The Man Who Fought for Puerto Rican, Irish and Indian Independence

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.

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg – The Puerto Rican Father of Black History

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg was born in what is now Santurce, Puerto Rico, in 1874, though nearly all information beyond that about the man is conflicting. His mother, Maria Josepha (or Josefa), was a freeborn black woman from one of two islands (St. Croix or St. Thomas) in what was then Danish territory. His father, Carlos Federico Schomburg, was either an immigrant from Germany to Puerto Rico or a Puerto Rican of German descent. This duality of information is a common occurrence in the sources detailing Schomburg’s life, many authors divided between one fact and another. Whatever his exact background, it’s clear that he was propelled to leave a tremendous impact on the world when he helped to introduce black history as a major subject of education and literature in the Americas.

Schomburg himself claimed that his inspiration for his life’s work came from the brazenly racist proclamation of a grade school teacher in Puerto Rico, who told him that black people had “no history, art or culture.” Many historians, however, suspect that his experiences with the African-American community at the turn of the century are what actually spurred him to dig up his people’s history. Schomburg emigrated to New York while still a teenager, and began befriending several Cuban revolutionaries – including the famous Jose Marti. He joined and founded several groups for the independence of both Puerto Rico and Cuba, though supposedly became disillusioned with the cause after the U.S. invaded and occupied the former Spanish territories.

Schomburg had married an African-American woman from Virginia in 1895, and another from North Carolina shortly after her death. They were part of the Great Migration, black Americans fleeing the growing oppression in the South as Reconstruction was giving way to Jim Crow. Through new friends and family, Schomburg was ostensibly exposed to the African-American experience for the first time and began including it with his writings on Afro-Caribbean topics. He started researching the history of Africans and their descendants, and networked with other black scholars to gather and promote texts on black history and culture.

In 1912, Schomburg co-founded the Negro Society for Historical Research with John Edward Bruce, and in 1926 he accepted an offer from Ernestine Rose of the New York Public Library to lend his collection of texts to the NYPL for $10,000. He donated somewhere between 5000-10,000 works in total, and used the money to finance travel to Europe and the Caribbean to further his research. He was eventually offered the position of curator for the Center named after him, and held this and many other positions until his death in 1938.

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg is undoubtedly the father of black history and the main actor behind it being taken seriously as a literary subject in the United States. Historians have started to wake up to this fact in recent years, though this wasn’t always the case. Despite how he’s portrayed now as a celebrated African-American scholar, he wasn’t readily accepted by the black American community according to some. Most sources I found claim Schomburg to have been “lifelong” friends with W.E.B. Dubois, yet I’ve heard from others that he was in fact one of the greatest resistors to Arturo’s appointment as curator of his own collection, which sounds more in line with the often narrow-minded and reactive approach Dubois would take to further his causes. Additionally, while Schomburg’s protégé, Langston Hughes was able to be buried at the Center, the mentor’s family was forced to intern Schomburg himself in what is described by some as a “pauper’s cemetery” (at least at the time) because his former colleagues wouldn’t accept his remains at the Library.

Whatever the real truth, it becomes apparent when looking into his life that the passage of time has muddled the facts of Schomburg’s history. What’s worrying to me is a sort of simplification of his background and work that has regulated it to being a solely African-American subject. Schomburg was born well before the U.S. acquired his homeland of Puerto Rico. He was already an adult and deep into his studies on black history by the time he arrived in the U.S., and it was almost a decade after that he began delving into the North American black experience as opposed to the Afro-Caribbean one he grew up in. Despite what some historians have tried to claim, he did not all of sudden abandon focusing on Afro-Latino issues to dive into African-American subjects, speaking and writing on both for decades after. This petty national divide undercuts the very cause Schomburg worked so hard towards – a Pan-African database of knowledge that all Afro-descendants could learn their history from. Whether in Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Virgin Islands, or the U.S., it was all the same struggle for him.

I think it’s also unfair and a little biased for African-American scholars have tried to paint Schomburg as being influenced primarily by his U.S. experience. I can’t speak much for the Danish Virgin Islands, which is where he spent his adolescent years studying, but I know that his childhood home of Puerto Rico is one of a few places where the racial divides take a unique turn. Puerto Rico was one of a few colonies where the free black population outnumbered the slaves. This affected the race-based class system greatly, which already operated outside the One-Drop Rule of the Anglophone territories. Interracial couplings, while still looked down upon by some, were not outlawed, and their offspring were afforded a relatively larger degree of social mobility. That’s why the son of a white Puerto Rican and a black West Indian could freely seek an education, and it’s without a doubt a major instigator for Schomburg’s life dream.

Schomburg was like many Afro-Caribbeans who arrived in the U.S., who rejected a status quo they did not grow up in. Racism is still prevalent in the rest of the Americas, but widespread segregation could not realistically be enforced long-term in countries where blacks were often the majority. They were not raised believing they were subservient or inferior, and knowing that their ancestors had fought to make sure of that. Their influence helped spark the Harlem Renaissance and the wave of Afrocentric literature and arts that followed. Schomburg is arguably one of the most famous of these activists, because he made sure to put it all in writing for future generations.

#BlackLivesMatter and Puerto Rico

The #BlackLivesMatter movement began with a simple hashtag and a statement of frustration, a reaction to a rash of highly publicized fatal altercations between African-Americans and police (and at least one private citizen acting as if he was the police). Since its inception, it has galvanized people from many different backgrounds and spawned chapters in several American cities, as well as a number of overseas offshoots. Over the past month, a photograph taken by Joaquin Medina from Humacao, Puerto Rico, has been shared all over social media which depicts a group of black Puerto Ricans raising their fists with the tagline “#BlackLivesMatter Puerto Rico.”

The photo doesn’t seem to indicate that those involved are part of a new chapter of BLM in Puerto Rico, but rather the image itself is part of a reoccurring theme in Medina’s photography work that frequently showcases Afro-Ricans as part of the African Diaspora in Puerto Rico. The caption for the version posted on his Instagram account explains that the intention of the photo was to “show solidarity and unity with the black community in the United States,” roughly translated, though the exact language he uses is interesting. Specifically, he calls the killings by the police “the abuses of the government,” which speaks very heavily towards the history of police brutality in Puerto Rico – often targeting black Puerto Ricans of both genders and all ages, and carried out by a monolithic, overbearing police force.

As I said, many people – including more than a couple of group and celebrity pages associating themselves with BLM – have shared the image across social media. The photo has come at a time when many Person-of-Color organizations made up of other ethnic groups have come out to show support for #BlackLivesMatter, especially Latinos. The narrative surrounding the efforts of Hispanics in the United States to help BLM has for the most part been one of honoring shared experiences and empathy towards the plight of African-Americans.

An acquaintance of ours wrote probably one of the best examples of an outside supporter’s perspective on the movement, which does a good job of displaying the viewpoint of a Latino who believes in BLM. However, despite our support, we at Palenque Connections have mixed feelings about how our solidarity as Latinos is being framed. Now, don’t get it twisted – this is a cause we’ve been championing since before it was an idea on everyone’s lips. Our personal interests in this, though, are exactly the reason why we don’t agree with our portrayal as being on the sidelines. Institutionalized racism against persons of African descent is all too common throughout most of the rest of the Western Hemisphere, and we’ve already pointed out that a certain town in a certain U.S. territory has historically already been the subject of much abuse by police.

The history of that abuse by the police and other state apparatuses in Puerto Rico has already been fairly well-documented. Just as with the mainland, the War on Drugs effectively legalized the criminalization of black people on the island. The difference being that in Puerto Rico, with only about 1% of the U.S. population, most phenotypically black people had congregated in a certain few communities. In addition, the only local police force on the island is the Puerto Rican Police Department, a centralized policing contingent that maintains security for every municipality in the territory. As a result, these communities are often quite literally besieged whenever there is the slightest claim of a crime.

One such incident was the “Loizazo” in 2001, when the PRPD responded to a call about a fight breaking out at a children’s birthday party in Loiza with riot gear and indiscriminate beatings. Even the officers who were actually charged with crimes for this gross misconduct eventually had their convictions overturned by the higher courts. The incident has been widely dismissed by the Puerto Rican government and public, though the American Civil Liberties Union did finally begin investigating the PRPD a few years later. They filed several scathing reports and a lawsuit that saw the Justice Department start to crack down with reforms and independent monitors of the island’s police. However, despite the oversight the PRPD is still as corrupt as ever, and the ACLU only began taking notice when the violent tactics were extended to protesting government workers and students.

The message in the aftermath of all this is one that feels all too unfamiliar in the U.S., and Puerto Rico. Black lives matter only when their suffering begins extending to others, and even then it can only be addressed when it doesn’t start rocking the boat too much. In Puerto Rico the problem is compounded by the populace’s own racial identity. There are several conflicting theories and reports on the true ethnic backgrounds of the people that populate the island today, with census results showing that the further away we get from the last large-scale European migration, the greater number of Puerto Ricans think of themselves as white.

Studies have been conducted which paint a more realistic picture, but the findings always seem to be worded in such a way that leans towards excluding or trivializing mentions of African descent. The most conclusive so far indicates the majority (around 60%) of Puerto Ricans can trace lineages to male European ancestors and female Taino (Puerto Rico natives) ancestors. However, they also found that 84% of the women in the study had genetic markers from Africa. If the sampling is reflective of the greater population, then it might hint at the majority of Puerto Ricans having some trace of African blood in their family trees. “Y tu abuela, donde esta,” indeed.

Even more important than the genetic signs are the cultural. Any salsero would find themselves at home in a West African party, using the same dance moves they would in the Copacabana. Musical styles like Bomba and Plena were created by enslaved and free black communities, and even the Puerto Rican lexicon is saturated by African words and colloquialisms. Puerto Rican popular culture is transparently Afro-Caribbean. This makes the struggle between black citizens, the police and the government not only a class and race conflict, but an internal cultural conflict as well. It is, as others have alluded to, a persistent and physical rejection of blackness by Puerto Rican society, even while they continue to silently participate in Afro-Boricua culture.

In many ways, this struggle perfectly mirrors the struggle between African-Americans and white America, the rejection of the physical embodiment even while defining pop culture with their influences. However, in many other ways it’s even more perverse as Puerto Ricans also reject much of their own heritage, and their own family. It’s also reflective of the anti-blackness that permeates virtually all of the former colonies of the Americas. Ultimately, #BlackLivesMatter will have to move beyond framing their fight as one isolated to the United States and African-Americans. This is a cause that affects all black people in the Western Hemisphere. A good starting point would be making “BLM Puerto Rico” more than a picture. That’s not to say that no one in PR hasn’t already been fighting the good fight. If the efforts taken by the ACLU have shown anything, it’s that the leaders of Afro-Rican enclaves like Loiza would not and have not remained silent, even if it’s taken decades to raise any outside awareness. Yet it also shows that the voice of one community is simply not enough. The problem clearly transcends the lines of nationality – our solidarity and our actions will have to as well.

A Tale of Two Countries

This was written in response to a series of events which the author details further in this writing, but can be summarized a nothing less than systemic violations of civic and human rights. This topic may now seem minute compared to the ongoing and quickly unraveling crisis in Puerto Rico, but the accounts which the author provides implies that what is referenced here was a symptom of the inevitable disaster that has been building up for over a century. Puerto Rico has been consistently mismanaged, by both the local and federal governments, and disregard for whole segments of the Puerto Rican population on both the island and the mainland have been an all too common occurrence. In writing this article, the foundation for Palenque Connections was conceived, based on the idea that active engagement and education would help heal these festering wounds. It is my personal opinion that if real change can be gradually implemented at a focal point of the divisiveness, corruption, and lack of empathy now all too rampant on the island, then it will prove that the current situation in Puerto Rico can eventually be alleviated to the benefit of all.

-Hector Bonilla, Jr.


Forced evictions from homes where residents have lived for centuries, including bulldozing the homes of residents who are resistant to these evictions, the construction of walls in order to separate more affluent newcomers from the traditional community and to isolate and limit movement of the longer established residents, the use of state sponsored violence to intimidate the local community to accept their subordinate status, and the implementation of racial profiling to marginalize and devalue the traditional residents in order to justify their social and political banishment from their long-established homeland. Included in this process is the imposition of restrictive policies which limit economic self-sufficiency and educational opportunities for the population under siege.

These events may have occurred to Native American populations during the Western expansion in North America, in the Warsaw Ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland, or in the Transvaal in Apartheid-ruled South Africa. However, we do not have to travel so far either in time or distance to witness these events. We only have to visit Loiza, Puerto Rico, which may be the oldest free Afro-descendent population in the Western Hemisphere.

Although not officially recognized as a town until 1692, Loiza had been a population center even before the arrival of Europeans. Loiza is named after the Taino Cacica (female Chief) Yuisa, who, along with her African-born companion, Pedro Mejias, was killed by Caribe raiders in 1514. The area that became the town of Loiza became a haven for Afro-descendent immigrants who escaped from slavery from nearby non-Spanish island colonies. This free Black population settled on this coastal area because they could subsist on fishing, crabbing, and indigenous edible plants, such as coconuts and tubulars like yucca and yautia, and was not readily accessible from the outside except by small boats. The Atlantic Ocean, El Rio Grande de Loiza, and the Piñones Mangrove lagoons permitted Loiceños’ mobility via water and served as barriers to interlopers, especially slave hunters. Because of its relative isolation, Loiza has been able to preserve much of its unique cultural heritage, which is an amalgamation of African and Amerindian traditions. This is reflected in its music – especially in la Bomba – its food, and its rituals, especially in its own very specific form of religious syncretization.

The viability and importance of Loiza to Puerto Rico was most evident during the British invasion of Puerto Rico in 1797. The largest British invasion force in the history of the Southern Hemisphere, led by Sir Ralph Abercromby, landed 7,000 ground troops composed of British Regulars and Hessian Mercenaries at Boca de Cangrejos (a small bay located west of modern Loiza) and marched toward San Juan. This same force had just captured the island of Trinidad from the Spaniards. At the time of this invasion, the Spanish had only a token force of regular army units in Puerto Rico to defend the fortress of El Morro in San Juan, because most of the other Spanish forces were in Santo Domingo fighting against the Haitian rebels.

The strategic error that Abercromby made was that he ignored the free Black population that was located at the rear of his forces. Loiza had a militia composed of 200 men, some of whom may have been veterans of the Spanish forces who fought in the American War of Independence. Those two hundred militia fought a withering guerilla campaign against the invaders, and captured or killed hundreds of those European soldiers. Eventually, hundreds of Puerto Rican militia from the central and southern areas of the island arrived to the battle scene and forced the British forces to flee. Sir Abercromby would go on to find better success in future military campaigns in Ireland, the Netherlands and eventually against Napoleon’s forces in Egypt.

The Spanish authorities underplayed the importance of not only the Loiceños, but of all the Puerto Rican militia in this military victory. But the reality was that the greater part of this two-week battle occurred outside of San Juan, and Spanish forces rarely ventured outside of the safety of El Morro. The only Spanish references to the capture of British and Hessian POWs were attributed to “los negros de Loiza”.

Although Loiza played a key role in providing food to San Juan, it still remained a marginalized community during the next century of Spanish rule of Puerto Rico. After the American military invasion, things worsened for Loiza. It lost its status as a municipality and was placed under the authority of the new municipality of Canovanas, a former rural section of Loiza. During the 1930’s, the Isla Verde section of Loiza was wrested away and assigned to Carolina, where they built a resort area and what today as known as Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport. However, Luis Ferre, the first member of the Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP, which believes in statehood for Puerto Rico) to be elected Governor of Puerto Rico fulfilled a campaign promise and re-assigned municipality status to Loiza. Consequently, voters of Loiza have overwhelmingly supported this party in all subsequent elections.

None of Ferre’s successors as Governor – including those of his own party – have been as considerate of Loiza. There have been innumerable attempts to extend the hotel and luxury apartment strip in Isla Verde to the Piñones section of Loiza. Environmentalists from in and out of Loiza struggled mightily against these efforts, and eventually Piñones was designated as a Natural Preserve. But the island’s government’s intervention came at a cost. Until the 1980’s, there was no bridge connecting Piñones to the rest of Loiza. Even automobiles had to be rafted across El Rio Grande de Loiza. Constructing a new bridge connecting Piñones to the town of Loiza and the rest of the island came at a price: a sewage treatment plant was constructed next to the new bridge. This sewage treatment facility handles the waste from San Juan and the surrounding suburbs (but not Loiza), which it then expels into the nearby ocean water, which of course the residents of Loiza rely on for subsistence AND has been left open to outside tourism the entire time the plant has been active.

The residents of Piñones have a long history of providing traditional fare to day trippers from San Juan. Food stands (known as kioscos) dot the area and serve traditional fritters, many of which are indigenous to Loiza. The government began to regulate and license these food stands and impose rules that ostensibly imposed hygienic standards, but in reality forced the food vendors to use non-traditional methods in food preparation. The new rules raised costs, and made this long-standing industry unprofitable for many of the food stand operators. These spaces have been increasingly bought out by people from outside Loiza with the resources available to comply with the new government regulations. Many of these new food stand owners invariably hired immigrant labor, not Loiceños, to operate these food stands. Ironically, Loiza, which has the highest unemployment rate in Puerto Rico, has a number of residents who can’t find work in an industry that they created, which is located in the neighborhood in which they have always lived.

Because of the resistance in Piñones, developers leapfrogged this area and started to build luxury apartments and vacation home developments in the traditional fishing communities on the Loiza coast. Even though some of these neighborhoods have been populated for almost half a millennia, not all of its residents have documented proof of ownership. Unscrupulous speculators, with access to government officials and connected attorneys, used money and coercion to extricate residents from long-established communities.

When these tactics did not bear fruit, whole communities were walled off, removing access not only to the beach, but even to access roads. Police forces were used as an “occupation army,” entering homes indiscriminately, and operating “road blocks” throughout the town. The rationale used for this excessive police presence was to quell drug violence; however, the courts went on to decide against the police in several cases involving accusations of police brutality in Loiza. There are still many more accusations of police brutality and police home invasions which are working their way through the court system. There are also allegations that the police, none of whom are native to Loiza, have been duplicitous in cases of violence committed by others against some of the more recalcitrant opposition to the forced development of Loiza. In one case of a Loiza woman named Adolfina Villanueva, who refused to be cowed by the developers, police or government, was killed in 1980 by these very same police officers. No one has been prosecuted for her death.

More recently, a community activist named Maria Mercado was run over by the Mercedes-Benz Sedan operated by a developer, who was convicted of this crime and served a total of three hours in jail as his punishment. Ironically, this developer went bankrupt and he has abandoned his project. There are several other unfinished developments like that, dotting the coastal communities of Loiza, monuments to the greed of developers and the rapacious thugs who run the government of Puerto Rico.

Maria is but one of several members of this community who are fighting for its survival, and refused to be moved, brutalized and disrespected. Although they all have “grass roots” constituents who they are fighting for, Loiza remains a geographically and politically isolated community.

Ultimately, the struggle that is occurring within Loiza is about race. Discussion of race is still the most pervasive taboo among Puerto Ricans. Notwithstanding, the inane responses of many island residents to the question of racial classification in the 2000 Census, identifiably Afro-descent people in Puerto Rico are at the bottom of every social and political indicator on the island. A community like Loiza which revels in its “African-ness” openly has always engendered derision and outright hostility by the members of the “hispanofilo” elements of Puerto Rico’s elite castes.

This belief system was brought home to me rather abjectly by a traffic police officer, dressed like a SWAT member, who was evidently stopping and harassing motorists with families for simply wanting to drive through Loiza. The police officer warned me, as part of the reasoning for the stop, that someone was murdered in Bayamon the night before. Since Bayamon is approximately 25 miles from Loiza, I asked him, “Why were the police setting up road blocks in Loiza?” Among the things he admonished me with, before he let me go he gave me a warning that I might get shot by one of “esos negritos” (those black boys), in Loiza. I then witnessed another automobile, a white Toyota Avalon driven by a gentleman with his female companion in the front passenger seat and a child in a safety seat secured in the rear seat of the car, being pulled over by the same police officer as they entered Loiza. As I drove through Loiza on the way to Luquillo Beach, I saw a slew of police cars in front of the high school parking lot, and another road block as I passed through Loiza towards Rio Grande, just before the Berwind Golf Course and the new Donald Trump Resort.

Two days before this incident, at the behest of renowned Puerto Rican artist, Samuel Lind, I had met with several Loiza educational and community activists who are working to defend this community under siege, promote educational and employment opportunities in their community, and to develop sustainable and equitable community redevelopment initiatives. In addition to the aforementioned Lind and Maria Mercado, present at this meeting were Ebenecer López Ruyal, an attorney and author of several works about Afro-Puerto Ricans, Miguel Rivera Rivera, a youth organizer and advocate against police brutality directed at Loiceño youth, and Mari Cruz Clemente, who leads an organization named COPI (Corporación Piñones se Integra), whose goal is to develop an ecotourism industry in Piñones operated by residents of that community.

What was quickly evident to me is that they are intelligent, competent, committed, and courageous people. There was nothing I could hope to teach them about “grass roots” organizing. They have a legacy of resisting all sorts of invasions that goes back at least 400 years. After all, remember the attempted incursion by British armed forces in 1797? It should come as no surprise that Puerto Rico’s leading scholarly savant and most respected defender of the island’s historical legacy, Dr. Ricardo Alegria, and the organizer extraordinaire, Dr. Antonia Pantoja, founder of ASPIRA, the Puerto Rican Forum, Boricua University, PRODUCIR, et al, were both raised in Loiza.

But they need help and support, none of which is forthcoming from the Puerto Rican government or the American federal government. It is clear that many have made up their minds that the identifiable Black communities in Puerto Rico should be forgotten, or eliminated. This present administration has been engaged in a systematic scheme to displace the populations of Caño Martin Peña, San Mateo de Cangrejos, La Cantera in San Juan, and the Black residents of Vieques, and is involved in a ferocious assault on Loiza. Federal resources do not seem to find their way into Loiza and other programs that identify Loiza as an Afro-descendent community are either diverted or rejected outright by government officials.

Loiza needs the same kind of public outrage and outcry that was organized around the United States Navy’s occupation of Vieques. They also need technical assistance in community development, and they need you to visit Loiza.  When you visit, don’t just eat the alcapurrias or pionones and then race back to San Juan before it gets dark. They are real people in Loiza, not the demonized savages that the Puerto Rican elite have created to validate their own internalized racism and assuage their own mediocrity. Loiza is Puerto Rico. It is the one place that all of the ethnic elements that comprise the Puerto Rican identity first came together. Therefore, on behalf of the people of Loiza, who after all are Puerto Ricans, I ask for your assistance in helping Loiceños protect and improve their community, which is really our community.



Hector Bonilla Agosto