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Reviews of Women in San Juan: 1820-1868

“The often-romanticized ambiance of San Juan, Puerto Rico can overshadow the everyday struggles of its diverse population across time. Indeed, historians have often paid more attention to the capital’s architecture than to its people. Women in San Juan thus presents a refreshing perspective of the city’s peoples, physical landscape, and socioeconomic growth. Matos Rodriguez depicts nineteenth-century San Juan as a site of intense social transformation and spatial reconstruction. It is also a site of cultural transgression, where women ‘found ways to circumvent the system in order to improve the quality of their lives or just to survive’ (p. i). In this environment, women from different class and racial backgrounds faced the new moral order of modernity promoted by colonial authorities, the elite minority, and the church.

“The book uses the lens of women’s experiences to examine the social history of San Juan from 1820 to 1868 and to shed light on some of the key problems in nineteenth-century Puerto Rican historiography. His refreshing analysis is based in meticulous primary research and bolstered by a broad conceptual framework. In an effort to address ‘how women in mid-nineteenth-century San Juan participated in, were affected by, and took advantage of the attempts to create a modern, respectable, and progressive city’ (p. 2), Matos Rodriguez gives an overview of the city’s spatial, economic, and demographic development since the late eighteenth century. San Juan emerges as a dynamic city, full of contradictions, whose population tripled between 1776 and 1874. One of the delights of these first two overview chapters is the author’s care in locating people’s actions in particular social spaces. Where did people of different economic backgrounds live? How did they cross the invisible barriers that seemed to separate them? How did they create innovative everyday living spaces that violated the social assumptions of class division? The question of modernity pervades this urban history. Although he does not provide a detailed discussion of people’s conceptions of, and experiences with, the new and discrepant modernities of the early nineteenth century, he does discuss how modernization transformed public policy and economics and affected women’s lives in complex ways. His demographic analysis also challenges the prevailing conceptions of life in the city, concluding that ‘up until the 185os and early 186os, San Juan was a city where a majority of the population was women and nonwhites’ (p. 56).

“Chapter 3 presents elite and middle-class women’s participation in the economic life of the city, examining the effects of marriage in real estate patterns, women as landladies, professionals, and artisans, and their role in the slave trade. Women used the courts and other resources to claim rights and to oppose some patriarchal practices in civic life; they struggled to keep their businesses open, to protect their rental property, and to receive fair pay for their services. Chapter 4 addresses the lot of women who worked as street vendors, peddlers, and domestic servants. These women confronted a modernizing system that was imposed upon them while simultaneously relating to and negotiated with women of other social strata. The author takes us on a tour of the city’s barrios, where women made all kinds of accommodations to enter the new urban economy. They carried their children to work, invented new ways to do their tasks, and learned to sometimes combat, and sometimes acquiesce to, those who enjoyed more power than they did. The book ends with a discussion of elite women’s participation in education and beneficence, which opened new spaces of public participation for benefactors and beneficiaries, but not without a degree of ambivalence and contradiction. While the modernizing agenda promoted elite women’s dedication to education and beneficence, it limited them to only those two spheres — linked, as they were, to domesticity and family life.

“Matos Rodriguez inserts women’s stories into a broader, gendered history of economic change, social rearrangements, and cultural transformation. As some sectors of the city hoped to attain ‘the modern’ in explicit ways, others simply ‘lived the modern’ as they became part of the social landscape of urban contradictions. Students of Latin American and Caribbean history will find in its pages a meticulous research methodology based on extensive archival work, together with a broad examination of San Juan as a Latin American city. Matos Rodriguez takes us through the back streets and barrios, where people continuously crossed social borders and created new answers to the challenges of modern colonial life. At times the book becomes a study of transgressions — the insertion of people in places and social encounters where they were not considered welcome. We glimpse a ‘city bursting with the energy of change … where social groups of uneven power and resources were re-articulating their visions of modernity to adjust to the approaching end of the century’ (p. 129). Women in San Juan challenges the conventional take on a perennial colony’s capital city, suggesting a myriad of new research possibilities.”
— Hispanic American Historical Review