Soldiers of the Nation, Chapter 4, Excerpt


War against the Yankees!

Prelude to the Battle over Modern Puerto Rico

Nationalism has organized and mobilized the vital strength of Puerto Rico to counter the enemy. The nation has passed from passive resistance to counterattack. The entire nation has condemned these killings and it is firm in its resolution that they will not be repeated. . . . It is the plan to exterminate the Puerto Ricans. But Nationalism has destroyed all Yankee inventions. The enemy has now left only the traditional arms of assassination. The country will vindicate the killings of its heroes, Pagán, Quiñones, Rodríguez-Vega, and Santiago. The Yankee Chief of police, Colonel Francis Riggs, has declared to the nation that there will be war. The Nationalists recognize his frankness and pick up the glove. There will be war. War against the Yankees!

—Pedro Albizu Campos, November 2, 19351

The 1930s in Puerto Rico were marked by economic distress and political instability. The economic misfortunes of the island were not simply a matter of the metropolis’ economic problems extending to its colonies. Puerto Rico’s problems had started before the Great Depression. As the Depression castigated the U.S. mainland, it aggravated preexisting conditions on the island. Puerto Rico’s dire economic picture—an unemployed or overworked, underpaid, malnourished rural population and a rapidly failing urban sector—stirred widespread discontent.

As hunger became the norm, the economic situation  led to political violence. A virulent Nacionalista anti-American campaign and the colonial authorities’ belligerent and often criminal persecution of the Nacionalistas characterized this decade. The Nacionalistas, however, were not passive victims; they fought back to the point that the island came to be called “America’s Ireland” or the “Ireland of the Caribbean.”2 In fact, before U.S entrance into World War II, the metropolis and its colonial administrators used the militarized Puerto Rico Insular Police to fight a brief war against the Nacionalistas’ political wing and their paramilitary units. The fear of social unrest during the early 1930s, followed by a reign of political violence, forced the federal government to take a closer look at the island’s economic and political situation.

As economic distress afflicting the island turned into political discontent, emerging political leaders Pedro Albizu Campos and Luis Muñoz Marín used such discontent to further their own projects. The history of the rise of Albizu Campos and the Nacionalistas is well known. Albizu Campos was born in Ponce on September 12, 1891. His maternal grandmother had been a slave. His mother, and afro-Puerto Rican domestic worker, died in his childhood. His father, Alejandro Albizu Romero, came from a  wealthy family of Spanish immigrants. Albizu Campos received a scholarship to study at the University of Vermont after graduating with honors from the Ponce High School in 1912, a school mostly reserved for Puerto Rico’s southern white elite. After two years in Vermont he transferred to Harvard University and graduated in 1917. He then volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army during World War I. After completing the officers training camp at Las Casas, he earned the rank of first lieutenant in 1918. He was honorably discharged in April 1919 from the 375th Regiment, an outfit created on the island for black Puerto Ricans. Albizu Campos resumed his studies in Harvard after the war, eventually graduating with a law degree in 1923. During his later years at Harvard he became an admirer of the Sinn Fein Irish separatist movement. He returned to Puerto Rico after marrying Laura Meneses, a Radcliffe-educated Peruvian, and joined the Unionistas as a staunchly pro-independence champion. However, when he was not selected by the Unionista leadership as a candidate to the legislature in 1924, he joined the Nationalist Party, created by Unionista dissenters.3 Eventually Albizu Campos came to believe any means, including a violent campaign, should be employed to free the island of the American grip (which he identified as the cause of all of Puerto Rico’s troubles). He thus waged war against the colonial authorities, hoping that the Puerto Rican masses would rise up and expel the Americans.

Luis Muñoz Marín, the bohemian “bard of politics” and patrician heir of Luis Muñoz Rivera, would spend the 1930s vacillating between socialist ideals (especially the socioeconomic restructuration of the island) and his belief in attaining independence via peaceful means. He was a self-proclaimed Nacionalista and advocate of independence, and he rejected violence, preferring political means and preserving good relations with the United States to achieve that goal. Although in the mid-1930s his fortunes indicated otherwise, shortly before U.S. entry into World War II Muñoz Marín would emerge as the dominant political leader.

Both Albizu Campos and Muñoz Marín benefited and suffered immensely from the same conditions plaguing the island. What transpired during these years of political violence was also a battle for control of Puerto Rican identities. Albizu Campos had no chance of militarily overthrowing the colonial government. However, though tactically insignificant from a military point of view, the Nacionalistas’ daring attacks against the metropolis’s agents fulfilled their intended role; these attacks gained local, national, and international attention to Albizu Campos’s cause. His movement, however, had little possibility of success if it could not turn Puerto Ricans against Americans. Using Hispanic and Catholic iconography for his party and paramilitary units, and emphasizing Spanish traditions and conservatism, were but a call to the Puerto Ricans to see themselves as completely different from continental [1]Americans. Albizu Campos was appealing to what he believed was Puerto Rico’s true national identity. Eventually the Nacionalistas would challenge not only the American presence but also the legitimacy of the Insular Police and the U.S. Army and National Guard units on the island as truly Puerto Rican or as national institutions representative of the Puerto Ricans. In this regard, the Nacionalistas paramilitary units played an important role in winning the support of popular sectors.

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