Who in the world was Isabel Gonzalez?

USC Gould School of Law • October 17, 2018
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In his new book, Prof. Sam Erman considers Puerto Rican Citizenship


-By Gilien Silsby


With no vote in presidential elections, no representation in Congress, and no say on constitutional amendments, residents of Puerto Rico are not like other U.S. citizens. For more than a century, their island’s ultimate status has dangled in limbo. In his new book, “Almost Citizens: Puerto Rico,

Erman's book is released in November, 2018

the U.S. Constitution, and Empire” (Cambridge, 2018), USC Gould Prof. Sam Erman recounts the stories of an extraordinary set of Puerto Ricans who advocated for their and their island’s rights. Their efforts shaped the history of U.S. constitutional law, yet never ended their colonial condition. “The island has very little raw power to use in national debates or governance,” he explains. That was before the one-two punch of 2017’s Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria pitched the Caribbean island’s 3.4 million inhabitants into a desperate humanitarian crisis. Erman spoke with USC Gould’s Gilien Silsby about his new book and the unique challenges that now face the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.


Almost Citizens involved more than legal scholarship on your part. It’s a political history and a family history, too.

Yes. My book tells the story of how Puerto Rico became a constitutionally acceptable United States colony in the early 20th century. And that century-old system of racist, imperial governance is largely the system that still controls Puerto Rico.

It all traces back to Gonzalez v. Williams. Why is that case important?

Gonzalez v. Williams is a 1904 Supreme Court decision. The case began when Isabel Gonzalez traveled from Puerto Rico to Ellis Island and was turned away as an undesirable alien. She sued, arguing: I’m not an alien. Annexation of Puerto Rico in 1899 made me an American and thus a citizen. The court held that Gonzalez indeed was not an alien, and she was allowed to enter. But it didn’t decide if she was a citizen.

This equivocation is important. It’s how the United States approached imperial governance in the early 20th century. The Court didn’t say colonialism as a whole is OK. Nor did it rule out allowing colonialism to continue. Instead, it envisioned in-between categories. Perhaps Gonzalez was an American who was not a citizen. My book uses the case to illustrate how it and other judicial evasions and ambiguities nudged the Constitution and imperial governance toward awkward coexistence.

How did you learn about Gonzalez’s life?

A decade or so ago, Isabel Gonzalez’s great-granddaughter, Belinda Torres-Mary, reached out to me. She was researching her family. We teamed up and made some surprising discoveries.

My favorite find involves Gonzalez’s first husband. Family lore held that he was of caballero extraction—of gentlemanly stock. I was skeptical. The records indicated she had kids out of wedlock and could not produce their father. But then Belinda suggested that perhaps Caballero was a last name. A bit of searching proved her right. Gonzalez had married a man named Caballero. He died of tuberculosis at a tragically young age, but not before fathering her first two children. So much for my academic’s cynicism. The family’s view of their ancestor was the more accurate one. After the case was heard, Isabel Gonzalez settled in Staten Island, then moved to New Jersey. Her extended family is now all over the United States. It’s a very American story.

Prof. Sam Erman 

What other sources did you unearth, and how did they shape your book?

I used three types of sources: records from the dispute, published letters to the editor and government records. Court documents show that the government kept Isabel Gonzalez out of the country by depicting her as an alien who was not a good mother, `worker, wife or daughter.  Published letters to the editor that she and her uncle wrote portray the opposite: She was a commendable woman, parent, employee and spouse. The census and certificates of birth, death and marriage, meanwhile, reveal a woman who led a complicated life. She married several times, fell on hard times, and rebounded to become a proud and honorable matriarch.

Taken together, I think these sources demonstrate how law is not only a “place” where people are portrayed by others, but also where they portray themselves and live out multi-faceted existences.

What are the main takeaways from your book?

First, it illustrates how people without formal legal training shape law. It also demonstrates that law changes outside of courts. Lawmakers, bureaucrats, presidents, and even individual litigants and lawyers change what the Constitution means. Lastly, it shows that whenever people thought about law, they were also thinking about race and gender. How judges and others saw the world profoundly influenced what the law was and what it could become.

Does your book have significance to our current political and historical moment?

The early 20th century was a time when racism and sexism were very much out in the open. Today, as our politics have grown coarser— when questions of race and sex seem more on the surface—it can be helpful to reflect on how a prior generation’s biases affected how judges ruled and politicians legislated.

After last year’s hurricanes threw Puerto Rico’s hardships into the national spotlight, has anything changed? Is there support from Congress—and the American public—for statehood?

Our polarized partisan politics means that the less popular party has strong reasons to oppose statehood, and the more popular party has strong reasons to support statehood.

But it would be unfortunate if either approach were taken in contraposition to the expressed preferences of Puerto Ricans. To make Puerto Rico a state without its people’s consent would breed a great deal of resentment and reinforce a sense of colonialism. If Puerto Ricans, however, want the island to become a state, then to hold them on the outside indefinitely would do damage to our nation as a democracy.

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