September 23 marks the anniversary of El Grito de Lares, an uprising in Puerto Rico that declared independence from Spain and initiated puertorriqueñidad. While the revolt, which led to 88 deaths and more than 500 arrests, wasn't successful, El Grito de Lares, a movement made up of people of various races, classes, nationalities and genders, remains a symbol and a reminder of the struggle for self-determination in the archipelago.
In recognition of El Grito de Lares, Latina chatted with some Boricua women there and in the diaspora who continue the fight of decolonization and independence for Puerto Rico.
Rosa Clemente, New York, 44
Our people have the right to self-determination. Any time a nation is a colony that in itself is oppression. The current crisis on the island really speaks to neocolonialism and its impact on humanity as well as public goods like electricity and water. I fight for independence of Puerto Rico here in the U.S. by educating people of different generations of why Puerto Rico is in the condition it’s in, whether through my grassroots organizing or my freelance journalism, and encouraging them to join the movement. In 2008, when I ran for vice president of the Green Party, I helped get decolonization of Puerto Rico into the platform, and that was an important moment for me personally and politically. Getting independence for Puerto Rico is going to require Puerto Ricans to not be afraid of what that looks like. Colonialism is a part of their lives. It’s hard to imagine what independence and freedom can look like when you’re told the U.S. is your parent and you can’t survive without it, even though that’s false because of our natural resources and people. It’s also going to take national organizing, us demanding and fighting for it, and electoral politics. This is a battle we’ve been fighting for a long time. El Grito de Lares was a call for freedom, and we have been calling for freedom ever since and always will.
Stephanie Llanes, San Juan, Puerto Rico, 28
I believe Puerto Rico needs radical transformation. When I use the word “radical,” I mean it in the way Ella Baker described: “getting down to and understanding the root cause.” The United States military and economic policies have effectively controlled and dominated Puerto Rico since the U.S. military violently invaded the island in 1898. Any attempt to address concentrated poverty, forced migration, unemployment, lack of health care and school closings, among other things, will fall short as long as the United States continues to colonize Puerto Rico. Why? Because any effort by our people to self-govern will be dictated by powerful U.S. elites who will not prioritize Puerto Rico or its people. You can’t fix a bullet wound with Band-Aids.
I fight for the independence by serving and supporting movements and people who are harmed by oppressive systems. At times, I fight as a participant in protests and different actions on the island or in the diaspora, and other times as a movement lawyer. However, I think it’ll take a critical mass of people willing to make the sacrifices that are necessary to love and live for our people, the island y la patria until a different existence becomes a reality in Puerto Rico. It’ll take people from all walks of life with different skills, talents and life experiences. It’ll take tackling issues of racism and anti-blackness, sexism, homophobia, ableism, classism and other ways people are treated as if they’re not our family. It’ll take building coalitions across and between movements in Puerto Rico, the U.S. and the world. It’ll take not giving up on freedom or each other—ever. El Grito de Lares was an act of unconditional love. To think, our ancestors—mothers, fathers, sons, daughters—loved us and Boriken so much they were willing to risk their bodies, their families and ultimately their lives for us to be free from exploitation and others’ permanent control. El Grito de Lares is also an opportunity for us, as a people, to engage in deep reflection, not only of our history but also to see connections that can inform and guide our current struggle for independence.
Dorothy Bell Ferrer, Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, 22
I have been pro-independence since I was nine years old, when I had first heard about political prisoners who went to jail for fighting for freedom for Puerto Rico, but was actively pro-independence since I was about 15. I fight by first listening. I continue to re-learn that as a writer and a thinker, and one who is offered the space to share my own ideas and thinking patterns through workshops, speeches and open dialogues, the best way that I am able to be “para el pueblo” is to listen to “el pueblo.” I also work my best to challenge the way people think the same way people have challenged my own beliefs: through questions. A lesson that I, as a growing advocate, have learned is that trust is built when you ask “why” rather than explaining “why not.” I am cautious of language (i.e. calling Puerto Rico an island vs. an archipelago) and I do often make suggestions and critiques to nationalist movements. I am currently working on a project to fortify the relationship between Puerto Rican youth in the United States and Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico. This is crucial for independence. The priority needs to always be Puerto Ricans regardless of home of birthplace. There is way too much division between leftist and independentista groups in Puerto Rico for us to be saying “independentistas unidos jamas seran vencidos.” Es una tragicomedia. We have to begin to strengthen solidarity between Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans in the United States and also with Dominican immigrants in Puerto Rico before we look to other countries for “friendship.” We have to fortify the relationship between elders and youth, because revolution needs a proper balance of sabiduria based on different experiences. We have to practice solidarity in every way. We have to recognize that Puerto Rico is not a country of people on the same socioeconomic level. There is racism and there is classism in Puerto Rico, which tend to work hand in hand. Deconstructing these societal problems is not divisive. Not doing so is irresponsible.
El Grito de Lares is complicated but nonetheless a beautiful reminder that bravery is a part of the Puerto Rican experience but also that there is much work to be done. The ultimate goal of the uprising was to remove the Spanish from colonial rule of Puerto Rico, which turned out to be unsuccessful. This is not to trivialize the bravery of Mariana Bracetti, Ramon Betances, Segundo Ruiz Belvis and the hundreds of others who dared to put their lives on the line for the growing “puertorriqueñidad” identity, but independence does not and will not happen overnight. The longer Puerto Rico remains a colony, the longer and more brutal the process of decolonization will take. This isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. I want to be clear that the insurrection wasn’t a complete loss, but it did not reach the ultimate goal. It is important to commemorate el Grito de Lares accurately as a reminder that there is work to be done and that the true process of decolonization and becoming independent from the United States government will require much more than simple negotiations.
Lis Valle, Nashville, Tennessee, 43
(Photo Credit: Katie Willis Rhodes)
Puerto Rico has been exploited for too long, and being independent would give the island autonomy, self-determination and a power to advocate for itself that under the current position is not possible. I say that, though I do recognize that there are countries that have become independent but are still fighting U.S. exploitation and control. I love my nation, the place I was born and lived in most of my life, and want actual freedom for it. It’s what I’ve always wanted. When I was 7 years old, there was a huge movement in Puerto Rico against the navy because they were testing bombs in the small island of Vieques, and I was aware of it and wrote a protest song. Today, I’m educating people of this history and how that history has contributed to the state in Puerto Rico right now. Sugar cane growers know that you take all the juice, the sugar, out of it and then throw the cane away. In Puerto Rico, there’s no more sugar – the schools are closing the health care is horrible – the U.S. has taken the juice and is tossing us, the people, out. It’s a struggle.