Race, Class and Bubonic Plague: San Juan 1912

October 26, 2018
Map of Puerta de Tierra_
On June 17th, 1912 health authorities in San Juan, Puerto Rico announced two suspicious deaths. That of Pedro Colón, 18 years old, who lived in a tenement in the section of the city known as Puerta de Tierra and who worked in construction in what is now called Viejo, or Old, San Juan, and that of his cousin, Jesús Caraballo, 20, who lived in the same tenement. Both had had high fevers, nausea, painful inguinal buboes, and died within days of becoming ill 1. Two days later colonial health officials reluctantly admitted there were cases of bubonic plague in the city and that the disease was taking on epidemic proportions.
The epidemic dramatically revealed the results of years of environmental degradation,  public health failures and rapid and unplanned immigration of poor people to the city in the context of Spanish and then US colonialism. Government policy during the outbreak and treatment of the ill also laid bare the glaring class disparities and racism prevalent at the time and which had actually contributed to the outbreak.  While my full LARR article deals with many medical, environmental, political and social aspects of the epidemic, in this post I focus on racism and class bias. 
Puerta de Tierra was a working class neighborhood adjacent to San Juan [see cover] that became populated by rural migrants who came to the city looking for work starting in the last third of the 19th century. Although the bubonic plague caused widespread panic throughout the island, most cases were confined to Puerta de Tierra and only one was outside of the city of San Juan.  While most of the residents of the neighborhood were working class, there were nonetheless class and racial differences in Puerta de Tierra which became evident during the epidemic. Better paid tobacco or dock workers who might earn between $6.00 and $18.00 a week generally lived in frame tenements, known as ranchones, located on higher ground away from marshes and mangroves that grew in the waters in the southern and eastern areas of the neighborhood (Government of Porto Rico, 56). These swampy, muddy lowlands were predominantly occupied by Afro-Puerto Ricans who lived in shacks elevated on poles.  Among them were laundresses who might earn as little as $1.50 a week2. The condition of these barrios was graphically captured by the names of some of them: Sal Si Puedes (Leave if You Can), and Hoyo Frio (Cold Hole). [see picture].
When the plague struck, it mostly affected people who lived in the drier, higher and apparently more salubrious sections of the neighborhood.  This was because this zone had many warehouses and stables where food and fodder were stored and these attracted rats whose fleas were the vector for the disease (Creel, 13-14). In fact, rats had trouble gaining access to the shacks of the very poor because the area was frequently flooded and, since the dwellings were elevated on poles, they were difficult for rats to reach (Creel, 15). Nonetheless, when US and Puerto Rican health authorities decided that buildings needed to be razed to prevent the further spread of the disease, it was exclusively in the poorest areas, primarily occupied by Afro-Puerto Ricans, that homes were torn down or burned.  Residents of these zones expressed indignation at having their homes destroyed when no one had fallen ill and no infected rats had been found on the premises.  Although their objections were recorded in the press, there were no news reports of demonstrations or physical resistance to the destruction of homes, which may have numbered as many as a 100 (Creel, 15)3
It was also the poor who suffered the most from having to dispose of household possessions may have been important to their daily lives, but were deemed to harbor rats. Further the mandated disinfection of their homes was an expense that sometimes forced them to go without food, and families were reported to be rummaging in waste heaps for something to eat4.  Finally the city’s garbage dump was located in Puerta de Tierra, and when the garbage couldn’t be burned because of rain, it was the residents of the zone who suffered not only from the smell but also from the rats who were drawn to the accumulated waste.
Class privilege was also evident in the diagnosis and treatment of the ill.  The rich (who mostly lived in San Juan, not Puerta de Tierra) and were apparently stricken with plague frequently managed to escape being interned in the quarantine hospital where not only plague victims but patients with TB and other infectious diseases were housed.  Sometimes doctors shielded prosperous clients from the discomfort and stigma.  For instance, on June 21st a “young lady” attended by Doctor Santana Náter, was said to have symptoms of the plague but was allowed to be kept under observation outside the hospital 5.   In another instance, a sick man who had taken refuge in an entrance hall in Calle Tanca in San Juan, had mysteriously disappeared when the ambulance arrived6.   Other patients in prosperous neighborhoods or from “good families” often did not receive the diagnosis of plague, such as an occupant of a house at #80 Calle Fortaleza near the Governor’s residence7.  Dr. Jacobo Caldela operated on the buboes of wealthy febrile patients in the private Auxilio Mutuo clinic, claiming they suffered from “attacks of more or less epidemic bubonic disease.”8   There were also calls in the press for the establishment of special hospital facilities for well off plague victims9.   Even the way cases were reported in the newspapers reflected the social status of the ill.  The better off were usually referred to by their names and dignified by terms such as “la señorita”  “el señor” or “la joven,” while the poor were often just referred to as “un individuo” or “la sirvienta” of some local family.  Sometimes when a wealthy person died the press was careful to specify that the cause was not plague, even when the case had originally been reported as probably plague, as with Francisco Rivera of Calle San Sebastian in San Juan who was said to have succumbed to anemia10.  In this case and several others clinical diagnosis, that is examination of the patient’s symptoms, instead of  bacteriological testing, could allow a physician to specify that the person had some ailment other than plague11.
A final painful example of racial and class divisions made evident by the epidemic were the policies and actions of the leadership of the Federacion Libre de Trabajadores (FLT), a union that represented some of the workers in the neighborhood. The FLT, which largely represented craft workers including skilled cigar makers, was founded in 1899 and affiliated with Samuel Gompers’ American Federation of Labor in 1901 (Ayala y Bernabe, 61-64). The FLT’s most important leader, Santiago Iglesias, energetically endorsed the government’s sanitary measures and the organization’s most important proposal during the plague epidemic concerned remaking Puerta de Tierra.  FLT leaders claimed that for years they had been calling attention to the anti-hygienic and subhuman living conditions of the barrio. The FLT now demanded radical action and asked workers to proceed “with great energy,” tearing down buildings in order to create orderly streets and hygienic conditions.  Santiago Iglesias even went so far as to say that “if it was necessary to impose health measures militarily it should be done; measures should be taken by force without heeding anyone’s protests12.”  The FLT was careful to blame the League of Proprietors of San Juan for causing the problem by building substandard housing. Union policy called for the creation of a modern, comfortable “barrio obrero” to replace Puerta de Tierra’s slums (Bird Carmona, 144-145)13.  Nonetheless, the call for the destruction of homes, even with the possible reconstruction of a more pleasant and healthful neighborhood, demonstrates how out of touch the craft unionists of the FLT were with the reality of the poorest working people, many of whom were women and people of color.
Article in LARR: 

Zulawski, A. (2018). Environment, Urbanization, and Public Health: The Bubonic Plague Epidemic of 1912 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Latin American Research Review53(3), 500–516. DOI: http://doi.org/10.25222/larr.424

[1]Dr. Gómez Brioso, Chief of Bureau of Transmissible Diseases to Dr. W. R. Watson, Acting Director of Sanitation, June 17, 1912, Boletín Oficial de la Dirección de Sanidad, Tomo 1, No. 3,30-33.
[3]El Tiempo, San Juan, June 22, and June 25,1912. Creel, 15.
[4]La Correspondencia, San Juan, June 21, 1912; El Tiempo, June 21, 1912.
[5]La Democracia, San Juan, June 21, 1912.
[6]La Correspondencia, San Juan, July 3,1912.
[7]La Democracia,June 24, 1912.  
[8]La Correspondencia, June 26, 1912.
[9]El Tiempo, June 27, 1912;  La Correspondencia, July 3, 1912.
[10]La Correspondencia, June 25 and 26, 1912.
[11]This was also the case in the San Francisco plague outbreak when white patients were often diagnosed according to physical symptoms and said to have pneumonia or syphilis.  Shah, Contagious Divides, 151.  On clinical vs. bacteriological testing see: Cunningham, “La transformación.”
[12]La Correspondencia, June 25, 1912
[13]Bird Carmona cites National Archives, Bureau of Insular Affairs, To the Citizens of San Juan and its Wards, Record Group 350, files 848-98.

Other works cited

Ayala, César J. and Rafael Bernabe. 2007. Puerto Rico in the Am,erican Century: A History Since 1898. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press
Bird Carmona, Arturo. 2008. Parejeros y desafiantes: La comunidad tabaquera de Puerta de Tierra a principios del siglo XX.  San Juan: Ediciones Huracán.
Creel, Richard H. 1913. Outbreak and Suppression of Plague in Porto Rico: An Account of the Course of the Epidemic and the Measures Employed for its Suppression by the United States Public Health Service.Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.
Cunningham, Andrew. 1991. “La transformación de la peste: El laboratorio y la identidad de las enfermedades infecciosas. Dynamis: Acta Hispanica ad Medicinae Scientiarumque Hisotriam Illustrandam 11: 27-72.
Government of Porto Rico, Department of Labor, Charities and Correction, Bureau of      Labor. 1913. Special Report of the the Bureau of Labor to the Legislature of  Porto Rico,  December 16, 1912. San Juan: Bureau of Supplies, Printing, Transportation.
Shah, Nayan. 2001. Contagious Divides: Epidemic and Race in San Francisco’s   Chinatown.Berkeley: University of California Press.


Caption: Map of Puerta de Tierra. 
Prepared by Tracy Tein, Post-Baccalaureate Fellow, Spatial Analysis Lab, Smith College.
Picture in text: 
Government of Porto Rico, Department of Labor, Charities and Correction, Bureau of Labor, Report on the Conditions of Laborers in Porto Rico, May 30, 1914. San Juan, Porto Rico: Bureau of Supplies, Printing, and Transportation, 1914. Photo between pages 48 and 49.


About Author(s)

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Ann Zulawski
Ann Zulawski is Sydenham C. Parsons Professor Emerita of History and Latin American Studies at Smith College. Her current research focuses on the connections between the environment, urban development, colonialism, and public health in Puerto Rico and in the Puerto Rican community in New York City. She is the author of, among other works, Unequal Cures: Public Health and Political Change in Bolivia, 1900–1950 (2007).