The Nationalist Insurrection of 1950—Its Formation, Events, and Impact
“The injustice accumulated during 500 years obligates us to reclaim the right to speak with our own voice, to write our own history and put our passion in defense of full liberation.”
– J. Benjamin Torres, professor and biographer of Pedro Albizu Campos
Formation of Revolution in Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico has a long historic tradition of resistance to foreign invasion. The earliest examples of this resistance were put forth by the Taíno people whose direct ancestors had begun inhabiting the large islands of the Caribbean around 500B.C. For decades before the arrival of Columbus’ ships in 1492, they had become acquainted to defending their communities against the frequent raids in their eastern territories of Puerto Rico by the Caribs, who lived in the nearby islands of St. Croix, Guadeloupe, and Dominica in the Lesser Antilles. Although they had this history of successful collective resistance to foreign attack, because the Taíno had initially welcomed the Spanish colonial sailors, who in all reality were shipwrecked when they first approached the so-called New World, the Spanish were able to outnumber and outgun them at each point of confrontation when they began their direct resistance to the oppression they soon fell under. It was these larger numbers, more than superior weaponry as is often believed, that ensured Spanish domination of the Taíno in Puerto Rico. Unlike the Carib raids of years before, which the Taíno were able to successfully resist, the process of colonization by the Spanish introduced the different circumstance of an actual occupation. Although the Taíno were not able to fully overcome this occupation, the dignified resistance they continued to put up resulted in their being placed into history as the first anti-colonial fighters of Puerto Rico, the first to resist a true foreign invasion.
At the same time that we recognize the Taíno for their anti-colonial resistance, we must also recognize the Carib contribution to this struggle. It is true that the larger islands of the Taíno (the Greater Antilles) were the first and primary interests of the Spanish colonial-imperialist project, and it is true that it was Taíno cacique/chief Urayoán who ordered the drowning of Diego Salcedo in the Río Grande de Añasco of Puerto Rico to prove Spanish mortality, but it is also true that, albeit mainly to prevent the occupation of their own lands, a large number of Caribs fought and died together with Taíno against the Spanish, even allowing the Taíno to form a base of operations in the Carib island of St. Croix. This Carib contribution to the struggle is especially true after the drowning of Salcedo in 1511, the event that initiated the largest-scale native rebellions up to that point against the Spanish. Defeated, the natives gave in to their enslavement, committed suicide, went into exile in other islands, or fled to the dense mountain interior of Puerto Rico to lead a life as a cimarron/maroon.
From the perspective of the Spanish enterprise, this led to a major loss of the slave labor needed to mine the natural deposits of gold found on the island, to construct the military forts they would use to dominate, to retrieve the precious pearls laying in shark-infested waters, to work the fields, etc. For this reason, the Spanish crown began to permit, in 1517, the importation of slaves from Africa. Growing from a population of 1,500 in 1530 to 15,000 in 1555, these people of African descent would no doubt find in their oppression reason to join in continuing any remaining resistance on the island. The small size of Puerto Rico in addition to the relatively small size of the slave population compared to other Spanish territories at the time, however, limited the possibility of cimarron communities being fully established in the mountains. Therefore, slave conspiracies on the plantations and within the colony became the norm, with more than 40 uprisings of various sizes alone being staged from the beginning of slavery in Puerto Rico until it was formally abolished in 1873.
Two of the most important attempts by slaves to rise up against the Spanish system of oppression took place in 1848 Ponce and Vega Baja. The plans for these uprisings were to attack the nearby military garrisons, take control of all weapons held by the local urban militias, and to attack the white settlers present. Unfortunately, other slaves interested in taking the offer of freedom in exchange for the revealing of any plans of insurrection snitched on both conspiracies, leading to their defeat before they could really get off the ground. Nevertheless, the conspiracies forced major changes in the way Spain would militarily control their colonies, for it was clear to them that their district-based urban militias were unfit to counter the inter-district rebellions being organized by the slaves. Of course, not everyone of African descent in Puerto Rico were slaves, and some in fact were freemen. Many of these freemen would take an interest in ensuring the freedom for other, if not all, slaves, and would become part of the movement of abolitionists dedicated to this end.
El Grito de Lares
These abolitionists would make their way onto the social scene and would form a number of secret committees dedicated to securing the freedom of African slaves in Puerto Rico. One of the leaders of this movement was Dr. Ramón Emeterio Betances who, along with friend Segundo Ruiz Belvis, would make use of a law allowing newborns of African descent to have their freedom bought before being baptized, and would emancipate thousands of such children in this way. Arriving prior to each baptismal, Betances would give the families the 50 pesos required to free their child who would then receive “aguas de libertad”/waters of liberty in the baptismal minutes after being freed. Continuing his role as a clandestine abolitionist and medical practitioner throughout the island, Betances would organize secret revolutionary cells in many towns and would go on to lead the most significant revolt against Spanish colonialism in Puerto Rico’s history—in fact, it is this revolt that is considered the event that gave birth to the Puerto Rican nation that had been developing ever since the cultures of Spain, Africa, and the Caribbean began interacting some 300+ years before.
El Grito de Lares, which is what the historic rebellion led by Betances on September 23, 1868 is called, was the first major rebellion against Spain that cut across racial lines and that signified the determination of a uniquely Puerto Rican people to achieve independence. But while el Grito signified the clear presence of a national identity with a pride that demanded self-determination, it is equally important to recognize that its first objective, as stated in the 10 Commandments of Free Men document written by Betances himself, was the abolition of slavery. It is important to recognize this fact because it is this objective that properly places el Grito de Lares, and the revolutionaries that participated, within the historical tradition of struggle that began from the start with Spanish domination of the Taíno/Carib natives, and which was directly continued by people of African descent who were brought to Puerto Rico as slaves. If Ramón Emeterio Betances is to be considered the father of the nation, and el Grito de Lares as the birth date of the nation, then we must appreciate this connection, made by the independence movement that resulted in el Grito, between the history of resistance to slavery and to foreign occupation that served as their direct influence/antecedent. An appreciation of this connection leads us to recognize that the Puerto Rican nation, and the culture that is determined by its people, has an inherent legacy of struggle for human rights. It is with pride that Puerto Ricans should understand this history, and it is with honor that Puerto Ricans conscious of this history continue to commemorate el Grito de Lares and what it meant for our national formation. In a reality that continues to see Puerto Rico a colony, for the past 113 years under U.S. control after Spain illegally ceded to them the recently autonomous Puerto Rico in 1898, we must use the sacrifice of the failed Grito as inspiration to continue our historic struggle for national liberation. This is exactly what was done during the Nationalist Insurrection of 1950, the largest rebellion to take place under the U.S. colonial-imperialist regime.
Formation of the Nationalist Insurrection of 1950
Rise of the Nationalist Party
Just as el Grito de Lares had its influences, the forms of oppression faced under Spanish colonial-imperialism throughout Latin America, and inspirations, the native and slave rebellions as well as the Latin American independence movement led by Simón Bolívar, the Nationalist Insurrection of 1950 also had its influences and inspirations. Among the reasons it (a large-scale revolt against the U.S. occupation) took 52 years to come to fruition was the fact that many Puerto Ricans did not initially see the U.S. as an antagonistic force, some even believing the U.S. to be their guarantors of independence from Spain, particularly after Cuba, another island taken over by the U.S. from Spain in 1898, gained formal independence in 1902. While there were definite opponents to the U.S. invasion, the majority of those in political positions did not directly challenge it. It was not until 1922 that a party, the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico, was created that supported Puerto Rico’s independence without containing elements that also pushed for self-government within U.S. sovereignty (autonomy), as had been the case in the past.
However, it would not be for another eight years, when Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos would become the party’s president in 1930, that the Nationalist Party would take on its role as the vanguard of the independence movement. Until that time the independence movement was not very organized and, along with the rest of the population, was suffering after the devastating 1899 San Ciriaco hurricane and the following years of cultural invasion where English became the mandatory language of school instruction, the agricultural economy was monopolized and turned into a sugar economy, and where virtually any assertion of Puerto Rican cultural values and traditions was seen as open resistance and cause for punishment. In addition, when the Nationalist Party introduced Albizu Campos as its leader in 1930, the great depression was under way in the United States. Also leading general work and sugar industry strikes in 1933 and 1934, Albizu Campos became the clear leader for independence during those difficult times of the 30s. But the 30s were difficult for yet other reasons, and in combination with other hardships faced by Puerto Ricans in the 1940s, these factors would ultimately lead to the 1950 Nationalist Insurrection.
Pedro Albizu Campos
The formation of Pedro Albizu Campos as the revolutionary leader of the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico went through a number of stages. Before he joined the party in 1924 he was a member of the Union Party of Puerto Rico, which was then a party dedicated to gaining greater self-government and whose members were split between supporting eventual independence or eventual statehood. Albizu Campos was among those supporting independence within the Union Party from when he joined in 1921 until he left to join the Nationalist Party. When he joined the latter party, he quickly became its vice-president, even traveling throughout Latin America for three years gaining support from those countries for the independence movement in Puerto Rico. Already of influence within the Nationalist Party, Albizu Campos would become the party’s president in 1930 and begin to reorganize its program for resisting the illegal U.S. military occupation.
The party’s complete faith in Albizu Campos can be argued to have been achieved after a majority of the party in 1932, despite Albizu Campos’ opposition, entered into the colonial elections, with their president as candidate for senator. After their failure, Albizu Campos was able to gain full confidence in his philosophy of non-cooperation with the colonial regime, which means boycotting all elections held within that regime. The intelligence of Don Pedro was unmistakable, and using his background as a graduated Harvard law student he clearly made the argument for the Treaty of Paris between Spain and the U.S. being null and void as it concerns Puerto Rico. As revolutionary leader of the Nationalist Party, both he and the party became the number one enemy of the imperialist United States government and the illegal colonial government. After Albizu Campos led those workers’ strikes in 1933 and 1934, both entities began their attacks on the nationalists.
Government Terrorism Against Nationalists
Río Piedras Massacre
The first of these attacks was on October 24, 1935, when police shot and killed 4 of 5 Nationalists driving through Río Piedras. The fifth Nationalist, who was severely wounded and left for dead, was later arrested and charged with crimes fabricated to paint the Nationalists as criminals who were in the act of transporting bombs to the University of Puerto Rico campus where they were going to explode them at an anti-Nationalist meeting. Lacking any evidence, he was acquitted. The incident would become known as the Río Piedras Massacre, and no policemen would face any charges in relation to the murders. It would not be long before police would again resort to murder of Nationalists without facing criminal charges, for two Nationalists would be rounded up and killed five months later. Desiring justice for those killed in Río Piedras, someone shot and killed Chief of Police Colonel Francis Riggs, believed responsible for ordering the massacre, as he drove through San Juan on February 23, 1936. Quickly captured in the vicinity were Nationalists Hiram Rosado and Elías Beauchamp. Taken to police headquarters, neither of them were allowed trial to plead guilty or prove their innocence and were instead taken behind headquarters immediately where they were executed.
Albizu Campos’ Arrest and Torture
It was after these events that the U.S. government ordered the arrest of Pedro Albizu Campos and several other leaders of the Nationalist Party under charges of seditious conspiracy to overthrow the government of the United States. Found guilty by a majority American jury (after a first trial where a majority Puerto Rican jury concluded otherwise), Albizu Campos and the other leaders were sent in 1937 to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia, Albizu Campos to serve 10 years. During his time in prison Albizu Campos’ health would deteriorate, until in 1943 he suffered a heart attack. This event forced the prison to send him to Columbus Hospital in New York where he recovered from his near-death experience for two years. In 1945 he was released from the hospital to the general New York City area to finish the remaining two years of his term. Many things had happened during this time in Puerto Rico, where the Nationalist Party was forced to elect provisionary leadership while many of its leaders were in prison. This context did influence the growth of the first organized movements to free Puerto Rican political prisoners, and in fact it was one of their demonstrations that became a tragic event in history.
Before Albizu Campos was transferred to Atlanta Penitentiary, he was held at La Princesa prison in San Juan, and it was while he was there that the Nationalist Party organized a religious service on Palm Sunday March 21, 1937 that would include a prayer for the release of Pedro Albizu Campos and the other Nationalist prisoners. The Nationalists had received permits by authorities to conduct a march from the party’s Ponce headquarters to the Ponce Cathedral where the service would take place, but upon gathering to begin the march, police surrounded them and stated the permits had been cancelled by then-governor Blanton Winship. Unarmed, the Nationalists decided to continue their march anyway when without warning the police opened fire with pistols and sub-machine guns, ultimately killing 21 people, including two of their own policemen, and injuring more than two hundred. This event became known as the Ponce Massacre, and it was yet another example of outright police terror and colonial repression.
Frame-Ups and Extrajudicial Murder
This terrorism conducted by the colonial government, as controlled by the U.S. Congress, was a clear tactic in the Ponce Massacre and previously mentioned events (Río Piedras), in addition to those events when Nationalists took justice into their own hands, as was the case with the assassination of Colonel Riggs. On July 8, 1937 the Federal District Judge that sentenced Albizu Campos and the Nationalist leaders, Judge Robert A. Cooper, was riding in his car when he was fired upon from another car. Although there was no evidence to suggest any particular person as the shooter and attempted killer, ten Nationalists were arrested and sentenced to 5 years in prison for conspiring to kill Judge Cooper. A year later, on July 25, 1938, an attempt would be made on Governor Blanton Winship’s life for his involvement in the Ponce Massacre. The Nationalist who shot at him was killed immediately at the scene, a celebration gathering for the 39th anniversary of the U.S. invasion, but nevertheless six other Nationalists, who were not present during the shooting, were later sentenced to life imprisonment for conspiring to kill Governor Winship. In both of these cases of individual Nationalists shooting at colonial authorities directly responsible for tragedies against the Puerto Rican people, particularly the Nationalist Party, there is a response by the colonial government where innocent people are rounded up and charged simply because of their support for the independence of Puerto Rico. All of this is a form of terrorism employed by the colonial government where they use fear of death (without trial) and imprisonment to destabilize the Nationalist movement and prevent its growth.
Return of Albizu Campos in 1947
With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the Nationalist Party stayed focused on its ideals by insisting their members resist being drafted into the U.S. military. During this war, which lasted until 1945, some eighty Nationalists alone would be jailed for resisting the draft. No doubt, by the time Pedro Albizu Campos returned to Puerto Rico in 1947, many of the most dedicated Nationalists were likely to be in prison or under threat of imprisonment, and many supporters of the party may have been scared into ceasing their support of the party’s program of immediate national liberation. Nevertheless, Albizu Campos was warmly accepted upon his return and quickly resumed his work as leader of the Puerto Rican independence movement, continuing his organizing for the Nationalist Party.
On the international level, Albizu Campos had influenced the Nationalist Party to closely monitor the workings of the United Nations ever since its Charter was first drawn up in 1945 San Francisco. Albizu Campos and the Nationalist Party would consistently place the colonial issue of Puerto Rico before the United Nations, and in fact the party maintained recognized observer status as a non-governmental (and non-American) organization until 1954. It was this close understanding of the United Nations that propelled university students in April 1948 to invite Albizu Campos for a speech on “The Status of Puerto Rico Before the United Nations.” Taking place in a time of considerable protest in the university over administrative policies that limited student freedoms, the presentation of Albizu Campos was denied permission by the Chancellor of the University of Puerto Rico, Jaime Benítez. This resulted in even larger protests by students where several were clubbed unconscious by police, and where ultimately 5 of the student leaders were expelled from school and sentenced to two months in jail for causing disturbances. This was the last of the major arrests during the 1940s, but it was not the last major act of terror by the government, for later in 1948 a bill would be passed and constitutional discussions would begin that would lead to the final impulse for a Nationalist insurrection (not to mention most of the island of Vieques being stolen for U.S. Navy use during this time as well).
Gag Law and Commonwealth Plan Produces Response
The bill passed in 1948 was given the nickname “la ley de la Mordaza”/the gag law because it outlawed any expression, written or verbal, of anti-government or pro-independence sentiment. At the same time, discussions were being made in U.S. Congress in regards to a formal change in the terminology of the colonial relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S. The gag law, more than anything, was therefore put into effect to prevent any overt resistance to the establishment of what would be the Commonwealth government that persists today. This Commonwealth government was not by any means a change from the colonial relationship that existed since 1898, because ultimate powers over Puerto Rico still resided with the Congress and President of the United States. Determined to do more than simply expose this crime against the Puerto Rican nation, Albizu Campos began organizing a revolution. Reacting in full force to the decade of imprisonment he faced, the decade of legal and homicidal attacks on the Nationalist Party, and the setting up of a legal environment of pro-independence repression, the party was firm in wanting to fight back in the service of their national liberation program. For that time up to the Nationalist Insurrection of 1950, Albizu Campos would continue speaking publicly against the tyranny of American imperialism, continuing the tradition of paying homage to the revolutionaries of el Grito de Lares. It was on September 23, 1950, in Lares, that he would give one of his most inspiring speeches in support of the Puerto Rican revolution, ending his speech by stating that American tyranny must be defied, “only as the men of Lares defied despotism, with the revolution.”
Events of the Nationalist Insurrection of 1950
Arrests in Santurce on October 27
Government forces were somewhat aware of a plot by the Nationalist Party to lead a national revolution, which they believed was being planned to take place when the Commonwealth legislation was being written up. And while there were already at this point many motivating factors for the Nationalist Insurrection, as explained above, it was on October 27, 1950 that a series of events began to take place that, much like in el Grito de Lares, forced leadership to push up the date for the uprising. Early that day at 3:30 in the morning Pedro Albizu Campos was being escorted by a number of Nationalists back to San Juan after having celebrated in Fajardo the day before the birth date of Antonio Valero de Bernabe, a Puerto Rican who participated as a general in the Latin American wars of independence under Simón Bolívar. While driving through Santurce, some in the escort noticed a number of undercover agents trailing them, and while this fact of being followed and kept under surveillance had become a norm since Don Pedro’s return to Puerto Rico in 1947, recently Nationalists had uncovered a plot held by government forces to arrest and/or kill leaders of the independence movement. Making a maneuver with their car, Nationalists were able to slow the police car down enough to allow the car carrying Don Pedro to get away to Nationalist headquarters in San Juan. Finding a small cache of weapons in the car acting as a decoy to allow Albizu Campos to escape, including two pistols, ten bombs, one hundred bullets, and one sub-machine gun, police arrested the occupants of the car. Word of this arrest made its way to Albizu Campos who, anticipating an attempt by police to incarcerate or kill him in addition to discovering and seizing the supply of Nationalist weapons stored up since 1948/49, was forced to decide upon allowing that chain of events to happen, or to order the start of the revolution. He chose to start the revolution, ordering it to begin “mediodía”/noon of October 30.
Albizu Campos Orders Start of Revolution
To initiate the revolution, Pedro Albizu Campos gave the order to San Germán pharmacist Pedro Ulises Pabón who quickly brought it to Nationalist leader Juan Jaca Hernández in Arecibo. It was Hernández who, along with Tomás López de Victoria, the maximum leader of the Liberation Army (second only to Albizu Campos), undertook the task of alerting the rest of the Liberation Army’s leaders. The main plan, to be initiated in a number of towns, was to attack police headquarters, burn all Selective Service cards and the Federal Post Office, and proclaim the Republic of Puerto Rico. After that, by Albizu Campos’ orders, the revolutionaries of each town were to make their way to Utuado where they would regroup.
Once these orders were received and dispersed, the insurrection was guaranteed to occur, and even though the pre-emptive arrests by police in Santurce provoked an early issue of the order to revolt, the point beneath the entire insurrection was to protest the Commonwealth project of the colonial government with an assertion of independence sentiment by means of armed struggle. The attempt at revolution would fail, but just like el Grito de Lares, the fact of the attempt had historic repercussions both in how the U.S. maintained its colonial grip, and in how the Puerto Rican identity developed in terms of its self-awareness. The insurrection took place mainly in the towns of Peñuelas, Ponce, Arecibo, Jayuya, Utuado, San Juan, Mayagüez, and Naranjito, but would be felt throughout the colony, also producing a Nationalist attack in Washington, D.C. It is a truly important event in Puerto Rico’s history, and for Nationalists of the time it meant a transformation from mere supporters of a political party, to revolutionaries within a revolutionary organization and movement. Since the mainstream press at the time downplayed the event, with the rare newspapers in the U.S. making mention of it labeling it a mere local dispute among Puerto Ricans, it is important to understand the scale of the insurrection and to appreciate the struggle of the Nationalists within each town. In addition, it is important at this point to recognize the participation of non-Nationalists within each town in the insurrection. It is also pertinent to mention that during this time, on October 28, over one hundred prisoners escaped from La Princesa jail. While this prison break was seemingly unrelated to the Nationalist insurrection, it is true that Nationalist leaders were in contact with leaders of the prison break, that some of the escapees were Nationalists, and that some of them even joined the insurrection days later.
The first incidents to take place after orders to begin the uprising were given were in the town of Peñuelas (in Barrio Macaná). In that town, in the evening of October 28, police conducted a raid on the house of Melitón Muñiz Santos’ mother, Melitón being the president of the Ponce section of the Nationalist Party, turning up a large stash of bullets, pistols, incendiary bombs, and other weapons. Hearing about this event, Melitón and other leaders decided to defend the weapons cache, arrived in Peñuelas from Ponce by the evening of October 29, and proceeded to set up an ambush. The next morning, around 4am, upon being approached by a number of policemen, a shootout took place resulting in the death of six policemen and three Nationalists, among them Arturo Ortiz who was identified as the first Nationalist victim of the insurrection. Another Nationalist killed, Guillermo Rafael González Ubides, shocked both his comrades and police on the scene when, having been mortally wounded by the barrage of police bullets, he continued to stand straight, 6 feet tall, and stagger towards the police with his gun upright and ready to shoot. His comrades remembered his calm, soft-spoken demeanor, and while he was said to show inclinations to integrate into the Independence Party of Puerto Rico (the electoral alternative of the Nationalist Party created in 1946), he is ultimately remembered as a heroic and fearless combatant of the 1950 Insurrection. In the fray, some Nationalists would retreat into the mountains and get away from the scene.
Present during the events at Peñuelas, Nationalist leader Ramón Pedrosa would escape and make his way back to Ponce where, deciding to abandon the plan of attacking police headquarters, he would regroup and immediately transport weapons and other materials to Utuado by way of Adjuntas. Not long after starting their trip from Ponce, the Nationalists encountered a number of policemen who were able to gain their attention. After colonel Aurelio Miranda slowly approached the car asking its occupants where they were going, one of his fellow officers jumped in and suggested they just arrest them right there. In the dispute, shots went off leaving colonel Aurelio Miranda dead. The Nationalists later split up as police were reinforced, with Ramón Pedrosa and four others being arrested elsewhere and charged for the killing of the colonel. These events took place roughly around 10 in the morning on October 30, after police authorities had had some warning as to an insurrectionary plot by the Nationalists thanks to the arrests in Santurce and shootout in Peñuelas. Having this time to set forth a plan of action, the police had quickly drew their attention to Ponce, known as the hometown of Pedro Albizu Campos as well as Tomás López de Victoria, the maximum leader of the Liberation Army.
As already noted, immediately after the arrests in Santurce took place in the early morning hours of October 27, Pedro Ulises Pabón took orders from Pedro Albizu Campos to start the revolution directly to the Liberation Army leader Juan Jaca Hernández in Arecibo, who was with Tomás López de Victoria, the maximum leader of the army. Juan and Tomás quickly made their way to Utuado, Jayuya, Ponce, Mayagüez, Cayey, Río Piedras, and Naranjito to bring the order to the other leaders. Having gotten word of the events that took place in Barrio Macaná, Peñuelas, by the early morning of October 30 when they were all regrouping in Arecibo, Tomás López de Victoria had been forced to change their plans, ordering one group to be set up to attack the Arecibo police headquarters, and another group to make their way to Utuado. It was clear at this point that because the plans had been pushed up due to unforeseen circumstances many Nationalists would not be able to participate in the attacks. Nevertheless, Ismael Díaz Matos would lead a group of six Nationalists around 1030am to the vicinity of the police headquarters where, to their surprise, there seemed to be a changing of guards taking place, with several guards on the scene. Deciding to open fire, the Nationalists unloaded for about 5 minutes at the entrance of the station to prevent policemen from coming out, killing four and afterwards fleeing the scene. However, the Nationalist Hipólito Miranda Díaz would be left behind where he would be killed while covering the escape of his comrades. Escaping the scene, Ismael Díaz Matos and his group would be arrested by the National Guard in a rural area, near Barrio Santana where the attack had taken place, after apparently getting lost on their way to Utuado where they were to join other Nationalists.
Meanwhile, Tomás López de Victoria was leading a group of 14 that were to make their way to Utuado. Nationalists from Mayagüez, Cabo Rojo, and San Juan had reinforced this group during the previous days. As they made their way to Utuado from Arecibo, Tomás overheard on a radio that the police and National Guard had blocked off everything from Utuado and had the situation there under control. At that point Tomás made the decision to not enter Utuado, after which a number of the group dispersed from the unit. Many (if not all) of them would be arrested later in other parts of the island. While this was happening, a shootout occurred in Muñoz Rivera Park between Nationalists and National Guard troops guarding public buildings. The Nationalists were able to quickly escape as soon as the shooting started, with the exception of José Ortiz Torres, who died that day at 38 years old. The soldiers guarding the public buildings would continue to be fired on, with bullet damage being given to the buildings of the Federal Post Office, the Bank of Ponce (El Banco de Ponce), the Alum Hotel, and other establishments. Throughout the rest of that October 30, police would arrest several people in Arecibo to be interrogated, including one of several female leaders of the Nationalist Insurrection, Julia Collazo.
Women held important leadership positions throughout the Nationalist Insurrection, and this was seen most clearly in Jayuya where Blanca Canales would help lead, with Elio Torresola, the most successful section of the revolt. Having gathered in the Canales family home in Barrio Coabey of Jayuya, it is said that around 1030am Blanca Canales overheard news on the radio that she quickly transferred to her comrades. The news was that in Arecibo a group of Nationalists had attacked and left a “pile” of policemen. World War II veteran and general leader of the Liberation Army in Jayuya Carlos Irizarry Rivera, being present in the Canales home, gave the order to push up plans by one hour and begin to make their way to the main parts of the town that they would attack. Carlos and Elio Torresola would lead a group to police headquarters, while Blanca was given the task of taking over the telephone station so that authorities could not be warned of the revolution they were starting in Jayuya. There was the intent to do all this without having to spill the blood of themselves or of policemen, and so they were hoping to surprise anyone at the police station.
Arriving with his group of three cars at the police station, Carlos Irrizary went towards the station by himself in order to surprise anyone inside. However, police had recognized the car belonging to Blanca Canales being driven by Carlos and had begun situating themselves on the second floor balcony of the police station. Eventually a shootout occurred that left Carlos mortally wounded and one policeman dead. Many of the policemen would escape the police station from the second floor, taking refuge in a local house of priests. Once the police station was taken over, with Carlos Irizarry mortally wounded, Elio Torresola took over leadership of that group, after which moment he proceeded to complete the plan of burning down the station. After setting fire to the police station, Elio and his group made their way to the Post Office, which they also proceeded to burn. Finally, completing his set of tasks, Elio made his way to the offices of the Selective Service where his group removed all Selective Service paperwork, machines, and equipment from the building and set them on fire in the street to prevent the fire from spreading to an adjacent theatre.
As this was going on, Blanca Canales would lead her group to the telephone station where they would nonviolently confront the telephone operator, preventing them from making any announcements over the phone lines. After some difficulty in finding the right tool to cut the thick telephone cables, they were eventually able to complete their task. Once these telephone lines were cut, Blanca Canales made her way to the balcony of a hotel in the vicinity of the town square where she would raise the revolutionary flag of Puerto Rico (the current flag of Puerto Rico, which was designed by Puerto Ricans in 1890’s New York working with the Cuban Revolutionary Party there) and declare the free Republic of Puerto Rico. In an event reminiscent of those in Lares during the September 23, 1868 Grito de Lares when the Republic of Puerto Rico was first declared under the revolutionary flag now used for the town of Lares, Blanca would shout “Que Viva Puerto Rico Libre!” then give a speech to the people announcing the start of the revolution, explaining that no one should be scared because the Nationalists intend to unite with the people of Puerto Rico in defense of their liberation. Shortly after this, Elio Torresola would arrive on the scene just as a young boy was notifying Blanca of the shooting of Carlos Irizarry. Blanca would make her way to Carlos who was lying wounded on a street post. She made the decision to transport him by car, along with Mario Irizarry, Carlos’ brother, to a clinic in Utuado where some time before a doctor had examined and helped cure a friend who was shot, without reporting it. They were unable to make their way into Utuado because of the situation there, and the next day Carlos would pass away, buried shortly after there in the outskirts of Utuado. Making their way back to Jayuya, Blanca and Mario Irizarry would be intercepted and arrested by police who were arriving on the outskirts of Jayuya to reinforce the authorities preparing to enter that town.
The events in Jayuya during the Nationalist Insurrection of 1950 are of great importance for understanding the impact of the revolt. Mainly under the leadership of Blanca Canales, who would cut off communication in the town in addition to raising the flag and declaring a free republic on the island, and Elio Torresola, who would lead in the burning of police headquarters, the Federal Post Office, and the materials within the Selective Service offices, the uprising in Jayuya would accomplish the most out of all the towns participating in the insurrection. The patriots, and general population, in Jayuya would face heavy repercussions starting the day after October 30, when the U.S. National Guard would attack the town by air with bomber planes, and by land with the artillery blasts and machine-gunning of troops. A number of people would be shot during these events, which were described as chaotic due to the extent of the bombing on the town, especially its cane plantations and mountains. Nevertheless, Nationalists were able to control Jayuya for three days until on November 2nd the number of National Guard troops making their way into town would force them to surrender, Elio Torresola being among the first to come out with hands up from a cane plantation.
The Nationalists in Utuado, having received orders to begin their attacks on October 30, gathered in the home of Heriberto Castro Ríos, commander of the Liberation Army in that town. By the morning of October 30 some thirty-two Nationalists would be gathered there, with the unique task of declaring Puerto Rico’s independence in the town that would become the focus of the revolutionary war against the military of the United States of America. This was the order of Pedro Albizu Campos: to attack their respective towns and gather afterwards in Utuado where they would center the revolution, making use of Utuado’s strategic position in the center of the island and its high level of agricultural development. Unfortunately, the decision to push up the start of the revolution in response to the arrests in Santurce left many Nationalists without any effective weapons, preventing the participation of many potential fighters. Many freedom fighters did however go on to put up what resistance they could.
Departing on foot from the house of Heriberto Castro about 15 minutes before noon, the Nationalists made their way towards the Federal Post Office and Police Headquarters when, in front of a Catholic Church, a shootout began between them and policemen stationed in the nearby plaza. As the shootout went on, a few people were able to set fire to the nearby post office where some moments later firefighters would arrive on the scene. Some kind of discussion would break out between the firefighters and locals regarding the fire when another small shootout occurred, resulting in the death of one of the firefighters. After the post office was set on fire, another group would go on to the police station where they would be overwhelmed by the already alerted police and retreat to the nearby home of Damián Torres, president of the Utuado section of the Nationalist Party and leader during the insurrection. Around this same time, some other Nationalists who had gathered at a nearby river and heard a shootout erupt also made their way to Damián Torres’ house. About a dozen fighters in total had made their way to the residence.
Later in the afternoon after those initial shootouts, police from the nearby headquarters began to attack the Torres house supported by airplanes equipped with machine guns. This second more intense attack on the Torres house resulted in a number of wounded and dead, the Nationalist group being reduced to about nine people. It was during this attack that Liberation Army leader Heriberto Castro was killed, affecting the morale of that group in Utuado who honored his body by covering it with the Puerto Rican flag. After the attack on the house, the Nationalists stayed put; police not arresting them but also not allowing them to leave. Sometime during that evening the National Guard arrived in force, but authorities did not immediately make a move on the house until hours later. Finally, in the early morning hours of October 31, National Guard troops moved in and took control of the Nationalists who were ready to surrender. Deciding to walk them towards the town plaza, the troops decided to turn to terror when on the corner of Washington and Betances Streets they suddenly began to shoot at the Nationalists with machineguns that had been situated at that location. Massacring them in this way then fleeing the scene, the National Guard would kill four of the nine Nationalists, severely wounding the others that had thrown themselves to the floor, where there began to develop a pool of blood. This was probably the most tragic scene of the Nationalist Insurrection of 1950, earning the nickname of “the Utuado Massacre.” Nationalists were left for dead until a few hours later the first Nurses finally arrived on the scene.
In the events in Utuado, five Nationalists would be killed in addition to others being wounded. One policeman, one National Guard troop, and one firefighter would also lose their lives that day. Most of the surviving Nationalists would be later arrested and charged in court for various actions. The massacre at Utuado would be remembered by many for the sacrifices of the revolutionary patriots there, but an additional importance should be given that town because of the order to concentrate the revolutionary war against U.S. colonialism there. It was to be in Utuado that the most patriotic forces of the independence movement in Puerto Rico would ensure the process of national liberation that would attain their freedom. This was by the orders of Nationalist Party President Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos who, having escaped arrest in the early morning of October 27 in Santurce, had managed to make his way to the party’s headquarters in San Juan, where he would confine himself with supporters as the revolution began.
San Juan being the capitol city of Puerto Rico, it is the location of the centuries-old castle called La Fortaleza, which serves as the governor’s mansion. At the time of the Nationalist Insurrection of 1950 it was also the location of the Nationalist Party’s main headquarters. Also, living in the San Juan area was commander of the Liberation Army Raimundo Díaz Pacheco. It was he who would lead an attack on October 30 around noon on the governor’s mansion, where they planned to take direct action on the governor, not necessarily kill him, as authorities would later presume. Having a group of five that had begun joining him at his home in the early hours of the morning, Raimundo Díaz would sit in the passengers seat of a car to be driven by Domingo Hiraldo, with the other three fighters in the back. As they were approaching the main entrance of the governor’s mansion, a police force that was apparently expecting them began to open fire on the car, specifically the driver, Domingo Hiraldo, who was quickly shot. Raimundo Díaz would exit the car once it entered the main entrance area, firing his machine gun while running in the direction of the police. He would wound a couple of guards before himself being killed by gunfire. Meanwhile, the other Nationalists were being heavily shot at as they took cover using their car. Able to return fire from underneath the car, the Nationalists would ultimately be killed with the exception of Gregorio Hernández, the only survivor of the attack on the governor’s mansion.
As this was going on, a number of university students (most of whom were Nationalists) joined by Nationalists and locals made their way to the police station on foot. Once there, a small shootout would occur between this group of 25 or 30, many unarmed, and police. The shootout was not close-range, so mostly everyone was able to get away. A few from this group would go on to plan an attack on the Federal Court House when, on their way, they were shot at by police coming from another police station. This second shootout at a police station resulted in three being injured. Nevertheless, Nationalists were able to attack the Federal Court House in Barrio Obrero in Santurce, injuring two members of the National Guard. The next day, October 31, another incident occurred in Barrio Obrero that would serve as an example of the extreme violence the colonial police and U.S. National Guard were prepared to use against Nationalists. This incident would involve the personal barber of Don Pedro Albizu Campos. The incident is also remarkable because its events were heard all over Puerto Rico thanks to reporters that conducted a live radio broadcast from the area.
At the Salón Boricua barbershop he owned and managed, Vidal Santiago Díaz had been concerned with the liberty of Albizu Campos and had sent by telegraph a message to the attorney general offering to serve as an intermediary if they intended to arrest Albizu. Around two in the afternoon on October 31, as Vidal Santiago was waiting for a reply to his telegraph, a police officer approached his establishment with a revolver in hand. The threatening demeanor of the policeman influenced Vidal Santiago to shoot at him. A shootout then took place, between Vidal Santiago and fifteen policemen backed by twenty-five National Guard troops, all of which thought inside the Salón was a group of men, not one man with a pistol as was the case. As Vidal Santiago shot back, the police and troops attacked with machine guns, rifles, carbines, revolvers, and even grenades. This lasted for a few hours until Vidal Santiago was dragged out, severely wounded by a number of bullet wounds. Amazingly, he survived, and no one was killed during the shootout, though one child, a bystander, and a couple others were also injured. Vidal Santiago Díaz, the personal barber of Albizu Campos fought heroically against the repressive forces that attacked him, and Albizu Campos was among many to recognize this.
Albizu Campos himself was confined to the Nationalist Party’s headquarters in Old San Juan, in the building that also served as his personal residence. Having gone there after the arrests in Santurce on the 27th, on the 30th it was confirmed that he was joined with Juan José Muñoz Matos, Doris Torresola Roura, and Carmen María Pérez Roque. This was clear because after police and the National Guard, who had begun to surround the house in the early evening of October 30, made an attack on the building, Doris Torresola, having been shot and wounded, was carried out during a cease in fire by Juan and Carmen. Sometime after they left the residence, leaving Albizu Campos alone, Alvaro Rivera Walker somehow was able to get pass the police and enter the building to join Albizu. Alvaro was a friend of Albizu Campos who had occasionally slept at his house, and so Albizu recognized his voice, letting him in. Alvaro Rivera would stay with Albizu Campos in that building until early November 2nd after they were attacked with gas and Alvaro made the personal decision to surrender by raising a white towel he attached to a pole. Throughout those days Alvaro had been the one to return fire on the police. Everyone with Don Pedro, including Don Pedro, were arrested and taken into custody. Many had expected the arrest of Albizu Campos, and many Nationalists even believed his life might be threatened.
These expectations were all for good reason, and as events played out during the Nationalist Insurrection it was clear that killing would be one of the actions employed by authorities. It was this overall environment of repression of Nationalists that had been in place since the 30’s that influenced Don Pedro to order the immediate start of the revolution after those Santurce arrests, even though many knew doing so would prevent many from participating in the fighting due to lack of distributed arms. Many of the leaders of the insurrection felt it was better to begin the revolt, to make that revolutionary statement, rather than all be arrested without having made any large-scale protests against the impending Commonwealth legislation. Don Pedro did not walk out of the party headquarters until 3 days after the beginning of the insurrection, after he had heard through news that the revolution had been virtually stopped. Having survived death, Don Pedro’s resistance would continue to be present for the next 15 years that he lived.
The Nationalists in Mayagüez had one of the largest groupings of all the towns that participated in the insurrection. Numbering over 40, the group had been joined by Nationalists on the 29th of October who originated from Cabo Rojo, Las Marías, and San Germán. The commander of the Liberation Army in Mayagüez, Gil Veranio Ramos Cancel, would divide the group into five units as they were gathered in a house in that town. One unit of two men was to use dynamite to blow up the public electric company so that authorities could not use certain technologies against them, but this group had technical difficulties with their device and were unable to complete the mission. A second unit of five men was to make an attack on the police station and search for weapons they can make use of. When this unit left towards the station around 2pm on the 30th, they realized when nearing the station that they did not have the element of surprise, and so they retreated to the mountains where they would regroup. Mayagüez was one of two towns, along with Naranjito, where a form of guerilla fighting was used to prolong the revolutionary struggle. This unit would return to the police station later in the evening where a shootout would break out, resulting in one Nationalist being injured in addition to three policemen and three civilians.
A third unit was to have a face off with the police, deciding to do so in the morning of October 31st. As they were preparing in the house of José Cruzado Ortíz in Barrio La Quinta that same morning they planned to make their attack, police had set up an attack of their own on that very house. Surprised by the police cars with lights and the shooting that followed, the Nationalists in the building would return fire and then escape into the mountains. Part of this group was Irvin Flores Rodríguez who would experience another shootout with police the next day, again escaping into the mountains in those early hours of November 1st. The fourth unit in Mayagüez was the one most made up of people from different areas of the island, including San Germán, Cabo Rojo, and Las Marías. They would reinforce the group of Tomás López de Victoria in Arecibo for the actions to be taken against colonial authorities there. As previously mentioned, this group would be unable to fulfill its mission of joining the revolutionaries in Utuado due to radio messages clearly explaining the blockade situation that existed. In fact, it should be noted that at some point in the beginning of the insurrection military law was declared over Puerto Rico, creating a tough environment to move around in.
The fifth unit in Mayagüez had the task of guarding a local bridge cars had to take in order to enter that part of Mayagüez, attacking any police or military cars that might try to pass. Stationed in a strategic location for such an interceptive attack, the Nationalists waited for about an hour but no cars had gone through. Deciding to leave the bridge in order to join any fighting that might be taking place elsewhere, they left. As the days went on, the reality was that the colonial authorities had far superior arms, and so many Nationalists would put their arms down. The patriots in Mayagüez employed guerilla strategies, but the overall environment on the island was not favorable. Also of note is the fact that in Mayagüez the hour for insurrection seemed to differ from the other towns that stressed 12pm noon as the ordered time. Many of the fighters in Mayagüez would rise up around 2pm on October 30 or later. By that time many authorities had been well situated throughout the town. All of this led to the long but rather unfruitful struggle in Mayagüez during this, the Nationalist Insurrection of 1950.
In New York, longtime Nationalist and city resident Oscar Collazo would hear about the events taking place in Puerto Rico. It was on October 29 when fellow Nationalist Griselio Torresola would go to his house with periodicals mentioning the Nationalist Insurrection. Griselio comes from a family of Nationalists, his cousin being Blanca Canales who declared the free Republic of Puerto Rico in Jayuya (his hometown), his brother being Elio Torresola who took over the mortally wounded Carlos Irizarry’s command in Jayuya and proceeded to burn a number of federal installations, and his sister being Doris Torresola who was wounded during the defense of Albizu Campos and the Nationalist Party headquarters. Griselio was also a disciple of Albizu Campos, who saw such patriotic character in Griselio that he personally signed a letter giving Griselio the power to take over command of the Nationalist movement in the United States should anything happen to him (Don Pedro). It is with this revolutionary firmness that Griselio and Oscar would decide that night of the 29th to extend the Nationalist Insurrection to the United States, rather than attempting to fly to Puerto Rico to join the struggle there, risking capture once arriving in the island then under siege. They decided to take a train the next day from New York City to Washington, D.C., where they would use small arms to conduct an attack to bring attention to the colonial situation in Puerto Rico.
Arriving in Washington, D.C. on October 30, Griselio and Oscar would spend the night in their hotel, Griselio, a trained revolutionary since his youth in Jayuya, teaching Oscar how to handle small firearms since Oscar had only been trained with rifles. On the 31st of October the two would travel around the city, becoming acquainted with the atmosphere, and discussing possible locations for their armed demonstration. Later that day they would ultimately decide to bring the Puerto Rican revolution to the very symbol of the empire, to the very commander-in-chief of the U.S. military, the then president of the United States Harry Truman. When interviewed years later, Oscar would state that though it was understood an attack on the U.S. president would be extremely risky, he felt it would be eternally dishonorable if one undertook a mission for one’s nation and failed to initiate it. He and Griselio were willing to give their lives to bring awareness and possibly resolution to the situation of Puerto Rico, and both knew that their attack had the potential to earn worldwide attention. On November 1st, they would commence their plan.
While riding through town in a taxi, being mistaken for mere Latin American tourists, the taxi driver explained to them that president Truman’s residence in the White House was under temporary renovation, and that because of this his temporary residence was the Blair House not too far away. Making their way to the Blair House, Griselio and Oscar decided to split up and attack two locations simultaneously, Oscar attacking the front of the Blair House, Griselio attacking a guard booth some yards away. Oscar would walk up to a police officer from behind and pull out his handgun, but having forgotten to cock it back it did not fire. Unfamiliar with handguns, Oscar pounded on the gun and did anything to try to get it to work, at the same time as the officer he shot at was turning around. Able to get a shot off first, Oscar shot the officer in the knee, getting the attention of a nearby Secret Service agent and policeman who began firing at Oscar. As that fire was returned, the officer Oscar had shot in the knee managed to draw his gun and join the shootout, during which Oscar was shot in the head and right arm. This shootout took place within a matter of less than a minute, during which time Griselio had shot four times the officer stationed in the nearby guard booth. This officer slouched over in his chair inside the booth as Griselio proceeded to shoot a second guard that had just moments before walked past the guard booth. This second guard, though injured, was able to enter the Blair House’s basement and shut the door behind him, preventing Griselio’s entry into the building, at which point he turned his attention to his comrade Oscar.
Griselio quickly noticed the police officer shot in the knee by Oscar taking aim with his gun, and from a distance of about 40 or more feet Griselio was able to shoot him in the other knee, demobilizing him. Sometime during this moment, a ricochet bullet hit Oscar Collazo in the chest, knocking him unconscious. Realizing he was out of ammo, Griselio took a moment beside the steps of the Blair House to reload. It was then that the previously shot guard booth officer was able to stagger out of his booth and get a shot off at Griselio that would hit him near the temple, killing him instantly. In this way, over a matter of a minute or two, the attack on president Truman was stopped. Truman at the time was indeed sleeping in the second floor of the Blair House, and so completion of their mission was within the realm of possibility for Griselio and Oscar. Unfortunately, Griselio Torresola would lose his life that day, along with officer Leslie Coffelt, the one stationed in the guard booth who died some hours later of his wounds. Oscar Collazo would survive only to be given a death sentence, which was soon commuted when he was given a life sentence. After serving 29 years in prison, Oscar would be released in 1979 to the joy of many. The attack was written off in newspapers as a frenzied attack by radical extremists, but as we see it was actually a quickly planned armed demonstration against U.S. colonial domination that was directly tied to the Nationalist Insurrection of 1950 in Puerto Rico.
The Nationalists in the town of Naranjito would be the last to give up their fighting, placing the date for the end of the Nationalist Insurrection at November 6. The leader of this group would be World War II veteran José Antonio Negrón. He was a man appreciated throughout the town because he did not drink rum or smoke, did not fight or start problems, and always helped people in need. Leading a group of six, they would use a bus to make their way to the local police station at noon on October 30. Already expected by police, as happened throughout the island, a shootout broke out when they arrived on the scene. One policeman shot from the police station’s balcony, while another shot from a nearby street where they were posted. After this attack, José Negrón retreated and formed a guerilla group of six that stationed themselves in the nearby mountains. From there they would put up defense during the day and initiate attacks during the night.
Due to his superior knowledge of Naranjito and the surrounding terrain, José Negrón was able to travel through the town undetected gaining the direct support of various townspeople. This guerilla struggle would continue for a week, with Nationalists exploding a Molotov cocktail in front of a hospital under construction in the hopes of drawing the attention of police they would then ambush. The police never came, and so José and the others moved the struggle elsewhere. In the evening of November 6, while José Negrón was away from his group in another home, the police and National Guard arrived to conduct an attack on the house where the rest of his group was located. This attack broke up the group and ensured the arrests by National Guard troops that then took place. Nevertheless, the guerilla struggle in Naranjito was remarkable, with the fighters there able to continue fighting from October 30 until November 6. José Antonio Negrón himself would be arrested in the adjacent town of Corozal on November 10. In Naranjito, the Nationalist Insurrection came to its culmination. Of course the impact of the revolution had already been felt throughout the island and even in the United States in the days before.
Impact of the Nationalist Insurrection of 1950
Hundreds of Nationalists rose up in arms during the Nationalist Insurrection. Many of them, in their respective towns, would be joined in the struggle by non-Nationalists, which included Communist Party members. This struggle began with the early morning arrests in Santurce on October 27 and lasted until the last group of fighters, in Naranjito, surrendered on November 6 after National Guard troops had attacked them. The struggle was also extended to Washington D.C. More than 20 Nationalists lost their lives, while more than 1,000 people (Nationalists and non-Nationalists) were arrested. Nationalists received the harshest sentences, with some ending up spending more than 20 years in prison for their involvement during the insurrection. Men were the dominant actors during the revolt, though women did have leadership positions; urban zones were most active, with Jayuya, Arecibo, and Naranjito being among the only places where rural and guerilla combat took place; and the ages of 18-24 had the highest representation, while about 69% of all combatants were wage-earners of some kind.
Among those arrested in the aftermath were Francisco Matos Paoli and Olga Viscal Garriga. Francisco Matos is one of the greatest poets to have come from Puerto Rico, and he was named Secretary General of the Nationalist Party in 1949. On November 2, police looking for weapons, explosives, or other “Nationalist materials” searched his house, but all they found was a Puerto Rican flag, which as a symbol of anti-colonial resistance was used to charge him as violating the Gag Law. He would share a cell with Albizu Campos when in jail. Olga Viscal Garriga, on the other hand, was a Brooklyn, NY-born university student leader that also became the official spokesperson for the Río Piedras branch of the Nationalist Party. As the insurrection began, Olga led a large demonstration by university students in Old San Juan when, suddenly, police and other authorities opened fire on the protestors, killing one. Olga was arrested and later served 5 years for not recognizing the authority of the U.S. government in Puerto Rico by refusing to cooperate with the prosecution in her trial.
The incarceration of Pedro Albizu Campos went on to have a tragic significance. As he was in jail, he reported seeing a number of bright lights emanating into his cell, causing burns and sores to develop on his body, especially feet and legs. Having a university degree in chemistry and physics, Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos knew very well that what was taking place was some kind of experimentation on him with radiation using LASER beams (literally Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation). Fortunately, he was able to use the application of wet towels and other methods to reduce the pain of his torture, allowing him to survive. Because his health had gotten so bad, and because the Nationalist Insurrection was believed to be neutralized, along with its vanguard the Nationalist Party, then Governor of Puerto Rico Luis Muñoz Marín pardoned Albizu Campos and had him released in 1953.
It is important to note that in 1952 the Congress of the U.S. had put into law the Commonwealth Constitution that the Nationalist Insurrection was directly in opposition to. It was passed into law in the immediate aftermath of the incarceration and breakdown of the Nationalist movement, when the hegemony of the Popular Democratic Party, which represents the Commonwealth movement, had been ensured. A large reason for passing the Commonwealth legislation was also because, ever since the creation of the United Nations Organization, the United States had been obligated to submit detailed reports on the status of its colony in Puerto Rico. With the passing of the Commonwealth Constitution, the U.S. was able to, despite the reality of the situation, argue that Puerto Rico had exercised self-determination in choosing the Commonwealth government, allowing the U.S. to cease its yearly reports on the colony. It must be remembered that the Nationalist Party had been a close observer of proceedings within the UN ever since its charter had been adopted in 1945 San Francisco, and so the passing of the Commonwealth legislation was also an attempt to frustrate the Nationalist Party’s activities within that international organization. Because of this political attack on the independence movement of Puerto Rico, which aimed to delegitimize its international validity, Albizu Campos, after being released in 1953, ordered dedicated Nationalist Lolita Lebrón to stage another armed demonstration on the U.S. capital.
Leading a group of four Nationalists to Washington D.C., Lolita Lebrón, one of a number of female commanders in the patriotic movement of Puerto Rico, would choose the U.S. House of Representatives chamber as the location for their protest. Willing to give her life to bring awareness to her country’s oppression, Lolita would enter the chamber of representatives and shout “Que Viva Puerto Rico Libre!” before she and her comrades opened fire on the congressmen sitting below the balcony on which they stood. This was March 1, 1954, and among the group that took action that day was Irvin Flores Rodríguez, the Nationalist who had participated in the Nationalist Insurrection in Mayagüez. Immediately after the attack, in which five representatives were shot, Lolita was arrested with Rafael Cancel Miranda and Andrés Figueroa Cordero, while Irvin was able to get away from the scene only to be arrested some blocks away moments later. Andrés would be released in 1978 in anticipation of his death from cancer, while the other three were released, along with Oscar Collazo, in 1979. At the same time, Albizu Campos would be arrested again immediately after the 1954 Congress shooting. His health would continue its decline, with Albizu suffering a stroke in prison in 1956. Being pardoned again in 1964 because of his health, Albizu Campos would then pass away a martyr on April 21, 1965. This was the aftermath of the Nationalist Insurrection of 1950, which ended the most influential and active era of the Nationalist Party (1932-1954).
When one examines the events of the 1950 Nationalist Insurrection, one can clearly see that it was not a mere mass riot—some kind of national unrest—but was instead a deliberate and planned protest against the military occupation and colonization of Puerto Rico by the United States. This is made very clear when one recognizes the targets that were to be attacked in each action, including police stations, federal post offices, the federal courthouse, the governor’s mansion, and the temporary residence of the U.S. president. Each target was clearly chosen for their direct relationship to the establishment and maintenance of colonial domination over Puerto Rico. Thus, the insurrection was a clear indication that a movement representing the national liberation struggle of Puerto Rico existed, with the spearhead of that insurrection being a recognized non-governmental, non-American organization within the United Nations, the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico. The Nationalist Insurrection was therefore not a simple dispute among Puerto Ricans as some U.S. news statements suggested, but an attempt to carry out a revolution whose plans and logistics had been altered by 1) the fact that the revolt had been ordered to begin suddenly, 2) the fact that police had forewarning and well-armed reinforcements. When Pedro Albizu Campos began organizing the revolution after his 1947 return to Puerto Rico, it was clear that the Nationalist Party represented a revolutionary organization, and that each party member was a full-fledged revolutionary. And to be certain, this revolutionary organization sought international solidarity through its constant petitioning for support of Puerto Rican liberation within the League of Nations, the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and other international entities, which also included professional and labor conferences. It was, in fact, the plan to continue the revolutionary war in Utuado for however long necessary until various international bodies intervened and supported Puerto Rico’s process of national liberation.
When one examines the formation of the 1950 Nationalist Insurrection, one can also clearly see the connection between this revolt and the Grito de Lares on September 23, 1868. Beyond events taking place during the insurrection, particularly in Jayuya, which were “reminiscent” of events from el Grito de Lares, the insurrection was preceded by a 2+ year campaign by Pedro Albizu Campos and other Nationalist Party leaders during which they consistently honored and drew example from the Lares patriots. Of course, Albizu Campos had introduced this still-continuing tradition of celebrating the date of el Grito de Lares in addition to other special days, such as the birthdays of various patriots, after his becoming president of the Nationalist Party in 1930, 20 years before. It is this newborn tradition of paying homage to the Lares patriots who rose up against Spanish colonialism and for the creation of an independent, free Republic of Puerto Rico, that places the Nationalist Party and the independence movement that it led within the historical tradition of revolutionary anti-colonial struggle in Puerto Rico. Serving as the link in the chain of continuity connected to the independence movement of the 1800’s against Spain, it extends the chain of struggle begun by the Taíno some 450 years before. In reality, Pedro Albizu Campos and the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico revived the Puerto Rican independence movement that had been weakened after el Grito de Lares. Within this historical tradition of the patriotic struggle for national independence, Albizu Campos and the Nationalists were the same revolutionaries simply adjusted to the new times and the new colonial ruler, the United States of America.
Even though the Nationalist Insurrection did not achieve independence for Puerto Rico, like el Grito de Lares it produced a strengthened self-awareness among freedom-loving Puerto Ricans, if not a heightened or even transformed consciousness. What is certain is that the Nationalist Party was the vanguard organization in the struggle for liberation, and each member was a revolutionary. This example, combined with the continued reality of a colonial government, inspired many to continue the struggle, drawing lessons from the movement’s history. One tactic that was used in the insurrection, and throughout the movement’s history, was the use of armed struggle. This use of armed struggle would continue most fervently in the late 60s and 70s when a number of revolutionary nationalist organizations would begin to form and establish themselves as the armed branch of the Puerto Rican independence movement.
This new wave of revolutionary nationalism expanded and took strength from the history of struggle in Puerto Rico, the most recent stage of which had been that struggle spearheaded by Pedro Albizu Campos and the Nationalist Party. These revolutionary nationalist organizations would be very familiar with the history of repression faced by the independence movement. The overall environment of political murder and incarceration influenced these new groups to conduct every aspect of functioning clandestinely. Unable to give revolutionary support to the independence movement publicly, these groups would support the public movements through selective political-military actions. These new clandestine groups conducting armed struggle against the colonial empire were not isolated extremists, but militants that made it a point to integrate their selective military actions within the broader political struggles, at the same time as they released communiqués that presented information on the group and their actions to the general public. Worth noting is the fact that the former Secretary General of the Nationalist Party, Juan Antonio Corretjer, became the recognized public spokesperson for these clandestine organizations. Corretjer, a close disciple of Don Pedro since their first meeting in 1936, served as one of many links between these new organizations and the struggle waged by Don Pedro.
There would be a number of clandestine revolutionary nationalist organizations to surface in Puerto Rico, such as the Comandos Armados de Liberación (CAL), Movimiento Independentista Revolucionario Armado (MIRA), Comandos Revolucionarios del Pueblo (CRP), Fuerzas Armadas de Resistencia Popular (FARP), and Organización de Voluntarios por la Revolución Puertorriqueña (OVRP). The most enduring organization to come out of Puerto Rico however is the Ejército Popular Boricua-Los Macheteros. Under the command of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, who would become the symbolic figure of the clandestine urban guerilla, the EPB-Macheteros would conduct over 18 armed actions between 1978 and 1986. The most remarkable of these were the January 12, 1981 undetected destruction of nine combat aircrafts located on Muñiz Air National Base, and the September 12, 1983 expropriation of $7 million dollars from a Wells Fargo Depot in Hartford, Connecticut. The group also commemorated the 1950 Insurrection by launching a rocket-propelled grenade at the FBI field office in San Juan on October 30, 1983, in addition to conducting armed attacks on navy and other military personnel in reprisal for the murders of independence-supporters.
In the United States, the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN) would be organized in Chicago and New York and would begin actions in 1974. Between 1974 and 1983, this clandestine armed group would be responsible for more than 120 bomb attacks, all carefully selected for their political significance. Two attacks would result in deaths, one on January 25, 1975 where four people died by a bomb placed in Fraunces Tavern in New York City as a response to the January 11 bombing that resulted in the death of two independence supporters in Puerto Rico, and another on June 4, 1977 where a police officer was killed during an attack on a police station in Chicago as a response to the police killing of two young men before the Puerto Rican Day Parade. Nevertheless, 95% of the FALN’s armed actions were focused on destroying property, sabotaging capitalist establishments, and directly supporting other national liberation struggles through symbolic acts.
The main thing to point out is that these new revolutionary organizations, which were armed and clandestine, were directly integrated into the broader public mass movements. This was the inspired leap taken by those patriotic revolutionaries based on the lessons of the past. Whereas the Nationalist Party combined armed struggle with public organization, the independence movement would adjust itself in light of history, producing an armed underground and libertarian aboveground that would support each other to different degrees. Of course this new stage in the struggle did not come without sacrifice, without a number of clandestine militants being arrested or murdered, and a number of aboveground activists facing the same fate. As of today, three Puerto Rican clandestine militants are in prison, Oscar López Rivera of the FALN, and the González Claudio brothers of the Macheteros, Avelino and Norberto. On the anniversary of el Grito de Lares, on September 23, 2005, after a 15-year period of clandestinity, Filiberto Ojeda Ríos’ home would be surrounded by a network of hundreds of FBI and other agents who would proceed to assassinate him as he put up armed resistance. Filiberto’s funeral was among the largest ever in Puerto Rico’s history and is a testament to the popular support for the revolutionaries of the armed liberation movement. This support was also clear after the death of Lolita Lebrón in August 2010, the release of Carlos Alberto Torres, former FALN prisoner, in July 2010, the release of 11 former FALN prisoners in 1999, and other such occasions.
The EPB-Macheteros continue to be active today, though their use of political-military actions has ceased in the changing times after their last action in 1998. The 2005 murder of Filiberto and the 2008 and 2011 arrests of long-fugitive militants Avelino and Norberto González Claudio show the continued intent to neutralize any growth of the revolutionary Puerto Rican independence movement. Many movements have been formed in recent years in Puerto Rico, with support networks established in the U.S. and other countries. The university student, teachers, workers, social justice, and environmental movements have had particular strength of late. The need for national liberation through a genuine process of decolonization is still a salient issue for people to discuss and involve themselves in today, and the appropriate sectors continue to manage their efforts in this respect. Thus, while times have greatly changed since the Nationalist Insurrection of 1950, the colonial context remains the same. The illegal and immoral military occupation is still being upheld by the Commonwealth legislation that has been in effect since 1952. In the interest of Puerto Rico’s national liberation, we ought to familiarize ourselves with the history of that important revolutionary insurrection, its formation, events, and impact, for that struggle contains within it the lessons drawn from a continuity of 450+ years of resistance. Dedicating ourselves fully to the national liberation of Puerto Rico, we ought to study this first large-scale revolt for independence against the new and persisting U.S. colonial empire, and place its lessons within the context of the history of our revolutionary struggle since then. It is by analyzing our history that we can exercise greater control over our historical trajectory, over the unfolding of our prolonged revolutionary struggle.
“Within international rights Puerto Rico was a sovereign nation on the date in which the Treaty of Paris was drawn up, and Spain could neither give away Puerto Rico nor could the US annex it… nor is there any legal government in Puerto Rico, and that is uncontestable, one would have to knock to pieces all the international rights of the world, all the political rights of the world, to validate the invasion of the U.S. in Puerto Rico and the present military occupation of our national territory.”
– Pedro Albizu Campos, September 23, 1950
“The fundamental thesis promoted by comrade guerrilla commander Filiberto Ojeda Rios was that the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico in 1898 was interference in the ongoing patriotic struggle for sovereignty and self determination of a people that had been subject to over 400 years of Spanish colonialism.”
– Ejército Popular Boricua-Los Macheteros, September 23, 2011