Friday, November 1, 2013

Paging Professor Melendez: Where's Marc in Puerto Rican History?


Although largely absent from the stories of Puerto Rican history and politics, Vito Marcantonio was a central player in both.


That was the main thrust of professor Edgardo Melendez's presentation at a November 2012 conference, convened by the Vito Marcantonio Forum and the Italian-American Studies Association, considering the relationship between the East Harlem Congressman and Puerto Rico.

Melendez, a professor in the Department of Africana and Puerto Rican/Latino Studies at Hunter College, asserted that it was Marcantonio's break with the other central character in 20th century Puerto Rican history and politics, Luis Muñoz Marin, that led to his banishment from existing narratives of Puerto Rican history.

The two men, he noted, began as allies in the 1930s, both pushing the independence line and largely agreeing on the type of reforms the island-in-crisis needed.

Marcantonio's relationship with Puerto Rico, Melendez explained, began in 1936 with the newly minted congressman's first and only trip to the island, to work on the defense team of independence firebrand Pedro Albizu Campos. The nationalist leader was being prosecuted for conspiring to overthrow the U.S. Government.

The congressman, Melendez told the audience, was received in Puerto Rico as a “man of state,” treated to baths of multitudes at the San Juan airport and city hall.

The trip, he observed, would lead to a pair of long-term relationships. One, a “conflicted” affair with Albizu Campos, and another with the congressman's “compadre” Gilberto Concepción de Gracia.

Back home, Marcantonio took up cudgels both for the Puerto Ricans in his El Barrio congressional district and those on the island proper.

He became, Melendez said, Puerto Rico's “de facto” representative in Congress, countering Sen. Millard Tydings' (D-MD) independence bill with his own, much more generous measure extending free trade protections to the island and offering full access to the U.S. mainland even after liberation.

Most remarkably, Melendez observed, Marcantonio's measures called for indemnities to be paid the Puerto Rican people for their years of exploitation suffered under the imperial yoke.

On Principle

When asked what business he had meddling in the affairs of Puerto Ricans, Marcantonio answered that it was a matter of principle, and also duty, because of the thousands he represented in El Barrio.

“The economic, social and civil rights programs of Puerto Rico are my problems,” Melendez quoted the congressman. “The sufferings of the Puerto Rican people are my concern. The exploitation of the Puerto Rican masses is an enemy against which I shall wage daily warfare. The use of the public treasury for the benefit of poltroons, loafers, political bums and phonies is a practice which I have been endeavoring to stop. As a member of the House of Representatives for the United States, it is not only my constitutional duty, but it is also a moral obligation to my constituents to defend the best interests of the people of Puerto Rico.”

Marcantonio was instrumental in the removal of Gov. Blanton Winship (above), the appointed island overlord behind the order that produced the Ponce massacre of Puerto Rican independents. The congressman's statement, “Five Years of Tyranny” was, according to Melendez, “a classic expression of how colonialism affected Puerto Rico and its citizens."

In his address from the House well, Marcantonio referred to Winship as the “Nero of La Fortaleza,” a sobriquet he would, years later, apply to an ascendant Muñoz Marin, when the two men were finally on different sides of the political divide.

“From a close alliance in the 1930s, what will happen is a transformation of Muñoz Marin's philosophy and views that will lead to an increased conflict with Marcantonio,” said Melendez. “But Marcantonio never changed his views. He always fought for social justice and Puerto Rican independence.”

In 1940, when Muñoz Marin's Popular Democratic Party (PPD) won island elections, it was a party of social justice, reform, and independence. “Marcantonio assumed his role in defending that program,” said Melendez, “and, until 1945, was a close collaborator with the Puerto Rican government. In fact, he served as Muñoz Marin's resident commissioner until 1944.”

With a progressive party in power locally, and a New Deal governor in the form of Rexford Tugwell appointed to the island, a right-wing backlash against goings-on in Puerto Rico led by Rep. Fred Crawford (R-Mich.) unfolded.


“Muñoz Marin moved away from Marcantonio,” explained Melendez (at left), “and toward Crawford, one of the most reactionary men in Congress at the time.” As Marcantonio criticized the plan for developing Puerto Rico, “Operation Bootstrap” as “Operation Booby-Trap,” Crawford increasingly became Muñoz Marin's legislative point man.

When the the PPD booted its independent wing from the party, Muñoz Marin had already decided that neither a Puerto Rican nation or U.S. statehood were viable options, and that a third way forward must be found.

Fateful Break

Marcantonio disagreed and backed Gilberto Concepción de Gracia's Puerto Rican Independence Party. The breach with the man who would soon be Puerto Rico's first duly elected governor was open.

The ensuing year, 1947, was an “extraordinary” one in Puerto Rican history, Melendez said.

Albizu Campos returned to the island, implementation of Operation Bootstrap began. The government encouraged emigration from the troubled island to New York City so that it might implement its program under less social pressure.

In New York, there was a negative reaction to the influx of poor, Spanish-speaking aliens that was summed up in the local media as “The Puerto Rican Problem.”

One response of the Puerto Rican government was to pass a migration law which gave it an active role in managing the movement of economic refugees north. Another was to attack Marcantonio because of the strong support he garnered from Puerto Rican voters.

With the cold war underway, Marcantonio became “persona non grata,” according to Melendez. The Wilson-Pakula Act was passed in Albany to prevent his long-time practice of running in primaries conducted by political parties not his own.

“In the minds of New Yorkers,” the professor explained, “the one to blame for the entry of Puerto Ricans into New York City was Vito Marcantonio.”

Broken Memory

In order to move people from Puerto Rico to New York, the Puerto Rican problem had to be dealt with and Muñoz Marin thought the way to do this was to sever links between the Puerto Ricans in New York City and Marcantonio.

The Puerto Rican government's campaign against Marcantonio reached its apex during the Gotham mayoral contest of 1949, in which Marcantonio ran as a candidate on the American Labor Party line.

The Puerto Rican problem arose once again. “It is one flank on which Marcantonio could be attacked and it emerged as an issue,” said Melendez. “You want to get rid of the Puerto Rican problem, you get rid of Marcantonio.”

The Puerto Rican government went as far as to send the mayor of San Juan, Felisa Rincón de Gautier (“Doña Fela”), to New York for two weeks where she campaigned on behalf of incumbent Mayor William O'Dwyer, “and against Marcantonio,” Melendez emphasized.

Not to be outdone, Gilberto Concepción de Gracia arrived in New York to convince Puerto Ricans that Marcantonio was their true friend.

The effort by Doña Fela and the American right wing to paint Marcantonio as a communist met with little success, Melendez pointed out. Even when he was defeated in his reelection bid one year later, “Marcantonio kept the Puerto Rican vote.”

The Puerto Rican intellectual Arcadio Diaz Quiñones wrote a book called “Broken Memory” in which the government's attempt to reconstruct the island's recent political history is analyzed.

Melendez said the book asserted that,“There are some spaces missing from this narrative of what is Puerto Rican history: colonialism, migration, militarism, and government repression of the independence movement.

“Marcantonio's role in Puerto Rican history is part of that 'broken memory,'” Melendez concluded.

Many of professor Melendez's thoughts on this issue can be found, hard copy form, in “Vito Marcantonio, the Puerto Rican Migration, and the 1949 Mayoral Election in New York City,” in the Fall 2010 edition of CENTRO Journal, published by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, City University of New York – Hunter College.

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