The Grito de Lares (Lares Uprising) is the popular name given to the revolution against Spain for Puerto Rican independence, which took place in the town of Lares on September 23, 1868. In the 19th century, in Latin America, the expression grito – literally a shout or outcry – was used as a synonym for a declaration of independence. The Grito de Dolores (Mexico, 1810), the Grito de Ipiranga (Brazil, 1822), and the Grito de Yara (Cuba, 1868) are examples of this.
The armed insurrection began in Lares, a small town located in western central Puerto Rico, in one of the regions engaged in the commercial agriculture economy of that period. At the time of the Grito, there were some 500 haciendas producing coffee in the lush green, well-watered, tropical mountains. In Puerto Rico as a whole, along with the production of other commercial crops such as sugar cane and tobacco, the basic need for food was met through subsistence agriculture, cattle raising, and fishing. In fact, the military head of the Grito de Lares, don Manuel Rojas, was one of the principal coffee growers.
Late on the night of September 23, before the rebel army of about a thousand men which had gathered on his hacienda, General Rojas proclaimed the independence of Puerto Rico. “It was at Rojas’s home,” Spanish Governor José Laureano Sanz said, “that the rebellion was born” (Report of July 4, 1869).
In his call to revolution, as historian Olga Jiménez has documented, General Rojas “addressed the troops that were outside and told them of the need to overthrow the government in power to end its tyrannical practices. He mentioned the exorbitant taxes, the corruption of government employees, and the duty to bring such a tyrannical regime to an end.” After exhausting all the peaceful and legal approaches permitted by Spain in order to win Puerto Rico’s own national sovereignty, the Puerto Rican revolutionaries chose the path of armed revolution to end Spain’s colonial domination.
Beginning in 1492, Puerto Rico and the other islands in the West Indies were at the geographical heart and historical starting point in the formation of colonial Latin America and the Caribbean. Over the period from the 16th to the 18th centuries, a colonial criollo society took shape with its own distinguishing characteristics. The composition of colonial society was the product of interaction between the Taíno Indians, the Spanish colonizers, and the slaves brought from Africa, articulated through evolving socio-economic structures and a variety of cultural contributions.
As had occurred with the colonies in what is now the United States, Puerto Rico also had its precursor independence movements. For example, the rebellion of the townspeople of San Germán, Ponce and Coamo, from 1702 to 1711, which defied the government and affirmed the authority of the cabildos (town councils). At the beginning of the 19th century, at the historical juncture of French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion and occupation of Spain, in Puerto Rico a revolutionary movement to achieve independence was organized in San Germán, led by the criollo elite,. The arrival of troops from Spain and the repression of the leadership frustrated that attempt. There were also other attempts at revolution in 1823 and in 1838.
In the course of the 19th century, Puerto Ricans grouped along several political lines: the conservative line, which supported Spanish control; the reformist line, which favored greater participation by criollos, as well as economic changes that were favorable to Puerto Rico; and the pro-independence line, which sought full Puerto Rican sovereignty. In 1866-67, liberal reformist and pro-independence commissioners (representatives to the Spanish Cortes) – José Julián Acosta, Francisco Mariano Quiñones and Segundo Ruiz Belvis – denounced despotism in the colonies and formulated petitions setting out a consensus of several kinds: economic consensus (free trade, agricultural and industrial development), social consensus (abolition of slavery and of the libreta de jornaleros [debt peonage] system), and political consensus (administrative decentralization and more local government) before the Junta Informativa (Overseas Informative Commission) in Madrid. Imperial Spain paid no attention to these claims; failed to fulfill old promises or support the Leyes Especiales that would have advanced local autonomy (1837), and imposed more taxes on the colony. The Spanish governor, using the pretext of a mutiny of soldiers in June 1867, ordered the arrest of prominent liberals.
At that time, Puerto Rico was a nation that had been taking shape, with its own historical and cultural development, for four centuries. Its population was 656,328 inhabitants (Census of 1867) who lived in 68 towns throughout the country.
In the summer of 1867, in a high-level meeting of Puerto Rican liberals, the reformist sector led by José Julián Acosta, Julián Blanco, Calixto Romero and others chose to “await” a “favorable” political change in Spain. The pro-independence sector decided to take another path, one leading to revolution. Among these were Dr. Ramón Emeterio Betances, Segundo Ruiz Belvis, Carlos Elías Lacroix and others. Some had already suffered political persecution and exile for their abolitionist activities and political ideas.
Betances and Ruiz Belvis had escaped to New York, where, from 1865 on, they operated a Sociedad Republicana de Cuba y Puerto Rico (Republican Society of Cuba and Puerto Rico), which fostered the independence of these last Spanish colonies in the Americas. One of the members of that society was the exiled Puerto Rican, Dr. José Francisco Basora. In response to the accusation of the Spanish governor that they “were conspiring,” plotting, against Spain, they formed a Comité Revolucionario and responded with a Manifiesto a los Habitantes de Puerto Rico (July 16, 1867), six pages long, in which they affirmed another, liberating sense of conspire: “We must conspire without cease because it is necessary that some day the colonial regime must come to an end in Puerto Rico, because Puerto Rico must in the end be free.” They denounced colonial tyranny (the non-existence of a Puerto Rican government, taxation for which the people had not voted, generalized corruption among government employees, educational want of all kinds, etc.); they urged their reformist fellow countrymen to have no illusions about the interests of Spain; and they stressed the importance of “looking to our own interests,” affirming their oneness with and support for revolution in the Antilles.
Segundo Ruiz Belvis died at a bad moment (in November 1867), on a trip through Latin America that was to begin in Chile. Betances honored his memory by calling him the first martyr of the revolution. From the neighboring island of Saint Thomas, he sent his famous proclamation to Puerto Rico – the Diez Mandamientos de los Hombres Libres (the Ten Commandments of Free Men). These were (1) the abolition of slavery, (2) the right to vote on all taxation, (3) freedom of religion, (4) freedom of speech, (5) freedom of the press, (6) free trade, (7) the right to assemble, (8) the right to bear arms, (9) the inviolability of citizens, and (10) the right to elect our leaders.
In January 1868, a group of patriots located in Santo Domingo reconstituted the Revolutionary Committee: the high command that had operated from forced exile, made up of Betances, Mariano Ruiz Quiñones, Lacroix, R. Mella, José Celis Aguilera, and Basora (in New York), was joined by the Archbishop of Santo Domingo, don Fernando Arturo Meriño, a liberal by orientation who had lived in Puerto Rico. Under the slogan Patria-Justicia-Libertad, they wrote a Provisional Constitution, in Article 2 of which they stressed the objective of establishing “the independence of Puerto Rico, in republican and democratic form.” During the following months of 1868, Betances led the committee from abroad, eventually forced to operate from Curacao and Saint Thomas). He took it upon himself to collect arms and necessary military supplies and equipment and prepare an expedition of liberation. Relocated in Puerto Rico, Lacroix in Ponce, Celis in San Juan, and Juan Chavarri in Mayagüez, all principal cities, they would be the contacts to organize the movement throughout the whole of Puerto Rico.
The organizational process was difficult and complex, since in the context of the reigning military despotism, everything had to be done under wraps. Little by little, juntas revolucionarias were formed in the towns and neighborhoods. These took as their models the revolutionary societies of Europe and operated according to the principles of the rites of Freemasonry, to which many belonged, using pseudonyms and secret codes. Puerto Rico was fundamentally rural and inland transportation was on horseback or by carriage, with delays of days in going from one place to another. The most advanced means of communication, the telegraph, was controlled by the government. The proclamations were printed on nearby islands, or in secret print shops, and they were circulated secretly. The government was on constant alert.
By September, there were committees in several towns. The revolutionaries of Lares, Camuy, San Sebastián, and the highlands of Mayagüez, better organized than others and eager for action, decided to initiate the revolution on September 29. Unguarded remarks led to discovery: on September 21, the committee in Camuy, where the Grito was to take place, was discovered and its leader, Manuel María González, was arrested with compromising documents in his possession. So as not to allow the government time to mobilize militarily, the leadership of those towns set the 23rd for armed action. The available documentation suggests that all this took place without communication with the committee abroad or with its principal contact persons.
In these circumstances, even so, a nucleus of about one thousand men of the rebel army came together. Lightly armed, some with rifles and revolvers, most with machetes, after proclaiming independence and led by Generals Manuel Rojas and Juan de Mata Terreforte, they attacked and took the town of Lares late at night on September 23. Spanish tradesmen Amell, Ferret and others representative of ruling foreign capital were taken prisoners along with the local authorities.
In Lares, the declaration of independence was given for all of Puerto Rico. The provisional government of the Republic of Puerto Rico was instituted under the presidency of don Francisco Ramírez Medina. President Ramírez proclaimed the abolition of the servile libreta system and the liberty of all slaves who joined the struggle or were prevented from doing so, and he urged his countrymen to do their duty to liberate Puerto Rico. On the morning of the 24th, a rebel force of some 300 or more tried to take the town of San Sebastián del Pepino. Believing that they would be supported by the local militia, they were surprised to find that the authorities had been alerted beforehand. In the Batalla del Pepino (Battle of San Sebastián del Pepino), several of the insurgents were killed or wounded. Unaware of this, Betances was in Saint St. Thomas, where the Danish authorities confiscated his ship with 300 rifles, a canon and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Isolated and out of touch with one another, the revolutionaries decided to fall back in small groups in the mountainous western area. There is no question that, by December, the government had achieved a counteroffensive and the military defeat of the insurrection. Matías Brugman, Baldomero Baurén (Guayubín), Joaquín Parrilla and other revolutionaries were killed in later confrontations with the soldiers.
There is official documentation of approximately 600 prisoners. The governor, General Sanz, pointed out the danger of the Grito de Lares in that “individuals of all the social classes that make up this society” were involved. A review of the prisoners reveals that 39 percent were day laborers, 18 percent middle class, 15 percent farm workers, 10 percent slaves, 7 percent tradesmen, 6.5 percent artisans, and 4.5 percent owners of haciendas. In the jails of Arecibo and Aguadilla, 85 prisoners from the Grito died. Among those arrested in Lares were Mariana Bracetti and Obdulia Serrano, the wives of the brothers Manuel and Miguel Rojas, and in the town of Juana Díaz, the free black woman Francisca Brignoni, who fought for the freedom of the slaves. These are just a small sample of the countless women, most of them anonymous, who were also part of the secret societies or sympathized with the pro-independence cause.
If the rebellion had managed to spark the revolution in more a coordinated manner and at several places at the same time, Sanz informed the government of Spain, it was probable that the victors would have been the Puerto Ricans bearing arms. In Puerto Rico, there were popular demonstrations in favor of releasing the prisoners and against the death penalty imposed on Manuel Rojas, Rodulfo Echevarría, Pedro Segundo García, Clodomiro Abril, Ignacio Balbino Ostolaza, Andrés Pol and Leoncio Rivera. Meanwhile, in Madrid, Eugenio María de Hostos, Manuel Alonso and other prominent Puerto Ricans were successful in interceding with President Francisco Serrano, who had himself just led a revolution against the monarchy in Spain. On January 25, 1869, the government decreed a general amnesty. But many patriots, such as Betances, Rojas, Lacroix, Aurelio Méndez, and many more were sent into exile.
It is a historical fact, however, that it was the ardor of the Grito de Lares, more than the effort of the reformists, that caused the government of Spain to begin, in 1869, to permit the formation of some political parties (conservatives and liberal-reformists) and freedom of the press and assembly (though under censorship and with permission), and smoothed the way for the final abolition of slavery and the pre-capitalist day-laborer regime in 1873. From 1870 until the end of Spanish control in 1898, Puerto Rico enjoyed an effervescence of culture and Puerto Rican affirmation, and its claims for a government of its own intensified in the autonomist and pro-independence camps.
Author: Dr. Francisco Moscoso
Published: September 12, 2014.
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