About the Collection
Teodoro Vidal: The Collector
The life and work of the cultural visionary.
Puerto Rican History
Art, artifacts, and archival documents illustrating the island’s history.
Objects, photographs, and aspirations of working men and women on the island.
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The art and traditions of the Catholic folk culture of Puerto Rico.
The revelers, masks, and artisans who make the Carnaval de Ponce.
The musical instruments and traditions of bomba, música jíbara, and plena.
The Great Puerto Rican Family
Portraits of Puerto Ricans during an era of dramatic economic and social change.
A Cash Crop Economy
The everyday life of Puerto Ricans and their ancestors, like people everywhere, was heavily impacted by their position in the global marketplace and their relationship to the dominant world powers of their day. Into the 20th century, Puerto Rico’s national economy was concentrated on the production and export of cash crops to overseas markets.
When Puerto Rico became a colony in 1509, a typical colonial relationship began between the island and Spain. At first Spain mined gold, literally pulling money out of the ground. When the ore dwindled, Spain turned to local plants like tobacco and imported plants like sugarcane and coffee that grew throughout the Caribbean. Spain profited from Puerto Rico’s natural resources and retained most of the wealth generated by enslaved laborers into the late 1800s. Likewise, local owners of large commercial estates exploited the growing numbers of landless men who worked for wages too low to cover their most basic needs. Despite a small professional class of doctors, lawyers, and local merchants, a vast gap stretched between the wealthy few and the large number of agricultural workers.
The situation did not improve when Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory in 1898, and most arable land was transferred to U.S. corporations for use for crops with a high export value. The everyday lives of agricultural workers were filled with harsh and unrelenting work for low wages or a part of the crop. Women especially were burdened with childbearing and caring for their families after the day's work in the fields was done. Between 1880 and 1930, most workers on the island labored in the agricultural economy, in the fields, in processing mills, or in barreling and packaging crops for export.
Puerto Rico had to import manufactured goods and many basic foodstuffs from the States and elsewhere to meet its people’s needs. Labor was cheap, but imported consumer goods were expensive. This economic imbalance was typical in most Caribbean colonies. Especially after 1940 and into the 1960s, great numbers of Puerto Ricans began to migrate to other parts of the United States for better jobs, educational choices, and broader experiences.
The Culture of Tobacco, Sugar, and Coffee
Tobacco plants (Nicotiana tabacum and Nicotiana rustica) grew wild throughout the Americas and were unknown in Europe until Christopher Columbus returned from his first voyage in 1493. By the middle of the 1500s, tobacco had become a global money maker. In Puerto Rico, chinchales—small operations of 10 or fewer people—grew over the centuries into large tobacco factories with hundreds of workers.
During the 1860s, cigar factories began to employ lectores, people who read aloud whatever workers requested. This innovation relieved the tedium of sitting at a table rolling cigars all day. Cigar laborers were among the best informed and politically active workers because this reading tradition included newspapers, novels, poetry, and political tracts. By 1900, the tobacco industry generated both huge profits and labor agitation caused by the hardships it imposed on workers in the fields and in the factories.
Sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum) came to Puerto Rico after 1509, but did not become a major industry until the 1800s, with the combined expansion of slave labor and mechanization. Between 1880 and 1930, table sugars and rum became the primary exports of Puerto Rico.
Sugarcane made great fortunes in Europe and the Americas, and the sugar trade revolutionized consumer patterns and shaped the growth of modern corporations. But the cash crop economy kept many Caribbean people in near servitude for generations after the end of slavery in 1873.
Coffee (genus Coffea) is a plant that is believed to have originated in the highlands of Ethiopia in a region called Kaffir. Growing in many semitropical highland regions of the world, the Arabian coffee shrub (Coffea arabica) was successfully introduced into the mountainous regions of Puerto Rico in 1730s.
Coffee drinking had long been popular in Europe and was taken up throughout the Americas. This created an enormous market for coffee, which was second only to sugarcane as a cash crop in the 1800s. In Puerto Rico, coffee was grown in small units called fincas. Larger plantations called haciendas were established later. The coffee fields brought work for women because the fruit, called cherries, required hand harvesting. Women also worked in more industrial areas, dehusking and winnowing the coffee.
Jíbaro is the word used in Puerto Rico to refer to country folk and their rural culture. Jíbaro traditions include certain kinds of music, instruments, stories, jokes, and figures of speech. By the time Spanish control ended in 1898, the image of the jíbaro, a hard-working, poorly paid worker, had come to represent the authentic Puerto Rican people in all their ethnic and cultural complexity, the soul of la gran familia puertorriqueña – the Great Puerto Rican Family.
The Culture of Sewing and Textiles
Into the 20th century, sewing was part of the education of all young girls, whether in classes at school or at home. Needlework of all kinds, including knitting, crocheting, and embroidery, as well as the use of sewing machines, were seen as a material way for a young girl to help support her family. As the island became increasingly industrialized, many women found jobs in textile mills and garment factories to support themselves and add to their family incomes, both on the island and in "the States." Poorer women took in piecework at home, and were often involved in the labor-intensive production of handmade garments that only the wealthy could afford.
However, needlework was not only a utilitarian pursuit. Sewing allowed young girls to express themselves artistically, and to learn concentration, attention to detail, and discipline. These qualities had many applications in life beyond the specifics of a damask tablecloth or a well-made dress.