Demography in Puerto Rico

Date: 1942
Owner: Library of Congress
Source Type: Images


In the 1940s and 1950s, U.S. social scientists flooded into Latin America. In Puerto Rico, for example, they came to study the perceived "problem" of overpopulation. Demographers, sociologists, historians, and economists produced a huge body of scholarship on Puerto Rico's population and development, most of which blamed the rise in population density on lower class women. The "backwardness" of poor women who were ignorant of or hostile to birth control, it was argued, filled the small island with poor children that they could not support and thus perpetuated poverty. The intimate details of poor women's' sexual habits--which were considered irrational and pernicious--were studied intensely because they were seen as the source of the island's poverty and, therefore, potential for communism.

Yet this widely publicized "problem" of women as the source of demographic and economic woes was actually contrary to the data being gathered. The research of social scientists, many of whom worked out of the University of Puerto Rico's Social Science Research Center, found that although population density was indeed rising, so too were life expectancy and the standard of living, which seemed to lead to the conclusion that population demography was not at the root of poverty. Yet these same social scientists continued to forward solutions based on population control, which were almost always targeted at controlling the reproductive capacity of the female body, even through eugenic measures like surgical sterilization. According to historian Laura Briggs, the discrepancy between the empirically gathered data and the recommended solutions was due to the exoticization of Caribbean women and prevalent racist ideas in the U.S. that the third world's high rate of production would, by sheer numbers, overwhelm the (whiter) peoples of developed nations.

Puerto Rico, as a small U.S. protectorate, was a perfect location for U.S. social scientists to test their demographic theories. In fact, the island was explicitly referred to as a place for conducting "experiments" in population control and social change. U.S. imperialism did not only manifest itself on the island through economic and political dominance, but social scientists exploited Puerto Rico's families as a source of raw data.

Reference: Briggs, Laura. Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

CITATION: Jack Delano. San Juan, Puerto Rico. Mother and child in the slum area known as "El Fangitto". January, 1942. Medium: 1 nitrate negative.  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington DC. Reproduction Number: LC-USF34-048087-E.