This essay investigates the political workings of gratitude in Puerto Rico in the postabolition decades in order to uncover how these practices of benevolence, which obscure the violence of everyday marginalization, became key in liberal political forms as a means of rearticulating white superiority and patriarchal authority. The article analyzes the practice of gratitude that liberal elites demanded from former slaves after emancipation as well as the appropriation of and challenges to such practices by laborers. The dynamics explored here appear in a set of performances in newspaper writings and street demonstrations commemorating abolition from the 1870s to the 1890s in the southern city of Ponce, Puerto Rico.
The politics of gratitude refers to the dynamics through which many came to see abolition as an effort to modernize Puerto Rico, an endeavor for which everyone should be morally indebted to abolitionists and their successors. The politics of gratitude thus provided the ideological structures through which liberal reformists could preserve a racialized and patriarchal social order in the absence of slavery. In the process, liberals also constituted themselves as the only intermediaries between popular subjects and the imperial state. Moral indebtedness was one racialized means by which various constituencies sought to craft or accommodate (in the case of authorities) a more inclusive political project that did not contradict the basis of imperial rule—even though it did alter its foundation, if only momentarily, before the US takeover of the island in 1898.