Interview with Nelson Denis, Author of War Against All Puerto Ricans, Part III

Editor’s Note: You can read Part I here and Part II here.

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JM: What are your thoughts on the immigration issue in the United States and how it pertains to Latinos?

ND: The immigration debate is important, and it must be continued until everyone —Latinos and other groups— receive the same consideration that was extended to European immigrants for the past 300 years. This is especially true, when a person who walks 100 meters across the Rio Grande is considered more of a foreigner than a person who arrived from across the Atlantic Ocean.

However, the discussion of Latino issues (particularly amongst politicians, talking TV heads and newspaper columnists) is often limited to this one issue, and that is not healthy. Just like Hawaii, Alaska, Texas, New York and Maine are five enormously different states. Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Columbia and Brazil are five highly differentiated countries. Tijuana and Tierra del Fuego are 6,700 miles apart.

The Latino community is not a monolith, and should vigorously resist the effort by marketers and politicians to treat them as such.

JM: Is there a class and racial bias in Latin America that exacerbates the immigration problem, which is being ignored by U.S. commentators?

ND: The Dominican Republic recently closed five of its consulates in Haiti. Univision and Telemundo news anchors are lighter-skinned. So yes, class and racial bias exists nearly everywhere on this planet. Many of the poorer, disenfranchised individuals are the ones who have to move, and hope for a better opportunity elsewhere.

This is rarely addressed by U.S. commentators.

JM: What is missing from discussions about Latino identity, especially in regards to Puerto Ricans?

ND: Puerto Ricans were subjected to many assaults on their identity:

  • the English language was imposed on them for decades
  • US governors were imposed on them for 50 years
  • over 100,000 Puerto Ricans had secret FBI files (carpetas) opened on them
  • the level of informants required to generate 100,000 carpetas numbered in the thousands

For decades, there were over 100 police informants in every town in Puerto Rico. This created a culture of secrecy, mistrust, apprehension and betrayal.

In a very real sense, through its covert actions (100,000 carpetas and thousands of police informants); overt actions (Ponce, Utuado and Río Piedras massacres; bombing two towns, arresting thousands of citizens); economic violence (currency devaluation, Hollander Act taxation, eviction of Puerto Rican farmers, denial of minimum wage); political disenfranchisement (no vote in federal elections, no representation in US Congress); and racial discrimination in the mainland. The U.S. has twisted and steamrolled the Puerto Rican character for over 100 years.

The island’s ELA status —with a U.S. veto over any law enacted by the Puerto Rico legislature— is one of the best examples of this twisted relationship.

JM: Should Latinos be more concerned with assimilation or with maintaining their distinct communities, and where is the balance between the two?

ND: Over the past 50 years, the Cuban community in Miami has accomplished both of these goals, and there is no reason why others shouldn’t do the same.

One of the best ways to do this —as American as apple pie— is through constant civic engagement. Attend PTA meetings, find a book club, run for the school board, join the local Chamber of Commerce, start your own Latino Chamber of Commerce.

Whether you’re a Democrat, Republican or something else, make sure they see and hear you.

You can do all this without losing one shred of cultural identity, or forgetting your personal heritage.

JM: How have race and class evolved in Puerto Rico since the 1950 Revolution?

ND: Since I was not raised on the island, I do not have enough personal experience to offer a concrete answer for this.

From speaking with family, visiting the island often, observing the prevailing media imagery and noting the skin, eye and hair color of news anchors and telenovela stars, I don’t see any great changes.

JM: One of the greatest contradictions of U.S.-Latin American relations is the amount of love many have in the region toward the very country that has repeatedly helped install fascist, murderous dictators and depress their economies. Why do Latinos continually embrace a country whose government has historically been hostile to them?

ND: I don’t think they embrace or “love” the oppressing country, and certainly not its government. They embrace certain aspects of it.

The mythological “American dream,” wherein the streets of New York are paved with gold and anyone can become a millionaire, has captured many imaginations.

The American film industry gets into people’s heads, all over the planet.

Back in July 2002, when we were bombing Afghanistan into the Stone Age, a U.S. plane bombed a wedding ceremony in the village of Kakarak and killed thirty people. I saw a photo of a boy looking for members of his family, in the ruins of one of the buildings. He was wearing a t-shirt with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s face on it. This boy had no great love for the US, but he was still an Arnold Schwarzenegger fan.

Ten thousand people might shout ¡Que viva Puerto Rico! on Thursday, but the next day, on Black Friday, those same ten thousand people might storm a Walmart for the latest flat screen TVs.

Consumerism can be very powerful and insidious. Many people “resent” Uncle Sam but love to eat Big Macs, watch 50-inch TVs, smell and glow like J.Lo, and they fail to see the contradiction in all this. Without realizing it, their “resentment” of Uncle Sam has become purely theoretical.

It’s a Stockholm Syndrome that transcends political border, based on materialism and celebrity.

JM: What responsibility, if any, do Latinos in the United States have in helping their homelands? Specifically for Puerto Rico, are those in the diaspora doing enough to support their brothers and sisters back home?

ND: This question is difficult to answer. It is difficult to define “enough.” In a sense, there is never an “enough,” because you can always do more to help other people.

Over the years, I have seen some families remain very tight-knit, and help each other across several generations.

I have seen other families that fall apart quickly, and don’t even contact each other. I find this very sad.

One thing I noticed in East Harlem, was the number of Mexican immigrants who worked sixty hours a week, so they could send a monthly remesa to their families in Puebla. That left a deep impression on me.

JM: Finally, what lessons should be learned from the Revolution of 1950? Given the economic desperation currently on the island, could and should there be another one?

ND: For me, the greatest lesson from the 1950 Revolution was that history is always written by the winners. Even as they deployed 5,000 National Guard troops, bombed two towns, and arrested 3,000 Puerto Ricans, the US conned the rest of the world into thinking that it was, as President Truman put it, “an incident between Puerto Ricans.”

Real revolutions (as opposed to disguised right-wing coups d’état) are always healthy. But after 117 years of colonization, the greatest obstacle to a real revolution in Puerto Rico is no longer the US government or the US military. It is the thought patterns, and value systems, of the people themselves.

The people in this shopping mall are not thinking about revolution:

So I don’t think a political revolution will set things right anymore. It’s too late for that. Something much more radical is necessary now: a change in consciousness. People have to throw out their televisions, shut off the internet, drink water, play baseball, walk long distances and read books.

War Against All Puerto Ricans will be available on April 7.

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