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        Ruth Reynolds, Solidarity Activism, and the Struggle against U.S. Colonialism in Puerto Rico
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        Ruth Reynolds, Solidarity Activism, and the Struggle against U.S. Colonialism in Puerto Rico
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        Ruth Reynolds, Solidarity Activism, and the Struggle against U.S. Colonialism in Puerto Rico
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“Although very few Americans have the vaguest understanding of what we have done in Puerto Rico, this ignorance does not extend beyond our borders,” Ruth Reynolds asserted in 1947 at a U.S. congressional subcommittee hearing about a bill that would allow the island's inhabitants to elect their own governor. She was testifying against the bill as a leader of the American League for Puerto Rico's Independence (ALPRI), an organization of non–Puerto Rican U.S. citizens that she had helped to establish in 1944. The ALPRI worked for Puerto Rico's independence by lobbying Congress and the United Nations (UN) and by educating fellow Americans about “what we have done in Puerto Rico.”1 Prominent members included the author Pearl Buck and the civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph.2 Explaining the ALPRI's opposition to the bill, Reynolds likened it to a “patch”—an obvious manipulation using the appearance of democracy to disguise the enduring colonial relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico. “The nations of the world are watching you, to see whether there be on the earth any great power genuinely believing in liberty for all,” Reynolds told members of congress. In particular, Latin American nations and organizations, she asserted, “know that ours is the only American nation exercising despotic control over another American nation.”3

As U.S. English-language newspapers covered the devastation that Hurricane María wreaked on Puerto Rico in September 2017, Reynolds's words still rang true. Many Americans knew little about the past and present relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico. Indeed, according to one poll, just 54 percent knew that those born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens.4 The U.S. government's inadequate response to María gave many Americans their first glimpse of the undemocratic arrangement that lay under the “patches” that the United States had applied since invading the island in 1898 to mask evidence of U.S. colonialism there. Reynolds learned this lesson firsthand.

Reynolds dedicated her life to solidarity activism for Puerto Rico's independence that was grounded in exposing her fellow “continentals” to the discrepancy between the United States's democratic ideals and its subjugation of Puerto Rico. A white, radical pacifist born in South Dakota in 1916, she may have made an unlikely warrior for the island's liberation, but she became a close confidante of Pedro Albizu Campos, the Harvard-educated lawyer who led the pro-independence Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico during much of the twentieth century. Reynolds became an articulate witness to U.S. abuses in Puerto Rico and served as a vital link between activist generations there and in the U.S. mainland. The resulting surveillance, jail time, and other significant obstacles that Reynolds faced dramatized the tremendous price the United States has exacted from those who have criticized its colonial regime in Puerto Rico.

Reynolds's transformation into a leading voice of the U.S. solidarity movement for Puerto Rico's independence began after she moved to New York as a young woman in her twenties. In 1941, she joined an interracial pacifist cooperative in upper Manhattan known as the Harlem Ashram.5 Like many in the wartime radical pacifist movement, Ashram participants directed their commitment to nonviolence toward supporting draft resistance and black civil rights in the United States.6 Ashram members also mobilized for India's independence from England.

The case of Puerto Rico did not occur to Reynolds, however, until she met some of her neighbors, including the Reverend Hipólito Cotto Reyes, a pro-independence minister who led a Spanish-speaking Baptist congregation located near the Ashram. Cotto Reyes encountered Ashram members and challenged them on their priorities. Why were they focused on British imperialism and not U.S. imperialism, given that they were North Americans living in a Puerto Rican community? As Reynolds remembered, “It hit us between the eyes because we didn't have the slightest knowledge about what our government was doing in Puerto Rico.” Reynolds recalled that after Cotto Reyes explained to Ashram members the history of U.S. involvement in Puerto Rico, “we felt that a blow had been delivered to our thinking and we had to respond to it.”7 She soon met other independence activists. One was Nationalist Party leader Julio Pinto Gandía, who was in New York in 1943 after spending five years in federal prison. Pinto Gandía, in turn, introduced Reynolds to Pedro Albizu Campos.8

Meeting Albizu Campos exposed Reynolds further to the oppressive tactics that the U.S. government employed to suppress its critics: trumped-up charges, biased juries, and lengthy incarcerations. Imprisoned in 1936 for inciting armed rebellion, Albizu Campos had recently been released from the U.S. federal penitentiary in Atlanta and was receiving medical treatment in New York.9 Reynolds's conversion to the cause of Puerto Rican independence, which had begun with informal discussions with Cotto Reyes, deepened during the winter of 1944 with regular discussions with Albizu Campos. Reynolds became convinced that independence was essential to any kind of justice in Puerto Rico and for the integrity of the United States. “Within a month or so of knowing Don Pedro,” she recalled, “I really felt that I had to commit myself to the struggle for the independence of Puerto Rico, and that it had to be primarily with North Americans, who like myself, felt it to be … the holding of Puerto Rico, to be an outrage to any principles we have.”10

From that point on, Reynolds worked to convince fellow North Americans that their nation was neither a liberator nor a steadfast beacon of democracy in the Caribbean, as U.S. government accounts would have it, but rather a colonizing nation that used the full weight of its economic, legal, and military power over the people of Puerto Rico to maintain and benefit from that power. Toward this end, she testified in Congress, lobbied at the UN, led organizations of North Americans advocating for independence, and gathered extensive evidence—including numerous oral interviews—about the experiences and views of Puerto Ricans living under the U.S. flag. She also wrote up her findings for North American audiences.

Reynolds paid a high price for scrutinizing the legitimacy of U.S. rule of Puerto Rico. In 1948, the intelligence division of the insular police opened a secret file on her: carpeta number 1340.11 Since the early twentieth century, Puerto Rico's insular police had worked with U.S. intelligence and military divisions to establish networks across the island for surveilling opponents of U.S. rule.12 Reynolds was in Puerto Rico to investigate government suppression of student strikers at the University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras (UPR). As they did with Puerto Rican independence supporters, the insular police assisted U.S. intelligence officials in documenting Reynolds's activities in her growing secret file. While still in Puerto Rico in 1950, she was arrested, along with hundreds of Puerto Ricans, during the Nationalist Party uprising.13

Although Reynolds denied Nationalist Party membership or any role in its foiled plans to stop, by force if necessary, the upcoming island referendum connected to the commonwealth's establishment, she experienced the full weight of the subsequent crackdown. A jury convicted her of violating Insular Law Number 53, known as the “Gag Law,” which prohibited support for the overthrow of US control of Puerto Rico. Her crime was taking a Nationalist Party oath to sacrifice one's life to achieve independence—an oath that she denied ever pledging. She was sentenced to six years in prison. Like Puerto Rican defendants, by the time of her conviction, Reynolds had experienced lengthy delays that violated her pretrial rights, and consequently had already spent months in wretched prison conditions that included isolation, restricted quarters, and poor food and ventilation. After serving twenty one months in prison in Puerto Rico, Reynolds was released on bail in 1952 with her appeal pending. In 1954, she won her case on appeal before the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico.14

By then, the U.S. government and the colonial government in Puerto Rico touted that the commonwealth status inaugurated in 1952 had ended the colonial relationship. Sensitive to the Cold War context in which the United States asserted its role as a democratic leader, U.S. officials lauded the commonwealth as “a convincing answer to attacks by those who have charged the United States Government with imperialism and colonial exploitation.”15 In 1953, the UN General Assembly accepted the United States's assertion that the commonwealth constituted self-determination, and removed Puerto Rico from the UN's list of non-self-governing territories.16

Back in New York after winning her freedom, Reynolds continued to amass evidence—including from her own experiences—of the undemocratic practices that enabled the commonwealth to come into existence. This included her unpublished manuscript, Campus in Bondage: A 1948 Microcosm of Puerto Rico in Bondage, which she had completed just prior to her arrest. Though the manuscript was no longer impounded and she was no longer incarcerated, the legacy of the crackdown managed to suppress her counter-narrative for many decades. As she remembered that period, “Silence still prevailed in Puerto Rico, and the United States was so thoroughly blanketed with falsehoods about the origin and nature of the Commonwealth government that I could obtain a hearing only among the more radical pacifist and socialist circles. Under these circumstances publication of this manuscript was impossible.”17

Nevertheless, Reynolds both inspired and was inspired by new generations of Puerto Rican youth activists in New York. Between the 1960s and 1980s, these activists challenged the official U.S. portrayal of the commonwealth and advocated for the release of political prisoners. As a direct witness to the United States's repression of the Nationalist Party in the mid-twentieth century and a leading voice thereafter demanding the release of Nationalist Party supporters who remained incarcerated, Reynolds offered a link to that earlier era of independence struggle.

Activist-scholars, in turn, recognized the value of her counter-history of Puerto Rico under the U.S. flag. In 1969, Puerto Rican and African American students occupied City University of New York (CUNY) buildings for two weeks, demanding the creation of Puerto Rican and Black Studies programs and admissions that more closely matched the demographic make-up of New York City. By 1973, the CUNY system claimed seventeen Puerto Rican Studies departments, and the Center for Puerto Rican Studies (Centro), which was created to support these departments, had begun acquiring research materials.18 In 1989, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies published Reynolds's book on the UPR student strike Campus in Bondage. It took nearly four decades and a revolution in academia.

Reynolds's enduring solidarity work was evident in the updated preface to her finally published book, where she insisted at the time of writing it in 1988, toward the end of her life, that “Puerto Rico is still in bondage.”19 Hurricane María not only offered many unknowing Americans a glimpse under the “patches” masking U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico, but also inaugurated a new wave of U.S. solidarity activism challenging the “bondage” of this antidemocratic relationship. Rejecting post-María solidarity work that erases Puerto Rican identity, Rafael Bernabe and Manuel Rodríguez Banchs have urged U.S. activists not to center their efforts on “the affirmation that Puerto Ricans are Americans or Puerto Rico is part of the United States,” but rather on “debt cancellation, and end to the rule of the Federal Control Board, federal support for economic reconstruction, [and] a process of self-determination for Puerto Rico.”20 In other words, they have called for expressions of “solidarity without erasure” that recognize Puerto Ricans’ experiences as colonial subjects, challenge ongoing exploitative structures, and demand restitution for the consequences of U.S. colonialism. This was the type of solidarity work that Reynolds spent her life promoting at great personal sacrifice.

Author ORCIDs

Lisa G. Materson, 0000-0002-4772-6250.

1 Election of Governor, Hearings before the Subcommittee on Territorial and Insular Possessions of the Committee on Public Lands House of Representatives, Eightieth Congress First Session on H.R. 3309, A Bill to Amend the Organic Act of Puerto Rico, May 19, 1947, Printed for the use of the Committee on Public Lands, Committee Hearing no. 13 (Washington, DC, 1947), 43.

2 “Statement of Position of The American League for Puerto Rico's Independence,” [1945] folder 2, box 18, series IV, The Ruth M. Reynolds Papers, Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, Hunter College, CUNY, New York [hereafter RR Papers].

3 Election of Governor, Hearings before the Subcommittee on Territorial and Insular Possessions of the Committee on Public Lands, 43.

4 Both the New York Times and The Hill, for instance, cited the following poll: “Morning Consult National Tracking Poll #170016, September 22–24, 2017,” https://morningconsult.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/170916_crosstabs_pr_v1_KD.pdf; Kyle Dropp and Brendan Nyhan, “Nearly Half of Americans Don't Know Puerto Ricans Are Fellow Citizens,” New York Times, Sept. 26, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/26/upshot/nearly-half-of-americans-dont-know-people-in-puerto-ricoans-are-fellow-citizens.html; Rafael Bernal, “Poll: Nearly Half in U.S. Unaware that Puerto Ricans Are Citizens,” The Hill, Sept. 26, 2017, https://thehill.com/latino/352466-poll-nearly-half-in-us-unaware-that-puerto-ricans-are-citizens (accessed May 30, 2019).

5 Ruth Reynolds interview by Blanca Vázquez, June 21, 1985, tape 4, folder 2, box 45, series IX, RR Papers.

6 Mollin, Marian, Radical Pacifism in Modern America: Egalitarianism and Protest (Philadelphia, 2006).

7 Reynolds interview, June 21, 1985, tape 5, folder 2, box 45, series IX, RR Papers; “Ruth Reynolds Remembers 1950: North-Americans Must Act to Free Puerto Rico,” Puerto Rico, Si!: Factsheets on the colonial domination of Puerto Rico, prepared by the Committee for Puerto Rican Decolonization, Puerto Rico: (1) About folder, Ralph T. Templin Collection, United Methodist Church Archives—General Commission on Archives and History, Madison, NJ [hereafter Ralph T. Templin Collection]; Fontanez, S. Soto, Mision a la Puerta: Una Historia del Trabajo Bautista Hispano en Nueva York (Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, 1982), 5060; Dunlap, David W., From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan's Houses of Worship (New York, 2004), 175.

8 José (Ché) Paralitici, “Imprisonment and Colonial Domination, 1898–1958,” in Puerto Rico under Colonial Rule: Political Persecution and the Quest for Human Rights, ed. Bosque-Pérez, Ramón and Javier, José Colón Morera (Albany, NY, 2006), 6780, here 73; Rafael Cancel Miranda, “Julio Pinto Gandía,” Claridad, July 3, 2008 (no longer online); “Ruth Reynolds Remembers 1950,” Ralph T. Templin Collection; Reynolds interview, June 21, 1985, tapes 4 and 5, folder 2, box 45, series IX, RR Papers.

9 See Margaret Power's contribution in this forum for a discussion of the Communist Party USA's role in Albizu Campos's relocation from Atlanta to New York. Rosado, Marisa, Las Llamas de la Aurora: Acercamiento a una Biografía de Pedro Albizu Campos (San Juan, PR, 2008), 259–60, 296–309.

10 Reynolds interview, June 26, 1985, tape 7, folder 3, box 45, series IX, RR Papers.

11 “Memorandum para el Jefe de la Policia Insular,” Sept. 30, 1950, carpeta 1340, folder 4, box 48, series X, RR Papers.

12 Ramón Bosque-Pérez, “Political Persecution against Puerto Rican Anti-Colonial Activists in the Twentieth Century,” in Puerto Rico under Colonial Rule, ed. Bosque-Pérez and Colón Morera, 13–47, 15–24.

13 Bruno, Miñi Seijo, La Insurrección Nacionalista en Puerto Rico 1950 (San Juan, PR, 1997).

14 Reynolds interview, Sept. 18, 1985, tape 47B, folder 3, box 46, series IX, RR Papers; Reynolds interview, Oct. 1, 1985, tape 51, folder 5, box 46, series IX, RR Papers; “The Case of Ruth M. Reynolds,” folder 1, box 1, series I, RR Papers; Indictment, The People of Puerto Rico v. Ruth Reynolds et al., folder 3, box 1641, Puerto Rico v. Reynolds, Ruth, American Civil Liberties Union Records: Subgroup 2, Legal Case Files Series, MC001.02.04, Public Policy Papers, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library, Princeton, NJ [hereafter ACLU Papers]; Ruth Reynolds Defense Committee letter, signed by Julius Eichel [no date], folder 3, box 1641, ACLU Papers; “Puerto Rican Supreme Court Reverses ‘Little Smith Act’ Conviction of Ruth Reynolds,” folder 4, box 1641, ACLU Papers.

15 The Assistant Secretary of State for Congressional Relations (Jack K. McFall) to the Director, Bureau of the Budget (Frederick Lawton), Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952–1954, United Nations Affairs, Volume III, ed. Ralph R. Goodwin, document 901, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1952-54v03/d901 (accessed May 15, 2019).

16 Muñoz, Humberto García, “Puerto Rico and the United States: The United Nations Role, 1953–1975,” Revista Jurídica de la Universidad de Puerto Rico 53, no. 1 (1984): 1–265.

17 Reynolds, Ruth M., Campus in Bondage: A 1948 Microcosm of Puerto Rico in Bondage (New York, 1989), xvxvi.

18 Pérez, Nélida, “Two Reading Rooms and the Librarian's Office: The Evolution of the Centro Library and Archives,” Centro Journal 21, no. 2 (Fall 2009): 199218; Hernández, Pedro Juan, “The Evolution of Centro's Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, 1973–2012,” Latino(a) Research Review 1–2 (2011–2012): 85100; Thomas, Lorrin and Santiago, Aldo A. Lauria, Rethinking the Struggle for Puerto Rican Rights (New York, 2019), 104.

19 Reynolds, Campus in Bondage, xvi.

20 Rafael Bernabe and Manuel Rodríguez Banchs, “Solidarity Without Erasure: Responding to Trump on Puerto Rico,” CounterPunch, Apr. 9, 2019, https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/04/09/solidarity-without-erasure-responding-to-trump-on-puerto-rico/ (accessed May 30, 2019).