Friday, April 22, 2016

Writer and Legislator Nelson A. Denis on Marcantonio's Gift to Puerto Rico

Author Nelson A. Denis sketched the timeline of oppression to Puerto Rico's relationship with the United States and layered that history with Congressman Vito Marcantonio's efforts to combat it.

“It is my strong opinion that Vito Marcantonio as a man and as a political leader...he did more, he sacrificed, he struggled more for the people of Puerto Rico and the Puerto Ricans of East Harlem than any other elected official – city, state, or federal – including the Puerto Rican elected officials of the last 40 or 50 years,”

Denis, author of "War Against All Puerto Ricans,” spoke at an April 6 event sponsored by the Vito Marcantonio Forum (VMF). His talk detailed the island's downhill spiral once embraced by the U.S. and Marcantonio's role in the movement for independence that stemmed from the resulting misery.

It was the VMF's twentieth event since being reconstituted on Oct. 11, 2011, according to moderator Gil Fagiani.

The two-time East Harlem assemblyman's (1997-2001) talk was animated, even emotional. He used an imaginary map on the Mulberry Street Library's red brick wall to illustrate Puerto Rico's value as a naval station (and it worked).

Nelson A. Denis
Nelson traced the island's difficulties to the Spanish-American War in 1898, which saw Spain hand over the colony to the U.S.

What ensued were devaluations of the island currency and a property tax that reduced once land-owning farmers of tobacco, coffee and sugar to day laborers on sugar trust plantations.

Eventually, 80 percent of Puerto Rico's arable land was owned by U.S. banking interests.

One month after Puerto Rico was made a U.S. Commonwealth, 18,000 islanders were conscripted into World War II. Upon their return they learned that the U.S. Constitution's protections did not extend to them any more than the federal minimum wage did.

Denis said this episode of extreme sacrifice, rewarded with a face slap, confirmed that, “Politics is a conflict of interests disguised as a conflict of principles.”

Pedro Albizu Campos
Converted from a diversified agricultural economy to a single crop dispensary, Puerto Rico became slave to the Wall Street interests that had developed the island's new sugar monopoly.

Enter Pedro Albizu Campos, leader of the Puerto Rico's independence movement. A graduate of Harvard University and Harvard Law School, a speaker of six languages, “he could have sold-out in many directions,” said Denis.

Instead, history steered him into the leadership of a four-month sugar workers strike that increased wages and tied pay rates to the U.S. minimum wage.

Retribution came quickly.

A former military man, Blanton Winship, was appointed governor of Puerto Rico to calm things down. He hired as a police chief – one E. Francis Riggs – who promised a “War to the Death Against All Puerto Ricans,” an utterance Denis chose for the title of his book.

A not unexpected outcome was produced 18 months later with the "Ponce Massacre" during which police killed 17 men, women and children and left 200 seriously wounded.

“It is within this context that Vito Marcantonio enters the scene,” said Denis.

"Puerto Rico Libre" Loves Marc.
Albizu Campos was convicted of “seditious conspiracy against the United States.” Marcantonio visited him and ensured the infirm firebrand got his medication at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta.

Albizu Campos was eventually released and interred at a New York City hospital where Marc yanked a microphone bug installed by the FBI and began, “yelling into it, cursing at J. Edgar Hoover through the bug, telling him he's going expose him on the floor of the U.S. Congress.

“And that's is why I love this guy,” said Denis. "That's a Congressman."  

This post is intended as a cursory summmary of Denis's remarks, the details, anecdotes and shadings of which are best enjoyed in David Giglio's video of the event.

Actor and VMF co-chair Roberto Ragone continued his development of Vito Marcantonio as a character worthy of the stage, adding a Latin twist to complement VMF's guest author with renderings of speeches from “I Vote My Conscience” addressing Puerto Rico and South America in general.