In 1899, Jose Celso Barbosa and a group of supporters founded Puerto Rico’s first political party dedicated to promoting statehood with the United States. At the time, he explained, “[w]e want and we ask for equality. Not colonial control or protection. We [support] the same ideal of the American union with equality in rights and in duties.”
Barbosa was born on July 27th, 1857, in Bayamon, Puerto Rico. He went to New York in 1875 to attend prep school, learning English in a year and then studying medicine at the University of Michigan, where he was valedictorian of his class in 1880.
At that time, Puerto Rico belonged to Spain, and the government wouldn’t recognize Barbosa’s U.S. medical credentials. Only with assistance from the American consulate was Barbosa able to establish a medical practice in his home town.
In 1898, the United States attacked San Juan, and Barbosa was decorated by the Spanish for his bravery and medical service. Yet Barbosa had for some years been arguing for greater autonomy from Spain and sought to end Puerto Rico’s colonial status. The governmental model of the United States appealed to him, and Barbosa saw the change in sovereignty as an opportunity for Puerto Rico to gain a useful level of self-government — as a state in the United States.
The following year, Barbosa began his quest for statehood for Puerto Rico. From 1900 to 1917, Barbosa served as a member of the Cabinet in Puerto Rico. During this time, he worked for U.S. citizenship for Puerto Ricans, succeeding in 1917. He served in the Puerto Rican Senate from 1917 until his death in 1921.
While Barbosa is celebrated — and his birthday is an official holiday — largely because of his political work, he was also an active medical practitioner and public servant. He taught at the Athenaeum and worked to create quality public education. He developed a plan whereby employers could invest in their workers’ health care, which was much like the employee insurance plans of today, and he founded the first Credit Union in the Western Hemisphere. He launched the first bilingual newspaper in Puerto Rico, El Tiempo, and was a regular columnist for it. In his day, Barbosa was known as a humanitarian and a visionary.
Barbosa also faced and overcame racial prejudice both in Puerto Rico and on the mainland. He was rejected by Columbia University due to his ethnicity. Objections to his medical practice upon his return to Puerto Rico were motivated, it is said, not so much by his American degree as by his ethnic heritage, which included African and American as well as European strains. Barbosa’s work for equality became his primary political as well as professional motivation. He wrote, “Puerto Rico aspires to reach all the rights granted by U.S. Citizenship, in the same method, in the same manner, under the same form, and under the full integrity as the one enjoyed by the residents of any of the regions that are called States of the American Union. To that we aspire, that is what we want, that is what we shall have.” (As quoted by Governor Fortuno in the House of Representatives)
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