On March 21, 1937, Ponce was involved in an incident called the Ponce Massacre. The incident occurred as a result of a march organized in Ponce on Palm Sunday by the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. The women were dressed in white, as nurses of the Red Cross. The men wore all white or a black shirt and white pants. Some of the other adults wore cadet uniforms of a Liberation Army, the gathered group were the Cadets of the Republic and the Daughters of Liberty. The march was organized to commemorate the end of slavery in 1873 and to also protest the incarceration of Nationalist Party Leader, Pedro Albizu Campos, who was jailed in Atlanta Georgia as well as demanding Puerto Rico’s Independence from the United States.
Nineteen unarmed nationalist protesters, peacefully celebrating the Abolition of Slavery (in 1873), were fatally shot by police under orders from the United States, CoInterPro (Counter Intelligence Program) and non-democratically elected military assigned Governor, Major General, Blanton C. Winship. Several days before the Protest the group filed and was granted a permit by the mayor of Ponce, Blas Oliveras to gather and protest on the 21st of march 1937. That is what the group of protesters meant to do, march in a peaceful manner to voice their concerns.
On the day of the protest just hours before the march was to start the colonial military Governor of Puerto Rico Major General Blanton Winship decided to order the Mayor to cancel the permit. Governor Winship ordered the Police who wre dressed in military uniforms and black boots to do what thet will to stop the group from marching. The policemen surrounded the marchers and ordered them to disassemble and leave, and the people did as they were told but rightfully the group was very upset and angry by this last minute turn of events. The group decided to hold the protest anyway, as they started to march they marched waving the illegal Puerto Rican flag (now the official flag of the current commonwealth of Puerto Rico ) and the song “La Borinqueña” the then outlawed anthem (now it’s the official Puerto Rican anthem) played a shot rang out, it is not known if it was from a police officer or from the crowd watching the march. On this Point is where a controversy exist, some say that the police started everything when they opened fire on the group of marchers. Others say the protesters started it by provoking the police. Who ever started it that doesn’t matter, because what followed was the worst massacre in Puerto Rican History. The police that surrounded them were concentrated from all over the island by Colonel Orbeta on his way to Ponce.
The government had planned for days to restrict the activities of the Nationalist party during this protest march. The Chief of Police Guillermo Soldevilla, with 14 policemen, placed himself in front of the marchers. Chief Perez Segarra and Sergeant Rafael Molina, commander of 9 policemen who were armed with Thompson sub- machine guns and tear gas bombs, stood in back of them. Chief of Police Antonio Bernardi, heading 11 policemen armed with machine guns, stood to the east of them. The last group of 12 policemen armed with rifles was, positioned to the west of the marchers. Instead of peacefully stopping the group or arresting them. They were fired upon for over 15 minutes by the police from their four positions. The people ran but were surrounded, as the streets were blocked by the police, they climbed over bloody shot bodies.
During the Fifteen minute shooting at the Massacre the flag-bearer a member of the Cadets of the Republic was killed. Carmen Fernandez when she was the flag-bearer fall tried to pick up the flag herself, she was shot and gravely injured. At this time Dominga Barcerril a lady who was already hiding saw the flag fall on the ground, she ran up to the flag picked it up, waved it and ran towards a hospital for cover she was unharmed. When asked why she exposed herself to danger, she said that “El Maestro (The Teacher) has told us that the flag must always be raised up high” the teacher was Don Pedro Abizu Campos. About 100 protesters were wounded and nineteen were killed, the dead included 17 men, one woman, and a seven year old girl.
Some of these dead were demonstrators, while the rest were passers-by. Many were chased by the police and shot or clubbed at the entrance to their homes others were dragged from their hiding places and killed. Leopold Tormes, a member of the Puerto Rico Legislature said that one policeman murdered a nationalist with his bare hands. One thing is known, that the first shot that rang out was not fired by any of the Protesters. Dr. Jose Gandara, one of the physicians who assisted the wounded, testified that some of the wounded people were shot while running away, and that many were again wounded by clubs and the bare fists of the police. No arms were found in the hands of the wounded civilians, nor on the dead ones.
The members of the Nationalist Party and the Cadets of the Republic were unarmed and trapped by the police who shot them at close range. This crime was committed under the direct orders of General Blanton Winship, the colonial governor of the island. After this act by the government, the imprisoned Nationalist leaders were jailed and transferred to Atlanta. Angel Esteban Antongiorgi one of the members of the commando, fired his weapon until he ran out of bullets before being killed by a police officer
The People who were killed in the Ponce Massacre:
- Juan Delgado Cotal Nieves
- Maria Hernandez Del Rosario
- Luis Jimenez Morales
- Ceferino Loyola Perez (insular police)
- Georgina Maldonado (7 year-old)
- Bolivar Marquez Telechea
- Ramon Ortiz Toro
- Ulpiano Perea
- Juan Antonio Pietrantoni
- Juan Reyes Rivera
- Conrado Rivera Lopez
- Ivan G. Rodriguez Figueras
- Jenaro Rodriguez Mendez
- Pedro Juan Rodriguez Rivera
- Obdulio Rosario
- Eusebio Sanchez Perez (insular police)
- Juan Santos Ortiz
- Juan Torres Gregory
- Teodoro Velez Torres
Down with the Assassins!
This is what Bolivar Marquez one of the Nationalist wrote in his own blood on the pavement as he laid dying. This day will go down in Puerto Rican History as the day of the cruelest act committed by the U.S Government on the Puerto Rican People. Investigations of the events reached disagreeing opinions on whether the Police or the nationalist marchers fired the first shot. Governor Winship used his power and influence and requested that the public prosecutor from Ponce Rafael Marchand to arrest more Nationalist and that no charges be made against the police. Perez Marchand resigned when he was not allowed to conduct a proper investigation by the governor. A government investigation into the incident produced few conclusions. A second investigation by the U.S commission for civil rights concluded that the events of that day, March 21, 1937 was indeed a massacre. The report also harshly criticized the tactics used constituted a massive violation of civil right by Governor Blanton Winship“s administration.
“The event should never be forgotten, because it can show some people that the USA has not always been a fighter for freedom. The Spanish also did the same thing and more, but for the USA it is hypocritical to advocate freedom to the world and trample people in their own backyard, in their own “protection”. Some say don’t stay thinking in the past too long, think of the future. Well what is the future without a past to learn from, to know what effects certain things can happen once you try them, to know who you are and what it took to get you where you are, we soon will be history, don’t you want people to remember you?”
Ponce Massacre Museum is located on the corners of Aurora and marina streets in the Ponce Historic Sector in the same intersection where the Massacre took place. This museum offers an exhibit about one of Ponce’s and Puerto Rico’s violent chapters. The museum offers an extensive collection of pictures, documentation, and memorabilia of the time, as well as several exhibits and videos of the events on that bloody Palm Sunday in 1937. It also includes information of the people involved in the massacre, along with homage to nationalist figure Pedro Albizu Campos.