by Astrid Cubano Iguina. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006. 224pp. Cloth. $59.95. ISBN: 0813029961.

Reviewed by Charles R. Venator Santiago, Department of Politics, Ithaca College. Email: csantiago [at] ithaca.edu.


In recent years we have seen an increase in conferences and publications in the United States addressing the anomalous constitutional status of Puerto Rico (e.g. Duffy Burnett and Marshall 2001; Rivera Ramos 2001; Sparrow 2006). These conferences and publications have been part of a broader push to re-evaluate the importance and relevance of the INSULAR CASES, a series of Supreme Court rulings dating back to 1901, to a more comprehensive understanding of US legal history and constitutional interpretation more generally. The study of the INSULAR CASES and the case of Puerto Rico in particular, provides an interesting and enduring example of the ways that the law has been used to institutionalize imperialist ideologies and to subordinate US citizens residing in this unincorporated territory to a second-class status. To be sure, to this day Puerto Rico remains an unincorporated territory that can be treated as a foreign country for constitutional purposes, and US citizens residing in the island can be denied basic rights such as a 6th Amendment trial by jury (USGAO 1991: 33). Yet these publications have taken the INSULAR CASES as an historical point of departure for the understanding of the formation of the rule of law in Puerto Rico overshadowing the influence of Spanish colonial law, which after all had been present in the island in various forms for more than four hundred years. More importantly, given the training of legal actors in Puerto Rico, and the establishment of a mix-law system in the island that incorporated some aspects of Spanish legal traditions, it is especially important to understand the institutional context of the Spanish legal system in the island before the US occupation in order to understand the emergence of the rule of law in Puerto Rico. Astrid Cubano Iguina’s path-breaking book provides a clear and comprehensive socio-legal history of the late nineteenth-century Puerto Rico anteceding the Spanish-American war of 1898.

Drawing on extensive archival legal records and focusing on local court rulings from the Arecibo municipality/judicial district, this book weaves together a narrative that connects individual or quotidian disputes with broader social-legal ideologies and practices. Cubano Iguina specifically addresses the relationship between interpersonal violence, gendered subjectivities, and police and judicial intervention during a complex period of social-economic transformations such as the abolition of slavery and the transition to a wage-labor economy. In a sense, the Spanish colonial courts become a contested terrain where individuals negotiate multiple dimensions of their [*309] social realities during a time of socio-economic transformations. This focus enables Cubano Iguina to show how individual claims often reflect broader social narratives.

Cubano Iguina’s work not only fills an historical vacuum, but also offers a refreshing alternative to traditional nationalist Puerto Rican historiography. To be sure, her book situates the case of Puerto Rico in broader global debates and inserts this case study into debates that transcend the status question. This case study both provides an interesting approach to be reproduced in other places, and lends itself to be part of broader comparative discussion. Cubano Iguina uses a post-structural approach that relies on discourse analysis of individual cases and situates them within a broader socio-legal context. This approach enables the author to demonstrate some of the ways in which larger social narratives are often reproduced by individuals making claims in the judicial system, as well as some of the broader social narratives that often reproduced gendered narratives rooted in a subaltern experience. However, this approach is not without its challenges.

To be sure, while Cubano Iguina provides clear examples of the continuities and discontinuities of gendered ideologies in both individual and social narratives, or rather the connections between a micro-history (Arecibo) and broader island-wide, or empire-wide, macro-narratives, the reader is often left without a clear understanding of the procedural issues that either shape the appeals process of particular cases or with a consistent discussion of parallel cases that could link these two dimensions. However, in all fairness, this could be the subject of a subsequent book project.

RITUALS OF VIOLENCE IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY PUERTO RICO is divided into five chapters that explore multiple dimensions of gendered violence and various ways that individuals, the “masses” and “elites,” contribute to establishment of modern legal institutions in Puerto Rico between the 1870s and 1890s. The third chapter is especially interesting because it provides a substantive reflection of the emergence of a modern rule of law in the island through a discussion of the criminal justice system’s response to shifting labor practices resulting from the abolition of slavery and transition to a wage-labor economy. This chapter is especially useful for those interested in the ways that Spanish colonial subjects negotiated an authoritarian regime during a time of structural transformations. It also provides interesting examples of the ways in which multiple legal actors, such as police officers, prosecutors, and even medical doctors, contributed to the development of legal institutions. Cubano Iguina provides readers interested in how local courts and a local judicial system functioned with clear examples of the discursive narratives used by competing legal actors.

I take exception, however, in Cubano Iguina’s discussion of political (or rather of her representation of what constitutes political) action in the individual narratives of the disputes that she [*310] analyses. In one example, Cubano Iguina discusses a case involving an incident where a crowd attending a dance party disarmed a local police officer who sought to stop a fight in progress between two young men, and she argues that this case becomes representative of a subaltern political act of resistance against state authority. Presumably the act of disarming a police officer representing the Spanish colonial authority at a dance party was sufficient to constitute a political act. To be sure, Cubano Iguina writes:

The act of disarming a police agent can be read as a symbolic gesture of resistance to a condition of unequal strength. This case suggests a deep sense of the political on the part of the crowd that pushed the guard to the floor, disarmed him, but finally left him unharmed. It suggests an affirmative and independent gesture of adherence to an alternative code among urban popular groups. Urban population, having been exposed to anticolonial and radical political discourse, transformed the customary ritual of masculine violence into an act of passive resistance to state intervention. (pp.104-105)

Perhaps my apprehension is due to my disciplinary concern for the relationship between individuals and public political institutions, but I find examples like this one to be more telling of episodic expressions of passion, rather than a rational act against the state. By this I mean to suggest that it is a stretch to treat episodes like this one, which did not transcend to any form of public institutional pressure or change, as political, symbolic or otherwise. To this extent, it is not readily evident to me that “quotidian and private scenes of violence” (p.148) necessarily translate into political acts or acts that will have some sort of influence on public institutions. This is not to say, however, that the cases that Cubano Iguina discusses can not help us understand some of the ideology that shaped the socio-legal context of politics in late nineteenth century Puerto Rico.

Overall, I think that this book represents rigorously researched legal history that will provide a clear socio-legal foundation for understanding the development of the modern rule of law in Puerto Rico, as well as an alternative critical history of the island. More importantly, it provides an interesting case for comparison with other global examples, as well as an interesting application of a methodological approach that can be reproduced in other localities. Cubano Iguina makes a number of sound contributions to the study of gender and legal institutions and to the field of Law and Society more generally by providing an interesting case study that both discusses multiple socio-legal dimensions and weaves them together within a coherent historical narrative. This book also provides a substantive and innovative discussion of court rulings that are representative of broad socio-legal ideologies and practices. In sum, Cubano Iguina has written a clear and insightful legal history worth reading.

Duffy Burnett, Christina and Burke Marshall (eds.) 2001. FOREIGN IN A DOMESTIC SENSE: PUERTO RICO, AMERICAN EXPANSION, AND THE CONSTITUTION. Durham: Duke University Press. [*311]


Sparrow, Bartholomew H. 2006. THE INSULAR CASES AND THE EMERGENCE OF AMERICAN EMPIRE. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

United States General Accounting Office. 1991. U.S. INSULAR AREAS: APPLICABILITY OF RELEVANT PROVISIONS OF THE U.S. CONSTITUTION. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office. (GAO/HRD-91-18).

© Copyright 2007 by the author, Charles R. Venator Santiago.