What They Learned: Claudia Ojeda Rexach ’21

The history major researched surveillance of pro-independence groups in Puerto Rico, a history her family had told her about but she had never learned in school on the island.

Claudia Ojeda Rexach’s thesis dove into the stories her family had told her about surveillance of pro-independence groups in Puerto Rico. The history major and Latin American, Iberian, and Latinx studies concentrator investigated this history by studying surveillance folders compiled on individuals by the Intelligence Division of the Police of Puerto Rico, a practice called carpeteo.

“I wanted to understand the ways that simple file folders were used to enact colonial state violence in Puerto Rico, whose colonial status was masked as a liberal and democratic state,” said Ojeda.

In her research, Ojeda found that these folders portrayed individuals as domestic terrorists or threats to the state to justify further surveillance and violence against them. 

“It was jarring, though unsurprising, to read about the horrific acts that the police of Puerto Rico carried out and to learn more about a topic that isn’t taught in schools on the island,” said Ojeda who grew up in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, and attended those schools herself.

Her thesis topic came from a history class, “Political Technologies of Race and the Body,” that she took with Associate Professor Andrew Friedman last spring. Friedman also served as Ojeda’s thesis advisor. 

“He has been a part of the entire process of developing all my ideas into the actual thesis, which has been very helpful since he knew the project as well as I did,” she said. “His guidance was instrumental in so many ways, I am very grateful for it.”

What is your biggest takeaway from your thesis project?

My biggest takeaway from this project is the scale of the surveillance program, not just through the files themselves, but through the creation of a large shadow government of surveillance that permeated all aspects of life across the island. Before this project, I had no idea how large and how pervasive carpeteo had been, and this was definitely one of most interesting and revelatory things I found out through my research.

What are the implications for your thesis research?

First of all, my thesis demonstrates that surveillance is ingrained into the liberal colonial apparatus in Puerto Rico and that during the 20th century, carpeteo, the surveillance practice of compiling files, was enacted against pro-independence, anti-colonial movements actively working against that apparatus and looking for Puerto Rican liberation. This offers a different understanding of colonial surveillance in Puerto Rico, showing how it is intrinsically tied to and engrained within a colonial system of liberal governance.

My thesis also offers a way to see surveillance from a Puerto Rican perspective, different from the current scholarship, and how we can view surveillance as enacted by Puerto Rican actors. That is not to take away U.S. influence, rather [to] shift the lens to not just focus on surveillance being possible because of the U.S. It was done by Puerto Ricans in a Puerto Rican context.

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates