****The following is an article written to honor the special date of September 23. Talking about the life of the latest Puerto Rican martyr Filiberto Ojeda Ríos to some length, the article ties together the history of resistance in the defense of the Puerto Rican identity as it specifically relates to the date September 23. The article explains the culture of resistance that was born on September 23, 1868, and as part of this website, which features Writings for Fighting, it is an addition to the culture of resistance; it is yet another tool in our People’s Cache that can be used freely for education and empowerment (so feel free to forward the URL of this site to others).****
September 23: An Unending Culture of Resistance
As part of
the September 23rd Cultural Resistance
September 23 is a special day for all Puerto Ricans throughout the world. On that day in the year 1868, the story goes, the Puerto Rican Nation was born out of the armed uprising of people mostly with little or no private property, and nearly all of whom were born on the island. As a reaction to the colonization process that began in 1507 with Juan Ponce de Leon’s settlements amid the indigenous Taino people, they put up armed resistance to the intensification of this process that was occurring at the time, which brought more neglect to the island’s natives as Spaniards and foreigners received much more favorable treatment from the colonial government. These people who received unfavorable treatment from the colonial government solidified their island culture and were now proud Puerto Ricans seeking an end to Spanish control. Under the revolutionary leadership of Ramón Emeterio Betances, they resisted their social and economic oppression by the wealthy, landowning Spaniards and foreigners loyal to Spain. Using the 10 Commandments of Free Men developed by Betances as a program, the first point of which was the abolition of slavery, these men and women solidified a new culture.
September 23 is a special day for all Puerto Ricans because it was on that day in the year 1868, after the failed uprising against Spanish control now known as El Grito de Lares, that our culture of resistance was formed. This culture of resistance has not changed at all since the major justifications given by intellectuals for national independence then, the most obvious being the fact that the island is a separate geographic, social, and cultural entity from it’s colonizer, are still valid within the island’s colonial context of today. When the 1868 rebels declared the short-lived independent republic of Puerto Rico in the mountain town of Lares with support throughout the island, they firmly established our culture of resistance. From then on we were Puerto Rican, even if under the political control of foreign nations.
Using the medical knowledge received from his university studies in France to heal people throughout the island, often times to the poor free of charge, Ramón Emeterio Betances used
Ramón Emeterio Betances
some of the money he did receive to buy the freedom of slaves in his native land. It was as he traveled throughout the island that he organized the first clandestine movement of Puerto Ricans seeking to achieve the island’s independence using tactics that included armed struggle. The use of armed struggle as a tactic among many others that was clearly present from this beginning of our culture of resistance was later most notably carried on by Pedro Albizu Campos. A Harvard educated lawyer, like Betances he also used his education to help the poor often free of charge and to resist the colonial situation. However, Campos was to face in his time a new colonial power, the United States who took over colonial control of the island in 1898, just two months before Betances’ death at age 71.
Born in Ponce about 25 years after the Grito de Lares, Don Pedro became a true champion of the Puerto Rican independence movement. Known for his public speaking skills, and named el maestro/the teacher because of them, he gave one of his most memorable and exemplary speeches on September 23, 1950 in Lares. While honoring the memory, legacy, and example of the Grito de Lares revolutionaries who rose up against Spain, Don Pedro strongly spoke out against the American occupation he viewed as a 52 year old war and went further to deny there being any legal government in Puerto Rico. On that special day, September 23, he decided to resist American rule by explaining his point that Puerto Rico was given autonomy by Spain in 1897, an act that made the ceding of Puerto Rico to the United States by Spain in 1898 illegal. A month later on October 30, Albizu’s call to revolution became a reality when nationalists, mostly in Jayuya but also elsewhere in Puerto Rico, and in the United States, rose up in arms, proclaiming a short-lived free republic in an event reminiscent of El Grito de Lares known as the Jayuya Uprising (sometimes the Revolution of 1950).
In exchange for his life as an unending resistor of the colonial domination of Puerto Rico, Don Pedro was made a martyr in death when he passed in 1965 after experiencing years of imprisonment and radiation experiments. True to this unending spirit of resistance against an unending colonialism, the independence struggle begun that historic September 23 in 1868 has been continued in more recent times notably by Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, who for this generation of independentistas is the martyr of just 4 years past. Born in a town on the island’s east coast, he, like so many before him, developed in a situation
Pedro Albizu Campos
of foreign occupation, influence, and control that inevitably led him to choose a life of anti-colonial struggle. Inheriting the gains and losses of generations past, Filiberto would ultimately become known for his clandestine struggle, much like Betances before him, for a free Puerto Rico. As a symbol of resistance, Filiberto is our strongest example of recent times and deserves an extended mention.
The third and youngest child of three brothers and sisters, Filiberto Ojeda Ríos was born to a father who was a public instruction teacher and a mother who administered a rural post office out of a room in the house Filiberto was born in 1933. In his writings he reflects on the “unemployment, malnutrition, abandonment of children, and the propagation of highly contagious illnesses [that] were destroying a large portion of our population” during the early years of his life. He mentions his paternal and maternal grandparents, the land and agricultural properties they and many other farmers lost when “the North American sugar monopolies took over the Puerto Rican economic structure.” He mentions the mandatory use of English in Puerto Rican schools that existed at that time, saying the protests of teachers carried the message that the use of Spanish is “an important tool against colonialism in the absence of sufficient strength to oppose the fierce repression through other means.” It was also during these years, Filiberto points out, that Pedro Albizu Campos was earning the attention of the Puerto Rican people, students were murdered by police on university campuses, two nationalists (Hiram Rosado and Elias Beauchamp) were assassinated in jail for their killing of the island’s Chief of Police as a reaction to the murder of the university students, and unarmed peaceful protestors were killed (21) and wounded (150) on the tragic Palm Sunday 1937 massacre in Ponce.
It was while the island was facing the conditions in the above paragraph that Filiberto emigrated to New York with his mother in 1944. Experiencing America’s racism, social discrimination, and social oppression as a junior high school student in Manhattan and Brooklyn, he would return to Puerto Rico in 1947 only to return back to New York in the early 50’s as a factory worker that also studied music as a trumpet and guitar player. Being able to meet other Puerto Ricans as he worked in the New York factories, he came to a better understanding of exploitation, racism, colonialism, and the use
Filiberto Ojeda Ríos
of Puerto Ricans by the U.S. “as cannon fodder in their wars of aggression.” Filiberto would take his life experiences and join the Puerto Rican independence movement as a young man in his 20s, less than ten years after the Jayuya Uprising. During eight years in Cuba he joined the Movimiento Pro-Independencia (MPI), studied political science, became the Sub-Chief of the Permanent Mission of the MPI in Cuba, the Alternate Delegate to the Organization of Solidarity for the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America (OSPAAL), a member of the Directorate of the Association of Puerto Rican Residents in Cuba, and editor of the Puerto Rican publications directed at Puerto Rican and other communities in Cuba. In 1969 he returned to Puerto Rico ready to engage in the defense of its culture.
Immediately, in 1970, Filiberto was charged with organizing the Movimiento Independentista Revolucionario en Armas (MIRA). Rather than be imprisoned for years because of his political beliefs as a political prisoner, or even killed, Filiberto skipped bail after his arrest and decided to live in clandestinity, living this way even after the charges were dropped in 1980. He felt that the persecution independentistas were facing at the time, which included attacks, imprisonment, assassinations, and death threats by colonial and other right-wing forces, did not permit him to struggle for the independence of Puerto Rico openly. By the time his charges were dropped Filiberto had already organized, in 1978, a clandestine organization called Ejército Popular Boricua-Macheteros (or Los Macheteros, after the island’s workers of the field who would use their machetes to cut cane and defend themselves). Los Macheteros’ struggle “is directed not against the people of the United States but against the implementation of a colonial policy directed and imposed by the rulers of the United States, who, in turn, represent powerful economic interests that constitute the true power behind the façade.” After Los Macheteros claimed responsibility for numerous acts of resistance against military and other federal targets of the colonial structure, and responsibility for one of the largest robberies in American history, $7.1 million dollars from a Wells Fargo facility in West Hartford, Connecticut on September 12, 1983, a two-year FBI operation ended in the indictment and/or arrest of Filiberto and 18 other alleged members of the Macheteros in connection with the West Hartford robbery.
Just as Pedro Albizu Campos defended himself from an invasion of his home using armed resistance against the colonial forces that used tear gas to arrest him after the beginning of the Jayuya Uprising in 1950, so did Filiberto defend himself from an invasion of his home using armed resistance against the U.S.
Filiberto in 1970
forces as represented by the FBI on August 30, 1985, as other arrest operations were occurring simultaneously elsewhere on the island. After a close-range exchange of gunfire in which one federal agent was wounded, Filiberto’s pistol was shot out of his hand giving agents the opportunity to arrest him, ending his fifteen years of clandestinity. Nevertheless, his imprisonment, and the trial that took four years to close, became a major victory in the revolutionary struggle of Puerto Ricans against colonial rule. Defending himself at his trial, he argued that he acted in self-defense and was able to convince the Puerto Rican jury that he deserved the acquittal he ultimately received in 1989. This was the first time that a person had successfully argued self-defense in a case in which a federal agent had been shot. After his acquittal, Filiberto was released on bond as he awaited the commencement of his trial in relation to the Wells Fargo robbery. Being the unending freedom fighter that he was, he honored the culture of resistance created September 23, 1868 by cutting off the electronic monitoring device attached to his ankle on September 23, 1990, beginning his second period in clandestinity.
Defending and remembering the culture that crystallized September 23, 1868, paying respects to the abolishment of slavery that El Grito de Lares influenced, Filiberto symbolically broke his shackles. His arrest and second return to clandestinity occurred in the aftermath of the 1985 capture of over a dozen people suspected in the $7 million dollar expropriation in Connecticut by the Macheteros, and the earlier 1980 capture of several suspected members of the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN), a clandestine group based in the U.S. This fierce repression that independentistas faced by the colonial forces aimed at maintaining control, which was not limited to arrests, created a degree of disorganization that would translate to a decline in the military activities used to produce political effects by the various clandestine organizations fighting in behalf of Puerto Rico’s independence. During this time, Filiberto would live a quiet life, his neighbors knowing him as a rose gardener. But true to his unending resistance, Filiberto would send audiotaped or even videotaped messages to rallies and gatherings that took place every year on September 23. This way, he was always able to maintain a voice and influence in the Puerto Rican independence movement, resisting colonialism
Filiberto out on bail in 1988; Showing his electronic bracelet
year after year with every recording, in the name of Betances and all those who participated in the birth and defense of our nation.
1999 bore the fruits of years of popular struggle with the presidential pardon and release by Bill Clinton of eleven Puerto Rican political prisoners and the shortening of the sentences of two others released in 2004. Even in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, and the intensification of government repression that came along with them, 2003 saw the victory of the decades long struggle to end the use of the island and waters of Vieques as a bombing range and weapons testing ground. After these remarkable victories, the newly appointed FBI Special Agent in Charge (SAC) for Puerto Rico, Luis Fraticelli, decided to act on information held by Puerto Rican authorities that gave exact coordinates for Filiberto Ojeda Ríos’ new residence. Almost a year and a half after he was appointed SAC-Puerto Rico, on September 23, 2005, Fraticelli gave the order to conduct an arrest operation on Filiberto’s residence using sniper-observers, SWAT teams, San Juan FBI agents, and other forces, with little to no notification to Puerto Rican authorities, and support as far as Quantico, Virginia. The question is, even considering the supposed compromise of the sniper-observers and other things related in the Inspector General’s review of the incident, why did the FBI forces choose September 23, such a special day for Puerto Ricans, to conduct this arrest operation?
Just as he did in 1985, Filiberto put up armed resistance to the invasion of his home by FBI agents and supporting forces. After his wife was able to exit the house during a cease in gunfire (Filiberto from his pistol modified to fire in automatic or semi-automatic mode, the agents from their M4 carbines that can fire semi-automatically or in three-round bursts) Filiberto communicated that he wanted to speak with the press. Shortly after his wife’s exit, an hour and twenty minutes later at 6:08pm according to the Inspector General’s review, a still anonymous assault team member of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team found a patch of ground from where he can, and did, get off a clean shot on Filiberto. After hearing him scream out “ay, ay, ay”, agents and assault team members on the scene did not enter, and were ordered by Fraticelli (who was ordered by his higher-ups) to not enter the residence to check the status of Filiberto. According to the Inspector General review, the entry operation did not begin until 12:34pm the next day, about three hours after it was approved, about eighteen hours after Filiberto’s screams and the following silence. He was found on the floor, dead from the loss of blood, in army fatigues, 72 years old.
Dare to struggle, dare to win
There has been much debate about the decision to conduct the arrest operation on September 23, 2005, the 137-year anniversary of the birth of the Puerto Rican identity and its culture of resistance. While Fraticelli and those involved in the shooting death of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos have declared that the special date of September 23 was not intentionally chosen as or meant to be the date of the arrest operation, it is undebatable that history chose that date to make Filiberto a martyr for the Puerto Rican independence movement, a freedom fighter who died in service of his country. And just as many aspects of his death remain unresolved, unsolved, and unfinished, so do the main goals of the Puerto Rican struggle for independence and self-determination.
September 23 represents to Puerto Ricans the birth of their identity and the yet unending culture of resistance against colonialism and for a national expression. As this writing shows, the legacy of struggle to defend the culture of Puerto Rico has had continuity across time, beginning most memorably with Ramón Emeterio Betances and the Lares rebels of 1868. In the 141 years since, Pedro Albizu Campos and Filiberto Ojeda Ríos have been true examples of this tradition, Filiberto the more recent of the two martyrs. There is no doubt that there have been countless other fighters in the independence movement over the years, but it ought to be the issues at hand that win in importance over personalities or particular individuals—and this ought be the case particularly when the issues those individuals dealt with are still issues to be faced today. In the end, after all of this history is said and done, next September 23 will only bring a new day, the next day with the unending need to defend the Puerto Rican identity with its own culture of resistance.
There are many things that can be written about September 23, and the culture of Puerto Rico as a consequence of a continued colonialism. What are probably better to end this writing with are thoughts for the future. Since the illegal ceding of Puerto Rico to the U.S. by Spain in 1898 is still enforced today, only formalized by the 1952 Commonwealth status that continued its existence as neither an independent nation nor a U.S. state, the more people that can be educated and organized around this fact the better are the chances of seriously addressing this issue of a colonialism in near text-book form. Many people have paid with their lives and/or liberty to defend the culture of Puerto Rico from the effects of colonialism. They, and those political prisoners still locked down, need to be known by all people interested in the human rights of Puerto Ricans, new methods to demand and get their release need to constantly be considered, and they need to be given a voice. In general, the
Political Prisoners still incarcerated in 2009:
Carlos Alberto Torres, Oscar Lopez Rivera and Avelino Gonzalez Claudio
Tania Frontera and Elliot Monteverde Torres in front of the United Nations; they were two of the young Puerto Rican activists subpoenaed to testify on January 11, 2008 before a federal grand jury investigating Los Macheteros
education and organization of people on a broad spectrum needs to be considered in order to gain the support and resources that might prove efficient for the liberation of Puerto Ricans from colonialism. Eventually, families and communities will have to create the popular demand necessary for the ruling powers to concede their control of the destiny of Puerto Ricans to the Puerto Ricans themselves. It is owed to Filiberto, Albizu, Betances, and countless others that we continue the struggle for peace from colonialism on an island that has had none for over 500 years. The solid resistance of September 23rd continues…
• Puerto Rico’s Revolt For Independence: El Grito de Lares, by Olga Jiménez de Wagenheim
• Albizu Campos: Puerto Rican Revolutionary, by Federico Ribes Tovar
• American Gunfight: The Plot To Kill President Truman—and The Shoot-out That Stopped It, by Stephen Hunter and John Bainbridge, Jr.
• A Review of the September 2005 Shooting Incident Involving the FBI and Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, by Office of the Inspector General
• September 26, 2005 Democracy Now! Interview with Juan Manuel Garcia Passalacqua
• Clandestinity, by Filiberto Ojeda Ríos
• The Boricua-Macheteros Popular Army: Origins, Program, and Struggle, with introduction by Filiberto Ojeda Ríos
• Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U.S. Political Prisoners, edited by Matt Meyer
(Most of the people, events, and terms of this article have general information on Wikipedia.org that can be verified and used as a starting-point for research.)
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