Eighty-four years ago, on May 11, 1930, the political landscape of Puerto Rico changed forever. During a general meeting of the Nationalist Party, which lasted into the early morning hours of the next day in the Ateneo Puertorriqueño of San Juan, Pedro Albizu Campos was elected the Party’s new President. This was just months into his return from Latin America, where he spent over two years organizing support for Puerto Rico’s independence movement.
The evening began with a moment of silence to the figures de Diego, Muñoz Rivera, Betances, de Hostos, Rius Rivera, and Zeno Gandía; and an additional tribute, at the motion of Albizu Campos, to “all of those who fought for the independence of Puerto Rico.” Participating in the assembly on behalf of other parties were Antonio R. Barceló, president of the Liberal Party; a Mr. Etienne Totti, representing the Constitutional Socialist Party; and a Mr. Gutiérrez Ortiz, representing the Puerto Rican Alliance.
Following the speakers representing the island’s various political parties, Albizu Campos emphasized the significance of the evening’s gathering. Almost immediately, however, in reference to the voting rights gained the year before by literate women, he went on to say*:
“I regret that this assembly has not heard the voice of a women’s opinion, now that the Puerto Rican woman holds in her hands the powers to perform a great civic duty. I raise this issue so that the women do not fall into the sin that the men have fallen into: that is, being divided on the question of the independence of their homeland when we are all united by unbreakable ties of nationalist sentiment. The woman is the creative womb of all physical and moral energies, the womb of transcendental life, and therefore the authentic mother of nationality.”
Continuing his comments on the speakers before him, Albizu Campos stated:
“We are united in fundamental questions and divided by questions of tactics of a temporary nature. Therefore, I would like to see realized the unity of all parties for the immediate recognition of the independence of Puerto Rico. But gentlemen, after thirty years of Yankee colonialism, we’ve seen that all friendly and diplomatic means to contain the dominators have been exhausted. We have fallen into servility in order to gratify the invader to see if we could get something from them, but nevertheless the invaders have not respected anything in our homeland. In the economic field they have led us into ruin with their nefarious work of penetration and economic displacement…
We cannot risk one more day tolerating this denigrating North American colonialism that kills us physically and morally. We have to face the invader in a frank manner without any bending; we must unite in order to tackle this painful economic displacement and to avoid a man from the Commission of Public Instruction demoralizing the country with a system that is a school of servility to our people. Gentlemen, there is no room to carve a politics of submission as has been prevalent in Puerto Rico. We must postulate a defined and frank nationalist ideology in front of the invaders. There is no room for a fraternal and solidary act with the enemies of the homeland.”
Albizu Campos’ speech would then move into an account of his activities and experiences while visiting the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Cuba, making note that his time in México and Perú would have to be recounted on another occasion. The speech lasted some two and a half hours and was met with enthusiastic applause.
Upon witnessing this reception to his call to end “nationalism of paper” and inaugurate a new “nationalism of action,” the Party’s founder, José Coll Cuchí, and its most recent President Antonio Ayuso Valdivieso, left the assembly, retiring from the Party. These leaders, in fact, had attempted days before to prevent Albizu Campos’ anticipated election by sending letters to prospective voters stating, “You cannot allow a black man to preside the Party.”
What followed was the election of Pedro Albizu Campos as President of the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico. The event marked a radical change in the Party, and the beginning of a new political era in Puerto Rico, which through Albizu Campos’ leadership would have a significant international character in the form of correspondence and work with other Latin American and world leaders, governments, and organizations.
The inaugural speech of Albizu Campos, in the early hours of May 22nd, laid out the philosophy he would commit himself to putting into action. In part, he would declare:
“I’m going to require a pledge for the patriots of blood and bone, of courage and spirit that have remained in this assembly up to these late hours of the night. An optimistic philosophy must inform everything that we do. Raining on our people is a pessimistic doctrine that demoralizes and cowers and that we must tackle at all times. We must raise the public spirit of Puerto Rico and tell it that it can become whatever it wants and achieve its independence if such is desired by its will. We are in full civil bankruptcy and it is necessary that we lead a moral infusion of our people so they can return to believing in their destiny and in their possibilities. Our homeland is in full war without defending itself; only a resurgence of the moral collective can save it…
Now compañeros, I am going to require an oath of honor [author’s notes: with those in attendance at their feet with one hand raised]. We hereby solemnly swear to defend the nationalist ideal and sacrifice our property and lives if necessary for the independence of our country.”
The emergence of Pedro Albizu Campos as a leader for national independence is a landmark event in the history of Puerto Rico. By 1936, just months before his arrest and ten-year exile, he would receive broad support – even from pro-statehood leader Rafael Martínez Nadal – around his initiative to hold a constituent convention to declare Puerto Rico an independent nation and begin drafting a constitution.
I look forward to writing more about that significant, yet underwritten moment in Puerto Rican history. For now, i felt it important to write about the day Albizu Campos was elected leader of the Nationalist Party.
*The translations of his speeches on that important night from Spanish to English are my own.
Torres, J. Benjamín. Pedro Albizu Campos, Obras Escogidas, Tomo 1.
Rosado, Marisa. Pedro Albizu Campos- Las llamas de la Aurora: acercamiento a su biografía.
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