Category: History

by Amy Thornbury


Statehood for Puerto Rico in the Thirties:
Close, But No Cigar

[The 1930s were] the twilight of confused
colonialism; the occupiers were defeated by
their own bungling and by the everlasting
self-interest and intimate knowledge of the
occupied. The shell of authority was empty.
--Gov. Rexford Tugwell, ca. 1945

The 1930s may have been a decade of economic depression, but for the estadistas, it was a period of political optimism. By 1933, the worldwide depression had produced more than its fair share of damages in Puerto Rico, and three recent hurricanes had destroyed a total of $150 million in property. Poverty was accompanied by what are now Third World diseases: malaria, hookworm, and tuberculosis. Visitors from the U. S. were amazed by the conditions on the island, which were rivaled only by the poorest black communities in the rural South. Villages in Puerto Rico were reportedly surrounded by human excreta since only half the homes had anything resembling a toilet. Three-quarters of all children under age 14 did not have shoes, although more of them were attending school: illiteracy had fallen to less than half of the population by 1934. Unemployment figures soared on the island, rising from 20% in 1920 to 26% in 1926 and peaking at as high as 40% in the thirties, while on the mainland, unemployment crested at 26%. In 1934, President Roosevelt visited Puerto Rico and vowed to rehabilitate the island's economy. Eleanor Roosevelt's visit later that same year gained the couple widespread popularity in Puerto Rico, as in most Latin America. Their visits reflected the sincerity of Roosevelt's pledge to be a "Good Neighbor" south of the border.
Political changes were occurring as well. More Puerto Ricans were enfranchised when women in Puerto Rico gained the vote in 1932 (twelve years after women on the mainland) and educational restrictions on voters were lifted. 1932 witnessed new party alignments, as the "Pure" Republican Party reunited with the Republicans who split off in 1924 to form the Unión Republicana Puertorriqueña, and then pooled their candidates with the Socialist Party in a second round for their Coalition. Under the joint leadership of Rafael Martínez Nadal and Santiago Iglesias, the parties' combined efforts for increased autonomy and eventual federal statehood gained the majority in the Puerto Rican legislature in 1932 for the first time since 1904 . With 85% of the voters participating, the Unión Republicana received 110,794 votes, which, combined with the Socialist Party's 97,438, gave the Coalition a total of 208,232 votes and victory over the Liberal Party's 170,168 votes. The pro-independence National Party attained just 5,257 votes, or a tiny 1.4% of the total.
The Coalition did not hesitate to act on their victory, interpreting the results as an indication of widespread support for statehood on the island. In 1933, the Coalition-controlled legislature requested authorization for a constitutional convention from Congress as the first step towards admission to the Union. This was the first statehood legislation ever passed in Puerto Rico.
Political unrest on the island reached unprecedented heights in the 1930s. For the first time, violence as an outlet for this unrest became more than an occasional choice for the radical independentista groups. A bombing of the governor's mansion, La Fortaleza, in San Juan in 1933 marked the first of a series of political incidents in the thirties. The Governor, Robert H. Gore (1933-34), was unharmed, but the threat on his life was disturbing. Gore was never very popular with the people of Puerto Rico. As Carr explains, Gore "was a gum-chewing tycoon with the manners of an insurance salesman who confessed that he did not even know the geographical location of the colony he was to govern." Appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt, Gore's ineptitude demonstrates the tragedy of patronage politics and underscores the Puerto Ricans' resentment towards an appointive, rather than elective governorship. Gore's goal was to strengthen the image of the national Democratic Party on the island by "a judicious handout of jobs," jobs which were at a premium during the depression. The bomb was planted in the gardens of La Fortaleza when Puerto Ricans had had all that they could take of Gore's political schemes, including his accusation that the Puerto Rican Commissioner of Education had spread an anti-American spirit in the schools. Gore's desire to "sell" Puerto Rico as a tourist attraction to the U. S. was also resented, since there was very little tourism on the island during the thirties. Above all, many were outraged by Gore's brash reorganization of the administration of the University of Puerto Rico in an attempt to rid its Board of Directors of all Liberals and replace them with pro-statehood Socialists. This move touched off a two-week strike of the 3,000 students in attendance at the University of Puerto Rico, who protested that the university's policy was designed to keep politics out of academics. Their strike gained widespread support and ultimately led to Gore's resignation the following year.
The main event involving the statehood effort in the thirties was the passage of a bill in the Puerto Rican legislature submitted to the U. S. Congress in 1934 by which Puerto Rico petitioned for admission to the Union. At the end of March, House Speaker Miguel A. García Méndez, a strong supporter of statehood, proposed a two-part statehood bill in the House of Representatives. Part One indicated the island's disapproval of the system of government currently established for Puerto Rico, calling it a "disappointment" to Puerto Rico, "due to differences in laws, customs, and language" between the U. S. and its possession. Part Two demanded that Puerto Rico be granted a period of temporary autonomy, including an elective governorship. The New York Times reported that "The resolution asserts the Puerto Rican people always have aspired to the fulfillment of the American principle that peoples have a right to determine their own destinies and that statehood will meet that desire."
Apparently, though, García Méndez was exaggerating the Puerto Rican sentiment on behalf of statehood, for many were opposed to the resolution. One Nationalist professor at the University of Puerto Rico, Clemente Perera, went so far as to stage a dramatic week-long hunger strike in protest of the bill. From March 25 to March 31, Perera fasted, spending most of his time in a rocking chair in the principal plaza of San Juan to draw attention to his cause: independence. He managed to put himself in the spotlight briefly, receiving "hundreds of telegrams expressing sympathy and admiration" for his principles. Newspapers printed ads urging Puerto Ricans to boycott American products during the professor's fast, but their appeals reportedly got little response. The San Juan newspaper El Imparcial urged Puerto Ricans to keep Perera in their prayers on March 31, Good Friday, and described him dramatically as the "Puerto Rican martyr who is on the sacrificial altar for the redemption of his people."
Puerto Rican Senate President Martínez Nadal commented that "There are [also] Puerto Ricans who would starve for statehood." However, Perera's demonstration was reported to have drawn "larger crowds than Mrs. Roosevelt on her recent visit." When the professor was finally taken to a hospital on March 31, a half-mile long crowd followed him; some 2,000 people kept vigil overnight outside the hospital. Perera's actions and the support which they drew indicate that there was substantial division over the statehood proposal, although it did not prevent the passage of the resolution.
In an all-night session beginning on April 18, members of the Puerto Rican Senate debated the statehood bill that Perera had protested. Liberals, such as Antonio Barceló, argued that independence was the only way to solve Puerto Rico's economic problems through access to free trade with the world, instead of having to abide by U. S. trade regulations. Coalitionists countered that independence would most likely bring economic devastation and political dictatorship. Finally, the resolution was passed along party lines: eleven Coalitionists in favor to three Liberals opposed. Essentially, it stated the following: "Resolved by the Legislature of Puerto Rico -- Section 1 -- That the people of Puerto Rico desire that Puerto Rico become a state and be admitted to the Union." Coalitionists were aware that the transition to statehood, if adopted, would be a long, arduous process, but they were exasperated by over thirty years of living in a condition of limbo.
There was prompt, but short-lived, attention to the Puerto Rican resolution in Washington. The U. S. House of Representatives introduced a bill (H. R. 1384) later in 1934 which outlined in detail the guidelines for the admittance of Puerto Rico as a state. The bill left no doubt that Congress would admit Puerto Rico to the Union if it abided by the guidelines set forth. Thus, Puerto Rico seemed closer than ever to achieving statehood, since the pro-statehood Coalition controlled the Puerto Rican legislature and their petition for statehood lay before Congress in writing. However, the events of June, 1935 dealt a major blow to the push for statehood when Liberal Party representatives testified during the House Territories Committee hearings on June 18. For one of the first times ever, U. S. Representatives heard official statements announcing that a substantial segment of Puerto Ricans was 'completely and unalterably opposed' to statehood. Luis Muñoz Marín was one of those who testified, arguing that the system of absentee corporation land-holding had made 'virtual slaves' out of Puerto Rican farmers and that this situation would persist indefinitely under statehood.
The U. S. response to Puerto Rico's petition was cautious because of the opposition to statehood shown in the hearings. Besides the issue of anti-statehood sentiment on the island, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes urged Congress to consider the issues of noncontiguity and cultural and linguistic differences from the mainland. Even some of the Puerto Ricans living in Harlem expressed their opposition to statehood. In September, 1935, a group of 2,000 of them marched through New York to demonstrate their opposition and to demand self-rule for the island, using the slogan "Puerto Rico for Puerto Ricans." Although not a major protest, it reflected the attitudes of some mainland Puerto Ricans toward statehood.
The incidents of protest against statehood reached a more violent level in late 1935. Historian Robert Hunter suggests that "probably nothing in its history ever hurt the island and the reputation of its people as much as the events which followed in [the Nationalists' terror] campaign." Not only did the terrorism harm Puerto Rico's reputation in the U. S., but it also helped destroy the island's chances for admission as a state.
The first violent event, occurring in late October, 1935, was indirectly linked to the statehood issue. Three Nationalists and one student at the University of Puerto Rico as well as one police officer were killed by police when a scuffle broke out at a university meeting. The meeting was called to protest Nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos's alleged slanderous remarks directed at the students. Police anticipated that Nationalists would try to suppress the meeting and increased security on campus. When the police spotted a suspicious package under a man's arm, they asked him and three of his companions to drive their car to the police station. The four men, who were Nationalists, complied at first but suddenly opened fire on the police, killing one of them. Chaos ensued: three of the four Nationalists and one bystander were shot. The significance of this tragic event became apparent when, at the funeral for the Nationalists, Albizu proclaimed that each Nationalist death would be avenged with the death of an American official.
True to Albizu's words, an American police chief in Puerto Rico, Colonel Francis E. Riggs, was assassinated by two Nationalists four months later, on February 23, 1936. The assassins, Hiran Rosado and Elias Beauchamp, claimed that their actions were a part of the "revolutionary justice" policy adopted by the Nationalists. Rosado and Beauchamp were killed by police when they allegedly tried to grab firearms at police headquarters.
The five deaths at the UPR and the killing of Col. Riggs and his assassins divided Puerto Ricans between those who supported the Nationalists' actions as a protest to American rule and those who condemned them for their terrorism. On the mainland, most Americans were learning about Puerto Rico's status dilemma for the first time. Those with any prior knowledge often had misconceptions about the island. The Nationalist violence indicated to mainlanders that the debate over Puerto Rico's separation from the U. S. had turned from words to bullets. Many feared that the violence would spread unless Congress took swift action.
The fear and misconception on the mainland was channeled into a hastily-drafted piece of legislation, the Tydings Bill. Proposed in April, 1936 by Senator Millard Tydings (D-Maryland), a close friend of the late Col. Riggs, the bill offered Puerto Rico immediate independence if the majority of people in Puerto Rico voted for it in a plebiscite. Tydings, a conservative Democrat who had earlier questioned the decision to grant Puerto Ricans U. S. citizenship because they seemed unworthy of it, was unpopular with FDR, although The New York Times reported that the Roosevelt Administration supported the Tydings Bill.
Granting independence to Puerto Rico seemed very appropriate in light of the Good Neighbor policy, for, technically, it would allow the Puerto Ricans to determine whether they desired association with the U. S. or not. However, historian Frank Gatell explained in an article published in the Hispanic American Historical Review that the bill was written so that "if Puerto Rico rejected independence, she would have to eat crow and thus appreciate the 'great blessings' of the American market; if she accepted independence, the 'erring step-sister' would depart in peace and poverty." As this comment implies, the bill presented harsh terms for Puerto Rico's independence. The duty on Puerto Rican products would increase by 25% annually until Puerto Rico would assume the same ground for trade as any other country. The four-year transition from economic dependence to independence appealed to few Puerto Ricans: without U. S. trade and protectionism, few were willing to go through the economic wringer. They showed their opposition to independence at the polls in November, 1936, as will be discussed.
Needless to say, the Coalition was outraged by the appearance of the Tydings Bill. They felt betrayed, as Senator Martínez Nadal explained, on three counts: (1) The bill betrayed the Democratic party platform promise to grant statehood to Puerto Rico (2) it let down independence advocates, because the economic conditions proposed for Puerto Rico's independence were ruinous; and (3) it was a betrayal of 38 years of loyalty to the U. S. since these citizens were offered either independence or colonial status, rather than closer association with the U. S.
Santiago Iglesias, the founder of the Socialist Party, was serving as Resident Commissioner in Washington at the time of the Tydings Bill controversy. He expressed his fury at the bill in the U. S. House of Representatives, calling it "unjust, arbitrary, ingrate, [sic ] and devastating to Puerto Rico." Above all, he criticized Tydings's "deplorable" act of introducing the bill without first consulting any Puerto Rican representative on an issue with would affect 1.5 million U. S. citizens in Puerto Rico. Finally, he reminded Congress of the statehood resolution adopted by the Puerto Rican legislation two years earlier which still lay before them.
One prominent Puerto Rican businessman, Felipo L. De Hostos, wrote a letter which was included in Iglesias's testimony before Congress. De Hostos wrote, "In my humble estimation, that bill was ill conceived and amounts to a negation of the spirit of fair play so highly prized by the American people. Furthermore, it was evidently based on an utter ignorance of the true feelings of the people of Puerto Rico, [since it ignored the desires of those in favor of statehood]. . ." Puerto Ricans like De Hostos also argued that the economic consequences of the type of independence offered in the Tydings Bill would be so severe that social upheaval, possibly leading to a Communist takeover, would occur on the island. Iglesias also cited the comments of Dr. Blas C. Herrero, a Coalitionist in the Puerto Rican legislature, as follows:
The independence bill introduced in the United States Senate had the unfortunate effect
of leading people to believe that this Government [in Puerto Rico] favors independence.
It enabled the Nationalists to boast that their rioting and their demonstrations had
borne fruit . . . .
. . . . . .

Thirty-six years of unswerving loyalty to American institutions merits recognition, . . .
recognition that will make us feel we are not just 'adopted' children of indulgent
foster parents, but genuine blood beneficiaries of the greatest of all democracies.
Herrero's main point, then, was that the Tydings Bill would be interpreted by the Nationalists as a reward for their terrorist activities, encouraging more violence on the island.
As a solution to the controversy surrounding the bill, one Puerto Rican suggested home rule, a concept advocated (without specific reference to Puerto Rico) by FDR when he was Governor of New York. In FDR's own words, ". . . it is obvious that almost every new or old problem of government must be solved, if it is to be solved to the satisfaction of the people of the whole country, by each state in its own way." That sentiment would be echoed when the U. S. adopted the policy of "self-determination" for the solution of Puerto Rico's status in the late 1940s.
In the wake of the tumultous debate over the Tydings Bill, Senator William King (D-Utah), who had been on congressional committees which handled Puerto Rican affairs, decided to visit Puerto Rico for a first-hand investigation in August, 1936. His visit coincided with the pre-election party conventions and helped sharpen the focus of each party's platform. He told the islanders that the U. S. had Puerto Rico's best interests at heart when it introduced the Tydings Bill, although the evidence of the Tydings Bill itself does not support this claim, especially since all economic ties with the U. S. would be severed in just four years. As a result, Puerto Ricans were driven into two groups: those who wanted independence at any cost, even if it was as costly as the type of independence offered in the Tydings Bill, and those who opposed the offer of independence.
The Liberal Party attempted to postpone the 1936 elections until the air had cleared a bit after the Tydings Bill controversy, but the elections were held as scheduled that November. The Coalition, which ran on a platform adopting both statehood and independence as acceptable ultimate goals, won by a margin of 45,000 votes out of 549,500 total votes cast. Yet this cannot be interpreted as a clear victory for statehood so much as a rebuff of the Tydings Bill. Thus, the plebiscite on independence was shelved with the defeat of the Liberal Party, which was officially committed to independence.
The most violent of all the incidents during this period or any period in the history of U. S.-Puerto Rican relations occurred on Palm Sunday, March 21, 1937. A few hundred Nationalists had gathered to march peacefully in the square of Albizu's birthplace in Ponce to summon support for independence. An hour or two before the scheduled starting time, the mayor, under pressure from Governor Blanton Winship (1934-39), revoked the permit he had issued to the Nationalists earlier. The Nationalists decided to go ahead with the march anyway, and were greeted by one hundred and fifty armed policemen who had surrounded the square. A stand-off occurred, and accounts of what happened next vary. The following account is given by historian Robert Hunter, who served on the 1965-66 U. S.-Puerto Rico Commission on the Status of Puerto Rico (STACOM):
Suddenly, a shot rang out, and a police officer fell, wounded. The police then began
firing wildly into the unarmed crowd. Nineteen were killed, including two policemen,
and more than 100 were injured. . . . Most of the dead were little more than children;
none were armed; many were shot in the back while seeking refuge. The overall
result was a storm of wrath directed against Governor Winship and his administration.
The American Civil Liberties Union investigated the affair, and . . . they, too,
roundly castigated the police and island administration.
The bloody event became known as the Ponce Massacre, and served to strengthen the Nationalist cause against the U. S., since the U. S.-controlled governor was blamed for the casualities.
In July of the following year, Nationalists attempted to assassinate Governor Winship during a parade celebrating 40 years of U. S. rule on the island. About eighty shots were fired, but all missed their target. Colonel Luis Irizarry of the Puerto Rican National Guard was killed, and a Puerto Rican bodyguard was wounded. Nine Nationalists were charged with murder in this episode.
In light of all the violence on the island, the possibility of statehood had reached perhaps an all-time low in the eyes of the U. S. Congress. Looking back to the period when he first became involved in politics, Luis Ferré recalls his realization that Congress had to be informed about statehood for Puerto Rico in 1938. When the Cuban railroad was built, he explained, newspaper correspondants were organized to interview congressmen, get their support for the project, and in return, give them free publicity. "So I did that with statehood," Ferré recounts,

as the best way to educate Congress on statehood, and I set up the same
organization, and we visited all of the members of Congress. . . . And we got some very
favorable reactions for the first time on statehood for Puerto Rico. Up until then
Congress had not been interested in statehood for Puerto Rico.
Despite Ferré's achievements toward generating knowledge and interest in the Puerto Rican statehood effort in Congress, Congress was becoming increasingly preoccupied with the events in Europe which were leading up to the second World War. By 1939, their main concern for Puerto Rico was not its status, but ensuring that it would provide a stable military base for the U. S. Navy's protection of the Caribbean.
In Puerto Rico, the Coalition was weakening after eight years in power. Santiago Iglesias stepped down from his more than twenty-year reign of the Socialist Party, designating his son-in-law, Bolívar Pagán, as his successor. The choice was not universally popular, and the party was fragmented. The Republicans were divided over their own leadership problems as well. In addition, the beginnings of a new party had arisen out of a schism in the Liberal Party in 1938. This was the PPD, created by the charismatic Luis Muñoz Marín. In the elections of 1940, the new party attained 214,000 votes, while the Coalition won with just a 10,000 vote margin. The popularity of the PPD was attributable to Muñoz's clever political campaign which centered not on status, but on bringing "bread, land, and liberty" to every Puerto Rican. This slogan had a pleasing ring to it after the decade of severe depression and high unemployment which had plagued Puerto Rico. The PPD would dominate Puerto Rican politics until 1968, virtually eliminating any chance for statehood to succeed during those 30 years. In addition, the coming of WWII, and the bad publicity and ill-feelings generated by the Nationalist violence in the 1930s, completely wiped out the progress achieved by the estadistas in 1933-34, when statehood for Puerto Rico seemed so close -- yet so far.

Cited in Carr, p. 64.

See Whitbeck, 173-75.

Ibid. and Carr, pp. 202-03.

Figures according to People's Press Puerto Rico Project, pp. 40-41.

5 Concrete evidence of Roosevelt's populaarity is the fact that almost every Latin American capital has a "Roosevelt Avenue." San Juan is exceptional in that there is both a Franklin D. Roosevelt Avenue and an Eleanor Roosevelt Avenue.

Hull, 370

Ribes Tovar lists these statistics on p. 456.

STACOM, Background Studies, p. 87-90.

Carr, p. 49.

Ibid., p. 58.

See ibid. for an account of Gore's effrontery.

See Hubert Herring, "Rebellion in Puerto Rico," The Nation , 137 (November 29, 1933): 618-19.

NYT, March 26, 1934, p. L9.

Ibid.: March 28, 1934, 14: 1; March 29, 1934, 13: 3; March 30, 1934, 26: 4.

Ibid., April 1, 1934, 26: 4.

Congressional Record, 74th Cong., 1st sess., January 3, 1935, p. 36.

Cited in NYT, June 19, 1935, 8:7. Interestingly, Luis Ferré recalls that during the reign of Muñoz Marín and the PPD, a common practice by that party's machinery was to give families who voted for the PPD "squatter's rights" on government-owned lands. Thus, these families were "virtual slaves" to the PPD. When Ferré came to power in 1969, one of his first acts was to sell the land to the tenants, so that they could own the land outright, for one dollar a lot.

Ibid., September 15, 1935, 6: 4.

STACOM, Background Studies, p. 92.

NYT, October 25, 1935, 15: 1.

Ribes Tovar, pp. 467-68. The details surrounding this event are a matter of debate.

STACOM, Background Studies, p. 92.

NYT, April 25, 1936, 2: 1. Notice that the article covering the offer of independence to Puerto Rico appeared on the second page of the paper, while most matters concerning Puerto Rico were usually relegated to the back of the paper, indicating the degree of interest among Americans (or at least newspaper editors) towards Puerto Rico's affairs.

Frank Otto Gatell, "Independence Rejected: Puerto Rico and the Tydings Bill of 1936," Hispanic American Historical Review, 38(1) (February, 1958): 29-44.

Martínez Nadal's comments are cited in NYT, April 25, 1936, 2: 1.

Congressional Record , 74th Con., 1st sess., May, 1935, pp. 6244-45.

Ibid., June 1, 1936, p. 8563.

Ibid., p. 8565. Herrero's comments are taken from a speech he delivered on in a radio broadcast in Washington, D. C. in the wake of the Tydings Bill.


NYT, Aug. 30, 1936, IV, 7: 6.

Anderson, p. 48. The fact that the pro-statehood Coalition was not opposed to independence, just to the type of independence offered in the Tydings Bill, reflects the overriding desire among Puerto Ricans for first class treatment; for dignity and equality, however they could be achieved.

STACOM, Background Studies, p. 96. Other accounts, by Ribes Tovar, for example, state that as many as 21 people were killed.


Interview with Ferré, December 7, 1987.

Carr discusses Muñoz's 1940 campaign on pp. 130-31.

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