The eyes of the world are laser-focused on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But many Puerto Ricans have taken to social media to point to Puerto Rico’s situation as a colony, drawing parallels to Ukraine’s fight for democracy. Puerto Ricans are frustrated by the stalemate in Congress over the issue of the island’s status, with no action taken on two bills currently languishing there—one supporting self-determination, the other advocating statehood.

Some have pointed to ugly events in Puerto Rico-U.S. history, which clearly illustrate the historical role of the United States in the repression of Puerto Rican independence struggles.

March 21 marked the 85th anniversary of the 1937 massacre of civilians in the town of Ponce, Puerto Rico. It is an historical event commemorated each year by victims’ surviving family members, by independence adherents on the island and here on the mainland, and in the greater diaspora. I can honestly say that I don’t remember the Ponce Massacre ever being mentioned in a textbook or classroom when I was in school … and I grew up in New York City, the U.S. city with the largest Puerto Rican population.

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Despite this important history being hidden, I was pleasantly surprised to see this brief coverage of an annual community event honoring the victims, held in New York City.

On the anniversary, I asked my Twitter followers if they’d studied the Ponce Massacre in school. Almost no one who responded—other than those who had relatives involved—had ever heard of it. Granted, my Twitter account is not a scientific survey, but generally, the folks I engage with are knowledgeable, politically active, interested in history, and follow my daily tweets about Puerto Rico.

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One key reason why learning Puerto Rican history is important is that we cannot understand the current politics of Puerto Rico—a U.S. colony whose political parties are formed primarily around the statehood status issue—if we don’t know the history of the independence movement and its brutal suppression.

One respondent who taught themself about the Massacre responded: 

Nope. Didn’t learn Puerto Rico was a colony of the US in school either. I had to find these things out for myself as a person who loved geography and history.

Another never heard of the Massacre, but was ready to learn: 

Never learned about it, and I went to an excellent public school district on Long Island, with very “woke” history teachers. By woke I mean that they taught our history in a way that we learned that America had done heinous things in the past, but also improved. I’ll watch it!

Yet another admitted their limited exposure to Puerto Rico:

I went to school in West Virginia in the 60s. I learned about Puerto Rico from West Side Story.

There’s this contrast from a Ponce native: 

I’m from Ponce. My history teacher would explain the why, how, who, and for what every year in elementary school. He took us to the museum too. Sadly, once in high school never had a mention of it, even when brought up in class

This response struck me in the gut:

My mom, she was there and it terrified her for the rest of life

We are not talking about ancient history, to be clear. The Ponce Massacre happened just 85 years ago. Many of those affected directly, as well as their descendants, are still alive, as are those who suffered oppression in the years since.

The march that took place on that fateful day was to commemorate the 64th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico, as well as to protest the jailing of nationalist leaders. 

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The Zinn Education Project has this brief description:

The Ponce massacre occurred on March 21, 1937, when a peaceful march in Ponce, Puerto Rico was attacked by police who shot and killed 19 Puerto Ricans and wounded over 200 others.

The march had been organized by the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party to commemorate the ending of slavery in Puerto Rico and to protest the imprisonment, by the U.S. government, of Nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos on alleged sedition charges.

This 2002 documentary The 1937 Ponce Massacre was directed by Jaime Hamilton-Márquez and funded by the Puerto Rican Foundation for the Humanities. The film is in Spanish with no subtitles, but it includes footage from that terrible day. 

The Visions of Puerto Rico YouTube channel offers this description of the film:

The Ponce Massacre, which took place on March 21, 1937, was one of the most violent episodes in the history of the twentieth century in Puerto Rico. It was called a massacre by the very commission that studied the facts. On that date, the Partido Nacionalista (Nationalist Party) organized a march in the streets of the City of Ponce to protest the jailing of its leaders. The activity was announced in El Mundo newspaper on March 19, indicating that the meeting of the Nationalists in Ponce and adjacent areas would be at 2 pm in front of the Nationalist Party Headquarters in Ponce.

That morning, Colonel Orbeta, the chief of police, traveled to Ponce with the intention of prohibiting the Nationalist activity. He interviewed attorneys Parra Capó and Parra Toro, the military assistant to Governor Blanton Winship, and Captain Felipe Blanco, the head of the Police Force in Ponce, to whom he gave orders to stop the march. These arrangements made, on his return to San Juan Colonel Orbeta met with the governor and Mr. José Ramón Quiñones, an assistant to the governor, at Fortaleza (the Governor’s mansion), where they decided that the parade was military in character and therefore illegal.

It was then that Colonel Orbeta decided to order reinforcements to Ponce from different towns around the island.

Here’s a brief English explanation.

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One of the most detailed posts in English that I’ve found online was written by Christopher Saunders, for The Avocado blog.

At around 3:00 pm, Mayor Jose Tormos Diego and Insular Police Captain Guillermo Soldevilla interceded, blocking the parade and ordering the crowd to disperse. Behind them stood over two hundred heavily armed Insular Police, wearing jodhpurs and Sam Brown Belts, many carrying Thompson submachine guns fitted with hundred round drum magazines. Their intentions clearly were not peaceful.

A brief attempt to negotiate between town officials and the nationalists turned into a shouting match in the street. Lopez de Victoria broke the impasse by ordering his band to play nationalist anthems, deliberately provoking the officials. The crowd began to sing along, and the march began again…until someone fired a shot. To this day, as seems inevitable in confrontations like this, no one is sure who fired the first gunshot; what resulted, however, was indisputably a massacre.

After a few more shots rang out, the police fired into the crowd with Tommy guns, semi-automatic rifles, shotguns and tear gas. They ruthlessly mowed down Nationalists, marchers and onlookers alike. The first fatality was Cadet Ivan Rodrigues Figures, shot through the throat; as he fell, his blood sprayed several bystanders. Other shots found ready marks in the closely packed crowd, some victims literally torn to pieces by automatic gunfire. The crowd’s panic, the policemen’s advance and the dispersal of tear gas made the situation unbearably chaotic.

Saunders references Nelson Denis’ book, War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony. Denis offers a concise summary of the Ponce Massacre on his website of the same name:

A Cadet of the Republic, Bolivar Márquez Telechea, dragged himself to a wall. Just before dying, with his own blood, he managed to write “Long live the Republic, Down with the Murderers,” and signed it with three crucifixes.

A few moments later, Bolivar Márquez Telechea stopped moving forever.  

The police shot for thirteen minutes. By the time they finished  seventeen men, one woman and a 7-year old girl were dead, dozens were maimed for life, and over two hundred more were gravely wounded – moaning, crawling, bleeding, begging for mercy in the street.

The air seethed with gun smoke, as everyone moved in a fog of disbelief. The policemen swaggered about. Blood covered the entire scene. When the smoke finally cleared over Aurora and Marina streets, the following lay dead:

  • Ivan G. Rodriguez Figueras
  • Juan Torres Gregory
  • Conrado Rivera Lopez
  • Georgina Maldonado (7-year-old girl)
  • Jenaro Rodriguez Mendez
  • Luis Jimenez Morales
  • Juan Delgado Cotal Nieves
  • Juan Santos Ortiz
  • Ulpiano Perea
  • Ceferino Loyola Pérez (insular police)
  • Eusebio Sánchez Pérez (insular police)
  • Juan Antonio Pietrantoni
  • Juan Reyes Rivera
  • Pedro Juan Rodriguez Rivera
  • Obdulio Rosario
  • Maria Hernandez del Rosario
  • Bolivar Márquez Telechea
  • Ramon Ortiz Toro
  • Teodoro Velez Torres

I did see quite a number of Twitter posts referencing the anniversary; one of the most detailed was from the Paseo Podcast. Check out the entire thread.

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Another thread detailed the involvement of the U.S., including that of Puerto Rico Gov. Blanton Winship, appointed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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In Ponce, the museum dedicated to the history of the events that took place is closed after suffering damage during the 2020 earthquakes. This video from that time notes that “Iconic Museum of the Ponce Massacre is practically destroyed after this morning’s tremor.”

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I really regret that on my last visit to Ponce in 2010, I didn’t get to visit the museum.

Please Join me in the comments for more on the Ponce Massacre, and for the weekly Caribbean News Roundup.

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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.

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