Borinquén : Throughline Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory in 1898 and for much of the next fifty years Puerto Ricans fought fiercely about this status. Should they struggle for independence, or to be a U.S. state, or something in between? In this episode, we look at Puerto Rico's relationship with the mainland U.S. and the key figures who shaped the island's fate.

Borinquén

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(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The first pictures now coming in from Puerto Rico after taking a direct hit - Hurricane Maria slamming into the island and, as you heard, one official saying the island is destroyed.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The number of people who were killed in the storm and its aftermath is now exponentially higher.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The food is not enough. The gas is not enough.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: An agonizing wait, people desperate to escape...

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Now, I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you've thrown our budget a little out of whack because we've spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: ...Times (ph) that President Donald Trump raised the possibility of selling Puerto Rico in 2017 after Hurricane Maria...

JUDY WOODRUFF: The 2020 tropical storm season has already been more active than usual. And forecasters say there could be as many as six major hurricanes.

AMY ROBACH: Puerto Rico has had its fair share of difficulties during this pandemic. It has struggled to get food, supplies and tests. And so the question of what the future of Puerto Rico looks like is now up for debate.

RUND ABDELFATAH, HOST:

You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR...

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, HOST:

Where we go back in time...

ABDELFATAH: To understand the present.

ARABLOUEI: Hey. I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: And today on the show - Puerto Rico.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: As I'm sure you know, Puerto Rico has had a really intense few years. Hurricanes and political turmoil have forced the people on the island to face some difficult questions - questions that have strained its relationship with the U.S. mainland. There's even been a recent report that after Hurricane Maria, President Trump floated the idea that the U.S. should sell Puerto Rico. He reportedly asked, can we, "quote," "divest of that asset?"

ARABLOUEI: And this brings up a central question, a question we first explored about a year ago - what exactly should the relationship between the mainland U.S. and Puerto Rico be?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Puerto Rico became a territory of the U.S. in 1898. And for the next 50 years, Puerto Ricans fiercely debated whether the island should push to become an independent country or have a closer relationship with the United States.

ABDELFATAH: The battles fought over that question resonate to this day in the way mainland Americans view the island with indifference, confusion or hostility - and also in the way the island struggles with political and economic instability.

ARABLOUEI: So in this episode, we're going to revisit those first 50 years of Puerto Rico's relationship with the mainland and the key figures who shaped the island's fate.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JORDAN MOHAMMED: Hi. My name is Jordan Mohammed (ph). I'm from South Orange, N.J. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR. And I just want to say thanks so much for helping me pass AP Government and Politics (ph). You're a great help.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORQUESTA FILARMONICA INTERNACIONAL SONG, "HIMNO DE PUERTO RICO")

ABDELFATAH: This is the song "La Borinquena," the anthem of Puerto Rico.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORQUESTA FILARMONICA INTERNACIONAL SONG, "HIMNO DE PUERTO RICO")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Spanish).

ABDELFATAH: It's a tribute to the Indigenous name of the island - Borinquen. The language of the song is romantic and patriotic and pretty typical of a national anthem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORQUESTA FILARMONICA INTERNACIONAL SONG, "HIMNO DE PUERTO RICO")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Spanish).

ABDELFATAH: But the lyrics of the version you're hearing were written in 1903. And it's not the first version. The original lyrics were written in 1868 by the poet Lola Rodriguez de Tio. And they were, let's just say, more intense.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA BORINQUENA")

DANNY RIVERA: (Singing, through interpreter) Arise, Boricua. The call to arms has sounded. Awake from the slumber. It is time to fight.

ABDELFATAH: These fighting lyrics might make you wonder, what was going on in Puerto Rico?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA BORINQUENA")

RIVERA: (Singing, through interpreter) Doesn't this patriotic call set your heart alight?

ABDELFATAH: So Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic are all Caribbean island nations that, at one time, were part of the Spanish Empire. But by the late 1800s, Spain was...

DANIEL IMMERWAHR: In the midst of a imperial crisis...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IMMERWAHR: It found itself repeatedly fighting insurgents who were seeking independence. By the 1890s, Spain was engaging in brutal acts of repression in order to maintain its hold.

ABDELFATAH: That's Daniel Immerwahr. He's the author of...

IMMERWAHR: How To Hide An Empire: A History Of The Greater United States.

ABDELFATAH: Given the failing state of the Spanish Empire and the history of their brutal colonial rule, lots of Puerto Ricans wanted independence.

EILEEN FINDLAY: Puerto Ricans had long harbored very deep resentments against Spain and Spaniards.

ABDELFATAH: That's Eileen Findlay. She's a professor of history at American University.

FINDLAY: And the Spaniards were identified as the slave owners, the owners of the plantations, et cetera - the sugar plantations.

ABDELFATAH: So a revolutionary insurgency began in Puerto Rico. It wasn't an armed insurgency like in neighboring Cuba. But the lyrics Lola Rodriguez de Tio wrote still captured the spirit of the movement.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Reading) Come. The sound of the cannon of will please us. Look. The Cuban will already be free. The machete will give him his freedom. The machete will give him his freedom.

ABDELFATAH: By 1897, the Spanish crown was under pressure to appease Puerto Ricans, and it issued an order allowing the island to set up its own self-ruling government. Soon after...

IMMERWAHR: The United States entered the fray and entered it on the side of the insurgents and did so under the banner of liberation, promising to be sort of a force for freedom throughout the Spanish Empire.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANNON FIRING)

ABDELFATAH: The Spanish-American War started in 1898. The U.S. invested heavily in the war effort, mostly because Puerto Rico - like the rest of the Caribbean - was right in its backyard. And Spain's weakening power presented an opportunity to take control of the Caribbean.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANNONS FIRING)

ABDELFATAH: So the U.S. Navy directly attacked the Spanish at San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANNONS FIRING)

ABDELFATAH: In 1898, Spain handed over control of Puerto Rico in a ceremony at San Juan that was reported by the New York Evening Post.

IMMERWAHR: It was all a quiet affair. There was no excitement and - but little enthusiasm. An hour after its close, the streets had assumed their wanted appearance. There was little to show that anything important had taken place - that by this brief ceremony, Spain's power on the island of Puerto Rico had ended forever.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FINDLAY: Most Puerto Ricans see the U.S. intervention as a liberation move from Spanish rule.

HARRY FRANQUI-RIVERA: Compared it to Spain, the United States looked like that city on the hill, like that beacon of democracy. With all its imperfections, the United States looked like something a lot of Puerto Ricans aspired to be.

FINDLAY: The Civil War had been fought. Slavery was defeated. A lot of Black Puerto Ricans, in particular, thought of the United States as the land of Lincoln. So it's really interesting that we have - in Puerto Rico at the turn of the century, the fledgling socialist party is fervently pro-U.S. intervention.

FRANQUI-RIVERA: And as a matter of fact, right after the United States invaded and a military government is set up, what takes place is that political parties that are formed want Puerto Rico to become a state of the Union.

ABDELFATAH: This is Harry Franqui-Rivera. He's a professor of history at Bloomfield College.

FRANQUI-RIVERA: And I'm saying this because there was a lot of goodwill towards the United States. There was a lot of hope.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: The U.S. made Puerto Rico a territory of the United States. And within months of taking over, Americans assigned a military commander to rule the island and completely ignored the parliament Puerto Rico had one from Spain. Despite this, Puerto Ricans for some time remained optimistic that the relationship with the United States would improve life on the island. And one of those people was a man who would come to be one of the most important figures in the island's modern history - Pedro Albizu Campos.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRANQUI-RIVERA: He is the son of a Spaniard and a woman of mixed ancestry, what they called at the time a mulata (ph).

ABDELFATAH: He was born in 1891.

FRANQUI-RIVERA: In the town of Ponce...

IMMERWAHR: And had been young right at the time of the U.S. invasion and annexation and had grown up in a town called Ponce that seemed to welcome the United States...

FRANQUI-RIVERA: Let's put it this way - Ponce's the most patrician of Puerto Rican cities.

ABDELFATAH: Albizu Campos himself didn't come from one of those patrician, or wealthy, families. But he did get a good education as a result of living in a rich city.

IMMERWAHR: The accounts that we have of him as a child is that he was really interested in his mainland teachers when he was studying in Puerto Rico. He moved to the United States to study, first in Vermont and then he transferred to Harvard.

FRANQUI-RIVERA: That's when World War I started.

ABDELFATAH: As World War I began, Albizu Campos, like many Puerto Ricans, believed that the U.S. would ultimately deliver a better life for the people of the island. And when he was in law school in 1917, Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens.

IMMERWAHR: This was part of an effort to pull Puerto Rico into the war effort and for the United States to shore up some legitimacy in a place where, you know, it found itself in an awkward position, propounding liberty on the world stage and yet holding this place as a large and prominent colony.

ABDELFATAH: To Albizu Campos, citizenship and the war presented an opportunity.

IMMERWAHR: And we have him writing about trying to make sense of - what does it mean that the United States is at war, and where do Puerto Ricans fit in it? And what he wrote - he wrote to the Harvard Crimson to say, Puerto Ricans now have citizenship. We are now part of this project, and we are really excited to be a part of it. And so he said, ultimately, I will stand with the United States. He joined the Army.

FRANQUI-RIVERA: Albizu Campos joined an officer training camp in Puerto Rico, at the time it's called a colored regiment, or for Black Puerto Ricans. He trains. He's awarded the rank of first lieutenant.

IMMERWAHR: And he quite clearly had the hope that this would lead to Puerto Rican independence, that Puerto Rico would stand with the United States, would be part of this project for liberation, at the end of the war, might lead to Puerto Rican independence. That's the expectation that he had. And as it turned out, he was disappointed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAURA BRIGGS: Puerto Rican soldiers are conscripted, and they are conscripted into a segregated Army as people of color - and definitely sets the groundwork for the alienation from the belief in the United States as the land of Lincoln and the land of democracy.

I'm Laura Briggs, and I work at the University Massachusetts, where I'm a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies and history.

ABDELFATAH: Race in Puerto Rico is complex, as complex as it is in the U.S. But for someone like Albizu Campos, being assigned to a segregated unit felt like a slight. And he started to change his mind about what was possible for him as an American citizen.

FRANQUI-RIVERA: If this is my limit and I am this educated, I am this smart, I am this woke, what is the limit for people who are way behind me? What is the future for my people?

BRIGGS: This is part of his disillusionment - is experiencing racial segregation in the armed forces of the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Ultimately, Puerto Rico didn't gain independence or autonomy after World War I. The island had its own legislature, but the governor of the territory was appointed by the U.S. government. And they couldn't vote in the U.S. presidential election, something that's true to this day.

IMMERWAHR: Puerto Rico didn't receive its independence. And in fact, it kind of stalled after World War I in the sense that it didn't see any status changes. Puerto Ricans had citizenship, but that didn't lead to economic prosperity in Puerto Rico.

BRIGGS: Albizu Campos, as he becomes disenchanted with the United States and everyday life in Puerto Rico is more and more composed of suffering, you see the emergence of the belief - the entirely reasonable belief - that Puerto Ricans would be better off without the United States.

ABDELFATAH: Albizu Campos returned to Harvard to finish his law degree after World War I. He was full of disillusionment with the U.S. government and became interested in radical movements.

OLGA JIMENEZ DE WAGENHEIM: He was very interested in the formation of an independence movement in Ireland.

ABDELFATAH: This is Olga Jimenez de Wagenheim. She's an emerita professor of history at Rutgers University, focused on Puerto Rico. And she says that during this time, Albizu went through an intellectual awakening, where he embraced anti-imperialist ideas developed in places like Ireland and India.

JIMENEZ DE WAGENHEIM: I see Albizu as evolving. I don't see him as having been born (laughter) a revolutionary.

ABDELFATAH: But his relationship with the U.S. was conflicted.

JIMENEZ DE WAGENHEIM: On the other hand, this man was really helped by Americans. In the United States, he's going to get scholarships to Harvard. He's going to be the president of a club at Harvard.

ABDELFATAH: So it's with this complicated, conflicted view that Albizu came back to Puerto Rico in 1921 and tried to jump into politics.

FRANQUI-RIVERA: He wanted to run for senator. And basically he was told, you just got here; take a turn.

JIMENEZ DE WAGENHEIM: And he joins the Liberal Party at that point and eventually becomes very disappointed with the kind of independence that that group was proposing. So he leaves and joins the Nationalist Party, which was created in 1922.

ABDELFATAH: And he discovered that he had a knack for public speaking.

JIMENEZ DE WAGENHEIM: And he was also very good at breaking down information and making it accessible to people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PEDRO ALBIZU CAMPOS: (Speaking Spanish).

JIMENEZ DE WAGENHEIM: Because he was still dealing with a lot of people who were illiterate. They were not reading his speeches. They were not reading, necessarily, the newspapers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALBIZU: (Speaking Spanish).

ABDELFATAH: He became the vice president of the Nationalist Party and began going around the country and to other parts of Latin America trying to drum up support for Puerto Rican independence.

JIMENEZ DE WAGENHEIM: He went to the Dominican Republic. He went to Haiti. He went to Cuba, Mexico and eventually Peru. And apparently, he was convinced that they would be helpful, and so he comes back full of energy, full of determination to fight for Puerto Rican independence.

ABDELFATAH: By the time he returned at the end of the 1920s, the spirit of Lola Rodriguez de Tio's national anthem was back again in Puerto Rico.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA BORINQUENA")

RIVERA: (Singing in Spanish).

ABDELFATAH: And Pedro Albizu Campos was at the forefront of a movement to gain independence for the island. But make no mistake. His story isn't a romantic revolutionary tale because before he can have any triumphant moment of glory, the situation in Puerto Rico gets worse for the people and for him. The debate over Puerto Rico's status gets even more complicated when we come back.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA BORINQUENA")

RIVERA: (Singing in Spanish).

(MUSIC SLOWING, WARPING)

ROB SCARBOROUGH: I want to try that again. Oh, God. Hi, this is Rob Scarborough (ph), and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from N... oh. OK, take three - oh, God. This is super embarrassing. Hi, this is Rob Scarborough from Toronto, Canada, and you're listening to THROUGHLINE on NPR. That's better, I think. Right? OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: 1928 was not a good year in Puerto Rico. Thirty years after the U.S. took over, Puerto Rico had little to show for it.

IMMERWAHR: This colony was in a kind of crisis.

ARABLOUEI: Conditions on the island were dire.

IMMERWAHR: Observers who would look at the slums in San Juan were - you know, could hardly believe that such a thing existed under the U.S. flag.

ARABLOUEI: Many Puerto Ricans struggled to eat. The shaky economy was built on just two crops - sugar and coffee. After an examination of Puerto Rico in the 1920s, the Brookings Institute published a study.

FRANQUI-RIVERA: The Brookings Institute found that...

ARABLOUEI: Rural workers were using nearly all their wages on food.

FRANQUI-RIVERA: Talking about living hand-to-mouth, that's what they were doing. If you're spending that much in food, that mean that you don't have any income, any resources for anything else. You just work until you die and you're replaced.

ARABLOUEI: The hope that so many Puerto Ricans had when the U.S. arrived, when they joined the U.S. war effort, when they'd been granted U.S. citizenship - had been replaced by the realization...

IMMERWAHR: ...That the United States had delivered neither liberation nor prosperity. And by the 1920s and 1930s, the rawness of that deal became a little clearer to Puerto Ricans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Then, in some dark twist of fate, on September 13...

BRIGGS: In 1928, there's a massive hurricane.

ARABLOUEI: The worst hurricane in its history...

BRIGGS: Hurricane San Felipe.

ARABLOUEI: The storm killed hundreds. Hundreds of thousands were left homeless. And Puerto Rico's coffee industry was decimated.

BRIGGS: And it's also important to know that coffee grows really slowly, so it takes years before there's another coffee crop.

ARABLOUEI: Then, when it seemed things couldn't get any worse, in 1929 the U.S. stock market collapsed. And...

IMMERWAHR: The U.S. government apportioned the pain. The U.S. government decided that it would prioritize sugar growers in the mainlands over sugar growers in the territories. It set quotas on production and so the pain would be distributed.

ARABLOUEI: So much of Puerto Rico's pain was easy to see, but one of its biggest problems was only just coming into view. Many Puerto Ricans were thin, pale and unusually tired.

FRANQUI-RIVERA: You look at the pictures of the peasantry from that time, and they're skeletons. They're a walking skeleton.

ARABLOUEI: For years, this had been mistaken for hunger or laziness, but it was actually an epidemic of anemia. By the turn of the 20th century, anemia was the leading cause of death in Puerto Rico. But even once it was diagnosed, it took years for researchers to discover what was causing such a widespread problem, especially in coffee plantation workers. It was the result of hookworms that bore through a victim's feet as they were walking shoeless in the dirt.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: By the 1930s, anemia is a public health crisis, drawing attention from the mainland, especially from the Rockefeller Foundation.

BRIGGS: They're convinced that there might be a medical fix to the problem of poverty in Puerto Rico.

ARABLOUEI: Anemia is associated with low productivity. So for that reason, Laura Briggs says, it was perfect for the Rockefeller brand, which was often very anti-labor.

BRIGGS: And so they're backing this idea that what's wrong in Puerto Rico is that people don't work hard enough. And if only they weren't so anemic and tired all the time, they'd be better workers, and Puerto Rico wouldn't be so poor.

ARABLOUEI: The Rockefeller Foundation sends doctors to the island. And one of them is Cornelius Packard Rhoads.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IMMERWAHR: Yeah. Cornelius Packard Rhoads - Dusty to his friends - Dusty Rhoads. So he's a doctor, and what he's supposed to do is study anemia. You know, and there'd been doctors who'd come down from the mainland to Puerto Rico before. And they'd behaved like doctors, right? They, you know - they were really worried about experimental treatments. You know, they made sure to preserve the health of the patients above all else. Cornelius Packard Rhoads took a different tack.

BRIGGS: Well, what we know from Rhoads' own letters is at first he was really happy to be there. He thought that there was really good funding, really good equipment and plenty of patients to do research for a young man who wanted to make his name in anemia.

ARABLOUEI: Rhoads is dispatched to San Juan, where he gets down to work.

BRIGGS: And he's a colorful character who people either like or don't like. And somebody strips his car. He's furious.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IMMERWAHR: And then he wrote a letter. He sat down, and he wrote one of the most extraordinary letters in U.S. history - at least that I have read as a historian.

BRIGGS: He writes this letter to a friend saying, so I have this opportunity to get an appointment here which would be a very good opportunity for me...

IMMERWAHR: (Reading) And I'm tempted to take it. It would be ideal, except for the Puerto Ricans. They are beyond doubt the dirtiest, laziest, most degenerate and thievish race of men ever inhabiting this sphere. It makes you sick to inhabit the same island with them. They are even lower than Italians. What this island needs is not public health work but a tidal wave or something to totally exterminate the population. It might then be livable. I've done my best to further the process of extermination by killing off eight and transplanting cancer into several more. The latter has not resulted in any fatalities so far. The matter of consideration for the patients' welfare plays no role here. In fact, all physicians take delight in the abuse and torture of the unfortunate subjects. Do let me know if you hear any more news. Sincerely, Dusty.

ARABLOUEI: Cornelius Rhoads finishes writing and walks away.

IMMERWAHR: And he left the letter out. And the Puerto Rican staff of the hospital found it, and they were horrified.

BRIGGS: Cornelius Rhoads comes back from lunch. He finds out that people have read the letter, and he apologizes profusely. And he says that it was all a joke. He didn't mean it. It's not really true.

ARABLOUEI: He finds out that a lab tech named Luis Baldoni has the letter.

IMMERWAHR: He tried to get the letter back by offering a one-time cash payment. He gave a loan to the guy who had the letter, but he couldn't do it. They wouldn't let him have it.

ARABLOUEI: And then some time later...

BRIGGS: He says he's going to go outside and take some blood samples from some people outside the hospital, and he never comes back. And his staff doesn't know what to think.

ARABLOUEI: But there's one last communication from Cornelius Rhoads.

BRIGGS: He sends a letter saying he's gone home; he has health crisis. He has to see his uncle, and he has to run home.

ARABLOUEI: Cornelius P. Rhoads will never step foot in Puerto Rico again. He's gone.

IMMERWAHR: But they still have the letter. And the hospital staff member who has it gives it to exactly the guy who will know what to do with it. He gives it to Pedro Albizu Campos.

ARABLOUEI: Yes, that Pedro Albizu Campos.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: And we should say something about him here. By the early 1930s, Albizu Campos and the Nationalist Party are advocating for Puerto Rican independence and nothing less. That kind of militancy is a big step. Many Puerto Rican politicians are focused on incremental progress - independence slowly - but the Nationalists feel no colonial power, including the U.S., can be trusted. That's the core of their belief system. Now, with the Rhoads letter in hand, they have proof. So Albizu Campos sends it everywhere - to all the Puerto Rican newspapers...

IMMERWAHR: They send it to the ACLU. They send it to the Vatican. They're sending it out internationally.

ARABLOUEI: A cover letter explains that the U.S. is clearly seeking to exterminate Puerto Ricans just as it has the Native Americans. And as Albizu Campos waits to see the response from abroad, Puerto Ricans are...

BRIGGS: Completely freaked out - the Rockefeller Foundation is a well-known name in Puerto Rico. They've been sending doctors there for a long time. And what does this mean? What are Rockefeller doctors doing?

IMMERWAHR: So the governor - the appointed governor, the mainland-appointed governor - even he deems this a confession of murder. And there's an investigation.

BRIGGS: The Rockefeller Foundation sends its people down, and the Puerto Rican medical establishment also tries to figure out what happened, to look at all of his patient files. Doctors who review the case files, the attorney general, the governor, the Rockefeller Foundation - they're all satisfied that this didn't happen literally like that.

IMMERWAHR: But it's a qualified investigation, and it's qualified in two senses. One, it's qualified by the fact that Rhoads doesn't have to appear. He doesn't return to Puerto Rico. He's just gone, which is not normal when there's a potential murder to be investigated. And it's qualified in another way. The investigation uncovers, according to the governor, another letter and the letter that he deems - these are his words - worse than the first.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: That letter won't be splashed across the front pages of Puerto Rican newspapers because...

IMMERWAHR: Because the letter was suppressed and presumably destroyed, we don't have it. And you know, there's a limited degree to which you can trust an investigation that destroys incriminating evidence. So not surprisingly, Cornelius Rhoads is found to have been intemperate, loose with his words but not, ultimately, a murderer.

ARABLOUEI: All along, Rhoads claims that the letter is just a joke. But the investigation reveals that at the very least...

IMMERWAHR: It seems like he arrived in San Juan and just felt like he was now in an island-sized laboratory and could do whatever he wanted. So this is what we know. First of all, he refused treatment in some of his patients to see what would happen. He also sought to induce disease in other of his patients, and he referred to those patients to his colleagues as experimental animals.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Nonetheless, the investigation can't find evidence of murder. Plus, Rhoads is long gone. And in the few cases where there is news coverage of the Rhoads letter in the mainland American media, it doesn't exactly make waves.

BRIGGS: Time Magazine ran an article about the Rhoads affair, and the Rockefeller Foundation's press guy, Ivy Lee, got to see it before it was published. The New York Times was covering this event, and that, too - Ivy Lee got to have a say in how it was going to be reported. So the U.S. press kept reporting that this was just a joke letter.

ARABLOUEI: So Rhoads is shielded from consequences back home. But in Puerto Rico, the story is fuel for the fire of a still small and obscure Nationalist Party.

BRIGGS: This event is pretty much the founding event for the Nationalist Party. It really coalesces people around the Nationalist Party. It gets Pedro Albizu Campos' name in the papers everywhere. And Albizu goes on to write letters and make speeches. He talks about the effect of disease on Native people in the mainland U.S., of tuberculosis and other disease on Native Hawaiians. And he begins to make quite a convincing case for the role of disease in medicine in the U.S. colonial enterprise.

ARABLOUEI: But Albizu Campos is also making a bigger argument, especially after running for office in 1932. After receiving very few votes, Albizu Campos declares electoral politics hopeless - too slow, too full of compromises.

IMMERWAHR: From the Nationalist perspective, this is finally the smoking gun. Right? You can finally see the scorn of mainlanders - their obsession with Puerto Rican overpopulation, their homicidal intent. So for Nationalists, this is the moment when the mask slipped. Right? You can actually see what this is about. Colonialism's face is laid bare, and now let's get on with it.

ARABLOUEI: To independence, by violence if necessary - Albizu believes that Americans are trying to exterminate Puerto Ricans and there's no time to waste, that it's time to escalate the fight for an independent Puerto Rico.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: To Albizu Campos, tyranny is law, and revolution is order. And as he thinks about what the revolution should look like, he begins to map out a vision for achieving independence. The first step is...

IMMERWAHR: Just start being a nation...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IMMERWAHR: And so under Albizu, Puerto Rican Nationalists did that. They formed an army. That's something that nations have. Now, the army wasn't fully armed, and they often marched in the streets with wooden rather than real rifles. But nevertheless, they were an army, and they were marching in the streets. And that was a show of national organization.

ARABLOUEI: At a time when it's illegal to fly the Puerto Rican flag, Nationalists use the flag every chance they get - same for the national anthem. And...

IMMERWAHR: They issued bonds in the name of the independent Puerto Rican government. So they were issue - you know, in some ways issuing currency. That's another thing that national governments do. They flew the flag of Puerto Rico - basically became a kind of shadow government and in doing so, you know, issued a challenge to Washington. This is the government of Puerto Rico, they insisted. It's your duty to either recognize it or, you know, we have an army. There might be fighting.

And indeed, there was. There wasn't a pitched battle. But nevertheless, Puerto Ricans associated with the Nationalists did start engaging in political violence and started bombing buildings. At first, the bombs didn't kill people, but they would bomb post offices, things like that. And they would often do it on national holidays - July 4, or the day that Puerto Ricans were forced to celebrate to commemorate the occupation of Puerto Rico by the United States.

ARABLOUEI: As Nationalist violence increases in intensity, so does Albizu Campos' role as a revolutionary leader.

IMMERWAHR: Albizu encourages a lot of this. He give speeches where he refers favorably to those who've committed violence and makes vague threats. But those threats are then often followed up, often right after he gives a speech.

ARABLOUEI: He embraces violence, and he inspires it in others.

FRANQUI-RIVERA: I think he was an entrancing figure. He created this aura of being almost messianic. Most of his supporters and followers saw him as someone almost divine. For many people, he could walk on water.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Olga Jimenez de Wagenheim interviewed a number of Nationalist women who fought for independence. One of them was Dominga de la Cruz.

JIMENEZ DE WAGENHEIM: Dominga de la Cruz was a very interesting woman, a Black woman from Ponce...

ARABLOUEI: Who's active in the 1930s - and she becomes a follower of Albizu Campos because...

JIMENEZ DE WAGENHEIM: She says, until Albizu came to us, we were confused. I think the greatness of Albizu Campos was that he took a people that was on its knees - because that's how we were - and with his great energy, he raised us to our feet. He taught us to walk, and he taught us to struggle. And after he taught us, there was no way we could ever fall back to our knees. We had to move forward even though it was always hard to fight against such a powerful empire. We did not question his orders. We loved Don Pedro, not as a mythological figure but as a father who wanted his children to have dignity. He taught us dignity.

ARABLOUEI: By 1935, the Nationalist fight looks more and more like a war.

FRANQUI-RIVERA: There's a shooting war and a bombing campaign going on between the Nationalists and the police.

ARABLOUEI: A bomb goes off at the national bank, at post offices, at police stations. A bomb goes off at the governor's country estate. Then, four sticks of dynamite are discovered at the governor's mansion. No one's hurt, but no one doubts who's responsible for the bombs. Then, a skirmish at a rally at the University of Puerto Rico and...

FRANQUI-RIVERA: Four Nationalists died. Pretty soon, the chief of police, Elisha Riggs - he goes on a press conference, and he said that this is not going to be tolerated.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRANQUI-RIVERA: There is going to be war against those who do not follow the law and those who, instead of expressing their political views through political means, resort to violence - that there will be war to no end (ph) against them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRANQUI-RIVERA: A few days later, Albizu goes on the radio, and he says that he appreciate the honesty of the chief of police and that there is going to be war - but war against the Yankees.

ARABLOUEI: Less than four months later, as Riggs leaves mass, two Nationalists shoot and kill him. When captured, they're brought to police headquarters where, quote, "trying to escape, they are shot and killed." The battles continue. J. Edgar Hoover deploys FBI agents to surveil Albizu, and not long after, he's arrested and tried for conspiring to overthrow the government. The trial ends in a hung jury.

IMMERWAHR: And then the government does something extraordinary.

ARABLOUEI: He's tried again.

IMMERWAHR: It just changes the composition of the jury and dramatically diminishes the number of Puerto Ricans versus mainlanders in order to secure a conviction. So he's convicted, and then he serves in federal prison. He's brought to the mainland, and then he becomes a kind of political liability for the United States because this famous guy is clearly a political prisoner, a martyr. And his imprisonment becomes yet another cause in the Nationalists' indictment of the United States.

ARABLOUEI: The Nationalists are incensed at the U.S. Justice system's hypocrisy.

IMMERWAHR: Cornelius Rhoads, who has confessed to murdering people - he just gets to shrug it off.

ARABLOUEI: Albizu Campos, on the other hand, is sentenced to 10 years in federal prison in Atlanta. Then, on Palm Sunday 1937, as our Albizu Campos begins his jail term, the Nationalists march in Ponce, Albizu's hometown. The marchers are unarmed. But as the march begins, the police force, armed with gas bombs, rifles and Thompson submachine guns, surround the Nationalists.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Shooting starts. And by the time it stops minutes later, 18 demonstrators and onlookers and two police have been killed in the crossfire. More than 150 people are wounded.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: While the governor insists that the Nationalists fired first, an FBI agent reports privately to J. Edgar Hoover that it is common fact that the police are almost 100% to blame. And an independent investigation headed by the general counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union concludes that the incident is a massacre. It is...

IMMERWAHR: Actually the...

ABDELFATAH: Wow.

IMMERWAHR: ...Largest police massacre in U.S. history, many of them just bystanders...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: And maybe you're wondering, what happened to the person who had so fueled the Nationalists' fire? What happened to Cornelius "Dusty" Rhoads in the years after he boasted of murdering Puerto Ricans and fled the island? As far as consequences...

BRIGGS: Absolutely nothing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRIGGS: It's an excellent example of how little Puerto Rico mattered in the U.S. national imaginary. Even if this letter is nothing more than a dark fantasy, it tells us something about how he works as a doctor - that he can imagine having this kind of contempt for his patients.

IMMERWAHR: This is the kind of doctor you fear. This is the kind of doctor who ultimately regards his patients as test subjects and seems to flourish in that environment.

ARABLOUEI: While Albizu bides his time in prison in Atlanta, things are turning out very different for Rhoads.

IMMERWAHR: He goes back to New York - what happens in San Juan stays in San Juan - confesses to having murdered eight people and doesn't lose his job. And he continues to work his way up in status in the medical establishment. He becomes the vice president of the New York Academy of Medicine. And when World War II breaks out, he joins the Army at the level of a colonel. And he actually has a position of enormous responsibility and responsibility that is extremely relevant because he is going to oversee a series of human-subject tests involving chemical agents.

Sixty thousand uniformed men have chemical agents tested on them. It's applied to their skin to see if their skin blisters, and some of those tests are race-based. So does Black skin deal differently from white skin or Puerto Rican skin to the application of a mustard agent? Let's find out. Some of the tests involve men being put in chambers with gas masks to see what happens - if the men falter, if the gas masks hold up.

And then there's this other series of tests called the field tests. The government has an island, San Jose Island, off of Panama which it uses to run these sort of jungle warfare tests. And men are asked to stage mock battles. And while they're doing it, planes will fly over and will gas them from the skies. Again, they'll have gas masks to see how they do. Now, a lot of those men are Puerto Ricans. And many of them, it turns out, don't speak English. And these men don't really understand the kind of permanent damage that they might suffer and, indeed, many of them do suffer.

ARABLOUEI: That damage, though, is somebody else's problem. Cornelius Rhoads has moved on and moved up again.

IMMERWAHR: He becomes one doctor, among others, who realizes that mustard agents might actually be used to fight cancer. And so after the war, he is in charge of a committee that divides up the stock of surplus chemical warfare agents to various hospitals, his being one of them. He becomes, also, simultaneously, the first head of the Sloan Kettering Institute. And he used his position to test chemical after chemical on a whole hospital full of patients who are dying of cancer. And he becomes, in doing this, one of the pioneers of chemotherapy. He's on the cover of Time magazine - Cornelius Rhoads, Cancer Fighter.

And the American Association for Cancer Research, for more than 20 years, gives a prestigious award out called the Cornelius Rhoads Award to promising young cancer researchers. That goes on for more than 20 years before anyone from Puerto Rico is able to successfully communicate to the AACR - hey, you might want to rethink this award. You might want to rethink the guy you're honoring with this award.

BRIGGS: I think if you stopped 10 people on the street in Puerto Rico today, you would find that probably half of them know about Cornelius Rhoads.

IMMERWAHR: Cornelius Rhoads' hope that he could just get away with it - that's true. He does get away with it.

BRIGGS: The legacy of Cornelius Rhoads, to this day in Puerto Rico is that people remember him as an agent of U.S. colonialism and possibly a murderer - a never disproved murder - who acted on behalf of the Rockefeller Foundation and, implicitly, the U.S. state.

IMMERWAHR: Yeah, this becomes an enduring political injury. There are Puerto Rican Nationalists who cite this decades later as a key moment because they just think, I can't believe this guy got away with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Coming up - how no consequences for Cornelius Rhoads inspires a plot to assassinate the president of the United States.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LISA KLEM: Hi. This is Lisa Klem. I'm from Holland, Mich., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: One evening sometime in the late 1920's, way before the whole Cornelius Rhoads incident, Albizu Campos is eating dinner alone at the Hotel Palace in San Juan. An acquaintance walks into the restaurant, spots Albizu and asks if he can join him for dinner. Albizu agrees.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: The two really connect. They both speak English fluently. Both studied in America and went to law school. And they have the same political mission - to see an independent Puerto Rico. After this chance encounter, the two men meet often.

IMMERWAHR: And they had, you know, spoken warmly of each other and dined together and seemed to admire each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: That man in the restaurant is named Luis Munoz Marin.

FINDLAY: He was famous for saying that, you know, the Americans and I arrived on the island together.

ARABLOUEI: That's because he was born in 1898, the same year the U.S. took over Puerto Rico.

JIMENEZ DE WAGENHEIM: Munoz Marin comes from a family that was well-known.

FINDLAY: Elite, land-owning, highly educated...

JIMENEZ DE WAGENHEIM: I mean, his father had been involved in politics and had actually attained autonomy for Puerto Rico from Spain.

FINDLAY: Like, one of the great founding fathers of Puerto Rican nationalism...

JIMENEZ DE WAGENHEIM: Then his father became a resident commissioner in Washington, so Munoz is going to be living in the United States.

FINDLAY: So he was bilingual, had this great legitimacy among the political elite in Puerto Rico but also, you know, had a lot of cultural capital among Americans as having grown up here then educated in the United States.

JIMENEZ DE WAGENHEIM: So he returns to Puerto Rico, and he's welcome in a circle of political activists in a way that Albizu never was.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FINDLAY: I'm going to go back to 1932, right after this letter...

ARABLOUEI: The Cornelius Rhoads letter...

FINDLAY: ...Comes out. So at that moment, Luis Munoz Marin is an independence guy. He's a Nationalist.

ARABLOUEI: That same year, in 1932, both Albizu and Munoz Marin run for office. While Albizu fails to gain political support, Munoz Marin has better luck. Soon after...

FRANQUI-RIVERA: He traversed the countryside in Puerto Rico, and he rolled up his sleeves.

ABDELFATAH: On these travels, Munoz Marin taps into the anxieties and struggles of the people. Whereas Albizu sees getting rid of Americans as his top priority, for Munoz Marin, it's getting rid of hunger.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LUIS MUNOZ MARIN: (Speaking Spanish).

(CHEERING)

FINDLAY: He was also just such a charismatic speaker. Like, he uses all this redolent religious imagery, of course setting himself up as Jesus and everybody else as Jesus' followers. But it's like manna from heaven.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUNOZ: (Speaking Spanish).

(APPLAUSE)

FINDLAY: And then it kind of comes (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: During the late 1930s and '40s, while Albizu was in jail, Munoz Marin's political career takes off. He starts his own political party called the Popular Democratic Party, or PPD. And his sole focus becomes improving the economy. The status of Puerto Rican independence is no longer a priority.

FRANQUI-RIVERA: Whether we're independent or a state or a dominion like Canada, that's not going to give you a house. That's not going to keep you warm.

ARABLOUEI: Munoz Marin figures the only way to lift Puerto Rico out of intense poverty and economic turmoil is with help from the U.S.

FINDLAY: So his answer was, we're going to have a U.S.-funded Industrial Revolution in Puerto Rico, and that will bring us modernity. It will bring us good-wage jobs. It will bring us all the things - right? - that industrialization is supposed to bring.

BRIGGS: Remember that this is the era of the New Deal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANKLIN D ROOSEVELT: ...That will greatly ease the mortgage distress among the farmers and among the homeowners of the nation by providing for the easing of the burden of debt...

BRIGGS: And so the idea that you can transform economies with federal funds is huge.

ARABLOUEI: Munoz Marin sets out to convince American companies to invest in Puerto Rico.

FINDLAY: And saying to all of these capitalists - I have a pliable, docile, you know, population here who loves the U.S. We've loved the U.S. ever since it arrived. And just come, and you'll have really hard workers who are going to be grateful for a factory job. They know how to cut cane 15 to 20 hours a day, and they'll be thrilled to work 10 hours a day in your factory.

ABDELFATAH: The only problem is some Puerto Ricans are starting to get ideas about unionizing and workers' rights. And if the companies catch a whiff of this...

FINDLAY: Factory owners might not want to come. There's this very complicated dance, then, that the PPD gets into of, like - to produce the modernity and abundance that they promised, they got to get the money from Papa U.S. But Papa U.S. doesn't want a radically mobilized citizenry.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Then, when the U.S. enters World War II, Puerto Rico becomes strategically important in the war effort.

FRANQUI-RIVERA: The military started to put millions and millions of dollar that in today's money would be billions to create new roads, military bases, cement, cement, cement - airports, docks.

ABDELFATAH: Basically, a whole new infrastructure...

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING, DRILLING)

ABDELFATAH: And for many Puerto Ricans, Munoz Marin is the face of this transformation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JIMENEZ DE WAGENHEIM: I grew up in the northwestern town of Camuy. And my own father was unable to earn a decent wage until the Munoz government came into power. One of the things that Munoz went and promised the people was that there should be minimum wage, that there should be hospitals for their children, that there should be schools. And he actually delivers on that.

ARABLOUEI: Money is flowing in. Puerto Ricans are living better. And eventually, in the late 1940s, the U.S. decides to give Puerto Ricans the right to choose their own government, and Munoz Marin becomes the first elected governor of Puerto Rico.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUNOZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FINDLAY: His rhetoric is no longer radical bread, land, liberty. It's industrialism, modernity, domesticity. Right? OK. And we are now family with the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUNOZ: (Speaking Spanish).

(APPLAUSE)

FINDLAY: There's no colonialism anymore. And we're all in this together. And you can migrate to the U.S. because you're a citizen of the U.S., and nobody's going to prevent you from doing that. And you will find abundance and prosperity in this land which is also ours.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Meanwhile, the Munoz Marin government is ramping up harassment against pro-independence nationalists like Albizu Campos.

ABDELFATAH: In 1948, they pass a gag law which makes it illegal to display a Puerto Rican flag, sing patriotic songs or talk of Puerto Rican independence.

FINDLAY: They were obsessed with trying to marginalize pro-independence views among the Puerto Rican population. They were absolutely obsessed with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Around the same time, Albizu Campos is finally released from prison after serving 10 years.

IMMERWAHR: And time has not softened Albizu. He still believes that Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States and must liberate itself by arms if necessary.

ARABLOUEI: But the Puerto Rico he returns to is very different from the one he left - no longer the impoverished, agriculturally dependent place he'd known.

FINDLAY: Puerto Rico utterly transformed to a profoundly industrialized, urbanized economy. It was extraordinary.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: And all those economic improvements are largely due to the man he met in the restaurant years earlier.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Albizu Campos, taking all this in after a long absence - his hard work seemingly gone to waste - vows to fight back.

ABDELFATAH: He begins organizing the nationalists in secret, stockpiling weapons and devising a new strategy.

ARABLOUEI: During that time, Munoz Marin, hoping to diffuse the growing tensions, urges President Truman to call for a constitutional convention in Puerto Rico to settle the status question once and for all. And on the other side, the U.S. is also eager to resolve this issue.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: In the background was the growing struggle between two great powers to shape the post-war world.

ABDELFATAH: The Cold War is ramping up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Soviet Russia was expansively stabbing westward, knifing intonations left empty by war.

ABDELFATAH: And the Soviets can point to Puerto Rico as proof that the U.S. is a colonial power, not a beacon of democracy. So in 1950, Truman, aware of what the Puerto Rico situation looks like to the world, agrees to hold a vote in Puerto Rico on whether the island should become a commonwealth of the U.S.

ARABLOUEI: Now, the term commonwealth is a little tricky because it would make Puerto Rico more autonomous than a territory but not quite independent. As a commonwealth, Puerto Rico would have the right to self-governance and U.S. military protection and would receive federal funding, all while having irrevocable U.S. citizenship. But they would have limited voting rights in Congress and no vote in presidential elections. They would remain on the outside looking in.

ABDELFATAH: Munoz Marin is onboard with this idea, but the pro-independence Nationalists hate it. They believe commonwealth status is just...

FINDLAY: Colonialism with a new mask on it.

ABDELFATAH: And on October 30, 1950, just days before voter registration is set to open...

IMMERWAHR: In seven cities, Nationalists stage a revolt. They declare the independence of Puerto Rico. They take government buildings.

ARABLOUEI: They cut phone lines, waste flags, destroy records and set the police station and post office on fire.

IMMERWAHR: They also go to San Juan and seek to assassinate Munoz Marin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN SOUNDING)

IMMERWAHR: They end up firing on the building where he's working and send bullets through his office window, and he's sort of cowering under the desk.

ARABLOUEI: Munoz Marin narrowly escaped death and realizes the uprisings have gotten so intense...

IMMERWAHR: That they require air power to suppress - so Munoz Marin sends planes to actually fire on cities in order to dislodge the rebels.

ARABLOUEI: But that's not the end of it.

ABDELFATAH: An ocean away, phase two of the uprising begins.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IMMERWAHR: Two Nationalists who are not on the island, but who are in New York, come down to D.C. because they want to assassinate Truman.

ABDELFATAH: Here's the game plan.

IMMERWAHR: Truman is not staying at the White House. He's staying at Blair House. And the idea is that they're going to sort of sneak up there and look like they're just, you know, an ordinary business - and then just start shooting, shoot their way into Blair House and assassinate the president, which you know, now you think about that, that would never work. But this is a time of much laxer Secret Service protections. And actually, it seems like their plan is not insane in terms of the tactics of it.

ABDELFATAH: But as they start putting the plan in motion, things quickly go off the rails.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Outside Blair House, the president's temporary Washington home, extreme fanatics of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party try to force their way in, guns blazing, to assassinate the president of the United States.

IMMERWAHR: One of the shooters finds that his gun jams at a crucial moment, so they lose the element of surprise. They get in a shootout with the police and with the Secret Service in front of Blair House. And while they're having this shootout, Truman sticks his head out of the window to see what's going on. One of the shooters is, like, right under the window, and he's sort of looking in Truman's direction, and he's reloading his gun. While he's reloading his gun, a dying police officer, who's already been shot, shoots him, kills him. And the other would-be assassin is shot as well, and he just sort of collapses right at the entrance of Blair House.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: When the three-minute shooting is over, assassin Griselio Torresola lies dead on the Blair House lawn, and White House policeman Leslie Coffelt is dying a few feet away. Assassin Oscar Collazo and two other guards are wounded as the plot is foiled.

IMMERWAHR: So it is a near miss for the president of the United States, and it rattles Truman so much that when he explains why he doesn't run for reelection, this is the reason he gives.

ABDELFATAH: The would-be assassin who survives is put on trial. And when asked what motivates him, he talks about wanting to draw attention to Puerto Rico's plight. And he invokes Cornelius Rhoads, saying, quote, "He tried to bring about a campaign of killing the Puerto Rican people."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing in non-English language).

ARABLOUEI: Back in Puerto Rico, Munoz Marin cracked down on the Nationalists. Albizu was arrested again and sentenced to 80 years in prison, and nearly 3,000 independent supporters are arrested all over the island. The message is clear. Pragmatic reformers like Munoz Marin are working in the best interests of Puerto Rico. The Nationalists are lunatics who need to be stopped. And when it comes time to vote on commonwealth status for Puerto Rico...

FINDLAY: They win.

ABDELFATAH: Puerto Ricans overwhelmingly vote to make Puerto Rico a commonwealth.

FINDLAY: And that is still the underpinning of the legal relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico still.

ABDELFATAH: By 1953, commonwealth status is set in stone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes, this is the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, a land of song and laughter, a tiny bit of the United States in the warm seas of the Atlantic and the Caribbean.

ABDELFATAH: Independence is not only off the table, it isn't even a part of the conversation anymore. Albizu Campos and the Nationalists have lost the fight. But some refuse to accept defeat. And on March 1, 1954, they make a desperate final stand.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MIKE MICHAELSON: March the 1, 1954...

ARABLOUEI: Four Puerto Rican Nationalists enter the U.S. Capitol House of Representatives Chamber in Washington, D.C.

MICHAELSON: ...In the House gallery, where I was working.

ARABLOUEI: Mike Michaelson was the House Radio and TV Gallery director at the time.

MICHAELSON: And I turned around. I noticed some people came in the door, which was to my left upstairs. And then I turned around and looked at them. I figured they were just tourists like so many people.

ARABLOUEI: Then, they opened fire.

MICHAELSON: I heard this loud popping noise - pow, pow, pow.

ARABLOUEI: House members take cover as bullets spray around them.

MICHAELSON: I ducked underneath the ledge. We had a ledge, a writing ledge.

ARABLOUEI: All the while, the shooters shout, Viva Puerto Rico Libre - long live free Puerto Rico.

MICHAELSON: Five members of Congress were wounded. No one died.

ARABLOUEI: Eventually, police manage to get inside the chambers and arrest them - three men and one woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: Disheveled and wild-eyed, a Puerto Rican fanatic, Rafael Miranda, is photographed moments after he and a fellow terrorist, Andre Scodero, had joined with Lolita Lebron in pouring more than 20 shots at the crowded House floor. Five congressmen are wounded in the murderous attack.

IMMERWAHR: So the chief shooter in that 1954 House shooting is Lolita Lebron.

ABDELFATAH: Pictures from that day show Lolita Lebron with red lipstick on, wearing heels. And according to a New York Times account, quote, "She emptied the chambers of a big Luger pistol, holding it in her two hands and waving it wildly."

MICHAELSON: Looked up and I see these people are standing up with guns in their hands. And the woman was standing with them, and she had a big flag.

ABDELFATAH: Then, she threw down the pistol and whipped out a Puerto Rican flag, which she waved...

MICHAELSON: You know, waving the flag back and forth.

ABDELFATAH: ...But never did manage to unfurl fully. The Nationalists know they're fighting a losing battle, but they get what they hoped for - the attention of the U.S., even if it's just for a short time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Now, Governor, these Nationalists - I understand there are only 500 of them - what do they really want?

MUNOZ: They want to force the people of Puerto Rico to wish for the form of freedom that they claim to prefer - that is, independence. The people of Puerto Rico have overwhelmingly chosen an other form of freedom.

ABDELFATAH: Lolita and the other shooters are sentenced to decades in prison. But...

IMMERWAHR: In the 1970s, Lolita Lebron is pardoned by Jimmy Carter, and she gets out of prison. And then she serves as a kind of ceremonial figure in Puerto Rican life as - you know, famed for what she did. In the eyes of many, she's a Nationalist hero.

ABDELFATAH: The Congress attack is the last major act of violence carried out by the Nationalists. And the status question...

JIMENEZ DE WAGENHEIM: Will it ever become independent, or will it ever become a state?

ABDELFATAH: ...Becomes frozen in time.

JIMENEZ DE WAGENHEIM: It's what we call the eternal question - I mean, that and what happens to you after death (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IMMERWAHR: One of the legacies of the Nationalist movement is cultural - the commitment to the Puerto Rican flag, to the Spanish language rather than the English language. These things are, you know, really strong and really powerful and ongoing in Puerto Rico. Even if it's harder to find widespread electoral mass support for political independence, there's a lot of commitment in a sort of cultural separateness between Puerto Rico and the rest of the United States.

FINDLAY: But there's also always been this undercurrent of - the Puerto Ricans are too dependent. Right? Like, we have them, and they're our colonial subjects, which, of course, no one wants to admit in the U.S. But they're disturbingly dependent. And in the mid-20th century, that discourse turns into that they're all a bunch of welfare queens. And you can see that - right? - today of, like, oh, these Puerto Ricans who just can't get it together. They just can't get it together with the hurricane. Oh, my God. You know? The people who are reproducing it don't even know the history of the discourse that they're reproducing.

BRIGGS: Gore Vidal once called us the United States of Amnesia. And amnesia is just the right word - right? - because periodically, we are reminded of what the status of Puerto Rico is, what its relationship to the United States is, what that history is about. And then we manage to forget it again. Right? This is a politically interested forgetting.

ABDELFATAH: Oh, and if you're wondering what happened to Albizu Campos and Munoz Marin, their lives continued to go in completely different directions. While Munoz Marin served as governor of Puerto Rico for 16 years, Albizu Campos lived out most of his days in prison. He was released shortly before his death.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me...

ARABLOUEI: And me and...

JAMIE YORK, BYLINE: Jamie York.

JORDANA HOCHMAN, BYLINE: Jordana Hochman.

LAWRENCE WU, BYLINE: Lawrence Wu.

LAINE KAPLAN-LEVENSON, BYLINE: Laine Kaplan-Levenson.

N'JERI EATON, BYLINE: (Laughter) OK, smizing (ph) an somber - N'Jeri Eaton.

ABDELFATAH: Fact checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Lu Olkowski...

ABDELFATAH: Anya Grundmann...

ARABLOUEI: And Jason Fuller...

ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric.

ARABLOUEI: And one last thing - we wanted to ask something of teachers who are thinking about next school year and would maybe like to sneak in a summer assignment. Are there episodes of THROUGHLINE that you'd like your students to hear? Are there particular episodes that you found useful in teaching history that isn't in textbooks or doesn't get the treatment it deserves? If so, we'd love to hear from you. Please leave us a message at 872-588-8805. Again, the number is 872-588-8805.

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ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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