Freemasonry in Puerto Rico is an enigma for most of the population. Some look at it with fear, others with curiosity and admiration, and others with distrust. Currently, Freemasonry does not view itself as a secret society, but as one that is very discreet. It defines itself as a fraternity dedicated to individual development as a first step toward improving society. It is a philanthropic organization that contributes to a variety of charitable organizations.
It is a mistake to speak of Puerto Rican Freemasonry of today in the singular, however. It is more correct to refer to various forms of Freemasonry in Puerto Rico. These have a series of common elements, in terms of ceremonies, rituals, and rites they use, but they have philosophies, ideas and practices that differentiate them.
Mason are grouped into lodges. The lodges, in turn, make up associations that are known as masonic jurisdictions. There are currently three different masonic jurisdictions on the island: The Grand National Orient of Puerto Rico, the Mixed Grand Lodge of Puerto Rico and the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Puerto Rico. Additionally, the Julia de Burgos Women’s Respectable Lodge functions independently.
The Grand Lodge of Puerto Rican was the first grand lodge established on the island. It was founded on September 20, 1885, in Mayagüez under the leadership of Santiago R. Palmer, an autonomist leader who was persecuted and imprisoned by the Spanish government for his ideals. That is not to say that other lodges did not exist in Puerto Rico up to that time, but those that existed belonged to other jurisdictions.
During most of the 19th century, the masonic lodges were organizations that were persecuted both by the government and the Catholic Church. On one hand, the Spanish government saw them as fomenters of independence movements throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. On the other hand, the Catholic Church considered them a danger to the Christian dogma and doctrines. This persecution was intermittent in nature. The lodges’ reactions varied based on the levels of harassment in society at a given moment. The harassment some lodges were subject to led them to cease operations temporarily, while others closed for good and others decided to work clandestinely or in secret.
The lodges officially resumed their work in Puerto Rico in 1899 with the transfer of the colony to the U.S. government. When the Grand Lodge resumed operation, it decided to transfer its headquarters to San Juan. This decision was based on the idea that not only would the United States not persecute the masons, but that many of the country’s founding fathers had been recognized masons. Under this new social and political reality, the masons could work openly in the Puerto Rican capital. There was also a change of attitude, from the reality of the masons in the 19th century, which had clear separatist and autonomist tendencies, to a tolerance of colonialism that developed, among some masons, into an attitude of admiration for the new ruling power.
The Grand Lodge of Puerto Rico continued growing in number and power until it was considered the representative of Freemasonry in Puerto Rico. Over time, people with different ideologies and different concerns and interests joined the order until it became a very heterogenous group. This contributed to the decision to make speaking of freedom or equality a violation of the rules that prohibited debates on religion and politics in the lodges. However, some lodges began to raise the U.S. flag at their temples and this was not considered to be a political act. This trend toward annexationism began to have repercussions and created discord and division among the members of the Grand Lodge.
This discord culminated in the 1940s with the worst schism ever experienced by a masonic jurisdiction on the island. The process began in 1942, when the Light of the Cosmos Lodge No. 79 began a movement to return to what they considered to be the true masonic values of seeking freedom and equality. Finally, on May 16, 1948, the Grand National Orient of Puerto Rico was founded. Thus arose an ideological position within Puerto Rican Freemasonry that would later come to be known as patriotic Freemasonry. The Grand National Orient made the struggle for freedom its guiding principle. Two of the most prominent leaders during its origins and later development were Antonio Santaella Blanco and Abelardo E. Díaz.
As expected, the leaders of the Grand Lodge reacted angrily and attacked those who previously had been their members, declaring them irregular and undesirable masons. This attitude prevented the establishment of relations between the lodges. Even today, the Grand Lodge does not recognize the members of the Grand National Orient as masons. The persecution that the masons had suffered in the 19th century at the hands of the Spanish government was suffered by members of patriotic Freemasonry in the following century at the hands of representatives of the new colonial power.
Just six years after the Grand National Orient was formed, problems arose that led to the departure of three lodges. Antonio Santaella Blanco was using his leadership position to choose and admit new candidates, without following the regular procedures. This led to another schism in 1954. Three lodges that had separated formed a new jurisdiction. In April 29, 1965, the Grand National Lodge of Puerto Rico, the second patriotic Freemasonry lodge on the island, was founded.
In 1981, another conflict inside the Grand National Orient led to a new schism and a new jurisdiction. The conflict centered on the rejection of some members of the order who had established relationships with organizations in the United States that included the participation of Cuban exiles, specifically the Respectable Lodge of Foreign Languages in New York. As a result of the confrontations, some members were expelled. Those who were expelled organized and, in 1982, created the Interamerican Grand Orient of Puerto Rico. In 1996, however, this new lodge decided to reintegrate with the Grand National Orient.
In 1983, seven women decided to form the first and only women’s lodge in Puerto Rico up to that time. Some of them were wives of masons in the Grand National Orient and the Grand National Lodge. The jurisdictions that existed on the island at that time did not allow the initiation of women, so they had to look outside of Puerto Rico for a jurisdiction to initiate them. Some of them had traveled to international masonic activities and they established contacts with women’s lodges outside Puerto Rico. The leaders of the Grand National Orient and the Grand National Lodge traveled regularly to Mexico. That was how they established contact with the Grand Lodge of Insurgent Women of Mexico. The founding group consisted of Conchita Rinaldi, Minerva González, Isabel Vega Vicenty, Dora Santos, Ruth Vasallo, Clotilde Colón and Elena Ayala. These women formed the Julia de Burgos Women’s Respectable Lodge, affiliated with the Grand Lodge of Insurgent Women of Mexico, with which they maintained contact for years. Over time, communication ended with the mother lodge and the women’s lodge continued operating independently.
In 1990, the Grand National Orient of Puerto Rico decided to amend its constitution and regulations to allow the initiation of women as members of the order, thus becoming a mixed jurisdiction. Later, the Grand National Lodge did the same in 2000 and in 2004 it decided to change its name to the Mixed Grand Lodge of Puerto Rico. Both lodges maintain cooperative relationships with the Julia de Burgos Respectable Women’s Lodge.
Currently, these three grand lodges and the women’s lodge continue working on the personal development of their members. They are involved in different ways and to different degrees in philanthropic activities and community aid with the goal of positively impacting their communities.
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