Carlos A. Santiago
In 1893, Puerto Rican poet Lola Rodriguez referred to Cuba and Puerto Rico as “two wings of the same bird.” Both islands experienced colonialism under the Spanish empire and were exploited by the hegemonic power of the United States. Although they have had similar experiences, these two islands have historically been viewed differently.
During the nineteenth and twentieth century, Cuba was often viewed as “sexy” by Americans while Puerto Rico was seen as unattractive. Following the Cuban Revolution this perception began to shift and the unfolding of this change can be seen through changes in material culture.
Today, many of us know Bacardi as a Puerto Rican rum. The Bacardi brand often conjures images of sandy beaches and the iconic Bacardi black bat. While the black bat symbol that is branded on every bottle of Bacardi has existed since its inception, the words “Puerto Rican Rum” were not always there. That is because Bacardi was established in Cuba during its national period.
The differences between an 1862 Bacardi bottle and one bottle from 2020 highlights how a Cuban brand has been reinterpreted as a Puerto Rican brand aligned with capitalism. In 1862, a Bacardi bottle would have the words “Santiago de Cuba” rather than “Puerto Rico” inscribed on them. After the Cuba Revolution, Bacardi’s Cuban roots began to be erased.
Bacardi is not just a brand of rum. It is the surname of a prominent Cuban family, Don Facundo Bacardi was the company founder in 1862. The establishment of Bacardi rum happened before Cuba engaged in the Ten Years’ War. Led by Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, this was a conflict that set the stage for Cuban independence from Spain in 1898. Even before this event, Cubans were expressing themselves as people who were different from their colonizers. Tensions rose in the 1860s, alongside the rise of nationalism across the island as many Cubans demanded independence and the abolition of slavery.
Don Facundo Bacardi’s wife, Amalia, chose to put the famous bat symbol on the bottles of rum. Despite them being born in Spain, the Bacardis identified as Cuban. Emilio Bacardi, Don Facundo’s son, famously stated “Cuba libre” (free Cuba) as he advocated for the abolition of slavery and for Cuban independence. The bat was a symbol that Cubans adopted it as their own. The bat on the bottle shows us how Cubans viewed themselves and how they wanted the world to view them in the 1860s. The bat symbolized good fortune, brotherhood, self-confidence, discretion and faithfulness. Cubans identified with the symbol because it encapsulated the traits and values that made them different from Spain and served as an argument to show that their identity was strong enough to exist without Spain.
The Bacardi family was committed to the Cuban cause. They went on to support the Cuban Revolution that was led by Fidel Castro in the 1950s. At the beginning of his movement, Fidel did not promote himself as a communist. Instead, he branded himself as liberal reformer that wanted to end the American empire’s hegemony over Cuba’s economy. The Bacardis supported him before the change in Fidel Castro’s political language.
However, once the Cuban revolution concluded, it did not benefit the Bacardis. One of Castro’s most notorious political actions was nationalizing land across the island through agricultural reform. This meant that American land and privatized land, like that of the Bacardis, was confiscated in the name of the state. This caused the Bacardi family to move their operations elsewhere. Soon, the “Santiago de Cuba” inscribed on the rum bottles would have to change.
Cuba was changing. Communism no longer made Cuba “sexy” in the eyes of American consumers. The Bacardis had to adjust to that change. Fortunately for Bacardi, Puerto Rico was changing too. The island was viewed as a capitalist haven during this decade. 1960s Puerto Rico had undergone a capitalist transformation that made it look appealing in comparison to a totalitarian and anti-American 1960s Cuba.
The New Deal was brought to Puerto Rico during the FDR administration. Prior to this, Puerto Rico was seen as a disease-infested island with backwards inhabitants. The New Deal sparked a movement that drastically changed the island’s image from a backwater to a tropical paradise with American features. The United States in collaboration with the local Puerto Rican government developed the island’s economy. This helped further cement the United States’ rule and power in Latin America.
Between 1934 and 1965, roads, hotels, hospitals, banks and other economic projects like renovating Old San Juan improved the Puerto Rican quality of life. By the 1960s, Puerto Rico was the United States’ proof to the world that capitalism worked. This image of Puerto Rico is what incentivized Bacardi to relocate to San Juan.
When looking at a Bacardi bottle from the 1960s onward, the labels read “Puerto Rican Rum.” There is no mention of Cuba anywhere on the bottle. The only remnant that remains from the Cuban nationalist period is the bat symbol; a symbol which is not seen as a Cuban image by most contemporary consumers.
Branding Bacardi as “Puerto Rican Rum” not only made the rum exotic in the eyes of consumers, but it made those same consumers comfortable because of Puerto Rico’s capitalist transformation. Looking at these bottles from the lens of material culture gives us a story about the Cold War and communism that is hidden beneath subtle changes and reinterpretations. Bacardi is just one example of how a political era can be encapsulated in every day material culture.
Carlos A. Santiago is a public historian based in New York City. He currently helps preserve genealogical documents as a Digital Collections Assistant at the NYG&B. He is also a student of the history of tourism and the New Deal in Puerto Rico.