Recently, I had the opportunity of listening to Rafael Cancel Miranda speak at a wonderful dinner held at the Tierra Columbiana in Philadelphia. I’ve listened to Don Rafa, as he’s known, several times when he’s visited Philly, and have been greatly inspired on each occasion.
Years ago I also had the opportunity of seeing Nelson Mandela at Yankee Stadium in New York. Today, I can say that Cancel Miranda and Nelson Mandela were the two most important people I’ve personally seen in my lifetime.
Rafael Cancel Miranda
Cancel Miranda was born in 1930 in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. His father was a member of the Nationalist Party that demanded independence. At this time, Puerto Rico was extremely underdeveloped.
One of the most common jobs available to workers was to cut sugar cane at the harvest time known as La Zafra. Under these conditions large numbers of Puerto Ricans saw no benefit to being a colony of the United States. Some of the people who benefitted from this relationship were the owners of the Domino Sugar Corporation.
When Cancel Miranda was seven years old, his father took him to attend a demonstration in Ponce. The demonstration was attacked by the armed forces. Hundreds of people were injured and there were 19 fatalities.
When Cancel Miranda was 10 years old he protested against pledging allegiance to the flag of the United States. By the age of 18 he refused to be drafted into the U.S. armed forces to fight in the war against Korea. He spent two years in prison for that so-called offence.
Cancel Miranda argued that the Korean people never invaded his country. He also argued that Koreans never attacked peaceful demonstrations of Puerto Ricans. Therefore, he had no reason to go to war against a people who, in no way, brought any harm to Puerto Rico.
After his release from prison, he continued to be eligible for the draft, so he moved to Cuba. For several years he worked construction jobs. Then, Fulgencio Batista came to power and Cancel Mirada’s writings in support of Puerto Rican independence were intolerable to the new regime. Cancel Miranda first was sent to prison, and then deported from Cuba.
In 1954 Cancel Miranda joined with Lolita Lebron, Irving Flores Rodrigues, and Andres Figueroa, to carry out an armed attack on Congress in Washington. One member of Congress was injured. For this offence, these freedom fighters received lengthy prison sentences.
During the time Cancel Miranda was in prison, some changes took place in Puerto Rico. The U.S. government initiated Operation Bootstrap in 1947. This program gave tax incentives to corporations who moved their operations to the island. This effort combined with the relatively low Puerto Rican wages attracted many corporations and billions of dollars were invested in the island.
However, this industrialization did not increase the percentage of people who had jobs and this led to a large migration to the cities of the United States. We might consider that this migration took place around the same time as Black people were leaving horrendous agricultural jobs and Jim Crow segregation to work in industrial jobs in the large cities.
Today Cancel Miranda is 83 years old. In all the times I’ve seen him speak, he’s never lost his spirit and confidence in the Puerto Rican independence movement. He, as well as many others, have spoken out about the Puerto Rican prisoners who continue to serve horrendously long sentences ordered by the U.S. government. Oscar Lopez Rivera has been in U.S. prisons for 32 years. Twelve of those years were spent in solitary confinement.
Pedro Albizu Campos
We can also speak of the father of the Puerto Rican independence movement, Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos, who lived from 1891 to 1965. Campos was educated at Harvard University. He spoke several languages, and had degrees specializing in several fields of study. However, his primary interest was the liberation of his people. He also took an interest in the liberation struggles in Ireland and India.
He served in the U.S. military in a segregated unit with Black soldiers. Here Campos identified with the struggle of Black people in the U.S. for their liberation.
Nelson Mandela and Albizu Campos could have had a lucrative careers with their educational background. Instead they both chose to place the struggles of their people at the center of their lives.
Today most people in the United States are completely unaware of this history. When people think of the island of Puerto Rico, it is often in connection with a vacation on a Caribbean island.
Lucy Parsons was a labor leader in this country she argued to: “Never be deceived that the rich will permit you to vote way their wealth.” For me, this is the fundamental reason why people who have power feel especially threatened by those who challenge the system and have won broad popularity.
Understanding this reality, we can appreciate the contributions of Rafael Cancel Miranda and all the other Puerto Rican fighters who dedicated their lives to the dignity their people deserve. These are just some of the reasons why this history is extremely relevant to anyone interested in the struggle to achieve human dignity for all.