The plight of Puerto Rico has recently entered the consciousness of mainland U.S. citizens in the wake of Hurricane Maria. But circumstances were dire on the island long before a category 4 hurricane tore through its streets, delivering brutal damages to its infrastructure, causing at least thirty-four deaths, and leaving millions of inhabitants in mortal need of immediate aid. Puerto Rico has not experienced national autonomy in centuries—a Spanish colony from 1493 through 1898, the island moved into the hands of the United States in July of 1898, where it has remained ever since.
Its history as a U.S. colony has been bleak: not being a state, Puerto Rico has no significant stake in its own leadership. The decades-long Puerto Rican debt crisis reached an all-time high in August of this year, at which point the debt had reached $72 billion, and the poverty rate on the island was 45%. That was before Hurricane Maria.
It’s long past time that U.S. leadership turn its attention to its profoundly struggling colony, but attention is useless if it is not well informed. Puerto Rico’s history is long, varied, and complicated, just like that of any other land. And it deserves to be known and understood, especially as the humanitarian crisis left in the wake of Hurricane Maria is dealt with. To begin to learn about the island and its history, look to the following books.
Nelson A. Denis
Nelson A. Denis tells the story of the Puerto Rican struggle with the U.S. government over independence through the lens of Pedro Albizu Campos’s life. Campos, who served as the president of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party and was the first Puerto Rican man to graduate from Harvard Law School, was imprisoned for twenty-five years for attempting to overthrow the U.S. government in Puerto Rico. He ultimately died under mysterious and questionable circumstances. The controversial and often violent struggle between Puerto Ricans and the U.S. over independence opens up through the lens of Campos’s similarly controversial life.
Roberto Santiago (Editor)
“Boriqua” is a term of endearment used among Puerto Ricans to refer to themselves and each other. But it’s more than a term of endearment; it’s a statement of identity, history, and legacy. And it’s a fitting title for this anthology, pulled together by Roberto Santiago, which comprises over fifty pieces of writing from some of the most influential and vibrant minds in Puerto Rican literature.
Four Decades of Change, in Photographs by Jack Delano
Jack DeLano, Alan Fern et. al
When Jack Delano first visited Puerto Rico, in 1941, it was as a photographer for the Farm Security Association, an effort instated as part of the New Deal to combat American rural poverty during the Great Depression. Delano returned to Puerto Rico in 1980, of his own volition, to photograph the same places he had visited almost four decades prior. What results is a gorgeous book of photographs that paints many portraits of a land oppressed.
Esmerelda Santiago’s acclaimed memoir, published in 1994, is the first of a trio of memoirs, followed by Almost A Woman and The Turkish Lover. When I was Puerto Rican tells the story of Santiago’s early life growing up in Puerto Rico in poverty, with six siblings. When Santiago’s mother chooses to move her family to New York City, she experiences something of a trial by fire when it comes to acclimating to her new school, enmeshed in an entirely different culture than the one she’s always known. Her identity morphs, and she grows up, but she never forgets what it means to be Puerto Rican.
Eileen J. Suárez Findlay
Eileen J. Suárez Findlay delves into Puerto Rico between the years of 1870 to 1920, when Puerto Rico shifted from Spanish colonial rule to U.S. colonial rule. She looks specifically at the racially charged double standards of sexual norms in Puerto Rico at the time, and the ways in which those double standards directly influenced the oppression of all Puerto Ricans. Social battles between the Puerto Rican popular and elite that hinged on decency and disreputability played a significant role in the development of social orders, which ultimately oppressed all Puerto Ricans, the elite included.
Sidney W. Mintz
Worker in the Cane tells the life story of Don Taso, a sugar cane worker in Puerto Rico in the mid-20th century. Told largely in Don Taso’s own words, Worker in the Cane is a profound primary source when it comes to understanding the drastic changes taking place in Puerto Rico at that time, and the history behind where Puerto Rico finds itself today.
José Trías Monge
In Puerto Rico, former government official and Puerto Rican legal scholar José Trías Monge makes the case for the immediate decolonization of Puerto Rico. Monge not only looks back at the history of Puerto Rico as a colony of Spain and then the U.S., but also at the lack of a difference that the money the U.S. has given Puerto Rico in contemporary times has made in their society and economy. Instead, he argues, money given to Puerto Rico by the U.S. government has made Puerto Rico mortally dependent on the U.S., and has hindered rather than fostered their independence. This, married with the limited say that Puerto Rico has in its own governance, has been a prolonged recipe for disaster.
Jorge Duany discusses the commonly migratory livelihoods of Puerto Ricans in The Puerto Rican Nation on the Move. The identity of the average Puerto Rican necessitates the bridging of two worlds—that of the island of Puerto Rico and of the U.S. mainland. Many Puerto Ricans quite literally split their time between homes on the island and on the mainland, and view Puerto Rico as something of a separate nation, and themselves as primarily Puerto Rican. Duany looks to history to explore the amorphous national identity of Puerto Ricans.
Luis Rafael Sánchez
This is the only novel on the list, and it’s a worthy one. Puerto Rican novelist, essayist, and playwright Luis Rafael Sánchez satirizes the Americanization of Puerto Rico in his novel, Macho Camacho’s Beat. He takes readers through the life of a single family on a single day, as Macho Camacho’s music flows through radios, record players, and televisions across the island. This novel is a fantastically entertaining way to get to know the culture of Puerto Rico in the ’90s.