This is a story about a book and a new friendship.
When I first heard that Nelson A. Denis was publishing War Against All Puerto Ricans, and that it would release yesterday (already topping the Amazon charts in Caribbean History and Caribbean & Latin American Politics categories), to say I was intrigued would be selling my emotions short.
I was excited.
Having known about a forgotten history of 20th-century Puerto Rico through family tales and then having studied and devoured Puerto Rican history since my teens, I had always believed that our past as a people has been forcefully locked away, due to colonial politics and the desire to not bring up stories that are both ugly yet real. Those who raise those stories get labeled as “radicals” and “secessionists” (yes, someone actually called me that once). Yet, as I have always argued, as we progress into an unknown future for Puerto Rico, we must first understand where we came from and how we got here.
That is what War Against All Puerto Ricans accomplishes, and any serious student of the relationship between the world’s greatest power and a tiny Caribbean island-colony-nation needs to read this book. In fact, anyone who wants to understand U.S. imperial history from the time of Manifest Destiny needs to read this book. It will leave you mad, outraged, frustrated, incredulous and hopeful.
Meticulously sourced (close to 100 pages of notes), this 261-page book (hardcover version) presents Puerto Rico from the turn of the century to the early 1950s in a way few authors have ever captured. While these stories have been told before, Denis’ prose gives them a new life never before seen. The focus of the book examines how the United States, since American troops landed on shores of Puerto Rico in 1898, dealt with “Porto Rico” for decades. From elitist Ivy League educated governors to military men, we see a Puerto Rico that becomes, as Denis puts it, a “Chinatown.” Those who know the 70s classic movie would understand.
In essence, things go awry in Puerto Rico because it literally became an experimental playground for U.S. political, business and military interests. And no one in the United States truly cared because it’s only “Chinatown.” As simplistic as that sounds, Denis’ thesis will have you thinking and rethinking the notion that in the end the United States has truly treated Puerto Rico like the colony it has always been. To some, that would suggest that Denis is showing his biases as a pro-independence Nationalist romantic who longs for the days of Pedro Albizu Campos, as if he is some hopeless revolutionary author. That could be the case, but when you read the Epilogue and how the author frames his work within the context of modern-day Puerto Rico, you are left to conclude otherwise.
I will not reveal too much about the book’s content, since it will spoil it for new readers (I have read it twice), but I will say that to the uninitiated, be prepared. You will learn about things you have never read in U.S. history (and Puerto Rican history) textbooks—from black cells where Nationalist sympathizers and leaders were tortured, to tales of U.S. fighters flying over the Puerto Rican town of Utuado and bombing it. You will learn about how the 1950 Revolution in Puerto Rico failed, due to Denis’ claim that the U.S. government had already infiltrated the Nationalists as well as the governor’s mansion of Puerto Rico. Some of it will be fantastical and outrageous (Luis Muñoz Marín’s opium addiction and Hoover’s obsession with it, for instance) and some of it will feel as if the book is just spinning Nationalist stories passed down from generation to generation, but it is extremely hard to knock Denis down for sharing his perspective on this lost history in a way that few have captured.
The Ponce Massacre happened.
The shootout at Salón Boricua happened.
The way the United States government treated the final years of Pedro Albizu Campos happened.
The colonial relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico is real.
These, and other stories, told in a way that reminded me of a historical pulp fiction nonfiction (that’s a good thing), will open Puerto Rican history to a new audience, especially the third- or fourth-generation English-dominant Puerto Rican audience who thinks being boricua is just about New York City parades and JLO. War Against All Puerto Ricans is also required reading for any Latin Americanist. What happened in Puerto Rico over 60 years ago will not surprise those who follow Latin American history. All Nation Books (Denis’ publisher) has to do now is publish a Spanish version of this book and quickly.
It’s not like Denis is some hack —a Harvard graduate (the book’s appendix contains his 1977 Harvard Political Review essay about Puerto Rico), a Yale Law School graduate, a former editor of El Diario, a New York State Assemblyman— his voice is important to this necessary discussion, and it would be foolish of some critics to paint his views under the typical politiquería lens: suggesting that War Against All Puerto Ricans is more “Nationalist propaganda.” Quite the opposite—the book will force you to rethink Puerto Rican history in the first half of the 20th century, whether you want to or not.
That is the biggest reason why —when Denis approached me to share a series of essays he would write for LatinoRebels.com that would lead up to his book’s release— I didn’t even hesitate to not publish him. His essays have been controversial yet they had to be published, just like War Against All Puerto Ricans had to be published.
I have always told anyone in the news media who wants to listen: Puerto Rico matters. There is an online thirst for reading more about the island, its current situation and its forgotten past. Denis’ Latino Rebels essays (listed below, along with the current number of views each one has generated) prove that:
- When a Puerto Rican Wins the Powerball: 349,741 reads
- How Luis Muñoz Marín (and His Addiction to Opium) Enslaved Puerto Rico: 53,546 reads
- King of the Towels: The Torture and Murder of Pedro Albizu Campos: 36,248 reads
- The Man Who Stole Puerto Rico: 32,548 reads
- Tax All the Fat People: The History of Taxes in Puerto Rico: 13,996 reads
- Cómo Luis Muñoz Marín (y su adicción al opio) esclavizaron a Puerto Rico: 11,172 reads
- The Gunfight at Salón Boricua: One Puerto Rican Barber Versus the United States: 5,394 reads
- The Ponce Massacre (Parts I and II): 1,432 reads
Denis’ essays (plus his three-part interview) have attracted close to 500,000 reads on this site in about seven weeks. I can’t explain why his pieces have resonated with people, but I think it has to do with Denis’ prose and how he tells this forgotten history.
In the last two months, I have grown to greatly admire Denis for what he has accomplished. We have had some fantastic discussions about his views on Puerto Rican history and how it applies to contemporary Puerto Rico. Our love of Puerto Rico and our passion to make Puerto Rico matter has sparked a new friendship.
As with any author, Denis has given us a gift that we can dissect, explore, celebrate, criticize and even condemn. Nonetheless, we should all still read War Against All Puerto Ricans, and then have serious conversations about this very important work.
Thank you, Nelson, for your sparking this light.
War Against All Puerto Ricans is published by Nation Books.
Julio (Julito) Ricardo Varela (@julito77) founded LatinoRebels.com in May, 2011 and proceeded to open it up to about 20 like-minded Rebeldes. A 1990 Harvard graduate in the History and Literature of Latin America, his personal blog, juliorvarela.com, has been active since 2008 and is widely read in Puerto Rico and beyond. He pens columns on LR regularly. In the last two years, Julito represented the Rebeldes on several outlets, including MSNBC, CBS, NPR,Univision and The New York Times. Recently, he was a digital producer for Al Jazeera America’s The Stream and is currently the Digital Media Director for Futuro Media Group.