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Ponce Massacre

1997
Oil/ collage on canvas
34" x 51"

This image was among my first in examining and reinterpreting American icons. I find the use of American political cartoons to instigate nationalist and, later, imperialist sentiments to be extremely revealing. Political cartoons of the American Revolution depicted England as an oppressive tyrant. The 13 colonies of what later became the first states were represented as innocent victims of a British imperialism. However a century later those images had given way to those of the United States taking its place as the new imperialist with all the colonies it had aquired in the Spanish-American War of 1898. Not to mention all the images that documented its acquisitions of more Native American territories and even half of Mexico as the United States spread West throughout the 19th century.

Within this composition is a copy of "The Bloody Massacre" by Paul Revere, based on the Boston Massacre of 1770. He borrowed the composition from another artist who had printed the image with biblical text. Revere revised the image, incorporating his own anti-colonial text, however the actual massacre that took place was of a lesser scale than the one depicted in his work. In the spirit of borrowing and radicalizing imagery, using Revere's composition, I substituted the image with that of the massacre that took place in Ponce, Puerto Rico on March 21, 1937. Unlike the exaggeration that Revere incorporated into his work, mine is based on a photograph, an actual account of what took place. I painted it with a monochromatic palette and finished it with an ochre glaze to suggest the appearance of an old newspaper clipping. Studying the newspaper image for the painting was a haunting experience. In scaling the composition and sketching it onto the canvas, I took notice of young children who were directly in the line of fire.

On Palm Sunday, 1937, the Puerto Rican Nationalists had planned a parade for families and the residents of Ponce to commemorate the abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico (March 22, 1873). Though they had received a permit from the mayor, the US-appointed police chief ordered that it be revoked at the last minute. The Nationalists continued with their peaceful march. Shots fired by the police resulted in the death of 21 people and more than 100 wounded. Although the police insisted that it was a shoot-out between the two groups, that was not the case. An investigation conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union found that none of the Nationalists present at the event were armed. It is the report of these findings that appears as the text in the painting.

Today the building featured in the painting on the corner of Marina and Aurora Streets in the downtown area of Ponce is a museum. It is called La Casa de la Masacre de Ponce. However with government lay offs and budget cuts of the infamous Fortuño administration in Puerto Rico many cultural institutions such as this one have lost staff and some have even had to close to the public. El Museo Casa de la masacre de Ponce houses a permanent collection of images documenting the Ponce Massacre as well as various leaders of the Nationalist Party. Part of the collection is a bronze casting of Pedro Albizu Campos' death mask. It also has on display images and information surrounding the infamous "carpeteo" or the practice of maintinaing repressive government surveillance files on independence supporters. My tio Julio, the oldest of my father's brothers who passed away in January of 2011, remembered the events of the massacre which he experienced as a young child. Both of my parents were born in Ponce.


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