Hispanic Americans in Congress, 1822-1995
One of the most famous men in the political history of Puerto Rico, Luis Muñoz Rivera, devoted his life to the struggle for the political autonomy of Puerto Rico. In addition to his political activities, he had literary talents and published two collections of verses - Retamas in 1891 and Tropicales in 1902. He was born in Barranquitas, Puerto Rico on July 17, 1859. He attended a local private school, and later worked in his father's store. His interest in the Puerto Rican social and political situation soon led him into journalism, diplomacy, and politics.
In 1887 Muñoz Rivera became one of the founders of the Autonomist Party, which sought to establish an independent government for Puerto Rico under the Spanish colonial system. To provide a voice for the Autonomist Party, Muñoz Rivera founded the newspaper La Democracia. In it he argued for Puerto Rican independence, denounced the injustices of the Spanish regime, and lobbied for the support of one of the main political parties in Spain to fulfill the goals of the Autonomist party.
In 1893 Muñoz Rivera went to Spain to learn about its politics. Upon his return he helped draft the Plan de Ponce, which sought political identity and administrative autonomy for the people of Puerto Rico. In March 1895 he returned to Spain as part of a four-member commission that met with Praxedes Mateo Sagasta, the leader of the Liberal Party. Sagasta signed a pact which stated that if he and the liberals assumed power in Spain, he would grant Puerto Rico autonomy. The Liberal Party of Puerto Rico endorsed the pact.
In November 1897 Sagasta granted the Autonomist Charter and Muñoz Rivera was appointed Secretary of State and Chief of the Cabinet of the newly independent Government of Puerto Rico. He served in this position until the July 1898 U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico and establishment of a military government.
In 1899 Muñoz Rivera founded the newspaper El Territorio, which expressed the concerns of Puerto Rican landowners, who were unable to export their crops due to a U.S.-imposed trade blockade. Muñoz Rivera travelled to the U.S. that same year, and unsuccessfully attempted to establish free-trade relations between Puerto Rico and the United States. The defeat prompted him to move to New York where he could gauge American feelings towards Puerto Rico and be better prepared to campaign to amend the U.S.-imposed Organic Act, also known as the Foraker Act.
In 1901, while living in New York, Muñoz Rivera established the Puerto Rican Herald, a bilingual newspaper. In the first issue Muñoz Rivera wrote an open letter to President McKinley in which he lambasted the Foraker Act as a disgrace to both the United States and Puerto Rico.
Muñoz Rivera returned to Puerto Rico in 1904 and became one of the founders of the Unionist Party. In 1906 he was elected to the House of Delegates as a Unionist and was twice reelected, serving until 1910, when he was elected Resident Commissioner to the U.S. House of Representatives.
In Congress Muñoz Rivera continued his crusade against the Foraker Act. Although he spoke brilliantly in Spanish, he did not speak English fluently. He studied English in the evenings in order to successfully present his arguments to Congress and the President, with whom he met to discuss a change in the political status of the Island. President Woodrow Wilson stated that the Unionist Party would have to abandon the goal of independence to get the administration's approval to amend the Foraker Act. Muñoz Rivera conceded and autonomy became the goal of the Unionist Party.
The work of Muñoz Rivera led to the enactment of the Jones Act. On May 23, 1916 the U.S. House of Representatives approved this legislation and sent it to the Senate where, after a number of modifications, it was signed into law by President Wilson on March 2, 1917. The Jones Act granted United States citizenship to Puerto Ricans; it also gave the Puerto Rican Government more autonomy by establishing a two-chamber legislative assembly, which included a nineteen-member Senate and a thirty-nine-member House of Delegates, elected by universal male suffrage.
Muñoz Rivera did not live long enough to see the fruits of his labor; he returned to Puerto Rico in September, 1916, ill with cancer. He died on November 15, 1916. Puerto Ricans turned out en masse for his funeral.
For further reading:
Figueroa, Javier. Diccionario histórico biográfico. Madrid: Ediciones R Madrid. 1976.
Norris, Marianna. Father and Son for Freedom. New York.: Dodd, Mead & Company. 1968.
Rosa-Nieves, Cesáreo and Esther M. Melón. Biografías Puertorriqueñas: Perfil histórico de un pueblo. Sharon, Connecticut: Troutman Press, 1970.