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Post-1898 Imaginative Geographies: Puerto Rico Migration in 1950s Film


This essay studies cultural representations of Puerto Rico’s economic boom and 1952 shift in legal status to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. It suggests that apprehending these events requires the reframing of Puerto Rican migration as global phenomena. Drawing on the historical and cultural scholarship on Puerto Rican migration, Operation Bootstrap, and US empire, Tolentino analyzes the famous musical film West Side Story (1961), but also the Hollywood film Sabrina (1954) and Island productions El Otro Camino (The Other Road, 1955) and Maruja (1958). In contrast to prevailing views, she interprets these films as narratives about migration and modernization that engage the discourse of sentimental modernization, the figure of the jíbaro, and the idea of small town Puerto Rico. In so doing, they reveal the global vision at the center of the Operation Bootstrap development plan and Commonwealth formation. The concluding section suggests how the films take up issues in Puerto Rico’s historiography. Rather than merely illuminating a forgotten historical period of 1950s Puerto Rico, the 1950s films negotiate Puerto Rico’s geographical, political, and cultural locations by rethinking institutionalized meanings of 1898 in discourses of Puerto Rico historiography and US empire. Proposing new ways of interpreting the introduction of the Commonwealth in 1952 makes possible the revision of dominant conceptions of 1898 rooted in nation, government, and constitutional law.

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