Arturo Morales Carrion is Puerto Rico's leading historian - an urbane, soft-spoken scholar who is as much at home in his island commonwealth as he is in the United States. A citizen of both, he has long sought to tell the story of Puerto Rico to his fellow citizens in the US. ''Puerto Rico: A Political and Cultural History,'' which he edited, is the latest example of that effort, a book written by Puerto Ricans who want to bring their outlook and scholarship to the attention of US readers.
''It is questionable,'' Dr. Morales Carrion writes, ''whether the current American reader knows and understands who Puerto Ricans are as a people, as a historical entity, within the varied ethnic and cultural canvas of the Caribbean.'' The tragedy in this, of course, is that Puerto Ricans are US citizens. They fight in US wars, and they can go back and forth between the mainland and their island with the same ease that one has in traveling between New York and Los Angeles. But Puerto Ricans speak Spanish and have a culture and a past quite different from that of most of their fellow US citizens.
Dr. Morales Carrion again: ''The contours of Puerto Rican history (for mainland Americans) have been blurred. ... To this lack of perspective should be added the almost total absence of references to Puerto Rico in American history books.'' Other than the ceding of the island to the US by Spain in the Treaty of Paris in 1898, ''the average textbook hardly mentions the social, political, and cultural factors that have shaped Puerto Rico and given it a distinctive character.''
He's correct, of course. But mainland textbook writers will have no excuse for ignoring Puerto Rico from now on. They would do well to turn to Dr. Morales Carrion's extremely readable and informative volume. So would all Americans. The text is straightforward. While there are unique contributions from five other historians, including Maria Teresa Babin, who is perhaps Puerto Rico's leading cultural commentator, it is the Morales Carrion touch that makes this book so eminently usable.
He sets the stage early when he points out that to Spain first and then to the US later, it was Puerto Rico's strategic position that gave it importance. ''As the Spanish empire in the New World grew, and faced rivals and foes, Puerto Rico's strategic location overshadowed its economic significance.'' It remained so through the colonial years until 1898, when the island changed hands as a result of the Spanish-American War. Then it was the US that saw strategic importance in the island's location.
Eventually the island became a ''commonwealth'' - a concept that tied the island to the US in a loose form of self-government, but a concept that was obviously flawed and imperfect, as most Puerto Ricans now realize. Economic progress, taking the island out of backwardness, was an early companion of commonwealth in the 1950s and 1960s. But the economy has soured and so has the concept of commonwealth. ''What is crystal clear,'' writes Dr. Morales Carrion, ''is that the principle espoused in the 1901 insular cases, that Puerto Rico 'belongs to but is not a part of' the United States, constitutes an offensive anachronism. No people 'belong' to any other nation; they only belong to themselves, and no rights are given to others except those rights that are freely delegated.''
What remains is the question of whether Puerto Ricans will, over the years, want to retain the link with the US. As Puerto Ricans grapple with the question, their fellow Americans are also going to have to face the issue. And a good preparation would be a perusal of Arturo Morales Carrion's ''Puerto Rico.James Nelson has covered Latin America for the Monitor for many years.