How We Got Here: The Ponce Massacre and Contempt for America’s Colony

On May 12, 1898 American warships appeared off the coast of San Juan, Puerto Rico. After two months of blockade, and several failed attempts by Spanish warships to break it, the Americans prepared a land invasion. On July 25, American troops landed at Guanica and quickly established themselves on the island. General Nelson Miles, the American commander, led an advance force into Ponce, Puerto Rico, then the island’s largest city, and issued a proclamation to his new subjects: “We have come not to make war upon the people of a country that has been for centuries oppressed, but on the contrary to bring you protection…and to bestow upon you the immunities and blessings of the liberal institutions of our government.”

The proclamation baffled many Puerto Ricans. While Spanish rule over the island wasn’t especially benign – besides the island’s prejudice towards newly-arrived European immigrants and landowners, it outlawed slavery just two decades previously – neither was it unduly harsh. In fact, just a year earlier, Spain had granted Puerto Ricans a remarkable degree of autonomy, including full representation in Spanish Parliament. This mattered little to General Miles, the pompous, vain Old Man of the American Army, who had survived the Civil War, defeated Geronimo and Chief Joseph, and sought a glorious victory over Spain as the capper on his career.

In fact, Puerto Rico’s meager Spanish garrison offered little resistance; compared to General Shafter’s brief but dramatic campaign in Cuba or Admiral Dewey’s titanic naval victory in the Philippines, Puerto Rico was a cakewalk that brought little glory to American arms. (Miles’ own reputation, far from enhanced, suffered ridicule for this easy victory; his later attempts to cover up atrocities in the Philippines besmirched him further.) Nonetheless, Puerto Ricans took the General’s words at face value. La Democracia, the island’s leading newspaper, exulted that “the offsprings of those who signed the Declaration of Independence can’t do less than give liberty to our people.”

General Miles (on white horse) arrives in Puerto Rico

Yet American statesmen equivocated over Puerto Rico’s fate. Independence, even the heavily qualified form received by Cuba, seemed out of the question: the island’s racially mixed population were deemed unfit for self-governance. “Generation upon generation must first be educated in the school of civil and religious liberty before they can fully appreciate the benefits they may enjoy under a republican form of government,” Senator George Perkins of California asserted. President William McKinley agreed with this sentiment, and so American lawmakers affected a tortured compromise.

Thus resulted the Foraker Act of 1900, named for Senator Joseph Foraker of Ohio, which established terms of Puerto Rico’s incorporation. Puerto Rico would be granted a limited degree of self-government in the form of a popularly elected legislature. But the island would be governed by an American appointee, and its citizens granted neither voting rights in national elections nor constitutional protections. As an added insult, Puerto Rico received a so-called Resident Commissioner, who could attend sessions of the United States House of Representatives without the right to vote or even speak. One disillusioned Puerto Rican observer commented that “in no place in the world is it known what we are.”

It didn’t take long for Americans to glean the economic possibilities granted by their new possession, with its rich coffee and sugar crops. “Porto Rico (sic) is really the rich gate to future wealth,” the island’s first American Governor, Charles Herbert Allen, wrote in 1901, “by that indomitable thrift and industry which have always marked the pathway of the Anglo-Saxon.” As for the natives, Allen foresaw a cheerful new working class: “With American capital and American energies, the labor of the natives can be used to the lasting benefit of both parties.”

Puerto Sugar
Puerto Rican sugar employees, ca. 1938

In actuality, such “American energies” went largely to exploitation. American corporations occupied sugar and coffee plantations on non-taxed landholdings, with their employees working long hours and slave wages. Governor Allen, upon leaving office, established the American Sugar Refining Company (later Domino Sugar) as his personal satrapy. By the early ’20s, circumstances were so bad that thousands of Puerto Ricans left the island to work on Hawaiian sugar plantations halfway around the world. Santiago Iglesias, a Puerto Rican labor organizer, complained that Americans like Allen reduced Puerto Rico to a “trading post operated by underfed and barefoot laborers.”

In tandem with economic dominance, American administrators made concerted efforts to obliterate Puerto Rican culture and identity. Puerto Rican schools taught classes in English only, forcing students to learn American history and sing the National Anthem every day, and generally ignored or denigrated Latino culture. (The pettiest instance was the forced spelling of the island’s name as “Porto Rico” for decades.) Nationalist songs, books and other expressions were restricted or banned; in the early ’30s, it became illegal to display the Puerto Rican flag.

Neglect often proved even worse than repression. In September 1928 a hurricane (identified as the San Felipe II hurricane) ravaged the island, killing 312 Puerto Ricans, devastating the island’s infrastructure and leaving 500,000 homeless. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., one of the island’s more benign governors, spent over a year fruitlessly lobbying Washington for help rebuilding the island. “These hundreds of thousands of children are American citizens,” Roosevelt reminded President Herbert Hoover. His pleas fell on deaf ears, with official inaction delaying Puerto Rican recovery for years.

Luis Munoz Marin

For most of the 20th Century, Puerto Rico remained (per historian Ronald Fernandez) “a fuzzy little dot on America’s mental map of the world.” Corporations ran roughshod on its citizens; its governors ruled like small-time dictators; Congress either ignored or subverted islander’s efforts as self-governance (a 1934 act rendered all referendums subject to congressional approval). Mainland Americans, even the few who spent time on the island, couldn’t dream of the Puerto Ricans as people with their own dreams and aspirations.

Washington managed Puerto Rican dissidents in a variety of fashions, alternately coopting or crushing them. One outspoken nationalist leader, Luis Munoz Marin, served as a vocal advocate of increased political rights during the 1920s and 1930s. That is, until J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI learned of his addiction to morphine, setting him up for blackmail. (Hoover counted Puerto Rican dissidents among his many pet hates; in the late ’60s he authorized a special COINTELPRO operation to undermine nationalist groups.) Afterwards, Marin worked at America’s behest to torpedo referendums on statehood and independence for the next five decades.

American officials also employed other, less subtle methods for ensuring compliance. The Insular Police, a native gendarmerie directly responsible to the Governor, kept order with arbitrary arrests habitual brutality. Political dissidents rotted in poorly maintained jails, beaten and tortured by their captors, or else left to starve or perish from disease. This repression, in turn, led to more outspoken, extreme nationalists, chief among them Pedro Albizu Campos.

Pedro Albizu Campos

A Harvard-educated attorney, Campos emerged in the 1920s by rejecting the moderate reform tendencies of the Union Party of Puerto Rico. He instead formed the Independence Party of Puerto Rico, which advocated independence by any means necessary. “There is no justice,” he insisted, “because the basic cause of our misery is the displacement of Puerto Rican landowners by the North Americans as a result of the political systems dominating Puerto Rico.” He emphasized Puerto Rico’s historic connection to Spain (though many of his ardent supporters were working class blacks) and emphasized a need for self-reliance: “The time has come in which each Puerto Rican had the obligation to be the apostle of his own moral passion.”

His tactics were openly confrontational. Campos allied with Puerto Rican socialists, encouraged sugar and student strikes, and most provocative of all, formed a nationalist group called Cadets of the Republic. A paramilitary group who dressed in black shirts and practiced combat drills, they reminded many Puerto Ricans uncomfortably of Mussolini’s fascisti. A confrontation between nationalist students and police led to the shooting of four students in October 1935, the so-called Rio Pedras Massacre. Blaming the incident on Colonel E. Francis Riggs of the Insular Police, Campos vowed that “the assassin will not survive in Puerto Rico.”

On February 23, 1936 two Cadets, Elias Beauchamp and Hiram Rosado, assassinated Colonel Riggs as he left mass in Puerto Rico. The two assassins were arrested and summarily executed in prison; Beauchamp, photographed snapping a salute moments before his death, became an instant martyr. This led to a massive crackdown against the Cadets and other nationalists; though Campos played no direct role in Riggs’ murder, his incendiary rhetoric was nonetheless blamed for the Colonel’s death and he was imprisoned on charges of sedition in April.

Elias Beauchamp

Over the next year, Nationalists agitated for Campos’ release, with no success. Tensions on the island remained high; the National Guard went on high alert, while the high-handed Governor Blanton Winship worked to militarize the Insular Police, equipping them with riot gear. Not incidentally, he also blocked attempts to ensure a minimum wage for Puerto Rican workers and improve living conditions. Winship himself so distrusted his subjects that he traveled around Puerto Rico with a huge entourage of machine gun toting bodyguards.

Such conditions made an explosion inevitable. The touch point came in Ponce, where Raimundo Diaz Pacheco, leader of the Cadets of the Republic, organized a peaceful demonstration on March 21, 1937 – Palm Sunday, and the anniversary of Puerto Rico abolishing slavery. Governor Winship canceled the meeting, but Pacheco and his followers decided to march anyway. Winship responded by dispatching Insular Police to Ponce, instructing them to stop the march “by any means necessary.”

Eighty Cadets of the Republic led the procession, accompanied by twelve nurses and a marching band. They flew the Puerto Rican flag and the Cadets’ black banner, played and sang nationalist anthems, and generally announced their defiance to the State. Thousands of Ponce citizens joined them, turning a minor political rally into a massive show of defiance.

Ponce Cadets
Cadets on the March

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.

Ponce Police Corpses

There was, however, no escape. Captain Soldevilla had arranged a deliberate ambush, with armed police cutting off every street, firing at anyone who came near. Many of those who managed to break through the barricades were tracked down on foot and shot or beaten; others died while surrendering, hands in the air as the police repeatedly fired into them. Other machine gunners shot into the air, spraying nearby buildings, windows and rooftops in search of imaginary “snipers.” Police firing was so reckless that they killed or wounded several of their own men.

Several Cadets fell wounded trying to protect their flag, until a brave onlooker, Dominga Cruz Bacceril, snatched the flag away and hid it. Cadet Bolivar Marquez Telechea, however, became the Massacre’s principal martyr. His body riddled with gunfire, he dragged himself away from the firing line. Using his own blood, he scrawled on a wall a crude, dying message of defiance: “Long Live the Republic, Down with the Murderers!”

Even bystanders found themselves in the crossfire. An eighteen-year-old boy was shot through the head while looking out a window. An even younger teenager was shot off his bicycle and killed while riding past the massacre. A seven-year-old girl, running for sanctuary in a nearby church, received a stray bullet in her back. No one, regardless of age, gender or participation in the march escaped the chaotic whir of bullets, gas and grenades, the paroxysm of unleashed officers mad with killing.

Carlos Torres Morales’ photograph of the massacre

Other killings seemed more deliberate, calculated and cruel. One fruit vendor who had been cheering the march from his stand ducked for cover as shooting began, hiding behind a large statue of Jesus in the street. One officer spotted the vendor, snuck up behind the man, pressed his sidearm against the civilian’s head and executed him. Fifty three year old Maria Hernandez del Rosario met a similar fate; several policemen attacked her as she tried to flee, repeatedly smashing her head with batons until her brains spilled onto the street.

The rampage lasted for thirteen minutes, ending almost as suddenly as it began. The police continued moving through the streets for several minutes, scanning the streets for hostiles, kicking corpses and shooting the wounded where they lay. In the end, 17 Puerto Rican civilians were dead and at least 200 more wounded, with the streets of Ponce transformed into an abattoir of acrid smoke and spent shells, shattered corpses and bleeding, moaning survivors. Two policemen also perished, victims of their own colleagues’ reckless firing.

As an outrageous postscript, Colonel Enrique de Orbeta, commanding the Insular Police, arrived just after the shooting ended. Surveying the dreadful scene with his staff, he grabbed a nearby photographer and ordered him to join his entourage. Newspapers in Puerto Rico and the mainland United States featured the result: laughably staged photographs of Colonel de Orbeta and his subordinates surveying the rooftops for snipers, posing around the corpses of dead police officers and acting like a swaggering general surveying a triumphant battlefield.

Colonel Orbeta’s (in white) farce

Thus the cover-up began immediately, with American officials and Puerto Rican authorities twisting a one-sided bloodbath into a foiled rebellion, or even more dismissively declaring it a “riot.” Governor Winship issued vehement denunciations. The Territorial Government even sought indictments against the “Nationalist terrorists” who survived the Massacre. One disgusted prosecutor, R.V. Perez Marchand, resigned rather than prosecute the victims for being shot.

Puerto Ricans, however, weren’t so easily fooled, and alternate versions instantly emerged in the press. Carlos Torres Morales took panoramic photographs of the massacre (or “mass assassination,” in his words) as it unfolded, publishing it in El Imparcial alongside a written account debunking the official story. Puerto Rican newspapers, defying official warnings, ran scathing editorials denouncing the Insular Police and Governor Winship.

Juan Emilio Viguie, a film and newsreel director residing in Ponce, preserved even more remarkable evidence. Alerted to the demonstration, he began filming with a video camera from his window; he watched in horror as the march degenerated into violence, managing to capture the entire massacre on film without police spotting him. Viguie developed and carefully hid the resultant footage, showing it to friends and Puerto Rican nationalists in private; to this day, the entire film hasn’t been publicly released, though clips and snippets feature in several Puerto Rican documentaries.


Despite the American press downplaying the violence as “an affair between Puerto Ricans,” liberal and progressive groups on the mainland reacted with horror. Arthur Garfield Hays, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, received contacts from Puerto Rican nationalists urging him to investigate the atrocity. After interviewing myriad survivors and government officials, Hays concluded that “we agree that the people of Ponce had given this tragedy the only title it can possibly have: the Ponce Massacre.”

In the short term, however, very little came of the Ponce Massacre. Franklin Roosevelt’s administration preferred to ignore rather than investigate the carnage; Blanton Winship remained governor until 1939, neither apologizing for the Massacre nor facing repercussions. Campos remained in prison until 1947; he died in 1965, imprisoned again for involvement in a later nationalist rising. Puerto Ricans, however, remembered. Twenty thousand attended the funeral mass for the Massacre’s victims, and many heretofore-apolitical Puerto Ricans gained instant sympathy with the Nationalist cause.

Another violent irruption of Puerto Rican nationalism came in October 1950. Rebels launched a coordinated rising across the island, seizing several towns and, in their boldest attack, launching a direct assault on the Governor’s Mansion in San Juan. The most intense fighting occurred in the town of Jayuya, which resisted for several days until vastly superior American forces crushed them with artillery and airpower. Besides brutally quashing hopes for independence, this affair marked a grim milestone: the first time in history that American warplanes have bombed their own citizens.

National Guard troops in Jayuya, 1950

Another dramatic event occurred in Washington on November 1, 1950. Two young Puerto Ricans, Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo, attempted to assassinate President Harry Truman in his temporary residence at Blair House. A shootout resulted between the assassins and Truman’s security detail, leaving Torresola and White House Policeman Leslie Coffelt dead, with Collazo and numerous police and Secret Service agents wounded. At one point, President Truman stuck his head out a window just as Torresola prepared to shoot him; fortunately for Truman, the assassin ran out of ammunition and received a fatal bullet while reloading.

The American press treated the assassination attempt as a baffling anomaly, the act of inscrutable madmen rather than committed political fanatics. They made little effort to connect the shootout with the recent unrest on Puerto Rico. (President Truman, at least, got the message, allowing Puerto Rico to draft its own constitution in 1952.) Nor did the sequel four years later, when two more gunmen opened fire on a session of the House of Representatives, wounding several congressmen, draw attention as anything more than a curio. Even when the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional targeted the mainland United States in the 1970s in a sustained terrorist campaign, few Americans took their demands seriously.

Today, Puerto Rico remains a Commonwealth, despite referendums showing most citizens favor a change in status. Nominally a territory of the United States, its inhabitants citizens still can’t vote in national elections, nor enjoy the full legal rights accorded to mainland Americans; parallel movements for either statehood or independence are perennially frustrated. As evinced by Washington’s lackadaisical, even cruel response to Hurricane Maria, many Americans still consider Puerto Ricans an alien people rather than fellow citizens. Better for some to insult their leaders and lob toilet paper at its dispossessed citizens than to treat them as people, let alone Americans.

Trump is an asshole

Sources and Further Reading:

This article’s primary source is Nelson A. Denis’s excellent book War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony (2015). Denis also has an in-depth supplementary website which includes photographs, videos, interviews and primary documents. Ronald Fernandez’s The Disenchanted Island: Puerto Rico and the United States in the Twentieth Century (1996) also proved helpful for fleshing out context and historical background.

Programming note: next week we’ll examine the Christiana Riot of 1851, an effort by white abolitionists and black freedmen to violently resist the Fugitive Slave Act. Afterwards we’ll look at Paul Robeson and the Peekskill Riots of 1949.