Dr. Harry Franqui-Rivera is an Associate Professor of History at Bloomfield College, New Jersey. He is also a public intellectual, political analyst, cultural critic, blogger and NBC, Latino Rebels, and Huff Post contributor. His book Soldiers of the Nation is now available in paperback.
Writing Soldiers of the Nation
I have been interested in military history since I can remember. As a I kid, I devoured history books and encyclopedias on WWII, WWI, ancient warfare… I also watched every black and white film on WWII. While watching one of those films with my older siblings I noticed an American willy jeep with a small U.S. flag. I asked, “where is the Puerto Rican flag?” My siblings laughed but did not have an answer for me. That question would eventually guide my research. Once in college it did not occur to me to study Puerto Rican history because the way it had been taught to me it was like nothing ever happened in Puerto Rico, at least nothing interesting.
Then a few weeks before I left Puerto Rico to study at Temple University, I learned about a Puerto Rican unit that fought in the Korean War, the 65th U.S. Infantry Regiment. And what an untold exceptional history they had. I wrote a battle history of their time in Korea while at Temple. But I knew there was such a rich social, cultural, and political history behind that unit—and for that matter, behind the military mobilization of the Puerto Ricans under Spain and under the United States. I needed to further back and explore more in depth.
This is what Soldiers of the Nation is all about. It is the prequel to the history of the Puerto Rican soldier in the Korean War and how their sacrifices were used to create modern Puerto Rico and for growing Puerto Rican communities in the eastern seaboard to stake a claim of belonging. But that is the next book.
Writing Soldiers of the Nation was a daunting task. Though I presented parts of it at conferences and received much acclamation. In private, however, friends and colleagues warned me that I was being blacklisted because of my argument and topic of research. You see, Latin American and Puerto Rican studies have a knee jerk reaction to studying the military. Moreover, arguing that military service empowered, and enfranchised tens of thousands of Puerto Rican peasants made it easy for some to dismiss my work as imperial apologia—even as I outlined and deconstructed imperial and colonial projects predicated on racial and gender terms. Destroying myth after myth in Puerto Rican historiography (and blogging the evidence) didn’t win me much support either. In fact, it blocked many doors. This was my Lisa Simpson moment, be a historian, or not let the people know Jebediah Springfield was a bandit and a pirate. Sorry, Jedebiah.
Once I made that decision there was the matter of not wanting to write a dry and inaccessible history book. So, I decided to use the plainest language, to shorten my sentences, to get to the point fast, to leave the lengthy explanations and name dropping for the footnotes, to avoid codifying my meaning to the point that only a few specialists would get my argument. Sounds easy, right? Not quite. This is the product of a decade of research. The book could have easily been twice as long. Fresh out of my PhD program I still had the tendency to show off and put everything I had learned in every sentence.
A simple strategy allowed me to cut parts at will without the fear of losing something important—making a brand-new version of the chapter I was working on whenever I got stuck. Simply copying and pasting a chapter into a new document allowed me to cut and add at will. That is how it got done. Some cuts ended in the footnotes, others as parts of articles and blogs or just as notes for future projects.
To be honest, even though I knew the labor and care I put into this book—I didn’t expect the reception it has gotten so far. The academic reviews from different fields have been incredibly positive. But more importantly—to this day, I receive emails, calls, and letters from Puerto Rican veterans and their children and grandchildren thanking me for telling their story, the history of people without history, and sharing their pictures and memories with me. It is quite a humbling experience.
As for the missing Puerto Rican flag in that G.I. jeep, we get to see it in the Korean War. For the processes I explore in Soldiers of the Nation were magnified during that conflict. And here I’m, continuing the history of the Puerto Rican soldier and the Puerto Ricans where I left it in Soldiers of the Nation with my new project, Fighting on Two Fronts: The Experience of the Puerto Rican Soldiers in the Korean War.
Last but not least, it was quite a great experience working with the staff and editors of UNP. I always felt they had my back and my best interests in mind—and that is a very good thing.