Puerto Rico holds the status of a free associated state with the U.S., and although its residents lack the right to vote in presidential elections, they have been U.S. citizens since the enactment of the Jones-Shafroth Act in 1917.

This law eliminated the direct guardianship that Washington exercised over the island, authorized the creation of a Senate, and, in a way, gave legal standing to a nationalist movement that gradually grew, compelling the governor in 1948 to enact what became known as Law 53 or the Gag Law, in an attempt to stifle that activism.

The desire for independence advocated by some politicians like José de Diego and Eugenio María de Hostos, after the island passed from Spanish to American hands, was frustrated from the outset when the latter clearly opted for annexation, subjecting their new territory to military rule despite the request from the Puerto Rican House of Delegates for independence. The outbreak of World War I not only drowned out that cry but also allowed the U.S. army to recruit men in Puerto Rico.

PNPR (Partido Nacionalista de Puerto Rico) Flag/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

However, the idea persisted and took shape in 1917 with the founding of the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico (PNPR) by José Coll y Cuchi, a lawyer and writer involved in politics and a fervent opponent of the Organic Act of 1900, which the U.S. government used to govern Puerto Ricans since the homonymous year and, therefore, preceded the aforementioned Jones-Shafroth Act. The law, also known as the Foraker Act after the senator who promoted it, equated English with Spanish, imposed heavy tariffs on island products, and established the dollar as the official currency.

All of this created considerable unrest, channeled by Coll into what was called the Nationalist Union, formed by members of the Union Party of Puerto Rico, which brought together various independence-leaning parties. From this emerged the aforementioned PNPR, of which Coll was president with Pedro Albizu Campos as vice president.

Albizu, born in Ponce in 1891, had studied chemical engineering in Vermont and law at Harvard, later working as a lawyer but always avoiding representing American companies. Although he had fought in World War I in the U.S. army, he sympathized with the demand for freedom in Ireland and India, maintaining a good relationship with leaders such as Eamon de Valera, Subhas Chandra Bose, or Gandhi, considering that Puerto Rico was also in a situation of colonial subjugation.

Pedro Albizu Campos in 1936/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

He was much more radical than the party president—advocating even armed struggle—so they soon clashed. Coll withdrew, and Albizu became the leader of a movement that, in 1922, was shaken by the so-called Balzac vs. Porto Rico case: Puerto Rican journalist Jesús M. Balzac, convicted of defamation in island courts, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it ruled that he did not have the same rights as native-born Americans, as Puerto Rico was not an incorporated territory.

The feeling of being an annexed country gave wings to the PNPR, but it did not translate into results in the 1932 elections, where it barely received five thousand votes.

This, along with the repression unleashed against independence sympathizers and the difficult context of the Great Depression, led Albizu to resign from the democratic game as long as the elections were organized by the U.S., calling for disobedience first and armed struggle later. In 1936, he was arrested and convicted of conspiracy along with other independence figures, remaining incarcerated in an Atlanta prison until his release in 1947.

The beginning of the Ponce Massacre, captured by a press photographer/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

In the meantime, the police shot a demonstration in remembrance of the abolition of slavery that turned into a protest against the sentences. The episode took place in the spring of 1937 and ended in bloodshed: nineteen dead and a hundred wounded, including a child and several unrelated collateral casualties (passersby, drivers, and even two officers who fell victim to their colleagues’ bullets), leading to the dismissal of the governor, General Blanton Winship, and giving rise to the event known as the Ponce Massacre.

In 1947, after Truman assumed the presidency and reoriented government policy to reduce tension, appointing a local governor and granting the right to elect every four years, Albizu returned to his homeland. That decade of imprisonment not only did not change him, but he returned ready to wield arms, seeing that changes were beginning to succeed and the conversion of the island’s status to a free associated state was being prepared. In fact, many nationalists had left the island to escape repression, settling in New York to take advantage of the growing flow of immigrants to the city.

Paradoxically, the person responsible for this persecution was Jesús Toribio Piñero, the first governor born on the island. Piñero had also studied engineering in the U.S. (in Pennsylvania, in his case) but oriented his life towards politics, collaborating with liberal senator Luis Muñoz Marín in the formation of the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), founded in 1938, which had changed its initial pro-independence stance to one favorable to the free associated state, leading to a split eight years later. The PPD became dominant, and Piñero enjoyed considerable power.

Harry S. Truman, President of the United States, in 1947/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to this and the economic measures introduced in collaboration with Muñoz, which alternated some agricultural reform with the defense of rights for the working class, he gained Truman’s support at a time when the New Deal was in vogue. This left him free to unleash a campaign of persecution against the nationalists, who considered the free associated state status a concession of sovereignty to the U.S. (curiously, also opposed by supporters of total integration as a full-fledged state).

It was on June 10, 1948, when Piñero, with the support of the Senate controlled by his friend Muñoz Marín, enacted Law 53, a gag law (as it was called in the U.S.) that restricted any ideological expression related to nationalism. In fact, it was a copy of the U.S. Smith Act of 1940, which pursued actions and ideas aimed at overthrowing the government and was approved in the context of the country’s entry into World War II.

However, Law 53 was not framed in a conflict, although it penalized displaying a Puerto Rican flag, singing patriotic melodies, criticizing the U.S., making pro-independence proclamations, printing or distributing material contrary to the executive, and organizing groups or meetings with subversive purposes, risking fines between ten thousand dollars and ten years in prison (or both). The only official protest against the attack on freedom of expression that the law represented and that contradicted the U.S. Constitution was made by a senator named Leopoldo Figueroa because he was the only one in the entire chamber who did not belong to the PPD.

Official portrait of Luis Muñoz Marín as president of the Senate of Puerto Rico/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

However, outside the institutions, there was a popular outcry of opposition, somewhat led by Santos Primo Amadeo Semidey, nicknamed the Champion of Habeas Corpus. He was a lawyer and educator who had once held a seat in the Senate and who appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, focusing his lawsuit on two points: on the one hand, the detention of Enrique Ayoroa Abreu and fifteen other leaders of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party; on the other, considering Law 53 unconstitutional since Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship.

Tensions escalated, and on June 21, Albizu Campos gathered opponents from across the island in Manatí for a public speech while others, split between Puerto Rico and New York, began to prepare for an armed insurrection. Before the year ended, elections were held, and Piñero handed over the governorship to Muñoz Marín; if the former had been the first native governor to be dismissed, the latter was the first elected by vote instead of appointed. He took office on January 2, 1949, so it would be he who would have to implement Law 53.

The uprising was scheduled for 1952, the expected date for the U.S. Congress to declare Puerto Rico a free associated state, but circumstances led to advancing it by two years. This became known as the Jayuya Uprising, referring to the central municipality where it took place. On October 26, 1950, the police surrounded Albizu Campos’ house to arrest him for declaring that the island’s new status would be nothing but a colonial farce, although they did not find him because he had been warned in advance.

The outlawed flag of Puerto Rico, hoisted in the center of Jayuya/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

On the following day, several members of the PNPR were arrested when traveling in a car filled with weapons. On the 28th, several imprisoned nationalists staged a riot in the prison that allowed more than a hundred to escape and resulted in the death of two officers. Finally, everything erupted on the 30th simultaneously in several locations, including Utuado, San Juan, and Jayuya itself. However, the most serious revolts occurred in Utuado, San Juan, and Jayuya. In the latter, the insurgents managed to take control of the town because the family of one of its leaders, Puerto Rican teacher Blanca Canales, had hidden an arsenal at home.

Blood was shed. On the 27th, the police had shot at a nationalist caravan, killing four, while on the 29th, they did the same against the family home of the PNPR leader of Peñuelas, ending with two more deaths but at the cost of unleashing a pitched battle that was reproduced a day later in Jayuya when the revolutionaries stormed the police station and, in revenge, killed the officers. They then occupied the post office and cut the phone lines, isolating the place and raising the flag in the main square while declaring Puerto Rico a free republic.

The republic lasted seventy-two hours. During that time, attempts in Utuado, where the rebels were massacred, and San Juan, the former capital, where an attempt to assassinate Muñoz Marín was thwarted, failed. It was not the only attempt because on November 1, two nationalists attempted to attack Harry S. Truman’s house, leading the U.S. to openly involve itself in the repression of Jayuya by sending planes and troops from its National Guard to help Puerto Rico, which had besieged the town. Aerial bombardments, artillery, and numerical superiority eventually crushed the independence fighters on the first of November.

Lolita Lebrón, one of the four responsible for the attack to the Congress; she would be sentenced to 24 years in prison/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Thus ended that coup, which recorded twenty-eight dead (sixteen nationalists, seven police officers, and one guard) and forty-nine wounded (nine nationalists, twenty-three police officers, six guards, and eleven bystanders). Albizu spent fifteen years in prison and was not released until 1964, when he was granted a pardon due to his serious health condition, apparently a result of being subjected to radiation experiments (in fact, he died five months later). Blanca Canales was sentenced to life imprisonment but was released in 1967.

Truman had the foresight to realize the problem, and in 1952, he approved the holding of a plebiscite on the future of Puerto Rico. Eighty-two percent of participants voted in favor of the constitution establishing the free associated state. Perhaps everything should have ended there, but in 1954, during a visit to the U.S. House of Representatives, four members of the PNPR fired several shots while waving a Puerto Rican flag. Several congressmen were injured, although the attackers claimed they only wanted to draw attention. They spent a quarter of a century in prison, and their action interrupted a pardon planned for Albizu.

It is curious that most of those repressed by the Jayuya Uprising were not accused of taking part in armed actions, as few could prove their involvement, but of violating Law 53. As for this law, it remained in effect until 1957 when the U.S. Supreme Court considered it unconstitutional and repealed it. By then, the once persecuted flag had become official for half a decade.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on January 4, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Ley 53: cómo Estados Unidos acabó con la república de Puerto Rico en 72 horas


VVAA, La nación puertorriqueña: ensayos en torno a Pedro Albizu Campos | Manuel Maldonado-Denis, Puerto Rico. Una interpretación histórico-social | Pedro A. Malavet, America’s Colony. The Political and Cultural Conflict Between the United States and Puerto Rico | José Trías Monge, Puerto Rico. The Trials of the Oldest Colony in the World | Nelson A. Denis, Guerra contra todos los puertorriqueños. Revolución y terror en la colonia americana | The Nationalist Insurrection of 1950 (Write to Fight) | Wikipedia

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