Resisting the Colonial Design

Puerto Rico, the Diaspora, and the Nationalist Insurrection of 1950

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Puerto Rico

Eleven years after being imprisoned and sent into exile on charges of seditious conspiracy, the leader of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos, returned to Puerto Rico to continue working towards establishing it as an independent nation. Having spent six years as the party’s president prior to his imprisonment – and five years as vice-president before that – Albizu Campos developed the party into the foremost challenge to the colonial control exercised over the archipelago by the United States. The response of the U.S. government to this threat to its hegemony included constant surveillance, harassment, arrests and even murder of nationalists. Fearing the resurgence of the independence movement after Albizu Campos’ return, the U.S. government passed a law in 1948 outlawing any written, verbal or other expressions of anti-government or pro-independence sentiment. Effectively denying freedom of speech and association, the law became known as La Ley de La Mordaza (The Gag Law). Purposely, the law was passed as the U.S. Congress was discussing a new constitution for Puerto Rico so that criticism or resistance to this modification of the colony could be repressed.

For Albizu Campos, it was clear that what became the Commonwealth Constitution had already been pre-designed by the U.S., with the support of pre-selected leaders from the emerging Popular Democratic Party. Within this context, Albizu Campos challenged the Gag Law and continued speaking and organizing in favor of liberation. In one of his most memorable speeches – after critically denouncing the upcoming constitution – he stated, “all this has to be defied only as the men of Lares defied despotism, with the revolution.” That was Sept. 23, 1950. One month later, Albizu Campos put a calculated response into motion to the colonial plans of the U.S. government. This patriotic response was the Nationalist Insurrection of 1950.

Originally planned to take place in March 1952 shortly before the enactment of the Commonwealth Constitution, the insurrection was called for Oct. 30, 1950 by Ablizu Campos after a series of arrests and raids on the homes of nationalists. The towns that experienced the most activity were Peñuelas, Ponce, Arecibo, Jayuya, Utuado, Río Piedras, San Juan, Mayagüez and Naranjito, though the revolution’s effects were felt throughout the island.

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The arrest of Jayuya rebellion leader Blanca Canales.

World War II veteran, Carlos Irizarry, would be counted among the fallen nationalists after leading an attack on the police headquarters in Jayuya. With fellow Jayuya resident Elio Torresola taking lead of the small group during the gunfight, and most of the police fleeing the town very quickly after, the instructions of targeting colonial establishments given to nationalists of each town would be fully completed in the city. The police station, post office, and contents of the selective service offices were set on fire and burned. To aid this effort, Blanca Canales, a resident of Jayuya and Nationalist Party member since 1931, led a second group to the local telephone station where they non-violently took over the space before cutting the telephone lines to prevent communications among authorities. After this, Canales made her way to a balcony near the town’s plaza where she raised the flag of Puerto Rico and declared it an independent republic for the second time in its history. After Canales delivered a speech announcing the start of a revolution in defense of the Puerto Rican people, Jayuya was a liberated territory for three days until the Guard’s troops arrived on land on Nov. 2 after attacking the town by air. Canales would spend 17 years in U.S. prisons for her role.

Another prominent woman from the insurrection is Brooklyn-native Olga Viscal Garriga. A university student and party spokesperson in Río Piedras, Viscal Garriga led a student demonstration in Old San Juan where police shot protesters, killing one. Arrested with other students and going on to spend 5 years in prison, while on trial she dramatically resisted the entire procedure, refusing to recognize the authority of the U.S. courts in Puerto Rico. She received 31 charges for contempt of court, but her resistance peaked when the prosecution attempted to use her associations with military leader Raimundo Díaz Pacheco against her. Díaz Pacheco was a member of the party who lost his life leading an attack on the Governor’s mansion in San Juan. Carmen Pérez and Doris Torresola were other prominent women, serving as the bodyguards of Albizu Campos during a shootout at his residence in the morning of Oct. 30. Remaining in the house with a friend, Albizu Campos was forced out the morning of Nov. 2 when police launched gas bombs into the residence.

By ordering the activation of more than 200 members of the National Guard, Governor Luis Muñoz Marín was able to overwhelm the insurrection, in which 16 nationalists, seven policemen, and one member of the Guard died. The Guard even went as far as employing planes to machine gun and bomb parts of Jayuya and Utuado. All in all, the Guard arrested 1,106 people who were connected with the event, the last arguably being World War II veteran José Antonio Negrón who was apprehended on Nov. 10 in Corozal after leading a guerrilla struggle in neighboring Naranjito.

The Diaspora

The Diaspora was also moved to action during the Nationalist Insurrection. In New York City, Griselio Torresola, the brother of Elio and Doris Torresola, decided that he would also act to bring the world’s attention to Puerto Rico’s struggle for independence. Further pushed by newspaper reports he felt downplayed the rebellion and neglected to elaborate on the role of the U.S. in the situation, Griselio went with fellow nationalist Oscar Collazo to Washington, D.C. where they conducted a military action at Blair House, the temporary residence of the U.S. President. Stopped by security guards and secret service agents, Griselio and an officer posted in a security booth was killed during a shootout. Collazo, who had known Griselio and the Torresola family since his early years growing up in Jayuya, was severely wounded but survived, only to be sentenced to death.

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The arrest of Oscar Collazo after the Blair House attack.

After a number of failed attempts to find steady work in New York City starting as early as 1931, Collazo finally settled there in 1937. First encountering the nationalism of Albizu Campos in 1932, Oscar became the head of the New York chapter of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party a few years after his final move to the city and established a working relationship with local politicians and groups supportive of independence. From 1944 until 1947, he lived upstairs from Albizu Campos, who was allowed to complete his prison term in New York due to a health condition. Thus, when he conducted the action in Washington, D.C., Collazo had a clear understanding that the act itself was a symbol of anti-colonial resistance rather than an assassination. It was not against Truman personally, but towards the president as “a symbol of the system”, as Collazo later explained according to a 2011 article by Gerald Meyer. After receiving his sentence, people such as East Harlem Congressman Vito Marcantonio, who was able to secure the National Lawyers Guild’s legal aid, worked tirelessly in demand of the commutation of his death sentence. Organizations like the U.S.-based Committee to Save the Life of Oscar Collazo, which pressured Latin American countries and the United Nations to appeal directly to President Truman, played similarly key roles. On July 24, 1952, days before his scheduled execution, the president commuted Collazo’s death sentence to a life sentence. Ultimately, due to a consistent campaign for the release of Collazo and other imprisoned nationalists, President Jimmy Carter would release him in 1979. It is worth noting that six other Puerto Ricans would be arrested in New York City after the action in Washington, D.C., including Collazo’s wife Rosa and Griselio’s wife Carmen who were sentenced to two months in jail.

One reason the U.S. government enacted what became the Commonwealth Constitution was to convince the international community that Puerto Ricans had achieved a measure of self-determination, thus ending its obligation to submit detailed yearly reports on the status of Puerto Rico as a colony to the U.N. Created in 1945, the U.N. was closely observed and engaged by the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, which had official observer status as a non-governmental organization. Aware of this attempt to manipulate the opinion of the international community, Albizu Campos planned to have all nationalist forces coalesce in Utuado and wage a revolutionary struggle until various international bodies like the U.N. intervened in support of Puerto Rico’s national liberation. Such an action did not take place mainly because of the sudden call of the insurrection in response to the mass arrests of nationalists and the imminent arrest or killing of Albizu Campos.

A Revolt Remembered

What happened in 1950 has not been forgotten. People remember that Puerto Rico was declared an independent republic for the second time on Oct. 30 of that year. People remember that the Diaspora also took part in the resistance to the colonial agenda of the U.S. government. On October 30, 2013, the 63rd anniversary of the Second Republic of Puerto Rico, an event was hosted in El Barrio (Spanish Harlem) by Taller Boricua in remembrance of Blanca Canales and the events that took place in Jayuya. The question is whether people remember what that insurrection was carried out in response to: the same colonial setup that exists today with regard to Puerto Rico, which the U.N. has called on the U.S. to change in more than 30 resolutions since resuming hearings on Puerto Rico in 1972. It may not be repeated, but the insurrection is worth analyzing. There are many lessons that can be drawn that might be of use in Puerto Rico’s continued struggle against colonialism and for self-determination, such as involving people across the entire Puerto Rican territory, with support from the Diaspora, and a long-standing engagement with the international community.

References:
  • American Gunfight: The Plot To Kill Harry Truman- And The Shoot-Out That Stopped It, by Stephen Hunter and John Bainbridge, Jr. (Simon and Schuster, 2005)
  • La Insurreccion Nacionalista en Puerto Rico 1950, by Miñi Seijo Bruno (Editorial Edil, 1989)
  • Pedro Albizu Campos, Gilberto Concepción de Gracia, and Vito Marcantonio’s Collaboration in the Cause of Puerto Rico’s Independence, by Gerald Meyer (Centro Journal, 2011)
  • Pedro Albizu Campos: Las Llamas De La Aurora- Acercamiento A Su Biografia, by Marisa Rosado (Ediciones Puerto, 2006)
  • The Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, Transnational Latin American Solidarity, and the United States during the Cold War, by Margaret Power (University of Wisconsin Press, 2013)
  • Puerto Rican Women Nationalists vs. U.S. Colonialism- An Exploration Of Their Conditions And Struggles In Jail And In Court, by Margaret Power (Chicago-Kent Law Review, 2012)
  • Sentencia Impuesta: 100 años de encarcelamientos por la Independencia de Puerto Rico, by Ché Paralitici (Ediciones Puerto, 2004)

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