War stories told through social media documented in new book

Puerto Rican Soldiers and Second-Class Citizenship

Despite being raised on the war stories of his relatives, Manuel Avilés-Santiago never saw images of Puerto Rican soldiers telling the stories of World War II, Korea or Vietnam in movies or documentaries.

“I grew up looking for the faces or experiences in films or documentaries. There was nothing like that,” he said. “They’re basically invisible, or the films about war are created with stereotypical Latino soldiers.”

Avilés-Santiago, assistant professor in the College of Letters and Sciences, has documented the stories, images and songs of Puerto Rican soldiers by following their narratives on social media.

His new book, “Puerto Rican Soldiers and Second-Class Citizenship,” comes out Nov. 26.

“I wanted to look for those alternative spaces where Puerto Rican soldiers were telling their stories and sharing experiences,” he said. “Given the absence of a traditional media narrative, I see a huge self-representation in social media.”

Stories they tell from the pages of social media sites include posted photos of themselves in uniform with the Puerto Rican flag, lessons in how to cook native dishes through YouTube videos, discussions of the power of Puerto Rican coffee on the battlefield or salsa dancing instructions for fellow soldiers.

These soldiers are in an intriguing position in Puerto Rico, a commonwealth where people are citizens of the United States and fight in wars, but don’t vote or have representation in Congress, he said.

“I realized after exploring this that social media is really powerful, especially for military subjects," says Avilés-Santiago. "It is a way to connect with their homeland and to demonstrate to their families that they’re alive and proudly serving. The connection to home was really important. It’s a way to promote culture and integrate other cultures into theirs.”

Starting his research on Myspace in 2005, Avilés-Santiago transitioned to Facebook as it became more dominant among social media venues. YouTube also was a powerful outlet for soldiers to upload videos.

“I looked at the spaces for six years," he said. "Many of the soldiers went on two or three tours to Iraq and Afghanistan."

One of the most interesting and sobering reminders of the reality of war was personified through social media when a soldier passed away in the line of duty and their pages would become living memorials to the person. Of the approximately 1,300 soldiers he followed, 65 of them died. Post-traumatic stress disorder issues were also dealt with through social media, sometimes with friends accessing services for soldiers who couldn’t do it themselves.

Avilés-Santiago discovered that the use of language was a prominent ethnic tool that allowed soldiers to enunciate their “Puerto Ricaness.” Stories told on social media often relayed heroic deeds, such as the story of a Puerto Rican soldier who brought Saddam Hussein out of his hiding place.

A trend that he discovered through his research was soldiers showcasing their bodies in posted photos as a way to demonstrate that they were still healthy and intact in a war where improvised-explosive devices often took limbs from soldiers. Female soldiers posted photos of themselves with their children to show their commitment to their families and to making the world a better place for them by serving in the military.

Among the thousands of soldiers he followed, a few of the stories resonated, such as Juan “Nuro” Cotto, a hip-hop artist who used his military experience to write and create numerous cultural productions.

“He said that was therapeutic for him. It helped him cope with the fear and anxiety of being in such an uncertain space while being able to make the connection to home,” Avilés-Santiago said.

Soldiers were enthusiastic about the project and willing to allow Avilés-Santiago to follow their stories and use their photos for the book. “Soldiers were really, really eager to let me look at their profiles and let me collect pictures,” he said.

Avilés-Santiago said his book demonstrates the power of digital storytelling through popular platforms in capturing oral histories. Although the research was fascinating, it was also heartbreaking when a soldier died in the line of duty.

“It was really sad, but the fact that they left a legacy that people can actually see I think is important,” he said.