Jíbaros Under the Yankee Sugar Lords
Revolutionary Worker #966, July 19, 1998
In the 1920s, U.S. sugar monopolies took over the most fertile lands of Puerto Rico piece by piece. Imperialism dug deep into the society, transforming the lives of both former Puerto Rican property owners and of the masses of jíbaros, the poor peasants who lived by the machete.
One of the jíbaros, Oscar Ocasio, tells his story in Alfredo López's book, Doña Licha's Island.
There was a time here when...one could live. But slowly the Amalgamated Sugar Company began buying the land. Acosta, who had 300 acres off the road, all good land, sold it to them. He told his workers, of whom I was one, that during the next month other owners would take over the land. He told us that he would make more profits from the sale than he could make in ten years. He gave each of us two weeks pay and a bottle of rum and said goodbye...
I was a young man then, maybe 20 or so, with two children and my wife pregnant again. Since the age of 12 I had worked every day of my life in the cane. My fingers and wrists are still larger than my legs from the machete. I am missing two fingers only. I had learned and was efficient.
The next month was heavy harvest and one Monday all of us gathered before sunrise to sharpen the machetes and go to work. When we arrived at the fieldhouse for our assignments, we couldn't even get in. We were usually 40 or 50 but there must have been 200 men there. Big men, older and younger men, some who I knew were excellent workers. They had come to get work but I wasn't afraid because I knew my job was waiting for me. Then a tall, well dressed man came out of the house. He smiled and we all felt better. Then he nodded to a teenage boy whom I knew from the area. He was a bully who worked only occasionally but always carried two machetes with him. Their blades were shiny and sharp enough to cut a tree. The man spoke in English, I think, and the bully translated.
The farm had been bought by the company, he said. Higher wages would be paid to everyone. We all laughed when he told us; salaries were almost doubled. But since they were able to do this for us, we had to do something for them. We had to be organized better, so they could make more money. That meant working in something called shifts. I am a man of God and God always makes our shifts. The sun comes up, we work; it goes down, we go to our wives and family. But these men were like gods. They said some of us would come to work in the afternoon and work four hours, some in the morning, some on Saturdays and, as I bless myself with the cross of the Holy Savior, some on Sunday. Some would haul sugar by lantern off the fields by night.
This was efficient, he said. Some of the work would be done by big machines and some of us would not have to do all the work we once had to do. That was good, we thought. But then the devil said we would be paid by the hour. Each of us would work about 20 hours a week. One of us, Gonzalez, a little man who had lost his teeth in a fight with machetes, knew how to count well. We weren't stupid, so we made him count up the hours we would work and the pay we would get. We realized that it was not good pay. And that's how it started.
We would eat fish every night before, now only three nights. Rice and beans all the time. Less coffee, not as much bread. The clothes of the children were worn out. We experienced misery. And the bully and his friends became our leaders; foreman they called them. If we stopped work to rest a moment, they would come and spit on us and kick us, beat us with barber straps. if we offered resistance, like one fellow did, they would cut our heads off.... Things were turned on their head.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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