Q&A: Solsiree del Moral

Solsiree del Moral is a historian of modern Latin America and the Caribbean, with a focus on Puerto Rico, the circum-Caribbean and U.S. Colonialism. 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 Professor Solsiree del Moral

Solsiree del Moral, professor of American studies and Black studies; faculty equity and inclusion officer; chair of American studies

When did you know you wanted to be a college professor?

I went to school at University of Wisconsin, where I met Francisco Scarano. He was the only Puerto Rican history professor I had ever seen in my life. I took three history classes with him, and had so many questions. I realized then that this was what I wanted to do.

Your first book looks at the cultural politics of schools in Puerto Rico during the first half of the 20th century under U.S. rule. How did you choose this focus, and what went into writing a book of history like that?

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, but 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.

As a historian, the type of 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 the 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 and working children in a rapidly industrializing Puerto Rico. How does this book build on your previous interests?

In the last chapter of my first book, I was able to get access to letters that children had written to the governor of Puerto Rico in the early 1950s demanding the right to go school. These were really incredible letters, often asking for scholarship money to attend public school. This money was for meeting their basic needs for shoes, bus fare and cafeteria lunch. Sadly, of course, 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 move away from teachers' voices, and look specifically at these children. I noticed a trend in the archives: there was a great concern over juvenile delinquency. At first, I wasn’t so interested, but as I kept looking, I realized the number of letters from parents and guardians asking for institutional support and the letters from community members asking for state intervention into the large number of children in public spaces was massive. Many of these children ended up on the street, and then in adult jails because of policing. These were not criminals; these were children simply trying to survive poverty with nowhere to go.

Nine people smiling on a Zoom call

Del Moral and her students last academic year. They would wave goodbye at the end of each session of "Introduction to Black Studies."

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

Puerto Rico is undergoing a bottom-up, grassroots revolution. Not revolution 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 has caused a new generation of 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 in Puerto Rico. Many are young environmentalists who have rejected the economic project of planting cement and cutting down trees. And these social movements 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 through social media and local media and tried to keep the government accountable. So I hope that in the future, historians who look at today are able to 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.

As you know, National Hispanic Heritage Month takes place from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. What do you see as the meaning of this month and its historical relevance?

Originally, this was a one-week celebration, started by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968. It was later expanded to become National Hispanic Heritage Month. This period includes the independence days of seven Latin American nations and is supposed to acknowledge the contributions of Hispanics to the U.S. During this time, government offices, universities and other institutions make space, just like the Amherst website is making space now, to discuss topics relevant to the Latinx community. Without this month, Latinx issues would get even less attention at the local, national and federal level. So it’s very important.

Nonetheless, there are problems with the term Hispanic. It assumes that the Spanish language is what unites people from Latin America. Not only are some Latinx people in the U.S. monolingual but indigenous people from Latin America may not be bilingual or speak Spanish. Hispanic is a term that excludes, by definition, Latinx people whose identity is not linked to Spain—not only those from different Latin American countries but specifically indigenous and Black Latinos. So it’s useful, but it’s also limiting, because the term homogenizes a very diverse community, not only in terms of race and ethnicity but also generations of people who have come from Latin America and from very different nations in Latin America.

What are some ways that people can participate in the celebration of this month?

First, we must continue to celebrate in the traditional ways, like how colleges and universities provide funding and space for Latinx speakers to visit. It’s really an opportunity for students to voice what topics they want to hear about, and that’s wonderful, not only for Latinx students who are fully aware of this history but for those of Latinx heritage who may be a little disconnected, and of course for those who are not Latinx but would benefit from this programming as well.

Beyond that, we have extremely successful Amherst alumni all over the world who are very engaged. This is a moment for people to become aware of the rights of migrants, refugees and unattended children. So for our alumni readers—particularly those in power working as lawyers, or in advocacy groups, or at the governmental local, state and national levels—they can celebrate by advocating on behalf of these migrants, refugees and children who have been separated from their parents and spent months in cages and detention centers. I wish we could celebrate by putting some attention, time and money toward these issues.