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 pointing to Chief of Police Riggs as responsible for ordering policemen to the University of Río Piedras campus with specific orders to kill. To end his speech, Don Pedro made a gesture that, as author Marisa Rosado put it, “divided the history of Puerto Rico in two: before Albizu Campos and after Albizu Campos.” With the participation of those present, he said: “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 Colonel Riggs to the press: “War, war, war against the Yankees.” At this meeting the Party also approved a resolution calling for “defensive confrontation.” Speaking to this, Don Pedro said, “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 disarmed!” With this, the Nationalist Party definitively and defiantly adopted armed struggle, and military service in the Liberation Army became mandatory for all members of the Party.

Hiram Rosado And Elías Beauchamp

On February 23, 1936, the pledge made to not allow the murder at Río Piedras go unpunished would be 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 nationalist Hiram Rosado. When his gun jammed, Rosado was prevented from escaping and was arrested. At that point, another nationalist, Elías Beauchamp, dressed impeccably in all white, approached Colonel Riggs without raising any suspicion and said that he witnessed everything. As police arrived and began to take Hiram Rosado to the police station, Colonel 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 Colonel 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 assured the police he would not shoot on his fellow Puerto Ricans and that he had killed Riggs in retaliation for the Río Piedras massacre.

Both Rosado and Beauchamp were taken to the nearby police station where, after failing to reach Governor Winship, one of the policemen got a hold of the head of the 65th Infantry Regiment, Colonel Cole, to inform him of the killing of Colonel Riggs. Asking the policeman if Rosado and Beauchamp were still alive, the policeman took the question as an order to kill the prisoners. Thus, not long after arriving at the police station, both Rosado and Beauchamp were brutally shot and killed by the policemen in one of the rooms. Police tried to justify their actions by claiming the two nationalists tried to seize weapons stored in the room, but the questions of reporters proved this justification 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 Colonel Riggs could not help also disagreeing with the killing of nationalists being held in custody. El Imparcial stressed the nationalists’ right to a trial, and El Mundo denounced the abuse of authority. Thousands of people were reported at their funeral service, at which Don Pedro 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. There was even a widespread use of the picture taken by a photographer from El Imparcial of Elías Beauchamp rendering a military salute before he was taken to the police station. This picture found itself displayed inside many homes, with many Puerto Ricans writing to El Imparcial requesting copies of the image, so much so that a notice was included in the newspaper informing readers that their requests had been received and they can obtain copies of the photo by visiting their office.

Seditious Conspiracy And The Tydings Bill

In the aftermath of the killing of Colonel Riggs, the residences and offices of Nationalist Party members would be raided, and, in addition to being arrested, some nationalists would even disappear without being heard from again. On March 5, 1936, the United States District Court in Puerto Rico ordered the arrest of Don Pedro, the main charge against him being 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. Paying the necessary costs, Don Pedro remained out on bail awaiting his trial by jury.

A close friend of Colonel Riggs, Maryland Senator Millard Tydings, would retaliate for the death of his friend in his own way when, on April 23, 1936, he introduced a bill in the Senate that would allow 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%.

Despite its guarantee of economic and social ruin, the bill, or rather its offering of independence, was surprisingly supported by Puerto Rico’s politicians. Even pro-statehood leader Rafael Martínez Nadal would support it, saying that if the bill gets passed, “all men who feel free must vote for the Puerto Rican Republic.” Don Pedro, in a move that can only be regarded as an example of patriotism of the highest level, made a call for the leaders of Puerto Rico to immediately hold a Constitutional Convention. What would follow would be the development of a broad movement in support of declaring Puerto Rico’s immediate independence. Completely downplaying its enormous historical significance, this movement that would form would be overshadowed, if not omitted outright, by the political trial Don Pedro was subjected to in every popular historical account of him during this period.


References:

  • 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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