Why July 25 Is a Tragic Date in Puerto Rican History


Headstones commemorating two young independence activists, Carlos Soto Arriví and Arnaldo Darío Rosado, killed by the police on July 25, 1978, in Cerro Maravilla in the town of Villalba. Image taken from Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by Ratzer1 under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0).

July 25 is a day full of meaning for Puerto Ricans. Officially, the government celebrates Constitution Day to commemorate when that document was adopted in 1952. But there are two other historical events remembered on this day. One is the United States invasion of Puerto Rico in 1898. The other is the murder of two young pro-independence activists at the hands of the police, designed and concealed by the highest levels of the government in 1978. 

July 25, 1898: The invasion 

Although the United States invaded Puerto Rico in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, its interest in acquiring a stronghold in the Caribbean dates back much earlier, to at least the early 19th century. The intent behind the decision to take Puerto Rico was to establish naval bases that would maintain access to the proposed interoceanic canal, which would eventually be built by the United States in Panama. 

July 25, 1952: The Constitution of the Commonwealth

This is the official anniversary celebrated by the government of Puerto Rico, and one that holds great importance for the People's Democratic Party (PPD) for being closely linked to its origins, to the point of being one of its founding pillars. The PPD was the party in power during the drafting of the Constitution and the establishment of the Commonwealth. 

The date chosen to proclaim “the end of colonialism” in Puerto Rico was not chosen randomly, but was rather a conscious attempt to change the meaning of the date that marked the beginning of the U.S. colonial period in the country. With much fanfare, it was announced that Puerto Rico had achieved a form of non-colonial government, and this was presented to the international community as a “pact” or “agreement” between Puerto Rico and the U.S.  

Nonetheless, Puerto Rico's sovereignty still remained in the hands of the U.S. Congress and the Puerto Rican Constitution only entered into force after being approved by the U.S. Congress. Among the conditions imposed by the U.S. Congress were the elimination of Article II, Section 20, which established the right to work and to obtain higher education, among other rights; the requirement that any amendment to the Constitution be subject to approval by the U.S. Congress, and that no future amendment could alter the relationship with the U.S., as defined in the Federal Relations Act. 

The ratification of the Constitution occurred in an atmosphere of state repression. Act 53 of 1948, better known as the Gag Law, was enforced during this period. The law penalized any public expression in favor of overthrowing the government of Puerto Rico with a sentence equivalent to that of committing murder. 

The Gag Law suppressed two fundamental rights of any democracy: freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. As Dr. Ivonne Acosta Lespier, a blogger and scholar of the Gag Law, explained in a podcast for La Voz del Centro:

Más terrible era haber escrito, vendido algún libro donde se fomentara la revolución, que hacer la misma revolución. 

Having written something or selling a book where the revolution was encouraged was more terrible than actually sparking the revolution itself.  

As such, the pro-independence sector was criminalized with the intent to prevent it from massively participating in elections. This marked the beginning of the weakening of the independence movement as an electoral force, and it has not been able to recover to this day. For these reasons, many Twitter users, like Vivien Mattei, a communications professor at the Universidad Interamericana in Ponce, posted these comments on July 25: 

Today is a day to remember, not to celebrate #PuertoRico. Invaded, sold, murdered. 

July 25, 1978: The case of Cerro Maravilla

The reference to murder in Professor Mattei's tweet alludes to the assassination of two young pro-independence activists, Arnaldo Darío Rosado and Carlos Soto Arriví, at the hands of the police in Cerro Maravilla in the town of Villalba, south of the central highlands of Puerto Rico. The police claimed they fired shots in self-defense, and the official version of the events labeled the young men as terrorists. 

The Puerto Rican Senate's investigation, however, found that the young men had been executed. This investigation also found that there was suggestive evidence of a cover-up by the Puerto Rican police, the Department of Justice, and the executive branch. The FBI and the federal government's Department of Justice, who also investigated the case, were guilty of negligence, according to the report.  

Then-Governor Carlos Romero Barceló, a member of the New Progressive Party (PNP in Spanish), called the police responsible for the murders “heroes”, something that Romero Barceló now denies. Nonetheless, he agreed earlier that he had in fact said it, when questioned by the press.  

To remember one of the darkest chapters of Puerto Rico's history, the digital magazine Latino Rebels gathered a few videos that provide a good summary of the events in an article published on July 25. 

The Senate hearings were broadcast on television nationally. This made the Cerro Maravilla case one of the biggest media events in Puerto Rico with a profound impact on the future of television, journalism, and the public sphere. The radio program “Te cuento,” aired on Radio Universidad de Puerto Rico, dedicated a program on the importance of the televised hearings of the Cerro Maravilla case: 


So, is there something to celebrate on July 25? Perhaps the answer to this question comes from the lawyer, blogger, and LGBT activist Amárilis Pagán: 

The more they continue to dress it up, July 25 continues to be a day during which we must denounce infamy.

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