This Day in History

March 21, 1937: Ponce Massacre

Time Periods: 20th Century, 1920
Themes: Latinx
Ponce Massacre

Relatives of Nationalists killed in the Ponce massacre in front of Nationalist Party headquarters. Machine gun bullet holes in the wall. Ponce, Puerto Rico. Source: Library of Congress

The Ponce Massacre occurred on March 21, 1937, when a peaceful march in Ponce, Puerto Rico was attacked by police who shot and killed 19 Puerto Ricans and wounded over 200 others.

The march had been organized by the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party to commemorate the ending of slavery in Puerto Rico and to protest the imprisonment, by the U.S. government, of Nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos on alleged sedition charges.

The bloodshed began when the Insular Police fired on the marchers. The Insular Police, a force somewhat resembling the National Guard, was under the direct military command of the U.S.-appointed governor of Puerto Rico, General Blanton Winship.

Learn more about the Ponce Massacre, a defining event in Puerto Rico’s history, from the 2007 Democracy Now! story below. In the segment, co-host Juan González (born in Ponce) reads from his book Harvest of Empire.

The day was Palm Sunday, March 21, 1937. My aunt Graciela was sixteen and caught up in the Nationalist fervor at the time. Luckily, she decided to skip the march that day and go on a picnic with her sisters, Ana and Pura. They all trekked up to El Vigia, the magnificent hilltop estate of the Seralles family, owners of the Don Q rum distillery.

From the rolling castle grounds you can look down on all of Ponce. Pura, who was a child at the time, recalls that shortly after the Nationalists gathered, the church bells began to ring, and when she looked down the mountain toward the plaza she saw people scattering in all directions.

A young woman they knew ran up to them, screaming, “There’s a massacre in the town. The Nationalists and the soldiers are fighting. The hospital is full of wounded.” When the smoke had cleared, 21 were dead and 150 were wounded. A human rights commission would later report that all had been gunned down by police. It was the biggest massacre in Puerto Rican history.

Related Resources

A Hurricane in the Classroom: Inside the Schools Ensnared in Puerto Rico’s Privatization Fever — and How Its Teachers Are Fighting Back” in Rethinking Schools (2018).

Caribbean Connections: Puerto Rico: A free collection of readings on Puerto Rico for the classroom from Teaching for Change.

More related resources below.