An Unknown History

Kal Wagenheim and Olga Jiménez de Wagenheim, eds., The Puerto Ricans: A Documentary History, 5th ed. (Princeton, NJ: Markus Weiner, 2013); 423 pages; ISBN: 9781558765641 (paperback).

• October 2014

The most recent headlines about Puerto Rico announce the island’s financial demise, its debt status lowered, its inhabitants fleeing to the mainland United States in droves for economic respite in a large migratory wave. On the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of its publication, The Puerto Ricans: A Documentary History remains a vital necessity because there are few texts that cover the same breadth of history. Indeed, it is one of only two analyses—the other being Arturo Morales Carrión’s Puerto Rico: A Political and Cultural History (1984)—that can be regularly found on the shelves of local libraries across the country. This latest edition, the fifth, has been updated and expanded to include a commentary about the closing of the US naval base on Vieques in 2003, a summary of bills presented in Congress to modify Puerto Rico’s political status, and a discussion about the role of the diaspora in deciding the future of the island. For many, The Puerto Ricans has served as an introduction to the rich history of the small island-nation that has functioned for more than a century as the testing ground for the imperial ambitions of its colonial power. In his introduction, Kal Wagenheim makes explicit the intention with which he crafted this study: “My main purposes have been to make available in English a substantial body of knowledge for the benefit of thousands of Puerto Rican students on the mainland, who have been cut off from their national heritage, and to help North American readers to appreciate this important ethnic group” (xi). While it is impossible to measure the success of the second goal, the editors provide a valuable and indispensable collection of primary and secondary sources that continue to educate, among others, a population of first-, second-, and third-generation Puerto Ricans raised on the mainland with little knowledge of the narratives of their heritage.

There are ten sections in The Puerto Ricans. The first two parts of the study include documents recording observations about the lives of the indigenous of Borinquén; Queen Isabella’s order establishing the encomienda system of enforced labor and subsequent rebellions; Spanish settlement of the island; descriptions of the jíbaros, the white peasantry; and the laws regulating the comportment of enslaved Africans. The editors then move on to the rising desire for liberation from Mother Spain by including the writings of Ramón Emeterio Betances, the spiritual leader of a free Puerto Rico and a leader of the Grito de Lares, the 1868 insurrection celebrated to this day as the assertion of the will of an independent nation. The Wagenheims cover the subsequent reforms provided by the Spanish Crown, including the abolition of slavery in 1873. They summarize four hundred years of history in the first ninety pages or so; the remaining four hundred pages detail the relationship of the island with the United States.

Through the writings by Eugenio María de Hostos and Carl Sandburg as well as contemporary accounts of the Spanish-American War, the reader understands in a palpable way the virulence of manifest destiny as well as the resistance to this discourse of salvation, presented then as now in newspapers across the United States. The fifth section is perhaps the most fascinating because it includes documents from 1899 to 1914, when the island had been annexed by the United States and yet the inhabitants were not yet US citizens. This is perhaps the most understudied period of Puerto Rican history; it is fascinating to read accounts of the confusion of US legislators who did not know what to do with their new possession.

The subsequent section details the efforts for US citizenship. It begins in 1914, with congressional testimony by Luis Muñoz Rivera, the resident commissioner, and ends with the conferral of citizenship in 1917. Following this, the editors present documents of yet another overlooked period in Puerto Rican studies, that of the interbellum years, whereby anti-American sentiment increased as investors continued to exploit the island. Puerto Rico was then presided over by Washington, with a governor appointed from the capital, and in this chapter we learn of the roots of the establishment of the Free Associated State as a political status guaranteeing relative autonomy and yet continued relation with the United States. The Estado Libre Asociado, the official title describing the current status, was modeled after the Irish Free State, formed in 1922.

These years saw the growing popularity of Pedro Albizu Campos and his Nationalist Party as well as the Ponce Massacre of 1937, when police shot into a parade of nationalists, injuring hundreds and killing nineteen.

The last three parts of the book describe the focus of the majority of publications about Puerto Rico, namely, the industrialization of the island with Operation Bootstrap in the 1940s; the election of Luis Muñoz Marín as governor; the establishment of the Commonwealth in 1952; and the subsequent migration to the mainland. Again, the study contains episodes of history that have been marginalized even within canonical Puerto Rican studies, specifically those about the continued endeavors for independence, such as the Jayuya Revolt of 1950; the attacks on the governor’s mansion in 1950 and on the US Congress in 1954, led by Lolita Lebrón; Muñoz Marín’s attempts to amend the Commonwealth status in the 1963; and extracts from the FBI surveillance files of prominent Puerto Ricans, including both Albizu Campos and Muñoz Marín. The editors provide not only excerpts from Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets (1967) but also other first-person accounts of experiences on the mainland, including incidents of racial and ethnic prejudice, as well as the ensuing efforts by activists such as the Young Lords who desired social, political, and economic recognition and equality for their communities in Chicago and New York.

The 2010 US census marked an important moment in the history of the island: today there are more Americans of Puerto Rican heritage living on the mainland (4.2 million) than on the island itself (3.8 million), and the migration continues. In his introduction, Kal Wagenheim makes clear the existence of two Puerto Rico’s: the island facing steep economic challenges, an aging population, rising crime rates, and migration, and the nation that thrives on the mainland, many of whom are children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of rural workers forced to seek employment in the 1940s. By one measure, the story of the Puerto Rican diaspora is one of “success”: families have moved out of the ethnic enclaves found in the cities of New York, Chicago, Hartford, and Philadelphia, among others, and live instead throughout the fifty states and indeed throughout the world. This dispersal has meant significant adjustments, as the diaspora faces ongoing challenges. After four decades of the existence of Puerto Rican studies programs, in the twenty-first century many have been folded into Latino studies programs, underscoring the diversity of growing US Latina/o communities. Although the Puerto Rican Studies Association and the Center of Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College-CUNY in New York remain dynamic organizations, they face head-on the perception of disinterest about a community that remains the second-largest Hispanic group in the United States. The spiritual homelands of the mainland population, such as El Barrio in New York and Humboldt Park in Chicago, face rising rates of gentrification, as developers seek to build for members of the upper middle class. For many, the heart of the community has now shifted to Florida, with Orlando becoming the preferred destination for those leaving the island. In addition to Puerto Rico’s economic woes, its political status remains in limbo; the results of the last referendum in 2012 indicated that 54 percent of the counted ballots indicated Puerto Ricans do not want to continue the country’s current territorial status.

There are some conspicuous absences in the study: there is no mention of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, for example, or of his colleague in the New York Public Library, Pura Belpré. Further, Antonia Pantoja, founder of ASPIRA and a pioneer in the fight for bilingual education in Puerto Rico, is nowhere to be found. Nevertheless, with its copious notes; its wide range of texts from notable Puerto Rican historians, politicians, and sociologists that have been previously published solely in Spanish; and its documents from US officials often providing the perspective of the colonizer, The Puerto Ricans: A Documentary History remains a critical introductory text that thoroughly encompasses the stories of this populace.


Vanessa K Valdés is an associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at the City College of New York. She is the editor of Let Spirit Speak! Cultural Journeys of the African Diaspora (2012) and The Future Is Now: A New Look at African Diaspora Studies (2012), and the author of Oshun’s Daughers: The Search for Womanhood in the Americas (2014).