Monday, June 20, 2016

Worker in the Cane

I recently read a biography called: "Worker in the Cane-A Puerto Rican Life History", written by the late Sidney W. Mintz that opened my perspective on living in Puerto Rico in the 1930 to mid 40's. 
The reason I choose to read this book is that my grandfather Antonio (whom you can read more about here), died before I was born. Antonio worked most of his life for an American sugar cane plantation in Puerto Rico that controlled five sugar mills, called Eastern Sugar Associates. 

Although, the book takes place in a different part of the island, the town of Jauca, it still takes place in the same time period my grandfather was alive & working. I only know bits & pieces about my grandfather, which is why I thought reading this would give me more insight into some of the things he may have dealt with.

Worker in the Cane, is a well written biography about a lower-class Puerto Rican man named Juan Eustaquio Zayas Alvarado born in 1908. Juan goes by the nick name of Don Taso, Taso works from the time he is eight years old in a Sugar cane field/ plantation. It explains the struggles Taso faces from early childhood, being fatherless & then loosing his mother early on in his childhood. It was easy to find myself stirred by what I came to understand about life back then. People on the island lived so hard & suffered so much, even for just the basic necessities to sustain themselves, such as food. 

What makes this time period unique is that this was the time that BIG & new political & economic changes were taking place on the island. The island was slowly becoming more developed & modernized with a new American, English speaking twist. This new generation of Puerto Ricans (also now American citizens), were born into a rapid change that served many pros & cons. Medical facilities were improving. education was being made available to everyone regardless of color or class. Transportation & communication was starting to modernize. New religions were allowed to penetrate the island & many for the first time were exploring something other then Catholic traditions. Cane fields were quickly expanding & replacing forests & pastures throughout the island. By this time the United States' introduction of industrial agricultural system was in full swing.  Mechanical devices were essential in the fields & the need for special manual skills declined big time. No independent small-scale haciendas were left. All these small-scale haciendas sold their companies to the US. Many workers were speaking up & participated in work unions & political parties.

These changes were so drastic because before the US occupation, most towns in Puerto Rico moved at a slow pace. Most work was done by hand. I like the way the author Mintz, puts it best in his book, when he says

"One was born to work in the cane, to come to know the feel of dirt in every cane field. One made due without a formal education. One lived in a straw or wooden shack, watched one's siblings be born & die of ill-defined illnesses, ate rice & beans & drank black coffee, eloped with a local senorita at an early age & fathered children in a rapid succession. In 1899 "the Americans" came , & then life rapidly began to change. Older people remember another special period of change, at a time of Emancipation (in 1873). But even the freeing of slaves had been a gradual process compared with what happened after 1899."  

As I read this book & got to know Don Taso & his family. Each chapter made me wonder about how much of Taso's life story relates to my grandfathers. I wonder if he joined any work union or political party. Or what his thoughts were on those who did participate in them.

The book mentions that their were various jobs on the cane fields. Things like feeding the animals were jobs that children took care of (till the child labor laws were created & enforced). The most difficult & dangerous job & also the lowest in pay, was that of cutting cane. That's the job my grandfather held, possibly for most all his life. Wonder if he tried to move up. Or if he felt like this was all he was skilled enough to do. Seeing how it was so labor intensive & low in pay, I imagine he couldn't have been satisfied in this position his whole life. Wish I knew more about his work history.

My father mentioned that when he was in elementary school, him & some of his brothers attended school shoe-less. The school had dirt floors & some of the classes were held outside. He remembers delivering his father's homemade lunches that his mother prepared for his father in the cane fields. He said his oldest brother Efrain, stopped attending school at 4th grade to join his father Antonio at sugar cane work. He remembers his father coming home with a burlap sack around his shoulder full of food from the market after work. Like most in their town, they didn't have indoor plumbing yet. He remembers well having an out house for most of his childhood. His mother walked daily with all the children to the river, to there bath them & do the families laundry. He says that while his mother sat upon a rock by the water to wash, the children played in the water while she worked. With living conditions such as these it's no wonder that once Puerto Ricans were granted US citizenship in 1917 that so many migrated to the mainland US, seeking a better life.  

I guess I should point out that I know neither Don Taso nor my grandfather Antonio were public figures, nor famous nor distinguished. Instead they were husbands & fathers trying to hold it together for their families, doing whatever was needed to provide. They were forced under these circumstances to be diligent & make the best of the circumstances they were born into. I respect them greatly for that.