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2007-03-22

Remembering Puerto Rico’s Ponce Massacre

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In Puerto Rico, Wednesday marked the 70th anniversary of the Ponce massacre. On March 21st, 1937, 19 people were killed and more than one hundred wounded when police opened fire on a demonstration calling for independence from the United States. The day is considered a defining event in Puerto Rico’s history of struggle against US domination. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to Puerto Rico, where the seventieth anniversary of the Ponce massacre has passed. On March 21, 1937, nineteen people were killed and more than 100 wounded when police opened fire on a demonstration calling for independence from the United States. The day is considered a defining event in Puerto Rico’s history of struggle against US domination.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan-Manuel Garcia-Passalacqua is a well-known Puerto Rican attorney, radio host and political analyst. He joins us now on the line from Puerto Rico. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Juan-Manuel.

JUAN-MANUEL GARCIA-PASSALACQUA: It’s a pleasure, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of this date, of March 21, yesterday, in fact?

JUAN-MANUEL GARCIA-PASSALACQUA: It is no coincidence that on the date of the commemoration of the abolition of our slavery and of the Ponce massacre that intended to celebrate it, precisely today the American Congress takes up at a hearing in an hour what to do with the eight million Puerto Ricans. And I am sure Juan will know that in my column today in El Vocero here, I have requested that they hear him and that he should send all members of the committee a copy of his brilliant book Harvest of Empire that explains it all. So I am very glad to be with you today, and don’t forget to tune in at 10:00, because the Congress, for the first time in 107 years, is going to listen to the diaspora.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Juan-Manuel, for many Americans who don’t know anything about the Ponce massacre, it would be good to sort of give the framework of what happened. And clearly, I think, Albizu Campos, the great Nationalist leader, had just been sentenced to prison on sedition charges for ten years in prison, and this protest was actually a protest to free Albizu, wasn’t it?

JUAN-MANUEL GARCIA-PASSALACQUA: Well, the whole demonstration was directed at the commemoration of the abolition of slavery, and one of the examples that slavery had continued after its abolition was precisely that Pedro Albizu Campos was imprisoned by the United States. The important thing about this celebration, commemoration — however you want to call it — is that the governor, Blanton Winship, was the one that ordered the massacre, the American governor who was a military governor with experience in the killing of Sandino in Nicaragua, and that that particular order has been transformed into a brilliant movie here by one of our best authors, called Revolucion en el Infierno, which I recommend to anybody that has a CD, because you can ask for it at the Ateneo, and it will show. The fascinating thing about that, Juan, is that its author took up the experience that his uncle told him, because his uncle was one of the wounded in the Ponce massacre. So we have now a visual testimony of what happened that day, that I recommend to all your listeners. It is really espelosnante.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to actually ask Juan, Juan-Manuel, to read from his book Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America. Tell us who described this massacre, Juan.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, actually, I was born in Ponce, the city where the massacre occurred, and my family was from there, and so actually, as I was doing research on the book, I started interviewing my own family members. It turned out one of my aunts, Graciela Ramos, who just recently passed away, was a Nationalist at the time, was dating one of the Nationalist cadets who was supposed to participate in the protest that day. But he decided instead to go on a picnic with my aunt, who was sixteen at the time, and so both my aunts, a younger one, who was just a little girl at the time, described to me what happened that day. And I have about a paragraph or two in my book on it.

“The day was Palm Sunday, March 21, 1937. My aunt Graciela was sixteen and caught up in the Nationalist fervor at the time. Luckily, she decided to skip the march that day and go on a picnic with her sisters, Ana and Pura. They all trekked up to El Vigia, the magnificent hilltop estate of the Seralles family, owners of the Don Q rum distillery. From the rolling castle grounds you can look down on all of Ponce. Pura, who was a child at the time, recalls that shortly after the Nationalists gathered, the church bells began to ring, and when she looked down the mountain toward the plaza she saw people scattering in all directions. A young woman they knew ran up to them, screaming, "There’s a massacre in the town. The Nationalists and the soldiers are fighting. The hospital is full of wounded." When the smoke had cleared, 21 were dead and 150 were wounded. A human rights commission would later report that all had been gunned down by police. It was the biggest massacre in Puerto Rican history.

"After the Palm Sunday Massacre, hysteria and near civil war swept the island. Nationalists were hunted and arrested on sight. Some headed for exile in New York City or Havana. Graciela, our family’s only Nationalist Party member, decided that nothing could be won by fighting the Americans. With Albizu [Campos] in jail and the Nationalist ranks decimated, she abandoned the party." And, of course, within a few years, most of my family then came to the United States. So it was clearly a —

AMY GOODMAN: Although they were part of the United States.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, but to the continental United States. And clearly it was the seminal event in Puerto Rico and had enormous impact on the independence movement, didn’t it, Juan-Manuel?

JUAN-MANUEL GARCIA-PASSALACQUA: Juan, I can’t describe much better than you, what you have just said. And that’s why I insisted in writing that you be cited and called to testify at those hearings either today or on April 25, when they continue, because the present congress of the United States does not know that story. And again, Ramos-Perea and his uncle and you and your aunt should be there. The dead still can’t speak, so please make an effort, Juan — you know how much I respect you and your work — to be there and testify and tell them this story, that today Democracy Now! transmits in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan-Manuel, we did a piece just before we turned to you about a family that just went to Canada. Their plane had been brought down in Puerto Rico because of an emergency on the plane, and they didn’t realize — they were an Iranian family — that they were in the United States when they came to Puerto Rico, which brings me to the question — and what Juan was talking about — for people who are not aware of Puerto Rican history, explain how it was seventy years ago that Puerto Rico was a part of the United States.

JUAN-MANUEL GARCIA-PASSALACQUA: Well, again, Amy, the problem with that is that in the case regarding the Guantanamo prisoners, just the 7th of February, the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia said that Puerto Rico is not part of the United States, has never been part of the United States, citing the case that said that, Balzac v. Porto Rico, that called Puerto Rico — and this is one of the most fantastic quotes that the Supreme Court of the United States has ever invented — "appurtenant [and belonging] to […], but not part of the United States" of America. So just a few days ago, again, the highest court under the Supreme Court of the United States said, again, what Balzac said: Puerto Rico is appurtenant to, but not part of the United States, and — and I’m quoting again from the decision in In re Guantanamo and Boumediene v. Bush — Puerto Rico is "foreign in a domestic sense." Whatever that means. So that’s why the hearings are being called today, because the manure has hit the ventilator.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And also, that conclusion has also, to some degree, been reached by the Puerto Rican government itself, because recently —

JUAN-MANUEL GARCIA-PASSALACQUA: Exactly, Juan.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Maybe you can explain the whole issue that arose with Juan Mari Bras and the decision — I think it was last fall — of the Puerto Rican government to now issue citizenship papers that are distinct Puerto Rican citizenship papers, as opposed to American citizenship papers, in Puerto Rico. Could you explain that?

JUAN-MANUEL GARCIA-PASSALACQUA: Well, the interesting thing, Juan, is that the bills, both bills — HR 900 and HR 1230 — that are being considered at the hearings today in an hour, both admit — and this is the most relevant thing of what’s going to happen today —- that Juan Mari Bras was right and there is such a thing as Puerto Rican citizenship that is not American citizenship. And, again -—

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Juan Mari Bras, for those people who don’t know him, was the former leader of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, who renounced his American citizenship and then was for a while stateless until this court decision on Puerto Rico came down.

JUAN-MANUEL GARCIA-PASSALACQUA: Exactly, and he was taken to court by statehooders, and he won the case in the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico that issues a brilliant opinion. And again, the fascinating thing, Juan, is that this development, the recognition of the Juan Mari Bras theory and the crisis posed by the cases of In re Guantanamo and Boumediene v. United States have been brought up in the Congress of the United States by two leaders of the diaspora — Jose Serrano, who, as you know, is a Mayaguez-Bronx combination, and Luis Gutierrez, who is a Chicago-San Sebastian combination. So I am very proud, and you’ll see my column in El Vocero today in the internet, of this enormous fact that for the first time in history, in 107 years, the initiative and the leadership on the future of Puerto Rico has gone to leaders of the diaspora. And so, I’m so glad.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan, very quickly, as you outline in Harvest of Empire, just a thumbnail history of Puerto Rico. 1898, what happened, to today, where Puerto Rico stands today.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, clearly, I mean, the Spanish-American War, which was a defining war in terms of creating an overseas empire for the United States, as a result of the Spanish-American War, one of the prizes that the United States got in the Treaty of Paris was the territory of Puerto Rico, which it occupied during the war, and initially General Nelson Miles came in promising freedom to the Puerto Rican people, but then the United States never left and continued to occupy the island, first under a military government, then under a civilian government with US-appointed officials running it. And then, until the 1940s, when it allowed a certain degree of autonomy, but always within the understanding that Puerto Rico was a territorial possession of the United States.

JUAN-MANUEL GARCIA-PASSALACQUA: Exactly.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And so that you’ve had this problem, this contradiction now for more than a century. Puerto Ricans were declared citizens in 1917, even though the entire legislature of Puerto Rico opposed the citizenship at that time — well, the majority did — so that you have a situation where Puerto Ricans are legally citizens is that they aren’t legally citizens but — they are legally citizens, but actually their territory is considered a possession of the United States, and therefore have lived in a second-class citizenship status, in a colonial citizenship status, in essence, now for close to a hundred years.

JUAN-MANUEL GARCIA-PASSALACQUA: Amy, if I can add just one thing to what Juan has just said, it is very important to understand that that condition, that reality that we are living today, for the first time again is being considered today in an hour in the Congress of the United States, as it exists. And the reason for that, Amy, is that the Gulf War has made it understandable that the United States is an empire and that it has colonies. Iraq is the latest colony. The thing is that Iraq was colonized because of its oil, and Puerto Rico was colonized because it was a calling station for the Navy. And that realization — and I quote the eight books in my column today from Harvard, Yale, Duke and other universities — eight books have admitted that the Gulf War invasion is equivalent to the Puerto Rican invasion of 1898, citizenship or not. So we’re in new times.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan-Manuel, we’re going to have to leave it there. But just very — in one five-second response, what is the poll of Puerto Ricans in their attitude to the war in Iraq?

JUAN-MANUEL GARCIA-PASSALACQUA: Oh, here, the sad thing is that only persons that look for jobs in the military have gone to that war for —

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Juan-Manuel Garcia-Passalacqua, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Puerto Rican analyst and radio host, speaking to us from San Juan.

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