The Ponce Massacre, which took place on March 21, 1937, was one of the most violent episodes in the history of the twentieth century in Puerto Rico. It was called a massacre by the very commission that studied the facts. On that date, the Partido Nacionalista (Nationalist Party) organized a march in the streets of the City of Ponce to protest the jailing of its leaders. The activity was announced in El Mundo newspaper on March 19, indicating that the meeting of the Nationalists in Ponce and adjacent areas would be at 2 pm in front of the Nationalist Party Headquarters in Ponce.
That morning, Colonel Orbeta, the chief of police, traveled to Ponce with the intention of prohibiting the Nationalist activity. He interviewed attorneys Parra Capó and Parra Toro, the military assistant to Governor Blanton Winship, and Captain Felipe Blanco, the head of the Police Force in Ponce, to whom he gave orders to stop the march. These arrangements made, on his return to San Juan Colonel Orbeta met with the governor and Mr. José Ramón Quiñones, an assistant to the governor, at Fortaleza (the Governor’s mansion), where they decided that the parade was military in character and therefore illegal. It was then that Colonel Orbeta decided to order reinforcements to Ponce from different towns around the island.
A week before, the Nationalists had requested authorization for the march from Mayor José Tormos Diego, who was away from Puerto Rico on vacation and had left Dr. William Gelpí as acting mayor. Gelpí authorized Casimiro Berenguer, the military instructor of the Cadetes de la República to disseminate information to the effect that permission had to be granted by Mayor Tormos Diego. The Nationalists had filed the request despite the fact that the laws of Puerto Rico allowed parades or public acts to be held without the need to ask permission. When Tormos Diego returned to Ponce on March 20, Nationalists Plinio Graciany and Lorenzo Piñeiro visited him at his home, and the mayor promised them that he would issue permission on Sunday morning. Early Sunday morning, as police reinforcements armed with rifles and machine guns were arriving in Ponce, two Nationalists went to the office of the mayor for the permit that they were promised.
About noon, Orbeta met with the mayor and Colonel Blanco, the head of the police force in Ponce, and he questioned the permit that was given to the Nationalists, alleging that the parade was military in character. The mayor made it clear to him that the Nationalist leaders were responsible people and that nothing would happen. Orbeta told him that the Nationalists from Mayagüez would be coming armed, and he said he would hold the mayor responsible for any blood spilled. Tormos Diego then promised to speak to the Nationalists so that they would cancel the activity -revoking the permit that he had just given- because it was Holy Week, thus pleasing the priests who had asked him to do so. The document revoking the permit warned that the police would not allow the activity. The Nationalists, after talking with Mayor Tormos Diego and Colonel Orbeta himself, decided to go forward with the activity.
The police under the command of Guillermo Soldevila, the head of the force in Juana Díaz, and Felipe Blanco cordoned off the demonstrators, using expert marksmen mobilized from all the police stations in Puerto Rico. The police covered the corner where the Nationalist Council was located on Marina Street, between Aurora and Jobos Streets. Meanwhile, the Cadets of the Republic and the Nurses Corps organized in three columns. The cadets wore a uniform of white trousers, black shirts, black caps, and on the left sleeve, a Calatravian cross. Leading the column was cadet captain Tomás López de Victoria. The young women formed up as the nurses corps, wearing white uniforms and marching behind the young men. Bringing up the rear was the band, made up of five or six musicians.
Nearby, on Aurora and Marina Streets, almost in front of where the Council was located, the families of the cadets came together with other Nationalists who had come to see the parade. The band played “La Borinqueña,” and the captain of the Cadet Corps, Tomás López de Victoria, immediately gave the order to step off. At the precise moment when they were about to do so, Soldevila raised a whip, put it to the chest of López de Victoria, and told him that they could not march. Police officer Armando Martínez ran from the corner in front of the Nationalist Council toward Marina Street, firing once into the air, which unleashed volleys of shots from arms of different calibers. Eight people died instantly and later others died, for a total of nineteen. Police officers Ceferino Loyola and Eusebio Sánchez died victims of the crossfire of their fellows. Georgina Maldonado, a 13 year old girl, an employee of a nearby gas station, José Antonio Delgado, a member of the National Guard who was passing by, and fourteen Nationalists also died.
Shortly before the shooting, Colonel Orbeta and Captain Blanco inspected the area where the demonstration was to be held, then left in a police vehicle to drive around Ponce, returning to the area after the shooting had ceased and ordering the arrest of everyone in the vicinity. They went into the building where the Council was located, where several wounded persons were also arrested. In addition to the dead, there were some 140 to 200 wounded. The number is not certain, as many of the wounded ordinary citizens and Nationalists were not taken to hospitals but sought assistance from private physicians. The Nationalist prisoners in the La Princesa Prison in San Juan learned of what had happened in Ponce from the radio of a neighbor who lived near the prison, who turned up the volume so that they could hear.
El 22 de marzo, el Gobernador Winship en unas declaraciones a la prensa hizo responsable de la tragedia a los nacionalistas. El Lcdo. Rafael V. Pérez Marchand, fiscal de Distrito, logró realizar una extensa investigación de los hechos y ordenó el arresto de cuatro policías, por el delito de asesinato y 23 nacionalistas por participación en el motín. El gobierno de Winship ejerció presión sobre el fiscal para que enmendara el informe y Pérez Marchand renunció a su cargo luego de concluir el Informe de su investigación. Varios ciudadanos de Ponce solicitaron a la Unión Americana de Libertades Civiles que realizara una investigación sobre los hechos ocurridos el 21 de marzo. Se constituyó una Comisión investigadora de las causas de la matanza de Ponce, presidida por el Lcdo. Arthur Garfield Hays, estadounidense delegado de la Unión Americana de Libertades Civiles, junto a los señores Emilio S. Belaval, Presidente del Ateneo Puertorriqueño, Mariano Acosta Velarde, Presidente del Colegio de Abogados, Fulgencio Piñero, Presidente de la Asociación de Maestros, Francisco M. Zeno, Director del periódico “La Correspondencia”, Antonio Ayuso Valdivieso, Director del periódico El Imparcial, José Dávila Ricci, del periódico El Mundo y Manuel Díaz García, ex Presidente de la Asociación Médica. Dicha comisión realizó una investigación exhaustiva sobre estos hechos, y en su Informe culpó al gobernador Winship de la matanza, la que denominó como Masacre de Ponce.
La Comisión determinó que los cadetes no llevaban armas, que los policías rodearon a los cadetes, encerrándolos por los cuatro costados, y que no dejaron lugar para que la multitud se protegiera. No obstante, el gobierno acusó de asesinato a los nacionalistas Luis Castro Quesada, Julio Pinto Gandía, Lorenzo Piñeiro, (Presidente y Secretario General Interinos del Partido Nacionalista), Plinio Graciani, Tomás López de Victoria, Casimiro Berenguer, Martín González Ruíz, Elifaz Escobar, Luis ángel Correa, Santiago González y Orlando Colón Leyro. En el juicio pautado para febrero de 1938, los nacionalistas fueron defendidos por los abogados Ernesto Ramos Antonini, Felipe Colón Díaz, Víctor Gutiérrez Franqui y Miguel Bahamonde. Sirvieron de fiscales los abogados Francisco García Quiñones y Pedro Rodríguez Serra, presidiendo la sala el juez Roberto H. Todd, hijo. El jurado no pudo ponerse de acuerdo y absolvieron a todos los nacionalistas.
Autor: Marisa Rosado
Publicado: 12 de septiembre de 2014.
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