Diaspora, Insular Expertise, and the War Over War Against All Puerto Ricans

by Special Contributor | November 19, 2015 8:04 am

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War Against All Puerto Ricans author Nelson Denis speaking on Democracy Now

War Against All Puerto Ricans author Nelson Denis speaking on Democracy Now

By: Marisol LeBrón

The Puerto Rican debt crisis has once again made the island’s political and economic subordination to the United States a topic of concern as politicians debate the high cost of “America’s Colony.” Meanwhile, on the island, discussions of insecurity, migration, poverty, and crumbling infrastructure are as commonplace as arroz con habichuelas in many Puerto Rican homes and public spaces. In this context, Nelson A. Denis’ War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony seemingly could not have come at a better time. War Against All Puerto Ricans paints a picture of brutal exploitation and repression at the hands of American policymakers and Puerto Rican elites during the first half of the twentieth century. Told in a style that draws upon the muckraking political storytelling tradition of writers like Upton Sinclair, War Against all Puerto Ricans creates an engrossing narrative meant to prompt political reform and action. The accessibility of the writing in War Against All Puerto Ricans helped it to become an instant bestseller, earning largely positive attention and reviews in venues like Democracy NowMother Jones, and the New York Times. Denis’ sensational narrative style, which is perhaps more akin to creative nonfiction than your typical scholarly monograph, is not without its critics, and, indeed, Puerto Rican historians and critics have emerged as some of the book’s loudest detractors.

Suspicion surrounding Denis’ political allegiances as well as the veracity of the historical data he presents in War Against All Puerto Ricans became apparent when he visited the island in May 2015. This is not to say that Denis received a completely frosty reception during his brief book tour on the island. To the contrary, the island’s pro-independence political establishment embraced Denis during his talks at La Tertulia, Bookmark, and the Ateneo Puertorriqueño. Indeed, he was even invited back to the island for a multicity book tour by the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (PIP). The trouble began for Denis inside the walls of the University of Puerto Rico main campus in Río Piedras (UPR-RP). During a presentation on the book, students and professors from UPR-RP’s History Department slammed Denis and his book, questioning his credentials to write about the island’s political history. (For a humorous dramatization of the events that transpired during Denis’ visit to the island, and especially the event at the UPR, check out “A Case of Hysteriography: War Against All Puerto Ricans?”)  The accusations leveled at Denis ranged from claims that Police Chief E. Francis Riggs never literally declared a “war against all Puerto Ricans” to insinuations that a journalist and former state assemblyman is not equipped to play the role of historian.

Although couched in discussions of academic rigor, it was apparent, and would become increasingly so, that some of the critiques directed toward Denis and War Against All Puerto Ricans had less to do with correcting mistranslations and factual errors and more with erecting boundaries around who gets to research, theorize, and write about the socio-political situation on the island. The controversy over War Against All Puerto Ricans illuminated longstanding tensions between writers/scholars on the island and those in the diaspora, including the territoriality, mistrust, and antagonism, rather than collaboration, that often mark intellectual exchange between the island and the diaspora and the competing forms of privilege that shape encounters between diasporic and island-based subjects.

Many of the critiques of Denis and War Against All Puerto Ricans, in print and otherwise, are concerned with disputing specific facts he presents in his account and questioning his archival research. Indeed, there do appear to be a number of errors present in the book, ranging from the relatively minor – wrong dates, mistranslations, footnotes that do not correspond to the text – to the more serious – such as the clear misattribution of the quote “war against all Puerto Ricans” to E. Francis Riggs. While many have noted that E. Francis Riggs never declared a “war against all Puerto Ricans,” but rather against “criminals,” Denis has refused to own up to the misattribution. Curiously, Denis has challenged critics to deny the existence of such a war, rather than simply clarify that he interpreted Riggs’ original remarks to signal a widespread turn towards the criminalization and repression of Puerto Rican labor and pro-independence organizing. While Denis’ responses to his critics, and especially his response to Luis A. Ferrao, have at times been incredibly defensive and disrespectful, Denis has also received an enormous level of scrutiny and hostility from individuals perhaps overly invested in “correcting” his narrative.

The specific investment in discrediting Denis’ account of the Nationalist upheaval of 1950 has much to do with his portrait of Puerto Rico’s first democratically elected Governor Luis Muñoz Marín. Muñoz Marín is painted in the book as a frustrated dreamer who turned to politics, having failed at all else, only to become a puppet of the U.S. government due to a severe opium addiction. Muñoz Marín’s lack of character and fortitude is juxtaposed against the heroic sacrifice and dedication of Pedro Albizu Campos, leader of the Nationalist Party. War Against All Puerto Ricans is, in many ways, overly binaristic in its treatment of the Puerto Rican political landscape – it is a dramatic tale of white hats and black hats, good guys and bad guys. The depictions of Muñoz Marín and Albizu Campos in War Against All Puerto Ricans has, in turn, stirred up longstanding tensions over these “great men” of Puerto Rican history, and scholars with specific investments in how the stories of these two figures are told launched efforts to discredit the book and its author.

Luis A. Ferrao and Pedro Aponte Vázquez have been two of the most vocal critics of the book. Both have sought to expose Denis’ “lies” by offering point-by-point refutations of some of the book’s claims. Aponte Vázquez argues that the book is full of “fallacies, exaggerations, and half-truths,” while Ferrao suggests that “historical accuracy takes a backseat to the author’s tendentious statements and embellishments.” Aponte Vázquez and Ferrao assert that the book is more a novel or work of fiction than a thoroughly researched historical account. Ferrao goes so far as to compare War Against All Puerto Ricans to James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, a bestselling memoir which was later taken to task for straying too far from the “truth,” essentially calling for a similar rejection of the book and excoriation of Denis. Denis, in many critiques, is positioned as willfully seeking to deceive an unsuspecting public; there are no innocent errors or sloppy mistakes in the text – only outright duplicity.

Like War Against All Puerto Ricans itself, the critiques of the book create a dichotomy between white hats and black hats, with Aponte Vázquez and Ferrao positioning themselves as the protectors of Historical Truth and Denis the sly con-man from New York looking to sell books. Ferrao and Aponte Vázquez become the defenders and arbiters of the verdadero historia de Puerto Rico through a reification and reassertion of what I call “insular expertise,” that is, the notion that only Puerto Ricans on the island can accurately produce knowledge about the culture and political economy of the island. I want to suggest that, in their various decisions regarding how to frame their criticism of Denis and the book, these two scholars, regardless of their intent, make rhetorical moves and usher evidence that implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, seeks to cast doubt on Denis’ narrative by emphasizing an “unfamiliarity” with the island and its socio-political context that arises from his diasporic and mixed subjectivity.

Forms of insular expertise are expressed through references to the fact that not only is Denis de afuera – part of the diaspora – but he is also half-Cuban. Aponte Vázquez, for example, refers to Denis as an opportunist [Cuña de un mismo palo] and asks how much longer it will take the “filmmaker” to make a jump and shift his attention to Cuba. Although not usually so explicitly stated in formal critiques of War Against All Puerto Ricans, Denis’ identity is often evoked in order to position him as an inauthentic subject, ignorant of Puerto Rican history. Geographical errors and unfamiliarity with local lore become ammunition in efforts to discredit Denis and silence his ability to speak from a Puerto Rican subjectivity. For example, in his list of 29 “lies” in War Against All Puerto Ricans, Ferrao draws attention to the fact that Denis describes the Atlantic Breeze as stirring the palm trees in the town of Guayama. He says, “A simple look at a map of Puerto Rico will prove that the only breeze coming from the southern side of the island must originate in the Caribbean Sea; the Atlantic Ocean only bathes its northern shores.” It’s worth noting that most of the 29 “lies” that Ferrao identifies in War Against All Puerto Ricans are of this nature – sloppy errors and/or mistranslations that do not necessary harm Denis’ overall arguments in the book. Nonetheless, Ferrao underscores this simple mistake to showcase Denis’ geographical distance and unfamiliarity, which is meant to undercut Denis’ claims of knowledge about the island.

DiaspoRicans regularly encounter these kinds of hegemonic reassertions of Puerto Rican identity in their interactions with island-based Puerto Ricans, as has been well documented in the work of countless artists, scholars, and activists. Further, DiaspoRican journalists and academics writing about the island – whether they were born outside of the island or have been in residence outside of the island affiliated with U.S. institutions of higher education – encounter similar responses to their research efforts and published work and are often reluctant to present their work on the island for fear of these kinds of hostile responses. In this context, where the contributions of the diaspora to Puerto Rican culture and knowledge production are often treated as suspect, it becomes difficult to take seriously some of the “corrections” offered by Ferrao and other island-based scholars because they tend to shore up their claims by implicitly and explicitly questioning the right of the diaspora to engage island politics. In other words, while Ferrao is correct that Guayama is touched by breezes originating from the Caribbean Sea rather than the Atlantic Ocean, he offers this information not to engage with Denis as a scholar with whom he disagrees, but rather to suggest that Denis is an ignorant hack who is so clearly distanced from the island that he would mix up the body of water that hugs its southern coast with that of its east coast.

The shape of the critiques leveled at Denis reveal well-known hierarchies of authenticity and expertise that play out within Puerto Rican community and that also function to discipline the diaspora and keep it in its place, so to speak – that is, off the island, afuera. But this performance of insular expertise not only plays a role in establishing hierarchies of experience within the Puerto Rican community; it also seeks to establish island-based scholars as the legitimate chroniclers of Puerto Rican history and contemporary life on the island for general American audiences and especially the U.S. academy. The critiques of War Against All Puerto Ricans also work to chastise U.S.-based journalists and academics for being taken in by the fake historian and fake Puerto Rican.

Ferrao, for instance, notes that while War Against All Puerto Ricans “gives the initial impression of being a well documented work,” with pages upon pages of footnotes and advanced praise from “some prestigious reviewers, including New York University professor Greg Grandin,” this is little more than a “false perception.” He goes on to say, “any cautious reader with knowledge of Puerto Rican history will soon become conflicted with most of the author’s statements, as well as the evidence used to uphold them.” Taking a potshot at the publishing house and reviewers, including esteemed historian Greg Grandin, Ferrao finally states, “After finding out about these and other inconsistencies, you start to wonder if the advance praise that appears on the dust jacket of War Against All Puerto Ricans is nothing more than a blurb from easily fooled readers who have very little knowledge of Puerto Rican history.” Denis becomes a Michael LaCour-like figure whose success and accolades derive from a failure of academic checks and balances to catch the initial fabrication. Ferrao emerges as a true historian of the island willing and able to right Denis’ historiographical wrongs and educate the American public, after having had the wool pulled over their eyes, about what really happened.

To that end, both Ferrao and Aponte Vázquez write their critiques and refutations in English. This makes it clear that their intervention is precisely aimed at those who have been hoodwinked because of their apparent unfamiliarity with Puerto Rican history – members of the American public and perhaps even DiaspoRicans who have largely celebrated the book. Indeed, considering the general lack of English-language writing in the University of Puerto Rico’s student publication Diálogo, it was surprising that it published Ferrao’s three-part exposé in English. Aponte Vázquez, for his part, initially published his critique in Claridad, the island’s pro-independence weekly, but then published an English language translation on his personal website. It’s hard not to see this as gatekeeping directed outward that seeks to define who is allowed to speak for and about Puerto Rico.

Despite the flaws in Ferrao and Aponte Vázquez’s approaches towards Denis, it is important to note that scholars from the island are routinely marginalized by U.S.-based academics and journalists who often rely almost exclusively on U.S.-based Puerto Ricans as “experts.” Perhaps we can understand Ferrao and Aponte Vázquez’s reactions to the unquestioned acclaim of War Against All Puerto Ricans as a frustration over the fact that island-based scholars and journalists who have been documenting this period in Puerto Rican history have received scant attention outside of Puerto Rico. And indeed, island-based scholars hoping to break into the mainstream U.S. publishing market would most likely not be forgiven for making some of the errors that Denis makes in his book. In this sense, it is easy to understand some of the anger and frustration emanating from island-based intellectuals, which forces us to ask how we in the diaspora might contribute to the marginalization of island-based Puerto Ricans by not working to amplify their voices as knowledge producers. Nonetheless, it is unfortunate that Ferrao and Aponte Vázquez draw attention to Denis’ errors in a way that attacks Denis’ subjectivity in order to reassert their own expertise.

In a response to Ferrao, and likely others, Héctor Meléndez, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras, thoughtfully poses the question whether a work with flaws still has the potential to inform. Indeed, are the errors in War Against All Puerto Ricans so great that the book, as some have argued, not only loses all value, but is also actually damaging? Like Meléndez, I think War Against All Puerto Ricans has value as a popular history of the Nationalist uprising of 1950, despite its flaws, errors, and purple prose.  I also think that the way of dealing with these flaws and errors begs us to question the gulf between the island and the diaspora that consciously and unconsciously shapes our responses. As Meléndez notes, “We shouldn’t ignore the gap between the intellectual (and political) activity of the island and that of the Puerto Ricans in the United States. This gap includes prejudices, class based and ideological, and, on both sides, blind spots of ignorance about the other side and their own. This gap is crossed by a mutual desire for communication.” Meléndez’s words ask us to consider whether this “controversy” around War Against All Puerto Ricans would have happened in the first place if Denis and his critics had approached each other not from a place of tearing each other’s arguments apart and ad hominem attacks, but rather from a place of mutual respect and a desire to collaborate with the goal of educating people. This is a lesson and a provocation that those of us dedicated to advancing knowledge of Puerto Rico and its diaspora, with the hopes of eventually improving life for Puerto Ricans everywhere, should take to heart.


Marisol LeBrón, Ph.D. is a queer nuyorican scholar from the Bronx. She is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at Dickinson College. Her research explores issues of policing, violence, and race-making in Puerto Rican and Latina/o communities.




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