This article is part of a series in commemoration of 50 years since the passing of Pedro Albizu Campos, the foremost Puerto Rican independence leader of the 20th century.
Many are the stories of Pedro Albizu Campos that portray the depth of his character. While going through an oral history with Ruth Reynolds, the white North American pacifist he closely befriended while in New York City from 1943-1947, I came across two that particularly grabbed my attention.
Both stories, related to Ruth by Don Pedro in later years, take place in early October 1950 in Ponce. The occasion was the passing of 65-year old Dr. Manuel de la Pila Iglesias, a significant medical figure in Puerto Rico who based his practice in Ponce. The second story takes place one day after the first, at Dr. Pila’s funeral.
Due to the high standing of Dr. Pila in Ponce, many of the economic and political elite showed up to pay respects to the life of their distinguished peer. As Don Pedro casually mingled with all of them, someone finally asked him, “What do you feel about the future economically of this country?”
“We can judge the future in terms of the past,” he said. “You and you and you and I were boys together. We didn’t all know each other… but we went through the same period here in Ponce. And we got to know each other a little bit later. My father was a property owner. So was yours, so was yours, so was yours.”
Don Pedro went on inquiring into the current status of each family. All had lost the land they once owned. One ran a candy factory under constant threat of price wars. All had sent their sons to the United States for their education. Two of their sons stayed to work in managerial positions, while the other worked in a managerial position for an American company in Ponce. Don Pedro summed it up by saying, “your fathers were property owners, you professional businessmen, but in charge of your own lives. Your sons, no. So what is that future of this country economically, if it does not have independence?”
Don Pedro then said, “There comes a time in the history of every country when the propertied classes, those who have felt it to their convenience to cooperate with the regime, they come to realize that if not for their own sakes, for the sake of their children and their grandchildren, they have to take a different stand. Are you gentlemen approaching that time?” There was silence.
Privately a supporter of the independence of Puerto Rico, Dr. Pila wished that in death his position on the status question be recognized. For this reason, his widow directly asked Don Pedro to provide the funeral oration on the following day, which he agreed to do.
With the political and economic elite again in attendance, several would give speeches. A priest urged the audience to pray that Dr. Pila should not spend much time in purgatory. Another person spoke of all the virtues of a doctor that Dr. Pila had displayed. Then Don Pedro began speaking.
True to form, Don Pedro quickly grabbed everyone’s attention when he began by saying, “We’ve heard some remarks on the virtues of Dr. Pila, but everyone knows I would not be here if he had not made contributions in another sphere… Now he was a Spaniard by birth, he was not a Puerto Rican by birth, but his contribution… to Puerto Rico’s freedom has been greater than that of almost anyone in Ponce. And that must be recognized in death.”
“We’ve heard priests, we’ve been urged to pray for the soul of Dr. Pila that he may not remain long in purgatory,” he continued. “I tell you today that today Dr. Pila is sitting at the right hand of God and we should pray to Dr. Pila for ourselves that he may intervene for us so that we may not have to spend [a] long time in purgatory.” Stunned, one of the previous speakers at that point fainted and was carried away.
Such was the impact of the presence and words of Pedro Albizu Campos. He spoke truth to power with a clarity able to penetrate the core of all bearing witness. In the stories above, he spoke convincingly of the need to make personal sacrifices to end the economic domination of Puerto Rico by the United States, and as a first step in moving towards asserting the Caribbean nation’s right to independence. He also spoke of the honor in dying as a supporter of Puerto Rico’s independence, even if one’s support of such in life was not particularly visible. Both sentiments show the depth of Don Pedro’s character, disciplined as it was around the goal of national liberation.Reference The Ruth M. Reynolds Papers, Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, Hunter College, CUNY.