yasmin hernandez





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Carpeta: Albizu


Acrylic and collage on Canvas
24" x 18"

Pedro Albizu Campos perhaps was the most persecuted figure by the US authorities in Puerto Rico. What made him so dangerous to US authorities was his brilliance and unrelenting efforts to bring dignity, liberation, pride and valor to the Puerto Rican people. Albizu came from humble roots, the illegitimate child of a man of Basque origin and the grandson of an enslaved African woman. Born into poverty and not recognized by his father until his 20s, Albizu was not able to begin school until the age of 12. Proving himself to be a genius, he managed to complete all of his primary and secondary education (grades K-12) in just 8 years. He was recruited to study at the University of Vermont, from where he was then recruited to study at Harvard University. While at Harvard, Albizu was on the debate team. He studied biochemical engineering and military strategy and earned a law degree. Albizu Campos spoke seven languages. During his time at Harvard he fell in love with Laura Meneses, a Peruvian woman who went on to earn her doctorate from the prestigious university. She was the first Latin American woman to graduate from Radcliffe College, the women’s college of Harvard. They married and had their family in Puerto Rico.

As many Puerto Rican men, after the 1917 Jones Act, which imposed US citizenship on Puerto Ricans, Albizu served in the US Army. It was actually during his time traveling with the US military and through the segregated south that he, as a black man, witnessed the institutionalized racism in the US. During his time in Boston, as a student at Harvard, his connection to the Irish community exposed him not only to Catholicism, which he took on as his own religion but to British imperialism in Northern Ireland. That example, coupled with struggle for liberation in India inspired him in his own life’s mission to free Puerto Rico from US control. With his impressive education, Albizu Campos turned down work offers in Washington so that he could return to Puerto Rico and pursue his life’s mission.

In the early 1920’s Albizu joined the newly formed Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. Upon becoming its president in 1930 he shifted the organization to a radical, severe anti-imperialist force, boycotting the electoral process presided over by the US colonial government in Puerto Rico. The 1930s were characterized by bloody exchanges between the colonial police, innocent Puerto Ricans and the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party coming to their defense. Albizu spent the majority of his adult life in prison as a result, charged time and time again with seditious conspiracy or the attempt to overthrow the US government.

This painting is specifically about the controversy surrounding the radiation experiments that don Pedro Albizu Campos was subjected to while in prison. Collaged images and texts were mostly taken from the Ruth Reynolds Papers at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Reynolds, a white-American librarian was a dear friend of Don Pedro’s who went on to create, Americans for Puerto Rico’s Independence. Ruth describes her friend Albizu as “a man of the greatest intelligence, and of supreme goodness; a man of true peace situated in the center of the most concentrated violence of the most powerful empire of the world."

The collage features some intimate letters to Reynolds written by hand or typewriter by Albizu. Some of these detail the symptoms he experienced from the radiation attacks including burns inside the mouth and lesions on the skin. My favorite, which speaks of US imperialism, the hypocrisies of its constitution and the importance of the solidarity of Reynold’s organization with the Puerto Rican people is cleverly written in penmanship over a torn out page of the table of contents for a copy of the US Constitution. Perhaps the juiciest document collaged into the painting is a copy of a letter written by a man in Reynold’s organization and addressed to famed scientist Albert Einstein, requesting that he please take interest in the case of Pedro Albizu Campos and the radiation experiments he had been suffering while incarcerated. The letter, written in 1954, features an addendum that explains that they were in no way aware of the attack on Congress staged by Lolita Lebron and her Nationalist comrades, members of Albizu’s Party. Interestingly enough, the letter found in Lebron’s purse cited the radiation torture of Albizu Campos as one of the reasons behind their action. It is unclear as to whether the letter ever reached the hands of Einstein and if there was ever a response. However Einstein was indeed an expert in the atomic age. Albizu’s body was used to test the effects of radiation, similarly to how Japanese victims of the atomic bombs dropped by the US on Nagasaki and Hiroshima later were made into lab rats for the same purpose by US soldiers and doctors. Moreover in the 1930s Pedro Albizu Campos had been the instrument behind exposing a US doctor, Cornelius Rhoads who had bragged to a friend about having injected Puerto Ricans with cancer and proudly having killed some of them off. He described Puerto Ricans as an inferior race worthy of extermination. Conspiracy theorists later exposed Rhoads as having become involved in the health policies for the US Department of Corrections coincidently at the time that Albizu was suffering the radiation attacks in his prison cell. Though Albizu Campos, having studied biochemical engineering himself and not an ignorant man in any way, spoke out against these attacks, the governor of Puerto Rico, who functioned largely under US control, dismissed Albizu’s accusations as dementia. While Governor Muñoz Marin carried out the commonwealth plan that kept Puerto Rico eternally tied to the US financially and politically, Albizu’s body deteriorated. When it did to the point in which it could no more, the politician finally pardoned him and sent him home. Albizu died shortly thereafter on April 21st, 1965, exactly two months after the death of another dignified revolutionary, Malcolm X (February 21st, 1965).

Perhaps the US government might say that the experiments conducted on the bodies of Albizu and other prisoners (as the US gov’t admitted in the 1990s), as well as on Japanese victims of US bombs, served a purpose. The infamous doctor Cornelius Rhoads later came out as the mastermind behind the Rockefeller Institute known for its cancer research and connected to the renowned hospital Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. My brother battled cancer at MSKCC for two years before being subjected to radiation to the jaw and spine. He died a month after that treatment, not on April 21st as Albizu Campos, but on April 27th, 2010.

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