ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Reaching, Claiming, Lunging for the Universe of Things
Books by Louis Reyes Rivera
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Filiberto Ojeda Rios & Puerto Rican Sovereignty
By Louis Reyes Rivera
For a very long time I have had this problem with the way history is taught. Too many of our textbooks and professors teach history as if they were taking a droplet of water out of the river and presenting that droplet as the entire river itself. And they do so with little regard to those trillions of droplets that make a river possible. No one event, no one person, exists out of context. We are all part of some sense of continuum.
Because of the way Puerto Rican history is not taught, far too many people do not fully understand the social and political context out of which such events as the assassination of Filiberto Ojeda Rios by FBI agents in Puerto Rico (September 23, 2005) takes place. Ever since he began dedicating his life to the independence of Puerto Rico, Filiberto had become one more contributing factor in the historical continuum of Puerto Rican struggles that date back at least to the 18th Century and that continues, however presently fragmented, straight through into tomorrow.
Consider the following highlights that are hallmarks to yesterday’s river of struggle on the part of Puerto Ricans, giving rise to a Filiberto.
Beginning in 1795, at the midpoint of the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint L’Ouverture began to send out agents to Cuba, Puerto Rico, New Orleans, Jamaica, Mexico, and to what later became the Dominican Republic. Their task was to organize and instigate revolution against both slavery and colonialism. This policy of lending assistance to independence movements and/or to slave revolts continued on the part of Haiti until at least the 1840s, culminating in uprisings that took place in Oriente Province and in Santiago de Cuba . . . in Southern Louisiana and in Charleston, South Carolina, in Trelawny Town (Jamaica), in Ponce, San Juan and Arecibo (Puerto Rico), and, of course, in what we now call the Dominican Republic.
This last particular effort culminated in the immediate abolition of chattel slavery in Eastern Hispaniola, first from Spain, in 1797, and then from France in 1821, when Jean Boyer fully and officially annexed the territory.
Beginning in 1819, Puerto Rican and Cuban revolutionary exiles joined with the first Mexican Revolution (1809-1821) to help the Mexicans against the Spaniards. This pact between Puerto Ricans and Cubans with Mexican revolutionaries included an arrangement to extend the Mexican Revolution to Puerto Rico and Cuba. When Mexico defeated Spain (1821), the generals in charge at that time refused to honor the agreement, and, again, in 1822, Puerto Ricans and Cubans joined with Simon Bolivar and made him the same offerto assist Bolivar in liberating South America with the explicit understanding that Bolivar, in turn, would organize an invasion into both Cuba and Puerto Rico, and then annex those islands into his Greater Republic of Colombia. (Bolivar, by the way, also received much assistance from Haiti.)
Directly because of political pressure from and the threat of armed intervention by the U.S. (1824), Bolivar decided not to extend his war into the Caribbean.
From 1825 straight through to the early 1840s, we see no less than 20 separate slave revolts taking place in Puerto Rico, most of them with Haitian assistance. By the 1840s, slave revolts had caused so much havoc, especially in Cuba, that Spain began recruiting mercenaries, known as Gallegos, to root out such revolts. These Gallegos, however, eventually joined with Caribbean revolutionaries instead of earning their pay as hired killers.
Beginning in 1852, Ramon Emeterio Betances, Segundo Ruiz Belvis and Eugenio Maria de Hostos, among many others, began to dedicate their lives to the overthrow of both slavery and colonialism in Puerto Rico and Cuba (and, by the way, to encourage the overthrow of both Haiti and the Dominican Republic in order to pave the way for a Republic of the Greater Antilles). This effort culminated in what became known as el Grito de Lares in Puerto Rico (September 23, 1868), and in el Grito de Yara (October 10, 1868)the latter of which became known as the Cuban Ten Years’ War. Both efforts were initially planned in New York City by Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Haitian exiles, along with several locally prominent Sephardic Jews.
Both attempts basically failed, leading directly into what is known as The Little War of 1880 (forcing Spain to abolish slavery by 1884), and, later, in establishing a Cuban Revolutionary Party in 1891. The Constituent Laws that governed the CRP specifically included a Puerto Rican Sectionmeaning to say that once Cuba was free, the intention of the organizers was to immediately extend their war into Puerto Rico. This attempt is known as the Second Cuban War for Independence (1895-98), under the leadership of Jose Marti, who died in battle on May 19, 1895.
Once it became clear that the Cubans were on the verge of winning, the U.S. took advantage of the situation and intervened in 1898, not for the purposes of assisting the Cubans, but to subvert this third attempt with a series of invasions into Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Thus, what is called the Spanish-American War was an act of usurpation on the part of the U.S. against Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Filipino sovereign aspirations.
We should take note that when the U.S. and Spain signed their Treaty of Paris (December, 1898), there were no Cubans, Puerto Ricans or Filipinos at the table, yet the U.S. forced Spain to relinquish any claims over those lands (as well as Guam and Samoa) in exchange for twenty million dollars. It should also be noted that the U.S. overthrew the sovereign government of Hawaii and laid claim to it that same year.
With the rise of Pedro Albizu Campos as a lead figure for the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party (1928-1965), the struggle continued, culminating in the 1936 arrests and imprisonment of eight Nationalist leaders, including poets Juan Antonio Corretjer and Clemente Soto Velez, along with Albizu Campos. On Palm Sunday of the following year (1937), several hundred Puerto Ricans were preparing a peaceful march through the streets of Ponce in solidarity with the Nationalist cause. They were cordoned off by U.S. troops and local police. The end result is known as the Massacre at Ponce, in which action over 150 unarmed men, women and children were killed and wounded by U.S. military personnel.
When the jailed Nationalists completed their prison sentences (1948), they immediately set about to prepare what came to be known as the Revolt at Jayuya, in 1950. The U.S. immediately ordered both Army and Air Force personnel to put down this revolt, culminating in the re-arrest of Albizu Campos, along with no less than 1,000 other supporters of Independence. Four years later, in March 1954, Lolita Lebron and three other New York-based Nationalists opened fire on Congress in a last ditch effort to bring world attention to the fact that Puerto Rico, the fourth largest island of the Caribbean, was still a colony of the U.S.
After the death of Albizu Campos in 1965, we see again the rise of such groups as the Young Lords Party (1968-69), and during the later part of the 1970s, the formation of such other groups as the FALN and the Macheteros, of which latter Filiberto Ojeda Rios was a founder.
While it’s true that throughout the history of Puerto Rico and within the political spectrum of thought, there were and still are (a) assimilationists (i.e., those who give up on sovereignty to accommodate whatever power is governing Puerto Rico); (b) annexationists (i.e., those who believe it is better for Puerto Rico to be annexed to a greater power, or, like today, hoping to become the 51st State); and, (c) autonomists (i.e., those who want local rule but wish to remain subordinate to a greater colonial powerin this case, to maintain what is referred to as a Commonwealth status)while those three factions do remain a constant in current political thought, throughout the history of Puerto Rico, there has always been and will continue to be those who are called nationalists or separatists (both of which tendencies want Puerto Rico to be an independent and sovereign nation). Many of these separatists are also socialists, many of whom view Puerto Rican sovereignty as a necessary first step towards establishing a United Confederation of Caribbean States.
Thus, the historical context for what happened on September 23, 2005, when a contingent of FBI agents surrounded the home of Filiberto Ojeda Rios and let loose a barrage of gunfire, wounding the Machetero leader and leaving him to die from wounds unattended.
That the FBI chose to kill him on September 23, the annually commemorated date for el Grito de Lares (the Revolt at Lares), is a denigrating insult to the pride and will of Puerto Ricans everywhere. How we have taken this insult is clearly attested to by the fact that every political faction in Puerto Rican thought (including Republicans, Democrats, Autonomists, gradualists, etc.) has joined in solidarity with the Puerto Rican left to lodge a collective protest against the FBI’s actions. What could result from these events is an open dialogue among Puerto Ricans, both on the island and within its diasporic communities on the U.S. mainland and elsewhere, that may again raise the issue of sovereignty.
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Another view of the assassination: The Nation
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By Michele Alexander
Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama’s political success and Oprah Winfrey’s financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today… than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarcerationbut her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.Publishers Weekly
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Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis
Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as “the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field ‘cut their teeth’.”
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By Charles C. Mann
Im a big fan of Charles Manns previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Its exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that its anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, Im proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, globalized entity.
Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple. We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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posted 9 January 2006 / update 28 November 2011