Tertulia Con Solsiree del Moral

Contributed by Julia Marchese

On October 10th, 2018, Dr. Solsiree del Moral (Visiting Professor in History from UMass Amherst)
discussed her forthcoming book Street Children, Crime, and Punishment. It is the first historical study of
street children and incarcerated youth in post-World War II Puerto Rico. Minors in jails and correctional
schools suffered from dire conditions that to this day remain little known in Puerto Rico. Professor del
Moral described how, decades later, she was the first to touch many of the archival documents consulted
in her research.

Her presentation was divided up according to the chapters of her book: How the public saw the street
children and how the street children saw themselves; the history of holding minors in penal institutions;
the children’s stories; and the consequences of these reprehensible acts under the government of Luis
Muñoz Marín.

During the late 1940’s and early 50’s, many rural Puerto Rican workers were being recruited to urban parts of the island to work in the factories as a part of Operation Bootstrap, an industrialization program implemented by Muñoz Marín. This rural-to-urban migration sparked the formation of shantytowns in thecities. Many parents would work in the factories while children, ages nine to sixteen years old, roamed the streets with minimal adult supervision. These “street children,” not all of whom knew their parents, would sleep in allies, idle on streets, and work selling food and guarding cars. In the words of del Moral, the street children’s presence “offended the bourgeoisie,” prompting many upper-class Puerto Ricans to write to the government of Muñoz to fix the problem of the “pre-delinquent children.”

The minors were jailed in penal institutions, prisons, and correctional schools. Dilapidated conditions were common, and many of the incarcerated minors experienced overcrowding, lack of sanitation, poor
hygiene, insufficient food, prolonged solitary confinement, physical abuse, and sexual violence.
Incarcerated children were jailed with the mentally ill or with criminals. It was not until 1955 that federal and international attention was given to their predicament. When the government decided to release the children due to overcrowding, they soon realized the institutions into whose care they attempted to release these children were understaffed, negligent, and simply lacked sufficient services. The government realized they did not have good records of the detained children and many of the minors ran away and lived independently on the streets of cities such as Ponce.

Preliminary conclusions of del Moral’s book illustrate the challenges confronting Muñoz Marín in responding to the problem of unsupervised minors and the life-lasting effects that government initiatives had on this population. While the government romanticized the rural jíbaro lifestyle, the realities of the shantytowns were vastly different. For decades these stories have gone untold, and that is what del Moral’s book attempts to change.