Isabel Gonzalez
Isabel González was a Puerto Rican activist who helped pave the way for Puerto Ricans to be given United States citizenship. As a young unwed pregnant woman, Gonzalez had her plans to find and marry the father of her unborn child, derailed by the United States Treasury Department, when she was excluded as an alien "likely to become a public charge" upon her arrival to New York City. Gonzalez challenged the Government of the United States in the groundbreaking case Gonzales v. Williams (192 U.S. 1 (1904)
Case citation
Case citation is the system used in many countries to identify the decisions in past court cases, either in special series of books called reporters or law reports, or in a 'neutral' form which will identify a decision wherever it was reported...

). Officially the case was known as "Isabella Gonzales, Appellant, vs. William Williams, United States Commissioner of Immigration at the Port of New York" No. 225, argued December 4, 7, 1903 and decided January 4, 1904. Her case was an appeal from the Circuit Court of the United States for the Southern District of New York, filed February 27, 1903, after also having her Writ of Habeas Corpus (HC. 1-187) dismissed. Her Supreme Court case is the first time that the Court confronted the citizenship status of inhabitants of territories acquired by the United States. Gonzalez actively pursued the cause of U.S. citizenship for all Puerto Ricans by writing and publishing letters in the New York Times.

Early years

González was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico
San Juan, Puerto Rico
San Juan , officially Municipio de la Ciudad Capital San Juan Bautista , is the capital and most populous municipality in Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory of the United States. As of the 2010 census, it had a population of 395,326 making it the 46th-largest city under the jurisdiction of...

, to Severo González and Antonia Dávila when the island was still a Spanish possession. She was a native inhabitant of Puerto Rico and a Spanish subject, though not of the Peninsula (Spain). She was residing in the island on April 11, 1899, the date of the proclamation of the Treaty of Paris of 1898 which ceded the island to the United States. One of the conditions of the treaty was the transfer by cession the allegiance of the islanders to the United States. González was a citizen of Puerto Rico, but not of the United States even though the island was governed by that nation.

González's fiance left Puerto Rico for New York City
New York City
New York is the most populous city in the United States and the center of the New York Metropolitan Area, one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world. New York exerts a significant impact upon global commerce, finance, media, art, fashion, research, technology, education, and...

 in 1902, leaving her pregnant and with another child from a previous marriage (she was a widow) behind. He went with the intention of finding a job in a factory in Linoleumville, Staten Island
Staten Island
Staten Island is a borough of New York City, New York, United States, located in the southwest part of the city. Staten Island is separated from New Jersey by the Arthur Kill and the Kill Van Kull, and from the rest of New York by New York Bay...

, in the neighborhood where Isabel's brother, Luis González worked. González was to join him there and they were to marry after he found a place to live.

Situation in Puerto Rico pre-1904

Under the terms of the Treaty of Paris of 1898
Treaty of Paris (1898)
The Treaty of Paris of 1898 was signed on December 10, 1898, at the end of the Spanish-American War, and came into effect on April 11, 1899, when the ratifications were exchanged....

 which was ratified on December 10, 1898, Puerto Rico was annexed by the United States after the 1898 Spanish–American War. Spain had lost its last colony in the western hemisphere. The United States established a military government which acted as both head of the army of occupation and administrator of civil affairs. Almost immediately, the United States began the "Americanization
Americanization is the influence of the United States on the popular culture, technology, business practices, or political techniques of other countries. The term has been used since at least 1907. Inside the U.S...

" process of Puerto Rico. The U.S. occupation brought about a total change in Puerto Rico's economy and polity
Polity is a form of government Aristotle developed in his search for a government that could be most easily incorporated and used by the largest amount of people groups, or states...

 and did not apply democratic principles in their colony. Puerto Rico was classified as an "unincorporated territory" which meant that the protections of the United States Constitution
United States Constitution
The Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the United States of America. It is the framework for the organization of the United States government and for the relationship of the federal government with the states, citizens, and all people within the United States.The first three...

 — including the right of citizenship — did not automatically apply, because the island belonged to the U.S., but was not part of the U.S.

On January 15, 1899, the military government changed the name of Puerto Rico to Porto Rico (On May 17, 1932 U.S. Congress changed the name back to "Puerto Rico") and the island's currency was changed from the Puerto Rican peso to the American dollar integrating the island's currency into the U.S. monetary system. The United States exerted their control over the economy of the island by prohibiting Puerto Rico from negotiating commercial treaties with other nations, from determining tariffs, and from shipping goods to the mainland on other than U.S. carriers.

Opposition to U.S. Citizenship for Puerto Ricans

There were various factors which contributed to the opposition of giving United States Citizenship to Puerto Ricans by the Government of the United States. The U.S. Congress was reluctant to fully incorporate Puerto Rico because its population was deemed racially and socially inferior to that of the mainland. In 1899, U.S. Senator George Frisbie Hoar
George Frisbie Hoar
George Frisbie Hoar was a prominent United States politician and United States Senator from Massachusetts. Hoar was born in Concord, Massachusetts...

 described Puerto Ricans as: uneducated, simple-minded and harmless people who were only interested in wine, women, music and dancing

Prior to 1898, the United States had organized new acquisitions from nontribal governments into largely self-governing territories as a prelude to statehood and had generally extended broad constitutional protections and U.S. citizenship to free, nontribal residents. After 1898 this process changed and in Puerto Rico, Congress established a centrally controlled administration and declined to recognize Puerto Ricans as U.S. citizens.

In the Downes v. Bidwell
Downes v. Bidwell
Downes v. Bidwell, , was a case in which the United States Supreme Court decided whether United States territories were subject to the provisions and protections of the United States Constitution. This question is sometimes stated as "does the Constitution follow the flag?". The resulting decision...

case of 1901, the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged that the U.S. Constitution functioned differently in Puerto Rico than on the mainland. Justice Edward Douglass White
Edward Douglass White
Edward Douglass White, Jr. , American politician and jurist, was a United States senator, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court and the ninth Chief Justice of the United States. He was best known for formulating the Rule of Reason standard of antitrust law. He also sided with the...

  introduced the concept of unincorporated territorial and reasoned that unlike prior territories, Puerto Rico had not been incorporated by Congress or by treaty into the U.S. union. It was thus "foreign to the United States in a domestic sense", that is, foreign for domestic law purposes, but also part of the United States under international law. The decision permitted the establishment of unequal, undemocratic polities in such territories, did not demand that those territories eventually be incorporated, and granted wide latitude to Congress and the executive in structuring those polities.

González Travels to New York City

In August 1902, González boarded the S.S. Philadelphia
USS Yale (1889)
SS Paris—a steamship built between 1888 and 1889 by J. & G. Thompson at Glasgow, Scotland—was acquired by the U. S. Navy on 27 April 1898 under charter from the International Navigation Co.; renamed USS Yale; and commissioned on 2 May 1898, Capt. W. C. Wise in command. In 1918 she was...

, a steamship which departed from San Juan, Puerto Rico
San Juan, Puerto Rico
San Juan , officially Municipio de la Ciudad Capital San Juan Bautista , is the capital and most populous municipality in Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory of the United States. As of the 2010 census, it had a population of 395,326 making it the 46th-largest city under the jurisdiction of...

 with New York City as its destination. She telegramed her family about her expected arrival which normally would be in the docks of New York, however while the S.S. Philadelphia was en route, the United States Treasury Department's Immigration Commissioner General F. P. Sargent issued new immigration guidelines that changed González's and her fellow countrymen's status to that of aliens. Gonzalez and the others arrived on August 24, 1902 and were transferred to Ellis Island
Ellis Island
Ellis Island in New York Harbor was the gateway for millions of immigrants to the United States. It was the nation's busiest immigrant inspection station from 1892 until 1954. The island was greatly expanded with landfill between 1892 and 1934. Before that, the much smaller original island was the...


The new commissioner of immigration at Ellis Island was William Williams, a former Wall Street
Wall Street
Wall Street refers to the financial district of New York City, named after and centered on the eight-block-long street running from Broadway to South Street on the East River in Lower Manhattan. Over time, the term has become a metonym for the financial markets of the United States as a whole, or...

 lawyer. He was aggressively construing the statutory bar on aliens "likely to become a public charge" and he was strictly enforcing immigration laws. Williams directed inspectors to treat aliens as suspect if they traveled with less than ten dollars. He also instructed his inspectors to attach the label of "public charge" to unmarried mothers and their children, even though most of them had jobs waiting for them. Ellis Island policy dictated that "unmarried pregnant women were always detained for further investigation" and that single women were only released if family members came to claim them.

González was detained by the Immigration Commissioner at that port as an "alien immigrant
Alien (law)
In law, an alien is a person in a country who is not a citizen of that country.-Categorization:Types of "alien" persons are:*An alien who is legally permitted to remain in a country which is foreign to him or her. On specified terms, this kind of alien may be called a legal alien of that country...

", in order that she might be returned to Puerto Rico if it appeared that she was likely to become a public charge. Gonzalez had eleven dollars in cash on her person and her family was to pick her up, however the immigration officials discovered her pregnancy during her early line inspection and a Board of Special Inquiry opened a file (note: her surname was later misspelled as "Gonzales" by immigration officials) on her.

Board Hearings

A hearing was held the next day and González's uncle, Domingo Collazo, and her brother, Luis González, joined her (her fiance was not permitted to miss his job). During the hearings the family focused on the question of preserving González's honor and bringing her to New York. Inspectors weighed proof of legitimate family relations through presumptions that certain kinds of women were inadequate mothers and certain kinds of men were insufficient fathers and husbands. Williams stated:

"It will be a very easy matter to fill up this country rapidly with immigrants upon whom responsibility for the proper bringing up of their offspring sits lightly, but it cannot be claimed that this will enure to the benefit of the American people."

Two days later, without the help from the father of Isabel González's expected child, another attempt was made by González's brother and by Domingo Collazo's wife, Hermina Collazo (Hermina was Isabel's Aunt, or the sister of Isabel's mother, Antonia Davila). The family insisted that Gonzalez would not be a burden to the State's Welfare
Welfare refers to a broad discourse which may hold certain implications regarding the provision of a minimal level of wellbeing and social support for all citizens without the stigma of charity. This is termed "social solidarity"...

 system since they had the economic means to support her. However these attempts failed in part because González's fiance failed to appear
at the hearing and as such played a central role in the immigration authorities’ decision to stop her from entering the US. Collazo then used his political and professional connections. In the 1890s Collazo had been active in a radical wing of the Cuban Revolutionary Party that sought an Antillean social revolution to improve the status of workers and people of African descent. He had attended meetings with Antillean activists Arturo Alfonso Schomburg
Arturo Alfonso Schomburg
Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, a.k.a. as Arthur Schomburg, , was a Puerto Rican historian, writer, and activist in the United States who researched and raised awareness of the great contributions that Afro-Latin Americans and Afro-Americans have made to society. He was an important intellectual figure...

 and Rosendo Rodríguez. Collazo swore a habeas corpus
Habeas corpus
is a writ, or legal action, through which a prisoner can be released from unlawful detention. The remedy can be sought by the prisoner or by another person coming to his aid. Habeas corpus originated in the English legal system, but it is now available in many nations...

 petition for González. During this time, a friend of González related the story to Orrel A. Parker, a lawyer. His partner, Charles E. Le Barbier became interested in the case and filed Collazo's petition with the U.S. Circuit Court for the Southern District of New York. Seven weeks later, the court issued its opinion. The court ruled that the petitioner was an alien and upheld her exclusion.

United States Supreme Court: Gonzales v. Williams

On August 30, 1902, Federico Degetau
Federico Degetau
Federico Degetau y González, born in Ponce was a Puerto Rican politician, lawyer, writer, author, and the first Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico to the United States House of Representatives.-Early years:...

 an expert in international law
International law
Public international law concerns the structure and conduct of sovereign states; analogous entities, such as the Holy See; and intergovernmental organizations. To a lesser degree, international law also may affect multinational corporations and individuals, an impact increasingly evolving beyond...

 and the first Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico
Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico
The Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico is a non-voting member of the United States House of Representatives elected by the voters of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico every four years...

 to the United States House of Representatives
United States House of Representatives
The United States House of Representatives is one of the two Houses of the United States Congress, the bicameral legislature which also includes the Senate.The composition and powers of the House are established in Article One of the Constitution...

, unaware of the Gonzalez situation, wrote to the Secretary of State
Secretary of State
Secretary of State or State Secretary is a commonly used title for a senior or mid-level post in governments around the world. The role varies between countries, and in some cases there are multiple Secretaries of State in the Government....

 in protest of the new rules that made Puerto Ricans subject to immigration laws. His protest was forwarded to the Treasury Department. Degetau then contacted Le Barbier and Parker, who informed him that they planned to appeal Gonzalez's case to the Supreme Court.

Once she lost her administrative appeal, González switched tactics. She decided to appeal and to take her case to the United States Supreme Court, however this time instead of focusing on the "public charge" issue, she decided to take up the issue that all Puerto Ricans were citizens of the United States and as such should not be detained, treated as aliens and denied entry into the United States.

Degetau saw in the case of Isabel González, the perfect "test case" because now it would not be about whether immigration inspectors, following guidelines suffused with concepts of race and gender, deemed Isabel González and her family desirable. The case now would be about settling the status of all the native islanders who were in existence at the time the Spanish possessions were annexed by the United States. By February 16, 1903, Frederic René Coudert, Jr.
Frederic René Coudert, Jr.
Frederic René Coudert Jr. ; born, died in New York City) was a Representative from New York.-Background:Coudert attended Browning and Morristown Schools in New York City, then graduated from Columbia University in 1918 and from its law school in 1922...

, an international-law attorney from New York, who launched the Downes v. Bidwell
Downes v. Bidwell
Downes v. Bidwell, , was a case in which the United States Supreme Court decided whether United States territories were subject to the provisions and protections of the United States Constitution. This question is sometimes stated as "does the Constitution follow the flag?". The resulting decision...

case for clients protesting tariffs levied on goods shipped between Puerto Rico and the United States, joined Paul Fuller, Charles E. LeBarbier and Degetau in the Gonzalez case as a collaborator.

The case, which became known as Gonzáles v. Williams, was argued in the U.S. Supreme Court on December 4 and 7, 1903 and was presided by Chief Justice Melville Weston Fuller. The case sparked the administrative, legal, and media discussions about the status of Puerto Ricans. It also questioned the issues of immigration and U.S. doctrines in the treatment of U.S. citizens, chiefly women and people of color (dark skinned). González and her lawyers moved among the legal realms, aided by shared languages of race, gender, and morality, while the U.S. solicitor general Henry M. Hoyt
Henry M. Hoyt
Henry Martyn Hoyt, Sr. was the 18th Governor of Pennsylvania from 1879 to 1883, as well as a general in the Union army during the American Civil War.-Early life and career:...

, focused on what he considered were failed parents, rearing children outside moral, economically self-sufficient homes.

González, who was out on bond, secretly married her fiance and thus became "a citizen of this country through marriage," and acquired the right to remain stateside. She could have ended her appeal, but instead she decided to press her claim that all Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens.

On January 4, 1904, the Court determined that under the immigration laws González was not an alien, and therefore could not be denied entry into New York. The court, however declined to declare that she was a U.S. citizen. The question of the citizenship status of the inhabitants of the new island territories, their situation remained confusing, ambiguous, and contested. Puerto Ricans came to be known as something in between: "noncitizen nationals."


Isabel González had five children. She married Juan Francisco Torres on November 17, 1915, and stayed in New York until the 1930s when they moved to New Jersey (1930 Cranford Township NJ Census). She actively pursued the cause of U.S. citizenship for all Puerto Ricans because she believed that if the people of Puerto Rico were deceived out of one honorable status—Spanish citizenship—the United States was obliged to extend Puerto Ricans a new honorable status—U.S. citizenship. She wrote and published letters in the New York Times that the decision and surrounding events of her case revealed that the United States failed to treat Puerto Ricans honorably, breaking promises to them and marking them as inferior to "full-fledged American citizens". González wrote the following:

"Gen. Miles (Nelson A. Miles
Nelson A. Miles
Nelson Appleton Miles was a United States soldier who served in the American Civil War, Indian Wars, and the Spanish-American War.-Early life:Miles was born in Westminster, Massachusetts, on his family's farm...

) went to Porto Rico to save us, and proclaimed to the wide winds his 'liberating' speech." But instead of U.S. citizenship, Puerto Ricans got "the actual (current) incongruous status—'neither Americans nor foreigners,' as it was vouchsafed by the United States Supreme Court apropos of my detention at Ellis Island for the crime of being an 'alien.'"

Federico Degetau traveled to Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C., formally the District of Columbia and commonly referred to as Washington, "the District", or simply D.C., is the capital of the United States. On July 16, 1790, the United States Congress approved the creation of a permanent national capital as permitted by the U.S. Constitution....

, as Puerto Rico’s first "Resident Commissioner," or nonvoting representative. He dedicated himself to the struggle to gain U.S. citizenship for all Puerto Ricans.

Frederic René Coudert, Jr. became a member of the State Senate from 1939 to 1946 and was elected as a Republican to the Eightieth and to the five succeeding United States Congress
United States Congress
The United States Congress is the bicameral legislature of the federal government of the United States, consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Congress meets in the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C....

es (January 3, 1947 - January 3, 1959; was not a candidate for the 86th Congress).


Isabel's struggle was not in vain, in 1917, the United States Congress passed the Jones-Shafroth Act
Jones-Shafroth Act
The Jones–Shafroth Act was a 1917 Act of the United States Congress by which Puerto Ricans were collectively made U.S. citizens, the people of Puerto Rico were empowered to have a popularly-elected Senate, established a bill of rights, and authorized the election of a Resident Commissioner to a...

 which conferred United States citizenship on all citizens of Puerto Rico and allowed conscription
Conscription is the compulsory enlistment of people in some sort of national service, most often military service. Conscription dates back to antiquity and continues in some countries to the present day under various names...

 (military draft) to be extended to the island. The act, which was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson
Thomas Woodrow Wilson was the 28th President of the United States, from 1913 to 1921. A leader of the Progressive Movement, he served as President of Princeton University from 1902 to 1910, and then as the Governor of New Jersey from 1911 to 1913...

 on March 2, 1917, also revised the system of the government in Puerto Rico
Government of Puerto Rico
The Government of Puerto Rico is a republican form of government subject to U.S. jurisdiction and sovereignty. Its current powers are all delegated by the United States Congress and lack full protection under the United States Constitution...

. Isabel González moved to Cranford Township, New Jersey around 1930 with her husband Juan Francisco Torres. Her descendents went on to live in New Jersey, Florida, California and Colorado. She died on June 11, 1971 and is buried with her husband in Holy Cross Cemetery, North Arlington, New Jersey. Her great grand-daughter, Belinda Torres-Mary, now actively pursues and maintains information regarding Isabel's history and immigration struggle and is the keeper of the family documents.

Further reading

  • Civic Ideals: "Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in U.S. History"; By Rogers M. Smith; Page 438; Published by Yale University Press, 1997; ISBN 0-300-07877-3, 9780300078770

González's groundbreaking immigration case was later published in the following books:
  • "De Antes Y De Ahora: Coleccion De Articulos Y Discursos" by Luis Sanchez Morales, 1936 (published by Centro Editorial Ruben Dario, Madrid Spain).
  • "Puerto Rican Almanac": "Almanaque Puertorriqueno Asenjo" (1937) page 97-98.

See also

  • List of famous Puerto Ricans
  • Insular Cases
    Insular Cases
    The Insular Cases are several U.S. Supreme Court cases concerning the status of territories acquired by the U.S. in the Spanish-American War . The name "insular" derives from the fact that these territories are islands and were administered by the War Department's Bureau of Insular Affairs...

External links

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