A three-part opinion series written by historian Luis A. Ferrao and published by Diálogo PR is alleging that the best-selling (and controversial) book WAR AGAINST ALL AGAINST PUERTO RICANS by author Nelson A. Denis is full of “lies” and “fabricates evidence, exaggerates figures and distorts already well-documented events in order to construct a fictional story under the guise of historical analysis.”
Ferrao’s three essays begin with the following introduction in the first essay:
One of the most persistent and early lessons I was taught while a student at the New Jersey public school system was the difference between fiction and non-fiction when it came to book qualification. As I still remember it, fiction were all those titles derived from the imagination of the authors, mainly novels, short stories and poetry; whilst non-fiction would refer to works based on facts, real people and truthful events where the author presents information that is, to the best of his or her knowledge, accurate and verifiable.
To this date this wise demarcation not only prevails in the New York Times’ list of Best Seller Books, but is very helpful allowing readers to know beforehand if what they’re buying will serve them for entertainment purposes or will provide them with trusted and accurate information on the topic of their interest.
Of course, every once in a while along comes an author with a crossover book that might challenge this categorization, or, worse, tricks its readers into believing that they’re reading truthful information when in reality they’re being provided with an attractive imaginary narration.
This happened in 2003 with the best-seller book A Million Little Pieces. Billed as a memoir by its author and the publisher (thus a non-fiction book), it was soon discovered by a website that the book contained “a million little lies”. As was later found out, the not-so honest author fabricated or exaggerated a great part of his life experience as a drug-addict. It also turned out that no one in the publishing house took the time to investigate the accuracy of what was written in the book. In the ensuing controversy the author and the publisher took a lot of heat from the media and colleagues, both lost face and an old Russian proverb was vindicated: trust but verify.
War against all [sic] Puerto Ricans, Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony (Nation Books: New York, 2015) by Nelson A. Denis is one of those books that confirms that writing about real people and historic events is an intellectual endeavor that requires a totally different approach from that of describing imaginary ones. In this case we have an author whose resourceful imagination and willingness to deviate from factual assertions, produces a story that can’t be placed in the realm of non-fiction. This book also reiterates the necessary lesson that we always need to verify what we read, no matter how time-consuming that task turns out to be.
That first essay then argues that the title of Denis book is “completely misleading.” Ferrao then writes this:
Denis attributes the phrase “There will be war to the death against all Puerto Ricans” to Elisha F. Rigg [sic], a Yale graduate appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as Puerto Rico’s Chief of Police from 1934 to 1936. Yet when tracing the sources we find out that Riggs didn’t say what Denis attributes to him.
Ferrao also adds this:
The San Juan daily paper La Democracia (October 26,1935, p. 8), whose reporter had covered the Río Piedras bloody incident, printed Riggs’ declarations on the event. After lecturing on the right to free speech within a system of law an order, and declaring that no one had the right to bear unauthorized weapons, Riggs warned that if anyone persisted in carrying illegal arms “there will be war, non-stop war, not against politicians, but against criminals”. From the above it is obvious that no war on Puerto Ricans was declared by Riggs (or, for that matter, by any other American official), as Denis falsely claims. So, as far as the title is concerned, we’re off on the wrong historical foot here by an author who claims his book will present events “fairly and accurately” yet he himself misquotes what is printed on the record. Not only that but Denis also misleads the reader as to where to find Riggs’ alleged lapidary phrase: on endnote 36, page 121 of his book he cites La Democracia of October 28, 1935. Yet the reader will search in vain for Riggs’ words in that issue for they were printed two days earlier. Denis not only misquotes but also distorts the public record.
Of course, if you want to sell books “War against all [sic] Puerto Ricans” is going to raise more eyebrows and draw more readers and potential buyers than Riggs’ original phrase; more so if the distorted phrase is set in uppercase white letters against a crimson background on the book’s cover.
Ferrao’s second essay delves into the allegations that Luis Muñoz Marín used to visit opium dens in New York City and challenges the author to reveal his sources:
…if the author does not provide complete names or proof of their existence (and he doesn’t), its [sic] simply because they did not exist. Therefore, one has to conclude that all those compelling pages that vividly depict a young Muñoz recklessly wasting his life in Downtown Manhattan are nothing but a detailed made-up story.
In the final essay, Ferrao lists 29 “lies” from Denis’ book, ranging from the fact that Pedro Albizu Campos was not the first Puerto Rican to attend Harvard College and Harvard Law School, to the claim that Spanish conquistadores did not kill 6,000 Taínos or that in 1900 Puerto Ricans lost “40 percent of his or her savings overnight.”
Denis has had several op-eds published by different outlets, including the New York Times. He was also featured on shows, such as Democracy Now! This site also published several of Denis’ op-eds, with eyes wide open and knowing that his op-eds would be controversial. In the past few months, we have asked several writers to publish counterpieces to Denis’ op-eds. Only one post was ever received by us, and we published it (in Spanish as well). Today, we reached out to Denis for comment about Ferrao’s essays, and he told us that he will be writing a detailed response to Ferrao and that we should read what he already wrote earlier today in his blog post:
Ferrao defecated on Don Pedro’s grave, for a few dollars and a trip to Paris. He is trying to do it again, with War Against All Puerto Ricans. The pattern and modus operandi are the same: a quick and dirty hit, then run and get your reward.
However, Ferrao made one fatal mistake. When he abused Albizu in 1990, El Maestro was dead.
Further editorials will follow this one, with specific refutation of his 29 lies – and with further analysis of his academic career, in relation to Puerto Rico.
A review of Denis’ book in 80grados (mostly positive) by Héctor Meléndez also included the following paragraph (translation is ours)
The book contains significantly notable errors, although they are marginal and speak to the misunderstanding of Spanish and San Juan’s geography. These errors suggest a distance between intellectuals from the diaspora and those who are on the island. Such a lack of cooperation seem to prevent these errors from being detected and corrected. These historiographical errors may be unacceptable from the viewpoint of scientific rigor, but they should be corrected right away so it does not impair the book’s key information and central arguments. Perhaps the island’s intelligentsia has some contempt for the diaspora. These errors have provoked harsh criticism of the book, some of which have been incredibly hostile. These errors have also clouded the important contributions the book has made. But the relationship between these two groups of intellectuals should be one of cooperation and not competition.
UPDATE: Denis has written a longer response to Ferrao.