As a Puerto Rican, my elementary school principal would gather all students from kindergarten through fifth grade in the school yard. From the heat of August until May, we would sing our anthem with hands on our chests. It would end and a two-minute pause would introduce the United States anthem. I didn’t question why I had to sing two anthems until much later — much less question its lyrics — until one history class, when my teacher used the U.S. national anthem to debate the country’s patriotism and the Mexican national anthem to allude to its military victories and explain its history.
Both anthems narrate wars. Both detail the roar of cannons and weapons, of patriots graciously sacrificing themselves for the vision of their free, sovereign countries. Both speak about the bravery and perseverance of their soldiers, motivating future patriots to do the same. Take the introductory verses of Mexico’s anthem, which glorify its achievements in battle and promote the fight for their land.
Despite not being from these countries, I can easily identify the passion and pride the songs exhibit towards their accomplishments, especially those regarding their fight for freedom. This is a clear discrepancy in the demonstration of patriotism between these two anthems and my country’s own anthem. The following lines are the translation of the opening lyrics of Puerto Rico’s national anthem, “La Borinqueña,” by Manuel Fernández Juncos.
“When Columbus arrived at its beaches,
He exclaimed with admiration,
‘This is the beautiful land,
That I was searching for…’”
Puerto Ricans take pride in the paradise we get to call home, but national anthems should be the symbol of a nation’s identity. Something personal and intrinsic to a place should not recall the memory of a serial colonizer. By paying homage to our colonizer, their greed and their exploitation of our land, the national anthem of Puerto Rico embodies the intense submission the island has faced for the past five centuries. The context and moment in time during which this song became Puerto Rico’s anthem is also essential to understanding the passiveness of the lyrics.
Puerto Rico has been under the dominion of the United States since the end of the Spanish American War. It has been so for the past 120 years. However, the political status of Puerto Rico hasn’t stayed stagnant without difficulties. Various groups and political parties have sought our country’s sovereignty. For example, the Puerto Rican Nationalist party, established by Pedro Albizu Campos, led revolts from the 1930s to the 1950s that shook the foundations of Puerto Rico by furthering tensions between the inhabitants of the island and the U.S. Intimidation, persecution and oppression were normalized. Showcasing the Puerto Rican flag in public, private reunions and mention of revolution or opposition were all banned.
The anthem originally intended for our country by these various pro-independence groups was, in my opinion, an essential part of the struggle, buried alongside the passionate search for independence for Puerto Ricans. Written in 1868 by Lola Rodríguez de Tio against the Spaniards, the poem was quickly discarded as a candidate for my country’s anthem, since its verses are anything but submissive. The first lines are, themselves, a call to action: “Arise, Puerto Rican! The call to arms has sounded! Awake from this dream, for it is time to fight!” When the U.S. declared Puerto Rico a “commonwealth” in 1952, they adopted the less-confrontational version by Fernandez Juncos, and in 1977 it was legally proclaimed the national anthem.
The colonial relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico has not only led to the miseducation (or no education at all) of citizens on both sides, it has simultaneously eradicated a quintessential symbol of patriotism and pride that could possibly motivate us to keep up the fight against them. By depriving us of a national anthem that glorifies our past attempts at liberty and our future aspirations of total autonomy, we might even lose a sense of self, burying ourselves in the pit of colonialism and hiding in the shadow of money-hungry nations.
Despite this sad realization that our stained colonial history was bleached and scraped until an element like our anthem was compromised, recent events this summer gives me hope. Enraged by the incompetence and negligence of our government, thousands of Puerto Ricans took to the streets to overthrow Ricardo Rosselló, our ex-governor, and his corrupt administration after a chat containing baffling insults, proof of corruption, discrimination and more was leaked. The streets were loud with chants and slogans of revolution and empowerment, art decorated the walls of San Juan and the lyrics of Lola’s revolutionary poem found its way back into the hearts of Puerto Ricans, exalting us to pick up our “machetes” and fight for our rights. To the rhythm of battle drums, and with the duty of saving our motherland heavy on our hearts, we roared Lola’s lasts verses with pride: Come, Puerto Ricans, Come now, freedom anxiously awaits for us.
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