Professor of American Studies and Black Studies Solsiree del Moral is a historian of modern Latin America and the Caribbean. Her first book, Negotiating Empire: The Cultural Politics of Schools in Puerto Rico, 1898–1952 (2013), is a history of colonial education, local teachers and Americanization policies in Puerto Rico. Her second book, Street Children, Crime, and Punishment in Puerto Rico, 1940–1965, is forthcoming.

A photo of Solsiree del Moral

Del Moral wanted to take a Latin American perspective rather than a U.S. foreign policy perspective.

How did you choose the focus of your first book?

I wanted to study Puerto Rico and the Caribbean from a Latin American perspective, rather than from a U.S. foreign policy perspective. I also wanted to get to the root of questions about racial identity and racial formation. This is very difficult to do in countries that deny the presence of racism due to a shared national identity. Because class, gender, and ethnic and racial conflicts play out so often in the classroom, I decided to look at schools to learn more about racial formation in Puerto Rico, specifically under the U.S. empire.

What kinds of material did you find?

As a historian, the documents you can access will shape the story that you can tell. I found a journal of education at the University of Puerto Rico Library published by the Puerto Rico Department of Education. In its early years, the journal published teachers’ association meeting minutes. I was able to go through the original minutes from the 1910s and ’20s. For historians, that is like magic. You can see who the members are, what their priorities are and what the debates were about, and that became my primary source, because it allowed me to access a version of Puerto Rican history from the perspective of Puerto Rican teachers, not from U.S. school administrators.

Your second book looks at the criminalization of poor children in a rapidly industrializing Puerto Rico. How does it build upon your prior work?

For my first book, I was able to access letters from children to the governor of Puerto Rico in the early 1950s demanding the right to go to school. These letters often asked for scholarship money to meet their basic needs for shoes, bus fare and cafeteria lunch. Not every child who wanted a scholarship was granted one; during the 1940s and ’50s, public schools could not accommodate the growing number of school-age children. In turn, urban children who were not in school instead worked in public spaces, like restaurants and bars, and as vendors in plazas and city streets. For my second book, I wanted to look specifically at these children. Many ended up on the street, and then in adult jails. These were not criminals; these were children trying to survive poverty with nowhere to go.

Historians think a lot about the present and future, not just the past. What should be included in future history books about the Puerto Rico of today?

Puerto Rico is undergoing a bottom-up, grassroots revolution. Not with a capital R—there’s no overthrow of government necessarily—but poverty, inequality, lack of access to well-paying jobs, and open corruption on behalf of the government have caused Puerto Rican adolescents and young adults to say, “Enough.” This new generation of organizers is explicitly antiracist and feminist. Many are women and nonbinary persons who are criticizing patriarchy and femicide. Many are environmentalists. And they have worked to make it clear that Puerto Rico is a colony of the U.S., not a free and independent state. Puerto Rico is a different place today because of the social movement of young people, who have organized to keep the government accountable. I hope that future historians who look at today acknowledge that this is a history of youth—young adults in their 20s and 30s. The history of Puerto Rico today is not a history of policymakers. It’s a history of a grassroots revolt.

Photograph by Maria Stenzel