Editor's Note: The Centro eJournal is a new initiative from the Center for Puerto Rican Studies that combines new digital humanities resources with new approaches to library and archival digital services. Its inaugural publication is entitled, “The Puerto Rican Experience in the U.S. Military: A Century of Unheralded Service,” and can be accessed by clicking here.
You can trace the origins of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies back to the military history of Puerto Rican soldiers and the United States. It was as a member of the 65th Infantry Regiment that Dr. Frank Bonilla, founder of Centro, gained a greater appreciation and awareness of his puertorriqueñidad, serving alongside island-born Puerto Ricans in the segregated unit.
In fact, there is a long history of Puerto Ricans serving in the US military that dates back to 1899. And while their experience has been documented, it has also gone largely underappreciated and under-studied. However, with the launch of Centro eJournal and its first publication, “The Puerto Rican Experience in the U.S. Military: A Century of Unheralded Service,” that history will now be widely accessible in a new and innovative format.
Led by former Centro researcher Dr. Harry Franqui-Rivera, the project began in the spring of 2016, coinciding with the awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal to the 65th Infantry Unit, better known as the Borinqueneers. Since then, Franqui-Rivera has worked with Senior Digital Aide Monique Aviles to design the digital exhibit.
The result is an unbiased series of eight successive chapters that will take readers from El Grito de Lares in 1868 to the present-day, modern experience of Puerto Rican soldiers. Centro Voices recently spoke with Dr. Franqui-Rivera to learn more.
Centro Voices: What are the origins of this project?
Harry Franqui-Rivera: We thought of this project back when I was with Centro. I had done the standard academic production, papers in academic journals, book chapters, etc. But I had also done electronic magazines, blogs and some entries for academic sites and I started thinking on how to put it together—especially because I was revising my book manuscript and as I work on it I realized that there were such rich footnotes that could stand on their own as small pieces. I mentioned it to Edwin and he suggested a digital exhibit.
CV: What role did Centro play in facilitating the project?
HFR: As you go through the exhibit you will notice that there is a lot of links to Centro's different platforms- voices, Centro TV, the journal, etc... Centro provided the space and a great staff that assured me throughout this process and others. I felt that if I had an idea there was always someone at Centro who could help me carry it out. For example, I once proposed that new Puerto Rican communities in el Nuevo South were created by veterans and their families. As a historian I didn't have the tools to prove it. But Centro had personnel that could mine the quantitative data such as Kurt Birson and Jennifer Hinojosa. And we proved it. Check out some of the maps we created using that data. Also, having a media production crew facilitated the oral histories which I use in many of my works.
CV: What were some of the initial goals of this project?
HFR: It started as a humble project, but it kept growing. Originally, we only wanted to show key moments and issues on Puerto Rico's military experience under the U.S., but at the time I was working on so many different projects and they all started to feed this exhibit. The manuscript for the site is some 28 single space pages.
CV: Why is it important for this history to be more accessible?
HFR: The history of Puerto Rico is filled with myths that somehow are part of popular wisdom. Many of those myths have been debunked by researchers and scholars but their work is not accessible to the public.
I hope that presenting the exhibit in this fashion would provide the general public with a general and fair view of this part of our history. History is all about sharing and dissemination of findings, so if what I research, learn, and find is just for me and a small number of peers, then my work is not as valuable. This format gives a new meaning to my research and production.
CV: What are some of the more surprising or interesting aspects of this history that people will enjoy?
HFR: Many surprises. I wrote it and Monique put it together in a way that creates cliff hangers, kind of leaving the reader wanting to turn to the next page of click on the next link to be precise. I guess that the the magnitude of Puerto Rican involvement in the U.S. military and the reasons for serving will be among some of the most surprising aspects for the readers.
CV: How do you relate to this project on a personal level?
HFR: I have always being interested in military history. The first serious thing I ever read was the Spanish encyclopedia Salvatt, Historia de la Segunda Guerra Mundial—and I was in the second-third grade. And as I grew up in Puerto Rico, I remember a few homeless people and when I ask why they lived on the streets the answer always was—they came loquitos (a bit crazy) from Vietnam. The effect of the military on Puerto Rico's society was palpable but again- besides a few Puerto Rican scholars our understanding of it was marred with myths which either lionized or demonized such experience. I had both an outsider and an insider view of it. I had studied the US military and warfare since early age and then I served in the army which is what allowed me to finish college. Once out I continued studying the military but for its socioeconomic impact on civilian institutions. And I would like to mention that my two oldest brothers served in the Army. One as career officer the other as a non commissioned officer. They served proudly but also used their service to raise our family from poverty into middle class status. And those are the stories I find whether is though raw quantitative data, oral histories or statistics.
Harry Franqui-Rivera, a former Centro researcher, is a a Professor of History at Bloomfield College. His forthcoming book Soldiers of the Nation: Military Service and Modern Puerto Rico, 1898-1952 will be published by Nebraska Press University.