Blanca Canales

Doña Blanca Canales chuckled when I approached her with some incredulity to ask if she had really been one of the leaders of the October 30, 1950 Revolution. A grandmotherly, retired social worker, now in her eighties, she hardly seemed the type.

Born in the mountain town of Jayuya, she grew up in a Unionist family. She was drawn, however, to the Nationalist Party, which took a more militant stand on independence. She recalled wistfully the three months Pedro Albizu Campos and his daughter Laura spent in her home.

By 1950, following World War II and the Korean War, the United States was taking on a new role—that of a superpower. As it tightened its hold on Puerto Rico, Puerto Rican patriots were becoming more militant. In turn, they were being subjected to the Smith Act—the "Ley de la Mordaza," a law to silence anyone advocating the overthrow of the government by force of violence.

Blanca joined the Nationalist Cadets of the Republic. Though trained as nurses, women were taught, also, to march and to shoot. Social worker by day, militant by night, she played an active role in the preparation of the 1950 uprising. Munitions were stored in her home. By then, having been a Nationalist for twenty years, she was fired with patriotic zeal for liberation from "tyrannical forces." She realized, however, that up against the most powerful nation in the world, the Cadets could hope for nothing more than a heroic gesture.

The Nationalists had just celebrated the birthday of General Valero de Bernabe, who had fought with Bolívar for South American liberation. Word had come of a plan to assassinate Albizu. Events were happening too fast to delay plans for the uprising, so the Nationalists proceeded hastily with the revolution on October 30, before outside help had been able to arrive.

Assembled in the yard of her home in Coabey de Jayuya, those prepared to participate in the revolution were administered an oath by Blanca. Surrounding the Puerto Rican flag, they took the Albizu Campos oath to defend their country and flag with their lives if necessary.

As the Jayuya contingent struck out for City Hall, Blanca was the only woman among twenty young men. "I had been reading stories of heroines and imagined myself off to a crusade," she admitted with a smile.

Though proficient in shooting, Blanca was kept out of the fray by being assigned a post at the telephone. City Hall was attacked and fires set to the post office and Selective Service building. Blanca, in turn, climbed to a second floor hotel balcony and shouted, "¡Viva Puerto Rico Libre!" thus proclaiming the Republic.

The rebellion was soon quelled, both in Jayuya and in other communities throughout Puerto Rico. In Ponce, three police had been killed and seven civil workers wounded. In Arecibo, the police department had been fired on.

The town of Jayuya was in the power of the revolutionaries for three days in spite of bombardment by planes and artillery of the United States National Guard. Finally, on November 1, when the National Guard entered Blanca's barrio, the revolutionaries surrendered to avoid its devastation.

Though Blanca had not fired a shot, witnesses claimed that she had killed a policeman. This drew her a life sentence. For the burning of the post office, a Federal offense, Blanca was given an eleven-year sentence at Alderson Federal Penitentiary. There, she met briefly with Lolita Lebrón, who had been involved in the 1954 shoot-up in the United States Congress. After 5½ years, she was sent to a prison in Puerto Rico for the life sentence. However, this was eventually commuted by Governor Sánchez Villela.

From the 1950 rebellion a stronger patriotic movement emerged. Independentista candidates received the highest number of votes ever.

Undaunted by her seventeen years of imprisonment, Blanca held firm to the cause of independence. "We have to keep working even if it takes a hundred years," she vowed, the softness of her voice belying the strength of her convictions. Though living a quiet life in a government housing project, she is still under surveillance, her phone tapped, her every move checked by a woman undercover agent. But strong in her Catholic faith and patriotism, she remains unafraid.