The Case for War Against All Puerto Ricans (TV series)
I am not, and I cannot stress this enough, calling for armed conflict against the people of Puerto Rico. Those are the words of Elisha F. Riggs, the former US-appointed police chief in Puerto Rico, who very much did call for armed conflict against the people of Puerto Rico, specifically those who took up arms against the provincial government in the colony in the middle of the 20th century. The Puerto Ricans in question did indeed take their arms and used them to get the last laugh over Riggs in 1936, ending his tenure after just three years. Riggs's demise is a footnote of a greater conflict in the territory, the Puerto Rican nationalist movement. It is a little-discussed period of American history, but one that has defined the literary career of writer Nelson A. Denis.
War Against All Puerto Ricans is a semi-dramatic account of one of the most contentious chapters of the island's long struggle for independence. Denis, himself a firm advocate for Puerto Rican independence, freely admits the book's sensationalized title is a conscious choice. It invokes the righteous anger of the aggrieved people of Puerto Rico who have lived under the rule of the Spanish crown and the United States and have resorted to armed resistance to imperial occupation. Like most upstart nationalist causes in the history of Latin America, the Puerto Rican independence movement has been repeatedly and often violently suppressed. The book is not without its share of valid criticism, but it makes for a workable template for contextualizing Puerto Rico's colonial history while setting the stage for compelling narrative entertainment.
Among those familiar with Trumpian rhetoric, the word "nationalist" may raise some eyebrows, but the term does not carry the same connotation outside the United States. Whereas in the US, nationalism is the belief in an ethnocentric nativist state, in the global south it is the reclaiming of national sovereignty from the throes of the imperialist powers that have historically subjugated them. This is the case in many former colonies and vassal states, such as Cuba and Iran, which resorted to authoritarianism largely as a defense mechanism against US intervention. Puerto Rico in particular has never known true freedom. The indigenous Taino people were effectively driven to extinction by the Spanish empire, who then handed the reins over to the US following the Spanish-American War. Denis succinctly summarizes Puerto Rico's history and details the largely factual circumstances around the fledgling insurrection, while plugging in some not-so-factual flourish. One gripping scene in the book features a revolutionary in a shootout with police, briefly chuckling to himself as "If I Knew You Were Coming I'd Have Baked a Cake" suddenly plays on the radio. Another tells of a suspected separatist repeatedly tortured in a blacksite prison, culminating in a horrific instance in which he is starved for days, then fed the cooked meat of his own son. The veracity of these events is of course dubious, but they are meant to accentuate the brutal nature of the occupation.
Presently, the destruction wrought by Hurricane Maria and the federal government's borderline genocidal response is still fresh in the collective psyche of the archipelago's population and the diaspora alike. This national trauma helped spark the largest protests the island has ever seen, a tremendous display in what small measure Puerto Ricans are allowed to exercise agency in the US political system. This uprising led to the ousting of imbecile failson, Ricky Roselló son of former Governor Pedro Roselló, the territory's first ever elected vampire. The leftward trend continues as the upstart Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana (Citizen's Victory Movement) and the historically underachieving Partido Independentista Puertorriqueno (Puerto Rican Independence Party), the two political parties most closely aligned with the growing separatist movement, combined for nearly 28% of the vote in the 2020 gubernatorial election, a stunning repudiation of the corrupt two-party dichotomy and a clear message to the political establishment (the PIP alone more than quadrupled its usual share of the vote). Pro-statehood Governor Pedro Pierluisi, having won the election with a measly 32% of the vote, lacks the mandate of the Puerto Rican people to deliver something the US has no intention of granting.
This internal drama coincides with politics at the federal level, where movement toward justice may be in its infancy. In August 2020, Democrats Nydia Velasquez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced HR 8113, which would result in Congress being compelled to vote on admitting Puerto Rico as a state for the first time. Although Velasquez has advocated on behalf of Puerto Rico on a number of issues in her career, having the support of the most high-profile Latina politician in American history might just be enough to force the government's hand. However, the possibility of yet another disappointment remains high. Not only did the most recent referendum on statehood held in PR win by an unconvincing 52-47 margin, the effort to ratify said legislation will likely be met with little enthusiasm by the Biden White House, which has already signaled low interest in other progressive causes. The US government has, at the very least, a moral obligation to grant Puerto Ricans self-determination, a right that is not theirs to give in the first place. Every day they don't is a stain on the Biden presidency, as it was during Trump's, and Obama's before him. Every administration that has presided over this farce bears equal responsibility for the disenfranchisement of millions of people.
Much like how aspects of the black experience got the TV treatment in shows like Watchmen, Lovecraft Country, and Them concurrent with the Black Lives Matter protests, Puerto Ricans deserve a media phenomenon that puts our own complicated history front and center for a larger audience. There was something of an attempt made in the now-canceled (regular canceled, not the other, dumb kind) One Day at a Time, which featured such heartfelt insights into the Latinx experience as this scene of the classic loveable idiot (ironically a landlord) being lambasted for wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt:
While the show does favorably touch upon a variety of progressive issues, it is an enormous disappointment that the showrunners elected to portray an experience singular to reactionary Cuban expats and lean into insidious anti-communist propaganda. On the heels of socialist movements gaining (or re-gaining) power in countries like Peru and Bolivia, there could hardly be a better time to accentuate the leftist traditions native to Latin America.
Puerto Rico already exerts exceptional influence in global pop culture considering our size and population. Reggaeton is one of the most popular music genres in the world, and its current poster boy Bad Bunny is one of the biggest names in music. Film and television have also been graced with a wealth of Puerto Rican acting talent, such as Benicio del Toro, Roselyn Sanchez, Luis Guzman. et al. Nelson Denis has aggressively sought to have his book adapted to film, and the aforementioned Guzman has shown interest. There is also the opportunity for a young, talented Afro-Caribbean actor to make a name for himself portraying revolutionary hero Pedro Albizu Campos, centerpiece of the nationalist movement and tragic hero of War Against All Puerto Ricans.
Puerto Rico's cultural footprint is significant, but its political representation is not. The end goal is self-determination for the Puerto Rican people, full stop. I am under no impression that a TV show is going to get us there, but aren't we used to symbolic gestures by now?
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