The NiLP Report’s readership, Puertoricanists, and other scholars, are probably aware of my public Facebook comments following the Puerto Rican Studies Association’s decision to co-honor Nelson Denis’ book, War Against all Puerto Ricans, with the 2016 Frank Bonilla Award for best book in Puerto Rican Studies during the association’s 12th biennial conference on October 27-30, 2016. NilP published some of my public Facebook comments on its November 1st report.
The NiLP Report of November 3, 2016, Defending Our Island’s History: On The War Against “War Against All Puerto Ricans” featured Nelson Denis’ response to my Facebook comments. Denis later posted it on his own page with the preface: “Cowards and Liars, with “Ph.Ds” after their names, try to attack Puerto Rico.”
Angelo Falcón extended me an invitation to write a response. It took me a while to get to it. My most trusted friends and colleagues advised that I should not engage with Denis: “That is not what academics do” “You are burning bridges” “Think of your career” and the like. But I think that the biggest mistake the academic world made, was exactly not to publicly engage with Denis.
I denounced this decision, and the process leading to it, as a travesty. In protest, I resigned to my position as treasurer and member of the executive committee but stayed as caretaker of our accounts until a new treasurer is elected and ready to take over. I demanded that the rest of the executive council resigned as well. For that, I sincerely apologize, especially to Arlene Torres and Marilisa Jiménez, both of whom I count as supporting colleagues and friends.
Arlene, Marilisa, I was wrong to put you in that position. Rest assured that I know how hard both of you have worked to make the PRSA’s events a success, grow our membership, and fulfil the association’s mission.
I will try to explain, as succinctly as possible, why I have criticized Denis’ work and why I denounced awarding him the Frank Bonilla prize. PRSA bylaws state that the award is given to work that represents the “the embodiment and aims of the association.” To this day, I believe that “War” does not embodies the aims of the association. PRSA exists to promote research, academic work and dialogue, as well as to advocate for our area studies and our communities.
Denis’ work has been credited with opening many dialogues. However, a dialogue goes two (or more) ways. And this has not always happened.
Whenever Denis’ work is questioned, instead of addressing the issues raised, ad hominem attacks followed. One of the favorite charges is that the critique is nothing but academic jealously in view of Denis’ book popularity. To believe this line of reasoning one must be unaware of what academic, and in my case, historical research is supposed to be.
The historian is interested in discovering evidence that may lead to a deeper understanding of our past. Often, historical research leads historians to completely change their thesis and worldview. This happens because a historian neither suppresses nor ignores evidence that counters his/her political views. The historian is invested in disseminating the evidence found and in making it accessible to the public.
This work is done for love of the profession. It is taxing and economically unrewarding. But I knew that when I signed up. And I committed to it because discovering new evidence and helping to solve the big puzzle we call “our past” or “our history” is a reward big enough.
So, my critique of Denis’ work (just like that of several scholars who have dared to come public) is that he misquotes, misrepresents, and misleads as he tries to prove his case. Thus, he ignores evidence, misuses what he presents, and, as in the case of the title- misleads the public. All of this has led me to believe that he is not interested in the facts but in telling his story. I may be wrong, but that is the impression I get.
To this day, I’m still not sure why he never retracted his assertion (to my knowledge) of the book’s title being a verbatim reproduction of Chief of Insular Police Francie E. Riggs’ words. When the book was about to come out, I asked him (on the Latino Rebels comment section) if he meant that American colonialism should be seen as a type of warfare against Puerto Ricans, hence his book’s title. That would be a tenable position- and a great departure point from where to start a conversation. But he insisted that those were Riggs’ words. I knew those were not his words for I had seen the documents (which I have made available). Also, like several historians from across the political spectrum, I have pointed out some of the book’s shortcomings.
From my point of view, Denis’s work did not fulfill the most important parts of PRSA’s mission- promoting rigorous research, academic integrity, and dialogue.
Now, there is blame to go around. Denis’ critics have been accused of anti-Diaspora hatred. It is true that some island-based Puerto Ricans have questioned Denis’ puertoricanes. That is simply unacceptable and an example of ad hominem attacks against him. These attacks, against Denis, and the Diaspora in general, have got to stop. I have spoken against the Insular disdain for the Diaspora before and received hate mail for it.
I will continue to speak against it- so rest assured that my critique of “War” is not influenced by any resentment against the Diaspora- a Diaspora I joined over two decades now.
But going back to my point. Academia did not fully engage with Denis and when we did, WE included personal attacks. I include myself for I have crossed the line from critique into personal attacks several times. For that I apologize to Denis. Promoting dialogue should remain the gold standard of our profession and in that regard, some of his critics, myself included, have failed. I hope that it is not too late to engage in constructive dialogue.
One question remains: How Does Awarding Denis the Frank Bonilla Award Hurts Puerto Rican Studies? For that was the point of my initial public comments. Denis’ work is not without merit, I recognize that. It has created a lot of interest in Puerto Rican history. That is unquestionable. But, “War” has failures regarding research and the use of “evidence,” and it revives many nationalist myths, such as U.S. citizenship being extended to Puerto Ricans so they could be drafted into the military.
“War” also reduces the history of Puerto Rico to a conflict between two men holding the Puerto Ricans’ future in their hands. In “War,” Denis ignores the anti-colonial struggle, resistance, negotiation, and even cooperation and co-optation pre-dating Albizu Campos, who personifies good and perfection; and Muñoz Marín, who is the Devil incarnate, in Denis’ narrative. In this story, Puerto Ricans have no agency, they are presented as people without recourse.
As a political platform, “War” is very effective. It appeals to deep feelings, it energizes the readers. Bill O’Reilley writes this type of books. Yet, you will never hear of the American Historical Association or the Organization of American Historians giving him an award. Instead, historians and scholars see O’Reilley’s work as a political platform better suited for other outlets.
And, at a time in which ethnic and area studies are under attack; at a time in which every year our programs have to fight for every penny, we can’t allow to be characterized as a non-ethical (regarding our discipline standards) and partisan entity. That is the damage that awarding the prize to Denis has caused. And the damage will be greater if we don’t speak out and establish a dialogue.
The Future of Puerto Rican Studies
The Frank Bonilla prize and my public comments may have led to a crisis, as Angelo Falcón reported. But, no hay mal que por bien no venga. Dozens of new and returning members registered so they could participate in the PRSA’s elections. Many have expressed support for speaking out- even if they do not agree with the method or with the whole message. There is a push to revitalize the Puerto Rican Studies Association. Our crisis, is fueling a rebirth of the PRSA. We will continue our efforts to increase our membership, its diversity and continuous engagement. We will continue to promote the association’s prestige and visibility. And, needless to say, fostering dialogue and advocating for our communities will continue to be an essential part of PRSA’s mission.
I look forward to meet you all at the next convention. Until then, let’s keep the conversation alive.