Responding To Colonial Violence

Reactions To The Río Piedras Massacre

The reactions to the Río Piedras Massacre were significant. The wake for the fallen nationalists was attended by as many as 8,000 people. At the wake, Don Pedro delivered a passionate speech denouncing the massacre and held Chief of Police Riggs responsible for ordering policemen to the Río Piedras campus with specific orders to kill. To end his speech, Don Pedro made a gesture that, as author Marisa Rosado puts it, “divided the history of Puerto Rico in two: before Albizu Campos and after Albizu Campos.” With the participation of those present, Don Pedro proclaimed:

“Here the history of all times is repeated: the freedom of the Homeland is acquired with our blood and also with the blood of the Yankees. We come here to take an oath so that this murder does not go unpunished. The Homeland’s history does not know of such a serious act of murder, of such supreme cowardice. Raise your hand up, all you who believe to be free. We all swear that murder will not live on in Puerto Rico.”

At the next Nationalist Party general meeting, on October 30, 1935, the Party re-elected Don Pedro as president and responded in kind to the declaration of war made by Riggs to the press: “War, war, war against the Yankees.” At this meeting the Party approved a resolution calling for “defensive confrontation.” Speaking to this, Don Pedro proclaimed to everyone present:

“You have to discipline yourself, you have to be aware of what defense is. The duty of every nationalist is to arm himself well, not with weapons that serve to scratch teeth, but with firearms that shoot well. No nationalist should be allowed to be searched on the street. An improper search is an attack on personal dignity and can be repelled by killing. No nationalist will be unarmed!”

With this, the Nationalist Party defiantly and definitively adopted armed struggle, beginning a new period in its history. The Party went further and declared military service in the Liberation Army mandatory for all Party members.

Hiram Rosado And Elías Beauchamp

On February 23, 1936, the pledge made to not allow the murder at Río Piedras go unpunished was fulfilled. Following his normal attendance at Sunday mass in San Juan’s Cathedral, Chief of Police Riggs got into his car to return home and was fired upon twice by 24-year-old nationalist Hiram Rosado. As his gun jammed, Rosado was prevented from escaping and arrested. At that point another nationalist, 27-year-old Elías Beauchamp, dressed impeccably in all white, approached Riggs without raising any suspicion and said that he witnessed everything. As police arrived and began to take Hiram Rosado to the police station, Riggs invited Beauchamp to ride in his car with him to provide testimony.

Once in the car, Beauchamp produced a pistol and fired twice on Riggs, killing him with a shot to the head and then fleeing the scene. Beauchamp was soon captured in a nearby warehouse. Violently arrested, he told the police he would not shoot on his fellow Puerto Ricans and confessed that he had killed Riggs in retaliation for the Río Piedras massacre. Both Rosado and Beauchamp were taken to the nearby police station.

After failing to reach the governor by phone, one of the policemen got hold of Colonel Cole, commander of the 65th Infantry Regiment. Informed of Riggs’ killing, Col. Cole asked if Rosado and Beauchamp were still alive. The policeman hung up and took the question as an order to kill the prisoners. Thus, not long after arriving at the police station, both Rosado and Beauchamp were shot and killed in one of the rooms.

Police tried to justify their actions by claiming the two nationalists tried to seize weapons stored in the room. Questioned by reporters, this justification was proved to be without merit. With news of the event spreading fast, the tense situation resulted in another nationalist, Ángel Mario Martínez, being shot and killed by police later that day in Utuado during a search of his car.

The killing of Rosado and Beauchamp in police custody was widely denounced. Even those who disagreed with the killing of Riggs could not help also disagreeing with the killing of people being held in custody. El Imparcial stressed the nationalists’ right to a trial and El Mundo denounced the abuse of power. Thousands of people were reported at their funeral service. At the service, Don Pedro defiantly said:

“These two brave men who lie here tell us that the oath in Puerto Rico is valid and sealed with immortal blood. They will be able to kill 10,000 nationalists, but that is nothing because a million Puerto Ricans will emerge.”

Many also saw the avenging of the victims of the Río Piedras Massacre as a heroic act. In fact, there was considerable demand for the picture of Elías Beauchamp rendering a military salute taken by a photographer from El Imparcial just before he was brought into the police station. This picture was displayed inside many homes and Puerto Ricans wrote to El Imparcial requesting copies of the image so much that a notice was included in the paper informing readers their requests had been received and that they could obtain copies of the photo by visiting their office.

El Imparcial, 27 Feb 1936 (Historical Journals and Periodicals, Center for Puerto Rican Studies Library and Archives (Hunter College, CUNY)
El Imparcial, 24 Feb 1936 (Historical Journals and Periodicals, Center for Puerto Rican Studies Library and Archives (Hunter College, CUNY)

Seditious Conspiracy And The Tydings Bill

In the aftermath of the killing of Chief of Police Riggs, the residences and offices of Nationalist Party members were raided and, in addition to being arrested, some nationalists even disappeared without being heard from  again. On March 5, 1936 the U.S. District Court in Puerto Rico ordered the arrest of Don Pedro under the charge of seditious conspiracy— “conspiring to overthrow the government of the United States in Puerto Rico.” Then, on April 3, a Federal Grand Jury found probable cause to prosecute Don Pedro and eight other nationalists. After paying the necessary costs, Don Pedro remained out on bail pending trial by jury.

A close friend of Riggs, Senator Millard Tydings (Maryland-D), retaliated for the death of his close friend in his own way when, on April 23, 1936, he introduced a bill in the Senate that allowed for Puerto Rico’s independence. According to a correspondent for La Democracia working in Washington, the bill was drafted “within a spirit of vengeance against Puerto Ricans, offering the option of the present colonial formula or independence with starvation.” If passed, it would result in a November 1937 plebiscite where  Puerto Ricans were to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for independence. In the case a majority voted ‘yes,’ then Puerto Rico would become independent in four years with each year seeing the tariff costs of Puerto Rican products increased by 25%.

The bill caused a great stir among Puerto Rico’s politicians, but not in the way U.S. officials might have anticipated or hoped. Interestingly, despite its guarantee of economic and social ruin, leaders began to discuss the bill’s offer of independence. Pro-statehood leader Rafael Martínez Nadal even said that, if the bill gets passed, “all men who feel free must vote for the Puerto Rican Republic.” Don Pedro, out on bail awaiting trial, seized the moment and made a call for the leaders of Puerto Rico to immediately hold a constitutional convention.

What followed was the development of a broad movement in support of declaring Puerto Rico’s immediate independence. Completely downplaying its enormous historical significance, this movement that formed has been overshadowed by the political trial Don Pedro was subjected to, if not omitted outright, in every popular historical account of him during this period.


  • El Nacionalismo y la Violencia en la Década de 1930, by Marisa Rosado (Ediciones Puerto, 2007).
  • Historical Journals and Periodicals, Center for Puerto Rican Studies Library and Archives (Hunter College, CUNY).
  • La Lucha por la Independencia de Puerto Rico, by Juan Antonio Corretjer (Liga Socialista Puertorriqueña, 1949).
  • Pedro Albizu Campos: Las Llamas de la Aurora- Acercamiento a su Biografía, by Marisa Rosado (Ediciones Puerto, 2008).
  • Pedro Albizu Campos: Obras Escogidas, 1923-1936, Tomo II, edited by J. Benjamín Torres (Editorial Jelofe, 1981).
  • Pedro Albizu Campos: Obras Escogidas, 1923-1936, Tomo III, edited by J. Benjamín Torres (Editorial Jelofe, 1981).
  • War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror In America’s Colony, by Nelson A. Denis (Nation Books, 2015).

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