Puerto Rico’s Albizu Campos Centenary

Against the Current, No. 35, November/December 1991

Héctor Meléndez

THE ENDURING IMAGE of Pedro Albizu Campos, whose 100th anniversary is celebrated this year, is a starting point for the pro-independence current of modem Puerto Rico, as well as a useful point of reference to analyze the present crisis of that current.

Puerto Rico embodies the contradiction in which nationalities exist in the capitalist world system: between the affirmation of the national identity by local forces, and colonization by the imperialist forces of capital that dominate the modern market where, contradictorily, the national-affirming local forces aspire to be inserted.

In Puerto Rico this contradiction becomes especially dramatic. The island’s culture has been strengthened, whereas the country lacks any national sovereignty at the formal level.

I. A Revered Figure

The ethnic strength of Puerto Ricans is due to national and social struggles, in which Pedro Albizu Campos stands as one of the chief figures. In Puerto Rico no class, with the exception of the patriotic fraction of the petty bourgeoisie, has become a “national class” in the sense of promoting a national state The basic social classes rather have embraced, either tacitly or openly, the alliance led by Washington and its modernizing ideology—something that occurs at present also in many other Caribbean and Latin American countries, though not in the crude terms as history has posed the question in Puerto Rico.

No matter the “final” juridical solution of the situation of this Spanish-speaking island, its ethnic identity has already acquired a permanent basis. The important role played by Albizu enabling this to happen is the subject of this article.

Albizu was the most radical of the promoters of an independent Puerto Rican national state in the twentieth century. The island has not achieved proper nationhood, in the sense of a sovereign state, and the prospect of independence appears indeed remote; but the Puerto Rican ethnic identity remains strong, due to a large extent to Albizu’s efforts. An interpreter and leader of the Puerto Rican national-popular culture, Albizu is a part of the island’s cultural heritage. Each present-day political force therefore appreciates in its own way his historical role.

Albizu is the most revered figure of the Puerto Rican independence movement His vibrant personality, speech and leadership constituted already in the late 1920s, and especially after 1930, a powerful myth. Many were inspired by his straight-forwardness, associated with a number of political events the Nationalist armed resistance to police repression in the ’30s, the patriotic boycott of U.S. military service in the face of the Second World War, the Nationalist armed revolt throughout the island on October 30, 1950, the attempt against the life of President Truman the same year, and the 1954 armed attack on the House of Representatives in Washington by four Nationalists (who were released by President Carter in 1979; they never asked for pardon). Albizu was twice imprisoned by the U.S. government, from 1938 to 1948 and from 1950 to 1965—when he left prison to lie on his deathbed.

The name of Albizu was recuperated from official oblivion by the radical independentistas in the late ’50s. By the end of the ’60s the Nationalist leader’s memory gained popularity not only within the traditional patriotic groups but among wider sectors of society, including socialist and radical-inclined popular and working-class movements. His myth eventually acquired nationwide recognition as part of the process of political modernization of the island. Schools were named after Albizu, and official cultural institutions would allow him in the gallery of the country’s great men.

By the end of the 1970s and early’80s, debates around Albizu revived with a new direction. A number of left-wing intellectuals argued that Albizu, as distinct from the nineteenth-century patriots, was essentially a conservative.

The Nationalist leader’s admiration of the dominant Creole, Spanish and Catholic cultures (which he opposed to the U.S. influence) and his petit-bourgeois glorification of small ownership contributed much, according to the argument, to the rejection of the independence ideal by the great majority of the population up to the present.

To acknowledge the fact that inside the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party sympathies towards Mussolini’s black shirts or Spain’s Franco had existed during the 1930s and ’40s led many to deepen their criticisms and to further oppose, often mechanically, Marxism to nationalism. The emphasis was seldom placed on the fact that the Nationalist Party had been a bloc of contradictory forces. Rather, positions oscillated between dismissing Albizu as a mere petit-bourgeois and glorifying him, placing him above classes.

Though rigid and inflexible in its form, the Nationalist Party allowed a great deal of ideological eclecticism. It included right-wingers on social questions, along with Marxists and Communist sympathizers as well as people from a wide range of social backgrounds and philosophical and religious orientations.

Albizu himself mixed outspoken sympathies for the island’s reactionary classes and reverberant Hispanophilia with admiration of the Irish Republican Army, Gandhi’s movement in India and Sandino’s resistance in Nicaragua; he was not unfriendly to Communism insofar it applied anti-imperialist policies.

In any case arguments critical of Albizu’s legacy were further strengthened by the present decline and permanent crisis of the pm-independence movement, both on the island and among Puerto Ricans in the United States.

II. A Contradictory Discourse

Albizu was the leader of a defeated nationalism. His Puerto Rican Nationalist Party remained far from its formal goal of installing the national state Albizu rather showed political immaturity in the sense of not understanding how indispensable alliances are to create any state. Thus he underestimated the important invitation the workers made him to be their leader during the massive sugar cane strike of 1934, neglecting it.

In general the Nationalist Party president underestimated the working class, which these patriots regarded with a paternalistic attitude. Neither could Albizu understand the pro-Americanism of the masses, reflected in the wide popularity enjoyed by labor movement founder and U.S. admirer Santiago Iglesias—whom the Nationalists tried to kill. Albizu struck no alliance, either, with any fraction of the Creole capitalist class. Thereby his movement was easily and quickly isolated, and repressed by Washington.

Albizu represented, contradictorily, both the strength of the Puerto Rican national-popular culture and the weakness of the patriotic petit-bourgeoisie in directing, or imparting hegemony to, that culture.

Albizu’s nationalism expressed an elaborated ideology, manifested in his explicit discourse, which was conservative He identified the ruin of the country with the ruin of the propertied classes, called for a social order based on small ownership, praised Spain’s dominant culture (he even saluted the Spanish monarchy) and Catholic formal values as a point of reference for civilization, exalted Latin America because of the identity supposedly given to it by Spain, and his speech had a strong patriarchal tone.

No contradictions were to be recognized in the party, which was to be ruled by the authority of one man, or in the country, which faced the imperialist enemy as only one identity—according to the Nationalist discourse. Albizu was a conservative in the sense of wishing to conserve the Spanish culture (or what was usually understood by that) in the face of a threatening Anglo-Saxon modernity. Moreover he meant to go backwards, suggesting that the way of life in the island prior to 1898 was superior to U.S. colonialism.

On the other hand, the Nationalists expressed a number of popular and ethnic demands that had no political discourse of their own and lay “underneath” the Nationalist outcry. Movements and worries of the urban and rural poor, students, middle classes, academic intellectuals, elites concerned with the cultural problem, small owners and so forth, were ready to be captivated by Albizuism. The anger and passion, courage and paramilitary violence, moral rectitude and tough resistance of the Nationalists sharpened ethnic and popular historical unrest stemming from the material conditions of existence of great masses of the population.

A Caribbean island, Puerto Rico is comprised in the first place by mulattoes and Blacks. For centuries the island was a part of the slave labor system and the corresponding forms of oppression derived from the long process in which the Antilles have served far-away centers.

Next there was the oppression of the jíbaro, that is, the poor peasant who resisted the plantation economy and the growing concentration of capital. In this tension the jíbaro peasantry produced rich and singular forms of community and literature that have been central to the Puerto Rican self-image.

There was also the domination, by both the Spanish and the Americans, of the culture of the Taíno, the Indians exterminated after the first centuries of Spanish colonization. The Indian culture remained in the Puerto Rican national-popular culture through language, poetic imagination, a vision of the beautiful geographical surrounding, costumes, and perhaps even through the chromosomes.

The Taíno heritage has been an ecological, moral and aesthetic energy reproduced above all in the countryside that, although not reaching the exactitude of a memory, is a part of the present.

The dispossessed masses and the angered middle sectors connected their immediate socioeconomic burdens with their oppressed ethnicities, and vice versa. It must be recalled that during the 1930s U.S. monopoly investments in Puerto Rico went mostly to sugar cane, disrupting the previous social organization and its “hacienda” economy and thus throwing working and middle classes into unanticipated instability.

At the same time sugar cane plantations continued the ethnic and social hierarchies that had been so bitter for the popular strata.

From this confusing moment of the social structure a “popular mass emerged, ripe for the Nationalist radical discourse of the ’30s and, since 1940, for the successful Luis Muñoz Mann’s Popular Democratic Party (PPD), with its populist-colonial, democratic and ethnic-pride rhetoric that would dominate Puerto Rican politics for three decades.

But in the 1930s the United States’ rule in the island was marked by a militaristic emphasis, which became evident in the policies of killings and open repression of governor Blanton Winship. To complete the picture of national and popular dissatisfaction, add up the U.S. interventions in various Caribbean and Central American nations during the first four decades of the century and, finally, the economic crash of 1929.

Now the explicit discourse of the Nationalists pretended a uniform and pure homeland, with no internal social or ethnic conflicts. It criticized racism in the United States, but hardly in Puerto Rico. It lashed Yankee imperialism, but not the despotic regimes of the Latin American republics, one of which Puerto Rico was, supposedly, willing to become. The exploiters were always the Americans and seldom the Puerto Rican capitalists, junior partners of imperialism whose dependence on U. S. capital was already inevitable—even in the independent Puerto Rico that Nationalism demanded.

Nonetheless the extremely radical political form of Albizuism spoke, implicitly, for the poor strata. It appealed to the have-nothings insofar as the total rupture with the established order corresponded to those who had nothing to lose. True, Nationalist finances received the backing of the educated circles, the middle classes, the small traders, the professionals and some truly rich. But it was true too that the movement was composed (above all at the base, hardly in the leadership) by people from working class and very small ownership strata.

Albizu’s strength resided in the mobilization of “the people”—the popular being the ensemble of subordinated classes as well as Puerto Rican ethnicity. His movement did not place the emphasis on class interests but, precisely, on the overall needs of the national-popular. It rather avoided class questions, or any other that obstructed the dominant Nationalist ideology demanding the installation of the “nation.”

Thus a confusion favorable to populism and nationalism was produced. The extremely vague content of the republic that constituted the goal was instrumental to mobilize all radicalized sectors: The programmatic future of the nation was obscure but the need to oppose the present order was very clear.

Albizu’s weakness was, on the other hand, that his nationalist hegemony of the national-popular was inevitably a class hegemony. And this class was the petit-bourgeoisie, broken by the massive invasion of U.S. capital since 1898 and therefore independentista and radicalized.

A dialectical union of opposites is to be noted. The patriotic petit-bourgeoisie provided the national-popular with its vigor its radical passion, its heroic idealism, its hatred of imperialism, its generous romanticism, its enlightenment and its literary accounts of far-away Latin civilizations, of the Hispanic universe and of Latin America. It also provided finances, means for public space, access to the media, farms for shooting practices, materials to make explosives, security houses, and resources to purchase weapons.

But that same petit-bourgeoisie provided the national-popular with its weakness as well: its detachment from the labor movement, its desperation, its clumsiness concerning the science and art of politics, its idealistic and backward vision of the world, its rudimentary armed activity (rather propagandistic and short-ranged), its underestimation of the democratic aspirations of the people and of the democratic aspects the United States had brought into the island, its caudilhismo (one charismatic man’s rule), patriarchism and authoritarianism and, finally, the lack for many decades to come of a realistic prospect for an independent national state.

Indeed, the petit-bourgeois hegemony fractured the possibilities of an historical coincidence between national-popular culture and a Puerto Rican national state. However, no other class had a tradition of struggle for national independence. Both the bourgeoisie and the working class of the island had rather embraced the U.S. presence; their parties were participating in the social alliance led by the United States.

III. National Formation

We must turn now to the “objective difficulties of a pm-independence strategy for Puerto Rico. Far from being a solid social formation at the moment of U.S. occupation, Puerto Rico had been since the sixteenth century basically a military site due to its geographic position.

The relative fluidity of Puerto Rican social classes in the late nineteenth century contrasts with the boldness of the social classes, for example, in Cuba. Unlike Puerto Rico, Cuba had been an economic centerpiece of the Spanish empire in America. Once feelings of separation from Spain were generalized, most Cuban social classes were able to make impressive alliances against Spain and once and again go after national independence. Social contradictions in Cuba were closely related to nationalism.

In turn, in Puerto Rico it was not the pm-independence intellectuals but the autonomists who could present effective opposition to the Spanish regime—assisted in their lobbying by the fact that in Cuba nothing less than a war for independence was taking place. And after 1898, social contradictions in Puerto Rico were defined within the framework of the United States and its social and democratic struggles. On Cuba, and much more in Puerto Rico, sectors existed which favored independence from Spain and integration to the United States. The United States was often regarded as a true confederacy and a symbol of civilization, social progress, freedom, etc)

A point we have made elsewhere must be stressed: In a modern sense, the Puerto Rican nationality was formed inside the U.S. womb—that is, after 1898 and moreover in the second half of the twentieth century.

A modern national formation—following Gramsci—does not appear merely when some battle takes place or a book is written, but when the leading and subordinated classes are unified, the big means of communication and roads are united, large enterprises and trade unions are installed, means for the promotion of intellectuals are established, an internal market related to the world market makes society homogeneous, institutions for the direction of production emerge, and reproduction of the labor force is institutionalized. This took place in Puerto Rico, in a massive scale, only after the island was incorporated into the United States in political, economic, military and juridical terms. (Puerto Ricans were made U.S. citizens in 1917.)

On the other hand, Puerto Rico had the ethnic vigor to resist the racism of the U.S. colonial regime during the first decades of the century—as manifested in the imposition of English in schools, the omission of the Puerto Rican flag, the account of the island’s history by the invaders, the crude imposition of official U.S. institutions, history and symbols, and the emphasis given to the military in the administration of the colony.

By no means was Puerto Rican ethnic vigor due solely to the proselytism of the Nationalist Party or to local events in the island. Puerto Rico’s identity was greatly assisted by the basic factor that the island is a part of the historical experience of a huge continent with powerful national-popular cultures: Latin America and the Caribbean.

Since very early the Latin American and Caribbean popular strata have produced means of social communication and intellectuals whose organization of culture transcend formal “national” boundaries and have provided the region with a certain homogeneity. Take for instance the diffusion, from different Latin American posts, of political ideas, philosophical or scientific contributions, organizational traditions, music, literature or cinema; the migratory movements between the countries that trans-milled costumes and forms that shaped popular, working class, religious or political cultures; or in the present century, the anti-imperialist, populist and “Latin Americanist” governments that have been (at least sporadically) formidable means of continental intercommunication.

Hence it is possible to speak of a Latin American national-popular culture. Of this Puerto Rico has been a part, though from the standpoint of the dominant modern and capitalistic culture is a part of the United States too.

An important means of affirmation of the Puerto Rican national-popular was, ironically, the massive migration to New York and other U.S. cities The enormous size of an immigrant community struggling hard to survive and getting together to face a hostile environment, its extreme exploitation by capital, its physical concentration and the context of a city like New York which has constituted a world-scale center of culture and communication in this century, helped much to reinforce that identity, showing the vitality of the Puerto Rican national-popular culture.

Undoubtedly Albizu went a step further in articulating the Puerto Rican ethnicity, demanding nothing less than its constitution in a national state. He elaborated the myths, symbols and memories that would “tie up” his present to the previous centuries, building up an image of “national” continuity and a thread of patriotic resistance. This is, of course, a requirement of any elite seeking to create a nation.

Albizu challenged U.S. authority legally (both Spain giving away Puerto Rico in 1898 and the U.S. acquisition were illegal, as well as immoral) and psychologically. The Nationalists showed a spectacular combativity, had heroic and mythical dramatism, claimed mystically to incarnate a transcendental ethics and reason superior to the mediocre and disruptive Anglo-American industrialism, began the celebrations of the 1868 anti-Spanish revolt of “el Grito de Lares,” displayed the Puerto Rican flag when no one else dared, and sharply opposed “Puerto Ricanness” to the equivocal and confusing “American’ identity.

With the passing of time the Puerto Rican popular classes, assimilating Albizu’s myths, memories and symbology, along with those of other collective experiences, produced a powerful, modem, ethnic identity. This identity has no national state and exists within the U.S. juridical framework The colonial condition of the island embodies the contradictory forces of the Puerto Rican experience, but by any means can this national-popular culture be reduced to the official government version of what the country is. Furthermore, the strength of the ethnic identity of the Puerto Ricans (in the island and in the United States) contrasts with the puppet-like nature of the government of the colonial bourgeoisie in Puerto Rico.

The weight of the Puerto Rican national-popular strata poses the possibility, in the case of the island becoming the fifty-first U.S. state, that the Puerto Rican popular and working-class movements (if shaped by radical or revolutionary ideologies) might scramble the U.S. government institutions, using their participation to push for the rights of the oppressed ethnicities and classes. This not-impossible perspective of future trouble for the U.S. ruling class seems greater if the integration of Puerto Rico, as well as Puerto Rican immigration, are seen as the spearhead of a larger tendency taking place at present: that of a Latin American and Caribbean popular “invasion” into the United States.

IV. Crisis and Prospects

The Nationalists shattered the island’s first U.S. colonial edifice. Along with other factors, they forced the ruling classes to recompose the colonial state. The way for a new social ruling bloc was opened. In the 1940s process of modernization started through massive U.S. industrial investments, the establishment of a local bourgeois democratic government, and enhancement of the national-popular culture—all of which took place also as part of wider international and economic processes.

The Creole leading forces of this process were Muñoz Marín and his PPD. Its climax was the foundation in 1952 of the “Estado Libre Asociado” (ELA), the official colonial title of the island—wrongly translated as “Commonwealth” in an attempt to echo the British system.

The present modernity of the ELA gives mom for Puerto Rican history and literature in the educational system (frequent enlightened debates and intensive research included);wide-ranging high technologies; labor discipline and high productivity; massive consumerism; 1romotion of the arts both folkloric and classical’; full-swing TV and radio industry; commodification of the “ethnic” language, tastes and psyche through markets of food, beauty, comedy, fashion, tourism, show business, music, etc. (Note the international popularity of the “salsa rhythm.)

It also allows an intense political life through party politics and a strong electoral tradition. A constant and often tense dialogue exists between the local government and popular, poor, and labor movements and protests. The relation between the three traditional political factions of the island, “estadolibristas” (those in favor of the present formula), “estadistas” (those seeking becoming the fifty-first state of the Union), and “independentistas” (those supporting independence) constitutes a framework of the political culture.

That the pro-independence sector is a minority has been a fact throughout the century. The consent of the majority of the population to the U.S. presence, as well as imperialist coercion and force, are reasons for this. Pro-independence votes have not gone beyond four or five per cent in the last forty years, and in the last decade the independentista crisis has increased. No important socioeconomic group identifies itself with independence.

Different from the European colonial regimes in Africa and Asia, in Puerto Rico U.S. colonialism is based upon a great deal of consent, rather than on coercion. While being part of the United States, Puerto Rico enhances its national-popular culture, something that challenges the usual notion of colonialism. Very poor and economically and ecologically abused by the monopolies if compared with the fifty states, the island is prosperous and modem (due to an economy extremely integrated with the U.S. economy) if compared to the Caribbean and Latin America.

If we define the modern state, again following Gramsci, as a dialectic between hegemony (consent, social alliances, culture, intellectual-moral leadership) and dictatorship (economic command, government, bureaucracy, force), we can see that Puerto Rico’s ELA has been reinforced, in its hegemony aspect, with the assistance of the independenfistas—and many other sectors of the people as well. In allowing the pm-independence sector, the state has both made nationalism even less effective and distanced itself from the blunt colonialism ruling the island up to the ‘40s.

On the other hand, lacking any serious relationship with the working and popular strata, the pro-independence group remains socially isolated. It appears sometimes that it is easily manipulated by the government or the upper classes—which the patriotic leaders have often preferred to court.

Having embraced the modern bourgeois rule of law and the U.S. market culture, for most Puerto Ricans independence has become void of any serious content. Independence for what? For whom and by whom? To go back to the times of Spain, or to the sad situation of most countries in the Caribbean or Central and South America? These are the questions most people have been asking, with little response. These questions point, of course, at the social forces that traditionally have been conducting the independence cause.

Whereas in the 1930s nationalism was a response to the political and economic primitivism of the U.S. colonial regime and stood outside the state, the post-ELA independence sector has been shaped within the modernity of the state. Its leaders and militants have been formed in U.S. universities and in the American traditions of courts and the welfare state, are used to a flexible world of rights and commodities, and have been unable to overcome the dominant culture of American capitalist modernity or to propose a new culture emerging from that historical reality.

A possible exception to this might be the short-lived socialist ideas and experiences of the early 1970s, which were gone before the decade ended at least at a public, nationwide level. An example is the brief left-wing inclination of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), a member of the Socialist International and an electoralist group. The PIP’s socialism lasted from the late’60s up to 1974.

A more dramatic case is the Puerto Rican Socialist Party (PSP), which renounced socialism after almost twenty years of militant activism and ten years of public recognition as a Marxist and Leninist party working with considerable effect in a U.S. colony. In 1982 the PSP officially put aside the goal of organization of the working class, thus liquidating its own political space.

This party’s socialism, like that of very small groups that still remain, was heavily influenced by Stalinism, let alone narrow nationalism, or reduced to the rudiments. It proved too poor to relate to the social complexity, though in the ‘70s an important socialist public space had been opened. Later on this space was dismissed by the same patriotic petit-bourgeois leadership that had brought socialism into the island’s politics.

What has been lacking is a modern, actualized socialism, rooted in the working people and capable of approaching the politics of culture and acknowledging the concrete phenomena of the national-popular.

The Puerto Rican national-popular culture has been shaped by diverse currents, struggles and traditions, some of them pro-independence, some pro-Washington, some placed outside this dichotomy. A program that intended to solve the national question as a part of a process towards a new social order, under the leadership of the laboring majorities, will have to be a product of that historical, contradictory space. Any anti-imperialist popular strategy will have to be elaborated from that ground.

The problem has been posed at two levels. One is the level of the controversies inside the pro-independence organizations that have arisen when the socialist elements there have attempted, fruitlessly, to push these collectives to identify themselves with the proletarian cause on a permanent basis.

The other level, more fundamental perhaps, is the historical exhaustion of the traditional pro-independence sector as it has appeared in this century, that is, under petit-bourgeois hegemony either through Albizu’s Nationalism or in the modern, post-ELA fashion.

The elaboration of a new national anti-colonial discourse by the popular classes will presumably have a content and language different to the hitherto known. Such a movement may relate to the rich and contradictory heritage of social and national struggles in new ways. All three traditional political tendencies of twentieth century Puerto Rico (autonomist, annexationist and pro-independence) have channeled the hopes of workers, women, peasant, Black, intellectuals, middle classes and other subordinated sectors, in tension—or open contradiction at some points—with their own leading groups.

But such a truly popular, anti-imperialist mass movement has yet to emerge. It could take place arising from the actual modem contradictions of a colonially-industrialized, heavily polluted, urbanized island. It would have to seek a new relation with the rest of the Caribbean, perhaps seeing in regional unity the means for both a radical social change that could confront the Northern giant successfully, and a feasible Puerto Rican (and Caribbean) independence. It would have to embody a dialogue between the national-popular culture and a modernized, skilled and large working class (which itself has a combative tradition).

In any case Albizu will have an important place in the people’s heart and in the popular movement’s morale of resistance and revolt —though not necessarily in the way the Nationalist leader might have conceived.


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November-December 1991, ATC 35