For many, Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos is a black and white figure – a terrorist to some, a patriot to others. But like any human being, he lived a dynamic life full of experiences, some of which are not written about in the mainstream record. While there are many aspects of his childhood, in particular, that could be further researched and written about for a broad audience, i’d like to highlight one that caught my attention: his athletic nature as a youth in Ponce.
The first stories i came across were in an oral history interview with Ruth Reynolds. An American pacifist, Reynolds became very close with Albizu Campos while he was hospitalized in New York from 1943-45, at times visiting him on a daily basis. While there, she questioned him not only on his nationalist philosophy, but also on certain details of his personal life and childhood.
In one account, Reynolds joked that Albizu Campos innovated jogging in Ponce after a teacher told him that running, because it helps get the blood circulating, is good for the health. Following this wisdom, he began regularly running up and down the long road leading to school. In another story, when Albizu Campos was 12 or 13, his father arranged for a young man to keep the mischievous youth company. This young man taught him to swim better, dive, and many other things, the only activity his father prohibited being shark hunting. Reynolds also recalled Albizu Campos claiming to be skilled with a slingshot – he killed a few birds, and then refused to do so anymore on principle.
In another source (Huracán del Caribe, 1993, Page 22), Albizu Campos was again stated to be a young aficionado of track and field. According to an interview with a childhood neighbor of his, he also enjoyed finding large, rounded boulders in the local Río Bucaná and exercising with them, lifting them over his head. This particular activity, stone lifting, happens to be a traditional sport among the people of Spain’s Basque country, whom Albizu Campos is in part descended from through his father. Whether the young Albizu Campos was aware of this fact or not may not be known, but it is a striking coincidence.
Such activities would have put the young boy’s physical health in good standing. Several years later, while on university scholarships in New England, Albizu Campos would benefit from this athletic background while completing the first ROTC program offered to Harvard students in 1917. Deciding to volunteer with the U.S. Army during the First World War on the condition they send him with a Puerto Rican troop, he later became a military instructor. Between July 1918 and March 1919, he organized a ‘home guard’ of more than sixty volunteers for the Army that conducted exercise drills on the beaches of Ponce.
As President of the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico, physical fitness would continue to be emphasized as part of the organization of the island’s liberation movement. The explicit reason Albizu Campos gave for establishing the Corp of Cadets, for example, was “to increase discipline, improve the physical condition of all Party members, and increase their devotion to the homeland.” Nationalist Cadets, which were often young people, would hold regular drills in the various locations where there was an organized Nationalist presence, mostly on beaches. Part of Albizu Campos’ philosophy was that every Puerto Rican should have “physical, moral, intellectual, and spiritual strength,” so that “a strong, educated, wise, and powerful” homeland could be constructed.
The intent of this short essay was to provide a different perspective on Pedro Albizu Campos by focusing on one of the many lesser-known aspects of his life, his athletic nature as a youth. As we also saw, this interest in physical activity would go on to be of benefit to him as a university student, and of real importance as Puerto Rico’s foremost nationalist leader. No doubt there are many other experiences from his little discussed childhood and university experience that had an impact on his character and leadership development – i encourage people to research and write about such as i have done here.