Emancipation Day – Puerto Rico

March 22

If you thought the American Civil War ended slavery in North America, you’re half right.

Cuba didn’t abolish slavery until 1869, and did so almost at the very moment of its independence from Spain.

Puerto Rico, also a colony of Spain, had to wait even longer.

On September 24, 1868, about 500 Puerto Rican rebels had led an uprising against the Spanish government in the town of Lares. The Grito de Lares (Shout of Lares) was orchestrated by a doctor and surgeon named Ramón Emeterio Betances.

Ramón Betances
Ramón Betances

Betances was the son of a slave-owner, but became a symbol of the abolition movement in Puerto Rico. Also a proponent of good hygiene to prevent the spread of disease, he helped save the city of Mayaguez from a cholera epidemic in 1856. Still, his abolitionist activities caused him to be repeatedly exiled from Puerto Rico. After one exile in 1867, Betances traveled to New York where he founded the Revolutionary Committee of Puerto Rico. But it it was during his exile in St. Thomas that Betances drafted the Ten Commandments of Free Men:

  • The abolition of slavery
  • The right to vote on all impositions
  • Freedom of religion
  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of the press
  • Freedom of trade
  • The right to assembly
  • Right to bear arms
  • Inviolability of the citizen
  • The right to choose our own authorities

These are the Ten Commandments of Free Men.

If Spain feels capable of granting us, and gives us, those rights and liberties, they may then send us a General Captain, a governor… made of straw, that we will burn in effigy come Carnival time, as to remember all the Judases that they have sold us until now.

In 1868, Betances helped organized the first major pro-independence uprising in Puerto Rico. He asked Mariana Bracetti, the “Betsy Ross” of Puerto Rico, to knit the flag that rebels raised above the Lares church to declare Puerto Rico’s independence. The flag was red, white, and blue, similar to the Dominican Republic flag, which in turn was based on the French. (Betances had been inspired by the Declaration of the Rights of Man.) The rebels promised freedom to slaves who joined their cause.

Flag of Lares
Flag of Lares

The insurrection failed, but two years later (perhaps having learned their lesson from Puerto Rico) the Spanish National Assembly ordered the emancipation of all government-owned slaves, as well as all slaves over 60 and under 2, effectively freeing 10,000 slaves. On March 22, 1873, acting on a petition originally brought to Parliament in 1866, the Assembly voted to completely abolish slavery in Puerto Rico, liberating the remaining 30,000 slaves.

Jose Martí, a witness of the events of March 22, 1873, wrote:

The telegraph brought the yearned-for news to San Juan, whose population had had wind of it the day before, and hardly had the sun risen than all San Juan was in a state of fiesta…

…all of San Juan was flags, damask curtains, and blue hangings: one daring girl put a white rosette on one side of a blue drapery and a red one on the other….

Arm in arm, at the head of the procession, as if they were the freed slaves, went all those who with their voices and pens, actions and words, had fought to overthrow slavery: lawyers and doctors, youths and elders, merchants and writers.

Then the slaves went by, holding their children’s hands, the men in shirts and trousers, then women in white tunics and madras kerchiefs, some with their hats off, one of them leading a blind man, all of them silent…

…no one walked alone for all San Juan was a single family.

José Martí, Patria, April 1, 1893

Despite the celebration, the slaves were still not free. The act of emancipation declared that they would remain slaves another three years. And their former masters were reimbursed in cash for the loss of their labor force.

Over 135 years later, Emancipation Day is celebrated each year on March 22 in Puerto Rico as one of the island’s most jubilant celebrations.

Puerto Rico Events and Festivities

Abolition of Slavery in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rican Holidays

Two American Heroes: MacDonald & Hostos

January 11

Okay, here I’m using ‘American’ in its broader sense. A Chilean once told me how he didn’t like the word ‘American’ or ‘America’ referring to one country. America stretches from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego and encompasses two continents, he reminded me. Why let one country hijack the name? I suppose it’s because it’s shorter than saying ‘United States citizen’.

Today is the birthday of (North) American hero John A. MacDonald, the first Prime Minister of Canada and an unabashed drunkard.

But my Canadian sources tell me no one in Canada knows or cares.

So instead let’s look south to the island of Puerto Rico to celebrate the birthday in 1839 of another American hero, a man called “the Citizen of the Americas”: Eugenio Maria de Hostos.

Eugenio Maria de Hostos

[observed 2nd Monday in January]

Hostos is considered one of the great modern thinkers of education. He wrote scores of books and hundreds of essays in numerous disciplines, from the most revered discourse on Hamlet in the Spanish language, to La Peregrinación de Bayoán, his 1863 novel promoting Cuban independence. His seminal works on education preceded those of John Dewey by two decades, and…

“…Although Hostos did not conduct rigorous experimental research pertaining to the mind and its development, his encyclopaedic knowledge of philosophy, linguistics, psychology, sociology, history and other disciplines gave him a coherent conceptualization and an operational model of mind.”

Angel Villarini Jusino & Carlos Antonio Torre
Fifty Major Thinkers on Education

Eugenio Maria de Hostos
Eugenio Maria de Hostos

Hostos was born in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico in 1839, the year Spanish poet Salas Quiroga magnanimously declared, “Puerto Rico is the corpse of a society that hasn’t been born.

From inauspicious beginnings, Hostos went on to attend secondary training at the University of Bilbao, Spain, and law school at Central University in Madrid. There he joined the Spanish republican movement, protesting government restraints on basic freedoms, but he was disillusioned in 1869 when the creators of the new Spanish constitution dashed all hopes for an independent Puerto Rico.

Hostos then sailed to New York City, where he became a Cuban revolutionary 90 years before Che made it hip. In those days Cuban revolutionaries fought for independence from Spain rather than U.S. imperialism. Hostos believed that a free Cuba would lead to a free Puerto Rico, and a “Federated Antillean Republic”, composed of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic.

Hostos trekked across the Americas speaking on this and other various causes:

In Chile, he lobbied successfully for the education of women.

In Argentina, he helped establish a trans-Andean railroad.

In the Dominican Republic he founded the first Teacher’s College.

In Cuba, he hastened the abolition of slavery.

And wherever he traveled he espoused the basic rights of all peoples and the importance of progressive education throughout the Americas as both a means and an end.

In order for humans to be humans, that is, worthy of realizing their life goals, nature bestowed them with awareness of herself, the ability to know their own origins, their own strengths and frailties, their own transcendence and interdependence, their rights and obligations, their own freedom and responsibilities, the capability for self-improvement and for self-enobling of their ideal existence.

Eugenio Maria de Hostos (1839-1903)

However, Hostos was gravely disappointed when in 1898 the United States annexed Puerto Rico and Cuba from Spain, rather than granting them independence.

Hostos died in the Dominican Republic in 1903.

Cuba won its independence from the United States 18 months before Hostos’s death. Hostos requested that his remains be transfered back to Puerto Rico only when his homeland gained its independence. Needless to say, Hostos has been resting in the Dominican Republic’s National Pantheon for a hundred years and counting.

For the centennial of his birth, the 8th International Conference of America bestowed upon Hostos the title “El Cuidadano de las Americas”: Citizen of the Americas.

Gentlemen, I don’t have to tell you who I am. I am an American. I have the honor of being a Puerto Rican and a federalist. Being a colonial, a product of the colonial despotism, and hindered by it in my feelings, thoughts and actions, I took vengeance upon it by imagining a definitive form of liberty and I conceived a confederation of ideas, given the impossibility of a political confederation. I am a federalist because I am American, because I am a colonial – because I am Puerto Rican.

Eugenio Maria de Hostos, speech at the Madrid Ateneo, 1868

Puerto Rico celebrates Hostos’s Birthday on the second Monday of January.

Hostos statue, San Juan, Puerto Rico
Hostos statue, San Juan, Puerto Rico © Kurt


Eugenio Maria de Hostos: After One Hundred Years, by Muna Lee, from A Pan-American Life (2004)

Eugenio Maria de Hostos, by Angel Villarini Jusino & Carlos Antonio Torre, from Fifty Major Thinkers on Education (2001)

Works by Hostos, Hostos Community College