Months From Independence: Pedro Albizu Campos and the 1936 Constitutional Convention Movement in Puerto Rico

Feb 10, 2023
5:36 PM

A demonstrator carries Puerto Rico’s anti-colonial flag featuring the image of nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos, during a protest in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, November 29, 2022. (Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco/Latino Rebels)

This article is the first in a three-part series looking at the attempts made by Pedro Albizu Campos and other local leaders in Puerto Rico to hold a constitutional convention in 1936—the closest the archipelago has come to breaking free of U.S. colonial rule.

Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos is well known for his absolute commitment to the liberation of Puerto Rico from U.S. colonialism. Popular memory typically recalls his moments of righteous rage in which he called the Puerto Rican people to armed revolution. He was, after all, the leader of the Partido Nacionalista, whose militants killed Puerto Rico’s U.S.-appointed chief of police in February 1936, launched an uprising in 1950 stretching from the main island to Washington, D.C., and staged an armed attack on the U.S. Congress in 1954.

Unfortunately, this history falls short of detailing the full picture of Don Pedro’s anti-colonial activism and leadership. One such detail that I have tried to bring into greater focus through my work is his call for a constitutional convention. Don Pedro’s call to hold such a convention saw its greatest expression in 1936, the same year that he and several other nationalist leaders were charged and convicted of seditious conspiracy.

While it’s clear why the seditious conspiracy trial succeeded in squashing Don Pedro’s attempt to hold a constitutional convention, what isn’t clear is why researchers have failed in writing more about and contextualizing his by no means insignificant effort.

How the 1936 Constitutional Convention Movement Began

On April 23, 1936, two months after the killing of police chief Colonel E. Francis Riggs, a close friend of Riggs and a Democratic senator from Maryland, Millard Tydings, proposed a bill granting independence to Puerto Rico. Not designed with the best interests of the Puerto Rican people, the bill was widely denounced as a formula for economic ruin and mass starvation. Despite its utterly flawed design, which many felt was intentional —and perhaps because of it— the bill sparked an unexpected national dialogue around Puerto Rican independence that actually moved Puerto Rico’s political leaders to urge a vote in favor of independence.

“If circumstances come to put us in a situation without alternatives, we are resolutely bound to demand the independence of the homeland… even if we starve to death,” said Antonio Romero Barceló, the first president of the Puerto Rico Senate and a member of the pro-independence Partido Liberal.

On the same day, April 25, Rafael Martínez Nadal, leader of the pro-statehood Partido Unión Republicana, was also quoted saying:

“Rather than lifelong slaves, rather than think of the political slavery of our children and grandchildren, our choice is not in doubt. Any man worthy of being called a son of this land, rather than ignominy with a full stomach, must prefer hunger with dignity and honor… Every man who feels himself to be free must vote for the Republic of Puerto Rico.”

Front page of the Puerto Rican daily newspaper El Imparcial, April 25, 1936 (Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, CUNY)

Don Pedro, also on that same day, had an entire article published with his response to the Tydings Bill, in which he called on Puerto Rico’s political leaders to immediately establish the Republic of Puerto Rico and hold a constitutional convention.

The nation wasted no time. That very night, the mayor of Aguas Buenas, where Don Pedro was living at the time, hosted a meeting with the local leaders of Puerto Rico’s three main political parties: the Liberal Party, the Partido Socialista, and the Republican Union Party. The meeting resulted in a unanimous decision to call on the presidents of those parties, and Don Pedro, to immediately hold a constitutional convention and establish the Republic of Puerto Rico. The parties’ presidents responded favorably to the call, as would other local leaders over the coming weeks.

From the beginning of his political career, as early as 1923, Don Pedro had put forth the idea of holding a constitutional convention in Puerto Rico. Following his April 25 article, four more articles by Don Pedro were published in newspapers between April 27 and May 28, in which he outlined the process for organizing the convention. He borrowed from similar conventions held in Cuba and the Dominican Republic that the U.S. had taken part in, and which ended the U.S. military occupation of those countries.

In time, Don Pedro would also use the articles to react and speak to the inability of Puerto Rico’s political leaders to come together.

The Solution to Colonialism in Puerto Rico

In his articles, Don Pedro explained that the constitutional convention had two significant purposes: 1) to establish the sovereign power of Puerto Rico as a free nation, and 2) to elect the legitimate representatives of Puerto Rico that would negotiate a treaty with the United States. He also explained how the convention might take place:

“Each political party can hold a national convention and designate the number of delegates that have the right to represent them in the Constitutional Convention, according to the prior agreement arrived at by all the political parties.

“These conventions of the respective political parties can be held the same day, and on the next, the Constitutional Convention can be held with the designated delegations of the respective political parties. This Constitutional Convention can then designate the plenipotentiaries of Puerto Rico in order to resolve with plenipotentiaries of the United States everything concerning a permanent treaty between both nations.”

Don Pedro was very emphatic about the importance of the constitutional convention in ending the colonial situation in Puerto Rico, calling it “an imperious, unavoidable, and irremissible necessity.” His feelings were in addition to the strong opposition he held against the colonial elections that Puerto Rico’s other political parties ran every four years. He felt these political parties did not represent the “legitimate national will,” and that until the constitutional convention was held, “the colonial political parties and its leaders will continue giving the same spectacle they have up to now of putting above all matters the interests of their respective factions.”

The idea of a status plebiscite was also addressed by Don Pedro as being egregiously inappropriate, explaining in no uncertain terms:

“First of all, the plebiscite is a legislative formula that is used to consult the will of the inhabitants who occupy a strip of land between two sovereign nations when the population of the two sovereigns has been mixed in such a way that it is not possible to draw a territorial limit to divide them; the Plebiscite is never used to consult the national will of a duly constituted nation to ask whether it wants to be free, for such consultation is a gratuitous offense to the nation, and it is also an insidious guideline for dividing it, for it puts to question nothing less than its existence as a sovereign, free, and independent nation; and that is not permissible at any time.”

Stating that independence through a plebiscite would be null and void due to its nature as a unilateral act of the United States and could result in a civil war, Don Pedro was clear that establishing a legitimate power in Puerto Rico “is not possible except through a Constitutional Convention.” When the convention took place was only a matter of time.

“Nothing can be done to formalize international relations between Puerto Rico and the United States except through the bodies established by the Constitutional Convention of Puerto Rico,” he wrote. “With or without a plebiscite today, in a year, or within whatever time you want, the observance of the Constitutional Convention is impossible to overlook.”

In a real sense, then, we can benefit from rethinking Don Pedro’s legacy in light of his expressed views on a constitutional convention. This would allow us to put into greater focus the full picture of his principles and strategic outlook, with a constitutional convention is an integral part. To understand why, we need only to consider that, for Don Pedro, the constitutional convention was not just one way for decolonization—it was literally the only way to put an authoritative end to colonialism in Puerto Rico.

“Puerto Rico has only one way to organize itself, only one, and there will never be another other than that, and this is the Constitutional Convention of the Republic.”

You can help the author raise funds for his next project, a book of translations of writings authored by Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos, by donating to and sharing his GoFundMe campaign.


Andre Lee Muniz is a Boricua from the projects of South Brooklyn, the creator of Remembering Don Pedro, and the author of ‘Vida y Hacienda: The Life and Legacy of Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos.’ Instagram: @RememberingDonPedro