By Carlito Rovira
On December 22, 1895, Boricuas affiliated with the Cuban Revolutionary Party, created the flag of Puerto Rico at a secret meeting held at the Chimney Corner Hall in New York City. At the helm of this noble effort were the prominent Manuel Besosa, Antonio Velez Alvarado and Juan de Mata Terreforte, an exiled veteran of the 1868 Grito De Lares uprising. Among the other 59 attendees was also the renown literary and archivist of Black history Arturo Schomburg.
From the early 1800’s, New York City served as a safe haven for both Cuban and Puerto Rican revolutionaries who were being sought by Spain’s repressive agencies. Cuba and Puerto Rico were Spain’s remaining colonies, after a series of successful revolutions for independence in Latin America. Madrid wanted to preserve it’s colonizer status for as long as it was able. It is no wonder why New York City became the birthplace for both the Cuban and Puerto Rican flags.
The Puerto Rican patriots chose to invert the colors of the Cuban Flag, following the traditions of the “Two Wings of the Same Bird” – a poetic metaphor by the legendary female literary Lola Rodriguez De Tio. This metaphorical expression was later used in musical rendition by Cuban revolutionary leader, Jose Marti. Freedom fighters from both countries collaborated for centuries in a mutual struggle against Spanish tyranny.
To Puerto Ricans, like all oppressed people striving to build nationhood, the flag represents many things. It is the one representation that compels us to express our aspirations and deepest sentiments connected to history, culture and heritage.
Twenty-seven years prior to the Chimney Corner Hall meeting, Ramon Emeterio Betances and other revolutionary leaders of the 1868 El Grito De Lares uprising saw the necessity of creating such a symbol for the newly established nation in struggle. The leadership of that movement understood quite well the role spirituality plays in a fierce battle for liberation.
In collaboration with Betances, Mariana Bracetti Cuevas, who was also a professional seamstress, handstitched the very first Puerto Rican flag. She put together a banner comprising of two red and two turquoise blue boxes, divided by a white cross (similar to the Dominican flag) with a white star on the upper left. It was a tribute to the Dominican people for allowing Boricua revolutionaries to have a base in their country, and because Betances’ mother was also Dominican.
In the years following the courageous attempt by the Lares insurrectionists, the independence movement continued to exist clandestinely, due to an unfavorable political climate. The Lares martyrs and their supporters were systematically imprisoned, tortured and brutally killed by the Spanish authorities. Puerto Rico was under the most repressive circumstances, compelling the movement to retreat.
Many who survived the onslaught fled to New York while others went to Cuba to join their comrades fighting to liberate their country. Among these brave Puerto Rican patriots was Juan Ruiz Rivera, who would earn the rank of general in the Cuban revolutionary army.
Despite the difficult circumstances, the anti-colonial movement in Puerto Rico gradually regained momentum. Moreover, it was these harsh conditions that motivated the meeting at Chimney Corner Hall and the creation of the current Puerto Rican flag.
On March 24, 1897, the present-day flag of Puerto Rico was flown for the first time in the municipality of Yauco, in an uprising known as “Intentona de Yauco.” It was the last attempt made to win independence from Spanish colonialism.
Since the Intentona de Yauco, the Puerto Rican Flag has served to inspire the anti-colonial movement in Puerto Rico as well as in the struggles waged by the Puerto Rican diaspora for civil rights and against all forms of brutal oppression. It has been the tradition for the flag to be an inspiration in the battle for freedom and justice.
The devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in 2017 coupled with the continued enforcement of U.S. colonial policy, made the flag a symbol of hope. Nationalism became a critical force that provided moral strength to the Puerto Rican people in the ongoing resistance.
In fact, Mother Nature’s destructive forces can never compare with the attitudes of U.S. government officials. With their policy of neglect U.S. officials contributed to the lost of 4,645 Puerto Rican lives — a death toll the Trump administration blatantly disputed and trivialized. The criminality of the Jones Act combined with the dangerously ineffective FEMA administrators, showed us (and the World) the genocidal policies of both past and present U.S. Presidents — regardless of political party affiliation.
Criminalization of the Puerto Rican Flag
Adding insult to injury, after the U.S. militarily invaded and colonized Puerto Rico in 1898, use of the flag was discouraged and stigmatized as something evil by U.S. officials. But it was during the imposition of Law 53 of 1948, better known as the Gag Law, (in Spanish: Ley de La Mordaza), anyone caught displaying or possessing the Puerto Rican flag was immediately arrested by the colonial authorities. This vicious law aimed to quell mass support for independence but was also used to persecute Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos and the Nationalist Party.
Without warrants, homes, schools, businesses and houses of worship were randomly searched by colonial police looking for the “contraband flag”. Thanks to the nationalist fighting spirit of the Puerto Rican masses the U.S. rulers were compelled to eliminate this law.
In 1957, Law 53 of 1948, was removed as well as the ban on the Puerto Rican flag. However, the original turquoise blue on the flag was replaced by the same dark blue in the U.S. Flag, in an attempt to psychologically cause a false sense of assimilation between Puerto Ricans and the foreign oppressors.
When we wave the Puerto Rican Flag in annual events, let’s not do it in vain and end up taking this honor for granted. Those who continue to colonize us want to ensure our national symbols be no more than a passing fad. The Puerto Rican flag was conceived as a result of sacrifices made by many who fought for the freedom of our people.
That is why on this date, December 22nd, we celebrate the Puerto Rican Flag and salute the memory of our ancestors who fought gallantly for a noble cause. Despite everything the rulers have done to us through racism and attempts to destroy our identity as a people, Boricuas continue to raise our highest symbol with pride. QUE BONITA BANDERA!