The Nationalists

by Edward Benson and Jane Southwick

from Jump Cut, no. 23, Oct. 1980, p. 9
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1980, 2005

About a year ago, in early September of 1979, the United States government released four Puerto Rican nationalists from prison, an apparent exchange for four U.S. spies released by Cuba. (1) The release highlights the unresolved question posed by the Nationalists' attack on President Truman in November 1950, and on the House of Representatives in March 1954. The question is whether or under what circumstances armed attacks by individuals against an opposing government are justified. The Nationalists will doubtless have been forgotten by the liberal media by the time this review appears, but there is a useful and moving film on them and their act, in the context both of the history of the Puerto Rican struggle for freedom and of the way the news media presented their act to this country. The film challenges U.S. media and official interpretations of the shootings by placing the events in historical perspective. The filmmakers combine still photographs and voice-over narration of the violent repression of the Nationalist Party since the twenties with interviews of people still involved in the Puerto Rican independence movement. The combination shows the Nationalists’ personal as well as political commitment, and we see that the shootings are a desperate attempt to make known the struggle against systematic attacks on the very existence of the Party.

THE NATIONALISTS was first broadcast by WNET in New York in March 1973, as LA PATRIA ES VALOR Y SACRIFICIO (a slogan coined by Don Pedro Albizu Campos), and is available under its current title from Unifilm in New York. The film was made by José Garcia for "Realidades," the first bilingual series for educational television in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, which ran for five years starting in 1972. Garcia, a native of New York, was producer of the series and is founder and director of the Cinemateca Nacional de Puerto Rico (P.O. Box 1342, San Juan, Puerto Rico, 00902). With director Melvin Van Peebles, Garcia was responsible for the filming of SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAADASSSSS SONG.

THE NATIONALISTS opens with Movietone newsreels of the attack, interrupting the stentorious sound track occasionally for a summary or comment by a "Realidades" narrator. The courage of the Nationalists during the incredulous questioning of the press, particularly after the second attack in 1954, prefigures their vow to continue the struggle for the liberation of their country and for justice, in the face of even more hostile questioning upon their release in the fall of 1979.

The film shifts to the mid-70s with color photography of a demonstration in Washington for the release of the Nationalists, then quickly introduces us to the history of the Puerto Rican struggle for national liberation: the foundation of the Nationalist Party in the twenties, the labor struggles of the thirties in the sugar fields, the massive repression culminating in the Ponce massacre which left 21 dead in 1937, and the severe crackdown ordered by Truman in the late forties. Before the attacks on Truman and the Congress, Party members had attacked the chief of police in Puerto Rico, who had ordered their capture dead or alive, and then failed in an assault on a police station. Stymied at every turn and unceasingly hunted by the police and the National Guard, they brought their struggle to President Truman, the man who had ordered the intensification of the repression and who had transferred to their country the police chief responsible for carrying it out. The Nationalists had been protesting in international tribunals for years, but this was, of course, the first time their protests reached the attention of the people in the United States.

We come to see by the end of the film that those involved in these attacks were neither deranged fanatics, as portrayed in the U.S. press nor irresponsible terrorists, as judged by the U.S. courts, but courageous resistance fighters against long-standing oppression. The speakers whom the filmmakers interview during the last half of the film present the Washington attacks as the logical and inevitable result of the long conflict between repression and resistance. None of the thousands of North Americans living in Puerto Rico were harmed by the Nationalist Party. All the attacks were carried out against political or military officials with direct responsibility for the exploitation and oppression of Puerto Rico. The question of the role of armed political action, as opposed to terrorism, is central to this film, and the speakers movingly discuss their actions. Their interviews allow us to understand the personal and political aspects of the struggle for liberation as each person is given time to express fully her/his perspective while the camera occasionally pans around the room or tracks in on the speaker. The clear desire of those interviewed is to make known both the ideals and the facts of their fight for independence; thus, the expertly edited film becomes a collective analysis of an act of political self-defense.

The film analyzes the act in the light of social and political history, in contrast to what we saw of it at the time. Part of the reason the film succeeds is again that it restores humanity to those whom the liberal press dehumanized. A Nationalist tells of the years he spent in prison for his beliefs during the fifties, and concludes his contribution with an explicit plea to young Puerto Ricans to continue to fight for liberation and socialism. Even more moving is Carmen Collazo telling of her father’s message to her when he heard of his death sentence (later commuted to life): "We might as well be dead if we cannot struggle for our liberty." The message recalls the Rosenbergs and the red-baiting of the early fifties better known in this country.

Director Garcia's inclusion of the Movietone version of the attacks at the beginning of the film recalls the refusal or inability of U.S. media to understand the incident and he effectively contrasts that version with our sense of the act at the film's end. THE NATIONALISTS establishes the seriousness of the Puerto Rican struggle for national liberation, and reestablishes the event's place in history. As Garcia has stated,

“With no representation in Congress and no access to public media, the Nationalists took these dramatic, almost suicidal, actions to draw attention to the Puerto Rican situation. These people, who are still in prisons after more than 20 years, saw themselves as patriots, whose acts, in their eyes, were as laudable as those of Patrick Henry, Nathan Hale or any of the heroes of American independence."

The film also exposes the process by which the official media, serving the status quo, trivialize and obscure this kind of information. Particularly for such a short film, it is an unusually moving and effective historical and political statement.


1. The four released were Lolita Lebron, Rafael Cancel Miranda, and Irvin Flores Rodriguez of the 1954 attack on the House of Representatives, and Oscar Collazo of the attack on Blair House. Andres Figueroa Cordero was released in 1978 for "humanitarian" reasons; he had already died when the other four were released.

We would like to thank Cindy Harding for her help with an earlier draft of this review, and Barbara Letourneau for typing.

THE NATIONALISTS, directed by Jose Garcia for National Educational Television's "Realidades" program. Spanish dialog with English subtitles and narration. 28 minutes. Color. Available from Unifilm.