The year is 1950. The place: Puerto Rico. A militant uprising erupts the day before Halloween when coordinated attacks are launched on police stations and government buildings around the island. Police officers are killed and revolutionaries are arrested and summarily executed. A shootout in San Juan is broadcast live over the radio. The U.S. military bombs two cities that are seized by armed members of the Nationalist Party. Two days later, revolution members in New York attempt to assassinate President Harry S. Truman. Some years after the uprising is quashed, four Nationalists make their way into the U.S. Capitol and shoot five congressmen.
The Nationalists’ goal was to help Puerto Rico gain its freedom for the first time since Christopher Columbus claimed the island for Spain in 1493. But they did not succeed, and today, the uprising of 1950, as incredible and seemingly significant as it may be, is an event that most people both on and off the island know little about.
Recently, though, that has begun to change, in part because of a new film by Puerto Rican documentarian José Manuel Dávila Marichal. 1950: The Nationalist Uprising looks at not only the events of October 30, 1950, but also the people who were a part of the uprising; the documentary speaks to five Nationalists about their hopes and motivations and how those events changed their lives. Since its debut, the documentary has been a sensation in Puerto Rico. It’s coming to Miami this Saturday as part of the Third Horizon Film Festival.
“It’s incredible,” Dávila Marichal says in an interview with New Times translated from Spanish. “Even among those who were alive in Puerto Rico during that era, few knew that it had happened. When we showed the documentary here in Puerto Rico, people who were 15, 20 years old in 1950 would come up to me and say, ‘Well, I remember that they were talking about some shots fired on the radio and the press mentioned a couple of things, but after that, it was suddenly total silence.’ They stopped talking about the subject entirely... All the content about what these people were trying to accomplish, all the revolutionary history, was completely out of sight. They hid all of it. It’s a silence that lasts until this day.”
The idea for this movie fell into the director’s lap about seven years ago. Dávila Marichal was pursuing his master's degree in history. His thesis was about the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, and the research was primarily concerned with events that took place in the '30s. But over the course of the interviews he was conducting, Dávila Marichal kept finding stories about this uprising — an uprising he’d never heard of before.
“At the time, I myself didn’t really know much about the uprising, so when they would bring it up, I would ask them more about it even though it had nothing to do with my thesis. And as they retold me their accounts, I realized that this was an incredible story, one that I had known nothing about,” he explains. “What’s more, I was interested in how very emotional this piece of history was, how much the nationalists suffered, how they carried themselves with valor, regardless of political beliefs or how you feel about their methods as violent revolutionaries. So all of it really caught my attention, and I thought, Here is a story that ought to be a film.”
He and his crew finished cutting and editing the film in August 2017 and submitted it to the San Juan International Film Festival, where it debuted in September. According to Dávila Marichal, the film was supposed to be shown only once, but so many people wanted to see it that the festival scheduled three additional screenings. All four of the screenings were filled beyond capacity.
“I didn’t do very much getting publicity for the debut of the film,” the director notes, “so that all happened on its own from people recommending the film. It was incredible. Later we took the movie to the Cinema of Fine Arts of San Juan, and it ran for four months. In Puerto Rico, for a Puerto Rican film, I believe that set a record.”
Dávila Marichal is quick to point out that the film’s success is largely owed to the fact that it is not an especially biased film, but rather one that looks at a genuinely fascinating piece of history and examines it closely. He has been consistently and pleasantly surprised by the positive responses the documentary has garnered and points out that even members of the military and the most staunchly pro-America sects of the viewing public have approached him to tell him how much they appreciated the movie.
“The documentary isn’t an apology or an ode, nor is it a criticism,” Dávila Marichal says. “The movie is simply a very human snapshot of these young people who threw themselves into this insurrection and all that they suffered, everything that happened, and all the things that motivated them... It’s not a political pamphlet, and I think that helped it appeal to people from all the political ideologies in Puerto Rico.”
Still, there is another factor that can scarcely be ignored in the success of this film’s release: timing. Poignant as the narrative of the 1950 uprising may be on its own, the fact that it arrived at a time in Puerto Rico’s history when the island is more at odds with its colonial status than it has been in years makes it all the more relevant.
“It was brilliant that it coincided with all these events, because it wasn’t just about Trump, who came to office and was obviously very critical of Puerto Rico’s situation around this time,” the director says of the devastation after Hurricane Maria. “Even before Trump, there was a Supreme Court case, Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle. What was being argued in this case was whether or not there was actually something called ‘double sovereignty’ between Puerto Rico and the US, and what the court found was that the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, since it was established in 1952, didn’t really have any power. It found that the very idea of sovereignty in the Commonwealth is a farce.”
That Supreme Court case, which was decided in the summer of 2016, essentially admitted exactly what the Nationalists 66 years earlier were trying to point out before the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was officially adopted — that this was, as Dávila Marichal puts it, a colony in disguise.
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Between Trump’s dismissal of the island as being an unimportant little territory that barely merits any assistance or attention and the institution of a fiscal control board that has more power than the governor or even the Constitution, the reality of colonial status of Puerto Rico has become all the more inescapable and blatantly obvious over the course of the past two years.
“The situation with Hurricane Maria and the fiscal control board and the debt that we have – all of these things have really raised the issue of our need for sovereignty. Whether we’re annexed and made a state within the U.S. or whether we gain our independence, this colonial status keeps our hands tied and leaves us at a disadvantage to deal with problems like our debt.”
Eugene O’Neill once wrote, “There is no present or future – only the past, happening over and over again – now.” Puerto Rico has been a colony, either in name or in practice, for the past 525 years. The need for sovereignty that Dávila Marichal addresses is the same need that Nationalists recognized and fought and died for 68 years ago. It is a part of Puerto Rico’s past that could not be more relevant to its present.
1950: The Nationalist Uprising. Part of the Third Horizon Film Festival. Noon. Saturday, September 29, at O Cinema Wynwood, 90 NW 29th St., Miami; 305-571-9970; o-cinema.org. Tickets costs $12 via agileticketing.net.