Vito Marcantonio: Congressman for Puerto Rico



1934-1936, 1938-1950

Gerald Meyer

Vito Marcantonio, congressman for East Harlem in New York City from 1934 to 1936 and 1938 to 1950, was the most successful radical politician of his times.  As the only representative of the American Labor Party, Marcantonio played a central role in legislative battles for civil rights and labor.  In his vocal defense of the political rights of Communists, opposition to the Cold War, and advocacy of independence for Puerto Rico—Marcantonio frequently stood alone in the United States Congress.

Marcantonio in Puerto Rico

Vito Marcantonio in Puerto Rico

One could categorize Marcantonio’s involvement with Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican people into three areas: his legislative and political activities on behalf of Puerto Rico independence and his defense of the Nationalist prisoners (he was a co-attorney for Albizu Campos and the seven other Nationalist prisoners); his efforts on behalf of the Puerto Rican community in the continental United States and particularly in the political organization of El Barrio, which shared East Harlem with Italian Harlem and lastly, his congressional activities on behalf of Puerto Rico.

The totality of these activities, which comprise a significant page in the history of the Puerto Rican people in this period, to a remarkable extent have gone unrecorded.  The appearance of Felix Ojeda Reyes’ Vito Marcantonio y Puerto Rico: por los trabajadores y por la nación and Bernardo Vega’s Memorias, however, constitute major beginnings respectively in securely locating Vito Marcantonio in the movement for Puerto Rico’s independence and in the political life of El Barrio.[1]  This paper will discuss the third area of Marcantonio’s involvement with the Puerto Rican people, that is, his service as de facto congressman for a second, nonvoting constituency, Puerto Rico.  In this capacity, Marcantonio introduced bills to meet the island’s specific needs, provided services for individuals, and in general acted as a spokesman for Puerto Rico and its people.  Marcantonio played a more significant role in the United States Congress than the nonvoting resident commissioners of that period.

Marcantonio’s congressional activities for Puerto Rico were not entirely self-generating.  Frequently they reflected the aspirations of organized political forces on the Island.  This exploration of Marcantonio’s congressional work on behalf of Puerto Rico also helps to document the high degree of political awareness and organization that in this period existed in Puerto Rico.

Marcantonio never ceased believing that.  “There is only one solution for the problems of Puerto Rico and that is to permit the people of Puerto Rico to rule themselves, to have their own government.”[2]  Nonetheless, his effort to ameliorate Puerto Rico’s problems under its existing political status were vast.

The first time Marcantonio turned his attention to Puerto Rico occurred in 1935 when he submitted to the House of Representatives a petition from the Senate of New York that memorialized Congress to consider raising the sugar quota of Puerto Rico to one million tons per year.[3]  (In subsequent years, Congress actually reduced Puerto Rico’s sugar quota, resulting in further unemployment and even more widespread misery).  Time and again, Marcantonio pointed to the negative effects of sugar production on the Puerto Rican economy.  In 1942 he stated: “[Puerto Rico has been] reduced to a monoculture, a sugar colony of the United States.  To the people of Latin America, Puerto Rico has a diabetic economy.  Its main industry is sugar, and 70 percent of the arable land is owned by four large Wall Street corporations.”[4]

In 1939, Marcantonio received a petition from a group of unemployed sugar workers.  They pointed out that while the sugar corporations received government grants, for “those who give all and get nothing but misery and hunger… it is necessary that misery and hunger which rule our homes disappear and that prosperity takes their place.”  In turn, Marcantonio submitted this petition to then Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes.[5]  His continued awareness of the plight of the Puerto Rican sugar workers led him to object to the omission of guarantees of the minimum wage from a bill concerning the sugar industry wherein sugar workers would receive payment in full for their work and be compensated at a “fair and reasonable wage to be fixed by the Secretary of Agriculture.”[6]

According to Marcantonio the expansion of the sugar plantations had the following effects:

The once land owning farmers, dispossessed by huge sugar plantations, today work the unfertile mountain soil or are landless.  Only 7 percent of the native dwellers in the rural regions are landowners in Puerto Rico … Over the heads of these small farmers hangs a total mortgage debt of about $25 million… The landless peasants have been converted into a great army of colonial slaves in the sugar plantations, or are unemployed.[7]

Because of this awareness, he strongly defended the remaining independent small farmers in Puerto Rico.  The plight of the coffee producers in Puerto Rico was especially acute.  “As an agricultural proprietor of coffee,” in 1939, one farmer wrote:

I must tell you that [coffee] constitutes the principal wealth of this country because it is the one thing genuinely Puerto Rican.  Because of the agonies and calamities through which we have been, we are now crossing a thoroughly horrifying situation.  With our farms mortgaged to the Federal Bank and the Rehabilitation Commission and because of the specific debts that we owe, we are continually assessed for the above mentioned debts and are in such a position that we have lost hope of being able to continue payment on them, and are fairly certain that they will catapult us into complete ruin.[8]

Earlier that year, Marcantonio met with Henry A. Wallace, then Secretary of Agriculture, on the problems of Puerto Rico’s independent coffee producers.  At that meeting, the congressman called to Wallace’s attention a memorandum on this question prepared by the Secretary of the Puerto Rican Association.  In response to a request from this association, Marcantonio convinced Henry Wallace in 1943 to have the government purchase the large quantities of Puerto Rican coffee which had accumulated due to the impossibility of shipping coffee to the mainland.[9]  Also on behalf of the small farmers, in 1939, he submitted a resolution to provide for the cancellation of loans to the farmers of Puerto Rico made by the Puerto Rican Hurricane Relief Commission and other federal agencies.[10]

Much of Marcantonio’s legislative efforts on behalf of Puerto Rico centered upon the inclusion of the Island within the scope of various pieces of federal legislation and programs.  His most significant victory in this area was the extension of the 1939 amendments of the Social Security Act to include Puerto Rico.  In a letter to the editor of El Mundo, dated June 6, 1939, Marcantonio stated:

Since the inception of this Congress, I have been urging that the benefits of the Social Security Law be extended to Puerto Rico.  About two weeks ago, the Committee on Ways and Means, which had under consideration the amendments to the present Social Security Act, by a tie vote refused to include Puerto Rico in the Social Security Act.I announced at that time that I would offer an amendment including Puerto Rico, when the proposed amendments were brought before the House for consideration.  I have been urging various influential members of the committee in behalf of this proposal…

I am delighted to inform you that the amendments have been reported by the committee to the House, to the effect that the bill extends coverage to Puerto Rico [in the areas] of maternal and child welfare, vocational rehabilitation, and public health…

The coverage is not as extensive as it should be.  Full benefits of the Social Security Act should apply to Puerto Rico, and I am continuing my fight along these lines.[11]

Marcantonio was responsible for the enactment of two other pieces of legislation.  In 1942, he sponsored a bill which declared Puerto Ricans citizens of the United States if they had been born on the Island.  Prior to the passage of this bill, Puerto Ricans had to establish that their parents were born in Puerto Rico in order to attain their right to citizenship.  This led not only to their being treated as aliens upon their arrival in the continental United States, but in some cases to their deportation.[12]  He also successfully fought for the inclusion of Puerto Rico in a program for the prevention of tuberculosis and in numerous other pieces of social legislation.[13]

From 1939 to 1940, Marcantonio spoke eight times in the House of Representatives in favor of the maintenance of the 25-cent-per-hour minimum wage in Puerto Rico.  Based on memoranda from a representative of the United States Labor Department’s Wage and Hours Division, Robert Claiborne, Marcantonio informed the House of the astonishing low wages being paid in the needle-work industry:

The needle-trade industry in Puerto Rico is the most disgraceful situation ever permitted under the American flag.  You have down there 15,000 workers who work in factories, needle-trade factories, and the factory workers receive all the way from 12 and ½ cent an hour down to as low as 25 cents a week… For home workers… these chiselers from New York gave the work to a contractor.  Then the contractor gave it to a subcontractor, and subcontractor gave it to another subcontractor… each of them receiving a profit from the toil of poor women and children.  The poor women at home receive as low as three to five cents a dozen for handrolled handkerchiefs of the best type… It means a total income of about $30 per year.[14]

Citing their profits in 1938 as $4,897,000, Marcantonio insisted “What they are really seeking to do under the guise of a veil of tears over the needle industry is to exempt the sugar workers from the protection of [the minimum wage] law.”  Once again he pointed out:

I say that if we are going to exempt [from the minimum wage law] an economy which is based on a coolie wage system, then certainly we are neither fair to ourselves nor are we fair to the people in Puerto Rico …Exempt Puerto Rico from the provisions of this law and you increase unemployment, you reinforce the chains of economic bondage for the people of Puerto Rico, and you add to the vileness of our imperialism in Puerto Rico.[15]

While pressing for the continuation of the application of the minimum wage in Puerto Rico, Marcantonio accused sugar companies and the “chiseling, needle work industry,” of ignoring the Fair Labor Standards Act.  Moreover, he stated that the then Governor Blanton Winship “on many occasions, not only in speeches but in conferences, advised [the needlework employers] not to worry about the law; that the day was not far off when this law would be changed.”  He informed the House that when Claiborne attempted to enforce the law regulating hours and wages he was shot at and otherwise threatened.[16]

At the same time as Marcantonio was vigorously fighting to maintain the minimum wage for Puerto Rico, its Resident Commissioner, Bolívar Pagán was advocating its elimination.  When asked by a congressman, “Are the sugar industries opposed to paying $12.00 per week?”  Pagán replied: “That is a question for the industry.”[17]  Pagán and other congressmen presented the elimination of the minimum wage for Puerto Rico as the solution to the Island’s economic plight: that is, as a means of attracting industry.  On the floor of the House, the following exchange between Marcantonio and Pagán ensued:

The gentleman from Puerto Rico seeks to justify the elimination of this protection for workers in his country by telling us about unemployment in Puerto Rico.  Certainly there is unemployment in Puerto Rico.  How can you charge unemployment to the wage-and-hour law when everybody knows, except the gentleman from Puerto Rico that the Fair Labor Standards Act has been sabotaged not enforced, and flagrantly violated in Puerto Rico?  The cause of unemployment in Puerto Rico is due to a virulent and oppressive imperialism, against which the gentleman from Puerto Rico should be fighting instead of training his guns on the wage-and-hour law, which was enacted for the protection of his people.This committee has not heard from a single genuine representative of Puerto Rican labor on the question of [Puerto Rico’s exemption from the minimum wage law].  Labor has not been given an opportunity to present its side of the case to the committee…Pagán: I speak on behalf of labor…Marcantonio: The gentleman is speaking in behalf of his own political party, and not all of it at that.  Labor union after labor union has met only recently in Puerto Rico.  They have gone on record to appeal to Congress not to remove this small protection which Congress has given the exploited workers of Puerto Rico.  How can the gentleman say that he speaks for Labor?[18] [Applause]

While frequently excoriating Bolívar Pagán, petitions, resolutions, and letters—particularly from trade unions—encouragement and support for Marcantonio came from cities and towns from all over the Island.  For example:

To us, workers in the sugar industry in the Pasto Viejo Central of Humacao has arrived news of the sincere and disinterested defense that you have made of our suffering class in Congress… we wish to send to you our voice of support and our gratitude for your battle against the reactionary corporate interests and its hirelings in their efforts to annul the victories already achieved for the good of the working class and Puerto Rico.It is very paradoxical that a North American like you is the speaker of the suffering and exploited classes of Puerto Rico when in that same Congress there is a representative of our island, President of the Socialist Party, who calls himself “defender of Puerto Rican labor,” a Puerto Rican socialist defending the corporations and their interests and as a logical consequence attacking the achievements of the Puerto Rican working class.It is good that you insist in Capital circles that that gentleman Puerto Rican representative in Washington is not nor will ever be the authentic and genuine representative of us workers of Puerto Rico.  He is simply the representative of the Socialist Party which has in fact ceased to be socialist in order to convert itself into an ally of the conservative party dominated by native and foreign corporate interests…We urge you to continue in your fight for the defense of our class in the same fashion to unmask [Pagán].Forward Mr. Marcantonio, obstacles do not matter in your noble and disinterested battle.  You are the real representative of Puerto Rico in the North American Congress.[19]

The president of the Factory Workers Union of Caguas similarly wrote:

I wish that God grants you one thousand years of life so that you continue fighting the Puerto Rican workers’s cause as the cause of all of Latin America.I read you debate thoroughly with great pride and we are very pleased to have in the great American Parliament a man who though not a native of this land of Puerto Rico takes more interest and concerns himself more with the suffering classes than many who are natives and who do nothing, thus mocking the multitudes.We, the Puerto Ricans, never are in accord with Bolívar Pagán because he is a man without conscience and consideration for the working class of Puerto Rico.  He is only interested in the bourgeoisie and has always shown this in all his acts…Why doesn’t Mr. Pagán introduce a law to eliminate machines on the Island as they cause the greatest unemployment…?[20]

Similar sentiments were expressed in the following letter:

The Agricultural and Factory Unions of Toa Baja address you as… a defender of the working class of the country, with the established object of asking you to oppose tenaciously any legislative attempt to amend the Wages and Hours Act for Puerto Rico.As you know, the entire Island and the working class have full confidence in your actions due to the fact that in former years you have known how to defend to the last moment all the interests of the oppressed class against the interests of the great capitalists of the Island.Our major hopes are in you because presently [we] lack real and genuine representation in Washington as we have no confidence in the present Resident Commissioner…[21]

A resolution in support of Marcantonio’s efforts to maintain the minimum wage in Puerto Rico unanimously passed by the membership of the San Juan local of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union noted, “The members of this Union have benefited by [the minimum wage law] in an instance getting back pay due for overtime worked in the amount of almost $1,400” A cover letter from the President of the local Accompanying the text of this resolution.

I have been reading in the papers of the splendid fight that in behalf on Puerto Rican Workers you have been putting up in Congress.I can not pass this opportunity to heartily thank you in my name and in the name of all Puerto Rican workers whom you have so generously defended against the onslaught of the irate employers and magnates of industry who see some of their ill amassed fortunes escape from their dirty hands and revert to the workers in the form of a decent minimum salary for work performed.Employers and their stooges want workers to be enslaved forever through the low salaries they have been for ages paying to laborers.You perfectly know the salaries paid in Puerto Rico to garment workers.  Everybody knows it.  But not even our Resident Commissioner had the courage to oppose the rich in favor of the poor workers that produce the same riches that make the magnates think themselves so mighty.

Nothing else could be expected from him but betrayal to the workers that raised him to that place, considering his connections with the reactionaries that formed the Coalition that busted him to power… he can do nothing but take orders from the Capitalists.

Thank God Puerto Ricans still have good friends that keep their eyes open and do all they can to defend this unfortunate Island of the Lamb against enemies and traitors.

Please keep up the fight.  Puerto Rican workers are watching your titanic efforts to curb vicious legislation that threatens to enslave them again.[22]

The Mayagüez local of the same union passed a resolution to the same effect which noted: “The reactionaries in this country express a desire that Puerto Rico be excluded from the benefits of that honorable legislation.”[23]

In an article entitled “El Barrio pueblo puertorriqueño no tiene representante en Washington,” published in La Chispa, published in Mayagüez, many of the same themes appeared.  “Marcantonio,” it stated, “has been the only one who always has stood face to face before those who would sell out and deceive the workers.”[24]  The Executive Secretary of La Sociedad del Bien from Bayamón wrote:

In the name of [our] society which has more than one thousand members permit us henceforth to call you our real resident Commissioner of the exploited and suffering classes of Puerto Rico.  Your speech in the House in May 2nd [opposing] the elimination of Puerto Rico from the wages and hours law merits our approbation and we congratulate you wholeheartedly because on this occasion the interests of an exploited people were defended [by you].  With a wepon of Toledo Steel, the Vote, we will show Bolívar Pagán that he will not return to Washington.[25]

The President of the Needleworkers Union in Mayagüez wrote:

There was a reunion in a great assembly last night of the Union of Factory Workers in the Needlework Industry.  More than 15,000 workers of the industry.A resolution was passed that a letter be written to you as a man of progressive ideas, who has always championed the caused of the exploited worker, in particular the Puerto Rican, asking that you fight against the new amendment which has again come up in Congress, to exempt Puerto Rico from the wages and hours law… Try to block the amendment in any way possible but if not try to get it set over till next year when we will have time to prepare our case and raise money to send a representative to Washington, as the employers do.[26]

From Yabucoa, Puerto Rico came the following letter:

This year, Central Roig of this city stopped all the work and that is the main reason why we, workers of said central are suffering and experiencing [sic] the worse crisis in the history of this city.About three months ago the workers of this Central filed a claim in the Federal Court, demanding salaries for violation of the Minimum Wage and Hours Law of 1938.  Up to the present date we have had no solution yet…We take this opportunity to ask you to oppose any amendments to the Minimum Wage and Hours Law of 1938.  Said amendments will harm the poor people.  The only one to be benefited by these amendments are the bosses and not the workers.[27]

A further indication of the extent of the campaign in Puerto Rico against exclusion from the minimum wage law was the receipt by Marcantonio of 306 post cards from Arroyo expressing this position.  The texts of two of these cards stated:

Our only representative in the Federal Capital is you in whom we have placed our hope.  We have not authorized Mr. Bolívar Pagán to represent us in the Federal Capital.I am proud to know that you are the only defender of the interests of the Puerto Rico proletariat in the whole United States.  Out with Bolívar and out with Prudencio Rivera Martínez who are men not loyal to their people.

In response, Marcantonio wrote:

Thus far, I have been successful [in fighting to prevent the exclusion of Puerto Rico from the minimum-wage law].  However, the pressure of the lobbyists representing the various labor exploiters in Puerto Rico is being intensified.  I also make mention, in conjunction with these lobbyists, of the lobbying activities of Mr. James J. Lanzetta, who pretends to speak for the people of Puerto Rico, having no other reason than that he is being paid $10,000 a year from the Treasury of Puerto Rico, which in turn is made up in taxes collected from the poorest and most exploited people living under the flag of the United States.  He is paid by the people of Puerto Rico and is lobbying against the best interests of the Puerto Rican people.[28]

Parenthetically, Marcantonio defeated Lanzetta when he first ran for Congress in 1934; he then was defeated by Lanzetta in 1936; and finally Marcantonio defeated him in 1938.  Lanzetta never again ran against Marcantonio.

Together with statements of support for Marcantonio’s efforts, many of these communications contained long descriptions of the economic plight of Puerto Rico.  A woman from Caguas wrote:

There are mothers of family, widows without protection, others with husbands out of work and we despair beyond this picture of hunger and misery which crushes the atmosphere in which we live, while we find for us from the place which you are filling with much dignity.  Here there are many people, well place earning much money but the poor, and I swear this by my mother, we are dying of hunger and we cannot even send our children to school because it cannot be done when there is no food, shoes.  I know that you are of good heart and I also know that the majority of the American people do not know the true tragedy that the poor are going through down here, we poor who must sell the labor of our arms to live.  You must convince with all the force of your lungs the chaotic situation in which the needy classes of Puerto Rico are because it is a shame that under the protection of our glorious American flag there should be so many people dying of hunger and this is so because the American people are not aware of this situation…[29]

Not every Puerto Rican favored the maintenance of the minimum wage.  While calling for the passage of the bill to eliminate the minimum wage for Puerto Rico, the President of the Chamber of Commerce of Puerto Rico, Filipo L. de Hostos, assured Marcantonio, “I hold no brief for the needle-work operators of the Island and much less for the Jews in New York who want to take advantage of the local conditions.”[30]

To a letter by an official of the Puerto Rican Department of Labor supporting the elimination of the minimum wage, Marcantonio sent a four page reply, excerpts of which follow:

I read your letter… with a great deal of amusement.  the glaring inconsistencies and the misuse of terms contained therein make obvious its purpose, that this letter was to [be] used as another piece of political propaganda in behalf of Mr. Prudencio Martínez’ political fortunes…Are you naïve or just a politician when you try to attribute the destruction of the industries in Puerto Rico to the Fair Labor Standards Act?… Is it not a fact that the economy of Puerto Rico is in its present light primarily because of the ever-diminishing purchasing power of the part of the people, brought about by the ruthless exploitation on the part of those interests which have been favored and protected by colonialism, and which you have now jockeyed yourself into defending?…My dear friend, you are a young man, and so am I.  You are in public life, and so am I.  Allow me to give you some advice.  You can’t last long in public life today unless you retain your political conscience, your ideals and your political independence.  Once you sacrifice these on the altar of job holding then you have sold your birthright as a free man to a political boss.I am just wondering.  Would you have written the kind of letter you wrote if your job were not dependent on Mr. Prudencio Rivera Martínez?

Yours for Puerto Rico, a happy nation of a happy people.[31]

Many congressmen presented the exclusion of Puerto Rico from the minimum-wage laws as a substitute for the appropriation of $3 million in supplementary relief for Puerto Rico.  In the words of the report of the congressional committee which reported out this bill: “While obviously there is urgent need for something to be done to meet this aggravated condition, the answer is not to provide work relief for a relatively small part of the number of [unemployed] but to restudy with a view to lifting or narrowing the application of the Fair Labor Standards Act as it relates to Puerto Rico.”  To this Marcantonio replied that the Puerto Ricans found themselves “in their present plight because of exploitation and tyranny” and not because of a seldom enforced minimum wage.  In any case, he insisted that it was absurd to deny Puerto Rico relief on the grounds that this relief would not solve its economic problems.  This same committee, he noted, would not have come before the House to recommend that no appropriation for relief for the 11 million unemployed in the United States be accepted because such relief would fail to resolve the entire problem of unemployment in the United States.[32]   Incensed by the imminent passage of this bill, he stated: “What consideration are we giving the people of Puerto Rico?  In this relief bill we have cut Puerto Rico from $7 million to $5 million for relief purposes.  On the other hand, we give the vilest gang of labor exploiters… by virtue of this bill, relief from the provisions of the wage-hour law.  What a mockery!”[33]


Along with his concern for legislation bearing directly on the economic and social welfare of Puerto Rico, Marcantonio continually attempted to assist particular groups or localities in Puerto Rico.  In 1940, he submitted a bill which would have treated Puerto Ricans who enlisted as so-called expeditionary wartime laborers and worked on the continental United States during World War I as military personnel, hence rendering them eligible for veterans’ benefits.  Both in Puerto Rican cities and in El Barrio, the potential beneficiaries of this bill organized Committees of Expeditionary Laborers.  A resolution approved at an assembly held on February 25, 1940 by the San Juan branch read in part:

Whereas these citizens left their homes with immense pain and sorrow as they were parting from their families most of them in majority lacking means of subsistence;Whereas they lived in difficulties in the states in which they lived as they were not provided with winter coats and clothing to resist the harshness of the winter;Whereas the quality of food together with the climatic conditions produced… the promotion of an epidemic disease by the name of “Influenze Española” which reduced the number of these expeditioners.  About 3,000 of them died and were buried in that land;Whereas a contract of steady work existed for six months and said contract was suspended on November 11, 1918 due to the armistice Declaration, the Puerto Ricans had to return to their homes in a worse condition [than before they left] some of them died, some lost their health and others lost their arms or legs, [thereby becoming] invalids for the rest of their lives.

homes with immense pain and sorrow as they were parting from their families most of them in majority lacking means of subsistence;Whereas they lived in difficulties in the states in which they lived as they were not provided with winter coats and clothing to resist the harshness of the winter;Whereas the quality of food together with the climatic conditions produced… the promotion of an epidemic disease by the name of “Influenze Española” which reduced the number of these expeditioners.  About 3,000 of them died and were buried in that land;Whereas a contract of steady work existed for six months and said contract was suspended on November 11, 1918 due to the armistice Declaration, the Puerto Ricans had to return to their homes in a worse condition [than before they left] some of them died, some lost their health and others lost their arms or legs, [thereby becoming] invalids for the rest of their lives.

Letters from individual expedicionarios and their families echoed these themes.  “In the present time,” wrote one expedicionario, “parts of us are suffering of hunger and without clothes.  As you are a man regarded to defend us in this case we demanded of you to do all you can.”

A woman wrote:

Through the press I have learned of the purpose of a bill to indemnify the expeditionaries of Puerto Rico during the war.  I thereby address you hoping to merit you consideration concerning the demise of my husband during one of the trips.  He was an expeditionary.  Having addressed the government on various occasions, I have not been able, to date, to obtain any indemnity whatever.  I am a widow and was left wit a flock of children, unprotected and sheltered only by God.  Your interest in aiding us has been received by us as an act of humanity and justice… I wish to inform you that my husband died during the trip and was buried at sea.

To these communications Marcantonio replied:

As this is one of the most reactionary Congresses since the days of the World War, I have no illusions; nor do I desire any of the expedicionarios or their families to have any false hopes.This is going to be a long drawn out fight.However, the introduction of the bill marks the beginning of the fight, and I shall do my utmost to bring about justice to the Puerto Rican World War Industrial Worker.[34]

The bill never passed.

In January 1940, a Presbyterian minister wrote Marcantonio pleading that he intervene in behalf of 300 people who faced eviction from their village, Punta Borinquen, in the Aguadilla district.  This village and the surrounding lands awaited expropriation so that an air base could be built.  The minister explained:

The Government wants to pay just the value of taxation [assessed] many years ago, when these lands had not the improvements that [they] have today: irrigation, electrification, good roads, public telephones, churches.A whole village, San Antonio, with thirty-nine peon families, homes, stores, schools, etc., etc., have been taken and only $31 thousand has been deposited to compensate the owners.


In response to a letter from Marcantonio to the Secretary of the Interior, Harld Ickes, the Assistant Secretary of the Interior wrote that then Governor Leahy had committed himself to bring this matter to the attention of the Army “with the thought that they might be able to do something to relieve [the evictee’s] distress.”  Unfortunately, no record of the results—if any—of Marcantonio’s intervention into this situation exists.[35]

In innumerable cases Marcantonio acted to assist a single individual family or individual.  A man from Las Marías wrote in 1940 thanking Marcantonio for helping him obtain a “house with three cords of grounds.”[36]  In the same year a man from Toa Baja wrote: “I am eighty years of age.  My children are all out of work.  I own one-quarter a cord of land.  On it I have a house with a zinc roof.  The house is twenty feet long by eighteen feet wide.  The wood out of which it is made is about thirty years old.” Due to his inability to pay property taxes, this man feared a “vile death” as a result of being “thrown into the street.”  Through communication with the Department of the Interior, Marcantonio was able to connect this man with the procedures and authorities which would avoid eviction.[37]

Marcantonio blocked passage of an amendment submitted by William Cole (D MD), in 1944, which would have transferred the revenue from the sale of rum from the Treasury of Puerto Rico (which it had been assigned since 1900) to the United States Treasury.  His action was of enormous importance to Puerto Rico.  In 1943 the sum involved was $70 million.  Marcantonio stated that not only would the Cole Amendment cripple Puerto Rico fiscally, but also would erode what remained of Puerto Rico’s sovereignty.  Il Imparcial, a leading daily published in San Juan editorialized:

Puerto Rico is again in debt to… Vito Marcantonio.  Once again, the vibrant voice of the New York leader, has been raised in the House of Representatives in order to defend the right of Puerto Rico, in order to stop an unjustifiable blow, in order to condemn and prevent a sinister plot against the vital interests of the Island.[38]

Many of Marcantonio’s efforts were directed at simply attempting to obtain some form of immediate relief for Puerto Rico, whether through the inclusion of the Island within the scope of existing legislation or through specific appropriations.  His first speech in the House relating to Puerto Rico was a plea for immediate relief for Puerto Rico:


Since 1898 [the condition of the Puerto Rican people] has grown worse.  They are real objects of American imperialism.  Take the record and see how individual farms have been converted into great sugar plantations… How the people, through the taking over of the lands and as a result of the hurricanes, have been driven from pillar to post, into the slums of the cities and on relief.  How individual farm families, who once produced practiacally all of their subsistence, have been forced off those farms and placed on what might be termed “seasonal” pay rolls, forced to work for mere existence, receiving whatever pay the concentrated holdings of farm lands desire to pay them for stoop labor performed.  Take note of how “absentee ownership” is bleeding white the productive elements of the Island… Puerto Rico is a tragedy…Puerto Rico is the most tragic victim of American imperialism.  This is the first opportunity we have to aid the people of Puerto Rico.  As a matter of fact, this bill does not give them very much… why all this opposition to even this small measure of help?  Is it discrimination?… Puerto Rico has been kicked around too long.[39]

In 1939 while arguing in favor of a $3 million increase in the relief and work relief appropriation for Puerto Rico Marcantonio noted: “Just a few moments ago, the Committee by an overwhelming vote went on record for a worthwhile cause, the preservation of elm trees.  The proposition before us presents a cause which I believe is much more worthwhile, and that is the cause of the suffering human beings of the island of Puerto Rico.  Puerto Rico has a population of 1,700,000 and 250,000 of these people are unemployed, involving 1,125,000 persons.”[40]

In 1940, while arguing against a reduction in an appropriation for direct relief for Puerto Rico, Marcantonio stated:


Puerto Rico is 100 percent Latin American, and every Latin American has his eye on Puerto Rico.  Injury to a Puerto Rican is considered an injury to every Latin American.  Our Pan American policy and our good-neighbor policy rests or falls on the treatment we accord Puerto Rico…Can we permit in the Caribbean, on an island which every Latin American is looking to, that these people starve, people whom we have expropriated.  Their plight is not due to any fault of the Puerto Rican people.  It is the consequence of our imperialism.  If you want to get an idea of how we have expropriated Puerto Rico, go to a store in one of the small towns, and what do you find there?  The only thing that is native is a bunch of bananas.  All else on the shelves are products which come from New York and the various other cities of the United States.  Our tariff forces them to buy from us at fancy prices.  Puerto Rico is the number one purchaser from the United States today… The working people of Puerto Rico are exploited by a gang of labor exploiters from the States.  The best lands of Puerto Rico are owned by Wall Street.  Whenever Puerto Ricans have made an attempt at establishing an industry, it is destroyed by dumping from the States.  Our ruthless imperialism has strangled the economic life of the country, and yet we here refuse to adequately provide for the victims of a system imposed by us, which causes slow starvation to hundreds of thousands of peoples in Puerto Rico.  We have no right to call ourselves an enlightened people until we, at least, give adequate relief to the people of Puerto Rico.  History will condemn us for this cruel and inhuman treatment of a good people.[41]


In his correspondence and during personal interviews, Marcantonio confronted President Roosevelt with the fact that “over 65 percent of the population of Puerto Rico lack work and food.”[42]  Due to protocol which dictated that presidential interviews take place off-the-record, we have little knowledge of exactly what transpired during these meetings.  We do know, however, that Marcantonio was appalled by Roosevelt’s ignorance about Puerto Rico.[43]

Marcantonio’s efforts to obtain assistance to alleviate the widespread misery in Puerto Rico were widely publicized in the Puerto Rican press and elicited encouragement and appreciation from individuals and organizations.  The Union Protectora de los Desempleados of Mayagüez wrote: “In the name of the immense unemployed masses of Puerto Rico we want to greet you for your wonderful defense of the unemployed of our country.”[44]  Ever more frequently, Marcantonio received letters depicting the most intolerable conditions:

Through this letter I have the honor of informing you of the terrible situation the working masses of Puerto Rico are crossing because you are the only congressman who is so interested and battles in behalf of this suffering and disinherited class on the island of Puerto Rico.It is necessary to explain to you, even though you are completely informed, that Puerto Rico has 600,000 unemployed who daily walk naked through the streets barefooted and in the situation of utmost want.  In reality they seem to be cadavers.  Ten thousand unsheltered widows living the most tragic hours of their existence also augment the sorrowful picture of sadness and bitterness.  Two hundred and fifty thousand children without schooling go through the streets of our unfortunate island learning vices…[45]

Especially because of the shortage of ships, the outbreak of World War II caused economic conditions in Puerto Rico to gravely worsen.  Again and again, from the floor of the House and directly to Roosevelt, Marcantonio pleaded the cause of Puerto Rico.

Marcantonio received urgent petitions to act to prevent starvation from members of the Puerto Rican legislature, organizations, and individuals.  In 1942 he inserted into the Congressional Record a lengthy discourse by Gilberto Concepción de Gracia which reported:


Most Puerto Ricans take the position that we are fighting a war of liberation and there is no possibility of a free Puerto Rico in an enslaved world… [However,] Latin Americans who doubt the sincerity of England and the United States raise the question of India and Puerto Rico and want to know why, if these countries are fighting for freedom, they have not freed these lands…The misery [in war time Puerto Rico] is appalling.  In Carolina, a small town of Puerto Rico, in a period of twenty-two days, a man by the name of Evaristo Ayala lost four sons of malaria, hookworms, and other diseases.  Some families are reported to have three meals a day of sugarcane…Puerto Rico is today suffering the worst crisis in all its 449 years of existence.  The interruption of shipping facilities caused by submarine warfare and the lack of food crops has forced mass starvation on the island and is destroying its economic structure.[46]


The Congressman particularly cited the need for the building of canneries, refineries, and other essential industries, “which we have never permitted Puerto Rico to develop.”  Lastly, he placed the crisis in Puerto Rico within the contexts of United States’ Latin American policy and the war effort:


The people of Puerto Rico are Latin Americans; they are an integral part of the great 100,000,000 Latin American nations.  To permit this condition to exist in Puerto Rico, to let this situation to continue in Puerto Rico, is going to [do] more damage to Western Hemispheric solidarity, it is going to drive a wedge in our Latin American front [greater] than a thousand Nazi submarines in the Caribbean…[47]

In November 1942, during his first major speech on this crisis Marcantonio pointed out that whereas before the war Puerto Rico received 100,000 tons of shipments per month from the continental United States, it now received less than 30,000 tons of shipments.  Shortages in food and basic consumer goods created runaway inflation and “literally speaking thousands and thousands of families in Puerto Rico are facing starvation.”  Moreover, in Puerto Rico there was no war boom at all and the gasoline shortage had almost paralyzed the country.  “Puerto Rico finds itself,” he averred, “in a plight which in some respects is worse than the plight of some of the conquered nations.”

To meet this crisis, Marcantonio proposed a comprehensive program for immediate relief for Puerto Rico.  First he demanded the exemption of Puerto Rico from the coastwise shipping laws to allow vessels of other countries to transship from the continental United States to Puerto Rico foodstuffs, seeds, fertilizers, and medicines so urgently required down there.”  Next, he called for the appropriation of a minimum of $50 million for immediate food relief, price subsidies, and a land reform program to encourage the cultivation of crops which had been replaced by sugar production.  In the debate around those proposals, Marcantonio noted that the suspension of the coastwise shipping laws would permit the shipping of sugar and rum to the continental United States.  A congressman then inquired if cotton was grown in Puerto Rico.  After Marcantonio replied that there was none, another congressman then queried, “How about fruits?”  Marcantonio replied:

Yes, they have pineapples and other fruits rotting in the fields because they cannot be shipped.  Incidentally, the development of a pineapple cannery in Puerto Rico would help cut down United States appropriations for Puerto Rico.  Development of fisheries would be a substantial factor.  There is also some coffee… which incidentally, is the best coffee in the world.  Tobacco was at one time very important in the list of Puerto Rico’s exports.

In response to a question as to the cause of the crisis in Puerto Rico, Marcantonio replied:

The most decisive [cause] is colonialism; but I do not want to enter into any controversy at this time when I am pleading for relief from starvation.  I simply point out that the war has brought sharply to the attention of the world, particularly to the Puerto Rican and his 100,000,000 Latin American brothers, the dismal failure of the policy of colonialism.[48]

This impassioned demand that Congress seriously consider action to relieve the crisis in Puerto Rico was, in part, prompted by a lengthy telegram from Luis Muñoz Marín which arrived the day before.  This telegram presented in considerable detail the effects of the inflation in Puerto Rico.  Muñoz pointed out that in 1939 the price per pound for rice was four and one-half cents while it now had risen to ten cents per pound, while the price of beans rose from five and one half cents to ten cents.  He closed with a request that immediate action by the federal government be taken to lower prices.[49]

Correspondence from Puerto Rico detailed the deteriorating conditions there.  In 1942 Marcantonio received a letter from the Comité Pro Industria y Trabajo de Mayagüez, which asked that Marcantonio act upon the information from this letter the organization had sent to Roosevelt:[50]

In Mayagüez we have so may unemployed that at this hour 80 percent of its inhabitants are existing without food, from here it is the starvation of the Puerto Rican race.  We are requesting that Your Excellency correct the evil which so inflicts the entire island of Puerto Rico.  We want work to be created so that we can with our own arms earn the bread of our families, otherwise we are requesting an immediate recruitment of all unemployed men in order that they be transferred to the country; because we the Puerto Ricans want to die shedding our blood honestly rather than in this situation which necessitates our doing things which we are not proud.[51]

In November 1942 Marcantonio received the following letter from the Executive Committee of La Unión de Desempleados de Mayagüez:

Permit me to put before you the terrible situation that the working people are facing in this island.  Thousands of heads of families as well as young men are standing arm-crossed as they don’t have anything to do.  To my understanding this is the worse crisis that we have had in the last fifty years.It is true that the present war, imposed upon us by the bandits who control the riches and the resources of the world, has made conditions even worse in Puerto Rico—and it is to be expected that if this situation prolongs itself hunger and misery will become the most noted enemies of the inhabitants of the island.  The cost of living is so high that it is no exaggeration to say that it has raised to 100 or 150 percent considering prices existing before the war.Unemployment is a serious problem in this island—and I do know that you are pretty well aware of it.  We trust that you will assist us as you have always done.  There is only one industry which grows here at a tremendous speed—that is the legions of men standing in a corner of knowing that the future has nothing in store for them but misery and desolation.It is sufficient to say that conditions can only grow worse as the existing industries are disappearing one after the other… I greatly fear that if these economic conditions are not checked we will not be able to face the enemy in a proper manner as our bodies would not be physically fit to do the job.Puerto Rico is a field of sugar cane.  From North to South and from East to West you can only see extensive sugar cane plantations being exploited and controlled by outsiders who reap millions of dollars of profit every year while the true sons of the island are undergoing the most calamatious state of things imaginable on earth…

I believe that Mr. [Rexford] Tugwell’s plan to do away with sugar cane plantations—at least in part—and that his very land be devoted to the cultivation of other products is a sensible one and will undoubtedly help to remedy the present situation of the land.  Our people cannot live on sugar, and it would be just suicide to continue the cultivation of sugar cane on a great scale.


The letter concluded with a number of concrete proposals, such as: the opening of public centers for the distribution of food and clothing; governmental supervision and control of the distribution of the “present limited amount of food products [so that] the great speculators… will not have the opportunity to suck the last drop of blood from this malnourished population”; the revitalization for the needle trades industry; and an increase in the number WPA projects.

Aside from addressing the general crisis of wartime Puerto Rico, Marcantonio devoted himself to resolving various specific problems created by the war.  Both in the House and to the Secretary of Defense, Henry Stimson, he contended that while Puerto Rico was far more vulnerable than the continental United States to air raids, Puerto Rico had “absolutely no air raid protection… and is entirely lacking in fire-fighting equipment, or other necessary means for civilian protection.”[52]  A small rum producer wrote Marcantonio that the reduction in the rum quota would mean for him a profit of $9.30 per moth.  Further, he stated: “I have no income, I am heavily in debt and facing a foreclosure.  My case, of course, is not unique… We, small distillers, aspire to no big profits; we just want to be able to make a living at a trade in which we have been for years…”

Marcantonio sought to secure for the Puerto Rican rum industry sufficient bottles for its continued operation.[53]  Pointing out in a letter to the Commissioner of the Works Projects Administration that, “The cost of living index [as printed in] the Economic Review of the Chamber of Commerce of Puerto Rico, shows that the living costs on the island have been from 100 in the base year of 1939 to 141 in December 1941.”  Marcantonio urged that the wages of WPA workers in Puerto Rico be raised to reflect this rate of inflation.[54]  In a similar vein, he appeared before the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor as the representative of the United Railroad Workers of Puerto Rico.  In his testimony on February 1942, favoring a wage increase for these workers, he stressed: “A serious food shortage has increased living costs in Puerto Rico by 40 percent since August 1939… the railroads are owned by the sugar interests, which far from losing money, have benefited from increased profits in the sugar industry…”[55]



In June 1943 arguing for a supplementary appropriation of $7 million for work relief, Marcantonio presented an extended description of the deteriorating situation in Puerto Rico:


The fact of the matter is that Puerto Rico’s economy during the 45 years of the island has been in our possession has never amounted to much due to the fact that it has been subjected to our high tariff walls, our shipping monopoly, and whenever Puerto Rico attempted to develop an industry of its own, because of our shipping monopoly and our high tariff walls, we have gone down there and dumped goods to wipe out any industry in Puerto Rico…Major General Philip B. Fleming, who is the Administrator of the Federal Works Agency, [has] said… “the unemployment in Puerto Rico is more severe than it was in [the] continental United States at the depth of the depression.”… Yet we are urged to eliminate this $7 million appropriation, a mere pittance for the relief of a good and honest people who are the victims of the worst evils of colonialism…Puerto Rico has been our colonial possession from which we have drained a rich abundance of raw material but have not permitted to develop an island industry which would guarantee the well-being of her people… That is why the problem of immediate political independence and self-determination for Puerto Rico is a matter of such basic importance.  There can be no hope of effective industrialization of Puerto Rico without Puerto Rican independence.[56]


In December 1942, in an introduction to a resolution adopted by the Maryland and Washington D.C. Industrial Union Council which called for immediate relief to Puerto Rico and [the implementation] of “the Atlantic Charter by declaring now that it applies to Puerto Rico, and grant Puerto Rico its independence…”, Marcantonio stated:

We in America must determine now whether Puerto Rico for us is to become an Ireland or an India or a Burma or, in fact, the bastion of democracy in the Caribbean and the vanguard of the Indies in this war.[57]


In December 1941 Marcantonio received a communication from the Secretary General of the Asociación de Choferes de Puerto Rico, which presented the problems these workers faced at the Army and Navy bases in Puerto Rico.  He noted, “The only way to destroy the Nazi-Fascist forces is by maintaining a high morale among our citizens, by guaranteeing them good food and shelter so that they might feel they have a country worth fighting for.”  Enclosed in this letter was a memorandum from this union to the Commander of the Naval Air Station Isla Grande concerning the conditions of work of the truck drivers at the naval base in Vieques.  This memorandum indicated that “prevailing unrest existed” because:

         Of the low salaries paid to the workers, not only to the truck drivers, but to all the other workers of the base,Second, because of the disrespectful treatment afforded the workers by some foremen…We were informed by a worker that he was driving a big caterpillar [tractor] earning forty cents per hour and that he was assigned to teach an American worker how to drive a tractor, and that the said worker was paid, while learning, $12 per day… This action is discriminatory against the Puerto Rican worker.

Noting the higher pay rates at United States bases in Trinidad, the prevailing pay rates on the continental United States, and the rising cost of living this union asked for a pay increase to an hourly wage of 40 cents per hour.[58]

Marcantonio related the substance of this memorandum to Frank Knox then Secretary of the Navy adding, “You understand that this discrimination against the American citizens of Puerto Rico and the existing working conditions in Puerto Rico are not conductive to the all-out effort necessary at this time.”  After receiving an unresponsive reply from the Director of the Bureau of Yards and Docks, L.B. Combs, who was responding in behalf of Knox, Marcantonio wrote Knox that the example of discriminatory wages cited in the previous communication was an example, “not an isolated case.”  The attempt by Combs to justify the existing wage scale in Puerto Rico by citing the practice of paying the wage scale prevailing in a locality could not, Marcantonio noted, “be used to justify the practice of paying an “American” skilled worker $1.50 per hour and a ‘Native” skilled worker, performing the same work, 40 cents per hour.”  Further the denial of Combs that the rise in living costs in Puerto Rico justified a wage increase from 25 to 40 cents per hour was countered by Marcantonio who noted that: “Living costs have already advanced more than 20 percent throughout the Island and much more than that in the areas where defense work is in progress.”  Ultimately, Marcantonio inserted this correspondence into the Congressional Record, stating: “I am placing [this matter before the House] at this time because it deals with a matter which should receive the attention of every one of us.  Puerto Rico is part of the United States.  The people of Puerto Rico are citizens of the United States of America.  Puerto Rico is an Atlantic outpost of great military importance.  And yet Puerto Rico is very often considered a foreign land and the people of Puerto Rico are treated like stepchildren or worse.”[59]

Simultaneous with his effort to assist the truck drivers in Vieques, Marcantonio protested to Stimson “the separate and different wage scales [that] have been established for American and native workers on construction projects in Puerto Rico sponsored by the War Department.”  The differentials that existed were enormous: for example, and American foreman received $100 per week, while a Puerto Rican foreman received 50 to 75 cents per hour.  Marcantonio noted that the Puerto Rican workers were not “natives” but American citizens.[60]  Two years later he protested the reduction of salaries by 25 percent of a category of Puerto Ricans working for the Engineering Division of the War Department.  In letters to Stimson and Roosevelt, Marcantonio, noted, “it is most unfair… to establish a situation whereby employees working side by side, doing the same work, with the same competence are paid different wages.”[61]  Marcantonio inserted his correspondence with Know, Stimson, and Roosevelt concerning discrimination against Puerto Rican workers into the Congressional Record.

During the war years, Marcantonio acted on a number of requests from Puerto Ricans for assistance in combating acts of discrimination in the Armed Forces.  He wrote Stimson concerning a Puerto Rican who was denied flight training on the basis of his being classified as a “Negro.”  Marcantonio closed by requesting “a statement from you whether there now exists in the army, air force or any other branch of the army limitations upon the serve of Puerto Ricans.”  Stimson replied:

It is not known whether this soldier is white or colored, since upon enlistment he specified his race as Puerto Rican.  However, the Commanding General, Army Air Forces, had been directed to investigate the matter more fully and to reassign Private “X” to a white organization should it be found that he is of the white race… With regard to your inquiry as to whether there are limitations on the services of Puerto Ricans, you may be assured that there are none, provided the soldier is mentally and physically qualified to perform the duties or undergo instruction in such training as he may desire.

A subsequent letter from Stimson reported that: “The Adjutant General’s office has since informed my office that because of the color of the boy’s skin, his hair texture, and facial characteristics he ‘is not wanted in a white organization.’”  Marcantonio replied, “The boy’s parents are both Puerto Rican.  He is not Negro.  And in view of your letter to me stating that no limitations were placed upon Puerto Ricans in the armed services, I am writing to ask for early reassignment of the soldier… since the only reason for the change of his assignment has been as stated above.”  The conclusion of this affair was the reassignment of the soldier to Puerto Rico.  Marcantonio then requested a furlough for the young man so that he might visit his mother who apparently lived in El Barrio.[62]

Post War

During the postwar period, Marcantonio oriented his efforts to the area of education in Puerto Rico.  In a personally delivered letter to President Truman, dated May 22, 1946, he argued at length for the reinstitution of Spanish as the language of instruction in the public schools of Puerto Rico.  He pointed out that not only was Spanish the vernacular of the Island, it was the language of the courts, legislature, churches, and government offices.  The use of English in the educational system, therefore, violated “the fundamental pedagogical principle that instruction should be transmitted in the vernacular language of the students.”  He then traced the conflicting language policies of the various commissioners of education in Puerto Rico since 1898.  The vacillation between English and Spanish had resulted in, he averred, “Confusion, misuse of the monies appropriated for education, suffering on the part of the student, excessive time given to language study, and the inability to master either Spanish or English.  Since 1898 to date, Puerto Rico had been unfortunately been taken as a field of experimentation in the language realm.”  Citing overwhelming support in Puerto Rico for the reinstitution of Spanish as the language of instruction, Marcantonio closed this appeal by calling upon the President “in the name of the children of Puerto Rico who are being tortured by the prevailing system… to fight cultural chauvinism and to correct past errors” by signing the bill which had been passed by the Puerto Rican legislature over the veto of the Governor Truman vetoed the bill.[63]

In 1949, before the House Sub-Committee on Education and Labor, Marcantonio bitterly attacked the Federal Aid to Education Bill as “both inadequate and viciously discriminatory” in regards to Puerto Rico.  He noted that although 30 percent of the insular budget was devoted to education only 50 percent of the children of school age were attending school.  He also stated that fully 30 percent of the people in Puerto Rico over fifteen years of age had never completed more than two years of schooling.  He further documented the appalling educational situation in Puerto Rico by indicating that whereas in 1940 in the continental United States 72 percent of all children in the age group 14 to 17 were in high school, only 6.7 percent in Puerto Rico were enrolled in high school.  Despite the Island’s need for expanding education facilities, this bill would have provided Puerto Rico less than one-half of the aid per child given to the state with the lowest appropriation.  Calling for the distribution of federal educational appropriations to Puerto Rico “on exactly the same basis as that provided for children living in the continental United States,” Marcantonio concluded by saying:

The simple fact is… that our federal government treats the people of Puerto Rico as second-class citizens.  You can examine the entire framework of economic, political and social relations between Puerto Rico and the United States mainland and you find everywhere the attitude of the wealthy imperial power toward a colonial inferior.[It is] my own deep-seated conviction that every major problem besetting the Puerto Rican people originates in their political status.Only independence will give these people the control of their own destiny, and through independence, with hard work and common effort, they can raise their standard of living, achieve greater security, and resolve their problems in their own way and in their best interest.[64]

Due to limitations of space and the recent publication of Felix Ojeda Reyes’s work, I have excluded from this article Marcantonio’s efforts in Congress in relation to the political status of the Island.  Nonetheless, while fighting for the immediate needs of Puerto Rico, Marcantonio never ceased to place these needs within a political context: that is, Puerto Rico’s problems resulted from colonialism and his belief they could ultimately be resolved only through the achievement of political independence.  This belief, as we have seen, however, never deterred Marcantonio from making every effort to obtain for Puerto Rico equal treatment.  Moreover, many of his efforts—particularly, his program enunciated in November 1942 to address the wartime crisis and his efforts to reinstitute Spanish as part of a transitional program toward independence.

It is most striking that the scores of communications from individuals and organizations concerning to the problems and needs of Puerto Rico sent to Marcantonio during this period do not mirror Marcantonio’s approach, that is, these communications do not reflect the belief that either the problems or needs of Puerto Rico were the result of colonialism or resolvable via political independence.  This is perhaps more notable inasmuch as Marcantonio was an avowed and vocal advocate of independence and many of his correspondents were of the political left.  At the same time, this correspondence evidenced significant sentiments of class solidarity and sharp resentment against the owning classes.  In other words, this correspondence indicated a deep concern for social and economic reform and justice, but relatively little interest in altering Puerto Rico’s political status.

The interest which Marcantonio expressed toward Puerto Rico comprised part of his wider interest in fighting for the exploited and oppressed.  As the most successful radical politician of his period, his efforts in this direction were monumental.  But frequently he was labeled subversive.  Increasingly vilified and isolated, Marcantonio, the only representative of the American Labor Party in Congress, was defeated in 1950, a victim of gerrymandering, electoral restrictions and a coalition candidate of the Democratic, Republican, and Liberal parties.  Yet his work for Puerto Rico and his day-to-day efforts to assist his Puerto Rican constituents ensured that the voters of El Barrio overwhelmingly voted for him.  Marcantonio’s involvement with Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican people deserves to be unearthed so that the contribution of this single “radical” can be compared with that of scores of politicians who uphold the status quo.  Neither before nor since Marcantonio’s tenure in the House of Representatives has Puerto Rico had such a vocal and effective advocate in the United States Congress.

Most of the material cited in the endnotes is contained in the Marcantonio Papers, which are deposited in the Manuscript Division of the New York Public Library.  Whenever material is cited for this collection, the designation “MP” will appear.  Following this will appear a number, which will indicate the carton in which the material is contained and, whenever possible, following this in parentheses will be the title of the folder in which the material is contained.  After the first citation, references to Marcantonio’s speeches and debates in the Congressional Record will be cited as CR followed by the date he spoke and the page number.


[1] Felix Ojeda Reyes, Vito Marcantonio y Puerto Rico; por los trabajadores y por la nación (Río Piedras Ediciones Huracán, 1978), passim; and Bernardo Vega, Memorias de Bernardo Vega: contribución a la historia de la comunidad puertorriqueňa en Neva York, ed., Cesar Andreu Iglesias (Río Piedras, Ediciones Huracán, 1977), see especially, pp. 231-238.  The extent to which Marcantonio’s involvement with Puerto Rico had gone unrecorded prior to the publication of these two books is striking.  For example, there is no reference to Marcantonio in the 626 pages of Gordon K. Lewis’s Puerto Rico: Freedom and Power in the Caribbean (New York, Monthly Review Press, 1963).  The only political biography of Marcantonio, Alan Schaffer’s Vito Marcantonio: Radical in Congress (Syracuse, Syracuse University Press, 1967), largely overlooks Marcantonio’s involvement in Puerto Rican concerns.  An excellent collection of Marcantonio congressional speeches and other writings concerning Puerto Rico is contained in I Vote My Conscience: Debates, Speeches, and Writings of Vito Marcantonio 1935-1950 selected and edited by Annette Rubinstein and Associates (New York, the Vito Marcantonio memorial, 1956).  pp. 373-440.  A second edition of I Vote My Conscience was published in 2003 by the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute, with new Introduction and a biography of Annette T. Rubinstein by Gerald Meyer.

[2] “Speech Made by Congressman Marcantonio at the Conference on Puerto Rico,” mimeographed, p. 7.  Speech delivered on March 8, 1940, in Washington, D.C. at a conference sponsored by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.  MP 14 (Puerto Rico).

[3] Congressional Record, Apr. 8, 1935, p. 5284.

[4] CR, Jul. 17, 1942, pp. 2809-10; see also CR, Feb. 8, 1936, p. 1396.

[5] MP 15 (General Correspondence).

[6] CR, Jul. 9, 1947, p. 8556.

[7] Speech introducing his first bill for the independence of Puerto Rico.  CR, Feb. 8, 1936, p. 1396.

[8] From Arturo Rodríguez Cruz to Marcantonio, Aug. 9, 1939.  MP 15 (General Correspondence).

[9] Marcantonio to Wallace, May 4, 1936; Marcantonio to Henry Wallace, Dec. 22, 1941; Wallace to Marcantonio, May 6, 1942; M. González Quiñones, Secretary of the Asociación de Agricultures de Puerto Rico to Marcantonio, Mar. 5, 1942.  MP 52 (Puerto Rico Research).

[10] Text entitled “Joint Resolution” and letters of support from individuals and organizations, such as the Adelphi Lodge No. 1 of Mayagüez MP 15 (Farm Tenants Association).

[11] MP 16 (General Correspondence); see also letter from Marcantonio to Oswald Garrison Villard, Feb. 28, 1939, MP 16 (General Correspondence).

[12] “Immigrant Ban Protested,” New York Times, Jul. 9, 1939, p.25; Press Release issued Jul. 10, 1939.  MP 15 (General Correspondence); text of bill and Press Release Aug. 2, 1939.  MP 15 (General Correspondence); “House Passes Puerto Rico Bill,” New York Times, Oct. 20, 1942, p. 12.

[13] Untitled and undated campaign speech (circa 1944).  MP 22 (Miscellaneous 4 of 8); see also Marcantonio to editor of El Imparcial, Jun. 10, 1939.  MP 16 (General Correspondence).

[14] CR, May 11, 1939, pp. 5466-5467.

[15] CR, May 1, 1940, p. 5361.

[16] CR, May 11, 1939, p. 5466-5467.

[17] CR, May 1, 1940, p. 5363.

[18] CR, Apr. 26, 1940, p. 5655.

[19] List of signatures, dated May 10, 1940.  MP 16 (Wages and Hours).

[20] Manuel Marrero, May 13, 1940.  MP 16 (Wages and Hours).

[21] M. Rosado, et al, Jan. 15, 1940.  MP 16 (PR Laborers).

[22] F. Orlandi Bairan, May 8, 1940.  MP 16 (Wages and Hours).

[23] Jorge R. Feliciano, Jan. 5, 1940.  MP 16 (Wages and Hours).

[24] May 16, 1940, Vol. 2 No. 11, p. 4.  MP 16 (Wages and Hours).

On the cover of the small newspaper was a cartoon which depicted Bolívar Pagán and a needlework factory owner about to stab an anthropomorphized copy of the minimum-wage bill being interrupted by a huge pointed finger entitled “Marcantonio.”

[25] Antonio Ramos, May 7, 1940.  MP 16 (Wages and Hours).

[26] Guillermo Santana, Jul. 19, 1939.  MP 16 (Wages and Hours).

Marcantonio replied: “If these amendments [to exempt Puerto Rico from the minimum wage] are presented on the floor of the House I am going to expose the half million [dollar] lobby which is working for these amendments.” MP 15 (Farm Tenants Association).

[27] J. Santiago, President of the Unión Protectora del Trabajo, Jul. 25, 1939.  MP 44 (Aide Reports, López ’40-’44).

[28] Postcards to Marcantonio from María Torres and Miguel Alvarez, not dated.  Marcantonio’s response, May 30, 1940.  The organizer of this postcard campaign, Luis Marrero, wrote: “These postcards [collected] from different villages of Arroyo [express] the honest opinion of the peasant… in regard to the minimum-wage and hour law concerning the sugar industry.”  Letter dated, May 3, 1939.  MP 16 (Wage and Hours Administration).

[29] Antonia Alonso Rolón, Caguas, May 24, 1940.  MP 16 (Wage and Hours Administration).

[30] Apr. 29, 1940.  No response from Marcantonio in collection.  MP 16 (Puerto Rican Laborers 1 of 2).

[31] Marcantonio to Tomás Medina Benet, Aug. 23, 1939; Letter from Medina Benet to Marcantonio not in collection.  MP 16 (Puerto Rican Laborers 1 of 2).

[32] CR, Mar. 22, 1939, pp. 3124-3125.

[33] CR, May 30, 1940, p. 8865.

[34] Text of resolution, dated Feb. 25, 1940; María Martínez, Feb. 24, 1940; Marcantonio to Ezequiel Alicea, Jan. 30, 1940; MP 16 (General Correspondence).

[35] Rev. J.L. Santiago-Cabrera to Marcantonio Dec. 10, 1939; Marcantonio to Ickes, Jan. 9, 1940; Oscar Chapman, Assistant Secretary of the Interior, to Marcantonio, Jan. 16, 1940.  MP 16 (General Correspondence).

[36] Juan Marty Toledo to Marcantonio, Feb. 20, 1940; Marcantonio to Marty Toledo, Mar. 14, 1940.

[37] José Kuilan Melicio to Marcantonio, Feb. 10, 1940; Marcantonio to Ickes, Mar. 18, 1940; Marcantonio to Kuilan, Mar. 18, 1940; Oscar Chapman to Marcantonio, Mar. 26, 1940.

[38] CR, Feb. 7, 1944, p. 1311; see also, Mar. 27, 1944, p. A1533.

[39] CR, Feb. 3, 1936, p. 1396.

[40] CR, Mar. 22, 1939, p. 3123.

[41] CR, May 22, 1940, p. 6655.

[42] Press Releases, Aug. 10, 1939 and Aug. 25, 1939.  MP 16 (General Correspondence).

[43] Donna Liberman, “Vito Marcantonio: People’s Congressman: The New Deal Period.”  Honor’s paper, Radcliffe College, 1970, p. 84 MP 16 (General Correspondence).

[44] Justo Metres, President, Apr. 24, 1939; no reply from Marcantonio exists in the Marcantonio Papers.

[45] Juan Díaz Rivera, Mar. 12, 1940. MP 15 (General Correspondence).

[46] CR, Dec. 16, 1948, p. A4416-4167.

[47] CR, Nov. 12, 1942, pp. 8810-8812.

[48] Ibid., p. 8812.

[49] MP 15 (General Correspondence).  The relationship between Marcantonio and Muñoz Marín was extremely close until the latter’s disavowal of independence.  The initial close cooperation between them is captured by the following letter from Muñoz Marín to Marcantonio, dated Sep. 9, 1939:

            The [enclosed] letter is written in the name of carpenters, masons, and other construction workers employed by the WPA.  Their delegation, consisting of more than fifty, sign this letter jointly with me.  They protest against a cut in their wages from forty cents to twenty-seven cents per hour.  That is not a living wage or even an adequate subsistence wage for workers that must bear the high cost of living in San Juan and other large cities; their working day being only five hours.  These workers have appealed in vain to the organization of their trades, which, as you know, is so involved in political combinations with the big interests that [they] cannot render them the normal services that labor organizations would render.  It is for this reason that they have appealed to me here and to you there as the only forces in which they have confidence.  They feel that you are free to defend them there as I am free to defend them here, because we have no connection with powerful interests that gain millions every years from low wages in Puerto Rico.  Both the men and myself place our hope in you that you may tackle this problem in Washington as successfully as you have tackled others in defense of Puerto Rico heretofore. (MP 15 [WPA]). abbreviated

After their break, Marcantonio referred to Muñoz Marín on the floor of the House as “the Nero of La Fortaleza,” he added: “While his people starve, and at their expense, he has built for himself a false reputation here in the United States as a champion of the jibaros—peasants—of Puerto Rico, when as a matter of fact like Nero he ignores their suffering and lives well at their expense.”  (CR, Mar. 16, 1950, p. 3545). On his part, Muñoz Marín urged Puerto Ricans in 1949 to disassociate themselves from the mayoralty candidacy of Vito Marcantonio, lest they be falsely accused of favoring Mr. Marcantonio political ideologies.  He then called Marcantonio a follower of the Communist party line.  “Puerto Ricans Get Campaign Warning.” New York Times.  Oct. 17, 1949, p. 29.

[50] Héctor Martínez Vélez, President.  Aug. 13, 1942.  MP 15 (General Correspondence).

[51] Adrían M. Acosta, Jul. 22, 1942.  MP 15 (General Correspondence).

[52] Marcantonio to Stimson, May 1, 1942.  MP 15 (General Correspondence).

[53] Signature illegible, Sep. 6, 1944.  MP 15 (General Correspondence).

[54] Marcantonio to Howard O. Hunter, Commissioner Works Projects Administration, Mar. 24, 1942; Malcolm Miller, Assistant Commissioner Works Projects Administration, to Marcantonio, Mar. 26, 1942; Marcantonio to Miller, Apr. 2, 1942; Marcantonio to Galo Gomes, President of the Unión de Trabajadores de la WPA, Mayagüez, Apr. 2, 1942.  MP 15 (General Correspondence).

[55] Miguel Torres, President of Obreros Unidos de las Ferrovías de Puerto Rico, to Marcantonio, Feb. 11, 1942; Marcantonio to Torres, Feb. 27, 1942; Torres to Marcantonio, Apr. 23, 1942; Marcantonio to Torres, et al, Apr. 27, 1942; Press Release, dated Feb. 17, 1942. MP 15 (General Correspondence).

[56] CR, Jun. 24, 1943, pp. 6443-6444.

[57] CR, Dec. 15, 1942, pp. A.4411-4412.

[58] Alberto Sánchez to Marcantonio, Dec. 26, 1941; Memorandum to Commander H.W. Johnson, from Miguel Sánchez, Re: “Conditions of Work of the Truck Drivers at the Naval Base of Vieques,” Dec. 17, 1941.  MP 15 (General Correspondence).

[59] Marcantonio to Knox, Jan. 22, 1942; Combs to Marcantonio, Jan. 28, 1942; Marcantonio to Knox Jan. 30, 1942 and Feb. 13, 1942; MP 15 (General Correspondence).  Press Release, “Marcantonio Urges Commander-in-Charge to Increase Wage Rates on Puerto Rican Naval Projects,” MP 22 (Puerto Rico).  CR, Feb. 6, 1942, p. A409.

[60] CR, Dec. 19, 1941, p. 15667; see also, Press Release, “Marcantonio Hits Discrimination on Puerto Rican Defense Projects,” not dated.  MP 22 (Puerto Rico).

[61] CR, Nov. 18, 1943, p. A.4554.

[62] Marcantonio to Stimson, Apr. 9, 1943; Stimson to Marcantonio.  May 1, 1943; Stimson to Marcantonio, Jul. 23, 1943; Marcantonio to Stimson, Jul. 29, 1943.

[63] CR, May 22, 1946, pp. 2894-2895.

[64] Jun. 2, 1949.  MP 15 (General Correspondence).

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