Friday, September 11, 2015

Booknote: War Against All Puerto Ricans

Nelson A. Denis, War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America's Colony. New York: Nation Books, 2015. ISBN: 978-1-56858-501-7.

Genre: Nonfiction
Subgenre: history, politics, country studies
Format: Hardcover
Source: Borrowed from my library, Hutchins Library at Berea College

"Empires are devils disguised as guardian angels. The American flag is a skull and crossbones over two bunches of bananas. Democracy is a lady who presents herself with a machine gun between her legs, tear gas at her breast and her hat adorned with pistols and .45 revolvers." --Pedro Albizu Campos, speech given in Santurce, April 16, 1948. Quoted in the book. 

I have to say that this is likely the best book I've read all year. Denis has written a history of Puerto Rico in the 20th century that strives to recall the true horror and history of American possession of its colony. This is history you barely hear in "History of Puerto Rico" classes back on the island; I sure as heck did not hear much of this when I went to high school there. For many Puerto Ricans, the only way to learn this history, prior to this excellent book, was from older relatives and oral histories, or maybe some academic books that barely made a blip on a radar, or doing some deep research into primary sources (assuming you even know where to look).

As for U.S. people, I can guarantee very few may know even a glimpse of this history. This is not material you will find in American public schools; I know; I taught high school for a years in the U.S., and this did not make U.S. history books. Heck, if Al Sharpton can say on national television via MSNBC that "undocumented" Puerto Ricans would have to be deported, you know the average U.S. person likely has no clue. By the way, for the record, there is no such thing as an undocumented Puerto Rican (follow the link and get a clue if you need one. Go on, the post will be here when you get back). This book goes a very long way in bringing back a history that has been mostly erased.

As my mother would have said, "esto es como una novela de García Márquez" ("this reads like a García Márquez novel"). Indeed the book at times reads like fiction with elements of magic realism. Let me assure you however that what you are reading in Denis' book is nonfiction, and all of it is definitely true. Not only is it true, but it is also a very well documented work from primary sources and reinforced by secondary sources. This is truth that can no longer be hidden; the facts cannot be denied, and they are not really in dispute.

Denis has a gift for writing. This is a very compelling story that draws you in. Once you start, you are riveted. You'll probably stay up late reading the rich prose. He truly brings the history and people involved to life. And by the way, as part of documenting, the book features extensive notes. Now people often skip reading notes in history books. I urge you to resist that notion. Do read the notes. In fact, the notes are often just as interesting as the main story. You will get more value out of the book if you read the notes.

After the preface, the book is arranged into three parts: Facts, People, and Events. Each part then has a set of chapters. Since facts, people, and events often overlap, the narrative is not fully linear; you may go back and forth a bit in the historical timeline. This allows the author to examine things from different angles, and it gives readers a fuller view of the history. In addition to notes, the book has an excellent bibliography. It also has a section on sources and methodology where Denis explains his research process, how he got access to various sources, and how he put the book together. The book also includes a good selection of photographs.

So, what are some thing you will learn? Learn about such amazing things as:

  • Who was the Green Pope? (Chapter 4)
  • Why some say, when it comes to Puerto Rico, "it's only Chinatown" (Chapter 8, also think of the classic film)
  • Learn how to rule a whole country with only a one-page report (Chapter 11). 
  • Heard of something called the School of the Americas? Well, before that, Puerto Rico had the Academy of Truth. Where do you think they practiced the stuff to be taught later at the School of the Americas? (Chapter 16). 
  • And gaze at the tragedy of the King of Towels (Chapter 23, and no, this has nothing to do with Douglas Adams). 

In the end, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. If you are Puerto Rican, it is a duty to read this; this is our history, the history they do not want you to read. Read it. Urge others to read it. Heck, once it gets translated into Spanish, this book needs to be required reading in all Puerto Rican schools. If you are a U.S. person, you need to read this. This is part of your history as well, a part that odds are good you never learned about in school nor in college. You guys own a colony,  yes, a real colony. You own it. You took it from Spain in 1898, and in 1917, whether Puerto Ricans wanted it or not, you made Puerto Ricans into American citizens. The least you can do is read this book and try to understand Puerto Rico, its people, and its history. If nothing else, reading this book will save you from looking like an idiot if you ask a Puerto Rican how long it takes to drive to the U.S. from there (true story) or how come Puerto Ricans do not pay taxes (which they do, and often they pay more than you do).

This book is highly recommended for public and academic libraries. It is essential if you already have works on U.S. history and Latin America. The copy I read was the one I bought for our library, but rest assured I will be buying my own personal copy soon. This is a book I will be talking about and sharing any time anyone asks about Puerto Rico.

Before I close this review, I have to warn some readers. This is not an easy book to read. For some with sensitive hearts, it may get gruesome. It is a violent history, and Denis presents it as it was. But it is necessary reading. This history has been buried for too long; it is high time it sees the light.

I am giving it the full 5 out of 5 stars.

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Additional reading notes:

In large measure, Nelson Denis was inspired to write the book by the FBI files the bureau kept on Puerto Ricans and also by the story of his father. In a nutshell, here is what Denis did to get to the book:

"I read thousands of FBI documents and hundreds of newspaper accounts; I scoured university, museum, and historical society archives. I tracked down oral histories, personal interviews, private correspondence, diaries, church registry, and old photos. I read amicus curiae briefs,  congressional testimony, Senate committee reports, CIA manuals, and Defense Department contracts. I walked the streets of Puerto Rico where people had been murdered. I talked to their families. Then I started writing" (xiii). 

What Denis hopes for readers:

"This is not a pretty story. If it helps you to understand the world in which we live, then I have done my job. The rest is up to you" (xiii). 

The ridiculous attempts of the U.S. to impose English on Puerto Rican children no matter what, usually using teachers that barely, if at all, knew English themselves:

"On a given day, while displaying a chart of the major food groups, she might explain in barely comprehensible English the importance of nutrition and eating all the foods on the chart: broccoli and carrots, turnips and iceberg lettuce, plums, a large meatloaf, and other strange things. If a child remarked that none of the vegetables on the chart grew in Puerto Rico and the class laughed, Mrs. Del Toro would slam her pointer on the blackboard" (20). 

By the way, the "pollito, chicken" song was a big part of my childhood. It is still often used as a children's lullaby, a remnant of that era.

Looking at Barceloneta, a.k.a. as Ciudad Viagra:

"As of 2008 Puerto Rico was the world's largest shipper of pharmaceuticals, accounting for nearly 25 percent of total shipments. Sixteen of the twenty biggest-selling drugs in the United States are produced in Puerto Rico, and the profits are enormous. North American sales of Viagra exceed $1 billion per year with profit margins of roughly 90 percent per pill" (33). 

And before that, thanks to the 936 Laws, my father made a good living selling industrial hardware to those pharmaceutical companies. That is a story I could write about another time. By the way, President Clinton eliminated those laws in order to make some deal or other with rich friends and Republicans; this is also discussed in the book. Anyhow, as time did prove, things got a lot worse as some experts did predict even as Clinton's folk and others said it would not be too bad. (Read a bit more on the 936 law here and here) However, before that, a very different medical industry had root in Barceloneta:

"For decades the doctors in Barceloneta sterilized Puerto Rican women without their knowledge or consent. Even if told about la operación (the operation), the women were not informed that it was irreversible and permanent. Over 20,000 women were sterilized in this one town. This scenario was repeated throughout Puerto Rico until-- at its high point-- one-third of the women on the island had been sterilized and Puerto Rico had the highest incidence of female sterilization in the world" (33-34). 

This was part of the eugenics movement sweeping the U.S. in the 1920s and 1930s (the movement in the U.S. went back to the late 19th century). And that is not even all. Read about American doctor Cornelius Rhoads, who could likely make even Dr. Mengele blush. (See Rhoads' Wikipedia entry, which may be a bit generous to the guy; one thing you can tell is the Rockefeller Foundation had to spend a few bucks cleaning up his image). 

March 21, 1937: The Ponce Massacre (the Wikipedia link gives you the quick version, but read the book for a better view of the event). It was Palm Sunday. What it was in the end: 

It was "an instance of state-sponsored terror intended to cow an entire population into submission--particularly those who wanted independence-- with a show of deadly brutality" (54). 

The massacre was ordered by then Governor Blanton Winship, who after he lost his job in 1939 after a federal inquiry long forgotten, went on to a military career in World War II and a cushy job prosecuting Nazis in Nuremberg. He was never indicted for his crimes in Puerto Rico: 

"A tragic awareness would soon spread throughout the island: the United States cared more about Nazi war crimes in Europe than murder in broad daylight in Puerto Rico" (54).

Something else revealed by the Ponce Massacre, which a witness who filmed it from a hidden spot learned that day: 

". . . to those from the north, Puerto Ricans were not equals, or citizens, or even fully human. They were animals. And so they could be shot on Palm Sunday like rabid dogs in the street" (145). 

From the bibliography, some titles I may want to read. As usual, links to WorldCat unless noted otherwise: 

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This book qualifies for the following 2015 Reading Challenges: 


Megi Papiashvili said...

I am going to buy this book for some Georgian libraries! One should never forget history... Wonderful review!

Angel Rivera said...


Thank you for stopping by and your kind words. Best, and keep on blogging.