SOBRE EL AUTOR
One of the most persistent and early lessons I was taught while a student at the New Jersey public school system was the difference between fiction and non-fiction when it came to book qualification. As I still remember it, fiction were all those titles derived from the imagination of the authors, mainly novels, short stories and poetry; whilst non-fiction would refer to works based on facts, real people and truthful events where the author presents information that is, to the best of his or her knowledge, accurate and verifiable.
To this date this wise demarcation not only prevails in the New York Times’ list of Best Seller Books, but is very helpful allowing readers to know beforehand if what they’re buying will serve them for entertainment purposes or will provide them with trusted and accurate information on the topic of their interest.
Of course, every once in a while along comes an author with a crossover book that might challenge this categorization, or, worse, tricks its readers into believing that they’re reading truthful information when in reality they’re being provided with an attractive imaginary narration.
This happened in 2003 with the best-seller book A Million Little Pieces. Billed as a memoir by its author and the publisher (thus a non-fiction book), it was soon discovered by a website that the book contained “a million little lies”. As was later found out, the not-so honest author fabricated or exaggerated a great part of his life experience as a drug-addict. It also turned out that no one in the publishing house took the time to investigate the accuracy of what was written in the book. In the ensuing controversy the author and the publisher took a lot of heat from the media and colleagues, both lost face and an old Russian proverb was vindicated: trust but verify.
War against all Puerto Ricans, Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony (Nation Books: New York, 2015) by Nelson A. Denis is one of those books that confirms that writing about real people and historic events is an intellectual endeavor that requires a totally different approach from that of describing imaginary ones. In this case we have an author whose resourceful imagination and willingness to deviate from factual assertions, produces a story that can’t be placed in the realm of non-fiction. This book also reiterates the necessary lesson that we always need to verify what we read, no matter how time-consuming that task turns out to be.
Hailed by Congressman José Serrano (Democrat-New York) as a book “that every student of the US-Puerto Rico relationship should read”, War against all Puerto Ricans approaches and tries to explain the imposing US presence in the Caribbean Island throughout the first part of the Twentieth Century.
Denis’ account focuses mainly on the time span from the arrival of Americans in Puerto Rico 1898 till 1950, and a good part of the story revolves around the two towering figures who dominated Puerto Rican politics from 1930 to the 1950’s: Luis Muñoz Marín (1898-1980) and Pedro Albizu Campos (1891-1965). Muñoz would become the first democratically elected governor of Puerto Rico in 1948 and is considered the mastermind behind the island’s autonomous 1952 territorial Commonwealth status (known in Spanish as Estado Libre Asociado) that prevails to this day. Albizu was a Harvard graduate lawyer, Nationalist Party president from 1930 on, led a violent armed revolt against Muñoz’s government in October, 1950, had nationalists followers of his attempt against the life of President Harry S. Truman, and spent a great part of his life in prison due to his unflinching commitment to cause of Puerto Rican independence.
Inasmuch as the word “History” appears on the War Against All Puerto Ricans’ dust jacket, we assume that we are actually reading a non-fiction work. In fact, advance praise by some prestigious reviewers, including New York Universityprofessor Greg Grandin, supports this false perception.
With its seventy-one pages of detailed footnotes, twelve of bibliography, chapter heading like “Facts” and “Events”, and the authors own confession of having read thousands of official documents, FBI files and newspaper accounts, the book does gives the initial impression of being a well documented work.
Yet, any cautious reader with knowledge of Puerto Rican history will soon become conflicted with most of the author’s statements, as well as the evidence used to uphold them, as follows.
To begin with the title is completely misleading. Denis attributes the phrase “There will be war to the death against all Puerto Ricans” to Elisha F. Rigg, a Yale graduate appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as Puerto Rico’s Chief of Police from 1934 to 1936. Yet when tracing the sources we find out that Riggs didn’t say what Denis attributes to him.
On October 24, 1935 a car carrying four members of the Nationalist Party was stopped in the town of Río Piedras, and ordered to drive to the near Police station. While heading there a scuffle broke out between the driver and a policeman standing on the car’s stirrup; this lead to the fatal shooting of those inside. Three of the four nationalists in the car were shot dead by police, another nationalist who came to their aid was also killed, as well as an innocent bystander.
The tragic incident, a result of the intensified animosity that had been building up between the Insular Police and members of the Nationalist Party, brought about a volatile situation that foreshadowed the dark times that followed in Puerto Rico’s 1930’s political scenario.
The San Juan daily paper La Democracia (October 26,1935, p. 8), whose reporter had covered the Río Piedras bloody incident, printed Riggs’ declarations on the event. After lecturing on the right to free speech within a system of law an order, and declaring that no one had the right to bear unauthorized weapons, Riggs warned that if anyone persisted in carrying illegal arms “there will be war, non-stop war, not against politicians, but against criminals”. From the above it is obvious that no war on Puerto Ricans was declared by Riggs (or, for that matter, by any other American official), as Denis falsely claims. So, as far as the title is concerned, we’re off on the wrong historical foot here by an author who claims his book will present events “fairly and accurately” yet he himself misquotes what is printed on the record. Not only that but Denis also misleads the reader as to where to find Riggs’ alleged lapidary phrase: on endnote 36, page 121 of his book he cites La Democracia of October 28, 1935. Yet the reader will search in vain for Riggs’ words in that issue for they were printed two days earlier. Denis not only misquotes but also distorts the public record.
Of course, if you want to sell books “War against all Puerto Ricans” is going to raise more eyebrows and draw more readers and potential buyers than Riggs’ original phrase; more so if the distorted phrase is set in uppercase white letters against a crimson background on the book’s cover.
The tittle thus sets a pattern that will repeat itself throughout the rest of the book: author Nelson E. Denis’ statements are not always supported by the source he quotes, on occasions he misquotes the public record and misguides the reader as to where to find what he asserts. It’s pretty obvious that in his tale historical accuracy takes backseat to the author’s tendentious statements and embellishments.
For example, describing Luis Muñoz Marín’s school days at the Georgetown Preparatory School in Washington DC Denis flatly states that the future governor “flunked every class except modern literature and had to repeat the entire tenth grade” (p. 87). Whereas Albizu, according to Denis (p. 111), was the valedictorian of his public high school and graduated in just two years. Not only that, but later on Albizu becomes the first Puerto Rican student to enter Harvard, all this as maintained by Denis.
The information on Albizu is just wrong as we will show later on, and when you check on the source Denis uses for Muñoz’ grade records, it turns out he’s relying on Luis Muñoz Marín’s memoirs, where no information substantiate him flunking “every class except modern literature” appears. Muñoz does admit that he did not learn much at Georgetown Prep but you can’t take that as an equivalent of him “flunking every class.”
After finding out about these and other inconsistencies, you start to wonder if the advance praise that appears on the dust jacket of War Against All Puerto Ricans is nothing more than a blurb from easily fooled readers who have very little knowledge of Puerto Rican history.
Of course, now days most readers don’t bother to verify endnotes or go to great lengths to check on the facts given to them in printed paper, be it a book, a magazine or a newspaper. Just ask Oprah Winfrey who praised and highly recommended A Million Little Pieces to her huge TV audience, only to feel disappointed later on when she found out about the author’s gross lies and exaggerations.
If it had only been a question of exaggerating youngster’s school grades, Denis’ fact-distortion narrative would not be a motive for great concern and disapproval. But he goes far beyond that: he uses Muñoz and Albizu biographies, Puerto Rican colonial politics and mixes it with illegal drugs and the 1920’s rowdy Lower Manhattan scene.
El segundo artículo de esta serie:“The big lie of the opium factor”.
El tercer artículo de esta serie: Here we have the first 29 Lies (and more will come)
Nelson Denis le contestó a Luis Ferrao: The Many Lies of Luis Ferrao y “Albizu Campos was a Fascist”, said Luis A. Ferrao
El autor es catedrático de Ciencias Sociales en la Universidad de Puerto Rico en Río Piedras. Ha publicado Pedro Albizu Campos y el nacionalismo puertorriqueño (1990), Historia de los seguros en Puerto Rico(2003), Puertorriqueños en la guerra civil española (2009), y prologó los dos tomos de las obras de Luis Muñoz Marín Palabras 1931-1935 y 1936-1940 (2005).
Posee un Doctorado en Ciencias Políticas de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, un Diplome d’Etudes Approfondies (DEA) de la Universidad de París 1-Sorbonne, y una maestría de la Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales FLACSO-Sede México. Obtuvo la Medalla de Historia de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, por ser el más alto promedio en su concentración.