19 December 2016

Ponce Massacre - Photographed and Filmed

War Against All Puerto Ricans by Nelson Denis, 2015, Excerpts

After it was all over, Puerto Rico’s chief of police, Colonel Orbeta, arrived on the scene. Orbeta called over the El Mundo photographer and several of his men, and the choreographed a series of “live action” photos to show that the police were somehow “returning fire” from the Nationalists who were, at this point, already lying dead in the street. The photos were cynical and obviously staged. One of them appeared on the front page of El Mundo on March 23, 1937, showing Colonel Orbeta and two of his men scanning the rooftops for Nationalist snipers.

A newsreel director named Juan Emilio Viguie had heard about a Palm Sunday parade in support of Ablizu Campos. Juan found a perfect camera angle from an abandoned warehouse window that overlooked the parade ground and filmed the entire slaughter. Over the next twenty-five years, Viguie would show his thirteen-minute movie clip to private, very carefully selected audiences. It became the Zapruder film of Puerto Rican history. Those thirteen minutes made clear that, to those from the north, Puerto Ricans were not equals, or citizens, or even fully human. They were animals. And so they could be shot on Palm Sunday like rabid dogs in the street.

Of the fourteen articles that the discussed the massacre in the New York Times in 1937, eleven used the work “riot” to describe the incident. The largest and most authoritative US press organizations merely regurgitated an established narrative that Puerto Ricans had rioted on Palm Sunday and somehow shot, killed, maimed, and wounded themselves. No police officer was fired, demoted, suspended, convicted, jailed, or otherwise punished.

I visited the Ponce Massacre Museum Dec 2016. Fantastic little museum, wandered through the well-thought-out exhibits. At the end of the tour, the museum curator gave a great synopsis of the events of that tragically fateful day. He mentioned that Viguie’s film still hasn’t been released to the public. The film that shows up in searches is an old movie remake. I wish I had gotten the curator’s name; he was passionate about this bit of history, and he sees this next year as a pivotal year. I told him we’d be looking for him on the news, and he said you never know.

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