By Tatiahna Turner
Isabel González was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico. When the island came to be under ownership of the United States through the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898, González still resided on the island. One condition of the treaty was to transfer allegiance of the islanders to the United States. Under the Treaty of Paris, Puerto Rico was classified as “unincorporated territory” which meant that citizens of Puerto Rico did not have the protection from the United States Constitution that Americans did, including the right to United States citizenship. In short, the island belonged to the United States but was not a part of the United States. There were many factors that played a part in why the United States was not granting Puerto Ricans citizenship, one reason was the belief that the Puerto Rican population was considered to be racially and socially inferior to Americans. An 1899 letter published in the New York Times described Puerto Ricans as, “uneducated, simple-minded and harmless people who were only interested in wine, women, music and dancing.”
González’s fiancé, Juan Francisco Torres traveled to New York City in 1902, leaving her behind, pregnant and with another child from a previous marriage. He left with the intention of finding a job in a factory in Linoleumville, Staten Island. González was to join her fiancé there and they were to marry after he found a place to live. In August of 1902, González traveled from San Juan, Puerto Rico to New York. Normally the steamship she boarded would dock at the Port of New York, but during her travels the United States Treasury Department’s Immigration Commissioner, General F. P. Sargent issued new immigration guidelines that changed Puerto Ricans status to “aliens”. As a result, when González arrived on August 4, 1902 her and other passengers were taken to Ellis Island. González was detained upon arrival by the Immigration Commissioner as an “alien immigrant” with the intention of deporting her. When immigration officials learned of her pregnancy the Board of Special Inquiry opened a file on her.
The next day a hearing was held for González. Her uncle, Domingo Collazo, and her brother, Luis González joined her. During the hearing her family had to answer questions that vouched for her character and independence in a manner that would convince the court that she would not be a burden to the state’s welfare system. These attempts failed and her fiancé’s absence (due to work requirements) played a part in the court’s decision to stop González from being allowed to enter into the United States. After her loss, González appealed her case to the Supreme Court and focused on the issue that all Puerto Ricans were citizens of the United States, and as a result shouldn’t be detained, treated as aliens, or denied entry to the United States. The case, which became known as Gonzáles v. Williams, was argued in the U.S. Supreme Court on December 4 and 7 of 1903. González, who was out on bond, secretly married her fiancé and thus became “a citizen of this country through marriage” and acquired the right to remain stateside. She could have ended her appeal, but she instead 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, and their situation remained confusing, ambiguous, and contested. Puerto Ricans came to be known as something in between: “noncitizen nationals.” However, in 1917 triggered by the efforts of Isabel González, Congress extended citizenship to Puerto Ricans.
Through her determination and perseverance, Isabel González helped pave the way for the rights of Puerto Ricans. She died on June 11, 1971 and is buried with her husband at Holy Cross Cemetery in New Jersey. Her legacy continues through her great-granddaughter, Belinda Torres-Mary, who actively pursues information regarding her great-grandmother’s history and immigration struggles.