Prison And The Ponce Massacre

Imprisoning National Leadership

By the time Don Pedro and eight other Nationalist Party members were indicted on April 3, 1936 for seditious conspiracy and other charges, one of the accused had already begun serving a one-year sentence for contempt. Ordered to produce all of the Nationalist Party’s internal documents of the previous four years by a Federal Grand Jury subpoena, the Secretary General of the Party, Juan Antonio Corretjer, refused to comply. With regard to this federal order to hand over internal Party documents, Don Pedro said, “It is a process in which the accused are to provide the evidence that the prosecutor needs, which is demonstrative that there is no evidence. In other words, it is an unusual process in which the defendants are required to provide evidence for their own conviction, which is contrary to all principles of law.”

When the trial finally went underway, the jury was composed of six Puerto Ricans and five Americans. On July 19 the jury could not arrive at an agreement — the six Puerto Ricans each voted for an acquittal on all charges, and the five Americans arrived at a guilty verdict on all charges — resulting in Judge Robert Cooper dissolving the jury and calling for the formation of a second jury.

The second jury was composed of ten Americans and two Puerto Ricans with strong ties to American corporations. According to American painter Rockwell Kent, the prosecutor Cecil Snyder showed a friend a list of names at a party just after the first trial that he claimed were going to be jurors for the second trial, implying that they had essentially been hand-picked. These jurors, on July 31, would arrive at guilty verdicts for all of the accused. One juror, Elmer Ellsworth, later testified that Judge Cooper influenced him into voting ‘guilty,’ also saying that “It was evident from the composition of the jury that the nationalists did not and could not have a fair trial.” The trial was also a scene of colonial intimidation, with police lined up outside the courthouse with machine guns, rifles, and gas grenades, accompanied by both the chief of police and commander of the U.S. Army in Puerto Rico.

One of the accused nationalists, Rafael Ortiz Pacheco, immediately escaped as soon as charges were brought on him to the Dominican Republic without notifying his comrades. Following the verdict, the other eight nationalists were taken to La Princesa jail in San Juan while an appeal was made on their behalf — they stayed there until finally transferred to Atlanta Penitentiary on June 7, 1937. Don Pedro was sentenced to six years in prison followed by an additional four years on probation. All of the nationalists sentenced to imprisonment were prominent leaders of the Party, and their exile was a serious blow to the nationalist movement.

The Ponce Massacre

While the nationalist prisoners were in La Princesa during the appeals process, the Nationalist Party remained active. For Sunday March 21, 1937, the Party organized a march in Ponce to commemorate the abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico, which took effect on March 22, 1873, and that would end with a protest of the incarceration of their leaders. Visited by the chief of police after already giving nationalists authorization for the event, the Mayor of Ponce suddenly revoked his authorization just before the event. Informing the chief of police and mayor that it was part of their right to freedom of expression to hold the event, the Cadets and Nurses of the Liberation Army defied the revocation and proceeded as planned.

With a few hundred people gathered, the nationalists fell into military formation in the middle of the street. As armed policemen situated themselves in the four streets surrounding the unarmed nationalists, a band began to play the music for La Borinqueña, immediately responded to by the leader of the Cadets, Tomás López de Victoria, with the order to begin marching. Almost instantaneously, the police began shooting on the crowd from all angles. In the ensuing chaos, nineteen people were killed, with another 150-200 being wounded. The event would go down in history as the Ponce Massacre — the nineteen victims killed by police included men, women, and children, the youngest being seven years old, both nationalists and non-nationalists, in addition to two policemen killed by friendly fire.

The American Civil Liberties Union created a commission to investigate the event headed by the President of the ACLU, Arthur Garfield Hayes. The commission also included various Puerto Ricans of well-respected Puerto Rican institutions such as the Ateneo Puertorriqueño, the Bar Association, the Teachers Association, the Medical Association, and various national newspapers. Their conclusion was that the event was indeed a “massacre,” and that it was the result of the denial by police of the right to assembly on orders of Governor Winship, who in the months prior had a clear practice of denying Puerto Ricans their right to free speech and assembly and then arresting them when exercising those rights.

In his book War Against All Puerto Ricans, author Nelson A. Denis points out that eleven of the fourteen articles in 1937 covering the Ponce Massacre in the New York Times used the word “riot” to describe the event. Incredibly, twenty-three nationalists present that day would receive charges, with eleven going on to be charged with murder and tried by a jury. On February 1, 1938, this trial would result in all of the nationalists being acquitted. No police were ever held responsible.

The Inspiration Of Don Pedro

Easily one of the most tragic events in Puerto Rico’s history, a focus on the actions taken by nationalists, as opposed to those of the police, reveals a militant commitment to the liberation of Puerto Rico from colonial rule. They also point to the profound influence Don Pedro had on the character of Party members with regard to the honoring of national symbols and the development of a spirit of courage and sacrifice.

One of the traditions started by Don Pedro present at the public event led by nationalists that day was the singing of La Borinqueña, the revolutionary anthem of Puerto Rico, accompanied by a band. To this, the Cadets and Nurses of the Liberation Army would march, accompanied by the public in attendance. Tomás López de Victoria, then the commander of the Ponce section of the Liberation Army, maintained a militant discipline and defied the presence of armed police by giving the order to march once the music began. The decision, in light of the recent killing and jailing of nationalists, was a clear display of courage and sacrifice.

At one point during those nearly twenty minutes when the police were beating protestors with clubs and shooting them with machine guns, even those with raised hands, the Puerto Rican flag fell to the ground. Noticing this while running for cover, a black woman and nationalist who traveled to the protest from Mayaguez, Dominga de la Cruz Becerril, turned around and ran through the massacre to pick the flag up, only then running to find cover. When asked why she did this, she explained that Don Pedro had said “the flag should never touch the ground.” Elsewhere on the street a Cadet shot by police named Bolívar Márquez Telechea was bleeding to death. Before dying, his last act of nationalist defiance was to write “Long live the Republic, Down with the murderers” in his own blood on the nearest wall, adding three crosses.


References:

  • El Nacionalismo y la Violencia en la Década de 1930, by Marisa Rosado (Ediciones Puerto, 2007).
  • El Proceso Judicial Contra Pedro Albizu Campos En El 1936, by Benjamín Torres (Editorial Jelofe, 1974).
  • Nationalist Heroines: Puerto Rican Women History Forgot, 1930s-1950s, by Olga Jiménez de Wagenheim (Markus Wiener Publishers, 2016).
  • Pedro Albizu Campos: Las Llamas de la Aurora- Acercamiento a su Biografía, by Marisa Rosado (Ediciones Puerto, 2008).
  • War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror In America’s Colony, by Nelson A. Denis (Nation Books, 2015).

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