A People’s Symbol of National Affirmation and Resistance
By: Andre Lee Muñiz
The symbolic use of flags has been an important part of Puerto Rican national affirmation and resistance since the September 23, 1868 Grito de Lares. It was for the purpose of that national uprising, where the first independent Republic of Puerto Rico was declared, that the first flag of Puerto Rico was created. The second and current flag of Puerto Rico, which we proudly display in our homes, communities, and places of work—as well as on our clothing and skin—has a similarly radical history. And this history as a national symbol of affirmation and resistance, that now unites around 9 million Puerto Rican people worldwide, survives and continues despite the 1952 attempt to revise and replace that history by incorporating it as the colonial state’s official flag.
Adopted as a national symbol by a group of Puerto Ricans in exile on December 22, 1895 in New York City’s Chimney Hall, it is a product and symbol of diaspora struggle closely associated with the island’s independence movement. By personally presenting the flag during that historic meeting, Juan de Mata Terreforte, a military leader in el Grito de Lares, gave it the added distinction as a symbol of the continuity of Puerto Rico’s patriotic movement dating back to the first declaration of an independent republic at Lares.
Having been designed after Cuba’s, the current flag of Puerto Rico is also a reminder of the close collaboration with the Cuban Revolutionary Party of the Puerto Rican exile community in New York City. It is a symbol of the independence struggle of what were the last remaining Spanish colonies, their joint effort towards an Antillean Federation, and their vision of a united Latin America. It would not be flown on Puerto Rican soil until associates of this group in NYC would stage the last major revolt for independence from Spain: the March 24, 1897 Intentona de Yauco.
After the 1898 invasion of Puerto Rico by the U.S., Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos would re-establish the flag as a symbol of national affirmation and resistance. During a public rally of the Nationalist Party in San Juan on July 16, 1926, when it was his turn to speak in his capacity as vice-president, before saying a word, Albizu Campos dramatically removed every U.S. flag on the stage until only those of Puerto Rico remained. He then declared, “Flag of the United States, I do not salute you; because although it is true that you are the symbol of a free and sovereign country, in Puerto Rico you represent piracy and plunder!” Well-respected for his clear, courageous, and convincing vision, after going on a three-year political tour of Latin America and becoming the Nationalist Party’s President in 1930, Albizu Campos would lead the first movement to seriously threaten U.S. rule in Puerto Rico, with the flag as an important symbol.
On the night of April 16, 1932, as the colonial administration made an attempt to incorporate the Puerto Rican flag as its official symbol, the Nationalist Party was holding its annual commemoration of José de Diego’s birthday nearby in San Juan’s main plaza. Informed of the events unfolding in the Capital building, Albizu Campos abruptly spoke of the significant and urgent matter to the thousands of people gathered, and then led the inspired mass in a march on the building. Once inside, having overwhelmed guards and causing many to flee, the railing and part of a balcony being ascended broke, causing the protestors to fall en masse, and the death of 18-year old nationalist Manuel Rafael Suárez Díaz. The act of protest, which included rock throwing and some stick fighting, succeeded in preventing the incorporation of the Puerto Rican flag as a colonial symbol. Suárez Díaz, having died defending the dignity of the national symbol, was soon after declared a martyr of the Puerto Rican flag and independence movement.
The confrontation between the colonial state and nationalist movement would peak with the nationalist insurrection of 1950, which was organized in response to the colonial design that became the Commonwealth Constitution of 1952. During that revolt, the flag was raised in Jayuya for the second declaration of an independent Republic of Puerto Rico, firmly establishing the use of flags as part of a tradition of Puerto Rican national affirmation and resistance. In spite, and perhaps in order to rewrite, this radical role of the flag, it would finally be incorporated as a colonial symbol in 1952. This act came just four years after a ‘gag law’ was passed making the patriotic use of the flag chargeable as a felony, as shown by Poet Francisco Matos Paoli’s arrest after the revolt for having flags in his home.
As the diaspora grew in size into the 1960s, so did the presence of the Puerto Rican flag in its neighborhoods, where it became an important symbol for the claiming of space. Public art has played a key role in this, with prominent community murals such as ‘Spirit of East Harlem’, created in 1978 NYC, and ‘Honor Boricua’, created in 1992 Chicago, serving as examples. The Puerto Rican community in Chicago inaugurated one of the boldest works of public art using the Puerto Rican flag in 1995. On Three Kings Day of that year, it celebrated the construction of two 59-foot steel flags, each weighing 45 tons, that mark each end of Paseo Boricua, the mile-long strip on Division Street known for its history of Puerto Rican social and cultural activity.
The flag continued to also be used in acts of protest. On two occasions the statue of liberty has been occupied and draped with the Puerto Rican flag on its crown. One time, on October 25, 1977, it was done in solidarity with four nationalist prisoners that would be released two years later. A second time, on November 5, 2000, it was done in solidarity with the people of Vieques who would see the U.S. Navy end its use of their island as a bombing range three years later. Activist Tito Kayak, a key figure in the second action, would be arrested while using the flag in protest again on June 13, 2005 after attempting to use it to replace the United Nations banner at UN Headquarters while a special committee was holding hearings there on Puerto Rico’s colonial status.
The flag of the Puerto Rican people, as a symbol of national affirmation and resistance, has a significant history. The prevalence of its display in our communities today serves as testament to the resilient and proud national spirit that Puerto Ricans have developed. With colonialism still affecting the Puerto Rican nation, it is important that the revolutionary root of our flag is transmitted to future generations. By passing on this history, the continuity of the Puerto Rican people’s movement for liberation can be maintained and secured.