Puerto Rico: History and Struggle
As part of the September 23rd Cultural Resistance (2012)
****This writing is meant to be a rough and brief outline of some ideas i have relating to Puerto Rican history, specifically in terms of identity and the liberation struggle. It is by no means meant to be the last word on the subject, but a contribution to the subject’s discussion. It is hoped that it will inspire people to learn about Puerto Rico and why it’s anti-colonial struggle is important.****
“Puerto Rico has a history that is very heroic and prolific. Naturally, as a colony, there exists a history of double interpretation; the colony, and the history of the anti-colonial struggle. In reality, the colonial history does not apply to us. It is more fitting for the colonizer. Ours, the only one, is the anti-colonial history because it is the history of our native people who survived and are in constant battle to defeat the powerful colonial forces. It is the history of puertorriqueñidad.” – Filiberto Ojeda Ríos
After Filiberto Ojeda Ríos was killed by the FBI on September 23, 2005, the 137th anniversary of the anti-slavery and anti-colonial popular uprising against Spain known as El Grito de Lares (which is considered an event marking the birth of the Puerto Rican nation), his funeral procession became the largest ever in the history of Puerto Rico. A guerilla fighter and organizer who died as the responsible general and commander of the Popular Boricua Army-Los Macheteros (EPB-Macheteros), he was also a father, husband, and community member who was forced to live in clandestinity. This forced situation was the result of Filiberto’s commitment to the people of Puerto Rico, to achieving their nation’s political independence, and to ensure the ability of all Puerto Ricans to live a life of self-determination that would promote their social and economic well being, as well as their cultural development. Had he not taken this measure to guarantee his personal safety and freedom, he may not have lived as long as he did (to 72 years of age) or been as successful as he was in providing continuity to Puerto Rico’s struggle against foreign rule. A man proud of his nation’s history, Filiberto emphasized this historical legacy of dignified resistance to such oppressive systems as slavery and colonialism. No doubt it was this pride and sense of dignity in what constitutes the unique history of Puerto Ricans, and his willingness to courageously sacrifice his life and liberty to defend and honor it, that brought tens of thousands of people to Filiberto’s funeral (and more to the procession). Although his militancy, and that of Los Macheteros, was a topic of great discussion, sympathetic reactions to his killing (even if simply to question the FBI operation itself) came from people of many perspectives, including Commonwealth supporter Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, Statehood supporters Thomas Rivera Shatz and Oreste Ramos, Archbishop of San Juan Roberto Gonzalez Nieves, President of the Puerto Rican Senate Kenneth McClintock, Puerto Rico Secretary of Justice Roberto Sanchez Ramos, and others. The rector of the University of Puerto Rico, the largest system of higher education in the Caribbean, even excused all students and faculty so that they may attend Filiberto’s funeral.
Identity and Dignity
What made the funeral procession of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos so well attended was arguably the knowledge that he specifically sought to represent the Puerto Rican people as a nation under colonial rule, under foreign control, that desired to live in peace and harmony with all other nations of the world. Even those individuals that may have been considered at complete odds with Filiberto’s revolutionary struggle, notably Commonwealth supporters but particularly Statehood supporters, had a sense of dignity in themselves as a people to speak out against the seemingly complete lack of coordination with Puerto Rican officials in the carrying out of the FBI’s operation in the town of Hormigueros, Puerto Rico. It is this unique identity of Puerto Ricans, and the dignity in it, which serves as the point of unity that makes the nation possible. Of course having a specific geographic territory helps in determining nations, and of course Puerto Rico qualifies under this respect. It is the history of experiences held in common by a people of a geographic territory that allows for the formation of a distinct national culture, which Puerto Rico also has without a doubt. How did this identity form? How is this identity being formed today this very moment? While i will give a very brief and rough outline, the point to make right now is that every Puerto Rican is also a human being that by nature has their own developed outlook on life, even if their outlook on life resulted from adopting or being influenced by the ideas of others (in which case they are actually just forming their own interpretation of the ideas of others). Because every Puerto Rican is capable of having an outlook that may be more or less at odds with the outlooks of others, it is important that every Puerto Rican do their own studies. While it is absolutely true that study groups, or simply having dialogues with other people, around Puerto Rican history and culture can be of great benefit and is in many ways necessary within our nation, the point is that each individual Puerto Rican has to have an authentic desire to want to learn about themselves as a member of the Puerto Rican nation. As a realistic life-long process, it is simply having the desire to want to know about oneself as a Puerto Rican, and using the results of this process of learning to develop a sense of identity and dignity in the interests of establishing respect for culture and the experiences of humans in the world in general.
The recent immigrants of Puerto Rico, documented or not, while part of the Puerto Rican national territory, have a personal history that in their own generation goes outside of the nation’s longer history. The nation’s history goes back to September 23, 1868, though that is not to say that the nation itself does not go back longer, particularly taking into account the roots of that culture. Inevitably, every people can be traced back to Africa where the oldest known humans are proved to have originated. In the case of Puerto Ricans, who consider their homeland the island of Puerto Rico and its smaller surrounding islands, the history of people in that territory goes back, as far as most archaeologists suggest, to 4000B.C. or earlier, when the territory was first inhabited. It is this history of the people who lived on, utilized, and took care of the land that Puerto Ricans can be most directly concerned with. From archaeological evidence it seems certain that the first people to inhabit what we now know as Puerto Rico originated from the Yucatan and Central American regions after first encountering the islands of Cuba and Hispañola. Clearly the natural location of the Caribbean islands, appearing as a chain linking the Yucatan and Central America with northern South America, allowed these people to travel from island to island, in both directions. This use of the Caribbean islands as a transportation route, combined with the size of the larger islands that allowed people to inhabit them for generations, is what led to the formation of the first people historically and culturally specific to Puerto Rico. The peoples of the Yucatan and Central America, in addition to South America, and more than likely North America as well, all contributed to the unique culture that archaeologists came to identify as Taíno. These people in fact called themselves by different names throughout the Caribbean region, and it is from them we get Borikén, the original name for Puerto Rico, from. What our ancestors on Borikén called themselves, after they became aware of the fact that they were a new culture in the world, is not completely clear, though what can be agreed on is that they identified closely with the land.
The natives of Borikén are thought by archaeologists to have begun to become distinct around 500A.D., and to become fully articulated around 1000A.D. into what Christopher Columbus and his crew would encounter after 1492. When Columbus arrived in the Caribbean he had on his crew Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Africans, with no females. Once the process of colonization was underway, the Spanish Empire would begin to grow through the enslavement and brutal domination of the natives with the use of their military numbers and resources. Nevertheless, with the island being renamed San Juan Bautista and then later Puerto Rico, the initial Spanish conquerors and settlers lived on the island and took natives for wives, as they had no women from their home country. Very quickly this led to the mixing of the biology of the peoples of the Americas with that of Europe, and with the peoples of Africa introduced not only through the small number of Africans that were part of Columbus’ crew but through the expansion to the Caribbean of the African slave trade that was already in place. Through this experience of various peoples in Puerto Rico, for many centuries with Spanish born loyalists dominating the land and its politics as well as economics, a people began to form that saw itself as having a unique historical identity that was distinct from their Spanish rulers. This included many classes of people, especially those living in the mountain regions where many native traditions were still in practice, and including African slaves. By the time of Simón Bolívar’s wars of independence in Latin America in the early 1800s there was clearly a sentiment towards independence from Spain in Fajardo born General Antonio Valero de Bernabé, who helped liberate Venezuela, Mexico, and Peru, and San Juan born María de las Mercedes Barbudo, who was tied to the Venezuelan rebels. There was a clear tendency towards self-determination and independence for Puerto Rico, and it would become people in the movement for the abolition of Spanish slavery that would fully succeed in planting the seed for revolt within the Puerto Rican national territory. These abolitionists were led by Ramon Emeterio Betances and Segundo Ruiz Belvis, along with others such as Mariana Bracetti, who was a member of the revolutionary cell in Lares and the person to sew what was to be used as Puerto Rico’s first flag, and Lola Rodriguez de Tió, who was a political activist and the author of Puerto Rico’s first national anthem La Boriqueña. The anti-Spanish revolt they organized, known as El Grito de Lares, which called for independence and had the abolition of slavery as a priority, is said to mark the birth of the Puerto Rican nation on September 23, 1868. This revolt, which failed to achieve independence but which succeeded in many other long-term respects, was participated in by a broad range of people numbering more than 500, the last surviving member of which was a former slave brought from France, Don Pedro Angleró, who died on October 16, 1931, some 110+ years old.
It is important to note that El Grito de Lares had as a priority, within the context of national independence, the abolition of slavery. Many of the combatants also came from regions in the mountains where native ways of living, to varying degrees, were still in practice out of the necessity to adapt to the environment. These facts give that anti-colonial uprising a sense of continuity going back to the more recent slave revolts and the more distant native rebellions. Thus, the Puerto Rican nation that was meant to be established honors the totality of peoples, including poor Europeans born in the island who came to identify with it, that make up the national experience of Puerto Rico. This is an important point because it establishes the Puerto Rican identity as one based on the unity of peoples originating from different areas of the world, and not as one exclusive to a certain class of individuals—the Puerto Rican nation cut across both class and race. As a people who have yet to experience political independence, we are fortunate enough to have such ties to our most distant past, not only through biology, but also through the tradition of struggling against oppression and foreign domination. This history of struggle was continued into the 1900s by nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos, who, it is interesting to note, was ordered by Don Pedro Angleró (the last survivor of El Grito) to continue the struggle for Puerto Rico’s independence just weeks before he died. Albizu Campos would become the dedicated leader of the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico, becoming known as “El Maestro/The Teacher” for his ability to explain to others the dignified history of Puerto Ricans that made them a unique people in the world. It was Albizu Campos who would be quoted as saying, “We are a people predestined in history, because we are the first nation of the world where the unity of the spirit with the biological unity of the body is formed.” It was Albizu Campos who revived the memory of El Grito de Lares as an event of crucial importance to the Puerto Rican nation, who raised the status of the town of Lares to sacred land, who began the use of the flag as a sacred symbol to be honored with utmost respect, and who defined the Puerto Rican identity in opposition to the U.S. colonialists who had invaded the homeland in 1898. If not for Albizu Campos, we might not have the pride in our culture and its symbols that we have to this very day, and it was he who provided an example and inspiration for Puerto Ricans whose dignity in their identity pushed them to fight for the respect of others, such as Filiberto Ojeda Ríos.
Filiberto provides us a clear description of what constitutes authentic Puerto Rican history: “it is the history of our native people who survived and are in constant battle to defeat the powerful colonial forces. It is the history of puertorriqueñidad.” Without a doubt he is right in this distinction, for the colonial history, despite a legacy of collaborators who betrayed their own people, was not the initiative of people who identified with the national territory, but the initiative of people who identified with the foreign powers. While the national identity of Puerto Ricans can be discussed from many angles, one undeniable aspect of it has been the commitment of its people to fight for their right to live in peace and to have control over their social, economic, and cultural development—to have self-determination and independence. As a nation with a distinct culture, that has yet to achieve political independence, this aspect of the national identity, the commitment to struggle, is still relevant (and alive) today. It is the dignity in having a unique identity that influences the existence of this struggle in the face of a continued colonial situation. That is not to say that this struggle is made up only of militant opposition to the colonial regime, for a people’s struggle also consists of maintaining certain traditions intact in the face of colonial efforts to replace them with foreign traditions. For example, as soon as the U.S. took over control of Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898 there was a concerted effort to change the content of education taking place in schools, particularly by imposing English as the language of instruction, and to change the food products that were consumed by the people, attempting to replace traditional tropical products with those common to North America. Even the maintenance of Catholicism, under the leadership of Pedro Albizu Campos, was seen as a form of struggle against the U.S. invaders. A national struggle against foreign rule takes many shapes and forms, and is not at all limited to military actions—culture itself, as a trait that distinguishes the people from their rulers, is a weapon in the anti-colonial struggle, and culture includes many aspects of the people’s lives.
The Point of the Struggle
Again, every Puerto Rican, just like every person, has their own worldview and set of personal experiences that shape and reshape that worldview. When trying to explain what the point of “the Puerto Rican struggle” is, everyone will put their own interpretation onto the response they give. My views, which i will share some of here, are my own views, however much i may be attempting to keep the larger picture in mind. In any case, the national history of Puerto Rico gives its own response to the topic of “the point of the struggle.” When the people revolted against Spain during El Grito de Lares, they had a clear aim to abolish slavery and to establish the nation as independent, which they had named La República de Puerto Rico. After the U.S. took over colonial control of Puerto Rico, it was most prominently Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos and the Nationalist Party that continued the spirit of anti-colonial resistance, also with the clear aims of establishing the nation as independent, even to the point of organizing an uprising against the U.S. in October 1950 that became known as La Insurreccion Nacionalista de 1950 or La Revuelta de Jayuya. Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, after his death, became associated with the development of the militant struggle after Albizu Campos, of course with the same aims of establishing the nation as independent. Clearly, a historically given goal of the struggle has been the attainment of national independence in order to exercise self-determination over the many aspects of national life.
At this point i would like to make a distinction between national independence and national liberation. My personal view is that, while it was no doubt in the interest of ensuring development in all aspects of the Puerto Rican people’s lives, the goal of national independence held by those at Lares in 1868 and later was firstly of a political nature—they were fighting for the political independence of the nation. This is apparent when one recognizes that the patriots at Lares had, before the uprising, appointed a number of people to what would have been official government positions, including President, Minister of the Interior, Minister of State, Minister of the Treasury, Minister of War, Minister of Justice, and Secretary to the President. This set of government officials would have been directly responsible for ensuring the political independence and political development of the Republic of Puerto Rico. Pedro Albizu Campos continued the struggle for national independence while putting greater effort on gaining international support, particularly between 1927 and 1930 when, as Vice-President of the Nationalist Party, he traveled to several Latin American countries seeking support for the nationalist movement. It should also be noted that, although Albizu was in prison at the time, the Nationalist Party followed closely and for a time was an observer within the United Nations Organization that was created in 1945, in addition to working within other international organizations and bodies. This is a point that clearly shows the desire, and the growth of that desire over time, to establish Puerto Rico’s struggle within an international context, seeking the direct support of other free nations who understand the urgency of eliminating all traces of colonialism in the world. From the start the struggle went beyond the narrow nationalist context and had a clear international scope, even in the days of the Lares patriots who, for the most part, worked closely with the Cuban Revolutionary Party in New York City. This international context gives strength to the possibility of achieving national independence. National liberation however, implies a much broader process involving the entirety of the people of Puerto Rico—beyond just political independence for the nation it implies the transformation of society in a way that benefits the development of issues relating to the economy, culture, and social relationships.
It is my opinion that the point of the Puerto Rican struggle is national liberation—the collective transformation of society in the interest of its development economically, socially, and culturally. In order to ensure these developments, in order to ensure that the Puerto Rican historical process is able to move forward without being dominated by foreign colonialists, political independence must be ensured, for as long as Puerto Rico is controlled politically from the outside, there will always exist a large possibility that the political powers will establish laws and policies that negatively effect the economic, cultural, and social development of the Puerto Rican people, as has been the case over the last 500+ years of colonialism. The main issue of colonialism is that it serves to slow down, if not to stop or put in reverse, the natural historical development of the people under control. In order to re-enter history, and to continue developing in a way determined by the reality and interests of the people themselves, national independence must be achieved and an authentic process of national liberation must be undertaken—Puerto Ricans must have self-determination in regards to their future. Of course this does not mean that Puerto Rico will not work with other nations, because it has already been pointed out that the struggle for independence has always had an international character. What must develop is an independent Puerto Rico that has healthy relations with other nations, relations that do not increase Puerto Rico’s dependency on others, and vice-versa.
What must be emphasized is that, while the national independence of Puerto Rico is a political necessity, the struggle of Puerto Rico is not simply a political one. In this respect the former African national liberation leader Amílcar Cabral has some relevant thoughts. Within the context of his struggle for the national independence of both Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands, he promoted the development of the economy, culture, and social relationships of the people before political independence was achieved. One of his most famous quotes speaks on the decision to undertake this pre-independence development, and also speaks on the importance of doing so in light of the fact that people do not engage in national struggles for mere political reasons: “Always bear in mind that people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children.” This is the entire point of the national liberation struggle: to see our lives move forward. While we must ensure that our struggle achieves the political independence that is necessary to ensure self-control over our national forces and development, the overall point of the struggle is to put into effect a national process of liberation that seeks to improve the quality of life of the people. Who will lead this process of national liberation in Puerto Rico is not exactly clear, but what is certain is that whoever leads this process must work closely with the people to involve them in their own liberation, to become involved in their organization in the interest of building a popular form of self-government that aims to promote a process of decolonization that will break national dependency on foreign powers as much as possible, and that will put the historical development of the economy, culture, and society of the people in their own hands.
In summary, the crucial achievement that must be made in Puerto Rico is its national independence so that the politics of the nation can ensure that every other aspect of society, the economy, culture, and social relationships, can be placed within the hands of the Puerto Rican people themselves and their national government without further foreign threat. There is absolutely no reason why the people cannot, or should not, look to work on these other aspects of society, such as ensuring educational opportunities, protecting the health of the ecosystems, producing resources and wealth, developing subsistence agriculture, etc. However, it must be understood that as long as political rule over the island belongs to a foreign power, all of these projects can be threatened at any moment. The point of the struggle is national liberation, but there can be no authentic national liberation without eventually gaining national independence.
Some Final Words
This process of decolonization and national development, of liberation, is not a simple one, nor one that will be completed overnight. In reality, it will be an unending process based on the continual development of the people’s lives. Essentially, it is a huge task of learning, or more specifically a huge task of mutual education in the interest of liberation. Institutions on a political, administrative, judicial, military, social, medical, and cultural level must be developed that respond to the specific reality of the Puerto Rican people so that their lives can develop and so they can become a nation capable of returning the solidarity they will no doubt receive in their process of decolonization. While this process of mutual education for liberation must result in the development of people with the capabilities of doctors, lawyers, etc., it must also result in the creation of a new person that is neither oppressed nor oppressor. Not many have written better on this subject of education for liberation than Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. His words give us much to consider, particularly when he wrote the following: “In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to recreate it), become in turn the oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both…This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.” Freire suggests that the process of liberation must be led by the oppressed and people in true solidarity with them for it is they who have the most to gain from such process, whereas those who oppress have everything to gain from preventing such process. For this reason it should be understood that mere national independence is not enough, and that a process of national liberation in which all of the Puerto Rican people participate is necessary.
Paulo Freire also wrote that, “It is true that education is not the ultimate lever for social transformation, but without it transformation cannot occur.” This is the note i would like to end this brief writing with. Puerto Rico has a very dignified history, one marked by consistent resistance to a yet unending situation of foreign rule, of colonialism. Through learning the history of Puerto Rico, the many dynamics of Puerto Rican identity and culture, and the history of our struggle to maintain this identity in the face of colonialism, a sense of dignity can be developed that pushes us to place our efforts in the interest of liberating our nation. The whole point of the struggle is none other than placing the history of our nation in our own hands, so that we can see observable improvements in our quality of life as a people. Once we make the distinction, as a people, between national independence and national liberation, we will begin to understand the immense educational project that must be undertaken on a national level. Our history is long enough to gain influence and lessons from. We must learn from our past in order to learn to construct our future within the present. Looking at other national liberation movements throughout world history will also be of great benefit, as will be the necessary step of beginning to develop relationships with other nations of the present that understand the importance of securing Puerto Rico’s liberation from colonialism as a world event that would add to the growth of peace and prosperity internationally. My hope is that everyone will take it upon himself or herself to gain a basic knowledge of Puerto Rico’s colonial case, going deeper into its history and culture if desired, but in the interest of starting a process of engagement with others that can lead to practical efforts that contribute to the national liberation struggle. Que Viva Puerto Rico Libre!
Puerto Rico Under Colonial Rule: Political Persecution and the Quest for Human Rights, edited by Ramón Bosque-Pérez and José Javier Colón Morera
America’s Colony: The Political and Cultural Conflict Between the United States and Puerto Rico, by Pedro A. Malavet
Puerto Rico’s Revolt for Independence: El Grito de Lares, by Olga Jiménez de Wagenheim
Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire
Unity and Struggle: Speeches and Writings of Amilcar, by Amílcar Cabral
Return to the Source: Selected Speeches of Amilcar Cabral, edited by Africa Information Service
Albizu Campos: Puerto Rican Revolutionary, by Federico Ribes Tovar (available at http://www.scribd.com/doc/35723631/Albizu-Campos-Puerto-Rican-revolutionary)
Pedro Albizu Campos speech in Lares, September 23, 1950 (avalable at https://writetofight.wordpress.com/2011/09/22/pedro-albizu-campos-speech-in-lares-september-23-1950/)