For 20 years, a new generation of historians has endeavored to correct the vision of nineteenth-century Puerto Rico generalized by the more established scholars of the 1950s and 1960s. These historians include Laird Bergad, Carlos Buitrago, Astrid Cubano, José Curet, James Dietz, Gervasio García, Fernando Picó, Andrés Ramos Mattel, Ángel Quintero, and Francisco Scarano. They have shifted the focus from urban political institutions to rural economic and social structures. The present work is part of this “new historiography.”
Baralt’s monograph is a major contribution in two respects. First, it proves that raising minor crops for local consumption could be as profitable as producing sugar (or coffee, at century’s end) for export. Buena Vista, first an estancia (a nonmanufacturing agricultural unit) and then a hacienda (where the processing of corn and coffee required industrial equipment), cultivated plantains, cotton, beans, and local roots and fruits. Grown by slaves to feed the slaves of neighboring sugar plantations, these crops provided Buena Vista with a steady, and sometimes considerable, income. Second, this case study forces the reader to reevaluate accepted notions of Puerto Rican hacendados. Carlos Vives, the son of Buena Vista’s founder, bought slaves as an investment, obtained loans from European bankers, placed his money in overseas ventures, subscribed to industrial magazines, and regularly used European and U.S. technicians as consultants. Both Buena Vista and Vives are welcome historiographical anomalies.
A number of questions are unattended, perhaps precisely because of the novel character of the information offered. Baralt fails, for example, to assess the role of minor crops in the overall economy. Were profits comparable to those of sugar in its heyday? What were the connections between the Vives’ economic success and their influence in the planter-dominated society of Ponce, Puerto Rico’s busiest port city, and in high governmental circles? The rise of the elder Vives, a middle-class Spanish immigrant from Venezuela, and his entry into high society require further contextualization.
The alleged atypicality of the second Vives must also be explored. What were his peers doing with their time and money? How did the Vives experience compare with that of other families of their economic and social rank? More interesting, perhaps, how did the progressive planter relate to his work force? The perspective offered by studies on mentalité is applicable to the body of information readily available here.
Finally, the production aspects of Baralt’s volume merit congratulation. The two-column format with footnotes will undoubtedly appeal to the general readership to which the book is directed. The selection and placement of photographs show dedication and care. Both author and editors must be thanked for this fine example of Puerto Rican scholarship.