When I made the decision to switch to a non-thesis track M.A. in History, I admit doing so with a deal of apprehension. I knew then as I do now that a career outside of the academy didn’t have to be my “Plan B” so to speak. Whether public or private sector, I want to use that historian’s repertoire of skills – critical thinking, research, argumentation – in practice beyond the university.
One federal internship and a semester of coursework later, I put this new toolkit to work in a digital history project titled Bombs Don’t Kill. The initial objective behind BDK was simple: take Omeka’s digital archive format and make it into a personal repository for my work on twentieth century Puerto Rico. However, as with most things, chance had it that the project’s assignment occurred at a very opportune time. Dr. Cummings’s course on digital history presented the class with different methodologies and programs that redefined the way historians do and communicate research to both academic and public audiences.
Specifically, what intrigued me the most was a discussion we had with Georgia State’s own Joe Hurley and Spencer Roberts. During the talk, they covered the use of GIS (Geographic Information Systems) and ESRI’s ArcMap program suite for map-making. Coincidentally, I was already taking an introductory class on GIS through the Heritage Preservation certificate. The challenge presented itself.
I pushed myself to use ArcMap proficiently enough to include it in my final digital history project. By the end of the semester, I could insert datasets into the program, georeference events with their physical locations in the world, and produce high-quality maps complete with all of their typical conventions. On the surface, describing what ArcMap does makes it seem relatively simple. However, there’s a good reason as to why the program and GIS have entire classes and degrees dedicated to them!
Having been able to at least work with the program on an amateur level and use it in historical research left me with the following conclusion: technical skills will define the future historian. I believe the discipline is moving past the notion (as to what speed is arguable) that the academy is the only hope for the historian-in-training or that mastering academic writing is enough to attain a degree in the field. Note: I don’t mean to slander the path of the traditional academic, but instead to highlight the ease in which I as a student was able to pick up a course in something outside of my comfort zone and challenge myself to incorporate it into my historical research. The final product may not be perfect, but I’m certainly eager to pursue and introduce more methods into BDK beyond the usual archive diving and book reading we’re all so familiar with.
That said, what is BDK about? In short, it tells the story of Puerto Rican revolutionaries (or terrorists, depending on how you look at it) from roughly the 1960s to the late 1980s. The project as of now focuses on one group, the FALN or Armed Forces of National Liberation (in Spanish, Las Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña) and their bombings from 1974 to the early 1980s. An exhibit, A Generation of Terror, focuses on a relatively bloodless two-year spree of bombings (hence the name for the site) from 1974 to 1976, overlaying information of these attacks over data regarding the make-up of prominent Puerto Rican or Spanish-speaking neighborhoods in New York City.
My argument centers on two key questions: did the FALN target areas near predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhoods and could the generational make-up of those neighborhoods reflect the membership of the FALN in places like NYC? While the website explains my conclusions in more detail, it is not surprising that the FALN avoided bombing Spanish-speaking neighborhoods to maintain rapport with local communities and encourage new members to join the cause. Furthermore, based on quantitative data like that of the U.S. census, I concluded that these neighborhoods were comprised of increasingly younger second or third-generation Puerto Ricans or other similar groups, such as Cubans or Dominicans.
This fits the modus operandi of the FALN, particularly in the sense that they often displayed solidarity with other independence or Marxist-Leninist movements throughout the Spanish-speaking Caribbean and Latin America. What elevates the project is the use of GIS maps, as being to physically see and compare the location of FALN bombings and their distance from these neighborhoods gives an additional dimension to the project that text or tables alone cannot provide.
Now, I don’t pretend to be a would-be prophet of change in the discipline because of my work on BDK nor my experiences with the project. I’m a student first-and-foremost, doing my best to study, learn, and eventually acquire the credentials I strive for. Yet, there’s something about remaining professionally competitive and relevant – and when I say “relevant,” I don’t mean in the sense of subscribing to passing academic fashion. Instead, I mean being relevant to an audience. Whether it’s the public at large or a close circle of academic professionals, mobilizing diverse skills that can speak to everyone is an invaluable thing to have. Something as simple as being able to make a map with your own keyboard and mouse goes a long way, for anyone can understand the context of a map as opposed to a dense piece of historical writing.
All it takes is a bit of healthy self-doubt; is my current method effective at helping anyone (not just someone) understand what I’m trying to say? ArcMap and GIS are but one part of that skill-set we as historians should be taking advantage of in our work. Although BDK is far from finished, as I intend to work on other militant and non-militant Puerto Rican groups from the period, I am confident that I can show my work to potential employers and present it not only as my ability to write “good history,” but to communicate and engage critically with any audience.
This project and semester more than any other has taught me that the historian of today must be flexible and should be willing to go outside the box. There’s a world of careers waiting out there for the historian that can not only answer a question or problem but provide an explanation that is relatable and understandable to any individual.
If nothing else, I invite all of you to keep up with the website and see where it heads. I welcome any comments and criticisms on BDK, so feel free to contact me with ideas or critiques. Hopefully, the experiment yields fruit.
Steven R. Garcia is an M.A. History student at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Steven’s focus is revolutionary activism and militancy in twentieth-century Latin America, particularly Puerto Rico.