Around Christmas time it’s a tradition in Puerto Rico to go from door to door until the wee hours of the morning singing and playing music—with guitars, trumpets, and panderos often accompanied by instruments of the pot and pan variety—until your friends open the door and give you food and refreshments. One of the most known songs chronicling this Puerto Rican style caroling, known as a parranda is about the host giving the group of singers, or the trulla, an adult beverage or else they will cry. One of the lines in this song goes, “Los Tres Santos Reyes juntos a Santa Claus (2x) Tienen en Las Vegas montado un night club (2x). Or “The Three Wise Men along with Santa Claus/Have a nightclub set up in Las Vegas.” This has to be one of the best examples of the hybrid nature of Puerto Rican culture. Like most Latin American countries, Three Kings Day, also known as the day of the Epiphany, is the most celebrated Christmas related holiday. While Christmas Eve is time for food, singing, dancing, and getting together with the family, Three Kings Day was historically the day children received presents, one from each King if they left some grass for the Kings’ camels of course. With the attempted Americanization of the island came Santa Claus and the importance of cookies and Christmas day, although the lack of chimneys on a Caribbean island often caused logistical problems in the story—my grandparents told my mother he slipped in through the front door, pretty stealthy guy that Santa—Christmas did indeed become a major day, second only to Three Kings Day. Like creolization and syncretism of the indigenous populations once the Spanish imposed their culture in the “New World”, Puerto Rican culture didn’t disappear with the introduction of American culture, but rather the latter was absorbed and became part of the celebration, along with Las Vegas and night clubs apparently. I’ll get to what this has to do with Castro in a bit.
The past two weeks have been interesting. The stubborn Saharan Dust cloud hanging over the island and the lack of rain have been unpleasant to say the least. In true UPR fashion, there were threats that the campus would be closed my second week here because the employees were protesting, although after the past student strikes the UPRRP gates are now wielded open. And the only thing that plays on TV are scandals and the two main political parties blaming each other for the island’s dire situation. With nearly half of the population living in poverty, the highest unemployment rate in the US, more potholes than I care to count, the highest electricity prices in the country (easily $300-$400 a month for a family of 4 that only uses the air conditioning at night), and according to the ACLU a police department that commits so many abuses against the people they’re sworn to protect it’s deemed a “Human Rights Crisis of Epic Proportions” things here are worse than I’ve ever seen them. And with this unrest, naturally, the talk of status appears once again. Would things be better as a state, a sovereign nation, or an “enhanced” commonwealth status? Whatever most Puerto Ricans think it’s almost certain that Commonwealth will win in the next plebiscite, there’s too much fear and uncertainty, not to mention an electorate that is not educated about its options and what they really mean, for any other status option to win in the near future. It is here that I can begin to understand what frustrates independentistas of all stripes.
One of the most frustrating issues with the current status for me as someone who has her feet in both worlds so to speak (as a Puerto Rican raised in the United States, or to the purists as a woman of Puerto Rican descent) is the incredible media bias. I first noticed it during the university strikes, especially in 2010. All major and local newspapers had no problem showing the Arab Spring, student protests and looting in London, or the latest gruesome details of the drug war, but not a single media news outlet reported on the strike. I had to depend on the Huffington Post and El Nuevo Día—a Puerto Rican newspaper—for any updates. I noticed this again when a simple Google news search provided me with plenty about baseball, boxing, tourism, and bonds but nothing with the electrical workers strike that threatened to paralyze the island. Is it really a surprise that Puerto Ricans feel like second-class citizens when not even human rights abuses can make it to the mainstream media? It took an ACLU report for CNN to finally cover what happened two years ago. Another frustrating aspect is the political corruption. Claims of stolen elections, missing money, parties that resort to populist style stump speeches and pandering rather than actually fixing the issues at hand, its no wonder Puerto Ricans are fed up by the politicians and the mass media that support them. Another frustration has to be the complete lack of an indigenous industry. Now instead of producing their own food Puerto Ricans pay more to have agricultural products they once grew here imported. Even sugar and coffee which once dominated the Puerto Rican economy have ceased to be produced. This ties in with all of the literature I’ve read about the dependency that the industrialization and economic system the United States put in place in the mid 20th century created. How can a people be expected to vote for self-determination if they are so dependent on another country they do not even have an industry to support their economy?
However the most disheartening part of my research so far has been the realization that the civil rights abuses I read about were not exaggerated in the slightest. It was one thing to read about the people that the FBI and Puerto Rican police kept files on and it is another to interview the alleged subversives or carpeteados as they are known—from the word carpeta meaning folder of file. While interviewing a lawyer who was once president of the FUPI I asked him if he’d ever felt that he was under surveillance. He laughed and slammed four full files in front of me, less than half of the files he’d received and a drop in the bucket of 135,000 known files, from the Puerto Rican police alone through the Freedom of Information Act. He had been under surveillance since the age of 14. He had been imprisoned for resisting the draft, expelled from the university weeks before his graduation date, harassed, and followed all for espousing nationalist views. Mind you, this was a man that did not engage in any violent activity, he was merely an activist. I felt like I was looking at something that belonged miles away, in Pinochet’s Chile, in the Dirty War of Argentina, not in the commonwealth of a democratic country where freedom of expression and protection against unreasonable search and seizure is guaranteed by the Constitution. The interview with the strongest impact, however, was yet to come.
My thesis is about justifications and motivations for the radicalization of the Puerto Rican independence movement. I want to know what it is that made a faction of the movement decide that it was no longer possible to work inside the political framework. Part of the reason, I’ve learned, was the dire economic situation and absolute repression that occurred during the military rule of the island. Another part has to do with the legality of the ownership of Puerto Rico, which is where the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party comes into play. They base their ideology on a simple premise: because Puerto Rico was autonomous during the Spanish American War, the United States illegally invaded a non-actor and Spain illegally ceded what was not hers to give. They believe that they have the right to use violence against an illegal invader that was the first to utilize force, and that armed struggle is the best, and perhaps only, means for liberation. To the allegation that they are terrorists they respond that the 13 colonies were seen as terrorists to England during the Revolution as well.
I was extremely fortunate to be introduced to one of the best known nationalists, the only Puerto Rican nationalist to be imprisoned in Alcatraz, the man who at 23 years old decided the only way to get the attention of the international community and end what was perceived as direct colonial rule was to join four others in the March 1, 1954 shooting in the U.S. House of Representatives, Rafael Cancel Miranda. I don’t want to give it all away, I still have my thesis to write after all, but to interview this man, the man who many on the mainland still consider a domestic terrorist, who many of the Puerto Rican people consider a national hero, who Castro assisted by releasing CIA operatives in exchange for President Carter pardoning him and his companions—Lolita Lebrón, Andrés Figueroa Cordero (or as Mr. Cancel endearingly calls him, Andresito), and Irving Flores Rodríguez. One of the most famous carpeteados, a soft spoken but incredibly passionate man who believed in his cause to such an extent that he was willing to commit what he knew would be considered an act of domestic terrorism and lay down his life when he was only 23.
Along with stories about prison, his political activism—he’s been a carpeteado since the age of 7 when the police snapped photo of him and Pedro Albizu Campos—his family and his cause, he embodied what I’ve heard in two interviews already. While most Puerto Ricans do not vote for independence, they do respect those who fight for it. Whether it be the clamoring of the people that granted him a seven-hour furlough from prison so that he could attend his father’s funeral, the tremendous home-coming reception him and his fellow nationalists received when they were pardoned by President Carter, or the mass protests and outpouring of grief when Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, leader of the radical Macheteros, was killed in a controversial confrontation with the FBI, Puerto Ricans stand behind their nationalists. There is tremendous pride on this small 100×35 mile island, but it’s a pride that transcends corruption, poverty, and Americanization. Slowly Spanish is being lost, young people are identifying more with the American culture, and bilingual education is being imposed on schools without the proper certification that would allow teachers to enable Puerto Rican youth to speak both languages fluently, but what is never lost is the pride in what makes one a Puerto Rican and the respect for those who fight for this.
In Cancel Miranda’s home there is a large photo of Castro framed by traditional Puerto Rican renderings of the Three Wise Men. They’re not partying in a nightclub with Santa Claus in Las Vegas, they’re alongside a man who many on the mainland consider a terrorist, and many in Latin America’s radical movements consider a liberator. This simple arrangement embodies his rejection of the “colonizers” culture and his embrace of what has long been seen a sisterhood of the last two colonies in the greater Antilles; after all Cuba y Puerto Rico son de un pájaro las dos alas.
Posted by Leani García – MA Candidate at CLACS at NYU