Puerto Ricans Responded to JFK’s Death with Grief, Even Suicide

JFK

(Cover photo via El Diario-La Prensa)

John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s death 50 years ago Friday shook the world and touched very deeply the New York Hispanic community, which idolized the first Catholic U.S. President, as evidenced by this headline of El Diario-La Prensa the next day: “Kennedy, like Christ the Lord, had to die in sacrifice,” by columnist Luisa Quintero.

In that same issue, Nov. 23, 1963, El Diario’s owner O. Roy Chalk wrote in an editorial entitled “Martyr”: “Just like Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, [Kennedy] was assassinated in the heat of his fight for human rights and for equal opportunities.”

The Puerto Rican community in particular adored the President. The report “Boricua hearts cry the immolation of a martyr,” by Víctor Mangual, described the sadness of Juan González, 42, who lived with his five children on 38 Bristol St. in Brooklyn:

“The Puerto Rican Juan knelt in front of a small improvised altar at a corner of his house, and along with his wife Leonor prayed [for Kennedy], whom he considered ‘like my father’. (…) ‘I feel the death of the President as if he was the person I loved the most. I only wish they let me deal with the assassin, so I can do justice.'”

The Dallas assassination had such an impact in Puerto Rico that it brought two men to commit suicide. On November 27, Juan Flores Rivera took his life in the town of Juncos, and the next day William Nieto Ramírez did the same in Maunabo. Both were 44.

(Cover photo via El Diario-La Prensa)

(Cover photo via El Diario-La Prensa)

El Diario-La Prensa, which back then was also published in Puerto Rico, interviewed Nieto’s widow, Isabel Steidel Gádiz, who said her husband had been crying for a long time as he watched the news on TV, and that she and her 16 year-old son tried to comfort him.

“He stood up and walked toward our bedroom. (…) He came back to the living room with a gun in his hand, screaming: ‘I’m going to kill myself, too!'” the widow said. “While he was pointing the gun at his head, my son and I ran towards him. ‘For goodness sake, William, don’t do it!’ I screamed.” A struggle ensued, but “as much as we fought to take his gun, he managed to shoot himself in the head.”

In New York, the Latino community joined the national mourning by closing businesses and officiating masses in Spanish, for example at Harlem’s La Milagrosa church (today, Mount Neboh Baptist Church). Theaters also closed, including the popular Teatro Puerto Rico on Brook Avenue in the Bronx, which suspended a show with performers Luis Aguilar and Mapy Cortés.

Among other homages, on November 25 the Puerto Rico Institute, led by its director Luis Quero Chiesa, organized a memorial service at Columbia University, along with such community leaders as Gilberto Gerena Valentín, then president of the Puerto Rican parade; then commissioner Herman Badillo, and a group of Cuban exiles that included journalist Guillermo Martínez Márquez.

El Diario’s newsroom observed two minutes of silence: One on November 22, when the President’s death was announced, and another one on November 25, during his burial at Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery, at the proposal of editor Sergio Santelices.

Since that day, the relationship of the Hispanic community and the newspaper with the Kennedy family remained very close. In 1966, then U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy inaugurated, along with Puerto Rico’s Gov. Luis Muñoz Marín, the new offices of El Diario-La Prensa at 181 Hudson St.

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  1. Pingback: JFK: Some Claim Him, Some Shun Him | Voices of NY

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