Ponce massacre

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Ponce massacre
Ponce Massacre.JPG
Outbreak of the Ponce Massacre
LocationPonce, Puerto Rico
Coordinates18°00′33.7″N 66°36′49.0″W / 18.009361°N 66.613611°W / 18.009361; -66.613611Coordinates: 18°00′33.7″N 66°36′49.0″W / 18.009361°N 66.613611°W / 18.009361; -66.613611
Date21 March 1937[1]
3:15 pm[2] (EST)
TargetSupporters of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party
Attack type
WeaponsThompson submachine guns, tear gas bombs, machine guns, rifles, pistols[3]
Deaths21 (19 civilians and two police officers). The civilian casualties included 17 men, a woman and a child; the policemen died from friendly fire.
Injuredover 200 civilians wounded[4]
PerpetratorsGovernor Blanton Winship via the Puerto Rico Insular Police[5]

The Ponce massacre was an event that took place on Palm Sunday, March 21, 1937, in Ponce, Puerto Rico, when a peaceful civilian march turned into a police shooting in which 19 civilians and two policemen were killed,[6] and more than 200 civilians wounded. None of the civilians were armed and most of the dead were reportedly shot in their backs.[7] The march had been organized by the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party to commemorate the abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico by the governing Spanish National Assembly in 1873,[8] and to protest the U.S. government's imprisonment of the Party's leader, Pedro Albizu Campos, on sedition charges.[9]

An investigation led by the United States Commission on Civil Rights put the blame for the massacre squarely on the U.S.-appointed governor of Puerto Rico, Blanton Winship.[10][11] Further criticism by members of the U.S. Congress led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to remove Whinship as governor in 1939.[12]

Governor Winship was never prosecuted for the massacre and no one under his chain of command – including the police who took part in the event, and admitted to the mass shooting – was prosecuted or reprimanded.[13]

The Ponce massacre remains the largest massacre in post-Spanish imperial history in Puerto Rico.[11] It has been the source of many articles, books, paintings, films, and theatrical works.

Chronology of events[edit]

Carlos Torres Morales, a photo journalist for the newspaper El Imparcial was covering the march and took this photograph when the shooting began.[14]

Several days before the scheduled Palm Sunday march, the Nationalists had received legal permits for a peaceful protest from José Tormos Diego, the mayor of Ponce. According to a 1926 Puerto Rico Supreme Court ruling, government permits were not necessary for the use of plazas, parks or streets for meetings or parades.[15] As a courtesy to the Ponce municipal government, the Nationalists nevertheless requested the permit.[16]

Upon learning about the march, the U.S.-appointed governor of Puerto Rico, General Blanton Winship, ordered the new Insular Police Chief, Colonel Enrique de Orbeta, to contact Mayor Tormos and have him cancel the parade permit. He ordered the police chief to increase the police force in the southern city, and to stop, "by all means necessary", any demonstration conducted by the nationalists in Ponce.[17] Without notice to the organizers, or any opportunity to appeal, or any time to arrange an alternate venue, the permits were abruptly withdrawn, just before the protest was scheduled to begin.[13]

Following Governor Winship's orders, Colonel de Orbeta went to Ponce where he concentrated police units from across the island sporting "the latest riot control equipment", among which he included the machine gunners in the island. Winship intended to crush the activities of the Nationalists and their leader, Pedro Albizu Campos.[10]

Police Chief de Orbeta and Insular Police officers, immediately after the massacre

The Insular Police, a force somewhat resembling the National Guard, was under the direct military command of Governor Winship[12] and ultimate responsibility for the massacre fell on Winship, who controlled the National Guard and Insular Police, and ordered the shootings.[11]

Police Chief Guillermo Soldevilla of the municipality of Juana Díaz,[18] with 14 policemen, took a position in front of the marchers. Chief Perez Segarra and Sgt. Rafael Molina, commanding nine policemen armed with Thompson submachine guns[13] and tear gas bombs, stood in the back. Chief of Police Antonio Bernardi, heading 11 policemen armed with machine guns, stood in the east; and another group of 12 police, armed with rifles, was placed in the west. According to some reports, police numbered "over 200 heavily armed" guards.[19]

The "Viva la República, Abajo los Asesinos" (English: "Long live the Republic, Down with the Murderers!") message which cadet Bolívar Márquez Telechea wrote with his blood before he died.

As La Borinqueña, Puerto Rico's national song, was being played, the Ponce branch of the Cadets of the Republic under the command of Tomás López de Victoria and the rest of the demonstrators began to march.[10]

The Insular Police started firing on the marchers – killing 17 unarmed civilians, two policemen,[20] and wounding over 200 civilians, including women and children.[21] Police firing went on for over 15 minutes.[13] The dead included 17 men, one woman, and a young girl. Some of the dead were demonstrators/cadets, while others were passersby. As of 2009, only two survivors were known to be alive, siblings Fernando and Beatriz Vélez.[22]

The flag-bearer of the Cadets of the Republic was shot and killed during the massacre. A young girl, Carmen Fernández proceeded to take the flag, but was shot and gravely injured. A young Nationalist cadet named Bolívar Márquez dragged himself to the wall of Santo Asilo de Damas and wrote with his blood the following message before dying:[16][23][24]

"¡Viva la República, Abajo los asesinos!"

("Long live the Republic, Down with the Murderers!")

Many were chased by the police and shot or clubbed at the entrance of their houses as they tried to escape. Others were taken from their hiding places and killed. Leopold Tormes, a member of the Puerto Rico legislature, claimed to reporters that a policeman had murdered a nationalist with his bare hands.[25] Dr. José Gandara, a physician who assisted the wounded, testified that wounded people running away were shot, and that many were again wounded by the clubs and bare fists of the police.[23] No arms were found in the hands of the civilians wounded, nor on the dead ones. About 150 of the demonstrators were arrested immediately afterward; they were later released on bail.[25]

Official version of the events[edit]

The next day, Winship radioed Washington and reported, officially, that the Nationalists had initiated the shooting.[26][27] Part of his radiogram report stated that "two shots were fired by the Nationalists ... with Nationalists firing from the street, and from roofs and balconies on both sides of the street ... [the police] showed great patience, consideration and understanding of the situation, as did the officers and men under him [the Police Chief]."[26]

The following day, as a result of this misinformation,[12] the New York Times and Washington Post reported that a Nationalist political revolt had claimed the lives of more than eighteen people in Puerto Rico.[28]

The Puerto Rican senator Luis Muñoz Marín traveled to the city of Ponce to investigate the event. After examining the photograph taken by Carlos Torres Morales of El Imparcial, which had not yet been published, he wrote a letter to Ruth Hampton, an official at the Department of the Interior. He said that the photograph showed that the policemen were not shooting at the uniformed Nationalists (Cadets), but at a terrified crowd in full flight.[26]

Investigation and the Hays Commission[edit]

Defendants during the trial of the Nationalists at the former Spanish Army barracks in Ponce, Puerto Rico (December 1937).

Initial investigations of the event differed on whether the police or the marchers fired the first shots. Governor Winship applied pressure on the district attorney's office in charge of the investigation. He requested that the public prosecutor from Ponce, Rafael Pérez Marchand, "arrest more Nationalists", and that no charges be filed against the police. The prosecutor resigned as a result of being denied the opportunity to conduct a proper investigation.[29]

A Puerto Rican government investigation into the incident drew few conclusions. A second, independent investigation ordered by the United States Commission on Civil Rights led by the ACLU's Arthur Garfield Hays, together with Puerto Rican citizens Fulgencio Piñero, Emilio Belaval, José Davila Rice, Antonio Ayuyo Valdivieso, Manuel Díaz García, and Francisco M. Zeno took place. This investigation concluded that the events on 21 March constituted a massacre and mob action by the police. The report harshly criticized the repressive tactics and massive civil rights violations by Governor Winship.[13]

After viewing the photograph taken by Carlos Torres Morales, Hays in his report to the American Civil Liberties Union questioned why the governor's investigation had not used the photography, which was among two that were widely published. According to Hays, the photograph clearly showed 18 armed policeman at the corner of Aurora and Marina streets, ready to fire upon a group of innocent bystanders.[30] The image showed the white smoke in the barrel of a policeman's revolver as he fired upon the unarmed people. The Hays Commission questioned why the policemen fired directly at the crowd, and not at the Nationalist Cadets.[16]


Relatives of those killed in the Ponce massacre standing by the police bullet-ridden wall at the Nationalist Party headquarters in Ponce.

The following are the names of those killed:[14]

  • Cotal Nieves, Juan Delgado
  • Hernández del Rosario, María
  • Jiménez Morales, Luis
  • Loyola Pérez, Ceferino
  • Maldonado, Georgina (7-year-old)
  • Márquez Telechea, Bolívar
  • Ortiz Toro, Ramon
  • Perea, Ulpiano
  • Pietrantoni, Juan Antonio
  • Reyes Rivera, Juan
  • Rivera López, Conrado
  • Rodríguez Figueras, Ivan G.
  • Rodríguez Mendez, Jenaro
  • Rodríguez Rivera, Pedro Juan
  • Rosario, Obdulio
  • Sánchez Pérez, Eusebio
  • Santos Ortiz, Juan
  • Torres Gregory, Juan
  • Vélez Torres, Teodoro


Lack of convictions[edit]

In the aftermath of the massacre, no police officer was convicted or sentenced to jail. No police were demoted or suspended and Governor Winship never issued a public apology.[13]

Reaction in the U.S. Congress[edit]

The Ponce massacre reverberated through the U.S. Congress. On the House floor, Congressman John T. Bernard expressed his shock and outrage. He said: "The police in Ponce, probably with the encouragement of the North American police chief and even the governor, opened fire on a Palm Sunday Nationalist march, killing seventeen and wounding more than two hundred."[31][32][33][34]

Congressman Vito Marcantonio joined in the criticism, filing charges against Governor Winship with President Roosevelt. In his speech before Congress titled "Five Years of Tyranny", Congressman Vito Marcantonio reported that "Ex-Governor Blanton Winship, of Puerto Rico, was summarily removed by the President of the United States on May 12, 1939" after charges were filed against Mr. Winship with the President. In his speech, the Congressman detailed the number of killings by the police and added, "the facts show that the affair of March 21 in Ponce was a massacre ... Governor Winship tried to cover up this massacre by filing a mendacious report" and the congressman called Governor Winship a "tyrant".[3]

Attempt on Governor Winship's life[edit]

The year following the Ponce massacre, on 25 July 1938, Governor Winship wanted to mark the anniversary of the US 1898 invasion of Puerto Rico with a military parade. He chose the city of Ponce to demonstrate that his "Law and Order" policy had been successful against the Nationalists. During the parade, shots were fired at the grandstand where Winship and his officials were sitting in an attempt to assassinate him. It was the first time that an attempt was made on the life of a Governor of Puerto Rico. Winship escaped unharmed but two men were killed, and 36 people were wounded.[citation needed]

The dead included the Nationalist Ángel Esteban Antongiorgi and National Guard Colonel Luis Irizarry. The Nationalist Party denied participation in the attack, but the government arrested several Nationalists and accused nine of "murder and conspiracy to incite violence."[35] Among the nine Nationalists charged and convicted were Tomás López de Victoria, captain of the Ponce branch of the Cadets of the Republic, and fellow cadets Elifaz Escobar, Santiago González Castro, Juan Pietri and Prudencio Segarra. They served eight years in the Puerto Rico State Penitentiary. The four were pardoned by the next full-term US-appointed governor, Rexford Guy Tugwell.[36]

Winship tried to repress the Nationalists. Jaime Benítez Rexach, a student at the University of Chicago at the time and later long-time chancellor of the University of Puerto Rico, wrote to President Roosevelt stating, "Governor [Winship] himself through his military approach to things has helped keep Puerto Rico in a unnecessary state of turmoil. He seems to think that the political problem of Puerto Rico limits itself to a fight between himself and the Nationalists, that no holds are barred in that fight and that everybody else should keep out."[35] Winship was replaced in 1939.


ACLU Chapter[edit]

External video
video icon Newsreel scenes related to the Ponce massacre Here

One of the by-products of the Ponce Massacre and the Hays Commission was the creation in Puerto Rico of a chapter of the ACLU on May 21, 1937. It was named "Asociación Puertorriqueña de Libertades Civiles" (Puerto Rican Association of Civil Liberties). Its first president was Tomás Blanco, Felipe Colón Díaz and Antonio Fernós Isern were its vice-presidents, the treasurer was Inés María Mendoza, the Secretary was attorney Vicente Géigel Polanco, and the association's legal counsel was attorney Ernesto Ramos Antonini. Luis Muñoz Marin and many leaders from Ponce, including attorney Pérez Marchand and some of the members of the Hays Commission were also among the founders.[37][26]

Today, the Ponce massacre is commemorated annually.[2]

The main consequence of the Ponce Massacre, like the main consequence of the other episodes of state terrorism in the history of our people, is the fear that has been planted into the people of Puerto Rico, the fear that has come to form part of the life of our people, regarding the idea of the struggle for independence. The people of Puerto Rico has, [sic] for the most part, reached the conclusion, as a result of those episodes, that to be an independentista is dangerous, that to be indepedentista means persecution, damage to the person, serious financial difficulties. As a result, that has diminished the rank and file for the ideology of independence and has made very difficult the growth of the independence ideology in Puerto Rico."[38]

Ponce Massacre Museum[edit]

The Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, an agency of the Government of Puerto Rico, operates the Ponce Massacre Museum. It is located at the intersection where the events took place (corner of Marina and Aurora streets). The museum houses photographs and various artifacts from the Ponce massacre. A section of the museum is dedicated to Pedro Albizu Campos.[39][40][41]

In popular culture[edit]

The book Revolucion en el Infierno (Revolution in Hell) was published in 2002, and the television film by the same name was released in 2004. It illustrates the events of the Ponce massacre through the life of one of the victims, Ulpiano Perea. The film is an adapted from the playwright by Roberto Ramos Perea, Ulpiano's nephew.[42]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Wagenheim, Kal; de Wagenheim, Olga Jiminez (2008). "The Grim Years". The Puerto Ricans: A Documentary History. Markus Wiener Publishers. pp. 179–180. ISBN 9781558764767.
  2. ^ a b Millán, Reinaldo (21 March 2012). "Siete décadas no anulan tragedia" (in Spanish). La Perla del Sur.
  3. ^ a b Marcantonio, Vito. "Five Years of Tyranny". The Official Piri Thomas Website. Archived from the original on 12 January 2012.
  4. ^ Nelson A. Denis. War Against all Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America's Colony. New York: Nation Books, Perseus Books Group. 2015. pp.47, 49.ISBN 9781568585017
  5. ^ Meyer, Gerald J. (2011). "Pedro Albizu Campos, Gilberto Concepción de Gracia, and Vito Marcantonio's Collaboration in the Cause of Puerto Rico's Independence". Centro Journal. New York: The City University of New York. XXIII (1): 87–123. ISSN 1538-6279.
  6. ^ Wagenheim, Kal; Jiménez de Wagenheim, Olga (1998). The Puerto Ricans: A Documentary History. Maplewood, N.J.: Water Front Press. pp. 179–182.
  7. ^ "Declara al Gobernador que ha dado 'instrucciones terminantes' en el caso de Ponce". El Mundo (in Spanish). San Juan, Puerto Rico. 23 March 1937. p. 1.
  8. ^ Black, Timothy (2009). When a Heart Turns Rock Solid: The Lives of Three Puerto Rican Brothers On and Off the Streets. Pantheon Books. p. 5. ISBN 9780307377746.
  9. ^ Navarro, Sharon Ann; Xavier Mejia, Armando (2004). ABC-CLIO (ed.). Latino Americans and Political Participation: A Reference Handbook. ISBN 9781851095230.
  10. ^ a b c Maldonado, A. W. (2006). Luis Muñoz Marín: Puerto Rico's Democratic Revolution. UPR: La Editorial. p. 120. ISBN 9780847701582.
  11. ^ a b c Garcia-Passalacqua, Juan-Manuel (22 March 2007). "Remembering Puerto Rico's Ponce Massacre". Democracy Now (Interview). Interviewed by Juan Gonzalez; Amy Goodman.
  12. ^ a b c Hayes, Arthur Garfield; Commission of Inquiry on Civil Rights in Puerto Rico (22 May 1937). Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Civil Rights in Puerto Rico (Report). OCLC 304563805.
  13. ^ a b c d e f Hunter, Stephen; Bainbridge, John (2005). American Gunfight: The Plot to Kill Harry Truman—And the Shoot-Out That Stopped It. Simon and Schuster. p. 179. ISBN 9780743281959.
  14. ^ a b "La Masacre de Ponce". Enciclopedia Ilustrada (in Spanish). proyectosalonhogar.com. Retrieved 8 July 2015.
  15. ^ Rovira, Carlos. "Puerto Rican revolutionary' remembers Ponce Massacre". Workers' World. Retrieved 8 July 2015.
  16. ^ a b c Hernández Vázquez, Francisco (2009). Latina Thought. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 393. ISBN 9780742563544.
  17. ^ Medina Vázquez, Raúl (2001). Verdadera historia de la Masacre de Ponce (in Spanish). Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña. pp. 50–65. OCLC 250032826.
  18. ^ "The Ponce Massacre (1937)". Encyclopedia Puerto Rico. Fundación Angel Ramos. Archived from the original on 9 July 2015. Retrieved 8 July 2015.
  19. ^ Feagin, Joe R.; Feagin, Clairece Booher (2007). Racial and Ethnic Relations. Pearson/Prentice Hall. ISBN 9780132244046.
  20. ^ Siete décadas no anulan tragedia. Reinaldo Millán. La Perla del Sur. Ponce, Puerto Rico. Year 30. Issue 1477. p. 12. 21 March 2012. Retrieved 18 January 2021.
  21. ^ Nelson A. Denis. War Against all Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America's Colony. New York: Nation Books, Perseus Books Group. 2015. pp.47, 49. ISBN 9781568585017
  22. ^ "The Emelí Vélez de Vando Papers". Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora. Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, Hunter College, CUNY. June 1998.
  23. ^ a b Janeiro, Luis Fortuño (1963). Album Histórico de Ponce (1692–1963) (in Spanish). Ponce, Puerto Rico: Imprenta Fortuño. OCLC 37361481.
  24. ^ Jose Enrique Ayoroa Santaliz. La Masacre de Ponce: Breve relacion de hechos y algunos de sus personajes. Ponce, Puerto Rico: Ponce Massacre Museum. March 2011.
  25. ^ a b Denis, Nelson Antonio. War Against All Puerto Ricans, Revolution and Terror in America's Colony, p. 263, Nation Books, Perseus Books Group. 2015. ISBN 978-1568585017
  26. ^ a b c d Natal, Carmelo Rosario (5 October 2007). "Luis Muñoz Marín, Arthur Garfield Hayes y La Massacre de Ponce: Una Revelacion Documental Inedita" (PDF). Kálathos – Revista Transdisciplinaria. Universidad Interamericana de Puerto Rico, Recinto Metro. 1 (1). ISSN 1940-9575.
  27. ^ Radiogram from Blanton Winship to Ernest Gruening, Director of the Division of Territories and Insular Possessions, Department of the Interior. 23 March 1937. Arthur Garfield Hayes Collection. Seeley G. Mudd Research Library. Princeton University.
  28. ^ Rodriguez-Perez, Katherine. Reports on the Ponce Massacre: How the U.S. Press Protected U.S. Government Interests in the Wake of Tragedy. Wesleyan Scholar (2010), p. 10.
  29. ^ Delgado, Linda C. (2005). "Jésus Cólon and the Making of a Ney York City Community, 1917 to 1074". In Whalen, Carmen Teresa; Vázquez-Hernández, Víctor (eds.). The Puerto Rican Diaspora: Historical Perspectives. Temple University Press. ISBN 9781592134137.
  30. ^ Ruby A. Black. "Ponce Massacre" Report is Before Senate Committee: Describes Men, Women and Children Being Shot in Back, Clubbed to Death by Island Police", Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, 19 June 1937, pg. 3.
  31. ^ Extension of Remarks of the Honorable Congressman John T. Bernard of Minnesota in the Congressional Record, 75th Congress, 1st Session, 14 April 1937, volume 81, pp. 934–936
  32. ^ Hull, Harwood (28 March 1937). "Clash Rekindles Puerto Rican Feud". New York Times. p. 11.
  33. ^ "7 Die in Puerto Rican Riot: 50 Injured as Police Fire on Fighting Nationalists". New York Times. 22 March 1937. p. 1.
  34. ^ Briggs, Laura (2002). Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. p. 220. ISBN 9780520232587.
  35. ^ a b Beruff, Jorge Rodriguez (2007). Strategy As Politics: Puerto Rico on the Eve of the Second World War. Universidad de Puerto Rico. ISBN 9780847701605.
  36. ^ Bosque Pérez, Ramón; Colón Morera, José Javier (1997). Las carpetas: persecución política y derechos civiles en Puerto Rico: ensayos y documentos (in Spanish). Centro para la Investigación y Promoción de los Derechos Civiles. ISBN 9780965004305. Retrieved 8 July 2015.
  37. ^ Creation of Puerto Rico's chapter of the ACLU Retrieved August 15, 2009.
  38. ^ Documental: La Masacre de Ponce, Puerto Rico (21 de Marzo de 1937). Manuel E. Moraza Choisne (Esq.) In, "1937: Masacre de Ponce", Fundacion Puertorriqueña de las Humanidades, Corporacion de Puerto Rico para la Difusion Publica TuTV, National Endowment for the Humanities, Archivo General de Puerto Rico del Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, National Endowment for the Arts, Oficina de Apoyo a las Artes del ICP, Fondo de Fianza Notarial del Colegio de Abogados de Puerto Rico, Museo y Centro de Estudios Humanisticos de la Universidad del Turabo, Fundacion Francisco Manrique Cabrera, Escuela de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades de la Universidad Metropolitana. Publisher: Islas de Borinken. Produced by Manuela E. Moraza Ortiz (Esq.) & Dr. Jaime Hamilton-Márquez (PhD). 2002. Retrieved 19 February 2014.
  39. ^ Museo de la Masacre de Ponce. Melia Century Hotel. 2015. Accessed 12 October 2020.
  40. ^ Comienza la reparación del Museo de la Masacre en Ponce: Los trabajos son supervisados por el Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña (ICP). ParaLaNaturaleza.org Published in 2020. Accessed 12 October 2020.
  41. ^ Comienza la reparación del Museo de la Masacre en Ponce: Los trabajos son supervisados por el Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña (ICP). El Nuevo Dia. Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. 21 January 2020. Accessed 12 October 2020.
  42. ^ ""Revolución en el Infierno" en aniversario de Masacre de Ponce". El Vocero. 20 March 2014.

Further reading[edit]

  • Corretjer, Juan Antonio (2009). "19 – Albizu Campos and the Ponce Massacre". In Vázquez, Francisco Hernández (ed.). Latino/a Thought. Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 377–404. ISBN 978-0742563544.
    This book, sometimes called a pamphlet, by Corretjer was written in English as it was intended for the U.S. American public audience. Its purpose was to raise conscience among the American people about the event of the Ponce Massacre as most Americans had never heard of the involvement of the U.S. government and the U.S. media in that massacre. The pamphlet, currently (January 2014) out of print, was reprinted in its entirely as Chapter 19 in Francisco Hernandez Vazquez's book Latino/a Thought (pp 377–404), Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (2009).
  • Gonzalez, Juan (2012). Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America. Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0143119289.

External links[edit]