Afraid of Neither Death or Prison

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Dominga Cruz Becerril in Cuba, 1978

Dominga Cruz Becerril in Cuba, 1978

“In this Puerto Rican struggle, we do not cut ourselves off from the past, for it is all one. It began in Lares when the nation was formed, and Hostos and other continued it. It is a sequence, it is all one…” – Dominga Cruz, 1978.

In the grand theater of life – with its tragedies and triumphs – it is the wind of historical circumstance that is the most powerful and unforgettable. Sadly, some narratives are never told while others are retold ad nauseum. But every once in a while, whether in the tales of a whispering grandmother or in the forgotten letters of a witness, a nearly lost story resurfaces, transforming ones understanding of an event.

In the obra teatral of the black revolutionary Dominga Cruz Becerril the defining historical moment was the Ponce Massacre of 1937. “To ask me about the massacre is to ask me more or less about what is my life, because my whole life began again through it…”

Cruz Becerril was born into a life of poverty in 1909 in the seaport Puerto Rican city of Ponce. That hardship was exacerbated by the early death of her parents, which resulted, at age 8 or 9, with the dislocation of her siblings to scattered family members. She was sent to live with her godparents on their coffee plantation. While at her adopted family’s home she was exposed to a world of literature, art, and theater. Unfortunately, this comfortable life quickly shattered due to their financial ruin and eventual deaths. Cruz Becerril ended up on a pig farm with her brothers.

Following the social norms of the time, Cruz Becerril married young and worked embroidering blouses for $1.50 a month until two in the morning by dim light. She, of course, could never make enough. Her own two children died young of hunger in their tuberculosis-ridden community. For most in Puerto Rico, under U.S. occupation, this was life to its fullest and to its end. But not for Dominga Cruz Becerril. The once young girl who curiously read plays and poems in her godparent’s home resurfaced and provided her a new vocation.

Like many before, including the venerable Juana Colon, Cruz Becerril became a lectora or newspaper reader at a tobacco factory, informing the vigorous workers on the latest happening on the island. It was there, in the midst of the tobacco leaves that she began to feel like a real fighter. Many of the reports focused on the struggles of Latin America and on the homegrown charismatic and controversial figure Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos. It was one such report in 1933 that informed her that he would be speaking in the town square of the nearby city of Mayagüez concerning the current sugarcane worker’s strike. After hearing him speak about U.S. imperialism and economic dominance over the island she left profoundly changed. “He got rid of the myth we had that the yankee was some sort of God!”, she later commented. Cruz Becerril immediately went to the office of the Nationalist Party Council of Mayagüez to sign-up for membership. The men at the office laughed at her, but she was not deterred.

Almost instantaneously, Cruz Becerril inserted her leadership and dedication to the party that sought the independence of Puerto Rico. “We weren’t afraid of prison or death,” she remembers. Although the Nationalist Party openly enlisted women and Albizu Campos was famous for having women body guards, she sought to place women in a more central role in the party. With Albizu Campos’ approval, she changed the symbolic title and role of Nationalist Party women from “Daughter’s of Liberty” to the cadet corps “Nurses of the Army of Liberation,” training them as nurses and fighters, although with wooden guns. She also wrote poetic articles in the newspaper El Sol on behalf of the party. Another little known fact is that it was she who coined the now famous moniker for Albizu Campos – “El Maestro” or “The Teacher.” As she retells the event, in 1933, at the party’s national assembly in the mountain city of Caguas, Cruz Becerril was sent with other women to represent the Mayagüez council and it was there where she was first introduced to Albizu Campos. Nearly speechless, all she could say was “Maestro, Maestro.”

By 1936, all of the major party leaders, including El Maestro were tried in a Federal Court on the charge of trying to destroy the U.S. government in Puerto Rico. Their sentence: 10 years in an Atlanta, Georgia prison. After that, Cruz Becerril suffered persecution – her home was raided twice. Nonetheless, the Nationalist Party was determined to continue its work of defending a Puerto Rican nation under siege. On March 21, 1937, the party planned a demonstration in Ponce in commemoration of the abolition of slavery and to protest the imprisonment of their leaders. Despite their permit being revoked shortly after approval due to pressure by appointed Governor Blanton Winship, they decided to march anyway. Cruz Becerril’s memory of the bus drive to Ponce, with the hot countryside passing by her window and the image of red buses full of armed policemen following their path foreshadowed the day’s violent climax.

On that fateful day, only a few blocks away from the city’s center on Marina Street, the cadets of the party stood in well-organized files, dressed famously in their white pants and black shirts, with Puerto Rican flags in hand. One could imagine the sudden struck of fear as the police surrounded them and the hundreds of onlookers, with machine guns and bayonets in hand. However, fear did not dictate the actions of the Nationalist Party. After the singing of the revolutionary national anthem, La Borinqueña, the demonstration continued and they marched forward. That is when the shots began to fly through the air, filling the street with rivers of blood and offering a chance for the black revolutionary from Ponce to prove herself again to her nation. Just as Cruz Becerril baptized Albizu Campos as El Maestro, she too would be reborn on this day by her courageous and patriotic actions, forever becoming the “One Who Picked-Up The Flag.”

Ponce Massacre, 1937

Ponce Massacre, 1937

While running to safety as the bullets riddled the bodies of hundreds of men, women, and children around her, Cruz Becerril spotted one of her compañeros being shot to death, with the sky-blue Puerto Rican flag he was holding falling to the ground with him. In a matter of seconds, she skid towards the blood-soaked national symbol, picked-it-up, and carried it towards a mansion for safety. Unfortunately, the gate was locked, leaving her and another cadet scrambling to open it until they finally turned around towards the crowd, arms locked together, waiting for death to approach them. It was at that moment that another cadet jumped on their shoulders and successfully sprung over them to open the gate from the other side. While in the mansion they took care of the wounded and the dying until the police surrounded the building and arrested all those inside. When the day came to an end, over 150 were wounded and 22 lay dead. Later, at the hearing led by Arthur Hays of the American Civil Liberties Union, Cruz Becerril testified that she picked-up the flag, even in the midst of danger, “because Maestro taught me that the flag of the homeland should never fall on the ground.”

Later, Dominga would use her literary skills and love of poetry to recite the great works of the Spanish language in some of Puerto Rico’s greatest artistic venues. It was at Central High School in 1942 that the wife of Albizu Campos, Laura Meneses, told her that she was destined for bigger stages and should go to Cuba and use her art to tell the story of Puerto Rico’s struggles. She would return to her beloved island two years later, but government persecution was too intense, forcing her to return to Cuba, where she lived for most of her life, with a 10-year stint in Mexico.

The Ponce Massacre is now forever etched in the Puerto Rican historical memory, revealing the extent that the U.S. was willing to go to exert its hegemonic domination over the island. In the re-telling of that intense period, people like Dominga Cruz Becerril usually go unmentioned, but – as this essay attempts to do – should cease to be the case. Puerto Rican history should never be just about victors or the successful – which are usually wealthy white men. If we shift our perspective to the most marginalized of our people, such as afrodescendientes and women, there is so much more knowledge we gain about the life of this nation and a better, liberated future we can finally build to completion.

Dominga Cruz Becerril is in our list of “10 Afro-Puerto Ricans Everyone Should Know

The facts and quotes presented in this piece is from an unpublished manuscript by Margaret Randall, “The People are More Than Witnesses,” 1978.
A version of this essay appeared in the January-February 2009 edition of Que Ondee Sola.

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