RAISING OF THE PR FLAG

Martín Espada
Poet, Essayist, Editor & Translator

RAISING OF THE PUERTO RICAN FLAG, TOWN HALL, AMHERST, MA, NOVEMBER 1, 2005

 

          Buenas tardes. Bienvenidos a todos. I’m here to say a few words about the Puerto Rican flag before the raising of the flag on the Town Common.

 

          Let me begin by stating the obvious: Puerto Ricans are madly in love with the Puerto Rican flag. We use it in all the usual ways, and more than a few unusual ways: cars, clothes, tattoos. We have other national symbols, from the frog called the coquí to the ten-stringed instrument known as the cuatro, but that flag keeps popping up everywhere. Why is it that, before 9/11, there were more Puerto Rican flags in New York City than American flags? What history accounts for this fascination with the Puerto Rican flag?

 

          Many people see the red, white and blue of the Puerto Rican flag and simply assume that this is an offshoot of the American flag. Not true. The flag was created in 1895 by the Puerto Rican section of the Cuban Revolutionary Party in New York City. These  Cubans and Puerto Ricans were, in fact, independentistas; that is, they wanted independence from Spain, and there was a revolution in Cuba at that very moment. Lola Rodríguez de Tío, a Puerto Rican independentista poet who also penned the words to La Borinqueña, the national anthem, in 1867, wrote that Cuba and Puerto Rico were “two wings of the same bird;” they received “flowers and bullets in the same heart.”

 

Thus, the Puerto Rican flag simply inverted the colors of the Cuban flag. The white bars were particularly significant, in that they represented the desire for independence, and the peace everyone hoped would come with independence.

 

We know the rest of the story. Independence never came to Puerto Rico. The Spanish-American War came in 1898. The United States took the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico as spoils of war.  The Puerto Rican flag, since it represented the desire for independence, was outlawed for half a century.

 

This led to some classic colonial weirdness. For example, in 1921, the Commissioner of Education for Puerto Rico, Paul Miller, became outraged when he saw a Puerto Rican flag waving at a high school graduation ceremony. He demanded that police remove “the enemy flag.” The students rebelled, and informed Miller that, if their flag was taken away, then the graduation was over. Shortly thereafter, Governor E. Montgomery Reilly—a character so imperious he was known as “King Monty”—announced: “As long as Old Glory waves over the United States, it will wave over Porto Rico.” (Note: that’s “Porto” with an “o.”)

 

In 1952, of course, Puerto Rico became a Commonwealth. The Puerto Rican flag was adopted as the symbol of the Commonwealth, though it could only be flown alongside the American flag. The meaning of the colors was officially changed; now the white bars stood for the republican form of

government, rather than a peaceful and independent nation. Moreover, the sky-blue of the triangle in the original flag was changed to dark blue, in keeping with the American flag, and once again to distance this flag from its revolutionary roots. In 1995, the government of Puerto Rico formally reverted back to sky-blue.

 

You’ve heard the expression: “shades of political opinion.” In the case of the Puerto Rican flag, this is literally true. In general, those parties and individuals who want independence for the island wave the flag with a light-blue triangle; those who want Commonwealth prefer the sky-blue triangle; and those who want statehood use the dark-blue triangle. Of course, today this community unites itself behind the one flag we will raise on the Amherst Town Common. Sometimes, a flag is a flag.

 

Today we should remember that the activists who gave us the Puerto Rican flag created a symbol for self-determination that has thus far eluded us. Today we should remember that there are people still fighting and dying for the same ideals represented by that original flag, like Filiberto Ojeda Rios, killed in Puerto Rico by the FBI on the Grito de Lares—a holiday marking the fight for independence from Spain. Today we should remember that this was a banned flag, and that even now this is the flag of a colonized people, born of suppressed desires and aspirations. No wonder it pops up everywhere.

 

        Today we should remember that this flag represents the defiant and joyful struggle of Puerto Ricans, against the weight of history, to remain Puerto Rican wherever they may be: here in Amherst, on the island, or on the moon. Aquí estamos y no nos vamos. Here we are and here we stay. Gracias.

 

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