On Palm Sunday, March 31, 1937, Dominga de la Cruz jumped out of a crowd of peaceful Nationalist Party protestors to grab the Puerto Rican flag that a fellow protestor, felled by gunfire, had dropped.
Dominga is well-remembered in the history of Puerto Rico for that single heroic act during what is known as the Massacre at Ponce. Twenty people – unarmed protestors and innocent bystanders – were reported killed and another 200 were injured.
Dominga’s hardscrabble activist life is the subject of a new bilingual biography by Margaret Randall and Mariana McDonald called “Dominga Rescues the Flag/Dominga rescata la bandera.” It is largely told in Dominga’s own words from taped interviews with Randall.
Randall said Dominga contacted her when both were living in Havana, Cuba in the mid-1970s. Dominga had learned that Randall had done a series of oral histories of Cuban, Nicaraguan and Vietnamese women. “She called me because she said she was always known as ‘the woman who picked up the flag at Ponce.’ She said, ‘I had a life before that and I had a life after that, and I would like to leave my memories.’ ”
Dominga was born into a working-class family in Ponce in 1909. Her parents died when she was young. She loved poetry and became a famous, in-demand reciter (declamadora) in the tradition of those who read fiction, poetry and newspaper articles to workers in Puerto Rican cigar-making factories.
Dominga did that work before fleeing to Mexico in the face of repression over her pro-independence political activism. Then, facing harassment in Mexico, she went to Cuba after the 1959 revolution. Dominga was welcomed as a political refugee there, though life was austere.
Dominga died in Havana in 1981. “Her whole life she was absolutely devoted to the cause of independence for Puerto Rico,” said Randall, an Albuquerque resident, “though the independence movement has lost its power,” and many more Puerto Ricans now favor American statehood.
Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since 1898.
McDonald, who lives in Atlanta, said Dominga’s life reveals a courageous, talented person and “it is important to keep in mind that Dominga was “a woman, a Black and a Puerto Rican. All underline the importance of her story becoming known, understood and appreciated,” said McDonald, also the book’s editor and publisher.
“Race is a big factor in Puerto Rican society as in every place,” said Randall. “The darker you are, the poorer you are, the less advanced you are.”
The objective of the 1937 Ponce protest was to commemorate the abolition of slavery in 1873 on the then-Spanish-ruled island and to urge the release of Nationalist Party leaders imprisoned in the United States. Dominga was a protégé of the jailed Pedro Albizu Campos, the longtime party head.
McDonald said the biography was a finalist for Most Inspirational Nonfiction Book, Spanish or Bilingual, in the Latino Literacy Now’s International Latino Book Awards.
Randall has had three other books published this year – “I Never Left Home, A Memoir of Time and Place,” “My Life in 100 Objects,” a series of brief personal remembrances, and “Starfish on a Beach: The Pandemic Poems.”
The University of New Mexico awarded Randall an Honorary Doctorate in Letters in 2019. Her literary and photographic archives are housed at UNM’s Center for Southwest Research.
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