A Bicentennial Without a Puerto Rican Colony

by Piri Thomas (1975)

Published in The Crisis, December 1975. As the United States prepared to celebrate the Bicentennial of the American revolution of 1776, anti-imperialists sought to call the nation back to its anti-colonial routes. A focus of many activists was the continuing U.S. control of the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, which the U.S. has occupied since 1898.

When the founders of the United States affirmed the inalienable right of nations to be free, they hardly had Puerto Rico on their minds. Yet, what was held to be philosophically pure for the thirteen colonies of 1776, is true today for the colony of Puerto Rico.

The United States revolution of 1776 loses validity in light of Puerto Rico's colonial situation under the Stars and Stripes. The plight of the Puerto Rican people is similar to that of the Euro-American settlers under the thumb-screw of British imperialism.

In 1776 England was responsible for draining the natural resources and manufacturing products from the colonies, without concern for the well-being of its colonial subjects. In 1976 the United States rapes Puerto Rico to the tune that it invests 25 percent of the amount it invests in Canada; yet, it reaps identical profits from both. In 1776 the colonists raised the demand of "no taxation without representation," which as a battle cry of resistance became the slogan for revolution. Today in 1976, Puerto Ricans who live on the Island cannot vote for President, nor does the representative in Congress have the vote. But the vote is hardly the issue; independence has become the rallying point for revolution. In 1776 the Crown, both directly and indirectly, controlled virtually every aspect of life in the colonies; today in 1976 the United States maintains an iron grip over Puerto Rico.

The yoke of King George was not destroyed in 1776; it merely changed hands. That yoke was captured by those who usurped the revolution of 1776, and it was then used to slaughter Native Americans and Mexicans under the hideous pretext of "manifest destiny." In 1898 that yoke was fastened around the collective neck of the Puerto Rican Nation.

But today, less than one hundred years after the ignominious capture of our Island from Spain, we stand poised on the threshold of our national liberation. We have declared our rights over and over: in the cry of Lares in 1868, which declared the First Republic; in the cry of Jayuya in 1950, which declared the Second Republic; in the United Nations in 1973, when the General Assembly voted to recognize the colonial status of Puerto Rico and its right to self-determination; the more recent conferences of the non-aligned nations, who have granted observer status to the National Liberation Movement of Puerto Rico; and in the glorious declaration from the Havana Conference in support of Puerto Rican independence, held last September and attended by delegates from 79 nations!

So the yoke of bondage has passed from England to the United States. Empire begets empire! Where once diametrically opposed, King George and Uncle Sam today share the blood-stained bed of oppressing the peoples of the Third World. For Puerto Rico, one nation of people residing both in the Island and in the United States, it is our right to turn upside down the matrimony of these imperial lovers and remake the bed so to sleep between the clean sheets of freedom and democracy!

Puerto Rico is the easternmost island of the Greater Antilles, which also include Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. Puerto Rico's land area includes smaller offshore islands, islets, and keys; most notable is Culebra, famous for its use as target practice by the United States Navy.

When Christopher Columbus landed in Puerto Rico, he believed he had opened a new passage to the Indies. He called the inhabitants of the Island Indians, believing that Puerto Rico lay off the Indian coast.

The roots of Borinquen (the original Indian name for the island) were trampled from the beginning of the European presence, where it was colonially renamed Puerto Rico, "rich port" by some lost sea captain who called himself Christopher Columbus. The worst mistake the Caribe Indians made was in discovering that lost and confused person who had, no doubt, gotten his directions from Leif Ericson. Columbus and the conquistadores who followed him knew only how to plunder. Their modern counterparts, the business interests and armies of the United States, are still raping the earth and have now set their sights on the universe.

The natives who greeted Columbus were in fact members of the fierce Arawaks and peaceful Tainos, who lived on the shores as fishermen. Columbus claimed their land in the name of Spain, and opened the door to Western exploiters who came in droves to colonize the Island.

They brought soldiers, money-hungry businessmen, priests, and opportunists. who burned with the fever only gold could cure. They brutally reduced the native population to near extinction by means of slavery, cruelty, and murderous extermination. Men, women, and children were set to work digging for the yellow metal, the precious gold

A similar fate awaited the natives of the so-called New England states. Welcoming the Anglo invaders with open arms, the Indians of North America helped them survive the harsh winter, then wakened in the spring to find themselves facing down the murderous barrels of Pilgrim muskets.

Black slaves were brought to Caribbean islands in the same European-forged chains which dragged other native Africans to the cotton fields of the South. In both areas, Europeans came to settle and exploit the land. In Puerto Rico, they also brought a large number of Chinese as cheap labor, one minuscule half-step removed from the bonds of human slavery.

Unlike the United States, in Puerto Rico the different races mixed and intermingled to create the modern Puerto Rican, who is largely an asopao (stew) of many different races and hues. To the racist Spaniards' point of view, this intermingling created a "mongrel" race; but from the point of view of Puerto Rico, it began forming the cultural basis for nationhood.

Today, Puerto Rico is a microcosm of the world, a true melting pot; unlike the United States, where people of different backgrounds live apart and insulated from each other. In the United States, racism has been part of the scene since its importation from Europe. George Washington, whose famous portrait depicts him courageously crossing the ice-clogged Delaware, actually had dozens of slaves to serve his needs through the "cold, cruel" winter at Valley Forge.

Throughout the history of the United States, white supremacy has backed its ridiculous claims with a discrimination bent upon dehumanizing Third World Peoples and keeping them in bondage through intimidation and murder.

Thus it was with ease that the United States would settle into the oppression of the Puerto Rican colony, seized from a crippled Spain during the Spanish-American War, a war started when the United States allegedly sank its own ship, the U.S.S. Maine, in Cuban waters. Not surprisingly, the same General Miles who led the Massacre of Wounded Knee also led the United States Army against Spain in Puerto Rico.

Since that time in 1898, the United States has looked upon Puerto Rico as belonging to the United States, but hardly a part of it. Puerto Rico has always had an immense strategic value for the United States. The Island lies over 1,500 miles southeast of New York almost five hundred miles east of Cuba, and about a thousand miles from Miami.

Thus, during Congressional hearings on the Jones Act, the 1917 law which forced citizenship on all Puerto Ricans, Congressman Cooper of Wisconsin declared:

"We are never to give up Puerto Rico for, now that we have completed the Panama Canal, the retention of the island becomes very important to the safety of the Canal, and in that way to the safety of the nation itself. It helps to make the Gulf of Mexico an American lake. . ."

But the United States inherited something it perhaps hadn't anticipated: the indomitable will of the people of Borinquen to be free and independent. Already in 1867, Spain had confronted and crushed the First Republic' declared by Betances and his followers during the revolt of September 23, remembered annually as El Grito De Lares.

The United States had much experience in dealing with rebellions. It had mercilessly crushed the right of the Native American nations to sovereignty; it had kept black people in shackles through the 1860s; and it had survived a bloody civil war with its southern faction. By the time it grabbed Puerto Rico from Spain, it was well practiced in the arts of oppression and imperialism. But history has repeatedly shown that you can't defeat a people who want to be free. Vietnam has been the most recent and costly lesson for the United States in that regard.

It hadn't taken long for the colonial rebellion of 1776 to sell out its stated ideals. The forces of power that survived the revolution of 1776 quickly forgot their revolutionary heritage.

In 1776 the revolt of the colonists had not started in violent resistance. Men and women of good reason and honorable ideals had continuously attempted to communicate to England in protest against the overload of oppression. The pleas and justifiable grievances of the colonists were rejected by England. Its representatives ruled over the colonies, fearful of any change in the status quo. Large-scale persecutions were launched. Anyone who was suspect, patriot or not, was harassed, many until they died.

Similarly, in the town of Ponce, Puerto Rico, when thousands turned out in 1937 to protest the trumped-up incarceration of the great Nationalist leader and patriot Pedro Albizu Campos, the colonial forces of the United States opened fire on the peaceful protesters, on unarmed men, women, and children. Nineteen died; two hundred were wounded. Albizu Campos was to spend the next eleven years of his life in an Atlanta prison; three years after his release, he would be reincarcerated following the famous Jayuya Rebellion of 1950.

The cry of independence, first raised in Lares, was taken up again by the forces in Ponce and the Nationalist Party which had been founded in 1921. What once represented disorganized sentiment was now manifested in a growing political movement, unified and viable. The colonial United States Government began to tremble. Forcefully conferring citizenship on the Puerto Rican people in 1917 had not been enough to defuse the collective desire for independence.

And in the realization that it was losing its grip, the United States began a systematic drive to get Puerto Ricans to come to the United States as a cheap labor force, thus making more room for the colonial representatives to occupy the Island, and to work to crush the ideals of independence.

In its plan of forced migration, the United States replaced the gun and whip with the weapons of economic pressure. The people of Puerto Rico, as part of this grand plan, have been forced to separate from their homeland. Economic pressure forces them to leave Puerto Rico and come to the United States. The resultant break up and separation of the family structure in Puerto Rico is due entirely to capitalist exploitation.

Puerto Ricans have no say in the control of their natural resources. As of this very moment, outside U.S. interests are negotiating to begin strip mining our copper. The foreign oil industries of the U.S. are attempting to build a superport, proposing to turn Puerto Rico into a giant gasoline station, which will open a veritable Pandora's Box of pollution and environmental destruction. One-third of the women of child-bearing age have been sterilized as an answer to unemployment and national resistance. Where agriculture once thrived, it is now dead, the arable land occupied by large military bases, petro-chemical plants, and rich tourist hotels.

To my way of thinking, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were only meant for the ruling class. Proof of this is the woe that has befallen Native Americans and other non-whites, as well as poor whites. The very originators of this "democracy" came from European countries with a long history of building empires on the homes of other peoples whose only desire was to live in peace in their own land. For Puerto Ricans, being citizens of the United States has only meant that they were ment to be cannon fodders for the huge war machine.

In the large rivers of blood which were shed for the liberation from England, an honorable share belongs to black men and women who fought. Third World People within the grasp of U.S. imperialism have always been used to fire the cannons of oppression. Often they have believed that in aiding this fight, their own world would be assured. Non-whites have fought in every consecutive war from 1776 to the present. Yet, our roles have all but been obliterated by the imperial-conscious history books.

As a Puerto Rican born in the United States, I had to walk a long road and make a long search that brought me, finally, to the realization of my true identity and to pride in my culture and heritage. As a child in the school system there was not one thing relevant to my people or our history for me to learn from. Only recently have we Puerto Ricans pried loose the lid of what we are as a people. And it is obvious that for a people to know where they are going, they must first be secure in the knowledge of where they came from.

We are humans who strive not just to exist, not just to survive, but to live as it is our right to live on this earth, knowing freedom is not just a word, but a way of life. We must not forget the lessons of the past, when countries that were built on a Magna Carta or a Bill of Rights eased their way into colonialism, imperialism, and fascism.

The United States, which prides itself on being a great democracy, points with pride to its great accomplishments, at the same time down-playing to extinction the roles of those people who made it great with the bent of their backs and the sweat of their brows. How can the U.S. look with pride and satisfaction to the Bicentennial, which celebrates the fight against exploitation by England? How can the U.S. celebrate its historic cry of "no taxation without representation," while it denies the cry of the Puerto Rican patriots? Humans cannot mouth the words of freedom while holding others in bondage.

There is no way that the United States can celebrate its Bicentennial without an untroubled conscience, while it holds sway over Puertorico. The only honest way it can celebrate its anniversary of freedom and independence from England is by not standing in the way of their right to be free, the right to be free citizens, the right to independence and self-determination, which the U.S. won for itself at such great human sacrifice in 1776. Puerto Rico must be free so that we can come into their own as a people, so that their children can be born into the free Republic.

There is wisdom in our people. We are not cowards; our sons and daughters have died in many wars for other peoples' freedom. We are not slovenly or lazy or in a state of apathy. It is only the economic chains, backed by armed might, that bind us, that have prevented us in the past from raising firmly the flag of liberation.

As a people, we have always sought to gain our freedom through peaceful political means. We only reacted violently when we were abused by those whose only thought for freedom and dignity was their own. As we reacted against Spanish oppression in Lares; as we reacted against U.S. oppression in Ponce, where we were gunned down, unarmed in the street; as we reacted in 1950 at Jayuya against the repression of our people and were met with machine guns and Air Force strafings. But our fight is far from over; our will far from daunted. We say to the world, we have gotten up off our knees, prepared to die if need be. We have awakened; we are arising; we are uniting. As a people, we are fighting. As it was written long before my time, so we must believe today, "Arise, we have nothing to lose but our chains... it is better to die on one's feet than to live on one's knees, as well as die there."

The freedom and independence of any country is an inalienable right. We seek freedom born of dignity and understanding, consideration for each other, a true blending of our hearts and minds in a solidarity that creates a true unity of humanity. All humans, hand in hand, liberating ourselves from ignorance and hate.

But we all know that freedom is not won without struggle, that progress is born in pain. No revolution can succeed unless it is built on the firm foundation of love and understanding, a unity among all the colors.

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