Thousands of Puerto Ricans marched through Midtown Manhattan waving Puerto Rican flags of all sizes. Admittedly, I wasn’t there, but growing up in Humboldt Park, I know with certainty that the atmosphere was thick with puertorriqueñidad.
The Puerto Rican Pride Parade (as it’s known) has been an annual feature in N.Y.C. since 1958 – a harmless fact for the uninitiated in Puerto Rican history.
Nineteen fifty-eight was the year after the infamous Ley del La Mordaza was repealed. Referred to in English as “the Gag Law,” it placed a ban on all displays of the Puerto Rican flag, any patriotic music and any talk of the island’s controversial political status.
Yet, even before the Gag Law was enacted in 1948, the “Star and Stripes” was already a subversive banner. The flag was first introduced in the 1890s by the Revolutionary Committee of Puerto Rico, a group of patriotas led by Ramón Emeterio Betances (among others) who fought for separation from Spain (the same group that organized the Grito de Lares rebellion in 1868.)
After U.S. troops invaded the island in 1898 and installed a colonial government, federal law prohibited all flags except the flag of the United States. For the next 50 years, the Puerto Rican flag would be displayed at pro-independence gatherings as a show of defiance against U.S. control of the island. It became a rebel banner for the militant, pro-independence Nationalist Party led by Don Pedro Albizu Campos.
When the Puerto Rican Constitution was ratified in 1952, Gov. Luis Muñoz Marín adopted the flag as the official banner of the newly-created Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. As historian Nancy Morris wrote in 1995:
“The official adoption of ‘the old separatist flag’ has been interpreted by some as a ploy by Muñoz Marín to ‘neutralize the independentistas in his own party.’ The Independence Party itself, with which the flag had been associated, accused the Puerto Rican government of ‘corrupting beloved symbols’ and ordered that the flag be flown at half-mast for two days … in protest of the new commonwealth arrangement and the ‘captive’ flag.”
To see the beloved banner of their revolution co-opted by the colonial government must’ve been unbearable for the men and women who dedicated their lives to Puerto Rican independence – people like Nationalist leader Lolita Lebrón, who in 1954 shouted “¡Viva Puerto Rico libre!” while unfurling the flag in the U.S. House of Representatives, before she opened fire.
I am an American of Puerto Rican descent on my father’s side, and as such, the history of Puerto Rico and its current political status makes me less proud to be an American and a Puerto Rican. How can I be proud of a government that claims to be the shining light of democracy in the world and yet has imposed an undemocratic government on a people for over a century? And how can I be proud of an island that has been no more than a piece of someone else’s property for over 500 years?
That’s why I say with regret that there’s no such thing as Puerto Rican pride, because property isn’t proud – nor is the slave, who is bought and sold like a hat.
As a Puerto Rican, I can’t even look at the Puerto Rican flag without feeling anything but deep sadness. As an American, I wave it in defiance against all colonial governments, including my own.