Chapter Entry: Looking for Empire in the U.S. Colonial Archive

Morillo-Alicea’s investigation into this subject is based on his research into the archives and collections of photographs taken in the early period of U.S. colonial rule in Puerto Rico. His article is not concerned with a formalist perspective of the photographs, but a critical look at what the “existence, collection, and preservation” of these photographs reveals about Puerto Rican history in the aftermath of 1898 and outcome during the Spanish-American War. Diving into the collection at the Bureau of Insular Affairs, the photographs he discovered tell the history of Puerto Rico as imagined by the United States, the colonizer. This research also offers inquiry into how the “colonial archive” and archival processes place the history of the United States as a colonial power in a global context. Morillo-Alicea explores census records, organizational models, education, and the role of bureaucrats in this new Puerto Rico to recognize the way in which power structures produced the visualization of the new colony.

Morillo-Alicea approaches the process of the first U.S. Census taken in Puerto Rico with criticality towards the imagined importance of state counting in this new colony and the role of the census as a “tool of empire.” When looking at a portrait of a group of enumerators for the 1899 Census, the first census taken as a colony of the U.S., his focus is not on personalizing the process of local counting by revealing the identities or social background of the sitters. The dominant male presence, except for one woman sitting in the center wearing black, is not mentioned. Rather the attributes of the photograph that are discussed are the staging of the portrait and the satchels that are worn by the sitters. The group stands and sits in front of a large American flag; a symbol of both the American empire and of the group’s recently acquired identity and status as members of that empire. To Morillo-Alicea, the satchels worn by the enumerator’s is a direct reference to their status as government employees and their responsibility to accurately gathering information on their community. The enumerator’s categorization of race is discussed in the photographic series of men of mixed backgrounds. Posed against the same background, each photograph depicts two male subjects wearing white working clothing but provides little information as to the identity of the subjects. In the back of these photographs the captions provide a glimpse into the system of categorizing race that was developed with the terms “Mulato”, “Type of ‘Niger’ not so clack in P.R.”, “Type of ‘Negro’ very black, Puerto Rico.” This method of posing is reminiscent of English biologist Thomas Huxley’s practice of photographing indigenous tribes in Australia while the text-image relationship suggests the influence of Spanish casta paintings. The content of these photographs, with both image and text, reveals the manner in which Puerto Rican enumerator’s explained and presented the communities that they lived in to the American audience.

Morillo-Alicea goes on to reveal how information was organized within this archive and modeled after British policies and how that shaped the image of Puerto Rico in the United States’ “archival imagination.” To demonstrate how power structures were at work in the new colony, the education of young children is probed by looking into the visualization of the educational narrative: “The photos of children tell the story of Puerto Rico’s modernization, of the U.S. narrative that assured islanders and the world that they were being moved out of barbarism and into modernity”[1].  Creating the school as institution through the construction of new buildings, enforcing the English language inside the classroom, the knowledge and perspectives taught in the classroom, and making young children dress in costume from the American colonial period all contributed to the assimilationist policies put into place by the U.S. government.

Morillo-Alicea delivers his investigation into this subject through the method in his writing, which invites the reader to come along the research journey with him. The reader is offered an article where the research process is revealed and the story behind the discovery of materials is told alongside the analysis. In his text, Morillo-Alicea engages with the work and framework of post-colonial theorists Arjun Appadurai and Homi Bhabha. He cites Appadurai in his discussion on the method of the census as used to promote and reinforce colonial power and the role of the “number in the colonial imagination.” The work of Ann Stoler is used to look at the archive as a way to investigate the manner in which “epistemologies for interpreting the colonial situation are embedded in forms of knowledge colonialism itself produces“ [2].

Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla (Puerto Rico), Body in Flight (Delta), 2011

In my own engagement with this text, I would like to fast forward to present day depictions of U.S.-Puerto Rico relations and move from dissecting archival photographs to contemporary installation art. Critical outlooks on the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico continue to resonate in the art world, both from within the island and out. In 2011, Puerto Ricans Jennifer Allora (born in the United States) and Guillermo Calzadilla (born in Cuba), a husband-wife artist team based in San Juan, represented the United States at the Venice Biennial. This moment was the first time that artists living in Puerto Rico had been chosen to exhibit in the American Pavilion. The artists were chosen by the Federal Advisory Committee on International Exhibition and were presented by the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Lisa Freiman, chairman of the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s contemporary art department, proposed and commissioned the project. Allora and Calzadilla’s exhibition, titled Gloria, included six installation works with an interactive and performative function. The exhibition crossed the definitions between installation, sculpture, and performance with works that included two or all of these characteristics. Former U.S. Olympic gymnasts soared, balanced, and flipped on top of two sculptures of airline seats. A U.S. ex-Olympic runner ran on the treadmill that was installed on top of an upturned over military tank outside of the pavilion entrance. Yet the sculptures in themselves possessed the character to stand on their own as commentary on American cultural values. Airline seats were made of wood and looked worn, tired, and uncomfortable. The tanning bed where a classical female figure, the U.S. Capitol’s Statue of Freedom, attempted to lay down in was not large enough for the statue and remained open with its lights flashing its neon blue hues. A church organ that dominated the center of a room functioned as an ATM machine, playing its church music whenever a gallery visitor made a withdrawal.

Looking into the history of Puerto Rico in the American imaginary, which Morillo-Alicea sets us off on, enlightens the experience in viewing Allora and Calzadilla’s installation in the American Pavilion. The exhibition acts as a critique on American cultural values and the fading veil of American imperialism. The tank flipped over could be interpreted as a comment on the backwardness of militarism. The society’s value on appearances is present in the prevalence of treadmills (gym culture) and tanning beds. Money and its relationship to religious elements, or money and its attribution to a religious experience are seen in the church organ with built-in ATM. Earlier this month, a referendum on the political status of Puerto Rico, which has been classified as an “unincorporated territory”, was issued giving citizens the chance to vote for territorial status. The second question on the referendum asked to indicate the preferred political status: statehood, independence, or sovereign nation [3].


1. Looking for Empire in the U.S. Colonial Archive by Javier Morillo-Alicea, pg. 138

2. Looking for Empire in the U.S. Colonial Archive, pg. 130



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