Book Review: ‘War Against All Puerto Ricans’

I shouldn’t have been surprised to find the tables at Nellies packed on a Friday afternoon. There probably hasn’t been a history book anticipated more within the Puerto Rican community, at least in my lifetime, than Nelson A. Denis’ War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony (Nation Books). Everyone was there to hear Denis discuss his book. No doubt a few were just there to chow down on some Boricua soul food. Had my doctor not told me to watch my cholesterol, the intoxicating aroma of sweet and fried would’ve seduced me into ordering a jibarito con papitas, and maybe a Cuba Libre to start the weekend. Ah! what could’ve been.

The guests in attendance were a veritable who’s who of Puerto Rican politics. Poet Eduardo Arocho, a native son of Humboldt Park, sat at a table with Lourdes Lugo, the former principal of Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School and niece of political prisoner Oscar López Rivera. New York Assemblyman José Rivera had flown in with Denis the night before and was manning a camcorder. The president of the Bar Association of Puerto Rico, Mark Anthony Bimbela, sat a small table next to the podium.

Near the front door stood Ricardo Jiménez, who had been imprisoned for nearly 20 years for seditious conspiracy as a member of the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña, a paramilitary group dedicated to the immediate and unconditional independence of Puerto Rico.

Presiding over the entire event as usual was Prof. José López, local historian, executive director of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, former professor of mine at the University of Illinois-Chicago, and the unofficial “mayor of Division Street.”

Author Nelson A. Denis

Prof. López began his introduction by saying he’d sat next to Denis on the plane from New York and got to know him as a man with a “deep sense of scholarship and analysis.” Denis himself would tell the audience that his research for the book began as far back as 1973, when as a student at Harvard he was shocked to discovered that, among the 3 million books at Widener Library, not one was on Pedro Albizu Campos — the titan of Puerto Rican history and, among all other things, the first Puerto Rican to graduate from Harvard Law School. His frustration led Denis to conduct his own research, and in 1977 the Harvard Political Review published a cover story written by him.

Denis graduated from Yale Law School in 1980. By the time he was elected to represent East Harlem in the New York State Assembly in 1996, he had been a lawyer and journalist, writing for El Diario La Prensa and the Daily News, and winning an award from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. After his stint in Albany ended in 2001, Denis went on to write and direct Vote For Me!, a comedy that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Given the controversy swirling around Puerto Rico’s status question, Denis seemed reluctant to advocate a single platform over any other in his remarks. He insisted his book is apolitical, insofar as it is neither pro-independence nor pro-statehood, merely a statement of facts. (And there are plenty of facts, much of them recently disclosed to the American public through over 1.5 million declassified FBI files released in the early 2000s.)

Yet despite Denis’ attempts at evenhandedness, there’s no denying that what he has written is a manifesto, a people’s history of Puerto Rico, meant to anger, disgust, sadden and incite. Denis packs 258 pages (plus another 71 pages of notes) with detailed accounts of government corruption, police abuse, Wall Street greed, scientific experimentation, politicking, graft, racism, wholesale slaughter, surveillance, assassinations, eugenics, propaganda, espionage, forgery and falsification — all within the span of half a century, and on an island no bigger than Connecticut.

War Against All Puerto Ricans tells the story of how the U.S. government invaded Puerto Rico in 1898 and, during the course of an occupation persisting to this day, has looked to quietly but systematically sink it and its inhabitants into the sea through exploitation, repression and cultural death.

The first and last chapters read like straight history, but the structure and the middle chapters feel more like a composite novel wherein each chapter acts as a short story. There are good guys and bad guys, gifted revolutionaries and evil doctors, steadfast barbers and faithless politicians, suave secret agents and crooked cops. Many of the characters were either present at or deeply affected by the Ponce massacre, a pivotal 13 minutes of unbridled savagery in 1937 during which police officers killed 21 people (including two of their own) and wounded over 200 others at what was supposed to be a peaceful march.

Carlos Torres Morales, a photo journalist for the newspaper El Imparcial, took this when the shooting began. (Public Domain)

Denis also uses the life of Pedro Albizu Campos, leader of the Nationalist Party and the independence movement, as an allegory for the whole history of Puerto Rico under U.S. rule.

Born in Ponce as the illegitimate son of a Spanish merchant who wanted nothing to do with him, Albizu Campos was five — some say six — when American troops marched through town at the start of the Spanish-American War. It was around the same time his mother committed suicide by walking into a river, leaving him an orphan — all of which provides perfect parallels for Puerto Rico’s first years as a U.S. colony. He learned all he could about baseball, attended American universities, and even served in the U.S. Army during World War II as first lieutenant in the all-Puerto Rican regiment stationed at Santurce.

Some historians argue that the racism he encountered during the war ignited a resentment toward Uncle Sam. Others say it was his reading of the Easter Rising in Ireland and the Amritsar massacre in India. Whatever it was, by the time Albizu Campos returned to law school in 1919, something was different about him: he was a committed independentista.

There’s likely he’d also heard about the forming a nationalist group in his home town two years earlier. In 1922 it would become the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. He joined the party two years later and began touring the island and the rest of Latin America as its vice president. By 1930 he was leading the Nationalists, a position he held until his death in 1965 — though he’d spend most of his tenure in a cold, windowless prison cell.

Albizu Campos rallies striking sugar cane workers  in 1934 (Ruth M. Reynolds Papers, Hunter College, CUNY)
Albizu Campos rallies striking sugar cane workers in 1934 (Ruth M. Reynolds Papers, Hunter College, CUNY)

The life of Albizu Campos — the hope and principles he embodied, the persecution and torture he suffered — serves as a token of Puerto Rico’s existence under U.S. colonial rule. What happened to him happened to the whole island.

Enough evidence suggests the federal government bombarded Albizu Campos’ prison cell with deadly levels of radiation, causing him to die a gradual, agonizing death. Its designs for Puerto Rico were nearly identical, though instead of radiation they used Operation Bootstrap and neoliberal economics. Today Puerto Rico’s economy lies in ruins, most of its politicians are morally bankrupt, and its people are fleeing en masse like rats on sinking ship.

The revolution that exploded across the island in 1950 would be both Albizu Campos’ final hurrah and the last gasp of freedom. Lolita Lebrón’s attack on Congress in 1954, the FALN’s attacks during the 1970s and early eighties, and the Macheteros’ armed robbery of a Wells Fargo depot in 1983 — merely aftershocks.

The Nationalist Party quit electoral politics in favor of armed struggled in 1935. Its spiritual successor, the Independence party — founded by a lawyer who had defended Albizu Campos after his first arrest — earned 10 percent of the vote in 1952. Now it can’t even gain the 3 percent required for official recognition. The current governor is a member of the same party that helped the federal government hunt down Albizu Campos and his fellow Nationalists, and the current resident commissioner wants Puerto Rico to become a permanent part of the United States.

The dream that was Puerto Rico is all but a memory now. Most Puerto Ricans think they can remember hearing of a time when Puerto Rico wanted to be free, but they can’t be completely sure. 

With War Against All Puerto Ricans, Nelson Denis doesn’t just give us history. He gives us history on fire. This is a thoroughly researched indictment of over a century of U.S. policy toward one small island. Here we have a full-throated eulogy of brave heroes, men and women of conviction, who devoted every drop of their blood to a people and a principle.

Never before have I experienced so many emotions while reading a history book, because never before has history penetrated me so deeply to the core, making cry, laugh and scream all at once. Never before have I soaked up every detail as if it were my own personal history, and never have I felt so guilty for being ignorant of those details for so long. Never before have I finished a history book, set it down and just stared at the cover. I feel crushed and uplifted at the same time. I’m extremely offended and immensely proud.

Never before have I felt so Puerto Rican.

[Featured image: Hector Luis Alamo]