On Palm Sunday, March 21, 1937, a peaceful civilian march organized by the Partido Nacionalista, the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico, gathered in the city of Ponce to protest the jailing of its leaders, and to commemorate the abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico. Without notice to the organizers, who’d acquired legal permits for a peaceful protest, the permits were withdrawn just before the protest was scheduled to begin with no time to appeal. Shortly after 2 pm, nineteen unarmed civilians lost their lives, most killed with shots to the back, including a seven-year old girl. Nearly 235 marchers and onlookers were wounded, some clubbed as they tried to escape and others beaten by police with their bare hands. What is known as the Ponce Massacre, el másacre de Ponce, remains the bloodiest event in twentieth century Puerto Rican history.
After an investigation by the United States Commission on Civil Rights, the US-appointed Governor of Puerto Rico, Blanton Winship, was removed in 1939 as Governor. Winship was never prosecuted for ordering the massacre, and no one under his command, including the police who took part in the massacre, were ever prosecuted or reprimanded. Family members of some of the victims of the Ponce massacre, standing in front of the Junta Nacionalista de Ponce, the Nationalist Party Headquarters in Ponce. ( – Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs Division; digital ID fsa.8b30709)
The anniversary of this tragedy always fills me with melancholy. It’s nearly impossible to think of Puerto Rico, the island of my birth, and the history of Puerto Rico without thinking of my loved ones who lived during this era, and especially of those who’ve passed on. The city of Ponce is the setting for my debut novel, A Decent Woman.
I first heard about the Ponce Massacre in 1974, when I was a junior at the Liceo Ponceño High School in Ponce, my home town. I’d lived in Puerto Rico several times during my young life, and at that time, I was only there for my junior and senior years of high school. When our Spanish teacher described the events of the massacre to our class, I was stunned. With the massacre of the students at Kent State University in 1970 still looming large in my young head and heart, and as a high school student soon heading to an American university, I was saddened and troubled. I remember wondering where my grandparents had been on that tragic day in 1937, and why they’d never mentioned the massacre to me, or brought it up on any of the anniversaries. My grandfather had worked at the Banco de Ponce just off Plaza Las Delicias in downtown Ponce; surely he’d heard the news on the radio or from work colleagues. Where had my mother, aunts, and uncles been that day, who at the time would have been young teenagers? Although our family didn’t lose any loved ones in the massacre, I was sure they’d been affected, and perhaps they’d known friends who’d lost family members.
I always walked home for lunch, but after I found out about the massacre, I headed to Calle Marina, Marina Street, where the blood bath had taken place. I remember thinking how many times I’d passed the two-story house on Calle Marina, which at the time of the massacre had been the Nationalist Party Headquarters, and I’d been oblivious to the blood that had been shed in that area. I passed my hand over the outside wall of the house, and looked up and down the street and at the sidewalk under my feet looking for traces of blood and found none, but I knew they were there under layers of concrete. It was inconceivable that nineteen unarmed civilians had been gunned down at the corner of Marina and Aurora Streets.
Over lunch, I told my grandfather what I’d learned that day, and he replied, “Those were difficult days, and I don’t like to think about it. Many of the protestors were known troublemakers.” Now I greatly admired and deeply loved my grandfather, the patriarch of our family, but his words troubled me as an impressionable, emotional, young woman with an early social conscience and budding feminist leanings. I knew my grandfather, who was born on the fourth of July, was proud to be Puerto Rican and he was also a supporter for Puerto Rican statehood. He’d always displayed the American flag at our family farm in the mountains of Yayuya, where I later found out a Nationalist uprising had taken place in 1950, but as a kid, I never questioned any of it. My mother had married a ‘gringo’, my father, an American soldier from Massachusetts, but I curious. So I asked, “What political party do we support?” If you were born into a Puerto Rican family, you might understand why I asked my grandfather what party we supported because “we”, la familia, the family, was the most important thing in life. He replied that we supported, “la palma”, the Partido Nuevo Progresista, The New Progressive Party because he supported statehood for Puerto Rico. I waited for more information from him, but none came. I knew there had to be more to his story and his comment.
I walked back to school, wondering how many Puerto Ricans had belonged to the Nationalist Party before and after the massacre? Were any Party members friends of my family? Years later, I wondered if the events of the Ponce Massacre had intimidated Party members to the point of quitting, or if the events had possibly succeeded in forcing others (perhaps my grandfather) with similar political beliefs to choose the PNP out of fear of losing their jobs and perhaps their lives; or out of fear that harm would come to their families as a result of their political choices.
A year later I graduated from high school, and was heading to college in the United States after my father’s retirement from the US Army. Before I flew out, my grandfather told me never to forget my Puerto Rican roots and reminded me to remain proud of being Puerto Rican. My grandfather died in 1983, and I regret never pressing him for more information about his life. My grandmother and mother, both passed now, told me plenty about their lives in Ponce, all of which fueled my inspiration for A Decent Woman, but I will write the sequel to A Decent Woman, called Mistress of Coffee. The story will take place in Yayuya and Ponce, nine years before the Ponce Massacre.
These are the names of those who lost their lives in the Ponce Massacre. May God rest their souls.
Juan Delgado Cotal Nieves, María Hernández del Rosario, Luis Jiménez Morales, Caferino Loyola Pérez, Georgina Maldonado (7 years old), Bolivar Marquéz Telechea, Ramón Ortíz Toro, Ulpiano Perea, Juan Antonio Pietrantoni, Juan Reyes Rivera, Conrado Rivera López, Ivan G. Rodríguez Figueras, Jénaro Rodriguez Méndez, Pedro Juan Rodríguez Rivera, Obdulio Rosario, Eusebio Sánchez Pérez, Juan Santos Ortíz, Juan Torres Gregory, and Teodoro Vélez Torres..
El Museo de la Masacre de Ponce, the Ponce Massacre Museum, located at the intersection where the events took place on Marina and Aurora Streets, houses photographs and artifacts of the era, and is listed in the US National Register of Historic Places. A section of the Museum is dedicated to Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos, leader the Nationalist Party.
For further reading: http://www.enciclopediapr.org/ing/article.cfm?ref=06102005 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Museo_de_la_Masacre_de_Ponce http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ponce_massacre http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pedro_Albizu_Campos