October 30th was the 60th anniversary of the 1950 Jayuya Uprising in Puerto Rico. This armed struggle led by a 24 year old Puerto Rican woman began in the municipality of Jayuya and extended throughout Puerto Rico, as the people struggled for their national liberation. Members of the Nationalist Party, determined to make their dream of an independent republic come true, engaged in armed confrontations with U.S. trained police and the National Guard.
In October 1950, the Nationalist Party obtained information of a secret government plan to eliminate the independence movement. The tactics included banning the Nationalist Party, attacking offices and homes, arresting all members of the party, especially Pedro Albizu Campos, the Harvard educated African Puerto Rican leader of the movement. Using "seditious conspiracy" laws to imprison dissidents, Washington officials tried to silence the most militant individuals in an effort to destroy the independence movement.
Knowing of the government plan to repress its existence and keeping in mind the experience of the Massacre of Río Piedras of 1935 (The Río Piedras massacre occurred at the University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras, Puerto Rico and involved a confrontation between local police officers and supporters of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party on October 24, 1935. Four partisans of the Nationalist party were killed and one police officer wounded during the shooting) and the Ponce Massacre of 1937 (On March 21, 1937 (Palm Sunday), a march was organized in the southern city of Ponce, Puerto Rico, by the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. The march, organized to commemorate the ending of slavery in Puerto Rico in 1873, was also planneed to protest the incarceration by the U.S. government of nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos on sedition charges. The peaceful march resulted in the death of 17 unarmed civilians at the hands of the Insular Police, in addition to some 235 wounded civilians, including women and children) the Nationalist Party then chose to take the initiative in striking the first blow.
On the morning of October 30, 1950, twenty four year old Blanca Canales Torresola (February 17, 1906 - July 25, 1996) led an armed contingency of Nationalists to the city of Jayuya where they attacked the headquarters of the colonial police. Once the Nationalists surrounded the police station, a brief gun battle ensued. The police were ordered to surrender their arms and leave the building with their hands raised.
The people of Jayuya welcomed the nationalists and surrounded by the residents of the town, the freedom fighters raised the Puerto Rican flag which was banned by colonial law. Blanca Canales Torresola addressed the crowd in the town plaza where she began her speech by shouting the fighting words of the struggle for Puerto Rico's independence, "Viva Puerto Rico libre!" She then declared the independence of the Republic of Puerto Rico.
The decision to liberate Jayuya first was because of its strategic location in the mountains at the centre of the island. It was thought that taking control of this municipality first and cutting the supply lines to the enemy would delay troop reinforcements to the western area of the island. Clashes between the police and nationalists also occurred in Utuado, Ponce, Mayagüez, Arecibo, Naranjito, Ciales, Peñuelas and several others towns. In San Juan, the police attacked the headquarters of the Nationalist Party. Pedro Albizu Campos, Isabel Rosado and others fought back until they were overcome by tear gas. The colonial government in San Juan imposed new repressive measures throughout Puerto Rico, including martial law. Military airplanes were deployed to bomb Jayuya in order to force the freedom fighters to surrender. 70 percent of the city was destroyed as a result of the aerial bombing. The National Guard immediately pushed to suppress the uprising and regain control of Jayuya.
Aware of the potential political impact news of the uprising would have in the court of public opinion throughout the world the U.S. government imposed a news whiteout of the situation in Puerto Rico. To silence the voice of the emerging struggle, there was a gradual but intense effort to distort the truth. Resorting to deception the hide the facts US President Truman characterized the uprising as a conflict "between Puerto Ricans."
Blanca Canales Torresola was arrested and accused of killing a police officer and wounding three others. She was also accused of burning down the local post office. Canales Torresola was sentenced to life plus sixty years. In June 1951, she was sent to the Federal Industrial Institution for Women in Alderson, West Virginia. Dolores Lebrón Sotomayor, another famous Puerto Rican freedom fighter was jailed there in 1954 after she opened fire in the House chambers (US House of representatives on Capitol Hill) as more than 240 US members of Congress debated an immigration bill. More about Dolores Lebrón Sotomayor shortly, who died at age 90 on August 1, 2010.
In 1956, Blanca Canales Torresola was transferred to the Women’s Jail in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico. In 1967, Blanca was given a full pardon by Puerto Rican Governor Roberto Sanchez Vilella. She continued to be an active independence advocate throughout her life.
Canales Torresola, interviewed in her 80’s though living a quiet life in a government housing project, still under surveillance, her phone tapped, her every move checked by an undercover agent, still unafraid and a Puerto Rican patriot is quoted as saying: "We have to keep working even if it takes a hundred years."
Blanca Canales Torresola died July 25, 1996 in Jayuya, Puerto Rico. The house in which she was born and raised was turned into a museum by the City of Jayuya.
Dolores Lebrón “Lolita” Sotomayor, born November 19, 1919 and passed on August 1, 2010 was an active advocate for Puerto Rican independence. She was born and raised in Lares, Puerto Rico, a town best known for a revolt, Grito de Lares, waged by Puerto Ricans against Spanish occupation in 1868. She was a leader of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party where she promoted ideals based on socialist and feminist principles.
In 1952, after Puerto Rico’s official status was changed to “Commonwealth”, the Nationalist Party began a series of revolutionary actions, including the Jayuya Uprising. As part of this initiative, Dolores Lebrón Sotomayor became the leader of a New York City based group of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, who took their grievances to the United States House of Representatives in 1954.
Lebrón Sotomayor had moved to New York in 1940, leaving her small daughter with her mother. In New York, along with thousands of other Puerto Rican immigrants, she worked as a seamstress in the garment district, living in grinding poverty. Her second child, a son was born while she lived in New York. As an admirer of the independence activist, Harvard educated African Puerto Rican Pedro Albizu Campos, who advocated armed struggle, she became a member of his Nationalist party in 1947, partly because of the anti-Latino racism she encountered in New York City. She never forgot the signs outside bars that read: "No blacks, no dogs, no Puerto Ricans". "They told me it was a paradise," Lebrón Sotomayor recalled in a 2004 interview. "This was no paradise." She and Pedro Albizu Campos corresponded and Lebrón Sotomayor began to take on more important tasks in the party's US branch. In 1954 Albizu Campos ordered her to organise an attack on "strategic targets". She settled on the US Congress and decided to lead the group herself.
Lebrón Sotomayor bought a ticket from New York to Washington on March 1, 1954. She and three other members lunched at Union Station and then walked to the Capitol. They made their way to the House gallery. A security guard asked if they were carrying cameras. They were not carrying cameras but they did have guns. In a crusade for Puerto Rico's independence that Lebrón Sotomayor saw as no different from the uprising by America's 13 colonies against England in the 18th century, the four nationalists opened fire in the House chambers as more than 240 members of Congress debated an immigration bill.
"Viva Puerto Rico libre!" Ms. Lebrón Sotomayor shouted as she unfurled a Puerto Rican flag. The four nationalists were eventually arrested, handcuffed and photographed outside the Capitol in an image splashed across the front pages of numerous newspapers. Police found a handwritten note in her purse which read: “Before God and the world, my blood claims for the independence of Puerto Rico. My life I give for the freedom of my country. This is a cry for victory in our struggle for independence . . . The United States of America are betraying the sacred principles of mankind in their continuous subjugation of my country . . . I take responsible for all.”
Ms. Lebrón Sotomayor was fearless in her efforts to draw attention to the cause of independence for her home island which had been claimed by the United States as spoils after the Spanish-American War and was claimed as American commonwealth in 1952.
The shooting and its aftermath was the talk of Washington for weeks.
Lebrón Sotomayor sat quietly during most of the subsequent trial, breaking her silence to tell the jury in a fiery 20-minute speech that she was "being crucified for the freedom of my country." She was sentenced to more than 50 years in prison. On the morning of July 8, 1954, Lebrón Sotomayor was notified of her son’s death, minutes before her sentence was handed down. The child, her second born, was barely into his teens and was living with his grandmother in Lares. The news threw Lebrón Sotomayor into a state of shock and she didn’t speak for three days. Her first child, Gladys, died in 1977, while her mother was in prison. This time Lebrón Sotomayor was allowed to return to Puerto Rico for her daughter’s funeral.
In a move widely suspected to have been part of a prisoner swap to release CIA agents jailed in Cuba, President Jimmy Carter granted clemency to Ms. Lebron and the other two jailed Puerto Rican freedom fighters. Released on September 10, 1979 after serving 25 years in prison, Ms. Lebrón Sotomayor embarked on a tour of areas with large Puerto Rican population in the United States. She was also received in Havana as a guest of President Fidel Castro.
The action she led gave Lebrón Sotomayor a place among the most famous of Latin American revolutionary figures, including Che Guevara and Pancho Villa. "I am a revolutionary," she said at the time. "I hate bombs, but we might have to use them." Lebrón Sotomayor in turn inspired other nationalists and between 1974 and 1983, Puerto Rico's Armed Forces of National Liberation continued the fight in Chicago and New York.
After returning home to Puerto Rico, Lebrón Sotomayor became a symbol of nationalist pride. She continued to protest U.S. involvement on the island. In 2001, at age 81 she was arrested while protesting the U.S. military's use of Vieques, Puerto Rico's smallest island. Two years earlier, David Sánchez, a civilian security guard had been killed by an errant bomb dropped during a U.S. Navy training exercise. After she and others cut through the fence of the naval base to protest its use as a bombing range, she was sentenced to 60 days in jail for trespassing. When freed, she walked from prison hand-in-hand with another protester, Hollywood actor Edward James Olmos. The bombing range was later closed down.
In 2005 when the FBI shot and killed Filiberto Ojeda Rios, the Puerto Rican leader of a pro-independence group Ms. Lebron spoke out. "She had a tremendous impact," Juan Manuel Garcia Passalacqua told the Chicago Tribune in 2006. "Young people were protesting in the streets, and there was talk of getting revenge. But Lolita told people, 'No violence!' -- and there was none."
She was a Puerto Rican nationalist and independence advocate who died on August 1, 2010. Her life has been detailed in books and a documentary.