Sparking The Fire Of Revolt
By the time Don Pedro spoke on September 23, 1950 in Lares, nationalists were aware of an intent to assassinate him and arrest other leaders en masse. Colonial officials, thanks to informants, knew the Nationalist Party was preparing to stage an armed revolt. On June 11, Party members were on high alert during a political event, believing firmly that a plot to arrest Don Pedro was going to be carried out—this arrest did not take place. In the early morning hours of October 27, the actions of colonial officials were serious enough to cause the nationalist movement to become activated in exactly the way colonial officials hoped to prevent.
After a radio-broadcasted celebration in Fajardo of the birthday of Puerto Rico-born Antonio Valero de Bernabé—a general in Simón Bolívar’s army—nationalists escorting Don Pedro back to San Juan were followed by three cars of undercover agents. When the agents began trying to force Don Pedro’s car to the side of the road, the other two cars made maneuvers that allowed his car to get away. The two cars were eventually stopped at separate locations in Santurce at 3:15AM and 3:30AM. The search of one of the cars resulted in the seizure of two .37-caliber guns, five Molotov cocktails, and a Thompson submachine gun, with an additional number of Molotov cocktails seized in the second vehicle.
When Don Pedro heard about the arrests a few hours later he knew it was only a matter of time before police came to arrest or kill him. Facing such alternatives, and clear that U.S. officials would conspire by any means, as they had in the past, to ensure he was convicted in court and sentenced to many years, Don Pedro decided to order the start of what became the Nationalist Insurrection of 1950. His order to initiate the uprising at noon on October 30 was dispersed across the nationalist network. Over the next few days armed confrontations took place throughout Puerto Rico, with an additional armed action taking place in Washington, D.C.
The morning of October 28, a prison break in which 110 people escaped from the ‘Oso Blanco’ penitentiary in Río Piedras created a further concern for officials. Initiated by an incarcerated person with no apparent nationalist ties, the riot that followed and led to the actual escape was in part led by a nationalist in the prison that had received visits from high-ranking Nationalist Party members in the days prior. This prison break, forcing police to focus on capturing the people who escaped, postponed plans to arrest Party members and raid their homes.
Once focus returned to the nationalists, police were overwhelmed, and the National Guard was called in to support them. One of the first actions taken by the National Guard was to occupy and close major roads.
The Courage And Sacrifice Of Los Decididos
With the U.S. government having the most powerful military in the world, the struggle of the nationalists was not about having a military conflict but about taking a moral stand against the idea and system of colonial-imperialism. From the start of Don Pedro’s leadership within the Nationalist Party he always stressed the undeniable place of courage and sacrifice within the revolutionary struggle, and the need for members to be willing to sacrifice life and property if necessary. After the first encounter between nationalists and police in Peñuelas at 3AM on October 30, many nationalists—as well as communists and supporters of the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño—decided to accept the many risks involved and join the uprising.
Peñuelas and Ponce
In Peñuelas, a small group of nationalists engaged in a shootout with about 31 police officers arriving to raid a farm identified by informants as a location of arms. Three nationalists were killed. In neighboring Ponce, at 10AM, a nationalist that escaped the shootout in Peñuelas led another group in transporting arms to Utuado. They were intercepted and engaged in a shootout that left a police colonel dead.
In Arecibo, at 11AM, one group of seven nationalists attacked a police station and killed four officers. One of the nationalists died while covering the escape of the others who were later arrested by the National Guard. Another group in Arecibo composed of 15 nationalists decided to head to Utuado but were dispersed when it was clear the National Guard controlled the major roads. A third group that stayed in Arecibo had a shootout with National Guard soldiers in Muñoz Rivera Park that resulted in the death of one nationalist. A fourth group used a vehicle to drive by and shoot at buildings occupied by the National Guard.
In Utuado, around noon, a group of 32 nationalists split up and attacked the federal post office and local police station. As the first group approached their target, they were shot at in front of a Catholic Church by police stationed in the nearby plaza. A few nationalists managed to run ahead and successfully set the post office on fire. After firefighters arrived at the post office, an argument that developed resulted in another shootout in which one of the firemen was shot and killed.
The group attacking the police station encountered a police force waiting in prepared battle positions. About a dozen nationalists fled to the nearby house of a Party member and took up a position there, returning fire as police unleashed a hail of bullets on the residence for two hours.
After sunset, around 8PM, over 1,000 National Guard soldiers arrived on the scene. They set up positions with machine guns and fired on the house at 11PM and again at 1130PM. Overwhelmed by the force, with one nationalist already dead, the remaining nationalists surrendered and were marched by the National Guard towards the police station. At 1AM, on October 31, the troops stopped short of the police station, forced their prisoners into an alley, and proceeded to shoot them with machine-guns as people watched from their windows.
Four died immediately and five others were left for dead, with doctors not arriving until hours later. The event became known as the Utuado Massacre. Later that same day, after the National Guard troops left Utuado, four National Guard planes began targeted bombings of buildings and farms in the town.
In San Juan, the local commander of the Liberation Army, Raimundo Díaz Pacheco, led an attack at noon on October 30 with four other nationalists on the Governor’s Mansion, ‘La Fortaleza’, hoping to take the governor hostage. Met with an expecting and prepared police force, all except one of the nationalists, Gregorio Hernández, were killed within an hour of the vehicle stopping in the main entrance area. At the same time, a group of nationalists joined with university students and attacked the police station and federal courthouse in two separate actions, both producing a shootout that resulted in only a few injuries. Yet another attack, on the federal courthouse in Santurce’s Barrio Obrero, resulted in two National Guard troops being injured.
The following day, on October 31, a sensational event occurred at Salón Boricua, the barbershop of Don Pedro’s personal barber Vidal Santiago Díaz. Around 2PM, confronted by a policeman, his decision to defend himself resulted in a shootout with, what would eventually be, fifteen policemen backed by 25 National Guard troops armed with machine-guns, rifles, revolvers, and grenades.
In a brief period before the shootout when police and troops were still gathering outside, Santiago Díaz placed weapons throughout the barber shop. Tactically returning fire from several windows and both floors of the structure, he gave the impression that there were more combatants inside than just himself. During the gunfight, which lasted three hours, several mobile radio units arrived and began transmitting the event live across Puerto Rico. When asked by a reporter how many people were inside Salón Boricua, a lieutenant estimated 20-30. When the gunfight finally ended after a final coordinated police/National Guard attack, several bystanders were counted among the injured and, even after being shot in the head at point blank range and receiving several wounds, Santiago Díaz survived and became a minor celebrity.
In Mayagüez, the large group of over 40 nationalists prepared to fight were divided into five smaller groups, each with five separate missions. Due to technical issues with their explosives, and the fact that they did not move into action until 2PM on October 30, by which time authorities had already situated themselves into defensive positions, none of their activities resulted in any success.
A second attack on the local police station in the evening resulted in a few injuries on both sides, in addition to three civilians. One of the groups, which planned to attack police in the morning of October 31, were instead attacked by police as they were preparing to move out. This group returned fire and escaped to the nearby mountains.
In New York City, on October 29, a relative of several participants of the uprising in Jayuya, Griselio Torresola, brought a newspaper article to the home of the president of the New York chapter of the Nationalist Party, Oscar Collazo. Showing him the article, they both discussed the events taking place in Puerto Rico. Knowing this was the beginning of the insurrection that was being planned, they both took a train to Washington, D.C. to stage an attack on U.S. President Harry Truman.
Arriving in D.C. on October 30, they used the rest of that day and the next to plan their mission, which they accepted would probably result in their death. Taking a taxi to the Blair House, the temporary residence of the president, at 2:20PM on November 1 they began their attack.
Collazo, who had been quickly trained by Griselio on how to use his weapon, was quickly out of the fight when his weapon jammed. Griselio was able to mortally wound a guard stationed in a booth but was then killed when the same guard returned a fatal shot. Within a few minutes, Griselio was killed, and Collazo was shot in the chest and rendered unconscious.
In Naranjito, nationalists were led by a World War 2 veteran, José Antonio Negrón, in an attack on the local police station at 12noon on October 30. Expected by police and met with gunfire, the group of seven nationalists retreated into the mountains. From there they led an unexpected guerrilla campaign in which they hid and defended their position by day and conducted attacks by night. The reputation of Negrón as being a person always willing to help those in need, and who did not drink or gamble, allowed him to receive the support of locals without being snitched on as his group moved discreetly throughout Naranjito. This continued until November 6 when Negrón was separated from the rest of his group when they were arrested by National Guard troops. Negrón, by himself, continued resisting and evading capture until November 10, officially putting an end to the insurrection.
Jayuya And The Second Declaration Of Independence
The events that took place in Jayuya stand out among everything else that took place in the insurrection. This is so clear that some who have written about the Nationalist Insurrection of 1950 instead labeled it ‘El Grito de Jayuya’ or the ‘Jayuya Uprising.’ In some of these writings only the events that specifically took place in Jayuya are covered, but in some writings the events in Jayuya are centered while only giving a mention to ‘other events’ that took place elsewhere in Puerto Rico. In any case, the key success of the nationalist movement in Jayuya was the declaration, for the second time in history since 1868 Lares, of Puerto Rico as a free, independent republic.
Hearing news over the radio about what was happening in Arecibo as they were preparing their weapons, the nationalists in Jayuya proceeded with their plans at noon on October 30. One group, led by another World War 2 veteran named Carlos Irizarry, made their way to the local police station and engaged in a shootout that both mortally wounded Irizarry and forced the police to flee—one policeman was also killed.
Taking over leadership of the group from that point forward was Elio Torresola, the brother of Griselio Torresola. Elio and his group went on to burn down the police station and then headed to the post office, which they also burned down. At their last target, the records of the selective service related to military recruitment, they removed all records and materials from the selective service building and lit them on fire in the street, careful to prevent the burning of an adjacent theater.
While this was going on, nationalist leader Blanca Canales led another group to the town’s telephone station. They confronted the telephone operator and were able to cut the telephone lines without incident, preventing news of what was happening in Jayuya from spreading to colonial officials.
After completing this mission, Canales and her group headed to the town plaza where she raised the flag of Puerto Rico on the balcony of a hotel and declared Puerto Rico a free republic. After a crowd began to form, she gave a small speech explaining the purpose of the revolution and the desire of the nationalists to unite the country against colonial rule.
The following day, on October 31, the National Guard began an air-bombing campaign targeting Jayuya’s infrastructure, mountains, and sugar plantations, going on from there to do the same in Utuado, as previously mentioned. Able to maintain control of Jayuya for three days, the nationalists surrendered on November 2 when National Guard reinforcements began to arrive.
What happened in Jayuya during the Nationalist Insurrection of 1950 is of great symbolic and historical importance. The armed revolt was part of a much larger effort, led ideologically by Don Pedro, to resist colonialism in Puerto Rico. Recent developments coauthored by Luis Muñoz Marín and endorsed by President Truman were going to result in a strengthening of the factors that hold the structure of colonialism in place. The insurrection was the nationalist response to this.
- Albizu Campos y la Independencia de Puerto Rico, by Laura de Albizu Campos (Publicaciones Puertorriqueñas, 2007).
- Chapter XI: Declaration Regarding Non-Self-Governing Territories (Charter Of The United Nations).
- Island Rebels Ask U.N. To Investigate; Aide Of Puerto Rico Nationalists Deposits Request For Study Of Revolt As Threat To Peace (The New York Times, 3 November 1950).
- La Insurrección Nacionalista en Puerto Rico 1950, by Miñi Seijo Bruno (Editorial Edil, 1997).
- Pedro Albizu Campos: Escritos, edited by Laura Albizu-Campos Meneses and Fr. Mario A. Rodríguez León, O.P. (Publicaciones Puertorriqueñas, 2007).
- 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).