Chapter 11 : Island Paradise and Mass Tragedy
Bread upon the Waters
Island Paradise and Mass Tragedy
IN MAYAGUEZ WE LEARNED that some manufacturers already had discharged workers in sizable numbers. These employes had been working for a pittance, and the employers, not wanting to pay the increased wage provided under the Code minima, had begun laying them off. The rest of the force refused to start that morning until the dismissed workers had been reinstated. In certain other factories, ironers were asked how many handkerchiefs they could iron in a day. When they replied: "Five dozen," they were advised to double their output.
The NRA officials there obviously hadn't the slightest idea how to go about correcting the glaring injustices to labor on every hand, nor did they appear really interested in labor problems. They were governmental office-holders, who had been in a rut so long that watching them at work was like seeing a slow-motion picture on a movie screen. I asked the NRA enforcement officer in Mayaguez what he intended doing about the workers' immediate grievances. He admitted he could do nothing.
I told him we knew exactly what was going to happen in Puerto Rico, as we had been through it in the States. Employers would ignore the NRA and violate the Code at every turn. We would use our own methods when we saw fit to take action; in the long run the NRA administration would realize that without the co-operation of organized labor it would never be able to enforce the Code.
Then we insisted that the NRA representative go with us to put pressure on one manufacturer who had locked out his workers. Not expecting any such drastic action on the first day, the employer was flustered. It was all a mistake, he asserted; his employes would return to their jobs next morning. I took down his statement verbatim and said I would report it to the workers, and if they decided to return, I also would be there.
When we appeared at that factory early in the morning, the employes were congregated outside the gate. The employer had refused to let them enter. A delegation including spokesmen for the local Labor Department offices, Teresa Anglero, a committee chosen the night before, and myself, went in to speak to the "patron."
The employer, embarrassed, had difficulty explaining, but finally gave the excuse that there was not enough work for the whole crew of 48 pressers. "I will let ten of them work today, and later I will see."
But none of the pressers would go in to work unless all 48 were given an equal share, even if it came to only a half hour. After much debate, it was agreed that all would be reemployed on Monday.
The pressers were boys in their teens, yet most of them were toothless Lacking income enough to buy a minimum of nourishing foods, their bodies were breaking down before they had fully matured.
We had to speed back to San Juan, where the Central Labor Union had announced a reception for us that evening. Torrential rains overtook us twice. We were in a touring car open at the sides and got drenched. But one had to get used to sudden rains in Puerto Rico. I soon learned to carry both an umbrella and a fan with me.
Bathed and in fresh clothes, I reached the meeting on schedule. Several hundred union members attended, mostly girls and women under 35. There were stirring speeches of welcome, delivered by Sandalio Alonzo and Francisco Paz Granella, officers of the CLU, and the gathering displayed a fine spirit.
Not until I got home that night did I realize how great a toll of my energy the week had taken. On Saturday morning I was so exhausted I could scarcely get out of bed. But Teresa Anglero called at 10, and I managed to rouse up, and we went down to the union hall. Then, with a committee of 20, we proceeded to several factories to settle prices. Some of the employers tried to browbeat us, but we stopped that by taking a firm stand.
The following Monday morning I went with a delegation to the pier to welcome Santiago Iglesias, the Eugene Debs of the island, then Resident Commissioner for Puerto Rico in Washington. His homecomings were virtually a legal holiday for the San Juan work. ers. As he walked down the gang-plank, the waiting throng acclaimed him ecstatically, with great cheering and music. A procession followed the distinguished visitor to his home.
As Resident Commissioner, Iglesias had the standing of a United States Senator, without a vote. Portly, clad in white linens, and then in his sixties, his bronzed face, white hair, and drooping mustache gave him the appearance of a Spanish Don. He had come from Spain as a young man, worked as a cabinet maker, and became active in the labor movement. When the United States occupied Puerto Rico, he was one of the island's men of influence who welcomed the triumph of democracy over autocracy. All his life he hoped to see Puerto Rico admitted into the Union as a state.
Founder and editor of three labor papers, the first in 1898, he also served as general organizer for the A F of L in Puerto Rico and at another time as secretary of the Pan-American Federation of Labor. For many years he was a close friend of Samuel Gompers and Morris Hillquit, the Socialist leader, who was attorney for the ILGWU. From 1917 to 1933 Iglesias was a member of the insular Senate, and spokesman there for the common people of the island, who idolized him.
Several days later, he invited me to call at his home. There I talked with him at some length, and met his wife and some of his nine children.*
There was no question of his sympathetic interest when I told him what we had been doing and of the grim things I had observed in my contacts with the workers. I quoted him that line about "no labor agitators in Puerto Rico" in the Department of Agriculture and Commerce booklet.
"It would be good," he remarked, "if you were to be deported for your activities here. Very good for the cause of labor organization."
I asked him what solution he had for the island's economic problem.
"Curtail the birth rate," he answered. "Educate our people, and help them raise their standard of living."
Elected Resident Commissioner to the United States in 1932, Iglesias continued in that capacity until his death in 1939. When he died of malaria contracted while on a tour of Mexico, Puerto Rico lost one of its most valuable citizens.
On my first trip to Mayaguez, I was compelled to wait in the boarding-house veranda for two hours before the committee from the union arrived with the Federacion car. After that experience with the slow Puerto Rican tempo, I worked out my own technique. Henceforth I had the driver call for me first; then we made the rounds and picked up the others. Nevertheless, there were delays.
Heading for the west end of the island next time, we stopped in Bayamon and trustfully entered a Quick Lunch restaurant. The girls began ordering, but most of the things they chose from the menu were not available. What they finally got, starting with dessert and ending with canned bean soup, occupied them for an hour and a half. Meanwhile I dipped into my own lunch box, which my landlady had packed for me, eating leisurely and skimming a newspaper.
I pointed out to my companions that we couldn't afford to spend so much time at meals, and it was agreed that thereafter Teresa would have lunches packed for all of us.
We proceeded to Mayaguez, spent some busy hours, stayed overnight, and next day met with committees to adjust complaints. At the end of the forenoon I went into the only decent grocery, not unlike an A & P store, and bought provisions÷two long French loaves of white bread, butter, salami, cheese, and a "hand" of the largest bananas I had ever seen.
As we drove out of the city, bound for an evening meeting in Ponce, with stops between, Teresa suddenly remembered that she had neglected to bring the food.
"Never mind," I said, "lunch is at hand."
We stopped on the road near a river, spread papers on the ground, ate picnic style. But when I unwrapped the "large bananas," the joke was on me. The girls held their sides laughing. These were not bananas, but plantanos which cannot be eaten raw. Even when cooked, they tasted like frozen potatoes.
After that Teresa nearly always remembered the lunches.
Under the routine we had mapped out, we began a tour of the island each Monday morning; managed to arrive by noon at Arecibo, where we conferred with amiable elderly Dona Lola, president of the union there, and other local leaders. Then to Mayaguez, and through various smaller towns; and thence over the south road to Ponce, to Guayama and Humacao. Usually we held daily meetings in at least two communities.
At these gatherings we prepared the needle workers for membership in the union. As soon as we felt that they were sufficiently posted, we chartered ILGWU locals and established educational departments, which began immediately to register members for classes in personal hygiene, birth control, and child care.
Frequently we made it a point to stop off at various places en route to talk with the workers in the hills. Along all the roads they were to be found. With very little clothing on their bodies, women, young and old, sat on the doorsteps of their thatched huts sewing from morning till night. They were largely the wives and daughters of the jibaros, who labored on the farms and sugar plantations÷ when they could get work.
Before the end of July, we arranged to consolidate the five needle trades locals in San Juan into a single local, No. 300, chartered by the ILGWU, with nearly 2,000 members. Union headquarters were then established at No. 1 Barrio Obrero in Santurce, a working-class section of San Juan geographically comparable to Harlem in New York. Considering the low wages of these workers, we set their maximum dues at 15 cents a month.
We'd be back in San Juan always on Saturday, and I'd clean up tag-ends of my program.
Airmail came and departed three times a week; steamship mail twice a week. Everyone having anything to do with the mainland (U.S.A.) had a time-table in front of him on his desk. I soon got used to the idea of mailing letters by a certain time and expecting an answer on schedule.
The Latin-American custom of taking three hours for lunch annoyed me. I had to call at the Post Office for my mail, and if the bus was late, and I got there a half minute after 12, the doors would be closed, and I'd have to kill three hours until they reopened. One place to wait was a near-by bar where I learned to drink a cocktail known as Delphine No. 5. The bartender, Senor Delphine, told me he had devised a series of cocktails in his own honor in Havana, running them up from one to 15. I tried them all, and No. 5 was my favorite. Before leaving the island I obtained the recipe from Senor Delphine.
Most of my letters to the home office in New York, or to friends in the States, were written as I sat in bed inside the mosquito netting in my,boarding house, with my portable typewriter on my lap. When I had cleared everything essential, I'd knock off work, and saunter to the Hotel Condado for a swim in the pool. That made me over.
After one such swim, I walked a short way along the oceanside until I was clear of people. Spreading a blanket on the sand, I stretched out to read a book. Dark goggles shielded my eyes from the sun I read a half hour or so, then I suddenly had a feeling of uneasiness. Peering through the glasses, I discovered that I was surrounded by a ring of native men and boys, who kept at some distance but stared steadily. I sat up, removed the goggles, and glared at this male circle with indignation. But my uninvited public was unabashed; no one budged. I picked myself up and went back to the boarding house. I didn't appreciate masculine attention in the form of a mass demonstration.
Saturday evenings I found time for play. On several occasions I was invited by Labor Commissioner Martinez to go with him to a night club. Usually his party included members of his department and of the Free Federation of Labor. The best of the night spots was the Escambron, on the ocean's edge. Here was a gay setting, a boardwalk, a lagoon bordered by lofty coconut palms, which in moonlight had an aspect of enchantment. Here, too, was a sparkling floor show, with Cuban singers and dancers and musicians. Excellent food, the favorite dish of almost every one being arroz con polio (baked chicken and rice, as only chefs of Spanish ancestry can prepare it). Senor Martinez and all the men I met in Puerto Rico danced lightly and well.
On Sundays we staged open air gatherings in the rural districts, either in some village or a grove at a crossroads. Advance notice was spread by word of mouth. The women would come down from the hills, with their families, often waiting for hours until we arrived, to "listen to the union."
"Across the saga of the ages, through the dramatic chapters of romance and adventure, bravery, heroism, and martyrdom the story of Puerto Rico is the story of civilization in its triumphant march from East to West." Thus the opening of one of the Department of Agriculture and Commerce booklets.
But all too plainly the story of that march also was the story of unbridled profiteering, absentee ownership of agriculture and industry, merciless grinding down of the poor. The needle trades industry, which was part of this vaunted civilization, had been the curse of Puerto Rico. Employers who prided themselves upon being "pioneers" had brought misery to thousands of homes where mothers and daughters spent days and night. ruining their eyesight and lungs over finery they never could hope to wear. For their labor they got almost nothing.
Imagine a woman working on cotton nightgowns, doing all the handwork and embroidery, finishing the neck and armholes with pipings, and for all this work getting 16 cents per dozen garments! One and a quarter cents per nightgown. Those making the more expensive gowns made as little as the others.
Smart American women on the mainland wore those nightgowns with enjoyment. Let them try working on them for a living, making four a day.... The maker of such garments could never afford to have one for herself, but had to buy the poorest kind of calico at triple what it was worth.
Spending practically all their time sewing, these Puerto Rican mothers had no time to take proper care of their families and homes, which usually were nothing but four walls and a thatched roof. Of sanitation most of the occupants had not the slightest idea houses had latrines. Drinking water was brought in large tin cans from the nearest brook, and the family washing was done in the same brook. When the mother interrupted her needle work to prepare meals or attend to other household duties, younger members of her brood went on with the sewing.
From lack of nutrition, infants died early, or grew up subject to anemia and other diseases. Food staples here consisted mainly of green bananas and sweet potatoes, which could be bought cheaply. Milk and bread were luxuries. In the hills the natives lived on anything that could be chewed regardless of its nutritional value÷so long as it filled hungry bellies.
As I traveled in those hills, over narrow roads that slaves had built centuries before, their luxurious beauty reminded me greatly of Southern California, except that the landscape here lacked the vast fruit orchards and vegetable fields. Sugar cane grew almost everywhere. And any country given over to sugar growing is usually a hungry country because it is largely a one-crop country. Puerto Rico, raising sugar for export, could not produce enough food to sustain its teeming population.
On the piers in San Juan one saw extensive shipping of grapefruit, pineapples, oranges, bananas, limes, lemons, tangerines, molasses and coconuts. Government statistics on production of these commodities were impressive, but it was mainly for export. The masses of Puerto Rican workers who gathered the crops and loaded them on railroad trains and ships received wages so low that they could buy few of the edibles they helped raise.
When the Federal Government decided to curtail sugar production in Puerto Rico, 20,000 cane-cutters were thrown out of work. Driving along the San Juan water-front one day, we saw one result About 200 natives, mostly young men, were standing on one side of the highway, opposite the pier, shouting and gesticulating.
Thinking them on strike, I asked the driver what was their grievance. "It is no strike, Senorita," he said. "A ship docked this morning. It has to be unloaded. Only about a third of those men will be needed, but all are trying to get on the crew."
All of them were pleading desperately for a single day's work.
As we were on the highways daily, I had ample opportunity to observe the wretchedness of untold thousands of natives. On every hand there was evidence that the vast majority of the islanders were suffering from malnutrition. The Federal Government had come in with relief, but the food it provided was never enough, and the distribution was unsystematic.
It was soon apparent that what these unfortunates needed first was continuous employment, to assure them steady and adequate income. They needed social service, education in hygiene, proper food and enough of it, playgrounds for youngsters, and in general more wholesome surroundings.
Burdened with large families and overworked from childhood, the women aged prematurely. Those doing home work in the needle trades were graphic examples. Among the young women as well as the young men were many with defective or missing teeth. One of our most capable organizers, Pasquala Figueroa, president of the Mayaguez local, mother of four children and no more than 35, had only two eyeteeth left. In this and other cases, I was able to arrange to have a dentist make plates. Always that meant transforming a life.
Though most of Puerto Rico's men were shabby looking, undernourished, toothless, and anemic, I never saw a bald native. All had luxuriant hair. Many were strikingly handsome. It was pleasing to see mops of white hair crowning dark faces÷when one could forget their struggle to survive.
We picked him up on the road in a downpour. In one hand he carried something in a small cloth sack, in the other a long stick. We had him sit in the back seat. From the front, turning, I could observe him; barefoot and hatless, some of his ribs showing through his torn shirt, holes in Xis old white homespun trousers. I thought of him as being at least 40. He looked anemic and tubercular.
Where was he bound? Home÷10 miles from town. What had he been doing in town?
"I went there to sell a bunch of bananas which grow near my house. With the money I bought guavas.ä
How much did he get for the bananas? Three cents; and for the three cents he got these guavas, perhaps a dozen, no larger than medium-sized apples.
What other source of income did he have? "None, Senorita. When my wife is well she does some needle work, but now she cannot earn anything." They had three children, and now÷he smiled bashfully÷a fourth baby was coming.
How old was he? Twenty. He had been a sugar-cane cutter, but for two years there had been no work.
Usually he walked all the way to town and back to exchange bananas for guavas so that his family might have that much variation from the monotony of a banana diet.
Mention of the coming baby reminded me of a visit I had made to a mining camp in Kentucky in my Brookwood days. I was astounded at the number of children in each household. When I asked why they had so many, when the coal-diggers could hardly make a living for small families, one of the older miners gave me a pointed answer:
"You see, Miss, our young men have nothing else to do after a hard day's work in the mines, so they have pleasure in their own way, and it doesn't cost them any money."
At another time when we were driving after a rain, with a government engineer in the car, water suddenly made the road impassable. Drainage outlets were lacking. We stopped in a comparatively dry place waiting for the highway to become clear.
Some small boys and girls, poorly clad and hungry looking, were wading barefoot in the yellow mud nearby. I expressed pity for them and fear for their health.
"Well, they are all like that," said the engineer. "If they survive for five years they go on living."
He might have been speaking not of human beings but of dumb animals.
* Afterwards I was to meet the rest of the Iglesias family in Washington, where the names of the Senator's daughters were a delight to many. They were: Victoria, Libertad, America, Fraternidad, Justicia, Paz (Laura), and Luz.
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