Last week passed the birthday (Sept. 12) of probably one of the greatest – and to some, one of the most infamous – revolutionaries the world has ever known. The man we refer to Don Pedro Albizu Campos was incredibly passionate, highly educated, supremely intelligent, and thoroughly dedicated to the cause of independence for colonized nations. His political involvement spanned over 40 years, despite almost 30 of those being spent in and out of prison. He was finally pardoned and released for the last time just six months before his death. His funeral procession is claimed to have been attended by 75,000 people, a testament to the enduring adoration held by many Puerto Ricans for him.
There are already plenty of sources detailing the man’s life, so I’ll just list the important bits. He was born in Ponce in 1891 to a mother of “mixed ancestry” and a father of Basque descent. His father wouldn’t recognize him until he was already 19, and the only thing it seems he received from his progenitor was the privilege of being able to be claimed as “white.” Anyone who sees a picture of him can plainly observe that besides a few European features, he didn’t really fit into many definitions of “white,” but the designation seems to have affected his life by supposedly allowing him access to education usually reserved for the white families of Ponce*, among other things later on. It’s important to note that Albizu’s mother died when he was young, and he grew up with his aunt in a devastatingly impoverished section of town with no support from his father whatsoever.
Despite these humble beginnings and not enrolling in school until he was 12, Albizu breezed through his studies and completed 11 years of education in 7 1/2 (it was at this point that his father finally claimed him). He was awarded a scholarship to the University of Vermont, where he studied Engineering, and while studying there received another scholarship for the prestigious Harvard University, where he earned several more degrees including one from Harvard Law School. However, his studies were cut short by World War I. He immediately enlisted for the U.S. military, even before the country entered the war, and was placed in the Army Reserves, as were many other Spanish-speakers and troops of African descent. His designation as a white Puerto Rican ostensibly led to him being assigned an officer position, though doubtless his vast intellect and ability to speak eight languages (at least four or five of which were spoken throughout the Western Front) helped to secure that position. He served until 1919, though never saw combat due to a variety of reasons, and the political circumstances behind them may shed some light onto why Albizu became so fervent in his desire for independence.
As I said, Reserve units like Don Pedro’s, the 375th Regiment, were part of an effort to raise men from among the Latino and African-American populations to face the daunting task of fighting what had become the bloodiest war in history at that time. However, politicians in the Jim Crow Southern states were not quite happy with the prospect of armed blacks passing through and residing in their constituencies, where some of the most important training camps and shipping off points were located. At least one source claims they dreaded the arrival of Puerto Rican troops, who they felt would not accept segregation. This proved at least partially prophetic, as the racism Albizu dealt with within the color-divided military changed him from a man who had been willing to fight and die for the United States to one who would cut all ties with the nation. He came to see the U.S. and Puerto Rico as culturally and ideologically opposed** and unable to co-exist as one nation-state. He extended this idea to other colonial struggles, namely to the Indian and Irish independence movements which were in full swing at the time.
Calle San Sebastian, Old San Juan
At school, Albizu became a leader and a rallying point for many of the international students and also involved himself with several revolutionary intellectuals at the time. These included Indian nationalists Subha Chandras Bose and Rabindranath Tagore, and eventually Irish nationalist Eamon de Valera. Albizu was involved in debates, consultations and even sometimes in the actual crafting of the rules and laws of these revolutionaries’ independence movements. He was constantly active in drumming up support for these causes while at Harvard and became a respected figure in their circles. However, he considered men like de Valera, Tagore, and Mahatma Gandhi as being too limited and idealistic in their views, and looked more to Bose and Irish nationalist James Connolly as the templates for what was necessary to uplift a colonized people.
He returned to Puerto Rico in 1921, and you can read yourself about how many lucrative job offers he turned down to work with the poor residents of his native Ponce. A few years later, in 1924, he joining the burgeoning Puerto Rican Nationalist Party and was elected its Vice President. In 1930, the Party suffered an ideological split and Albizu became the President of the organization, which reportedly saw a militant rise in its tactics and objectives with Don Pedro’s leadership. They campaigned during the 1932 elections, but were unable to secure much political support and then turned to labor strikes and other tactics, finally making headway in 1934 when Albizu was asked to intervene in a sugar cane worker strike. He successfully secured wage increases for the workers from 45 cents to $1.50 for a 12-hour day. It was then that Albizu and the Nationalists began garnering real attention, from both the populace and the government. Crowds of Puerto Ricans began following him around, as did the police and FBI. The U.S. government also appointed a new military governor of Puerto Rico, who outfitted the police force of the island with military grade equipment (Thompson submachineguns, tear gas, etc.)
Things came to a head in 1935, when a political spat between supporters of Albizu and supporters of Carlos E. Chardón, Chancellor of the University of Puerto and head of the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration, initiated a conflict that saw the police become involved at Chardón’s behest. Chardón had been appointed by former governor Theodore Roosevelt Jr., and Albizu accused the Chancellor of being an American crony. Chardón’s supporters at the University declared Albizu “Student Enemy Number One” and “persona non grata,” and Nationalist students protested in response. Police stopped a “suspicious looking” vehicle, and one thing leading to another, the two Nationalists in the car were subsequently shot by police and another two were dead as well (no source provides a single clue as to how the other two Nationalists who don’t seem to have been in the car just turned up as shot to death). A Nationalist who lived nearby claimed to have seen the police purposefully execute the car’s occupants, but her testimony was never introduced in court – the officers involved received promotions.
The head of the island’s police force, former Army Colonel Riggs, was assassinated not long after. In response, police rounded up two members of the Nationalist’s youth organization that they alleged to have carried out the deed, and promptly executed them without a trial. They then rounded up and arrested several Nationalist Party leaders, including Albizu Campos, who was sentenced to 10 years in an Atlanta prison. Thus began the first of several stints of incarceration for Albizu and many other Puerto Rican activists, and the decades of violence that followed. In 1937, more of the Nationalists’ youth organization members staged a march through Ponce to protest the arrests. The governor caught wind of it at the last minute and ordered the mayor to cancel their permit, and stationed police on the planned route with orders to disperse the crowd – all without telling the protesters. The officers began firing immediately, killing 19 and wounding 200, including women and children. Despite even members of Congress objecting to his methods, Governor Winship tried to hold a military parade the following year at the very spot of the massacre to celebrate the supposed “victory” of his heavy-handed campaign. Gunmen fired on him and managed to kill a local National Guard officer.
Though Winship was recalled and native Puerto Ricans were finally beginning to assume the higher offices, the government still cracked down on any and all attempts at promoting independence. One measure was an oppressive “Gag Law” that completely criminalized all such behavior, including any language critical of the U.S. government and even the displaying of a Puerto Rican flag. The Nationalists had had enough and planned to stage an open revolt, even though Don Pedro had finally been released from jail. This coincided with an attempt on President Harry Truman’s life. Though the latter came rather close to completion, both efforts ultimately ended in failure for the Nationalists, who were only able to hold most of their gains for a few days against planes and artillery. More summary executions followed their defeat.
Albizu was attacked and besieged by police in his home, and arrested again. He was pardoned by Governor Luis Muñoz Marín in 1953, but then in the following year Nationalist members opened fire in the U.S. Capitol building and wounded five congressmen. Don Pedro was immediately placed under arrest again and remained in prison until 1964, when he was released due to health concerns. He died six months later after suffering the last of multiple strokes. He had claimed while he was imprisoned that he was subjected to torture by x-ray radiation. Many of his symptoms accurately resembled radiation poisoning*** and a Cuban doctor confirmed such after performing an independent examination – in addition to the admission since that some prisoners were experimented on with x-rays.
There’s quite a bit I left out, like his accusations against Dr. Cornelius P. Rhoades (claimed to have purposefully killed several Puerto Rican patients in a private letter), his rivalry with Luis Muñoz Marín (who actively fought against independence even against his contemporaries’ wishes, and was alleged to have been an opium addict), his touring of Latin America, his investing in bonds for Puerto Rico, and many other historical anecdotes. I also interjected some of my own conjecture, and though others may disagree with how I painted his life, I felt that those details were important to understand who Don Pedro Albizu Campos was and why his story is still important today. The most important thing I left out was how he initially opposed the U.S. ownership of Puerto Rico. Though the passion for the fight came from his morals, he still approached the battle as an educated man. He contended that the U.S. relationship with Puerto Rico was illegal, and for all intents and purposes, he probably was right.
The Spanish granted Puerto Rico a Charter of Autonomy as they were preparing to leave, not wanting to deal with the insurrection any longer. However, the U.S. soon defeated the Spanish in Cuba and the Philippines (due in large part to the native rebel movements and the low morale among the Spanish troops) and demanded concessions for victory. Spain granted the U.S. the rights to Puerto Rico, violating their earlier agreement with the island. Claims can be made about the timing and the lag in communications or the remaining Spanish presence, but it does not change the fact that American forces disregarded the Puerto Ricans’ claim of sovereignty and continued occupying the island. The troubled relationship between Puerto Rico and the mainland U.S. will not change until that fact is admitted. Worse, the general impression of Puerto Rico among Americans has not seemed to have changed much in the past 60 years, despite everything. A 1950 article from a Harvard newspaper referencing Albizu as a former grad, and in the context of the Nationalist revolt, speaks about the incident and the island in quite unflattering terms. Specifically, they say that the political maturity of Puerto Rico is “doubtful.”
The appointment of the fiscal control board and the language being used to describe the whole Puerto Rican Debt Crisis has shown that this is still the popular view whenever anything even remotely goes wrong in Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans are frequently, consistently even, shown as administratively, economically and politically inept by even the most ostensibly liberal and humanist of news rags. Having come back from Puerto Rico recently at the time of the writing of this article, I can tell you personally that this portrayal and its effects are being felt on the island, and they’re not sitting well with it. The demonstrations may seem relatively small now, but so did the initial protests that led to the Nationalist Party, and probably a a million other revolts besides that grew out of tiny sparks of outrage. Worse, there might not be a leader like Albizu to keep whatever new movement comes centered.
Whatever detractors will say about him and his organization, Don Pedro was clearly a sober and driven individual. If the attacks attributed to his planning really were his masterpieces, then he truly was a hyper-intelligent and principled man. Even if you want to label him a terrorist, he was obviously nothing like the brutal fanatics we fear today. He launched no preemptive attacks, he bombed no crowded civilian centers, and he terrorized no common man or woman. Nearly every assault was aimed directly at the leadership, always came in response to previous atrocities, and was carried out as surgically as a nascent, Third World resistance movement could afford to. He never seemed to become bitter at the Party’s failures and begin lashing out, even as he was literally being killed by his captors. Where many other revolutionaries would become jaded, sadistic, tyrannical, delusional and amoral, he stayed focused, and where others used only violence, he attempted to solve things legally and civilly before finally turning to armed conflict. If Puerto Ricans revolted now, they’d be lucky to have someone as measured as Don Pedro leading them. More than likely, it’d be someone with a lot less finesse and reserve that would drown both sides in blood. This scenario could become an unfortunately all-too-real future if things don’t change, and soon.
I’ve purposefully avoided hyperlinking anything until now, not wanting to create leading trains of thought and preferring to offer you the links to most of my research, save the more atrocious and insulting pages that I refuse to give backlinks to. Read them for yourself and make up your own mind on who Don Pedro was.
*It’s mentioned in passing on Albizu’s Wikipedia page that Ponce High School was “a public school of the white elite.” I checked the source, and found it came from a book about Luis Muñoz Marín. As I said, Muñoz and Albizu were ideological rivals and it’s been my experience that most chroniclers of the former always attempt to tear down, demonize, and trivialize the latter to make their subject appear more ideal as the moderate Puerto Rican politician. I wouldn’t have given it any credit, but then I saw the claim that Albizu received his officer’s commission due to being labeled as white. I personally think it more likely came from his education and abilities, but I also know that it’s true that such all-black units were often required to have white commissioned officers, and that racial definitions for Puerto Ricans in American institutions were whatever was bureaucratically convenient at the particular time, and that it could consequently open certain doors otherwise left shut. I recall seeing an image some years past of what was supposed to be Albizu’s military application, in which he claimed himself as “Negro,” but it was impossible to tell if it was real.
**Several sources mention two Catholic priests among Albizu’s international contacts prior to his return to Puerto Rico. A few seemed to imply they had ties to the Irish Republican struggle, and one source claimed the Basque priest in particular saw it as a fundamental conflict to free “orderly” Catholic Europe from “chaotic” Protestant Europe. It was also claimed that this was major influence in Albizu’s ideology, however all mentions of his religion are only of his “devout” Catholicism and no more. India wasn’t a Catholic nation, but WAS oppressed by a Protestant colonizer along with Ireland, however, it could just as easily have been reactive Anti-Anglo bias or simply because Great Britain was the U.S.’s ally at the time, or neither. His Catholicism influenced his principles, but there’s little evidence he saw his cause as a holy war.
***Thanks to the work of researchers and archivists, the photos of the abuse done to Pedro Albizu Campos have been preserved and can be seen clearly by all. I won’t share them here due to their graphic nature, but you should be able to find them online or in certain books. For those with weak stomachs, I can sum them up as showing Albizu on what appears to be a stretcher or gurney, with a sheet pulled back to reveal his legs swollen to an extreme degree with scars visible even in black and white.