A Pioneer From Peru
Dr. Laura Meneses del Carpio was born in Arequipa, Peru on March 31, 1894. The youngest of three children, her father Juan Rosa Meneses del Pino was a Colonel in the Peruvian Army. Due to her father’s position in the military, Doña Laura traveled frequently. And due to the importance her parents placed on education, her father eventually took a position near the capital of Lima so that Doña Laura could attend the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, which she entered in 1911.
Already having a stellar academic background, she became the first woman to qualify for a distinguished honor award in a tie with another incoming male student. With university-educated women being a recent reality that was still the target of active male opposition, the award, which included a grant, was given to the male candidate.
In 1913, Doña Laura completed a bachelor’s degree and, in 1918, a doctorate degree, both in Natural Sciences. Born with a passion for music, she also graduated from a training she had been attending as a pianist. Although her piano instructor urged her to continue her studies in music rather than science, even writing letters of recommendation to U.S. music schools for her, Doña Laura decided to continue her education in the natural sciences and became the first Latin American woman to study in Harvard University.
When she entered Harvard’s female section of Radcliffe College, she was fluent in Spanish, English, and two indigenous languages of Peru, Quechua and Aymara. Because of her ancestry she also had a well-formed identity that went deeper than a Latin American perspective to include an Indigenous point of reference. Although enrolled in Radcliffe College, Doña Laura was allowed to attend classes in Harvard’s male campus since she already had such a high level of education. During her time in Harvard, she took twelve courses, earning an A in eleven and an A- in one.
One night, when attending an event organized by students to host the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, she met Don Pedro for the first time, mistaking him for someone of Indian descent due to his physical features. Formally introduced to him during a dinner not long after, they immediately began dating and establishing the relationship that lasted the rest of their lives. Doña Laura’s decision to move to Puerto Rico with Don Pedro dramatically changed the course of her life.
Living In Full Commitment To Liberation
When Doña Laura married Don Pedro in July 1922, because of the laws existing at the time in her home country, she lost her Peruvian citizenship and gained the U.S. citizenship her husband himself had received just a few years before in 1917. In deciding to move to Puerto Rico, she also made the decision to abandon her professional career. As her presence became known in Puerto Rico, Doña Laura was offered positions as a university professor that she declined on the principle of refusing to work within the colonial regime. In a 1957 letter to her daughter Laura Esperanza, Doña Laura said the following about how her life changed following her marriage to Don Pedro:
“Since I got married I have lived in that world that, in order not to become a mirage, demands the continuous oblation of our personality. For this I had to give up my most basic needs, my whims, my desires, my concerns. The only thing I did not renounce was my joy because I was next to your father whose greatness highlighted the superficiality of all things.”
Carrying and birthing two of Don Pedro’s children, Doña Laura was pregnant with their third when Don Pedro had to leave for his political tour of Latin America in 1927. To support his trip, Doña Laura agreed to sell all their furniture to raise the needed funds, and to take their children and live with her family in Peru for the duration of the trip.
After the family moved back to Puerto Rico together in 1930, Doña Laura returned to Peru in 1933 for a year in order to recover from a health condition she was battling. In that year she also served as the foreign delegate of the Nationalist Party in her first of many political roles at the international level.
After Don Pedro and the other nationalists were sent to Atlanta Penitentiary in 1937, Doña Laura went on to play a significant role in the campaign to secure their release. In 1938 she moved to New York City where she not only influenced the founding of an organization in support of the political prisoners—made up of elements from the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups—but she also influenced the founding of a similar group based in Mexico. In July of that year, she made the only trip to visit her husband in Atlanta Penitentiary that she was allowed—her countless other requests to visit him were denied. In 1939, she moved to Cuba and helped found yet another organization in support of the release of Don Pedro and the nationalists. Throughout her work with the campaign for the release of the nationalists, Doña Laura maintained a clear and consistent call for Puerto Rico’s independence.
In 1941, Doña Laura moved, at the insistence of her husband, to her family’s home in Lima, Peru with her children. From there she continued her work connected to Puerto Rico, maintaining a consistent correspondence with many leaders. Included among her frequent contacts were leaders within the American Civil Liberties Union, which played a significant role in relaying information they obtained from Atlanta Penitentiary prison officials to both Doña Laura and politicians in Washington, D.C.
During this period in Peru Doña Laura lived a very humble life where money was very difficult to obtain. For much of this time she wove sweaters that her counterpart Juan Juarbe, a devoted nationalist that was her living partner for many years, would sell. In these years following 1937, Doña Laura distinguished herself as a leader of international advocacy work related to the release of the nationalists in prison and independence for Puerto Rico.
An International Legacy
When Doña Laura finally returned to Puerto Rico in April 1948 to be with her husband, she was informed that her U.S. citizenship was revoked and that she was not a recognized citizen of any country. In May 1950, colonial repression in Puerto Rico reached a level that forced her to move to and center her work once again in Cuba. Doña Laura’s activism not only continued for the next two decades, up to her physical death on April 15, 1973, but it actually increased. The colonial narrative of the Commonwealth government, which was being put in place in a very careful and strategic way, placed a heightened importance on providing information on Puerto Rico at the international level that countered the biased and misleading reports provided by the U.S. and/or colonial government. Doña Laura played a tremendous role in supporting and organizing these efforts.
Following the March 1954 attack on congress, Doña Laura was targeted by the Cuban regime of dictator Fulgencio Batista and was forced to make her way to Mexico, where she continued her work. In Mexico by April, her residence became a meeting place for activists and revolutionaries from many countries. Most notably, she was frequently visited by Fidel Castro, Ernesto ‘Ché’ Guevara, and others of the Cuban 26th of July Movement. At one point, all the movement’s writings were given to Doña Laura for editing before they were publicized. After the successful overthrow of the Batista regime in 1959, Doña Laura immediately moved back to Cuba to support the revolutionary changes taking place there.
With Cuba as a secure base of support, Doña Laura continued her international advocacy for the independence of Puerto Rico and the release of her husband, still in prison and in worse health than ever. In November 1959, she attended an international congress in Chile, afterwards making her way to a few other South American countries. In March 1960, she attended the 50th anniversary of International Women’s Day in Copenhagen. From there she visited China, where she was able to meet and speak with Mao Tse Tung, and then Paris and Madrid.
After returning to Cuba, she was granted, on January 18, 1961, Cuban citizenship in addition to becoming an official delegate for Cuba within the United Nations. From that year until 1966 she sat in all meetings of the UN General Assembly in New York City and spoke as the official representative of the Republic of Cuba.
Doña Laura was able to be present for the physical death of her husband, and his funeral. She never stopped working in support of Puerto Rico’s independence. She led in the formation of several organizations, spoke at international congresses, directly supported revolutionary movements, and much more. Doña Laura’s own physical death at 79 years of age in 1973 was the result of a ruptured brain aneurysm. Amazingly, doctors noted their surprise that she had lived so long because her brain aneurysm was congenital, a condition present at birth usually resulting in a lifespan of about 20 years. Her body was interred in the Colón Cemetery of Havana, Cuba the following day on April 16.
- Albizu Campos y la Independencia de Puerto Rico, by Laura de Albizu Campos (Publicaciones Puertorriqueñas, 2007).
- Pedro Albizu Campos: Las Llamas de la Aurora- Acercamiento a su Biografía, by Marisa Rosado (Ediciones Puerto, 2008).
- Una Vida de Amor y Sacrificio, by Cristina Meneses Albizu-Campos (Publicaciones Puertorriqueñas, 2009).