Author Nelson Denis discusses complicated history of Puerto Rico

GVL / Matt Read 
Assembly of Pro-Puerto Rico people on campus meet in the Pere Marquette Room on Tuesday, November 7th.

GVL / Matt Read Assembly of Pro-Puerto Rico people on campus meet in the Pere Marquette Room on Tuesday, November 7th.

Theresa Mueller

Puerto Rican history is American history. Yet, Puerto Rico is often disregarded in the context of the democratic history of the U.S. 

On Tuesday, Nov. 7, Nelson Denis, author of “War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony,” spoke at Grand Valley State University to lay out what he perceived to be the tragic, untold history of Puerto Rico.

Despite the years of overpowering intervention in Puerto Rican politics, the U.S. government arguably refrains from publicizing the island’s current and past internal struggles, as the U.S. is the instigator of many of Puerto Rico’s economic and political issues, Denis said. 

“There’s often an official story that isn’t even a fraction of what needs to be known,” Denis said. “I’m hoping in as short a time as possible, imprint that there are a lot of people there, and it’s a piece of humanity and justice should be done.”

Puerto Rico has surfaced in national conversations after Hurricane Maria, but Denis’ iteration of the island’s history explained how problems have been ongoing for over a century.

“We only become visible when we become a problem,” Denis said. 

In his lecture, Denis discussed the history of Puerto Rico’s complicated relationship with the rest of the U.S. and his perception of the negative way the U.S. has impacted the island.

“I’m not trying to be negative, but I am just trying to give you the process of colonization and how it can be,” he said. 

As Puerto Rico faces the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Denis hopes to instill a message that will resonate during the cleanup. He admitted the media coverage would go away, but by word of mouth, he wants to keep the conversation going. 

David Stark, GVSU professor of history and coordinator of Latin American and Latino/a studies, expressed the importance of having Denis come speak at GVSU to spread awareness.

“He gave some ideas to think about that not only apply to Puerto Rico but the broader world that we live in,” Stark said.  

Stark mentioned how Denis’ lecture may push people outside of their comfort zone as many people in the U.S. like to think “the world revolves around us.” But, Denis’ lecture displayed the ways in which there are many ongoing issues around the world that are often ignored.

Stark also noted the multiple ways people address political issues, whether through their words or actions.

“I’m an educator, and I believe that if I can reach one person, and then you can reach another person and another person, and we can keep reaching more and more people, we can make the world a better place,” Stark said. “I’m not a marcher. I’m not going to grab a sign and march. But, I have a platform in my classroom, and I can talk about these things. … It’s important to hear what’s going on to prevent this from happening again.”

Denis’ lecture resonated with Vanessa Sanchez, a senior at GVSU and president of the Latino Student Union (LSU), as she looks for ways to improve the impact of LSU. 

“I didn’t know much about the history or the issues between the U.S. and Puerto Rico,” Sanchez said. “I think (Denis’) passion and devotion of what has happened has really intrigued me. This is another important issue that we need to focus on for Latinos.”

In addition to continuing conversation during Puerto Rico’s recovery from the hurricane, Denis hopes Puerto Ricans can address the “contours of their culture and history.”

“As a land mass, they’ll still be there, but it doesn’t benefit the world if their culture is squeezed out,” Denis said.