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From Unincorporated Territory to Commonwealth Connecting Decolonization and U.S. Empire

Cynthia H. Tolentino


My essay examines the transition of the Philippines and Puerto Rico from U.S. unincorporated territories to U.S. commonwealths in the mid-twentieth century. It studies the ideas of progress that are associated with this shift in legal and political status in order to then consider how they promote particular historical narratives and analytical frameworks for U.S. empire. The essay begins by examining dominant assumptions about the meanings and implications of the unincorporated territory and commonwealth in U.S. culture and history. Building on scholarship by Amy Kaplan, Christina Duffy Burnett, and Todd Shepard, I consider interpretations of the commonwealth as either a continuation or rectification of the U.S. colony status, but also as removed from the contemporaneous historical movement of decolonization. To understand how commonwealth stories operate as ambivalent narrations of U.S. decolonization, I analyze two fictional works, Bienvenido Santos’s 1955 short story “Brown Coterie” and the well-known 1957 musical West Side Story. The concluding paragraphs point to the possibilities opened up by situating the U.S. commonwealth in relation to twentieth century global and geopolitical formations such as United Nations trust territories and the outré-mer, rather than only within U.S. nation-based frameworks.

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Entrées d’index

Aires géographiques :

États-Unis, Puerto Rico

Périodes :

19e-20e siècle
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Texte intégral

1Between 1901 and 1922, the U.S. Supreme Court undertook a series of decisions known as the Insular Cases that gave legal sanction to the United States’ colonization of the islands of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines at the end of the Spanish-American War. What emerged from these legal cases was the designation of these new island “possessions” as neither foreign countries nor part of the United States; following this logic, the islands “belonged to” the United States, but without having been “incorporated” into the United States. To accommodate the in-between status of these overseas territories, the Supreme Court created a new legal and political category called the “unincorporated territory.”

  • 1 Amy Kaplan, “Where is Guantanamo?” American Quarterly 57, September 2005, p.842.

2Critics have persuasively linked the idea of the unincorporated territory to U.S. colonialism and racism. As Amy Kaplan argues, “the designation of territory as neither quite foreign nor domestic was inseparable from a view of its inhabitants as neither capable of self-government nor civilized enough for U.S. citizenship"1. Indeed, the rationale for the “unincorporated territory” was largely based on racialized perceptions of the islands’ inhabitants as uncivilized savages that were unfit for self rule and thus in need of Christian moral uplift and tutelage in United States style governance and democratic ideals for an unspecified duration of time.

3Whereas the creation of the unincorporated territory marks the beginnings of U.S. global colonial empire at the turn of the century, the emergence of the commonwealth in the mid-twentieth century is viewed as either a symbol of the veiled persistence of U.S. colonialism or an amelioration of the island’s colonial status. For many, the shift of the Philippines and Puerto Rico from unincorporated territories to commonwealths was part of a progressive teleology by which the island governments would assume autonomy over local affairs through the establishment of an elected governorship and the ratification of a constitution. Following this logic, the inauguration of the Philippine Commonwealth in 1935 and the Estado Libre Associado, or Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, in 1952 represented positive developments in the colonial relationship with the U.S., even as the federal government maintained control over key areas such as foreign policy and trade.

4Situated as a stepping-stone, or transitional stage, to either U.S. statehood or national sovereignty, the commonwealth came to be understood strictly in terms of the failure or fulfillment of these goals. In the case of the Philippines, the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934 marked the beginning of a ten-year transition period after which the Philippines would become an independent nation and included the creation of the Commonwealth of the Philippines in 1935 as part of this framework. Today, however, Puerto Rico retains commonwealth status, and debate over the island’s future continues through referendums and plebiscites.

  • 2 Sina Najafi and Christina Duffy Burnett, Islands and the Law: An Interview with Christina Duffy Bur (...)

5The transition from unincorporated territory to commonwealth is generally assumed to be a natural (and presumably positive) evolution in the colony’s development and is subsequently treated as flat description in historical accounts of the islands. Most criticism of the commonwealth has focused on identifying its advancement and expansion of U.S. colonial policies in order to shore up its associations with progress and increased sovereignty. Following this logic, the commonwealth is seen as a false promise of decolonization. Many scholars reject the notion that a “true” transition in the legal and political status of the colony has taken place; instead, they argue that Puerto Rico remains an unincorporated territory, despite the so-called shift to commonwealth status in 19522.

6This essay examines how (neo)colonial subjects of the Philippines and Puerto Rico have engaged the transition from unincorporated territory to the commonwealth. The shift to commonwealth status had the effect of rendering visible U.S. empire at the same time that it presumed to mark its dispersal, or falling away. While the unincorporated territory and commonwealth have largely been contained to analyses of the waxing and waning of U.S. empire, I propose to understand the global and geopolitical landscape in which these categories operate, especially in relation to the historical movement of decolonization of the mid-twentieth century. Examining the U.S. commonwealth in relation to the discourse of decolonization will, I believe, offer perspective on the workings of U.S. empire and American exceptionalism. More specifically, I am interested in how dominant approaches to the commonwealth category have facilitated U.S. nationalist conceptions of the islands and foreclosed other possible conceptions of the islands.

7The juridical invention of the unincorporated territory is directly tied to U.S. colonialism and empire in that it enabled the United States to assert direct rule over the new island possessions and in so doing, to assume the status of a world power akin to European empires. In contrast, the idea of the commonwealth revolves around the notion of a ‘compact.’ The theory of the “compact” holds that the taking of commonwealth status effectively terminates the territory’s “unincorporated” status, replacing it with a bilateral agreement in which the United States Congress no longer holds absolute sovereignty over the island’s affairs. The emergence of the commonwealth represented the realization of a gradual, if partial, transfer of sovereignty from Congress to the inhabitants of the island. Following this logic, the shift from “unincorporated territory” to “commonwealth” could be seen as marking the dissolution of the formal colonial relationship and the advent of a bilateral relationship between the islands and the United States.

  • 3 Christina Duffy Burnett and Burke Marshall, Foreign in a Domestic Sense: Puerto Rico, American Expa (...)

8In situating U.S. colonialism as the stage for the legal invention of the unincorporated territory, Christina Duffy Burnett remarks, “No one today defends the colonial status sanctioned by these cases, yet the idea of a relationship to the United States that is somewhere ‘in-between’ that of statehood and independence – somehow both foreign and domestic (or neither) – has not only survived but enjoys substantial support. A territorial status born of colonialism has been appropriated by colonial subjects3.” By highlighting the enduring legacy of the Insular Cases, Duffy Burnett underscores the significance of the “unincorporated territory” and “commonwealth” to the ways in which colonial subjects imagine their relationships to the islands and to the United States.

Decolonization Without U.S. Empire

  • 4 William Appleman Williams, “The Frontier Thesis and American Foreign Policy,” Pacific Historical Re (...)

9A persistent challenge in trying to situate the U.S. commonwealth in relation to a contemporaneous discourse of decolonization is the invisibility of U.S. imperialism. As William Appleman Williams famously argued, the dominant theme in U.S. historiography is that “there is no American empire4.” Although it is generally acknowledged that the U.S. once had an empire in the late nineteenth century, many U.S. citizens will maintain that it was given away and that the period of “U.S. empire” represents a brief exception in the dominant culture of U.S. democracy. Such denials of U.S. empire, Williams observed, also took shape through uncritical evocations of the United States as a “world power.” In coining the term “anticolonial imperialism,” Williams described the United States’s paradoxical self-image as a nation that had freed itself from the tyranny of Britain and that represented a departure from entrenched European practices and traditions.

10Building on Williams’ efforts to identify and name American imperialism, scholars have focused on demonstrating how American imperialism is central to the making of the nation and its national culture, rather than a temporary and aberrant phase. What still need to be considered is how the commonwealth formation is connected to European empire in the twentieth century through the historical movement of decolonization. Decolonization refers to the growing momentum of anticolonial uprisings and the subsequent break-up of British, French, Dutch, Belgian, Italian, and Portuguese empires throughout Asia and Africa in the period following the end of World War II in 1945 and running through the early 1960s. Generally viewed as a phenomenon that centers on Europe and its distant colonies in Asia and Africa, decolonization is often been constructed as being “outside” of the United States and marginal to U.S. history.

  • 5 Todd Shepard, The Invention of Decolonization: The Algerian War and the Remaking of France. Ithaca, (...)

11Dramatically rendered by Malcolm X as a “tidal wave of color” and by Abdoulaye Ly as a “ring of fire burning all along the tropics,” decolonization is largely acknowledged as a foundational historical movement of the twentieth century and viewed as an end to the age of empires. Given the seeming disconnect between the U.S. and a discourse of empire, it is not surprising that most scholarship on decolonization has tended to focus on the dispersal of European empires. More specifically, Todd Shepard notes that the various meanings of decolonization have most interested area studies scholars working in African and Asian studies and peoples who gained independence. For many in this group, he observes, decolonization represents a broader concept than either “winning independence” or a “transfer of power.” Citing historians W.R. Ochieng and Atieno Odhiambo writing on Kenya, he suggests that attempts to conceptualize and study decolonization might also involve “…the exploration of dreams, the analysis of struggles, compromises, pledges and achievements, and the rethinking of fundamentals5.”

12Taking up this notion that decolonization requires an analysis beyond the binary of colony/independent nation, I will situate the U.S. commonwealth in relation to decolonization in order to open up meanings beyond the prevailing nation-based framework. To do so, let me now turn to two fictional examples. The first concerns the status of the Philippines during World War II, as the decade-long transition period from U.S. commonwealth to independence was set awry by the Japanese occupation of the Philippines from 1942-1945. During this time the Commonwealth government of the Philippines, headed by President Manuel L. Quezon, went into exile in Washington D.C, and Filipinos who were already in the United States, having migrated under their status as “U.S. nationals,” found themselves in another type of political limbo, as they were not necessarily U.S. colonial subjects nor were they eligible for U.S. citizenship. This complex history notwithstanding, historical accounts hold that the United States granted independence to the Philippines in 1946.

13Published in 1955, in the midst of decolonization struggles around the world, Bienvenido Santos’ short story “Brown Coterie” offers a meditation on the freedom and future of the Philippines and Filipinos. The story takes place in Washington DC during World War II, as Japanese forces occupied the Philippines. It features a group of Filipino technocrats, including graduate students, scientists, professors, and civil servants, who have organized a party for Clarita, a civil servant whose husband is serving overseas in the U.S. Army. Whereas most representations of World War II and the Philippines focus on the Pacific War and the “liberation” of the Philippines from the Japanese by Filipino and U.S. forces led by General Douglas MacArthur, “Brown Coterie” offers a rare glimpse of the Philippine Commonwealth government and the ambiguous political citizenship of Filipinos in the U.S., as neither subjects on the path to independence nor U.S. citizens. More specifically, it evokes dueling models of informal empire: the United States’ colonial policy of benevolent assimilation, which legitimated the declaration of U.S. sovereignty over the Philippines through an inclusionary racial structure that utilized metaphors of family, evolution, and tutelage into a gradualist and temporally undefined trajectory of Filipino “progress” toward "self-government” and the Empire of Japan’s vision of its role as the leader of an “Asian bloc” and relatedly, the liberator of Asian nations from Western colonialism.

14In contrast to the gradual transition of the Philippines from Commonwealth to sovereign nation outlined by U.S. colonial policy, the story repeatedly foregrounds the uncertainty and ambivalence surrounding the Commonwealth status of the Philippines. One scene offers a glimpse of the headquarters of the Philippine government- in-exile by evoking the “Commonwealth Building” and remarking that is now known as the “Embassy Building.” Santos’ use of irony helps to open up the question of the significance of the Commonwealth period in the Philippines. Since the U.S. colonizers had been ejected from the Philippines and the U.S. designated path for Philippine independence had been interrupted, were Filipinos in the U.S. now to be considered as “foreigners” to the United States, rather than as U.S. nationals? If the Philippines, under Japanese occupation, had ceased to be a commonwealth, was it now an autonomous nation?

  • 6 Bienvenido Santos, “Brown Coterie,” Scent of Apples, Seattle, Washington, 1979, p.151.

15A key scene opens by suggesting that the gathering of Filipino professionals in the metropole of Washington D.C. represents a significant event in the history of twentieth century international diplomacy. It then immediately questions its status by characterizing it as resembling either “a Greater East Asia conference” or “an emergency meeting of Chinese laundrymen6 The story links the uncertain future of the Philippines and U.S. empire during the Japanese occupation to the positioning of Filipinos as “in-between” the racial politics of Japanese empire and U.S. immigration. I argue that the scene shows elite Filipinos at odds with the racial projects of Japanese empire, which promoted the slogan of “Asia for Asiatics,” and U.S. immigrant ideology, in which Filipinos were part of a racialized Asian working class in the United States. This scene also, I believe, registers the elusiveness of decolonization as a historical movement in relation to the Philippines, for it registers (and critiques) the complex ways in which Filipino elites saw themselves through U.S. colonial constructions of them as “family” (and specifically as subordinate members, or “little Brown Brothers”) rather than only as subaltern subjects.

Decolonization as a tide of History

16As “Brown Coterie” suggests, the shift from the unincorporated territory to commonwealth was not only a legal event, but also involved Filipino consciousness and self-understanding. By remembering the linear trajectory for Philippine independence underwritten by U.S. colonialism, “Brown Coterie” offers an alternative to dominant historical accounts that fix Philippine independence at the end of World War II, as a direct result of the U.S. “liberation” of the islands from Japan. In these accounts, the United States is figured as benevolently “granting” independence to the Philippines, its valiant ally in the war against Axis Powers. Santos’ story, however, counters the amnesia around the U.S. – Philippines colonial relationship by framing Filipinos specifically as Commonwealth subjects whose lives and futures are intertwined with those of U.S. and Japanese empire.

17For Santos, the Filipino elites in “Brown Coterie” are somewhere between colonial subjects and immigrants. The story brings into view the Philippine Commonwealth as it is being unsettled from the ten-year transition period that is intended to culminate in Philippine sovereignty; in so doing, it reveals the extent to which the idea of the Philippine commonwealth is embedded in a teleological narrative of progress in which the extension of U.S. democratic values and practices to Filipino subjects will lead to Philippine independence.

  • 7 Todd Shepard, The Invention of Decolonization: The Algerian War and the Remaking of France. Ithaca, (...)

18Santos’s conception of the Philippine Commonwealth as a symbol of U.S. decolonization resonates with Todd Shepard’s theorization of the ideological workings of “decolonization” in the 1954-1962 Algerian War. According to Shepard, the French “invented decolonization” towards the end of the Algerian War as a means by which to represent Algerian independence as a natural outcome in the advancing “tide of History.” “In Algeria as elsewhere,” he argues, “decolonization now appeared as wholly consistent with a narrative of progress – the ongoing extension of national self-determination and its corollary values: liberty, equality, fraternity, and the Rights of Man – that had begun with the French Revolution7.” The “invention of decolonization” enabled a rewriting of imperial and anti-imperial history in which decolonization was envisioned as a predetermined endpoint. Shepard notes that by the early 1960s, a metropolitan consensus had all but embraced an idea that now operates as fact, that “Algeria was not France; rather, it was a colony and thus deserved and would gain independence. With the critical turn to the notion that decolonization was tide of History, Shepard argues that French elites came to see Algerian independence as a natural and logical event. The figuration of decolonization as “inevitable” enabled Western critics to minimize the significance of anticolonial revolutions around the world at the same time that it constructed Algeria’s independence as the product of France’s noblesse oblige. Like Shepard’s figure of “decolonization”, the U.S. commonwealth was constructed as a natural stage in the dominant historical narrative of the U.S. extension of democracy to its overseas colonies. Such conceptions of the commonwealth within a teleological narrative of progress contribute to framings of U.S. colonization as uncontested and “benevolent,” while also minimizing the significance of anticolonial wars and movements on the islands.

19The inauguration of the commonwealth in the U.S. context could also be said to have refocused and delimited consideration of U.S. imperialism to the 1890s, the period directly following the Spanish American War, thereby constructing U.S. involvement in empire as but a short period in the larger historical narrative of U.S. democracy. For Shepard, an important outcome of the French discourse of decolonization in Algeria is the narrowing scope within which discussions of France – and French imperialism – might take place. With the forgetting of French Algeria, the invention of decolonization reduced the global scope of the discussion of imperialism in France. This erasure was enabled in part by framings of the colonial conflict between France and Algeria as an unfortunate detour in French history and effectively reaffirmed the definition of French as Europeans, at the moment that France also begins to refer to itself as the “Hexagon”. Effectively speaking, Europe then becomes the space for imagining a larger context for France.

20Within the historiography of the U.S. Commonwealth, the insistence upon a “progressive” teleology from commonwealth to post-colonial independence or modernity produced a set of amnesiac relationships. The figuration of decolonization as a redemptive narrative of progress in the case of the French department of Algeria is, I believe, an apt analogue for conceptualizing the shift of U.S. colonies from unincorporated territories to commonwealths as part of a progressive history of expanding U.S. democracy. As I will explain, such framings of the U.S. Commonwealth facilitate amnesia surrounding the ongoing histories of conflict and negotiation between the United States and its island possessions. Looking at the discursive production of the U.S. commonwealth via its analogous relationship with the French department of Algeria enables us to consider commonwealth status.

Where the “question of colonialism” ends and the “immigrant question” begins

21Shepard’s observation that debates in Europe often construct decolonization as the moment when the “question of colonialism” ends and the “immigrant question” offers a novel approach for thinking about twentieth century representations of U.S. colonies that foreground the immigrant diaspora in the U.S. mainland. Such representations tend to emphasize race and ethnicity in ways that reinforce a U.S. nation-based analytical framework. In so doing, they situate U.S. colonies within nationalist teleologies of progress and distance them from a broader and international discussion of decolonization. In the case of Puerto Rico, conceptions of modernization and development were intertwined with the notion of decolonization. The transition from unincorporated territory to commonwealth was specifically envisioned as a key component in the process by which Puerto Rico would become an emblematic example of industrialization. The 1952 inauguration of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico thus marked the beginning of Puerto Rico’s economic boom and new international visibility as a model for developing nations, many of which were undergoing decolonization.

  • 8 Juan Gonzalez, Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America, New York: Viking Press, 2000, pp (...)

22In Puerto Rico, the establishment of the Commonwealth was intertwined with the process imagined for the industrialization of Puerto Rico. From 1948 through the mid 1960s, the U.S. government in Puerto Rico sponsored the program Operation Bootstrap to attract capital investment to Puerto Rico as a means of financing the island’s transition from an agrarian system rooted in sugar plantations to a manufacturing center. From 1940 to the mid-1960s, Puerto Rico underwent “industrialization by invitation,” a tax exemption industrialization model that brought more than two thousand manufacturing industries, mostly from the United States, to the island8.” As part of Operation Bootstrap, the Puerto Rico Commonwealth government, led by Commonwealth governor Luis Munoz Marin, built a world-class port, highways and a communications system, public schools, a health care network, and an enormous tourist industry.

23Though it is largely known for depicting Puerto Rican “immigrants,” the 1957 musical West Side Story ambivalently remembers the discourse of modernization that underwrote Puerto Rico’s transition from unincorporated territory to commonwealth. The musical is perhaps the most famous text on Puerto Ricans in the United States. It centers on the rivalry between the Sharks and the Jets, respectively Puerto Rican and Polish-American gangs in New York City, and is widely viewed as a classic text on urban race relations. Yet, when read in relation to the contemporaneous movement of decolonization, the musical cannily registers the unstable location of Puerto Rico as “part” of but also “foreign” to the United States. In so doing, it offers a glimpse of the erasure of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the reframing of Puerto Rico through the paradigm of ethnicity in which white European immigration and assimilation into mainstream American society was upheld as the norm for incorporation in the United States.

24The musical posits Puerto Ricans as immigrants, but also creates openings for conceptualizing them as U.S. colonial subjects. What is compelling in these moments is that they recover some of the signature features of the U.S. colonial development policy Operation Bootstrap, of which the establishment of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was a part. The omission of Puerto Rico’s mid- economic boom in West Side Story resonates with the imperial amnesia regarding the specificity of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The celebrated musical number “America” depicts Puerto Rico as a pre-modern ruin and the United States as a flourishing marketplace for consumer goods and individual freedom, thus forgetting Puerto Rico’s recent industrialization and the revised “commonwealth” relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. In Leonard Bernstein’s score, Puerto Ricans are depicted as having fled a primitive tropical island besieged by hurricanes, overpopulation, and financial debt for a modern “America” characterized by expanding industry, skyscrapers, middle-class housing, consumer credit, and modern commodities such as TVs and washing machines. “America” is frequently read as a scene that promotes the importance of Puerto Rican assimilation to white American norms, chiefly through Anita, the girlfriend of Shark leader Bernardo, who condemns Puerto Rico’s poverty and exalts the modernity and prosperity of the United States. In response to Anita’s professions of admiration for the United States, the Shark men evoke the racism and poverty to which Puerto Ricans are subject in the continental United States. What is obscured in the musical number is Puerto Rico’s strategic and material value to the United States, as a link between histories of colonization and immigration.

25West Side Story registers the moment at which attention to the island colony of Puerto Rico shifts to concerns about Puerto Rican immigration. Read as a text that is contemporaneous with the historical movement of decolonization, the musical number “America” can also be seen as a mediation on the meanings of freedom under the commonwealth compact. If the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is intended to represent the end of empire, the musical provides us with a glimpse of how Puerto Rican subjects negotiate their citizenship in the context of the changed relationship between the island and the U.S. mainland.

26As I hope to have suggested, decolonization or anticolonial revolution were not the only outcomes of commonwealth status. Indeed, new forms of citizenship emerge from a set of abstract political relationships generated by Puerto Rican and Filipino diasporas that are themselves products of the commonwealths of Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Though it is beyond the immediate scope of this essay, I believe that the island of Guam represents another analogue that produces imperial amnesia. As one of the territories ceded to the U.S. after the Spanish American War and now the largest island in the region of U.S. Micronesia, Guam – along with smaller islands of the Micronesia region such as American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands, as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands in the Caribbean is today an unincorporated territory that is not transitioning to commonwealth status or statehood. Guam residents have U.S. citizenship, but limited sovereignty in terms of autonomous government, control of military bases and natural resources, and the administration of currency, trade and foreign policy. Unlike Puerto Rico, Guam does not have its own Constitution that details a government structure and the specific powers of its various institutions. It is not transitioning to commonwealth or statehood, though these paths are debated on the island. Following the United States’ re-taking of Guam from occupying Japanese forces in 1944, the United States government passed the 1950 Organic Act, which established limited self-rule and conferred partial citizenship (without full Constitutional Rights) to Guamanians without altering the island’s status as an unincorporated territory. How might neo-colonies that do not “progress” to the stage of the commonwealth or statehood provide insight on the workings of U.S. imperialism and the historical movement of decolonization?


27A key emphasis in scholarship on U.S. empire has been to demonstrate how central these marginal and distant islands were to U.S. identity and Constitutional law; in doing so, this current of scholarship also demonstrates the significance of U.S. imperialism to the formation of the U.S. nation and legal precedents for the extension of U.S. power. Yet, it seems worth considering how categories such as the unincorporated territory were developed in a global framework, not only in relation to U.S. nationalism. That being the case, the commonwealth can productively be analyzed in relation to twentieth century formations that include the trust territories of the United Nations, the outre-mer, and the French départment of Algeria. What would it mean, for example, for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico to be seen not only within a national framework, in relation to its former status as an unincorporated territory, but also as part of an international postwar discourse of the reaffirmation of national sovereignty and the rise of former colonial powers?

  • 9 Cited in Shelley Streeby, “Empire.” Keywords for American Cultural Studies, eds. Bruce Burgett, Gle (...)

28As Amy Kaplan suggests, critiques of U.S. imperialism must involve not only “disinterring the buried history of imperialism,” but also “debating its meanings and lessons for the present” and showing “how U.S. interventions have worked from the perspective of comparative imperialisms, in relation to other historical changes and movements around the globe9.”

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1 Amy Kaplan, “Where is Guantanamo?” American Quarterly 57, September 2005, p.842.

2 Sina Najafi and Christina Duffy Burnett, Islands and the Law: An Interview with Christina Duffy Burnett, Cabinet, 38, Summer 2010, p.7.

3 Christina Duffy Burnett and Burke Marshall, Foreign in a Domestic Sense: Puerto Rico, American Expansion, and the Constitution, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2001, p.2. By identifying ways in which the ambiguous status of U.S. territories generated new legal categories and forms of political rule, Duffy Burnett and Marshall highlight the contradictions and discontinuities that are part of the foundational logic of the U.S nation. My study extends their approach in order to consider how colonial subjects appropriated these “grey areas” in their re-imaginings of U.S. territorial identity.

4 William Appleman Williams, “The Frontier Thesis and American Foreign Policy,” Pacific Historical Review 24, November 1955, p.379.

5 Todd Shepard, The Invention of Decolonization: The Algerian War and the Remaking of France. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2008, p.3-4. I find Shepard’s positing of decolonization as a generative concept, rather than a natural progression or inevitable event, helpful for thinking about how the transition from unincorporated territory to commonwealth in the U.S. context is similarly treated as a natural progression of events.

6 Bienvenido Santos, “Brown Coterie,” Scent of Apples, Seattle, Washington, 1979, p.151.

7 Todd Shepard, The Invention of Decolonization: The Algerian War and the Remaking of France. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2008, p.6.

8 Juan Gonzalez, Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America, New York: Viking Press, 2000, pp.248-258. Gonzalez offers a persuasive account of the ways in which the establishment of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico provided the rationale for the continuation of U.S. colonial practices, especially through the creation of tax shelters for U.S. investors. My study builds on his arguments, but also seeks to understand how colonial subjects used the commonwealth form as a springboard for imagining other geopolitical locations for Puerto Rico, beyond the U.S – Puerto Rico trajectory.

9 Cited in Shelley Streeby, “Empire.” Keywords for American Cultural Studies, eds. Bruce Burgett, Glenn Hendler, New York, New York University Press, 2007, p.101.

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Cynthia H. Tolentino, « From Unincorporated Territory to Commonwealth Connecting Decolonization and U.S. Empire », Mémoire(s), identité(s), marginalité(s) dans le monde occidental contemporain [En ligne], 10 | 2013, mis en ligne le 09 septembre 2013, consulté le 19 septembre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Cynthia H. Tolentino

Cynthia H. Tolentino est membre de l'Institut d’histoire du temps présent (IHTP), Paris et de l'niversity of Oregon (États-Unis). Elle est auteur de America's Experts: Race and the Fictions of Sociology,

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