Understanding Puerto Rico’s Past: A Recommended Reading List

You may have heard about the recent protest in Puerto Rico that ended in the toppling of a statue in Plaza San Jose. It’s incredibly important to understand that these situations don’t usually happen “out of nowhere.” From various news sources and Twitter, it looks like this happened due to the continued celebration of colonialism in Puerto Rico and the announcement of a tax break for the wealthy looking to move to Puerto Rico.

The recommended reading list below will give you some insight into the history behind why certain people took these actions. A couple of the books on the list were also included to touch on the experiences of Puerto Ricans in the United States.


NEGOTIATING PARADISE: U.S. TOURISM AND EMPIRE IN TWENTIETH-CENTURY LATIN AMERICA

BY DENNIS MERRILL

Accounts of U.S. empire building in Latin America typically portray politically and economically powerful North Americans descending on their southerly neighbors to engage in lopsided negotiations. Dennis Merrill’s comparative history of U.S. tourism in Latin America in the twentieth century demonstrates that empire is a more textured, variable, and interactive system of inequality and resistance than commonly assumed. 

In his examination of interwar Mexico, early Cold War Cuba, and Puerto Rico during the Alliance for Progress, Merrill demonstrates how tourists and the international travel industry facilitated the expansion of U.S. consumer and cultural power in Latin America. He also shows the many ways in which local service workers, labor unions, business interests, and host governments vied to manage the Yankee invasion. While national leaders negotiated treaties and military occupations, visitors and hosts navigated interracial encounters in bars and brothels, confronted clashing notions of gender and sexuality at beachside resorts, and negotiated national identities. Highlighting the everyday realities of U.S. empire in ways often overlooked, Merrill’s analysis provides historical context for understanding the contemporary debate over the costs and benefits of globalization.

PUERTO RICO IN THE AMERICAN CENTURY: A HISTORY SINCE 1898

BY CÉSAR J. AYALA, RAFAEL BERNABE

A comprehensive historical picture of political developments in the island. . . . By taking the courageous step of restoring economic dependence and its social consequences to the heart of the argument for autonomy–and, in effect, pitting it against more inventive, and often elitist cultural perspectives that range from the neo-nationalist to the post-modern–Puerto Rico in the American Century offers a far more plausible context for understanding the status issue, while offering a far more tolerable, democratic direction for the independence movement in a globalised world.

Latin American Review of Books

THE VANQUISHED: A NOVEL

BY CÉSAR ANDREU IGLESIAS

Originally published in Puerto Rico in 1956 as Los derrotados, César Andreu Iglesias’s novel about a fateful Nationalist assault on a U.S. military installation in Puerto Rico is now available for the first time in English. 

This tautly written story uncovers the personal histories of three middle-aged revolutionaries as they plan to kill a U.S. general. Andreu’s cool treatment of their political objectives does not obscure his compassionate recognition of their human limitations. Andreu makes clear his view that the Nationalist answer to Puerto Rico’s problems had become an anachronism and that by the 1950s the union movement was better prepared to deal with the changes that industrial capitalism was thrusting upon the Puerto Rican people and their way of life. The afterword by Arcadio Díaz-Quiñones provides a rich historical and literary context for The Vanquished.

SUGAR, SLAVERY, AND FREEDOM IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY PUERTO RICO

BY LUIS A. FIGUEROA

The reconstruction of the process of emancipation and its aftermath presented in this book simply has no parallel with anything ever published about Puerto Rico in either English or Spanish. It is a landmark work in the scholarship of the Caribbean. The questions Figueroa asks violate a number of taboos existing in Puerto Rican culture about a supposed heritage of racial democracy. The answers provided debunk–permanently, I believe–standing myths about race relations in Puerto Rico.

César J. Ayala, University of California, Los Angeles

BUILDING A LATINO CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT: PUERTO RICANS, AFRICAN AMERICANS, AND THE PURSUIT OF RACIAL JUSTICE IN NEW YORK CITY

BY SONIA SONG-HA LEE

In the first book-length history of Puerto Rican civil rights in New York City, Sonia Lee traces the rise and fall of an uneasy coalition between Puerto Rican and African American activists from the 1950s through the 1970s. Previous work has tended to see blacks and Latinos as either naturally unified as “people of color” or irreconcilably at odds as two competing minorities. Lee demonstrates instead that Puerto Ricans and African Americans in New York City shaped the complex and shifting meanings of “Puerto Rican-ness” and “blackness” through political activism. African American and Puerto Rican New Yorkers came to see themselves as minorities joined in the civil rights struggle, the War on Poverty, and the Black Power movement–until white backlash and internal class divisions helped break the coalition, remaking “Hispanicity” as an ethnic identity that was mutually exclusive from “blackness.” 

Drawing on extensive archival research and oral history interviews, Lee vividly portrays this crucial chapter in postwar New York, revealing the permeability of boundaries between African American and Puerto Rican communities.

THE YOUNG LORDS: A RADICAL HISTORY

BY JOHANNA FERNÁNDEZ

Johanna Fernández has not only produced the definitive history of the Young Lords; she also has single-handedly shifted our understanding of the post-1968 political landscape. Richly documented, beautifully written, and brutally honest, this book moves the Young Lords from the margins of the New Left and Puerto Rican nationalism to the very epicenter of global struggles against racism, imperialism, and patriarchy and for national self-determination, medical justice, reproductive rights, and socialism. A work as monumental and expansive as the Young Lords’ vision of revolution.

Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression