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Remembering Vito Marcantonio

On August 9, 61 years ago, the Puerto Rican community in New York lost one of its most important figures. Though not Puerto Rican, he was then known as El Barrio’s political padrino and Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress. On that date in 1954, Vito Marcantonio, former congressman and political boss, representing El Barrio, Italian East Harlem and Yorkville, passed away.

From 1934 through 1950 Puerto Ricans in El Barrio voted massively for him. Interestingly, researchers have paid more attention to Marcantonio’s political positions regarding Puerto Rico and ignored that what really kept him in office was the formidable political machine that he operated, which delivered services to his constituents. Marcantiono’s style was a personal one—every weekend he traveled from Washington to El Barrio where he spent Saturdays and Sundays meeting his constituents face-to-face, on a first come, first serve basis, at his political club at 247 East 116th Street. While Marc’s political machine did some personal favors (like fix tickets) it mainly assisted his constituents by directing them through proper channels to the appropriate sources (most common issues were problems with welfare benefits, housing complains, seeking public housing, interventions with the government buraucracy, and employment oportunities). Meyer, in his biography about Marcantonio, documents that his district fullfiled thirty-five thousand personal requests between 1946-1948 and thirty-three thousand between 1948–1950. Also important was Marcantonio's, through its lawyers and block captains, in helping Puerto Ricans register to vote in NYC elections, and in helping tenants fight unlawful evictions by landlords that took place during, and after, the Great Depression.

The importance of Marcantonio for the Puerto Rican community is highlighted by Gilberto Gerena Valentín, the foremost Puerto Rican civil rights leader during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, in a chapter (Chapter 17. The Puerto Rican Community Loses Its Strongest Ally: The Death of Marcantonio) from his memoirs that we reproduce below. As Gerena writes in his memoirs (Gilberto Gerena Valentín: My Life as a Community Activist, Labor Organizer and Progressive Politician in New York City) the loss was deeply felt in El Barrio.

For more information on Vito Marcantonio we recommend Gerald Meyer’s excellent biography, Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician, 1902–1954. Gerena Valentín, who among other positions within the Marcantonio organization served as District Captain in El Barrio for the American Labor Party, in other chapters of his memoirs recounts the day-to-day organizing of Puerto Ricans done by Marcantonio. The following websites are dedicated to keeping Marcantonio’s legacy alive: Vito Marcantonio Website, Vito Marcantonio Forum and Vito Marcantonio Online.

Xavier F. Totti

Chapter 17. The Puerto Rican Community Loses Its Strongest Ally: The Death of Marcantonio

By Gilberto Gerena Valentín

Looking back, I see that 1950 was an extremely difficult year, not just for me personally but for the Puerto Rican community in New York City. Several events directly related to the island’s political status would have a profound effect on our community.

In 1940, the Popular Democratic Party (PDP), under the leadership of Luis Muñoz Marín, won the legislative elections in Puerto Rico. With that victory, and in the context of the war, a process of redefinition of the colonial relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States began. As part of its economic program, the PDP promoted the massive migration of Puerto Rican workers to the United States.

Between 1945 and 1950, the Puerto Rican community in Harlem grew very quickly. First, the Fifth Avenue border was broken through. From there, the community spread over to Madison, then Third, and so on until reaching First Avenue, which was the Italian stronghold at the time. And with this expansion, the influence and political power of Vito Marcantonio increased exponentially in East Harlem.

There were two very strong ethnic groups in East Harlem. To the east, there was the Italian community, which was quite large. On the western side, we Puerto Ricans were in the majority. With the Puerto Rican vote, Marc, who was of Italian descent, was always elected to Congress. At the borough level, the Italians controlled the Democratic Party and through it, the state Senate and Assembly and the city council.

In 1949, Italian-American Carmine DeSapio became the leader of Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party machine that dominated politics in New York City during the fifties. DeSapio, who was later associated with organized crime in the city, pretty much had a monopoly on political appointments in New York City, with the exception of El Barrio. There, Marcantonio was considered invincible. He had defeated the Democrats, the Republicans, and even, in 1948, a coalition of the Republican Party and the recently created Liberal Party. This last group was led by dissidents from the American Labor Party who were opposed to the presence of Communists in its leadership. The Liberal Party was run by David Dubinsky, president of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). This union was composed largely of Puerto Ricans, most of those, women, who worked in the clothing industry. Dubinsky believed that many of these workers would follow him and vote against Marcantonio. He was wrong.

Finally, in 1950, the three parties—Democratic, Republican, and Liberal— joined forces to defeat Marcantonio in the congressional election. To do that, they presented as their single candidate a reactionary named James Donovan, a drunk Irishman who was a member of the Democratic machinery of Tammany Hall. Donovan was also the candidate of the German Bund, a pro- Fascist, racist group in the district that saluted in the Nazi style and joined the campaign to defeat the protector of the “Porto Ricans.”

Click on the photo for additional images

In that united front against Marcantonio some lesser members were Luis Muñoz Marín and the Popular Democratic Party. Marc’s support for Puerto Rican independence, which dated from the thirties, was still unyielding. Now, at a time when the PDP was seeking to negotiate a colonial arrangement with the government of the United States, Marc’s continued defense of the island’s independence in the U.S. Congress was an obstacle that had to be overcome. In 1949, Antonio Fernós Isern, Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner in Washington, D.C., presented a bill in Congress, HR-7674, that contained the legal basis for the creation of the so-called Commonwealth, the “Estado Libre Asociado” or “Free Associated State” of Puerto Rico. In the public hearings, Marc was stubbornly opposed to the bill. He argued on behalf of his own bill, which would in time lead to independence for Puerto Rico. He also strongly protested the fact that the hearings were held in Washington and not in Puerto Rico, thereby limiting the participation of Puerto Ricans who were opposed to HR-7674. To partially remedy that situation, a group of independence advocates and I created the Political Action Committee for the Independence of Puerto Rico and we asked to be heard during the hearings. I was chosen to present our opposition to Fernos’ colonialist bill. The PDP mobilized its people in New York and sent several of its leaders, including the mayor of San Juan, doña Felisa Rincón de Gautier, to aid in the three-party effort to silence Vito Marcantonio’s dissident voice.

The campaign against Marc was extremely virulent. Accusations that he was a “Red,” that he promoted the migration of Puerto Ricans to New York in order to strengthen his electoral base, and that the American Labor Party was a Communist front were the order of the day. His opponents also used against him the fact that he was the only congressman who had voted against the war in Korea. A few days before the election, another element was added to the campaign when, on October 30, the Nationalist Revolution broke out in Puerto Rico.

Two days later, on November 1, the phone rang in Marcantonio’s office in Harlem. They were calling from his office in Washington to give him the news that a Nationalist attempt had been made on the life of president Harry S. Truman. In the shootout, a police officer and one of the Nationalists had been killed. The other Nationalist was badly wounded. The dead man’s name was Griselio Torresola; the wounded man was Oscar Collazo. Marc rushed to Washington. He put aside his campaign itinerary to attend an emergency session of Congress called to discuss the matter of the assassination attempt against the president. When the session opened, Marc asked for the floor. He spoke in defense of the Puerto Rican people. He explained the situation of Puerto Rico to the people of the United States and pleaded that the Puerto Rican communities across the United States not be harmed, that there be no revenge taken against them. His was the only voice raised in defense of our community in Congress.

Meanwhile, physical attacks against Puerto Ricans in New York became common. Tempers were being fired up by the sensationalist press, which insinuated that wherever there was a Puerto Rican, a bomb was being made. That “news” certainly sold a lot of newspapers! “Puerto Ricans go home!” “Puerto Ricans tried to kill our president!”

As soon as he came back from Washington, Marc created a committee to raise money for the defense of Oscar Collazo, who had been accused of the death of a police officer and the attempted murder of two other people. The jury found him guilty as charged, despite the fact that it was proven that Collazo had not fired the bullet that killed the police officer, and the judge sentenced him to die in the electric chair. At that, we decided to launch a campaign to gather a hundred thousand signatures to ask that his death penalty be commuted. Marc put me in charge of that effort.

Since it was just then that I was in the process of organizing the Puerto Rican town and city clubs, I used that organizational structure to raise support in the community. We also created a broad committee to take the campaign not just to New York City but also into New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The petition was a tremendous success. In less than a month we gathered the hundred thousand signatures we wanted. In 1952, in response to this and other demands, President Truman commuted Collazo’s death sentence to life in prison. The news came one week before the date Collazo had been scheduled for execution. That same year, on July 25, Luis Muñoz Marín inaugurated the farcical “Commonwealth” in Puerto Rico.

While all this was taking place, in New York City the conditions our community faced were deteriorating even further. Prejudice against Puerto Ricans was on the rise. In the congressional elections of 1950, Marc was defeated by a coalition of reactionary forces with the support of the Popular Democratic Party. Donovan, the alcoholic Irish machine candidate, was elected. Marc’s popularity in the district, however, was clear. Despite a campaign of fear and hatred run by the Liberal-Democratic-Republican coalition, and the advertising and other propaganda against Marcantonio in the city’s major newspapers, he received forty percent of the votes.

Over the next four years, Marc dedicated himself to his legal practice. From his offices, he continued to struggle in defense of the poor and of everyone’s civil rights. In 1953 he broke with the ALP and the next year, 1954, he decided to run again for Congress, this time as an independent. One morning in August of that year, he fell dead of a heart attack in the park across the street from City Hall. People passed by his body without even stopping, thinking he was just some drunk. Finally, a kind soul took pity on him, touched the body, and saw that he was dead. An ambulance was called and in time his body was taken to the Giordano Funeral Home on 116th St. and Third Avenue. There, our community turned out in force to pay our respects to the man who had been our leader, Vito Marcantonio.

The hatred of the far right followed my friend to the grave. Although Marcantonio had been a devout Catholic, Cardinal Francis Spellman, a rabid anti-Communist and fervent defender of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, refused to allow him to be buried by the church. Marcantonio was finally buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. His funeral was the largest ever seen in East Harlem.

That same year, 1954, Donovan lost the congressional election. Disgusted with his behavior, DeSapio backed Alfred Santangelo, one of his lieutenants in Harlem, in the primaries. Donovan ran as the Republican Party candidate, but he was defeated by the Democrats. District 18, the only one not controlled by the Democratic Party during the thirties and forties, had now fallen under the control of Tammany Hall. The ALP, in turn, without the charismatic figure of Marcantonio and weakened by internal strife, fell apart, and in 1956 it was formally dissolved. It was hard for us to fill Marc’s shoes. Politically, we were orphans.

© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 14 August 2015.