Two Great Books on Puerto Rico’s Colonial History for the Complete Novice

Puerto Rico has been in the news a lot lately for obvious reasons. But as I read more about the Hurricane Maria, its horrific effects, and more, something occurred to me:

I knew nothing about Puerto Rico.

Sure, I knew of its existence and could point it out on a map, but it’s history? It’s culture? Anything substantial at all? No, in that regard, I can honestly say I was profoundly ignorant.

So I’ve been reading quite a bit about Puerto Rico over the past few weeks and, in this short period alone, I’ve discovered not only a fascinating story as dramatic as the national narrative of any society, but that the imperialist crimes which mar its history have directly influenced present events post-Hurricane Maria.

Reading Puerto Rican history has been a revelatory experience, and I would certainly suggest you start with two outstanding books on the subject – Manuel Maldonado-Denis’ Puerto Rico: A Socio-Historic Interpretation and Juan Angel Silen’s We, the Puerto Rican People: A Story of Oppression and Resistance.

There are many similarities between both these books. First, they focus primarily on Puerto Rican history post 1898 (when the United States made Puerto Rico a colony, essentially buying it from Spain via the Treaty of Paris after the Spanish-America War of the same year). Its history pre-Spanish rule and during Spain’s reign is, of course, discussed at length, but the real story begins with the U.S.’s invasion, which is frankly for the best in my opinion – these are great history books, but they are not meant to merely inform. Rather, they are impassioned accounts of the oppression the island has suffered for too long.

This is their second similarity – they are not impartial records. Far from it. Maldonado-Denis and Angel Silen make their sympathies clear from the beginning, praising revolutionary figures like Dr. Ramon Betances and Pedro Albizu Campos while attacking more “pragmatic” (in the words of his defenders) politicians like Luis Munoz Marin. However, Maldonado-Denis is far more scathing in his criticism. In fact his whole book is more scathing in tone. Angel Silen, in contrast, tends to let the facts speak for themselves, though he ends his book with a call for revolutionary action. Additionally, he tends to focus on one aspect of issues or society at a time – for instance, there is one section devoted to discussing education in Puerto Rico while another exclusively analyzes the impact of women, who in Angel Silen’s words face a “double oppression.”

What emerges from both books is the story of a nation that has been thwarted time and again in its efforts to free itself from the dominion of others. From an international relations perspective, it’s interesting to read Maldonado-Denis’ theories about why Cuba and Puerto Rico’s independence efforts had such vastly different results (one theory is in relation to geography, which I’ve personally come to see more and more as a determining factor in the history of any society). Meanwhile, Angel Silen was a direct participant in the socialist political activities during the second half of the 20th century. This book therefore offers a chance to read history from one of the people working to make it.

I’ve mentioned in past posts that one of the reasons I find Irish and Russian revolutionary history is that it helps me understand the struggles in so many other countries around the world. Now I can say without hesitation that the history of Puerto Rico offers you yet another way to understand the shared story of our world through a richly unique lens, though I’m increasingly sure that delving into other national histories will produce similar results.

However, it would be insensitive of me to end this post without emphasizing the all-too grim reality facing Puerto Ricans today (you can donate to the Hispanic Federation if you’d like to help with reconstruction efforts in Puerto Rico). Reading these two books, as well as a host of articles and more, has revealed a fascinating story, certainly, but it has also made me more aware than ever of the U.S.’s involvement, to say the least, in its current challenges. Be prepared, therefore, to find in these books not just works that confirm the value of reading history, but will make you viscerally aware how much the present unfolds in the shadow of the past.

So go read them. Now.


NOTE: Both of these books were published in the early 1970s, so they obviously don’t account for more recent events. That said, I still think they offer invaluable insight into fundamental issues pertaining to Puerto Rican political history and they’ve helped me better grasp articles and other texts that deal with more contemporary events.




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