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National Portrait Gallery Explores U.S. Imperialism

“1898: U.S. Imperial Visions and Revisions” is a new exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. The exhibit looks at the additions to the United States acquired in and around 1898: Cuba, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam. Each place is represented by a collection of portraits, which can be viewed in the gallery at this link.

The exhibit explores our nation’s flirtation with imperialism. Some Americans in the early 1900’s and late 1800’s wanted the United States to follow the example of European powers and extend its influence internationally, while others disagreed for a variety of reasons.

The National Portrait Gallery exhibit points out the attitudes toward Native Americans that foreshadowed the imperialist tendencies, the debates between imperialists and anti-imperialists, and the Insular Cases.

Portraits of Puerto Rico

The portraits for Puerto Rico include

    • Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, a major figure in the autonomist movement centered in New York.
    • Eugenio María de Hostos, another of the New York autonomists, who met with President McKinley to demand greater political participation for Puerto Rico.
    • Lola Rodríguez de Tió, the feminist poet who described Puerto Rico and Cuba as “two wings of a bird.”
    • Luis Muñoz Rivera, who became resident commissioner of Puerto Rico in 1911.
    • William Hunt, an early Governor of Puerto Rico, in a group photo with members of his cabinet: Rosendo Matienzo Cintrón, Manuel Camuñas, José Celso Barbosa, Andrés Crosas, and José de Diego. Barbosa is known as “the father of the statehood movement” and Diego as “the father of the independence movement.”

The exhibit also includes a scene of U.S. soldiers disembarking in Ponce in 1898.

José Julio Henna, a physician from Puerto Rico who joined Eugenio María de Hostos to ask for greater participation in political decisions, is also shown in a group photo commemorating the Treaty of Paris, in which Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States.

Puerto Rico’s status

The section of the exhibit focusing on Puerto Rico explains that Puerto Ricans elected their first governor in 1948, and a new constitution passed in 1952 gave Puerto Rico a new title – Estado Libre Asociado, or Commonwealth.

The Puerto Rican constitution did not change Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship with the U.S.  As the exhibit makes explicitly clear, ‘[t]he constitution was hailed as a bilateral agreement between Puerto Rico and the United States, but Congress retained full legislative authority over the island—and still does to this day.”

“The legacy of U.S. imperialism continues to be contested today, both politically and constitutionally,” the About section of the website says. “This exhibition captures these debates.”

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