Bonilla was raised around East Harlem, a neighborhood full of diversity of culture and race. He said that children were very often exposed to multiple languages at an early age and that they became bilingual to interact with people in their day-to-day lives. Bonilla spent his first years of high school attending a Franciscan high school in Illinois, where he showed academic and leadership skills. His favorite subjects were classical Greek, Latin, Spanish, French, and German. He was also elected President of his class. Bonilla then transferred to Morris High School, a school in the South Bronx. After he graduated from Morris high in 1943, he was drafted and assigned to a weapons platoon. Bonilla was taught to be a mortar gunner and was assigned to the 290th Infantry Regiment, 75th Infantry Division.
The 290th Infantry Regiment, 75th Infantry Division was involved in the Battle of the Bulge. Bonilla served in this battle at the front of the line for nearly a month.
After serving at the front lines, Bonilla sustained an injury and had to be hospitalized in France. After a brief three week hospitalization, Bonilla was reassigned to a replacement depot in France. It was there that he was invited to join the Puerto Rican National Guard near Frankfurtand assigned as the company clerk. He soon realized that the Puerto Rican soldiers had a divide. The Puerto Rican soldiers raised in the United States were looked down upon by those who had grown up in Puerto Rico, and referred to the emigrated Puerto Ricans as "American Joes". Bonilla said of this experience, "The military experience helped to consolidate my sense of being Puerto Rican and also a sense of wanting to study and be a scholar."
Dr. Bonilla played a key role in the formation of the Puerto Rican Hispanic Leadership Forum to help manage the needs of Puerto Ricans in New York. He also played an instrumental role in the formation of the Center for Puerto Rico Studies at the City University of New York.
&Economic Importance of Puerto Rico for the History of the US. (2005). Retrieved March 3, 2007 from lap.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/3/3/46.