credit: Encyclopedia of Puerto Rico
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The Ponce Massacre, which took place on March 21, 1937, was one of the most violent episodes in the history of the twentieth century in Puerto Rico. It was called a massacre by the very commission that studied the facts. On that date, the Partido Nacionalista (Nationalist Party) organized a march in the streets of the City of Ponce to protest the jailing of its leaders.
The activity was announced in El Mundo newspaper on March 19, indicating that the meeting of the Nationalists in Ponce and adjacent areas would be at 2 pm in front of the Nationalist Party Headquarters in Ponce.
That morning, Colonel Orbeta, the chief of police, traveled to Ponce with the intention of prohibiting the Nationalist activity. He interviewed attorneys Parra Capó and Parra Toro, the military assistant to Governor Blanton Winship, and Captain Felipe Blanco, the head of the Police Force in Ponce, to whom he gave orders to stop the march.
CAUTION: some graphic scenes!
These arrangements made, on his return to San Juan Colonel Orbeta met with the governor and Mr. José Ramón Quiñones, an assistant to the governor, at Fortaleza (the Governor’s mansion), where they decided that the parade was military in character and therefore illegal. It was then that Colonel Orbeta decided to order reinforcements to Ponce from different towns around the island.
A week before, the Nationalists had requested authorization for the march from Mayor José Tormos Diego, who was away from Puerto Rico on vacation and had left Dr. William Gelpí as acting mayor. Gelpí authorized Casimiro Berenguer, the military instructor of the Cadetes de la República to disseminate information to the effect that permission had to be granted by Mayor Tormos Diego.
The Nationalists had filed the request despite the fact that the laws of Puerto Rico allowed parades or public acts to be held without the need to ask permission. When Tormos Diego returned to Ponce on March 20, Nationalists Plinio Graciany and Lorenzo Piñeiro visited him at his home, and the mayor promised them that he would issue permission on Sunday morning. Early Sunday morning, as police reinforcements armed with rifles and machine guns were arriving in Ponce, two Nationalists went to the office of the mayor for the permit that they were promised.
About noon, Orbeta met with the mayor and Colonel Blanco, the head of the police force in Ponce, and he questioned the permit that was given to the Nationalists, alleging that the parade was military in character.
The mayor made it clear to him that the Nationalist leaders were responsible people and that nothing would happen. Orbeta told him that the Nationalists from Mayagüez would be coming armed, and he said he would hold the mayor responsible for any blood spilled.
Tormos Diego then promised to speak to the Nationalists so that they would cancel the activity -revoking the permit that he had just given- because it was Holy Week, thus pleasing the priests who had asked him to do so.
The document revoking the permit warned that the police would not allow the activity. The Nationalists, after talking with Mayor Tormos Diego and Colonel Orbeta himself, decided to go forward with the activity.
The police under the command of Guillermo Soldevila, the head of the force in Juana Díaz, and Felipe Blanco cordoned off the demonstrators, using expert marksmen mobilized from all the police stations in Puerto Rico.
The police covered the corner where the Nationalist Council was located on Marina Street, between Aurora and Jobos Streets. Meanwhile, the Cadets of the Republic and the Nurses Corps organized in three columns.
The cadets wore a uniform of white trousers, black shirts, black caps, and on the left sleeve, a Calatravian cross. Leading the column was cadet captain Tomás López de Victoria. The young women formed up as the nurses corps, wearing white uniforms and marching behind the young men. Bringing up the rear was the band, made up of five or six musicians.