Former San Juan Star reporter takes readers on tour of the last quarter of the 20th century
By John McPhaul
If you are looking for an account of what life was like in Puerto Rico in the last quarter of the 20th century you couldn’t do better than reading “Puerto Rico 1965-1990: A Quarter Century of Highlights, Hope, Status and Stasis,” a “Personal History” by former San Juan Star reporter Robert Friedman.
The book is both memoir and history as the author punctuates his memories of those years with San Juan Star stories of his authorship.
“I have tried in these pages to show, through my newspaper articles and recollection of the time, what it was like living in Puerto Rico from the mid-1960s, through the 1970s and 1980s,” Friedman says in the book’s introduction. “Those were the years I spent on the island as a journalist for the San Juan Star. I also freelanced in those years as a special correspondent for the [New York] Daily News.”
The book lacks a lot of in-depth analysis as the author acknowledges that “this is far from an encompassing history, more of a personal one.”
Friedman takes us on a tour of the “decadent and priceless” Old San Juan, includes a chapter on the Puerto Rico diaspora along with a story on “Neoricans -- Unwelcome in 2 Worlds,” and chronicles “Status, Politics and Politicians,” including a 1976 profile of then-37-year-old Puerto Rican Independence Party Sen. Rubén Berríos.
He covers the death in the mid-1960s of two “Titans,” independence leader Pedro Albizú Campos and the founder of the Popular Democratic Party and the island’s first elected governor, Luis Muñoz Marín.
The chapter on “Crime, Corruption, Celebrities” begins with the following: “While political status remained -- and still remains -- the island’s seemingly never-ending conundrum, it never really made it to the top of the concerns of Puerto Rican voters in the 1960s-1980s. Islanders were more into the here-and-now of that time than in the possible political future. Crime usually led the polls as the island’s top problem.”
As the book is meant to be more memoir than history, the author does not give much space to covering the ins and outs of the “never-ending conundrum” of status politics.
Noting that the island’s geography made it fertile ground for the illegal drug trade, Friedman nonetheless states that “Several high-profile crimes captured the island’s attention in those decades. Number one was Cerro Maravilla, where the cops were the criminals” in killing two independence activists, a story San Juan Star reporters were instrumental in uncovering. Number two was the slaying of TV personality Luis Vigoreaux, who was killed in a contract hit set up by his wife, Lydia Echevarría.
Friedman proceeds to a chapter on “UPR: Politics and Culture” in which he describes a 1981 mini-riot by 40 students in an expository writing class striking over a tuition increase; a 1966 interview with 90-year-old exiled Spanish musician Pablo Casals, who said that “Life is wonderful, memories can enrich;” and a 1986 interview with writer and public intellectual Mario Vargas Llosa.
The author goes on to chronicle tragic deaths: the 1972 death in an airplane crash of Puerto Rico baseball hero Roberto Clemente, the death in the Condado of trapeze artist Karl Wallenda in 1978, the death in 1985 of 130 people in a massive mudslide in Ponce, and the Christmas Eve 1986 death of 97 people in a fire at the Dupont Plaza Hotel in Condado.
Friedman then covers incidents of pro-independence terrorism including the murder of two U.S. Navy personnel when terrorists ambushed a bus carrying personnel being transported from a naval communications facility in Toa Baja to work at the Sabana Seca naval radar station on the island’s north coast.
The newsman describes the connection between Washington and San Juan, noting the ever-increasing largesse of the U.S. to Puerto Rico and the attention given to Puerto Rico by candidates for office and others including former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who visited the island to campaign for her brother-in-law Edward Kennedy in the presidential primary election of 1978.
Chapters are devoted to show business and the world of sports in which the author highlights the performances of local artists Danny Rivera, Lucecita Benítez, Chucho Avellanet, Ednita Nazario and Nydia Caro, and visits to local venues by Sammy Davis Jr., Liza Minnelli, Tony Bennett, James Brown, The Supremes, The Temptations, Ella Fitzgerald, Tom Jones, Jerry Lewis, Johnny Mathis, Tito Puente, La Lupe, Celia Cruz, Marco Antonio Muñiz and José Feliciano, among “many, many others.”
Friedman includes his interviews with jazz great Dizzy Gillespie and screen legend Cary Grant.
Noting that Puerto Rican women were coaxed into sterilization as late as the 1960s and used as guinea pigs in early tests of “The Pill,” the author chronicles the of birth women’s liberation on the island and includes an article of his own experience as a “liberated father” at age 46.
Friedman describes how the local police kept files (carpetas) on independence activists starting in the 1930s, something that came to light in 1978.
“Meanwhile, the FBI decided to get into the anti-independentistas act in the Sixties, when it began to apply its Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which was meant to rout out communists, to the independence movement in both Puerto Rico and the states,” he said.
Toward the end of the book, Friedman offers up biographical articles on several Puerto Rican authors, including former San Juan Star editor and author of the Albany trilogy, William Kennedy; “Down These Mean Streets” author Piri Thomas; self-avowed jibarita and author of “When I Was Puerto Rican,” Esmerelda Santiago; and the late Edgardo Vega, who takes readers on a journey through Loisaida (Lower East Side) in New York in his magically real novel “Omaha Bigelow.”
The newsman waxes eloquent on the “Miracle in Ponce” at a Catholic school, Central San Francisco, where disadvantaged kids line up to kiss Sister Anita Mosely on the cheek at the end of the day despite her stern demeanor.
Finally, Friedman commemorates reporter Harold Linden, who “went through the 1960s-1980s era at the Star and despite his death in 1992, lives on in works, deeds and spirit.”
In sum, in his memories and his articles, Friedman provides a lively and engaging glimpse into an important period in Puerto Rican history.
Longtime residents will find many familiar stories and newcomers will be enlightened by first-rate reporting and well written articles on many salient issues in the island’s history.