As a personal expression, as well as daring to speak for the large contingent of Boricans that live with Pasión Histórica, I express gratitude and appreciation to Nelson A. Denis for his book: War against all Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s colony. The book is the product of 40 years of diligent study of the most significant events and defining characters in our political history of the last century. The text combines mixed styles corresponding to the restless mind of the author. It is a history book that reads like a story, with descriptions and elaborations that correspond to a novel. As a whole, it can also be seen as a treatment for a movie; so it came as no surprise to hear the author state that a script is on the making. I would certainly see the movie, as would the army of readers Denis is recruiting in and out of the Island.
Denis met political discrimination early in life; born to a Cuban father and a Puerto Rican mother, his dad was abducted from their Washington Heights, New York City home in the early 60’s by the Federal Government. He was accused of espionage. A thorn that flourishes upon his visits to Puerto Rico and his acquaintance with nationalists on his mothers side of the family, started to catch his ear. At Harvard College he gets a BA in Government and writes for the Political Review. When inquiring about Albizu’s presence as one of the first Puerto Ricans to study law there, he is surprised by the scarce mention of his presence in the school’s annals .
The stories told by his mother’s relatives while in Caguas leads him to a meticulous and detailed research of books, newspapers, films and documentaries, congressional files, interviews and accounts, with particularly detailed attention to the FBI´s declassified files. On his long journey to this book, Denis got a law degree at Yale University and further pursued writing on the Legal Review. Returning to New York he contributes to press and radio programs, set up a legal clinic in the Lower East Side, and becomes Assemblyman for the State of New York. He wrote and produced the film Vote for Me, (2009), which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and got favorable reviews and awards in Orlando, Fla and Staten Island, N.Y.
The interlacing of the stories that make up this book took 4 decades to mature, as did the gathering of information from different media. Out of its 250 pages, 90 are footnotes, making it abundantly clear that it has been meticulously documented, particularly the information that correspond to the most violent and scandalous events.
The title of the book captures the statement by Col. Francis Riggs, Chief of Police in 1936; the time of the Great Depression, of massive strikes by the sugar workers, who adopted Albizu as their legal council. After 4 Nationalist were murdered in Rio Piedras, a period of violence erupted in the Island, leading to the Ponce Massacre. The third act takes us to 1950, when the Nationalist were cornered and provoked and raised in arms. A journey meticulously described by the author, with vivid descriptions of the extreme punishments to which the Nationalists were submitted.
The content is developed in three parts: Los Hechos (The deeds/ the Facts serve as a synopsis, La Gente (The people, sets the characters) and Los Eventos (The Events which acts as a detailed treatment). The narrative is passionate, the kind that only comes from the deep indignation, it points to the most flagrant contradiction of US democracy, presents the empire’s most shameful behavior, and exposes the deceits built around the events. A different story from the one we were told, with a different notion of who were the heroes and villains of the epoch. A step forward in our cultural demystification.
The narrative is eminently visual, the content is eminently dramatic. Events have been meticulously studied, submitted to the evidence required by a lawyer and newsman. Not all events are new to those of with Pasión Histórica (a psychical condition defined by writer Ana Lydia Vega, held by Boricuas when made aware of how we have been bred without history, and the subsequent obsession to make up for such a critical deficit). I am not sure historians will feel entirely comfortable with the emotional content of the descriptions; I found them absorbing, with the power that only best sellers have to hold our attention, to be released only when the reading is completed.
The book is particularly valuable in connecting events and establishing causal relations in a sequence of irrefutable logic. It is a testimony of respect and admiration to the men and women of clear conscience and exalted heart, willing to give it all for the freedom of our country. A reminder for future generations that may move away from the defining period. A chance to meet or re-encounter Albizu and Muñoz, to discover Waller Booth, Cornelius Rhodes, and get to know details behind Vidal Santiago´s and Juan Viguie´s lives. Each of them has enough depth and richness to deserve a full-length feature, when Puerto Ricans will be able to do the films we would like to do.
War against all Puerto Ricans is mandatory reading, as should be dialogue about its content and its merits. And if we hold valid that the first act of poetry is calling things by their name, this book certainly complies.
Copyright 2015 by Jose M. Umpierre. The cover of the book, photo of Nelson Denis, film poster and cover of Time magazine used under “fair use” proviso of the copyright law. All other photos in the public domain.
Notas a fotos
1. Portada de War Against Puerto Ricans
2.Nelson A. Denis
3. Salón Boricua donde se defendió Vidal Santiago
4. El joven Juan E. Viguie, cineasta que documento los sucesos.
5. Luis Muñoz Marín
6. Pedro Albizu Campos