PUERTO RICAN HISTORY
“The Puerto Rican flag should be flown from a pole adjacent to where the U.S.A. flag is flown. The Puerto Rican flag should always stay to the left of the U.S.A. flag…. [It] should be raised after the U.S.A. flag is risen and put down before the U.S.A. flag…The flag when in a parade must always be to the left of the U.S.A. flag….”
on the Use of the Flag of the Free Associated State of Puerto Rico
Since 1952 the Puerto Rican flag has been reduced from a symbol of nationhood and pride to a misused and abused second-rate sidekick rag to the u.s.’ stars and stripes. It has become yet another stolen symbol of the American imperialist empire. However in taking a closer look at the history of the Puerto Rican flag, we find that this plan of eclipsing it with u.s. laws and culture was part of a scheme to rob the Puerto Rican people of their identity and rebel nature—redefining them as loyal subjects of the united (states) kingdom.
19th century Puerto Rican poet, Lola Rodriguez de Tío once wrote: “Cuba and Puerto Rico are two wings of one bird”. The first thing one might notice about the Puerto Rican flag is that it bares a striking resemblance to the Cuban flag. Inverting the Cuban design to recreate the single white star within a sky blue background alongside red and white stripes was a deliberate and righteous attempt to declare a symbolic solidarity between the Puerto Rican and Cuban liberation movements. In the early 1890s the Cuban Revolutionary Party (CRP), and its special Puerto Rican Section, had been meeting in New York City to plan for the independence of both Puerto Rico and Cuba from Spain. On December 22nd, 1895, the Puerto Rican Section of the CRP held a meeting to design the emblem that would represent their nation. With a blue triangle and red stripes the new symbol of the boricua spirit came to life. The flag symbolized the island’s history and struggle for liberation. Red was for the blood shed by its brave warriors: a tribute to the island’s original name, “Boriken” (Borinquen), meaning “land of the brave lord” in the native Taino language. Its light blue color represented the sky and beautiful waters of the tropical island. White symbolized the peace and victory that would be secured with independence.
In 1897 Spain granted autonomy to the island. For the first time in 400 years, Puerto Ricans were able to make their own political decisions. However, the u.s. (who had entered into a war with Spain) invaded Puerto Rico, on July 25th, 1898, as part of its plan to acquire more territories. When the "Treaty of Paris" ended the fighting in December of that same year, Spain granted Puerto Rico to the u.s. as "war booty". All the Spanish banners in the island were brought down from their flagpoles and the yankee stars and stripes were raised, confirming the island’s new status as a u.s. colony ruled by a military regime. Never in this process was the autonomous government of Puerto Rico consulted with. The three-year-old Boricua flag that symbolized the hope of independence had been completely disregarded.
Having gained complete control over Puerto Rico, the u.s. now made all decisions for the island. In 1917, Puerto Rican citizenship was revoked and the new imperialist government decided (withour PR concent) that Puerto Ricans would be u.s. (and not Puerto Rican) citizens. The island and people of Puerto Rico served as pawns in u.s. business and military interests. The 1917 Jones Bill that imposed citizenship, coincided with the u.s.’ entry into World War I. Puerto Ricans were drafted and sent to the front lines in disproportionate numbers. In response to this tyranny, the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party was formed to seek complete independence for the island.
In a 1925 Nationalist rally, the podium was adorned with small u.s. and Puerto Rican flags. The first speaker opened his speech with these words: “U.S. flag, I salute you because you represent liberty and the first free republic of the Americas”. Next up was a young Nationalist named Pedro Albizu Campos. He stepped up to the podium but didn’t say a word. Instead he proceeded to tear all the little u.s. flags off the podium, leaving only the Puerto Rican flags on display. He then proclaimed: “U.S. flag, I don’t salute you because although it is true that you are a symbol of a free and sovereign nation, in Puerto Rico you represent piracy and pillage!”
At that rally Pedro Albizu Campos first demonstrated his liberation “by any means necessary” approach to the u.s. presence in Puerto Rico. By 1932, he had been elected president of the Nationalist Party and they embraced the Puerto Rican flag as the perfect symbol for their politically radical organization. The Nationalists made it plain that the u.s. flag had no place within their occupied nation. Their job was to serve as freedom fighters for the liberation of Puerto Rico, and the role of the Puerto Rican flag was to rally the people around that cause. However for the u.s., the Puerto Rican flag represented a symbol of outlaws and rebels. All who waved it were considered criminals and were subject to arrest and persecution.
The u.s. attempt to suppress the use of the Puerto Rican flag further convinced the Nationalists that the imperialist wanted to erase Puerto Rican culture by robbing its people of any and all of their cultural and political symbols. In one particular act of rebellion, Nationalist Blanca Canales, led an armed insurrection in the mountain town of Jayuya in 1950. Raising a Puerto Rican flag as the official symbol of nationhood, she proclaimed Jayuya as the free Republic of Puerto Rico. The u.s national Guard responded with armed attacks and bombings against the Nationalists. Over the past century, a full-on war has been waged between the u.s. and Puerto Rico. As with every nation, its flag is at the forefront of every battle.
The acts of the flag-waving Nationalist rebels brought world attention to the cause for independence. As a result, by the early 1950’s the UN Decolonization Committee took a particular interest in the political case of the island. In response, the u.s. brought on their next strategic plan/ scam. Having shaped the former Puerto Rican independentista Luis Muñoz Marín into a pawn politician that would steer the island towards a “free associated state” (a disguise for the island’s colonial status), a constitution was quickly drafted to appease the anti-colonial critics globally. Yet despite this constitution and the u.s. citizenship that was imposed back in 1917, Puerto Ricans on the island were still treated as second-rate citizens who answer to a (u.s.) government that they do not elect.
In 1952, Muñoz Marín became governor and the new "Free Associated State" or “Commonwealth” status became official. With these changes the second-class constitution was implemented and the symbols of Puerto Rico’s proud heroes/ sheroes were systematically softened and stripped of their rebel spirit. The lyrics of Puerto Rico’s national anthem “La Borinqueña” went from “nosotros queremos la libertad, nuestros machetes nos la dará” to “cuando a sus playas llego Colón, exclamó lleno de admiración”. The island’s national hymn now ignored the revolutionaries of the past to pay homage to Christopher Columbus: the man who enslaved Puerto Rico’s Taino ancestors. In addition, the sky blue of Puerto Rico’s flag now mysteriously matched the dark navy blue of the u.s. flag. But the official de-clawing of the Puerto Rican flag did not end there. It was further stripped of its rebel nature with the declaration that the red no longer represented the blood of the slaughtered Tainos and others who fought to defend liberty. Instead, red came to represent the blood that supplied the three branches of the American puppet Government (executive, legislative and judicial).
As of 1952, the white stripes, no longer stood for the hope of independence. They now stood for “individual liberty and the rights that keep our form of government in perfect balance.” However this “perfect balance” was a statement of hypocrisy. Under the new political status, u.s. constitutional rights (like free speech) were revoked in Puerto Rico with the "gag laws" of the 1950’s and beyond, prohibiting Puerto Ricans from openly supporting the cause for liberation. Any open support for Puerto Rican independence resulted in outright imprisonment. Changing the meaning of the Puerto Rican flag was not the answer to “legalizing” the flag, enabling folks to wave it without being arrested. Changing its symbolism along with the political status of Puerto Rico were necessary steps in the u.s.’ attempt to suppress the liberation struggle and silence those who demanded that Puerto Rico truly be decolonized.
Despite such political repression, the rebel flag was resuscitated in the hands of a young Nationalist woman named Lolita Lebrón, who in 1954 led three men into the u.s. capitol, fired shots, and shouted “Que Viva Puerto Rico libre!” while unfurling the Puerto Rican flag. With this act of rebellion, Lolita and her Nationalist compatriots brought the boricua bandera back to life.
In spite of the 1952 attempt to co-opt and americanize the flag, it is still heralded as a symbol of a people’s struggle for liberation. In 1965, the funeral of Nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos, was blanketed by a sea of Puerto Rican flags. Having defended its honor always, Don Pedro’s revolutionary life embodied the spirit of the Rican rebel flag.
23 years after Lolita Lebrón breathed life back into the bandera, the flag was used once again to demand her release from prison, as well as the freedom of a number of other Puerto Rican Nationalists serving time in federal prisons for the defense of their nation. One such protest took place in 1977 when a group of activists took over the Statue of Liberty draping the Puerto Rican flag across its larger than life forehead, demanding that the “land of the free” end its hypocrisy in Puerto Rico. Lolita and her compatriots were finally pardoned by u.s. President Carter two years later. This tactic was used again in 2000 when 11 individuals took over the Statue of
Liberty yet again to demand an end to the u.s. naval bombings on the island of Vieques. Again the Puerto Rican flag, along with the Vieques flag were used, this time hung from the Statue’s crown. 60 years of resistance by Puerto Ricans ended the us. naval bombings in 2003. In addition, other organizations that have aggressively advocated for the independence of Puerto Rico, like the Young Lords Party, The Ejército Popular Boricua (Macheteros), and the Fuerzas Armadas Liberaction Nacional (FALN) have used the Puerto Rican flag in their symbols and logos throught the years.
Today, as vendors sell mass-produced banderas superimposed with images of gallos, coquis and chupacabras, many Puerto Ricans complain about the defacement of the "proud" Puerto Rican flag. Yet we hear little about the systematic injustices and disrespect boldly committed against the Puerto Rican people, their history and their spirit of resistance. As one more Puerto Rican day" parade comes and goes and millions of Puerto Ricans continue to proudly wave the rican red, white and blue, we must also actively fight to overturn the effects of July 25th, 1952 when Borinquen’s symbol of pride and rebellion was spit on, shit on, and stamped "re-made in the u.s.a.".
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