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September 23rd, Grito de Lares: An Underrated Puerto Rican Commemoration

I remember growing up and not understanding why people celebrate certain holidays. For example, I never understood Labor Day. Why are you supposed to celebrate work if, ideally, no one should have to work just to live? I know it might be a bit too early to make such a controversial statement—but bear with me, I’ve only begun. 

Every year, during the summer, I asked myself why at the beginning of July we had to shoot fireworks in the sky. Well, my family didn’t, but we watched other people do it. It wasn’t until high school that I understood, more or less, what was going on. 

As a colony, Puerto Rico has fallen into the habit of adopting foreign holidays. Our celebration of these holidays makes no sense on an ideological level or a personal level. Either that or this is just one of many millions of excuses that people in Puerto Rico use to justify the party lifestyle that’s often attributed to our culture. I could understand that, back then, but now, I feel differently about it. There are so many achievements and wonderful milestones to celebrate in our culture and our heritage, but we choose to set apart a weekend for a Declaration of Independence that we haven’t even formally had (or at least achieved—read on)! Why don’t we celebrate something that actually represents us? 

Enter September 23rd, 1868. Grito de Lares was the first massively-organized rebellion that Puerto Ricans launched against Spanish colonial rule. It signified a declaration of national identity and sovereignty that Boricuas would seek after time and time again in the years to come. It was a consequence of horrible labor conditions, social inequalities, and a colonial rule that zapped the living force out of thousands. 

Despite all of the setbacks and losses that the organizers suffered at the time (like a loss of ammunition and weapons, transportation, and an interception of several leaders at different points on the island), the people were set on fighting, at all costs. The planned rebellion was moved an entire week earlier than planned amidst insecurity and having the odds against them. They managed to take Lares and symbolically declare Puerto Rico’s independence, not knowing about the trap that the Spanish military had set up in their next possible uprising spot, San Sebastián. 

Approximately 500 people were arrested, and despite being considered a failure, this rebellion set a precedent for other social movements in Puerto Rico, plus it opened up the doors for the abolishment of slavery in Puerto Rico in 1873, and later, the partial adoption of a Spanish bill of rights for Puerto Rican citizens. In a sense, the failure was only technical, as it became a fundamental part of what it means to fight for being Puerto Rican.

Nowadays, Grito de Lares is an annual celebration held in the mountain city of Lares, Puerto Rico. Every year, hundreds of Puerto Ricans gather to commemorate the rebellion that sparked a sense of urgency concerning national identity. This year’s celebration was more politically charged than usual due to the summer of 2019’s social movement of Puerto Rican citizens who demanded the resignation of ex-governor Ricardo Rosselló. Despite the yearly attendance, it could and should be more celebrated!

This celebration is usually a solemn one that’s packed with independence supporters and proud Puerto Ricans alike, but I think that it would be refreshing if, in the future, people began to normalize this day as a day that can be both politically charged and festive. People should feel proud of the fact that their ancestors stood up to injustice and believed that a better way of living was possible, and demanding it through control of our culture was only the beginning. As a matter of fact, Puerto Rico’s political status is still unresolved.

Today, Puerto Ricans still live under a colonial state that has been denounced by activists, political leaders, social movements, and foreign states. Puerto Rico’s political status has been a controversial topic that has remained in public discussion for more than a hundred years now. The United Nations’ efforts to decolonize territories back in the 20th century were basically evaded by technical loopholes that Puerto Rican politicians and the US government both exploited. Many still feel the psychological weight of censorship laws from the 20th century that made it illegal to even discuss the possibility of Puerto Rico existing as a sovereign state, but we’re not living under those laws anymore. Things need to change.

That being said, it’s not surprising that there aren’t more people celebrating September 23rd the same way that people celebrate Bastille day or the 4th of July, but it shouldn’t excuse us. Ideally, I think that people will begin to celebrate this day with more vigor and appreciation once Puerto Rican society understands that, along with demanding accountability from our leaders, we need to demand it from those who have even more power over our society. Along with that, I hope that we will begin to take more seriously the consequences of living under less-than-favorable political regimes that undermine our culture, people, necessities, and lifestyles. 

Happy (and worth celebrating) belated September 23rd!

Luis is a 24-year-old writer, editor and journalist recently graduated from the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras. He majored in Creative Writing and Communications and has bylines published under Her Campus, Pulso Estudiantil and El Nuevo Día. During his final year of college, Luis worked as Senior Editor for Her Campus at UPR, Editor in Chief of Digital News at Pulso Estudiantil and interned at El Nuevo Día. He seeks to portray the stories of societies, subcultures and identities that have remained in the dark. Check all of his stories out at Muckrack! https://muckrack.com/luis-alfaro-perez
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