Myths Surrounding the Gag Law (Ley de la Mordaza) and the Use of the Puerto Rican Flag

Who could use the Puerto Rican flag was a disputed issue in the 1930s. But it is not because it was prohibited. In fact it was widely unofficially used as the territory’s flag. In the early 1930s, the Nacionalistas, under the leadership of Albizu Campos, made clear that the flag belonged to them. Throughout this period, socialistas and liberales who used the Puerto Rican flag became the targets of nationalist violence.

On April 12, 1932, Albizu Campos and some eight hundred followers stormed the Puerto Rican legislature after being informed that the single star with five stripes flag designed by Puerto Rican exiles in New York in 1895 had been made the official flag of the island. In the scuffle trying to reach the legislative chambers, the rail of the stairs collapsed and a Nacionalista died.
Socialist leader, Santiago Iglesias Pantín, blamed the police for being too lenient and attributed their leniency to the fact that the Nacionalistas were from the middle and upper classes. Had they been from the working class, Santiago Iglesias commented, “all their heads would have been cracked.” Albizu Campos threatened the chief of Insular Police with death if a single Nacionalista died during the 1932 elections.
(See Negroni, Historia militar de Puerto Rico, 450–54; Mathews, La política puertorriqueña y el Nuevo Trato, 248–49; Bayrón Toro, Elecciones y partidos políticos de Puerto Rico, 182; and Maldonado, Luis Muñoz Marín, 89–90.)

Two decades later, nationalist leader, Pedro Albizu Campos, who had been convicted of sedition and conspiracy to overthrow the government of the United States in 1937, returned to Puerto Rico from New York City on December 15, 1947, four years after been released from federal prison on probation.[i]  He immediately started a campaign to derail the PPD’s projects and ordered the mobilization of the Ejército Libertador once more.

Only a day after his return Albizu Campos held a press conference and warned the U.S. that after depleting all peaceful means to obtain independence, the “Nationalist Party would resort  to the use of force to attain its goals.”[ii]  His threats also targeted Muñoz Marín.  Albizu Campos declared that “Muñoz must be stopped, and we will stop him.”  Muñoz Marín publicly warned Albizu Campos to abstain from violence.  Albizu Campos responded  by questioning Muñoz Marín’s Puertorriqueñidad while demanding that the Puerto Ricans abstain from voting in the 1948 general elections.[iii]

He also condemned school instruction in English in Puerto Rico, declared that “every person serving in the Selective Service Boards should be shot”, and commanded the Nacionalistas to start arming themselves with “revolvers, rifles, guns, shotguns, knives and daggers to defend the cause of the Revolution.”[iv]  Despite Muñoz Marín’s warnings Albizu Campos’s campaign continued unabated.  On September 23, 1950, during the anniversary of the Lares Revolt of 1868, he addressed the crowd gathered in Lares’ Plaza Pública. He spoke against P.L. 600 and harshly condemned the participation of Puerto Rican soldiers in the Korean War.  He ended his speech by calling the Puerto Ricans to defy the U.S. and its colonial pawns in the same way that “the men of Lares defied despotism, with revolution!”[v]

That the Nacionalistas were planning a coup or insurrection was hardly a secret.  Emboldened by the apparent inaction of the insular government, Albizu Campos continued his call to arms against the U.S. and its representatives in the Island; Muñoz Marín, the Populares, and anyone who served, worked, or were in any way related to the metropolis.

In his speeches, Pedro Albizu Campos defied the hated Gag Law (Ley de la mordaza) of 1948. Jesus T. Piñero, as appointed governor of the Island, signed Law 53 (the Gag Law’s insular nomenclature) on June 10 1948.  Muñoz Marín was still the president of the insular senate, and Puerto Rico’s most powerful politician, when the bill was passed.

The Gag Law declared a felony to persuade people or to plead for overthrowing the Island’s government by violence or force.  Printing or publishing any material encouraging people to engage in such activities and creating any kind of organization to carry out any of these acts became felonies under this law.

The law, which was derogated in 1957, closely resembled the U.S. Alien Registration Act (also known as the Smith Act) passed by Congress on 29 June, 1940.  This act made it illegal for anyone in the United States to advocate, abet, or teach the desirability of overthrowing the government.[i]

A month earlier, the Insular Police had established the Internal Security Unit, which worked closely with the local FBI unit to keep the Nacionalistas, Communists and Independentistas under surveillance. While Communists and other left groups were the primary target of the Smith Act, the insular version was instrumental in the suppression of Nacionalistas and  other independentista groups in Puerto Rico. The insular government, despite appearances, was not inactive with regard to the nationalist threat.

Despite personal and popular accounts, the Puerto Rican flag and what would become the anthem of the ELA, la Borinqueña, were not prohibited neither was possessing the flag or singing the la Borinqueña admitted as evidence to sentence people to jail.

Actually, what would become the official ELA flag was widely in use in Puerto Rico. When the 65th returned to the island after serving in Africa, Italy, France and Germany during WWII, they were received by tens of thousands of people waving both the US and the Puerto Rican flag. Both the 65th and the Puerto Rico National Guard used the flag.

The march of the 65th, el sesenta y cinco or the Borinqueneers, was actually La Borinqueña, and their version became the official anthem of Puerto Rico in 1952.

Moreover, not only were people not thrown in jail for owning the Puerto Rican flag but during the Korean War (1950-53), leading elements of the 65th involved in an attack would carry the flag to raise it after taking enemy positions.

Not only do we have many accounts and news of these events but we also have the pictures as it was part of a deal to reform the colony and thus, portraying the Puerto Rican colors in local, national and international news was a very effective publicity campaign used by the US and the architects of the commonwealth to claim that Puerto Rico was no longer a colony.

On October 12, 1950, the press announced that the 65th was fighting in Korea. The mood that day came to resemble a holiday more than anything else.  The Island’s newspapers were full of stories, pictures of the 65th, and the ceremonies held previous to their departure.  The private sector joined the chorus with paid advertisements wishing the 65th a prompt return, and exhorting Puerto Rican soldiers to uphold the ideals of democracy and freedom.  In both leading newspapers, El Mundo and El Imparcial, the tone was the same.  The latter proclaimed, “As it was yet another symbol of the United Nations, under the American flag flies the flag of the 65th Infantry Regiment, this flag flies today in Korea.”[i]  The colors of the 65th came to represent not only the regiment, but Puerto Rico as a whole. [ii]  Soon the Puerto Rican soldiers in Korea would carry the official flag of the commonwealth into battle.

Excerpt from Soldiers of the Nation, Military Service and Modern Puerto Rico, 1868-1952

0. Cover_65th PR Soldiers in Korea_1952.1pr_bullet_riddled_flag_kb_140613_16x9_608

00_PRFlag_Presented to _65th_Infantry_Korea_1952

12. PR Soldiers Read ELA's Constitution March 19 195213. Chaplain blesses PR Flag in Korea 1952.300

[i] Mathews, La política Puertorriqueña y el Nuevo Trato, 249; and Maldonado, Puerto Rico’s Democratic Revolution, 147-48. On March 5, 1936, Albizu Campos and other seven Nationalist leaders were arrested and charged with sedition and conspiracy to overthrow the government of the United States The next month, a Federal Grand Jury submitted accusations against Albizu Campos and other leaders of the party.

[ii] Seijo Bruno, La insurrección nacionalista, 39.

[iii] A balance account of the public confrontation, mostly through discourses, radio speeches and commentaries to the press, can be found in Rosario Natal, “Muñoz y Albizu: el choque en la víspera de la insurrección”, 309-341.

[iv] Seijo Bruno, La insurrección nacionalista, 40.

[v] Seijo Bruno, La insurrección nacionalista, 42-43 citing Albizu Campos, Paredón Records, P-2501.

[i] The U.S. Alien Registration Act also required all alien residents in the United States over fourteen years of age to file a comprehensive statement of their personal and occupational status and a record of their political beliefs. Within four months a total of 4,741,971 aliens had been registered. See Díaz Soler, Puerto Rico: Sus luchas por alcanzar estabilidad económica, definición política y afirmación cultural, 319-323.

[i] El Imparcial de Puerto Rico, November 12, 1950, CPUPRM.

[ii] El Imparcial de Puerto Rico, November 12, 1950, CPUPRM.


  1. You should really look at the charges brought against thousands of Puerto Ricans and see that they were sentenced for possessing a flag…..


    • That is exactly the argument. That no one has ever produced a court record to show that a single Puerto Rican ever went to jail for possessing the flag. Not once. So if you have the evidence – public court records- please produce them.


  2. I have been seeking the actual text of Ley 53. so far my search has been fruitless. can you provide a source of the direct verbiage of Law 53?


    • Someone sent it to me a couple years ago. I can’t find the file. But I posted it on FB wall. I’m sure someone will send it. I’ll send it to you then.


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