Dr. Manuel de la Pila Iglesias
Many are the stories of Pedro Albizu Campos that portray the impact of his character. While going through the oral history with Ruth Reynolds held at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies (Hunter College, CUNY), I came across one that particularly grabbed my attention. Related to Ruth by Don Pedro in later years, it took place in early October 1950 in Ponce. The occasion was the passing of 65-year-old Dr. Manuel de la Pila Iglesias, a significant medical figure in Puerto Rico who grew up and based his practice in Ponce.
Born November 16, 1882, in Spain, Dr. Manuel de la Pila Iglesias was brought by his mother to Ponce three years later after the death of his father and brother. Attending university for medicine in both Ponce and Barcelona, Dr. Pila went on to study in several other countries and cities. The clinic in Ponce he established in 1925 became the Hospital Metropolitano Dr. Pila that still runs today. Going on to found organizations and influence the passing of Puerto Rico’s first health insurance legislature, Dr. Pila was recognized by the Catholic Church and knighted into the Order of Saint Gregory by Pope Pio XI on November 15, 1930. Chosen to be part of a group tasked to develop a study on the possibility of opening a medical school in the University of Puerto Rico, his work helped pave the way for the medical schools now existing today in Puerto Rico. Known as el Médico de Médicos, he died suddenly on October 5, 1950 in an automobile accident.
Speaking Truth To Power
Due to the high standing of Dr. Pila in Ponce, most of the local economic and political elite showed up to his funeral services to pay respects to the life of their distinguished peer. Among this group of notables was Don Pedro. As Don Pedro casually mingled with all of them, someone finally asked him, “What do you feel about the future economically of this country?” Don Pedro calculated his words and said:
“We can judge the future in terms of the past. You and you and you and I were boys together. We didn’t all know each other… but we went through the same period here in Ponce. And we got to know each other a little bit later. My father was a property owner. So was yours, so was yours, so was yours.”
Don Pedro continued in this way, inquiring into the current status of each family. All had lost the land they once owned. One ran a candy factory under constant threat of price wars. All had sent their sons to the United States for their education. Two of their sons stayed to work in managerial positions, while the other worked in a managerial position for an American company in Ponce.
Don Pedro left his small audience in a silence when he concluded:
“Your fathers were property owners, you professional businessmen, but in charge of your own lives. Your sons, no. So what is that future of this country economically, if it does not have independence?
There comes a time in the history of every country when the propertied classes, those who have felt it to their convenience to cooperate with the regime, they come to realize that if not for their own sakes, for the sake of their children and their grandchildren, they have to take a different stand. Are you gentlemen approaching that time?”
Honoring The Fallen
Privately a supporter of the independence of Puerto Rico, Dr. Pila wished that in death his position on the status question be recognized. For this reason, his widow directly asked Don Pedro to provide the funeral oration on the following day, which he agreed to do.
With the political and economic elite again in attendance, several gave speeches. A priest urged the audience to pray that Dr. Pila should not spend much time in purgatory. Another person spoke of all the virtues of a doctor that Dr. Pila exemplified.
Then, Don Pedro began speaking, quickly grabbing everyone’s attention:
“We’ve heard some remarks on the virtues of Dr. Pila, but everyone knows I would not be here if he had not made contributions in another sphere… Now he was a Spaniard by birth, he was not a Puerto Rican by birth, but his contribution… to Puerto Rico’s freedom has been greater than that of almost anyone in Ponce. And that must be recognized in death.
We’ve heard priests, we’ve been urged to pray for the soul of Dr. Pila that he may not remain long in purgatory. I tell you today that today Dr. Pila is sitting at the right hand of God and we should pray to Dr. Pila for ourselves that he may intervene for us so that we may not have to spend [a] long time in purgatory.”
Stunned, one of the previous speakers fainted and had to be carried away.
Such was the impact of the presence and words of Pedro Albizu Campos. He spoke truth to power with a clarity able to penetrate the core of all bearing witness. In the story above, he spoke convincingly of the need to make personal sacrifices to end the economic domination of Puerto Rico by the United States, and as a first step in asserting the nation’s right to independence. He also spoke of the honor in dying as a supporter of Puerto Rico’s independence, even if one’s support of such in life was not particularly visible.
What is interesting about this event is that it is taking place in a moment when both surveillance on Don Pedro and tension between the government and the Nationalist Party is at its height. Just a few weeks later, Don Pedro would order the start of an island-wide revolt that also resulted in an armed attack on the president of the United States.
- The Ruth M. Reynolds Papers, Center for Puerto Rican Studies Library and Archives (Hunter College, CUNY).