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Reviews of History of Puerto Rico: A Panorama of Its People

Reviews of the Spanish edition:

“When a student or a professor wanted to gather a general picture of the new interpretations on Puerto Rican history, the task seemed overwhelming. Most textbooks on the island’s history either were dated or dealt simply with a chronology of political events, devoid of references to the society or the economy.

“At times, the general reader’s access to the recent scholarly works was difficult. This has changed now, thanks to Picó’s Historia general. Historia general traces Puerto Rico’s history from its geological formation, some 135 million years ago, [to the present]…. It covers recent research on topics such as the development of the island’s Indian culture and the recent discussion on the class structure of the Puerto Rican nationalist movement, which staged an uprising in 1950. Throughout, Picó stresses that Puerto Rico has evidenced a formative development, which he correctly explains as being more in the nature of an ongoing process than an accomplished fact … Picó has superbly synthesized … social problems in this book.”
Hispanic American Historical Review

“An intelligent and up-to-date work.”

Reviews of the English edition:

“Although trained as a medievalist, an area in which he has always concentrated his university teaching, Fernando Picó has dedicated his prolific career to Puerto Rico’s social history. His impressively broad intellectual production now includes at least a dozen books and countless short monographs, articles, and chapters. Writing about a variety of Puerto Rican social types, from coffee workers, peasants, slaves, and colonial officials, to marginalized small-town men and women, prisoners, student protesters, and people of all kinds in the course of expressing their spirituality, he has oriented his work toward what he once called ‘a history in which people can find their surnames’ – narratives, that is, closely focused on the struggles, hopes, and solidarities of social majorities. This is why several of his books, including two of the most recent, have been histories of medium-sized cities, each one looking to recreate the texture of family and community life there. In focusing on local history and close-up views of peoples’ lives, Picó has, in a sense, revived a form of historical writing common during the more ‘amateur’ period of island historiography, especially during the first half of the last century. In the variant of local history he professes, however, the imprint of French methodologies, especially those of the Annalistes and their probing studies of popular mentalités, is richly in evidence.

“History of Puerto Rico: A Panorama of its People is the translated version of Picó’s best-known work of historical synthesis. Published in Spanish in 1986, at a time when there was a dearth of updated general treatments of Puerto Rican history, it has taken nearly two decades for the book to appear in English. Markus Wiener Publishers, which specializes in ‘Third World’ themes and has a strong Caribbean catalog, has produced this English-language edition of a book that stood for many years as the finest synthesis of its kind. One is to assume that Picó translated it himself, as neither the work itself nor the publisher’s website identify any other contributor.

“To bring it up to date, Picó has added two short chapters, one on ‘Changes in Perceptions and Values, 1960s to 2005,’ and another on the political history of the past twenty years, entitled ‘From Alternation in Power to Shared Government, 1980 to 2005.’ The first of these builds on one of the outstanding themes of Picó’s work: the idea that values, whether moral, religious, or communal (in the form of ‘solidarities’), form the backbone of a people’s history, and that changes in such values – in parallel to gradual shifts in ‘mentalities’ – are topics that historians should take more seriously. In another effort to bring the narrative up to date, Picó sprinkles the English edition with bits and pieces of new text written from the vantage point of the early twenty-first century. These insertions also add a modicum of historiographic and bibliographic renovation. The changes are modest, however, and the light touch with which Picó has brought the book up to date suggests a decision to keep it largely in its original form.

“Although the book now features two more chapters on the contemporary scene, the bulk of the work still focuses on the Spanish colonial period. After a short chapter on geography, the next eleven focus on the social history of conquest, colonization, declension during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, recovery in the eighteenth, and the intense economic and demographic expansion that occurred in the nineteenth century, when Puerto Rico and Cuba became Spain’s only ‘exploitation colonies’ in what remained of the Empire. In an odd twist, Picó devotes three chapters to the period between 1765 and 1823 and only two to the remaining span of almost eighty years of Spanish rule. This periodization and emphasis are unconventional, to say the least. Indeed, most people would agree that the closer one gets to the end of Spanish rule and the beginning of U.S. colonial hegemony, the more interesting and intricate the Puerto Rican story gets. The relative weight accorded to the earlier transitional phase, a period that saw a change from marginal defensive outpost to agrarian colony, might appear unjustified to many historians. When Picó’s synthesis was first published, teachers, students, and lay readers hailed it as a breakthrough. Like the book it most resembles in earlier historiography, Salvador Brau’s Historia de Puerto Rico (1904), Picó’s Historia general suggested a new way to look at the nation’s past. With its social history approach, it constituted a refreshing departure from extant general histories, which had stressed political events and focused on the lives and works of great men (and a few women, most of them writers). Picó drew on his own research while integrating perspectives drawn from a rich, growing body of scholarship, much of it focused on economic and social themes, that was reaching its peak about the time Historia general came out.

“Puerto Rico’s so-called New History had pushed the frontier of knowledge by questioning the material bases of insular social structure, stressing the importance of struggle and survival, and downplaying consensus. Assuming a strong narrative voice while crafting provocative turns of phrase, Picó brilliantly wove the scholarship into a narrative that bore the stamp of someone fascinated with how peasants and workers made a difference. The book’s organization, with each chapter broken down into many thematically organized sections, was clearly meant to be attractive to general readers.

“The English edition reproduces all of the original book’s strengths. At its base lie a couple of questions that help make good social history shine: In what ways did common people matter, and what kind of society and culture did they create? When discussing the 1797 siege of San Juan by a British force under General Ralph Abercromby, for instance, Picó sketches, as he must, the broad outlines of the attack and the maneuvers that led to a successful effort to defend the island. But he also makes a point of emphasizing the participation of militias from throughout the insular interior, identifying the battalions that took part, giving the names of the towns from which they came, and eventually taking pains to name the native-born leaders and the ‘anonymous people from Cangrejos’ (a black and mulatto settlement a few miles outside of San Juan) whose bravery amidst the mangrove swamps led to the British retreat (p. 122).

“Picó is at his best recreating the texture of Puerto Rican life in the Spanish colonial period. Both in his historical writings and in his praxis as a Jesuit priest, he has advocated a more nuanced understanding of how Puerto Ricans conceive of and practice religious and moral precepts. In the past, he has argued, people were deeply religious and thus the bishops’ and priests’ zealous lashings at commoners’ ‘lascivious’ habits – charges all too common in pastoral letters and reports from the eighteenth century – may well have exaggerated the problem. The truth about popular demeanor should probably be more nuanced and complex. ‘[We] know that in dancing,’ claims Picó, ‘only fingers touched; [but] extended family gatherings perhaps began with prayers, and then the statue or the saint was covered with a veil, so that his ears were not offended by the music’ (p. 167).

“Insights like these are what make his book an invaluable resource for anyone wishing to learn about the island’s history…”
— Francisco A. Scarano, New West Indian Guide, vol. 82, no 1 & 2

“Essentially, this is an updated and expanded version of the second edition of the brilliant work published in Spanish in 1986. As with his other publications, Picó demonstrates why he ranks among the most magisterial historians of Puerto Rico. The 16 chapters are arrestingly readable and cover the complex history of Puerto Rico with commendable verbal economy. Picó impressively contextualizes the story by consistently placing Puerto Rico in the wider Caribbean, Atlantic, and Hispanic worlds, and does an excellent job with the main outlines of the local history. The book starts with the geological formation of the island; continues chronologically with a description of the first settlers, their conquest and virtual annihilation; and details the Spanish society and economy constructed after 1493. Like all excellent histories of the Caribbean, this one is inordinately rich on the social aspects of community formation and the inevitable cross-imperial relations that invariably frustrated local administrators.”
— Franklin Knight, Choice

“Since 1986 students of Puerto Rican history have benefited from several editions of Fernando Picó’s Historia general de Puerto Rico, which now appears in a welcome English version, updated and translated by the author. Simultaneously, Ediciones Huracán in San Juan has released a new Spanish edition under the original title. Picó is a leading historian of the island, having worked with primary sources and published on various topics and time periods; his knowledge of Puerto Rican historiography is broad and deep. The book is especially recommended for the general public and for use as a core text in undergraduate surveys of Puerto Rican history.

“As the subtitle in English implies, the Puerto Rican people, in all their diversity, are placed at the center of Picó’s analysis, and he argues that the processes they initiated ‘are more important than the decisions made by the ruling figures of the North Atlantic’ (p. xi), at least in the long term. While Picó gives consistent attention to the initiatives and impacts of nonelites, it is clear that at times these were swamped — though never annihilated — by those of foreign capital and governments. A second goal is to ‘address the claims made by’ four currents of Puerto Rican historiography — great men/moralistic, institutional, and social/economic studies, and studies of ‘historians’ own ambivalent practices’ (p. viii) — which Picó accomplishes implicitly for the most part, even in the footnotes. Picó is unfailingly polite and jargon-free even when openly disputative. He chides the Taino roots movement gently for contributing to the marginalization of African heritage in Puerto Rico, courteously demolishes the notion that either the Bourbons or municipal authorities had much control on the ground in the eighteenth century, and casts doubt on the argument that a separate Creole bourgeoisie took clear form by the end of the 1800s. The most impassioned section of the book is the final few pages, which constitute a moving call to celebrate Puerto Rican diversity, achievements, and commitment to education and social justice.

“The narrative achieves a very readable synthesis of much of the progress in Puerto Rican historiography as a whole, incorporating political, diplomatic, and military history with social, economic, and to some extent cultural history, and beginning with a brief chapter sketching the geological zones and ecosystems of the island. The select bibliography lists several dozen secondary sources published since the first Spanish edition of 1986, and a brief hunt through the notes, particularly for the last two chapters on recent history, reveals more. Picó often begins chapters by placing Puerto Rico in relevant broader contexts such as the early modern Atlantic World or the expanding United States hemispheric hegemony in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Organized chronologically, the book offers a quite even coverage of the four main periods (1510-1760s, 1760s-1820s, 1820s-1890s, since 1898), although the last of those is perhaps the least developed. The two chapters on 1898-1940 and 1940-80 deal with multiple themes, which leads to a rather choppy feel, unlike the three thematic chapters that all cover the critical 1760s-1820s period.

“It is never entirely fair to ask that a work of tremendous synthesis such as this one include yet more, but greater coverage of cultural history, particularly for the twentieth century, would strengthen the book. Picó invokes the important intellectual generation of 1930 in his concluding pages but does not discuss it in the 1898-1940 chapter. The histories of popular cultures in the island and their complex relationships with the Nuyorican community also merit further analysis.

“Women are certainly not absent from the book, nor are demographic and labor issues that are relevant to the historical study of Puerto Rican women. Still, Picó does not offer a developed gender analysis or fully engage the historiography on women and gender in Puerto Rico that began in the 1970s and has blossomed since. The discussion of women and politics could be much stronger. For the 1910-1930s period, there is barely a mention of the women’s suffrage struggle and its two-step victory, and no mention at all of anarchist-feminist Luisa Capetillo, one of the best-known women in Puerto Rican history. Neither is there any discussion of the surging rates of female sterilization in the 1940s-1970s period, or what they might reveal about the gendered policies at the foundation of Puerto Rico’s new industrial order.

“Course instructors have a plethora of sources with which to supplement Fernando Picó’s valuable book, whether to provide more polemic or more depth on any number of the fascinating issues that he introduces….”
— Anne S. MacPherson, Hispanic American Historical Review