José Celso Barbosa was a physician and political leader known as the father of statehood in Puerto Rico. During the Spanish era, he was part of the republican branch of the autonomists, and after the change of sovereignty, he supported the idea of Puerto Rico becoming one of the United States. He was one of the founders of the Puerto Rico Republican Party in 1899.
He was born in Bayamón on July 27, 1857, the son of Hermógenes Barbosa, a bricklayer by profession, and Carmen Alcalá. He finished his primary education in his hometown. In 1875, he earned a bachelor’s degree in Arts at the San Ildefonso Council Seminary, where he suffered both racial and social discrimination.
He began offering tutoring to the children of wealthy families with the intention of saving his money to move to the United States and continue his studies. One of his students, landowner José Escolástico Barríos, helped him financially so he could achieve his goals. He moved to New York in 1876 to study English. During the winter, he fell ill with pneumonia. The doctor who cared for him inspired him to change his field, opting to study medicine instead of engineering, his original goal.
In 1877, he enrolled at the University of Michigan to study medicine, after having been rejected by the Columbia University School of Medicine because he was black. He graduated in 1880 with honors. However, when he returned to Puerto Rico, the Spanish colonial government prevented him from practicing because he had not studied in Spain. With the intervention of the United States Consul, the government recognized his title and gave him permission to practice medicine, which he did in a private office and as a physician at the Sociedad de Socorros Mutuos.
During his time in the United States, he came to admire the democratic and republican system of government in the country. Upon returning to Puerto Rico, at the end of October in 1880, he became active in politics by joining the Liberal Reformist Party, which promoted an autonomous government for Puerto Rico. He did not abandon his republican ideals with respect to Spain, however. In 1897, he left the party when it formed a pact with the Spanish Liberal Fusionist Party led by Práxedes Mateo Sagasta, which supported the monarchy. As a result, he founded, along with other republican autonomists, the Orthodox and Pure Autonomist Party.
In 1888, with sponsorship from the Puerto Rican Athenaeum, the Institute of Higher Education was formed to offer courses. In 1890, decided to renew his medical degree so he could teach. From then until 1902, he worked as a professor at the institution and taught courses in Zoology, Botany, Mineralogy, Anatomy and Obstetrics.
Barbosa supported the change of sovereignty because he hoped the democratic and republican ideals of the United States would take root in Puerto Rico. On July 4, 1899, along with other autonomists, he founded the Puerto Rican Republican Party, which lobbied for the conversion of Puerto Rico into a territory of the United States so it could later achieve statehood.
In 1900, the Foraker Act was passed, creating a civil government on the island and implementing economic reforms. The colonial system continued, however. The law did not please the members of the Republican Party, despite the strong pro-American sentiments expressed by the organization. Barbosa thought the law was less than ideal. He accepted it as a transitional government measure but he demanded that it be reformed.
Barbosa was a member of the Executive Council from 1900 to 1917. After the approval of the Jones Act, which restructured the central government into three branches, he became a member of the Senate, where he remained from 1917 to 1921. During his incumbency, he supported legislation that would implement trials by jury on the island as well as the right of habeus corpus.
He also got involved in journalism from a young age. He wrote articles in support of his republican ideals in periodicals such as El País. In 1907, he founded the newspaper El Tiempo, the first bilingual periodical on the island.
The University of Michigan granted him an honorary Master of Arts degree and the University of Puerto Rico gave him an honorary law degree in 1917.
He died in San Juan on September 21, 1921. The municipal Post Office in Bayamón, the Third Millennium Park in Puerta de Tierra and many schools has been named in his honor.
Ayala, César J. y Rafael Bernabe. Puerto Rico in the American Century: A History since 1898. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. Google Books. Web. 24 junio 2009.
González Vales, Luis E. José Celso Barbosa: “un hombre del pueblo”. San Juan, P. R.: Oficina de Servicios Legislativos de la Asamblea Legislativa de Puerto Rico, 2005. PDF.
Trias Monge, José. Puerto Rico: las penas de la colonia más antigua del mundo. San Juan, P. R.: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1999. Google Books. Web. 24 junio 2009.
Wait, Shannon. “José Celso Barbosa”. A ‘Cosmopolitan Tradition’: International Students at the University of Michigian since 1847. Bentley Hiistorical Library, University of Michigan, 2008. Web. 24 junio 2009.
Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: September 11, 2014.
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