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Puerto Rico:
500 Years of Oppression

by Piri Thomas and Suzanne Dod Thomas
Berkeley, California

Piri ThomasPiri Thomas, poet, writer and storyteller, is the author of the sixties classic Down These Mean Streets and many other books including Stories from El Barrio, and Seven Long Times. In 1997 he released his second CD of poetry and music, No Mo' Barrio Blues , - his first Sounds of the Street was issued in 1994. To read and see much more of Piri Thomas visit his web site The World of Piri Thomas.

The roots of Borinquen (the original indigenous name for the Puerto Rico people) were trampled from the beginning of the European presence, where some lost sea captain who called himself Christopher Columbus landed on the island and renamed it Puerto Rico almost 500 years ago. Columbus and the conquistadores who followed him knew only how to plunder.

The natives who greeted Columbus were members of the fierce Arawaks and peaceful Tainos, who lived on the shores as fishermen. Columbus claimed their land in the name of Spain, and opened the door to Western exploiters who came in droves to colonize the island.

They brought soldiers, money-hungry businessmen, priests, and opportunists, who burned with the fever only gold could cure. They brutally reduced the native population to near extinction by means of disease, slavery, cruelty, and murderous extermination. Men, women and children were set to work digging for the yellow metal, the precious gold.

Black slaves were brought to the Caribbean islands in the same European-forged chains which dragged other native Africans to the cotton fields of the South of the United States. They also brought a large number of Chinese as cheap labor, one minuscule half-step removed from the bonds of human slavery. This intermingling of races began forming the cultural basis for nationhood.

Puerto Rico is a true melting pot, unlike the United States, where the races have remained separate, in conflict, with the basis of power lying with white supremacy. Moreover, throughout U.S. history, white supremacy has backed its claim of "manifest destiny" with a discrimination bent on dehumanizing Third World peoples and keeping them in bondage through intimidation and murder. It mercilessly crushed the right of the Native Americans to sovereignty, it kept black people in shackles through the 1860s, it survived a bloody civil war with its own South. By the time it grabbed Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898, it was well practiced in the arts of oppression and imperialism.

Thus, it was with ease that the U.S. would settle into the oppression of the Puerto Rican colony, seized from a crippled Spain during the Spanish American war, a war started when the United States allegedly sank its own ship, the U.S.S. Maine, in Cuban waters. Not surprisingly, the same General Miles who led the Massacre of Wounded Knee also led the United States Army against Spain in Puerto Rico.

Since 1898, the U.S. has looked upon Puerto Rico as belonging to he United States, but hardly a part of it. Puerto Rico has always had an immense strategic value for the U.S. in terms of protecting the Panama Canal. U.S. citizenship was forced on all Puerto Ricans by the Jones Act in 1917, but what they did not bargain for was the indomitable will of the Puerto Rican people to be free and independent. Already in 1868, Spain had confronted and crushed the First Republic, declared during the Grito de Lares Revolt, but the Puerto Rican nation's aspirations for sovereignty were not crushed.

In 1921, the Nationalist Party was founded, and organized what had previously been disorganized sentiment into a growing political movement, which was brutally repressed by the U.S. in 1937 and again in 1950 at the Jayuya Rebellion.

The U.S. further undermined Puerto Rico's aspirations for independence through its plan of forced migration, where guns and whips were replaced by the weapons of economic pressure, and the people of Puerto Rico were forced to separate from their homeland and come to the United States. The resultant break-up and separation of the family structure, and the loss of national identity, are due entirely to capitalist exploitation. As a Puerto Rican born in the United States, I had to walk a long road and make a long search that brought me, finally, to the realization of my true identity and to pride in my culture and heritage. As a child in the school system, there was not one thing relevant to my people or our history for me to learn from. Only recently have we Puerto Ricans pried loose the lid of what we are as a people. And it is obvious that for a people to know where they are going, they must first be secure in where they came from. We are humans who strive not just to exist, not just to survive, but to live as it is our right to live on this earth; knowing freedom is not just a word, but a way of life.

Que viva Puerto Rico libre!

Published in In Motion Magazine, October 24, 1997