By Efrain Nieves & Victoria Cepeda
Often times we witness or read stories about individuals that were ahead of their era. The saying goes “inquisitive minds want to know” and, for me, it’s the the need to learn more about the history of Puerto Rico that drives me. Having been born in the US, schools only taught me about US History.
Why the quest to learn more about my parents’ birth country and its history? Because we are nothing without better understanding our origin. As such, while reading an article last night I came across a link to the biography of an individual whose name may be familiar to some of you but of whom I had zero knowledge of. Thus, I felt compelled to write and speak about him in an effort to learn as well as teach others that, like me, know very little about historical people of Puerto Rico. His name was Dr. José Celso Barbosa commonly known as the The Father of the Statehood for Puerto Rico movement. Both an admired and controversial figure who deserves to have his story told.
José Celso Barbosa was born on July 27th, 1857 in Bayamón, Puerto Rico. He was of African and European/Amerindian ancestry and the first mulatto to attend and graduate from Puerto Rico’s prestigious Jesuit school. Barbosa set his sights on higher learning and saved money for college by tutoring students. In 1875, he moved to New York where he attended prep school and learned English in only a year. He became the first Puerto Rican with an American medical degree when he studied medicine at the University of Michigan. He graduated as the valedictorian of his class in 1880.
Afterwards, he went back to the island to practice medicine. The Spanish government, at first, did not recognize his degree as it was not granted by an European institution. However, the American Consul to Puerto Rico intervened on his behalf and the Spanish had to recognize Barbosa’s degree.
Dr. Barbosa had many more accomplishments that included the first Puerto Rican cooperative in 1893 named “El Ahorro Colectivo,” forming the pro-statehood Republican party in 1899 following the Spanish-American war and the establishment in 1907 of the first bilingual newspaper of the island called El Tiempo. He also served in the Puerto Rican senate from 1917 -1921.
Barbosa’s fervor towards the US was due to the accomplishments, recognition and opportunity this nation afforded him. A man of mixed race slighted by his own had a chance to demonstrate his intelligence and leadership here in the US and took all that he had learned back home to help his countrymen and women. Whether his pro-statehood stance was a favorable thing for Puerto Rico or not is not the argument here but that he felt people like him had little chance at advancement in the island. Prejudice due to a colonial mentality only favored European descendants. Therefore, he decided, in his own way, to help end the oppression. Today, the debate still remains as to which way Puerto Rico will go; statehood or independence. Nonetheless, one thing remains and that is Barbosa’s zealous safeguarding of the Puerto Rican identity and its cultural heritage. This is something he advocated for all of his life.
Puerto Rico celebrates the accomplishments of Dr. Barbosa and his contributions to their history and declared his birthday, July 27th a national holiday.
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