The first Puerto Ricans outside Puerto Rico to play a role in their homeland’s struggle against colonial rule were the contemporaries of Dr. Ramón Emeterio Betances and Segundo Ruíz Belvis. They were well-known abolitionists and the main organizers of Puerto Rico’s independence movement, forced into exile in 1867. Using New York City as a base to plan a revolution, Betances and Ruíz Belvis collaborated closely with the local Cuban Revolutionary Party. Eventually, they decided to split up and obtain support from the Caribbean and South America. Prevented from completing their missions, the lines of communication they had established from outside Puerto Rico nevertheless ensured that a considerable revolt took place—several hundred people participated in the September 23, 1868 uprising now known as El Grito de Lares.
One of the military leaders and survivors of El Grito, Juan de Mata Terreforte, would himself move to New York City, where he became the Vice-President of the Cuban Revolutionary Party’s Puerto Rican section. On December 22, 1895, he presented a flag at a public meeting; the participants immediately agreed his design should represent Puerto Rico. This flag, which was based on that of Cuba’s, went on to have an important symbolic role in Puerto Rico’s liberation struggle. It was first flown on island soil during an 1897 revolt in the town of Yauco against the Spanish colonizers. Later, under the leadership of Harvard graduate Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos in the 1930s, it became one of the symbols of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party in opposition to U.S. colonial rule. Under both imperial regimes, the flag was outlawed from both public display and private possession. This was until it was adopted for official use by the newly formed commonwealth government, with a different shade of blue, in 1952.
As the diaspora grew in size, and Puerto Ricans were more frequently raised or even born in U.S. cities, interest and participation in Puerto Rico’s liberation struggle both continued and took on new forms. In Chicago, Illinois a street gang going by the name Young Lords, influenced by the Black Panther Party, transformed themselves into a political organization on September 23, 1968. As part of their program, they not only sought the independence of Puerto Rico, but also the community-control of institutions in their neighborhoods. Although the Young Lords began their decline very early in the 1970s due to state repression and other internal issues, the Chicago Puerto Rican community remained active. For example, community activists and pro-independence supporters founded institutions like Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School and the Juan Antonio Corretjer Puerto Rican Cultural Center in 1972 and 1973, respectively. Puerto Rican communities across the U.S. were also active in the successful campaign to release the five Puerto Rican nationalist political prisoners in 1979.
After the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), a diaspora-based revolutionary nationalist group, emerged in 1974, the FBI began an investigation to uncover its members. Ultimately, 14 people, mostly from Chicago but with three having strong ties to New York, were arrested in different parts of Illinois in the early 1980s and charged with seditious conspiracy. After many years of public support, most of these political prisoners were released in 1999. Another, Carlos Alberto Torres, was released in July 2010. Oscar López Rivera remains the last one in prison, removed from the Chicago neighborhoods he once dedicated himself to improving for thirty-two years.
Since 1999 the Puerto Rican Diaspora has remained engaged in Puerto Rico’s liberation struggle. In May 2003, following increased protest, particularly from the diaspora, the U.S. Navy finally withdrew from the island of Vieques after using it as a weapons testing site for decades. In January 2008 a number of diaspora activists and workers, some having been active in the Vieques movement, were subpoenaed to testify before a Federal Grand Jury investigating the Puerto Rican independence movement. Choosing to follow the example of earlier Puerto Rican Grand Jury resistors, all but one refused to cooperate with the investigation. Furthermore, participation of the diaspora in the United Nations Decolonization Committee Hearings has remained consistent, as have public demonstrations in several cities in solidarity with island-based workers, students, environmental, and other struggles. Even though the October 27, 1974 Madison Square Garden event attended by some 20,000 people in support of Puerto Rico’s independence might dwarf similarly themed events today, the Puerto Rican Diaspora remains part and parcel to the Puerto Rican national liberation. Will the diaspora continue to fulfill its important role in Puerto Rico’s liberation struggle? We await the diaspora’s response…