A More Camouflaged Colony: On Margaret M. Power’s “Solidarity Across the Americas”

By Emiliano AguilarMay 15, 2024

A More Camouflaged Colony: On Margaret M. Power’s “Solidarity Across the Americas”

Solidarity Across the Americas: The Puerto Rican Nationalist Party and Anti-imperialism by Margaret M. Power

ON MARCH 1, 1954, four members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party (Partido Nacionalista de Puerto Rico, a.k.a. PNPR) made their way to the US Capitol while the House of Representatives was in session. Firing approximately 30 shots, the assailants wounded five members of Congress before being disarmed by other members of the gallery and Capitol Police. The infamous attack by Lolita Lebrón and her accomplices (Rafael Cancel Miranda, Andrés Figueroa Cordero, and Irvin Flores Rodríguez) illuminated the nationalist cause. It was the second blatant attack against elected officials in the United States by Puerto Ricans. In November 1950, two Puerto Rican nationalists attempted to assassinate President Harry S. Truman in Washington, DC. This attempted assassination coincided with the National Guard bombing of nationalist strongholds in Jayuya and Utuado to quell rebellion on the island.

Puerto Rican songwriter and rapper René Pérez Joglar, known professionally as Residente, invoked Lebrón in the opening of his music video for “This is Not America.” The video begins with a woman in bright red lipstick and an overcoat shooting her gun in the air in front of what appears to be a government building. From the opening gunshot, Residente begins interrogating what is and is not American, claiming that “América no es solo USA, papá / Esto es desde Tierra del Fuego hasta Canada.” By refuting the notion that America is just the United States and referencing Lebrón, Residente calls our attention to a hemispheric understanding of the Americas (North, Central, and South).

This Puerto Rican artist is not the only person who has argued for a hemispheric approach to understanding Puerto Rican resistance and the island’s complicated relationship with the United States. For over a century, the US has remained the imperial elephant in the room for many conversations and scholarly studies concerning Puerto Rico. As Margaret M. Power argues in her book Solidarity Across the Americas: The Puerto Rican Nationalist Party and Anti-imperialism (2023), the Nationalist Party understood itself as creating a Latin American nation, actively building transnational networks and defining its alliances as including “progressive, anti-imperialist, and revolutionary Americans from New York City to Buenos Aires.” This network unveiled a crucial understanding that to establish an independent nation successfully, Nationalists needed to generate solidarity across the Americas.

In Solidarity Across the Americas, Power reconstructs a hemispheric movement rooted in sentiments of anti-colonialism. Her aim in turning to the transnational is “to transcend a vision of the archipelago and Puerto Ricans in isolation from the hemisphere or solely in a binary relationship with the United States.” According to Power, this approach unveils a network extending beyond the island and the diaspora into Spain’s former colonies—with the exception of Paraguay—and also into Haiti and Brazil. “Instead of perceiving the Nationalists as isolated activists confronting the power and brutality of the U.S. empire alone,” Power argues, she “realized they were part of multiple trans-American, anti-imperialist networks of individuals, organizations, parties, and, in the case of Cuba after 1959, a government, all committed to ending U.S. rule in Latin America.”

Central to the formation of these solidarity networks was Puerto Rico’s relationship with imperialism and the legacies of colonialism. Accordingly, Power details the close bonds between Puerto Rico and Cuba, two of the Spanish Empire’s last colonies in the Americas. The book proceeds to focus on the role of the colonial state established by the United States in 1898, including the deliberations about Puerto Rico’s ambiguous status and the resulting formation of the PNPR in the early 20th century. Power then discusses famous nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos’s three-year tour across the Americas before discussing how the party adapted to multiple crises, such as natural disasters and the Depression. As the New Deal Order gave rise to a new sociopolitical landscape, Power notes the irony behind the Good Neighbor Policy of the 1930s, which stressed trade and political cooperation even as Washington continued to retain a neocolonial hold on the island. In the final three chapters, Power turns to the New York City chapter of the PNPR (1937–43), the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), and the influence of Luis Muñoz Marín (governor of Puerto Rico in the 1940s), concluding with the three armed actions of the PNPR in the 1950s and the death of Albizu Campos in 1965.

The book provides an illuminating exploration of the struggle against US imperialism and what it meant to the dedicated cohort of nationalists who opposed it in their pursuit of independence. In articulating their vision of a Puerto Rico that rejoined the Americas “on equal footing,” the PNPR’s politics became characterized by nationalism, internationalism, transnationalism, and anti-imperialism. While Power acknowledges the role of Albizu Campos as a central figure, her analysis also exposes the transnational links across Caribbean nations, Latin America, and New York City, with particular attention given to the role of women and their often invisible labor that made anti-colonial organizing possible. The United States still looms large in the narrative, and Power could have, in tracing transnational solidarities, continued her project by turning to several other Latin American countries that expressed support for the PNPR.

Power’s insightful analysis of 19th century anti-colonial independence movements provides a foundation for transnational solidarity around the issue of Puerto Rican independence. Opening with the poetry of Lola Rodríguez de Tió, Power notes the linkages between Puerto Rico and Cuba through works such as “La borinqueña” and “A Cuba.” As Power argues, these poems convey the transnational solidarity of independence struggles, extending into the activism of Rodríguez herself, who, as a Puerto Rican exile, wound up working with the Partido Revolucionario Cubano. Her 1893 poem “A Cuba” illustrates the connection between the two movements against Spanish imperialism: “Cuba and Puerto Rico are / two wings of one bird, / they receive flowers and bullets / in the same heart.” Rodríguez joined a literary generation of intellectuals, revolutionaries, and authors that began to forge continent-wide movements. Power succinctly surveys several key texts, such as Uruguayan author José Enrique Rodó’s 1900 essay Ariel, which launched an “Arielismo” that contrasted US materialism with Latin American spirituality, and Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío’s 1904 poem “A Roosevelt,” which was addressed to the eponymous president, Theodore Roosevelt: “You are the United States, / You are the future invader.”

During the decade that Rodríguez’s and Darío’s works were appearing, the United States was establishing a colonial state on the island, to the ire of Puerto Rican nationalists. The island proved an essential element in the expansion of US military, political, and economic power in the Caribbean, Latin America, and, later (after the construction of the Panama Canal in 1914), Asia. This extension of US empire came at the expense of Puerto Ricans, who were subjected to efforts to infantilize the island, since they were seen as “unfit to run their own country.” This idea of paternalistic guidance and the need to adopt a US model of governance became a cornerstone among public officials administering the colonial state, while political cartoons depicted the island as a naive counterpart to the racialized and “rebellious” Cuba. In order “to conform to U.S. ways of conducting politics,” administrators demanded that Puerto Ricans reject anti-colonial and anti-imperialist political positions. In addition, educators reshaped the curriculum to teach English rather than Spanish, and the colonial state invested heavily in constructing schools and educating a new, obedient generation of Puerto Rican children.

As the United States established an administrative and colonial state to extract profit from Puerto Rico, the island’s residents reacted in a variety of ways. While landed elites accepted the colonial state since they believed it was in their best interest—economically, politically, or socially—others expressed dissatisfaction with concessions to US rule. This disdain led to the creation of the PNPR, which gradually evolved and altered both its identity and its politics within the first decade of its existence. While early leaders emphasized “that independence would be achieved through an amicable agreement between themselves and U.S. officials,” the PNPR under Albizu Campos defined the relationship between the United States and the island as “antagonistic.” Both camps, however, stressed that Puerto Rico’s anti-colonial endeavors situated the island as part of Latin America, not the United States.

In their efforts to incorporate all Puerto Ricans into the anti-colonial struggle, Nationalists also looked beyond the island’s shores. As Power argues, “Alone, Puerto Ricans lacked the resources and numbers to successfully defeat the United States in a political, a diplomatic, and certainly a military confrontation.” Around 25,000 copies of the Nationalist manifesto were distributed throughout Latin America, and it received prominent attention in Cuban newspapers. Other Latin American intellectuals, such as the Dominican Américo Lugo and the Venezuelan Rufino Blanco Fombona, commented on it, and the first tangible steps were taken toward a transnational solidarity network. Colombian activist Julio Alfredo de Guzmán created a solidarity committee and visited universities in Bogotá to discuss Puerto Rican independence. The Honduran delegate to the Pan American Centennial Congress, Alfredo Trejo Castillo, delivered a speech condemning the United States and presented a resolution supporting Puerto Rican independence, which failed to pass.

These initial gains encouraged the Nationalist Party to invest in further efforts to build a hemispheric solidarity. Nationalist leader Albizu Campos prepared to set off on a tour to garner support for the independence movement, much as spiritual predecessors like José Martí had done in the 19th century. Preparing for his journey, Albizu Campos relied on transnational linkages, asking Dominicans for introductions to Haitians. As Power notes, nationalists in the region “evoked the image of their common histories of oppression by European powers and the United States to link their fate to the joint community.” In their ambition to reincorporate into Latin America, Puerto Rican Nationalists advocated for sovereignty while simultaneously arguing for an end to US imperialism in the region.

As the Nationalists developed and organized in both Puerto Rico and Latin America, they gained the uneasy attention of the United States. As government surveillance increased, the PNPR reorganized and began providing military training for its members, fueling confrontations between Nationalists and the colonial state. Notably, when Nationalists marched to simultaneously commemorate the anniversary of the abolition of slavery on the island and call for the release of PNPR leaders, police opened fire on the peaceful demonstrators, killing 19 and wounding between 150 and 200. The infamous Ponce Massacre of 1937 became a rallying point that built further international support for the Nationalist cause.

As Latin American nations expressed solidarity with Puerto Rico and voiced support for the release of Nationalist political prisoners, the United States worked to reshape its image in the Americas. The development of the Good Neighbor Policy, which ostensibly “eschewed unilateral military intervention,” became a point of contention for the region. While President Franklin D. Roosevelt worked to reassure Latin Americans that the US would “respect regional sovereignty,” many Argentines, including President Augustín Justo’s son, utilized the opportunity to protest US imperialism, “call[ing] for Puerto Rican independence and the release of the imprisoned Nationalist leaders.” The Argentines were not alone: other Latin Americans, such as the Peruvian Laura Meneses (wife of Albizu Campos) and the Puerto Rican Juan Juarbe Juarbe, traveled across Latin America to build and organize support for the Nationalist prisoners, including in Chile and Cuba. As Power argues, “Puerto Rico became a symbol of U.S. intervention in the region, and many Latin Americans considered the imprisoned Nationalists icons of anti-imperialist resistance.” Despite FDR’s assertions, the Good Neighbor Policy proved anything but harmonious.

The attention of Latin American allies to the Nationalist cause did lead, however, to the release of Nationalist prisoners. With their successful release, several formerly incarcerated leaders, including Albizu Campos, turned to New York City, where they established the American League for Puerto Rico’s Independence. Power asserts that this move was a logical response to the “Ponce Massacre, the exile of the party leadership, and heightened levels of repression,” which “had weakened the PNPR in Puerto Rico.” New York offered an opportunity for the PNPR to rebuild and forge new linkages in their transnational solidarity network, particularly among US-based anti-imperialists. These connections utilized the proximity to the United Nations to appeal to new allies beyond Latin America, which eventually led to the Nationalist Party’s admission to the UN as a “nongovernmental organization.” It still seems counterproductive, however, to forge a Latin American identity in exile in New York, instead of in cities throughout the Southern Cone. Further studies exploring the Puerto Rican diaspora in Latin America during this period may well help complete the picture of hemispheric solidarity.

As the Nationalist Party worked to develop tangible support in New York, Puerto Rico’s political landscape drastically changed with the rise of the PPD. This included the ascension of the former critic of colonialism, Luis Muñoz Marín, to governor of the island, which served as the “transition [for Puerto Rico] from a direct U.S. colony to a more camouflaged one.” With the rise of Muñoz Marín and the PPD, the Nationalist cause gradually declined as more Puerto Ricans embraced the promises of increased political autonomy and economic growth. While some former PPD members rejected the abandonment of independence as a goal, this did not bolster the PNPR; instead, it only served to fracture the cause. After the United States allowed elections on the island, the viability of Puerto Rican independence was undermined in governing bodies like the United Nations and the Organization of American States. In the face of these developments, Puerto Rican Nationalists turned to direct, armed confrontation to highlight their call for independence, believing that the moral priority of exposing the persistence of US colonial rule outweighed the dangers. The resulting crackdown on the nationalists effectively rendered the PNPR ineffective, but their calls for independence persisted into the 21st century.

By reconceptualizing Puerto Rico’s geopolitical position from a binational relationship between the island and the United States to a hemispheric coalition, Solidarity Across the Americas offers a fresh understanding of the region. In a similar vein to Aldo Marchesi’s Latin America’s Radical Left: Rebellion and Cold War in the Global 1960s (2017), Power reconstructs the deliberate organizing of a transnational anti-imperial movement against US hegemony in Latin America, which made the Cold War in the region quite hot. Extending the organization beyond Albizu Campos, Power examines a plethora of actors, from labor leaders to intellectuals to authors, who formed the core of a vibrant anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movement that resisted US influence in the region. Indeed, the linkages that Power begins to formulate across Latin America deserve further examination by scholars of social movements and transnational solidarities.

While the island’s geopolitical position and relationship with the United States and Latin America remain complex, the legacies of the Nationalist Party are still inscribed in Puerto Rican identity. From T-shirts adorned with the face of Don Pedro to the light blue hues of the flag, the assertion of Puerto Rican–ness has become a visible expression of solidarity among islanders, as well an emblem of their uncertain future.

LARB Contributor

Emiliano Aguilar is an assistant professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, specializing in Latina/o history, the Midwest, political corruption, and labor.

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