This book review is part of a series in commemoration of 50 years since the passing of Pedro Albizu Campos, the foremost Puerto Rican independence leader of the 20th century.
WAR AGAINST ALL PUERTO RICANS Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony by Nelson A. Denis New York: Nation Books (2015) Publication Date: April 7, 2015
When most people discuss Puerto Rico, they tend to highlight its picturesque beaches, lush tropical forests, and rolling green mountains. Nelson A. Denis, in his new book exposing a lesser-known event in 20th century Puerto Rican history, highlights war, revolution, and terror. Covering the uprising that took place between late October and early November 1950, as well as events leading up to and occurring shortly after, Denis highlights the “War Against All Puerto Ricans” in his book of the same title.
Previously, the primary text for information regarding this uprising was the 1989 book ‘La Insurrección Nacionalista en Puerto Rico’, by Miñi Seijo Bruno. Though her book will certainly remain a must-have source on the topic, what Denis provides in his book makes it just as essential for at least two reasons. Firstly, Denis’ book not only draws from previous research, but it also provides a more developed account thanks to exclusive interviews conducted over the span of decades, as well as use of thousands of public records including recently declassified FBI documents. Secondly, it’s written in English, making it highly accessible to the countless Boricuas raised in the Diaspora that now read primarily in that language.
Events like the Revolution of 1950, which were greatly downplayed and misrepresented in U.S. media reports, and which have not been given much serious scholarly let alone popular attention, deserve to be written about and fully documented for history’s sake. Denis’ book supports such efforts.
Denis details the series of arrests in the early morning of October 27 – arrests that pushed independence leader and uprising architect Pedro Albizu Campos to suddenly call for the revolution to start on October 30 – the mass prison break on October 28, the first gun battles of October 29, the fighting taking place across eight towns after October 30, the deployment of National Guard soldiers and planes, the massacre of Nationalists and bombing of two towns, the attack on President Truman in Washington, D.C., and the mass arrest and severe sentencing of hundreds of known and suspected participants. Denis even recounts the prison conditions faced by the inmates and the serious effects such had on them.
Little critique can be made of the depth to which Denis covers the 1950 revolution in his book. He includes numerous pictures and, for those looking to dive deeper, a significant listing of references and sources. The only drawback one might cite of the book lies in the attention it gives to other historical details. This is not to say that such details are not relevant to the topic or contextually insightful – they are – but to say that the book could have been more focused.
Several chapters starting the book provide a general overview of colonialism in Puerto Rico, the ways in which it damaged the island socially and economically, and the ways in which Puerto Ricans, particularly the Nationalist Party of the 1930s, organized to resist their oppression. Other chapters in the book recount such things as the opium-crazed life of Luis Muñoz Marín in New York City, the report of Muñoz Marín’s opium addiction that the FBI used as leverage to control him, the disappearance and torture shortly before the revolution of Nationalist barber Vidal Santiago Díaz, the life of Puerto Rican artist Juan Emilio Viguié who photographed or videotaped important patriotic events on the island, the use of Total Body Irradiation on Albizu Campos when he was in prison following the uprising, and more.
While the above historical details are relevant to the topic, and provide insightful contextual information, they are in addition to the book’s focus on the events of the 1950 revolution. In this respect, while Denis’ book is certainly useful as a source on the uprising, it also addresses much more. Which is not a bad thing.
In closing, the new book by Nelson A. Denis, “War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror In America’s Colony,” will certainly prove to be an enlightening and engaging read. That it covers a little discussed and often misrepresented episode in Puerto Rican history, in the English language, is significant. That the only criticism I could easily make of it can be seen at the same time as an asset, also speaks to the book’s historical value. A must-read for anyone interested in learning more about Puerto Rico, I was thoroughly pleased with all the book had to offer.