By Carlito Rovira
On September 23, 1868, in the city of Lares, Puerto Rico, was the historic site of an uprising against African chattel slavery under Spanish colonial domination. The event is known as “El Grito de Lares”—the outcry of Lares—which affirmed the existence of the Puerto Rican nation and its struggle for national liberation, first against Spanish and then U.S. colonialism. It is a struggle that continues to this day.
El Grito de Lares took place in a world context of bourgeois democratic revolutions against the remnants of feudalism in the dominant European powers. Feudal states like Spain, basing themselves on the wealth generated by large land holdings and colonial exploitation, were forcefully compelled to give way to the growing power of world capitalism.
The Haitian Revolution of 1802-04, coming in the wake of the French Revolution that began in 1789, marked the first Black republic in history. The victory of African slaves who rebelled and broke away from French colonial domination inspired millions throughout Latin America, the Caribbean and the world. Slave owners everywhere became apprehensive about this event, especially in the United States.
In 1810, Indigenous people in Mexico under the leadership of Miguel Hidalgo launched a drive to force the Spanish out of that country. Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1824.
Throughout the 1810s and 1820s, Simón Bolívar led an army of Indigenous people and former African slaves in an effort to win the independence of South American colonies from Spain. These successful military campaigns shattered the prestige of the Spanish Army. Puerto Rico and Cuba were Spain’s only remaining colonies in Latin America.
In the 1848 revolutionary wars that took place in France, Germany and Italy, workers took to the streets against the feudal monarchies. Despite the monarchies’ desperate efforts to hold on to political power, the development of capitalism and the rising of the working classes meant the end of the centuries-long rule of feudal states.
In the United States, the Civil War of 1861-65 led to the overthrow of the slave-owning class in the South. And because slavery in the U.S. was the most lucrative and brutal of all it’s defeat served as a death blow to that system everywhere. Due to the vigorous efforts by the African American masses, especially when they fought in organized, armed detachments of the Union Army, the final destruction of the slave system was certain.
In all these struggles, the political demands of freedom and independence were meant to benefit the growing capitalist class, although it was the most oppressed social layers in society that fought the battles to destroy feudalism and chattel slavery.
The Puerto Rican nation
Under Spanish colonialism, the people of Puerto Rico—like the people in the rest of the Caribbean and Latin America—evolved to have the characteristics of self-identity typical of nationhood. The development of nations in the Americas inspired many to seek their freedom. Colonialism defined the class relationships that the newly formed nations would have to Spanish imperial power.
By 1867, there were close to 650,000 people in Puerto Rico. Half were of white Spanish background; the others were Black slaves, Tainos, mulattos and mixed-race mestizos. The economy was largely centered on sugar production and the sugar trade, with a capitalist mode of production that gave rise to the Puerto Rican working class.
Spanish colonial rule in Puerto Rico was harsh and allowed for little political participation by the local elites. All policies relating to politics and economy were dictated by the Spanish monarchy. Taxes were heavy. Any expressions for more autonomy—not to mention independence—were brutally put down.
El Grito de Lares took place in the context of increasing resistance to foreign oppression and the socioeconomic developments in the Western Hemisphere.
The Revolutionary Committees
A central figure in El Grito de Lares uprising was Ramón Emeterio Betances. The son of an African mother and a white father, Betances was reared in a relatively wealthy and privileged family. However, Betances began to question the causes for the inequalities that existed under a slave-owning colonial system. He was active in the clandestine movement for independence and to abolish slavery. Today, Betances is considered the “father of the Puerto Rican nation”.
Betances and Segundo Ruiz Belvis founded the Revolutionary Committees of Puerto Rico on Jan. 6, 1868, while they were in exile in the Dominican Republic. Soon, Revolutionary Committees were formed throughout Puerto Rico to organize for an eventual revolt among all sectors of the population. Under the most secretive measures, organizers reached out to Africans slaves toiling the land. The punishment for slaves caught in seditious activity was harsh.
A significant portion of the Puerto Rican combatants galvanized by the Revolutionary Committees were escaped African slaves living in hiding. In some cases slaves were granted freedom in exchange for partaking in the planned war; Some slave owners also desired to break away with Spain. But the class interest of this privileged sector was different from most people in Puerto Rico, their class aspirations were to develop capitalism free of hindrance by a foreign power.
Other freedom fighters were Tainos, the original Indigenous people of Puerto Rico who were living in the mountains and working as day laborers in the towns. Haitians, Dominicans and Jamaicans were also among the insurgents who fought in Lares.
Women also played an important role in the leadership of this revolutionary movement, such as Mariana Brecetti Cuevas and Lola Rodriguez De Tio. Both of these women partook in organizing the clandestine Revolutionary Committees. Mariana Bracetti Cuevas created what the revolutionaries hoped would become the flag of an independent Puerto Rican republic. Lola Rodriguez De Tio was the author of the Puerto Rican National Anthem — not the revised, non-revolutionary version approved by the U.S. colonizers.
Betances sailed on a ship with a cargo of rifles, cannons and other weapons from the island of Española (Haiti & Dominican Republic). These were weapons obtained during the Haitian Revolution’s defeat of French colonialism on January 1, 1804. Haiti had such an abundance of captured weapons that much of it was provided to other liberation struggles in the Western Hemisphere, especially to Simon Bolivar’s military campaign to expel Spanish colonialism.
But the Spanish colonial authorities discovered the plans. On his return from the neighboring island as he entered the harbor of Arecibo, the Spanish Navy surrounded the rebel ship, capturing the cargo and arresting the crew.
News of the ship’s capture reached the revolutionaries in the mountains who were preparing for the rebellion. With Betances in Spanish custody, the leading organizers of the movement decided to call for the rebellion ahead of schedule.
The Uprising Begins
At about 2 AM on September 23, 1868, 900 hundred insurgents on foot and horseback stormed the city of Lares. The army of freedom fighters entered the city, and as the sounds of shouts and gunfire were heard, the city awakened, crowds of people poured onto the streets, and the African slaves staged a revolt. The people were emboldened to fight which weakened the ability of the Spanish military forces to maintain control.
The principal demands of the revolutionaries were the abolition of chattel slavery, an end to the “libreta” (notebook) system and the independence of Puerto Rico. They called for the right to bear arms, the right to determine taxes and freedom of speech and of the press.
After an hour of gun battle, the Spanish authority was overwhelmed. Government and military officials were forced by the fury of the people to lay down their weapons and surrender. The rebels then declared the Republic of Puerto Rico.
The Spanish prisoners were then paraded and displayed for all to view as trophies of war. Colonial officials guilty of heinous crimes against the people were dealt with accordingly. What was unimaginable at one time—defeating by force an oppressor that projected itself as invincible—was now a reality.
The people rejoiced at the power they now had over their oppressors. With jubilant emotions the revolutionaries held their weapons in the air as crowds gathered at the town plaza in the center of the city. The Spanish flag, the despised symbol of tyranny, was lowered, stepped on and burned. In its place, the flag of the newly proclaimed Puerto Rican republic (shown below) was raised on a pole at the municipal building.
It was on this occasion that the people heard for the first time the solemn words of the Puerto Rican liberation struggle: “¡QUE VIVA PUERTO RICO LIBRE!”—long live a free Puerto Rico!
The revolutionaries’ plans were to capture Lares, then attack the surrounding cities where other groups of revolutionaries awaited instructions. Lares was chosen for the initial attack because of what was believed to be a strategically advantageous location for a starting point, in the mountainous region.
But because the Spaniards were better equipped and more experienced in the techniques of war, the victory at Lares was short-lived. What followed was the suppression of the independence and abolitionist movement throughout Puerto Rico. Many were imprisoned, tortured and murdered. Madrid issued new decrees and sent troop reinforcements to secure its domination over the Puerto Rican people.
But the uprising did lead to some concessions. For example, amid continued turmoil over the question of slavery — something which politically troubled Madrid did not want — the Spanish National Assembly abolished the hated system on March 22, 1873. In addition, the Spanish government granted a limited form of home rule to Puerto Rico in 1897. But one year later, in the course of the Spanish-American war, U.S. troops invaded Puerto Rico which remains a U.S. colony to this day.
Before his death on September 16, 1898—a few months after the U.S. invasion—Betances stated, “I do not want to see Puerto Rico under the colonial domination of Spain nor the United States.”
A Symbol of Struggle
El Grito de Lares is today a celebrated and respected holiday in the U.S.-colonized Caribbean Island. Even the U.S.-installed colonial government recognizes El Grito de Lares as an official holiday, closing schools and government offices — while trying to strip the holiday of its revolutionary content.
Although the martyrs of Lares did not achieve their quest, they provided the movement today with a sense of the necessity to build a people’s movement that can defeat U.S. colonialism. Their fierce attempt to end slavery is a continuing model for anti-racist struggle as well.
Betances and his fellow revolutionaries also provided a living example of the internationalism of oppressed peoples against colonialism. The “Society for the Independence of Cuba & Puerto Rico,” founded in the 1860s by exiled revolutionaries living in New York City is such an example.
Many of the Lares combatants that managed to survive the Spanish onslaught chose to continue their efforts by retreating to join the struggle in Cuba. About 2000 Puerto Ricans seized Spanish vessels in order to set sail to join their Cuban comrades in “El Grito de Yara” uprising, three weeks after El Grito de Lares. Among the Puerto Ricans to join this venture was Juan Rius Rivera, who became a commander in the Cuban rebel army.
It was this act of solidarity that solidified the centuries-long relationship between Cuban and Puerto Rican revolutionaries. This special collaboration became tradition. It is what motivated Lola Rodriguez De Tio’s famous poetic expression “Two Wings of the Same Bird”.
For many Puerto Ricans, the experience of Lares emphasis that the national salvation and liberation of the people can only be achieved with total independence and absolute freedom from foreign interference.
Added Meaning of El Grito De Lares
On September 23, 2005, Filiberto Ojeda Rios was killed in a gun battle with Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents. Filiberto was leader of the clandestine armed group Los Macheteros. The FBI chose the date to launch this vicious attack on the revered leader as an attempt to shatter the fighting spirit of the independence movement.
But U.S. colonialism’s efforts of psychological warfare came short of it’s goal. All that Washington officials managed to do was to give the annual El Grito De Lares commemorations an added meaning. Boricuas continue to wage the liberation struggle.
Today, Puerto Rico’s hard social reality has defined many new forms of struggle but with its long fighting traditions kept well intact. Regardless of what Washington officials throw against the Puerto Rican people, the historic instinct to rebel cannot be destroyed. The passion that existed during El Grito De Lares continues to live on.
The continued struggle for an independent state is the only suitable direction. Having a free and self-determining republic is the only guarantee for freedom from colonial rule. The sacrifices and lessons made by the martyrs of El Grito De Lares shall one day prove to inspire a decisive battle that will bring about the defeat of U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico.