Latinas in the U.S. come from a long line of influential, barrier-breaking, rebel Latin American women. Through Remezcla’s Herstory series, we introduce readers to the women warriors and pioneers whose legacies we carry on.
History is not short on patriarchal bias, and books are clear proof of that. While pages are filled with mostly white men, who are called “heroes” and “founding fathers,” women are often left out of the history lessons. Their accomplishments are sometimes even credited to their spouses or to a group of male colleagues, diminishing the contributions of women just as qualified as their male counterparts.
But the role women have played in Latin American history cannot be overlooked if we want to establish a more diverse and equal space for all people to see themselves reflected in their country’s stories. And Puerto Rico – a US territory that has always existed in it own cultural spectrum – has a history of repeating those same patriarchal patterns.
Today, when the now-defunct Partido Nacionalista is celebrated, many remember its main leader Pedro Albizu Campos, who the United States government imprisoned and tortured until his death. But the fight for Puerto Rican independence in the mid-20th century included many women like Lolita Lebrón and Blanca Canales, who were just as instrumental as Albizu Campos was.
Even when we celebrate iconic Puerto Rican women, like Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Rita Moreno, and Olympic medalist Monica Puig, there are still many others who need to be remembered and revered for their contributions, not only to Puerto Rico, but the world. Here are their stories.
Mariana Bracetti is believed to have been the woman who crafted the first Puerto Rican flag, an earlier version of the one we know today. Bracetti was an independence movement leader in the 1860s and a key protagonist of the Grito de Lares, a failed revolt in the town of Lares that declared the first Puerto Rican republic in 1868. She was arrested and released a few months later, after she was granted amnesty from the Spanish government. Before the Grito de Lares, she was nicknamed “Brazo de oro” because of her sewing abilities and was appointed leader of the Lares Revolutionary Council. Her original Puerto Rican flag – known to many as the Bandera Revolucionaria – belongs to the University of Puerto Rico today.
Julia de Burgos
Julia de Burgos was a poet and activist from Carolina, Puerto Rico. As a poet, she published more than 200 poems, including famous works like “Rio Grande de Loíza” and “A Julia de Burgos.” She was also a member of the Partido Nacionalista. Burgos moved to Havana in 1939, where she briefly attended the University of Havana, and later to New York City, where she worked as a journalist for the newspaper Pueblos Hispanos. She lived in New York City until she died in 1953. In textbooks, she’s often remembered as an alcoholic because of her untimely death, which was credited to cirrhosis, a reflection of a nasty double standard in the way women are criticized for their addictions.
Born in 1879, Luisa Capetillo was an organizer and activist, mostly known for her contributions to the labor and anarchist movements in Puerto Rico. Although she was raised by relatively liberal parents, Capetillo’s first encounters with labor unions came when she worked as a book reader at a tobacco company after the Spanish-American War in Puerto Rico. She began writing opinion essays during that time, criticizing the labor conditions tobacco workers were exposed to and advocating for women’s rights. “Oh you woman! who is capable and willing to spread the seed of justice; do not hesitate, do not fret, do not run away, go forward!” she wrote in her essay “Mi opinión.” By 1905, Capetillo was a leader of the American Federation of Labor and traveled throughout Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, New York City, Florida, and Cuba. She’s famously remembered for being one of the first women to use men’s clothes publicly in the island. Capetillo died of tuberculosis in 1922.
Felisa Rincón de Gautier
Felisa Rincón de Gautier was the first female mayor of San Juan. She was also the first female mayor of a major capital city in the Americas. Although Rincón never graduated high school, she was a firm believer in the suffragist movement and was the fifth woman to register to vote in Puerto Rico. In 1932, she joined the Liberal Party of Puerto Rico and later became a member of the Popular Democratic Party, for which she ran as mayor of San Juan. Her administration is credited with building San Juan as a major cosmopolitan center in the Americas and helping low-income communities by creating the Escuelas Maternales– known today as Head Starts. Rincón served San Juan for 22 years and became known for her iconic look – a large pair of sunglasses, pearl necklaces, a hand fan, and big earrings.
Lola Rodríguez de Tió
Lola Rodríguez de Tió was the first Puerto Rican woman to establish herself as a poet. As an activist, Rodríguez called for the abolition of slavery and the independence of Puerto Rico. In 1867, she was banned from Puerto Rico by Spanish governors because of her politics. She was exiled to Venezuela and later Cuba, where she met revolutionary José Martí and participated in the Cuban Revolution. She played a key role in establishing a relationship between the independence movements in Cuba and Puerto Rico, writing in one of her poems, “Cuba y Puerto Rico son de un pájaro las dos alas.” Inspired by the Grito de Lares, she wrote the first lyrics to La Borinqueña – Puerto Rico’s first national anthem. The lyrics were later changed to Manuel Fernandez Juncos’ version, but Rodriguez’s continues to be popular among independence advocates in Puerto Rico.
Born in 1906, Blanca Canales was a key member of the Partido Nacionalista, alongside its leader Pedro Albizu Campos. She was first acquainted with political organizing because of her father, who was a member of the Partido Unión de Puerto Rico. She graduated from the University of Puerto Rico, where she first got to know the work and activism of Pedro Albizu Campos, and joined the Partido Nacionalista in 1931. In 1950, she was among the nationalists who revolted against the United States in the town of Jayuya, where Canales led a group to the plaza and rose the Puerto Rican flag – then illegal because of a Gag Law established in 1943. Canales and the group kept armed forces out of Jayuya for three days and later surrendered. After 17 years in prison, Canales was granted a pardon by Puerto Rican governor Roberto Sánchez Vilella. She died in her hometown of Jayuya un her childhood home, which is today the town’s museum.
Ana Roque de Duprey
Born in 1853, Ana Roque de Duprey was an educator and activist. At 13, she created her first school in her parents’ house in the town of Aguadilla. She also wrote a geography textbook that was later adopted by the Department of Education. As a suffragist and educator, Roque was one of the founders of the University of Puerto Rico in both the town of Mayagüez and its campus in San Juan. She also created an all-girls school called Liceo Ponceño in the town of Ponce. Her suffragist work includes the Puerto Rican Feminist League and the Suffragist Social League.
Sila María Calderón
Sila María Calderón is the first female governor of Puerto Rico from 2001 to 2004. She also served as the mayor of San Juan from 1997 to 2001. After she was sworn in, she appointed her two daughters as First Ladies, since Calderón was single at the time. As a governor, she took interest in underserved communities in Puerto Rico, colloquially known as “comunidades especiales,” allocating a $1.4 billion budget to these projects. Her administration was also swarmed with public scrutiny because of her marriage to her former Secretary of Economic Development Ramón Cantero Frau. Today, she is a trustee of the New York Public Library and serves on the board for her foundation, Center For Puerto Rico: Sila M. Calderón Foundation.
Nydia Velázquez is the first Puerto Rican woman to be elected to the United States Congress. She was born in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, and received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Puerto Rico. Velázquez ran for Congress in 1992 as a Democratic representative for New York’s 12th Congressional district. Throughout her tenure as a representative, she’s supported pro-choice groups and has advocated for the rights of Puerto Ricans. Most recently, she blasted President Donald Trump for denying the deaths of 3,000 Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria. “I would like to suggest that the president get some history lessons regarding the Puerto Rican relationship with the United States,” she said in a House session. “Puerto Ricans didn’t invite the United States armed forces. So, with that invasion comes responsibility.” Velázquez is up for re-election in this year’s mid-terms.
Mayra Santos Febres
Mayra Santos Febres is a writer, educator, and activist from Carolina, Puerto Rico. As a girl, Santos Febres began her interest in writing thanks to the women in her family, who were master storytellers, as she explained in the podcast Masacote. In 2000, she released her first novel Sirena Selena vestida de pena, which told the story of a drag queen, which she’s said was inspired by her own experiences with a gay lover. Her novel Nuestra Señora de la Noche – published in 2006 – told the story of Isabel La Negra, an Afro-Puerto Rican woman who was one of the most powerful figures in the town of Ponce in the 20th century. She’s credited with being one of the most important voices for contemporary Afro-Caribbean and queer voices. She’s also the founder of the Festival de la Palabra, Puerto Rico’s biggest literary festival. As an educator, Santos Febres is a professor of literature and creative writing at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan.