Blogs > HNN > Jaime Partsch McMillan: Review of Jose Ramon Sanchez's Boricua Power: A Political History of Puerto Ricans in the United States (New York University Press, 2007)

Jan 27, 2008 8:33 pm

Jaime Partsch McMillan: Review of Jose Ramon Sanchez's Boricua Power: A Political History of Puerto Ricans in the United States (New York University Press, 2007)

[Jaime Partsch McMillan is the historian in charge of the Jesus T. Pinero Collection of the Universidad del Este in Carolina, Puerto Rico.]

This book, writes Jose Ramon Sanchez, the author, has as its general hypothesis that “the decline in Puerto Rican community power can be attributed to the extensive degree of Puerto Rican dependence, compared to other groups, on the values controlled by others in the larger society.” To prove this, Sanchez proposes a model for understanding the dynamics of power by utilizing the analogy of dance. In this paradigm, the interaction of the “partners” is determined by the interest that each one has in those values and capital that the other possesses. If one of the partners offers little or nothing to the other, the dance is unlikely to take place since the other dancer will, apparently, look for another partner who has what he or she values or is looking for. In general, Sánchez’s appreciation of the presence of Puerto Ricans in the United States is that they have offered little that the wider U.S. population values. Therefore, they have very little chance of exercising political power.

In the first chapter, Sánchez painstakingly elaborates on the dance as a way of understanding the dynamics of political power. The give and take, the interests and movements that characterize the phenomena of dance, reflect the advances and setbacks that mark political processes. However, this model has several drawbacks when applied to the situation of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. It should be remembered that Puerto Rico is the world’s oldest colony. (In this sense, Puerto Ricans have neither freely chosen their “dance partner” nor the “music” they dance to.) Approximately half of the Puerto Rican people (four million) currently live in the United States, while the other half live on the islands of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean. The lives of the Puerto Rican community in New York, as well as in the rest of the country, are affected by what goes on in Puerto Rico.

A study of the power processes involving Puerto Ricans in the U.S. cannot be complete without taking into consideration the Boricuas on the island. (Boricuas is a term derived from the word “Borinquen” or “Boriken,” the original taino name for Puerto Rico). In this sense, if Puerto Ricans are to be seen as a “dance partner for the U.S.,” it should be clear that this dancer has one leg in the U.S. and the other in the Caribbean. This element of the political geography of the Puerto Rican nation is, in general, missing from this text. One of the few examples where this dynamic is studied is where author points out how the processes surrounding the establishment of the “Commonwealth” of Puerto Rico in the early 1950s had a direct impact on Puerto Rican political organizations in New York City.

The title of this work, Boricua Power: A Political History of Puerto Ricans in the United States is somewhat misleading. In reality, the book concentrates almost exclusively on Puerto Ricans in New York City. Puerto Rican communities in cities such as Chicago, Hartford, Lorain, Ohio, or Gary, Indiana, are mentioned only in passing. This is unfortunate considering the vibrancy and significance of Puerto Rican organizations, particularly in Chicago and Hartford. It should be pointed out that, during the 1980s, the most militant and highly organized Puerto Rican communities in the U.S. were found in these cities. They were, therefore, the prime targets for F.B.I. investigations and mass arrests and have produced the latest group of Puerto Rican political prisoners (all absent from this work). It is curious that a work that proposes the examination of “Boricua power” in the U.S. makes no mention of these cases of the use, abuse and interpretation of political power. It is also significant that two of these cities are examples of the use of electoral power by Puerto Ricans: Luis Gutiérrez is the Puerto Rican congressman from Chicago, and Hartford has elected a Puerto Rican as mayor. For Sánchez, however, these examples of the use of power “seem to mean little. Poverty, he writes, a lack of educational opportunity, and joblessness remains unabated for Puerto Ricans.”

Sánchez presents three moments of Puerto Rican history in New York as examples in which this community was able to access greater political power: The 1919 cigar makers strike, the 1949 creation of the “Mayor’s Committee for Puerto Rican Affairs, and a period of “radical” political activity by the Puerto Rican community in the 1960s and 70s, symbolized in the actions of the Young Lords. These moments are analyzed as examples in which Puerto Ricans, as the “dance partner” of the wider society, were able to offer something that the other partner desired. Unfortunately, after reading the analysis of these events, it appears that the only social capital that Puerto Ricans could offer U.S. society were cheap labor, an ignorant electorate eager to give their votes to unscrupulous politicians, and exotic spectacles for the mass media. Each of these situations is presented in such a way as to illustrate the general conclusion of the book: Puerto Ricans have less power in the U.S. today than they had fifty years ago and most likely they will continue in this way.

How does Sánchez explain the Puerto Ricans’ incapacity to exercise, produce, retain or gain access to power in the U.S.? He states that the conservatives’ explanation of this situation (blame it on the individual’s lack of virtue, determination and creativity) as well as the liberals’ (blame it on society’s economic, political and social structures) are inadequate. Rather than blame, he believes that there is a need to understand the strategies and tactics that Puerto Ricans have used in the past to organize themselves and gain power. The author presents a series of factors that could explain the enormous difficulties that Puerto Ricans have encountered in their quest to find access to power in American society, for instance, racism, ethnocentrism, political manipulations (by both Puerto Rican and U.S. politicians), a lack of unity and shared vision among Puerto Rican groups. The Puerto Ricans’ refusal to negotiate what are perceived to be key elements of their identity (the Spanish language, customs, traditions, family structures) is described by Sánchez as refusal of one “dance partner” (Puerto Ricans) to follow the lead of the other (the dominant American culture).

Since American society sees no value in Puerto Rican culture and since Puerto Ricans prefer to retain and affirm their culture, they remain marginalized, or left off the dance floor. The author’s explanation of this refusal by Puerto Ricans to negotiate away what is seen as their identity does not take into consideration the wider historical processes surrounding this century-long dance between the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Since the American invasion of the island in 1898, a concerted and vigorous effort has been waged by the U.S. to radically change the identity of Puerto Ricans (i.e. the prohibition of the use of Spanish as the language of instruction in public schools, the imposition of American governors with no knowledge of Spanish nor Puerto Rican culture, the destruction of native industries, to mention only a few). While living in a position of political and economic subordination, Puerto Ricans have used their culture as one of the principal instruments of resistance, a form of resistance that has occurred in dozens of other colonized nations and is not unique to Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, this wider historical context is missing here.

On finishing the book, I found it difficult to understand exactly how the author explains the Puerto Rican’s loss of power. Halfway through the work he states, “Puerto Ricans lost power as a result of their wholesale rejection by the larger society from the 1950s onward.” (Blame it on the dominant class.) However, he appears to alter his conclusions in the final pages of the book when he writes: “Puerto Ricans have lost power because of the historical mix of values and interests found in them as well as in other parts of the larger society.” Apparently, then, the unfortunate situation of the powerlessness of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. is not only a product of their rejection by the dominant classes, but is also their own fault. The reader is left with the impression that Puerto Ricans could gain greater power if they would just stop being Puerto Ricans and if the rest of society would change its fundamental values and structures.

This work presents a very interesting, well- researched and necessary proposal for the analysis of the ways in which multiple relations among competing and complementary groups can generate, control, negotiate and lose political power. If, however, the reader is looking for a political history of Puerto Ricans in the United States, I recommend they look elsewhere.

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Jose Ramon Sanchez - 1/21/2008

I read Mr. McMillan’s review of my book Boricua Power and felt I had to respond. Any book will disappoint some people. However, this review is misleading and incorrect in too many places. First, I think the book is correctly titled. I analyze the Puerto Rican community from 1919 to the present. Yes, there are many other Puerto Rican communities in the U.S. besides the one in New York City. Still, as late as 1970 sixty percent of all Puerto Ricans in the U.S. lived in New York City and eighty percent in the New York Metropolitan region. New York City seems like an appropriate focus given this residential history. Beyond serving as the migrational magnet of the Puerto Rican community in the U.S. during this period, New York City was and continues to be the most important source of cultural and political leadership for all Puerto Ricans in the U.S.

Second, Mr. McMillan implies that I do not take into account the colonial status of the Island and that is just false. I discuss it in Chapter Two and the Conclusion. What is more important is that I argue that we have to get beyond the self-pity implied by McMillan’s testimony that “Puerto Rico is the world’s oldest colony.” The point I make is that even in colonial situations there is some element of choice, no matter how limited. National liberation movements succeed or fail, in part, because of the choices made by the colonized. The dance theory of power I introduce in this book, attempts to account for how and why such choices get made. I’m sorry Mr. McMillan couldn’t see that.

Finally, Mr. McMillan wrote, “The reader is left with the impression that Puerto Ricans could gain greater power if they would just stop being Puerto Ricans and if the rest of society would change its fundamental values and structures.” Not only did I not imply that, I argued exactly the opposite. On page 236 I write, “The persistence of Puerto Rican ethnic identity is not the problem.” I go on to analyze the role that ethnic solidarity has played in social and political empowerment for groups as diverse as Pakistanis in Great Britain and Greeks in Australia. Throughout the book I compare Puerto Rican experiences in the U.S. to that of African Americans. One of my conclusions is that retaining Puerto Rican culture could lead to greater empowerment if the larger society was as interested in Puerto Ricans as it is in African American culture. This nuance seems to have escaped Mr. McMillan.

This response is already too long. It bothers me, however, when historians/reviewers like Mr. McMillan don’t read well and seem so closed off to new and different ways of analyzing history.