In “honor” of yesterday’s U.S. Democratic primary in Puerto Rico, which made about as much sense as holding one in Cuba (although that is certainly what the U.S. is shooting for) Machetera brings you the following translation of an interview with the Puerto Rican national hero, Rafael Cancel Miranda, which appeared in Juventud Rebelde some years ago.
They Never Caged My Mind
On passing through Havana, Rafael Cancel Miranda, the legendary man who challenged injustice and carries the solitary star of the Puerto Rican flag in his breast, unleashed his memories. One of the four courageous people who launched an assault on the United States Congress in 1954 in order to call attention to the colonial tragedy on his island, he said that he has always been a free man, never imprisoned.
— JOSÉ ALEJANDRO RODRÍGUEZ, La Habana, Cuba
I’ve always been a free man. Look at me here as a little kid in a photo from the police archives in Puerto Rico. That was in a nationalist demonstration in 1935. Look at me, with my huge shirt, next to my sister. I’m the kid closest to Don Pedro Albizu Campos. My father was nearby but didn’t show up in the photo. My father and Don Pedro were best friends. I grew up accompanying my father at the marches and demonstrations against the gringo oppressor.
But the massacre at Ponce, in 1937, that’s what really hit me. My father and my stepmother had gone to that march, to free Albizu, Corretjer, and other nationalists; my sister and I stayed home with our grandmother because we had the measles. That day, my stepmother left the house dressed in white and returned in red because she had to crawl through all the dead bodies in order to escape.
In school we were obliged to pledge allegiance to the gringa flag. That was my first rebellion. I refused, because whoever wanted to kill my father and Don Pedro, under that other flag, could never be my friend. It was the first time I was kicked out of class. I’ve never pledged allegiance to that flag.
BLOWING ONE’S NOSE IN ENGLISH
By the time I was 15, I was already a radical independentista. And when they wanted to impose the English language, to learn Newton’s Law of Gravity in English, or the names of duo-reproductive plants in English, practically blow our noses in English, well, we went on strike. They threw me out one more time, along with Reinaldo Trilla, my brother in the struggle in Mayagüez. The other time was for the little posse we created to throw stones at the blond Marines who were propositioning the Puertoriqueñas.
I went to study in San Juan until I was 18. The cure was worse than the disease. I refused to enlist in the Yankee army where I’d be expected to kill unlucky people like myself, in Korea. I had to spend two years and a day in a prison in Tallahassee, in Florida. And I lost the possibility to leave any earlier for “good behavior” because I’d kicked a guard twice, for mistreating another boricua (Puerto Rican). That was where I came to know the meaning of solitary confinement.
Upon leaving the “cage,” I married the woman who had been my compañera forever. She was 15 when we started going together, and she told me, “You are going to be the only man in my life. For all of my life.” Títin, the one who always waited for me. My anchor.
They continued to go after me, until, with a changed identity, I went to Cuba with Títin. There, I sweated to feed my first child: in Public Works, I worked eight months on the Linea tunnel. Everyone knew me as Lázaro Babot, from Santiago. My affection for Cuba was born then, amidst much misery and sacrifice. For me, Cuba is Saturnino, a black man who worked with me. When he saw me eating bread with quail for lunch, he took me to his house. He lived in total poverty but his mother gave me a sandwich from the larder. He was called Saturnino, and that for me, is Cuba.
Again, Batista’s agents hounded me until they arrested me and put me on a plane for Puerto Rico, where I managed to hide until once again they found and incarcerated me in the La Princesa prison, and it was there that I saw Don Pedro for the last time in my life. He was a tremendous man, who gave everything for his people, always with enormous kindness. His fury was the fury of love.
In December, 1952, I left for New York, to be reunited with my child and my wife, who was expecting our second child. That’s where I began political work with the Puerto Rican nationalist movement, pressing the United Nations to convince the world that the so-called “Free Associated State” was a fraud. That’s where we came up with the idea of an attack on Congress, a project of Don Pedro Albizu Campos, organized by Julio Pinto Gandía.
NO MORE TEARS
By now my second child had been born. That morning, the first of March, 1954, I awoke early and lingered in the bedroom to admire my Doña and my two children, who were sleeping. My lovely wife, fast asleep with curling papers in her hair. I wept before leaving, and they were my last tears.
In the train to Washington, with Lolita, Irving and Andresito (Andrés Figueroa), the only terrifying thought was that we might not succeed. We would go until death (the press later characterized our act as a one way ticket). Lolita, so worked up. I never saw anyone so anxious to give her life for her country, for a cause. And me: “Lolitaaa, settle down, we have to go like tourists.” And look at the ridiculous vanity: me thinking that when they shot me, it should be in the heart, not the face, how about that?
We went upstairs [in the Capitol] and sat, all four, as though we were simply curious tourists collecting our personal souvenir of a Congressional session. A tightness in the chest, until Lolita unfurled the Puerto Rican flag. And we started to shoot. Lolita shot toward the roof and shattered a lamp – you can still see the pockmarks there. Irving and I were shooting downward, and Andrés had a jammed gun. Everything happened in seconds, and I imagined that they were shooting from below. The Congressional Representatives under the tables. We shot without aiming at anyone. In the end, it was five wounded Representatives who would later decide our fate. If we had killed any one of them, it would have been the electric chair or gas chamber. But we hadn’t come to kill, we’d come to call the world’s attention.
Afterwards, they locked us up and throughout the entire judicial process, the epithets rained down: fanatics, lunatics, assassins. I believe that the little word “terrorist” comes from the same place. They always need a word to frighten the people.
We were put on Death Row while the five wounded Representatives debated our life and death. There they slipped a newspaper into Lolita’s cell, with the news of the death of her child, drowned in a river. They showed us photos to get us to rat on our compañeros. And we decided that we weren’t going to know anybody, not a grandmother, not a dog in the house, no one. “We don’t know.” And them: if you don’t cooperate: electric chair. Until Andresito said, “One favor,” and they thought he was about to sing. They became incredibly sweet, sweeter than women in their best moments. Even called him “Mister” for the first time. Andresito asked his favor: “The first in the electric chair.” What a person, that Andresito! Such a decent person, so special, so humane.
The day we returned to court, in the prison registry, a guard threw a punch at me. But ay, ay, I threw one back that landed squarely on his nose. Six more guards arrived. They gave me, as we say in Puerto Rico, a helping of “rice and bits”. I only saw boots in my face. The next day I arrived with hugely swollen lips, and Andresito, so brave, began crying out of humanity. I said to him, “Come on Andresito, I’m the one who took all the blows and you’re the one who’s crying.” A good human being, that guy.
We were given 25 years in prison. They sent me to Alcatraz; I was there six years. Later, I spent ten in Leavenworth, and the rest in Marion, Illinois. So yes, I know what the five Cuban brothers are suffering now. They even gave me drugs as part of a Behavior Modification Program, to change my conduct. As though what you carry in your head was something as simple as intoxication. For six months my punishment was to eat from the floor, like a dog. In Alcatraz, they wouldn’t let my children visit, and when I saw them again they were already grown. When La Doña could visit me, it was always with glass between us. One time in Marion, they forced her to strip in the registry, and I said “Don’t come to see me any more, I can’t stand to see you humiliated. You’re young. You can remake your life.” And this woman began to cry, and said, “Even if they kill me, I’m coming.” And so it was, for 25 years, my Títin. She’s been my girlfriend since the age of 15, the one who died in my arms this last January. She was the anchor of my life, the one who lived for me, in body and soul. La Títin.
In prison, I lived apart from the world. Newspapers were prohibited in Alcatraz, but one day I managed to get hold of a Carteles magazine, and it was the first time I knew what had happened in Cuba. I thought at the time it was nothing more than a changing of the guard. In ’61, in Leavenworth, in the Kansas City Star, I saw a picture of the militias surrounding the U.S. Embassy in Havana. There had been a break between the two countries. And in the photo, because it’s a small world, I saw a girl who sold donitas (donuts) from a window in the Prado, here in Havana, whom I had really liked. And I said to myself, “If Ketty is in this, it has to be something good for the Cubans.”
No, brother, I never thought I was going to remain in prison, because I always imagined I would escape. Anyway, I was going to die trying. But when the campaign started for our liberation, and extended into the far corners of the world, then I began to have more hope. Because of this, I have a lot of faith that the solidarity with the five Cuban brothers imprisoned in the United States can be victorious.
I NEVER WAS IMPRISONED
No, I didn’t lose my youth behind bars. I lived, because I was dedicated to my people. It would have been lost if it had been misspent bossing people around from there, filled with nothing more than existing.
After I came out of prison in 1979 the problem became how to re-adapt myself, because prison goes with you into the street. You’re accustomed to being alone, and at times you even come off surly and distant. You have to re-insert yourself in life. And when you come to a door, you hesitate and find yourself waiting in front of it because over 25 years in prison, no door has ever opened for you.
The other [problem] was returning to Puerto Rico, where a multitude was waiting in the airport. I said, “Damn, my pueblo is alive!” And what contradictory emotions: children I’d left were men with children. I’d returned to the family, walking and seeing familiar faces, but already Puerto Rico was something else. I said goodbye to prison and found everyone else encircled by fear, not with the windows open, like in my youth. Already the businesses were no longer Puerto Rican, but gringo. Burger King instead of “arroz con habichuelas.” Now we are less in charge than ever, they’ve surrounded us in our own country. They’ve brainwashed and mutilated us. They have absolute control over us, and we can’t get them out, but we have not been defeated. And I don’t believe imperialism lives forever.
I’m not frustrated, brother. I’m still struggling, because victory is in the struggle. And I will not rest. I’m tough, tough. For this, I always say I never was a prisoner. They could lock up my body but they never caged my heart or my mind. I always was, and always will be a free man.
JOSÉ ALEJANDRO RODRÍGUEZ reported this interview for Juventud Rebelde, which was translated by SUE ASHDOWN