Vol. 12 No. 5 (May 2002) pp. 257-259.
THE LEGAL CONSTRUCTION OF IDENTITY: THE JUDICIAL AND SOCIAL LEGACY OF AMERICAN COLONIALISM IN PUERTO RICO,
by Efren Rivera Ramos. Washington, D. C.: American Psychological Association, 2001. Cloth $49.95. ISBN: 1-55798-670-3.
Reviewed by John Brigham, Department of Political Science, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Professor Rivera Ramos is Dean of the Law School at the University of Puerto Rico. He is also a scholar of contemporary
socio-legal studies and a contributor to the debates surrounding the peculiar status of Puerto Rico. This book
brings depth and a socio-legal perspective to the jurisprudence of contemporary colonialism and the future of the
After law study in Puerto Rico, Rivera Ramos received an LL.M. from Harvard and a Ph.D. from the University of
London. He has published widely and participated in many international conferences including one last year at
Princeton and a 1998 meeting on the status of the colony at Yale Law School cleverly titled "Foreign, in a
This book employs a constitutive approach on law with a focus on the way colonialism constitutes consciousness.
The psychological dimension of this book is challenging. This sort of socio-legal monograph might ordinarily
have been published in a more general sociological or law series. Its place in a psychological series reflects
significant attention to individual consciousness. Thus, the book builds on contemporary work, often associated
with the Law and Society movement, which sees law in the context of how ordinary people think about it.
THE LEGAL CONSTRUCTION OF IDENTITY differs from much of this work by its grounding in the power relations of colonialism.
The author places himself and Puerto Rican identity in the political and legal struggle over the status of the
island. He declares his long time support for independence while noting that most Puerto Ricans have a preference
for a close political connection to the United States. This bind developed over years of colonial legal life.
Its manifestation in consciousness is the point of the book.
In one of the crucial passages, the author links the psychological dimensions of identity to the legal status of
Puerto Rico and the three positions most commonly associated with the legal status of the island. These are statehood,
independence and the present "commonwealth" status. Rivera Ramos writes of "perplexity" at
the sea of American flags, and probably also the sentiment for statehood, in Puerto Rican Republican Party meetings.
To this observation he adds, "fear and hidden admiration" for independence supporters and "attraction"
mixed with mystification at the perspectives of the Popular Democratic Party" which supports the status quo,
commonwealth status of the island under American law.
Page 258 begins here
Identity, indeed psychological well being, becomes a function of law in the constitutive sense explored by Rivera
Ramos. This identity is particularly evident on the island, but it also applies to Puerto Ricans who have come
to the continent. Additionally, the author offers even broader insight into how law works when understood at the
constitutive level. This is a brilliant and expansive book.
The book contributes to a distinguished modern tradition of work by Puerto Rican scholars on socio-legal issues.
Former Chief Judge Juan Torreulla of the United States First Circuit Court of Appeals and Judge Jos‚ Cabranes
of the Second Circuit each have books on the inequalities adhering in the present status of the island. In addition,
there is a fascinating body of postmodern work by scholars such as Arlene Davila, Ramon Grosfogel, and Augustin
Lao that attempts to redefine the current challenges of colonialism. All these scholars work mostly in the mainland
US these days. On the island, the work of Jos‚ Trias Monge, the dean of Puerto Rican legal scholars, is important
background for understanding the present character of American colonialism.
Rivera Ramos divides his book into three parts, essential history, the judicial construction of colonialism, and
the production of hegemony in Puerto Rican society. The history section is comprehensive and drawn from major
figures in both Spanish and English literature on the subject. It has a strong economic dimension and is instructive
with regard to the special role of the law and the federal judiciary in the colonizing project. This aspect is
developed with chapters on the doctrine, ideology and constitutive effects of the INSULAR CASES. In the final
chapter, the importance of citizenship, legal rights and even the "partial democracy" of commonwealth
status is delineated as part of the construction of hegemony.
Calling the INSULAR CASES "an important part of a historic compromise among the dominant groups in the United
States that allowed the colonial project to unfold," Rivera Ramos draws on Weber, Habermas, and Bourdieu to
interpret the legitimation potential of Supreme Court cases handed down from 1901 to 1922. In this analysis he
expands his investigation from the nine classic cases decided in 1901, adding thirteen more that culminated in
BALZAC v. PORTO RICO in 1922. The cases all involved constitutional issues arising from island territories, including
Hawaii and the Philippines.
Rivera Ramos summarizes the controversy in terms of three general propositions. The first is that the guarantees
of the U. S. Constitution extended to the territories. The second was that the Congress could regulate the territories
as it saw fit. The third held that, though Congress had significant latitude in its handling of the territories,
it was limited in fundamental ways by the Constitution.
Citizenship was extended to Puerto Rico in 1917 and this legal status is central to the constitution of a new "political
subject." This subject is the Puerto Rican American and the formation of his or her identity was, for Rivera
Ramos, manifested in a new jurisprudential reality. That reality is not only doctrine, it is people thinking and
acting in new and distinctive ways. Here, the focus is on the "reproduction of consent" in a Spanish
people living on an island, or thinking warmly of it. The author takes issue with Judge Cabranes who wrote that
the grant of citizenship was not tied to
Page 259 begins here
military advantages. Rivera Ramos argues that the greater strategic dimension of a permanent relationship is itself
of a military nature. An example is the giant military base, Roosevelt Roads, on the eastern end of the island.
Ships from the base regularly use the inhabited island of Vieques for artillery practice in spite of vocal protest
and civil disobedience.
For American legal scholars, Puerto Rico can no longer be regarded as an anomaly. It is too important, too beautiful,
and too interesting. For constitutional scholars, consideration of Puerto Rico is a compelling response to the
boredom induced by traditional treatments of federalism. From this place and the state of mind that it produces
there is ongoing tension over sovereignty both within and outside the United States. The island exists both as
a throwback to earlier colonialisms and with a status that represents new forms of domination. For Law and Society
scholars, Puerto Rico draws attention to cultural imperialism and Rivera Ramos helps us
to understand its special meaning in the subordinate legal identity of millions of American citizens. Even legal
process questions take on new meaning in a system where the federal government conducts trials in a foreign tongue,
English, and appeals from the District Court in San Juan go to Boston. This is a compelling subject and a great
Copyright 2002 by the author, John Brigham.