steamship, and 1,400 miles southeast, Puerto Rico lay 400 miles east of Cuba, with the Atlantic Ocean on the north, the Caribbean Sea on the south. A hundred miles long, one third as wide, and thus about the size of Maryland, it had a population of about 1,500,000, mountains as high as 4,000 feet, produced sugar cane and tobacco, grew luscious fruit, and raised "the finest coffee in the world."
A festive bon voyage dinner was given me by the women members of our union. Arranged by Fannia M. Cohn, executive secretary of the educational department, there were flowers, pleasant speeches, good wishes.
Time sped by. Reminded about medical precautions before entering a tropical country, I consulted Dr. George M. Price, director of our Union Health Center, who has since died. I needed to be immunized against malaria, typhoid, and several other diseases. This would require several weeks.
"Then I'll have to forget it. I've got to leave in two days."
Dr. Price said I was taking a big chance. He gave me some advice, warning me especially against drinking unboiled water.
The S. S. Borinquen was sailing on Thursday, July 12, and Lopez and I had booked passage on her. I felt it was important to arrive in San Juan with him. His report on the convention and my presence would be evidence that our union meant business in Puerto Rico.
My mother and several friends saw me off. Flowers and fruit had been sent from the ILGWU office. Once more I was departing for a strange land, and again my thoughts took me back to my last day in Russia before coming to the United States. The distance seemed so great that it was like looking at some loved scene through the wrong end of a telescope.
The ship left her East River pier late in the afternoon. I stood at the starboard rail until we had passed the Statue of Liberty. Remembering my feelings the first time I saw that symbol of hope and promise so many years before, I felt a lump in my throat. I led Lopez sternward, to watch the sunset, as it tinted the buildings and towers of Manhattan with pink and red and gold. The pink and red faded out, leaving only the gold, and some lines by Alfred Noyes came to my mind:
There's a barrel-organ caroling along a golden street, In the city when the sun sinks low.
Slowly shadows crept over the scene, the gold was gone, and dusk fell. We moved past old cargo ships anchored and riding high in the roadstead, ships gray and black and with iron rust showing in great blotches where the paint had peeled from their sides. The bare masts of a sailing ship were outlined against the sky. And a couple of hulks were anchored on the Jersey side of the channel. Ferries crossed our path, and motor boats chugged past. Staten Island's lights evoked memories of pleasant Sundays there with Russian friends years before.
Through the Narrows and into the open sea.
Lazily, relaxing completely in slacks, Southern California style, I spent much of my time in a deck chair. Books from the ship's library told me more about the wonderland in the West Indies to which I was journeying.
Borinquen was its name when the white men came, so called by its peaceful Indian inhabitants. Columbus gave it a different name --San Juan de Beutista. But Ponce de Leon, coming along a few years later with instructions from the Court of Spain to colonize the island, christened it anew. Sailing into its finest harbor, he exclaimed: "Aye, que puerto rico!" What a rich port! Subsequently this designation was applied to the whole island, while the capital built on the harbor shores took on the San Juan name. That city was settled nearly half a century before the first house was erected in St. Augustine, Florida, oldest settlement on our mainland.
But the arrival of the colonizers marked the beginning of the end for the Borinquen Indians. Within a hundred years they were wiped out by a combination of forces--enslavement by the Spaniards, hurricanes, attacks by hostile Caribs, and epidemics of smallpox brought in by Negro slaves from Africa.
Loafing on the deck as the ship sped on and the air grew balmy, I amused myself by speculating on the lives the passengers led on shore. Some, I knew, were school teachers, and some might have been nurses, sales girls, students. Others were not readily identifiable. Most of the women looked bored and seemed to be changing clothes constantly. I wondered why. Slacks were so comfortable.
Lopez had a considerable acquaintance among those on board, and he introduced me to two manufacturers who were returning from a business trip. Our talk was casual, and I avoided touching on the industrial situation, for I wanted this sea-journey to serve as a vacation. But I did ask them:
"What are the women of Puerto Rico like ?" And one of the men said:
"Many of them are very intelligent, and have the makings of good business women."
I was up on deck early on Monday, for we were docking before eight. A perfect sub-tropical morning as the ship plowed through the deep blue Atlantic--a fresh breeze, clear blue sky, seagulls soaring above.
Massive stone fortresses stand high and bold upon headlands at the entrance to San Juan's broad landlocked harbor. They were built by the Spaniards long ago as a protection against attack by pirates or enemy vessels. Morro Castle, oldest of these, was erected in 1539. As late as 1898 it withstood bombardment--by Admiral Sampson's fleet.
As the Borinquen steamed into San Juan Bay, the sight before me took my breath away. Here was a part of the old Spanish town, flanked by an ancient sea wall. High above the wall were two palaces, and beside and beyond these, other houses of graceful Spanish line, with white or pastel sides, roofs of colored tile, and verandas with Moorish arches.
One felt as well as saw the great age of this city. Tall modern buildings in a newer section to the right could not take away from the charm of the ancient ones. To the south, a blue mountain, El Yunque, shimmered in the sun, like a gigantic precious stone.
Native boys, black and brown-skinned, dived from small boats for coins thrown into the bay by people on the ship. Through the beautifully clear water one could see their sleek brown bodies bobbing up and down. The pier was crowded with people--white, bronze, brown, and black, in white clothes, some dingy, some immaculately clean. Twice a week they gathered, as for a social event, to meet the boat from New York.
Out of that crowd I heard my name called: "Welcome to Miss Pesotta! " And then: "Welcome to Mr. Lopez! " Above their heads were waving hands and fluttering handkerchiefs and a big banner of the Puerto Rico Free Federation of Labor. In the forefront of a delegation of about 30 was a little dark-skinned young woman holding a huge bouquet of red roses. She was Teresa Anglero, who had made the first move to organize the island's needle workers three years earlier, and who now headed their union.
"How long have you been away from Puerto Rico?" one of the school teachers asked.
"It's my first trip here. I've come down to work among these people."
"Oh!" and her exclamation seemed to denote a special kind of loneliness. "It must be wonderful to receive such a welcome! "
As we stepped off the gang-plank we were greeted by representatives of the Department of Labor, coworkers of Lopez. Teresa Anglero handed me the roses with a gracious bow. Some of the delegation had traveled all night to meet the ship.
Teresa gave me telegrams from officials of locals throughout the island, inviting me to visit their cities. I was to live, the girls told me, at the boarding house where Rose Schneiderman, president of the Women's Trade Union League, had stayed when she visited Puerto Rico for the NRA several months earlier. This proved to be a large colonial house on the Condado, a historic shore highway. Facing the ocean, the house was set against a background of dense tropical vegetation.
After I had changed clothes, we went over to the Free Federation Hall, where some 50 members of the union were waiting. I explained the purpose of my coming.
My speech was translated into Spanish by Lopez, a sentence at a time. The ILGWU's decision to organize the Puerto Rico needle workers under its protective wing made a deep impression. Here, as in our union in the States, I found women taking the lead. Their hearts were deep in the labor struggle.
After the meeting we mapped out a plan of action. We would make a tour of the cities where there were needle trades factories, set up local unions in important sections of the island, and start organizational and educational activities. Where several small unions existed in a city, each shop comprising an independent local, we would endeavor to combine these under a single ILGWU charter. Visiting the NRA offices, we talked with those in charge, got copies of the new Code, which was to go into effect on July 19, asked what plans they had for enforcing it. They had none; they would get to that later.... The Code signed by President Roosevelt on June 28 provided for a wage scale of $2 a week for home workers, instead of the customary $1 paid for 60 to 70 hours of home work, with as many as three persons in a family toiling. The Code also raised the pay of factory workers to $3 and $5 a week, the latter rate being for machine operators. Instead of 48.hours, the factory employes were to work only 40 hours.
I spent the next three days preparing for our campaign, conferring with the leaders of the Free Federation of Labor in San Juan and lining up all possible support. We put out feelers to see what the employers thought of a collective agreement. Before any such action could be taken, however, a strong organization must be built up. For I had arrived at a time dreaded by all experienced organizers--in the wake of a lost strike. Recently the telephone workers, striking to gain better conditions, had met with crushing defeat.
From Teresa, Sara Alers, chair lady in the Morris Storyk factory, and others I learned something of the history of our industry in this island.
For generations needlepoint work, embroidery, and other forms of fine hand sewing had been taught by the nuns in the Puerto Rican convents. Girls in middle and upper class families took pride in acquiring skill with the needle, making exquisite table linens, lingerie, dresses, blouses, handkerchiefs, and dress accessories. Before World War I, however, they used their skill only for themselves or their own families.
Until then the great sources of such articles for the commercial markets of the United States and other countries were France, Belgium, and the Madeira Islands. Costs were low and profits large. Then the war cut off that supply.
Some of the more enterprising needle-point teachers in Puerto Rico got a bright idea that would mean profit for themselves and trade and additional income for the island. One of them was designated to go to New York with samples and establish business contacts.
Thus Puerto Rico got its start as one of the world's principal cheap labor markets in this field, with China and the Philippines looming as important competitors. Factories came in later. Steadily the needle work industry expanded, and in 20 years became the island's third largest, subordinate only to sugar and tobacco. Out of an estimated 100,000 needle workers, 17,000 were employed in the factories, while the other 83,000 toiled by hand in their homes. Some cutters were employed in the shops; but most of the raw material was cut to pattern in New York garment shops and sent down in bundles to the Puerto Rican contractors.
Mayaguez, center of the island's handkerchief industry, afforded an example of operating methods. Cloth for handkerchiefs was cut in the New York factories and shipped to Puerto Rico, hundreds of thousands of pieces at a time. From the sorting department in the Puerto Rican contractors' shops, work would be farmed out to the homes of individual needle workers in bundles of several dozens. The needlepoint and embroidery would be done in those homes in the hills and, by the time the handkerchiefs were returned to the contractor, they would look like a door-mat for a mud-turtle.
Then came the washing process in the factories; from morning to night women washed and sterilized the handkerchiefs. Special chemical processes were used to bleach the material without causing damage to the colored embroidery. I have seen these women standing at the steam wash tubs, their hands and feet terribly swollen at the joints. Most of them suffered from arthritis or rheumatism. One owner of a factory told me this was the result of the chemicals in the water.
Hundreds of dozens of these handkerchiefs were hung on lines for ten or fifteen minutes and then went to the pressing and the shipping department, where young girls folded them in squares and packed them in fancy individual boxes. New York and other city customers would get them at the department stores, paying as high as $1 each for handkerchiefs that cost the manufacturer only a few cents. Lingerie, blouses, table linen, children's wear, and other articles went through the same process.
A needle workers' union was established in San Juan in 1931. Other locals followed and a strike was staged against a wage cut in one San Juan factory, 400 girls walking out. After a month they won their fight and got a union shop. In 1933 there was a general strike, under the auspices of the Federacion Lilbre Del Trabajo (Free Federation of Labor), affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. Thus a collective agreement was won from the Needle Trades Employers' Association, recognizing the right of the needle workers to bargain collectively. Following this, the Federation set up the Union De Trabajadores De Aguja De Puerto Rico (the Needle Trades Workers' Union), each organized shop being designated as a local. San Juan had five locals.
When a girl applied for a job in one of the larger garment factories, she had to fill out an application blank tantamount to an intelligence test, much like a civil service examination. The back of the application bore a personal rating report and instructions to the manager of the establishment to judge each employee on the following points: Quality in production; quantity of work; industrial intelligence; ability to learn new duties; initiative and creativeness; co-operation; physical quality; leadership.
The manager had to check to make sure each employee was of exceptional leadership, could co-operate, was in good health, industrious, conscientious, and a rapid worker--all for the munificent sum of $5 a week for 48 hours' work!
The Commissioner of Labor, Prudencio Rivera Martinez, a short dark former cigar maker and now acting president of the Federacion Libre, assured us of all possible co-operation from the Labor Department. One commendable thing Theodore Roosevelt Jr. had done during his Governorship was to establish this department, which (in contrast to some other governmental agencies in Puerto Rico) was composed of men and women with practical experience in the labor movement. Most of them were active and earnest trade unionists.
At that time the Labor Department was working on an ambitious rehabilitation plan for homesteads on which to resettle those who lost everything they possessed during the 1932 cyclone.
Walking in the narrow streets of the capital, one drank in romance at every turn. The mark of ancient Spain lingered in the fortresses, the Governor's palace, the cathedral, the mansion built by Ponce de Leon's son, the plaza, the memorial tablets, the statues of warriors and other heroes, the vestiges of the stout walls of masonry that had surrounded San Juan in pirate days, and in a thousand other nooks and corners. On the whole island, only about 20,000 persons among a population of 1,500,000 were from the States. Thus Spanish remained the principal language spoken.
Having seen the showplaces of the capital on the first evening with Lopez and his wife, I wanted to view the other side of the picture, particularly the conditions under which the workers lived. A committee of union girls planned to visit a sick member, late next afternoon, and I gladly accepted an invitation to accompany them.
The sick girl and her people lived near the water-front on the bay side of San Juan, on the edge of a slum section called El Fanguito. Their house was small, and obviously neglected by the landlord. But inside, the place was tidy and presentable, a tribute to the ingenuity and grit of the tenants. My companions brought gifts to the invalid, delicacies purchased with hard earned dimes.
When we came away they took me a little farther into El Panguito, "The Little Mud," which ought to be called "The Big Mud." What I saw now appalled me more than any sight in my past life.
Here were many single-room shacks built on stilts to lift them above the mud, shacks thrown together of old boards and pieces of rusty tin. There was of course no plumbing in these "homes," nothing that even remotely resembled sanitation. Garbage, slops, rubbish of all kinds, and human ordure went into the mud beneath.
Narrow plank walks led to some of the shacks. But to get to others the occupants had to take off their shoes--if they had shoes-- and wade through the muck. Thus they became the prey of hookworm, which thrives in polluted soil. Piercing their bare feet, that scourge made its way to the intestines, multiplied, drained their vitality; the result was called tropical anemia. Children, dogs, and pigs also waded in the mud of El Fanguito.
I thought of my home in Ukrainia and the peasants, who used to carry their shoes slung over a shoulder, as they walked across the fields on their way to town. That was for reasons of economy. "Feet we don't have to buy," they said. But the soil in which the peasants trod was comparatively clean. No one in Ukrainia ever heard of hookworm.
My friends led me along a shaky plank to look in on acquaintances who lived in one of the shacks, and to peer through other open doors in the row. The couple we called upon were apologetic for the condition of their "house," as if somehow it was their fault instead of their misfortune. The man had long been jobless and was plainly ill; the woman did needle work, but earned little. For furniture, they had a table and two chairs improvised from packing boxes. In a corner of the floor were ragged blankets and a sack of straw, which sufficed for a bed.
Cooking was done on a small open hearth made of stones. Empty coconut shells, from which the tops had been removed, served as cooking vessels, dishes, and cups. Smoke from the hearth ascended through a hole in the roof. Flakes of soot hung from the rafters, and the shack reeked with odors.
The men, women, and children I saw in this slum moved about as if half-dead, the light in their eyes dull. Most of the men were sugar-cane cutters, now unemployed, and their families lived from hand to mouth. I wondered what would be the fate of the children if they grew up.
Odd surprises were in store for me, and a few hours later a strange fright. The windows of my boarding house were without glass and unscreened. My bed was enclosed by a canopy of netting, which buzzing mosquitoes tried to penetrate. Lying in the dark and unable to sleep, I realized that I was hungry. On a shelf close by stood candy that had been given me when I sailed. That would take care of my hunger of the moment.
I reached out carefully under the netting's edge, removed the cover from one of the boxes, and picked up a couple of chocolates. Almost instantly I felt something clutch my wrist, something that moved and writhed. In another second the arm was being gripped higher up, and then the pressure was at the elbow. The sensation was one of horror, but I didn't scream; I couldn't.
My voice was frozen in my throat.
Somehow I kept my head. Whatever this might be, snake or monster, I must save myself. Reaching up with my other hand, I turned on the electric light overhead and saw--red and black ants, thousands of them, swarming over my whole forearm, like some fantastic long glove.
I leaped out of bed and raced to the veranda, brushing off the swarm of ants in frenzy. That took a long time, for some of them clung tenaciously to my skin, and bit me, leaving my arm dotted with red marks. After throwing the candy out, it was a full hour before I got rid of the insects on the shelf and floor.
In the morning, half awake as I lingered in bed, I looked out of one of the long window openings. It framed three tall coconut palms, set against a shimmering blue sky. Down the center palm a tiny human figure clad in white was moving, as if in a movie set or in a dream. I had to rub my eyes to make sure that I was not asleep. Afterwards I often saw native boys "walk" up and down the trees, feet and hands moving in rhythmic motion.
"The real joy of living in its greatest realization...."
I turned from that line in a brochure, issued for tourists by the insular Department of Agriculture and Commerce, to another pamphlet from the same source, but designed to attract industry. In this I found some revealing statements.
Among seventeen good reasons listed for establishing industries on that island I read that "Puerto Rico's wage scales are reasonable." On other pages the language was more exact:
"Due to the over-population of Puerto Rico, there is always a large supply of labor available.... Wages in Puerto Rico when compared to those on the mainland are very low, in many cases insufficient to adequately support the workers and their families, even if steady employment were available.... Labor agitation, so common in the industrial centers of the North, is not found in Puerto Rico." *
That of course was a spur to me. It made me keen to get to Mayaguez, the island's big open shop handkerchief center, where the needle trades factory owners had banded together in an association to fight both unionization and the NRA Code.
I went there on Friday, the day the Code became effective, with Lopez, Teresa Anglero, Sara Alers, and three other active union girls. We sped westward along a road paralleling the north shore. The country was gorgeous, the roads lined with the red of the flamboyant trees, and the hills and valleys stretching off into the hinterland lusciously green. But in this garden of the gods there was evidence of utter poverty everywhere. On the doorstep of every hut, women and girls, many of them small children, were busily sewing linen. The children were spindly-legged, the adults looked half-starved.
Overpopulation . . . 428 persons to the square mile . . . To match the human spawning in Puerto Rico, a constant repetition of the miracle of the loaves and fishes was needed. But there were no miracles in these modern days.
*Puerto Rico: Commercial and Industrial San Juan, 1934 pp. 8, D, 16. The italics are mine.--R.P. 114 .
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