It is said that history is written by the victors. When it comes to Puerto Rico and its century-plus relationship with the United States, there are numerous incidents that occurred on the island over the years that most Americans are blissfully unaware of. That’s something author Nelson Denis intends to change with the recent release of War Against All Puerto Ricans.
Not unlike Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States or Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, Denis’ book is teeming with exploitative incidents that came at the hands of the American government. Further, the Washington Heights resident enables the reader to see how these past events and policies continue to reverberate right up through the present-day economic crises that continue to keep Puerto Rico in the news for all the wrong reasons.
If you think that a country bombing its own citizens, maintaining more than 100,000 dossiers (called carpetas) on them that led to neighbors spying on one another and subsequently imprisoning and torturing dissenters is only something that happens in a Third World dictatorship or a George Orwell novel, you’d be wrong. Denis highlights these and other equally disturbing chapters in Puerto Rican history. For this former New York State Assemblyman, the declassification of 1.8 million pages of secret FBI files back in the year 2000 at the behest of Congressman Jose Serrano was a major impetus behind the birth of War Against All Puerto Ricans.
“[I heard about] the carpetas program that was part of a 40-year period from the mid-1930s to the late 1970s where the FBI kept secret dossiers of more than 100,000 Puerto Ricans that were under surveillance,” he explained. “Congressman Jose Serrano, who was sitting on the Appropriations Committee and the subcommittee that monitors the FBI’s budget, used that leverage to have then-FBI Director Louis Freeh agree to make public this enormous set of data that had been kept on the Nationalist Party, National Party leaders and everyday Puerto Ricans. When I started reading some of these files, I saw that this attitude of acting unilaterally and thoughtlessly with no regard to the effect of these actions on people’s lives had been multiplied a thousand fold across Puerto Rico. When I looked at the granular level and the level of personal information that was collected, [Edward] Snowden and the Patriot Act pale in comparison to what was happening in Puerto Rico at the time.”
These actions by the U.S. government hit rather close to home for the author when a then-8-year-old Denis witnessed the FBI come and deport his father, a Cuban national, at 3 a.m. in the morning in October 1962. Father and son never saw each other again. And when Denis went to Harvard and Harvard Law School, the disconnect between the United States and his mother’s homeland became even more evident when he could find no mention of Pedro Albizu Campos, a major figure in 20th-century Puerto Rican history who was also the first Puerto Rican to graduate from Harvard and Harvard Law School.
“I remember not seeing any books about Albizu Campos in the Widener Library, which has 3 million books but not a single volume about him,” Denis recalled. “I felt that there was a gap in our history and the legacy of what it is to be Puerto Rican. But I wasn’t writing a book. I was following a path of discovery to relatives. I met Nationalists, because I had an uncle who knew Albizu Campos well and had been one of his bodyguards when [Campos] was released from prison in 1948. So I had been writing and researching this. While I was at Harvard, I wrote an article that became the cover story of the Harvard Political Review back in 1977. Years later, when I started reading some of these [declassified] files is when I decided to write this book because it tapped into my memory of what happened in my life.”
The former columnist for El Diario La Prensa traces the island’s history as a colony that changed hands from Spain to the United States. From here, he reveals how rapacious American business interests, oftentimes working hand-in-hand with the U.S. government and agencies like the F.B.I., steered the country into commonwealth status and made sure to foment dissent when attempts at independence were made, which nearly happened under the auspices of the 1936 Tydings Bill. (A similar bill called the Tydings-McDuffie Act provided independence to the Philippines, a fellow U.S. holding, after a 10-year transition under a limited autonomy.)
While characters like the aforementioned Albizu Campos (president of the pro-independence Puerto Rican Nationalist Party) and former Governor Luis Muñoz Marín (whose own carpeta made him a puppet for the FBI in its anti-independence objective due to revelations that Muñoz Marín was “a heavy drinker and narcotics addict”) help drive the story, there are plenty of horrific anecdotes that make you want to double-check to see if this wasn’t the Stalin-era Soviet Union where this was all taking place.
Examples include the 1935 Río Piedras Massacre, where police opened fired and killed four student supporters of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party and an innocent bystander. Or the 1937 Ponce Massacre that took place on Easter Sunday when a peaceful civilian march wound up with 19 unarmed men, women and children being mortally gunned down and more than 200 others wounded by police, who also wound up killing two of their own. Attempts to restage the crime scene as if law enforcement was attacked by Nationalists was foiled when local media coverage instead revealed a terrified crowd in full flight being shot at.
Most disturbing was the passage of 1948’s Public Law 53 (the Gag Law), which made it a felony to own or display a Puerto Rican flag (even in one’s home); to speak in favor of Puerto Rican independence; to print, publish, sell or exhibit any material that might undermine the insular government; and to organize any society, group or assembly of people with a similar intent. Within two years of its passage, Muñoz Marín used Law 53 to arrest more than 3,000 people without evidence or due process and to imprison them for 20 years. It was overturned 9 years later in 1957, when it was deemed unconstitutional and a violation of freedom of speech within the Constitution of Puerto Rico and the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.
For Denis, Puerto Rico’s current state of being, where the unemployment rate is 12.6 percent, debt and cost of living are soaring and native-born boricuas are fleeing their homeland at an astronomical rate is just a continuation of past policies and events that continue to have a detrimental ripple effect being felt to this day.
“The Puerto Rican character, after three generations of those carpetas, remains. That is stated in our character. That underlies the lack of political solidarity on the island today. It’s a typical reflection of a colonized people where they don’t know how to get together and create a powerful, unified voice,” he explained. “Or how to deal from a position of power and authority with the colonizing agent. They’re always looking to cut a deal to triangulate and arrive at some temporary and momentary advantage that only perpetuates and ultimately deepens the problem. That’s where Puerto Rico is now.”
Nelson Denis will be speaking at the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island on Sunday, Oct. 11. The Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island is located at 38 Old Country Rd. in Garden City. For more information, call 516-741-7304 or visit https://nelsondenis.wordpress.com/home.
This story was originally published October 2, 2015.