Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Laird W. Bergad

Subject Categories

American Studies | Latin American History | United States History


Caribbean, Cement Plant, Hydroelectricity, New Deal, Populism, Puerto Rico


During the 1930s, Puerto Rico experienced acute infrastructural and public health crises caused by the economic contraction of the Great Depression, the devastating San Felipe and San Ciprián hurricanes of 1928 and 1932, and the limitations of the local political structure. Signed into law by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935, the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration (PRRA) replaced all other New Deal activity on the island. As a locally-run federal agency, the PRRA was very unique and yet very representative of the "Second" New Deal in the United States--which attempted to move beyond finding immediate solutions to the most critical problems of the day and make permanent changes to social and economic life for all U.S. citizens. As the first archival analysis of the PRRA, this dissertation argues that the PRRA actively shifted federal policy in Puerto Rico from a paradigm of relief to one of reconstruction focused on the island's specific needs in the wake of the hurricanes and Depression. This shift mirrored the larger change from the laissez faire individualism of the 1920s to the more prominent use of federal power to intervene in socioeconomic life during the New Deal. By building the island's first truly public works and establishing its first public authorities to administer them, the PRRA constructed a new public infrastructure capable of addressing three interrelated goals: increasing life expectancy through concrete interventions in public health; providing more egalitarian public access to a safer and more permanent built environment; and limiting the private corporate control of Puerto Rico's natural resources. Designed by Puerto Rican engineers and built by Puerto Rican workers, PRRA public works projects made concrete contributions to the physical security of millions of Puerto Ricans through the construction of hurricane-proof houses, schools, hospitals, roads, sewers, waterworks, and rural electrification networks. These projects not only made lasting contributions to local social and economic life, they also had a transformative effect on Puerto Rican politics during the 1940s and the meaning of U.S. citizenship for Puerto Ricans in the twentieth century and beyond.