Puerto Rican women in the military

Puerto Rican women in the military

One of the least known roles played by Puerto Rican women has been that of revolutionists and soldiers. This is a brief account of some the Puerto Rican women who have participated in military actions either as members of a political revolutionary movement or the Armed Forces of the United States.


When Puerto Rico was a Spanish Colony, Puerto Rican women were commonly known for their roles as mothers and housekeepers. Women's rights were unheard of and their contributions to the islands' society were limited. However, women in Puerto Rico began to express themselves with their literary work during the 19th century. Among these women was Maria Bibiana Benitez who was Puerto Rico's first poetess and playwright. In 1832, she published her first poem "La Ninfa de Puerto Rico" [http://www.plazaguaitiao.com/mb106-4/messages/125.html La Ninfa de Puerto Rico a la Justicia] ] and her niece, Alejandrina Benitez de Gautier, whose "Aguinaldo Puertorriqueño" was published in 1843, gave her the recognition of being one of the island's great poets. [ [http://artesliberales.bc.inter.edu/jquintana/TodoWeb/Todo%20PR/Biograf%EDas/Bb.htm Bios] ]

During the 20th century, some of the women in the island became active as union organizers, such as in the case of Luisa Capetillo [ [http://www.anarco-nyc.net/history/history4.html Luisa Capetillo] ] and involved in politics, as was the case of Felisa Rincón de Gautier. [ [http://www.zonai.com/promociones/biografias/0101/josecampeche.asp El Nuevo Dia] ]

Even though women in the past had actively participated in the revolt against Spain, it wouldn't be until the United States entered World War II that the military would open its doors to Puerto Rican women.

"La Rogativa"

According to a popular Puerto Rican legend, British troops were besieging San Juan, Puerto Rico on the night of April 30, 1797. The townswomen, led by a bishop, formed a "rogativa" (prayer procession) and marched throughout the streets of the city singing hymns and carrying torches while at the same time praying for the deliverance of the City. Outside the walls, the invaders mistook the torch-lit movement for the arrival of Spanish reinforcements. When morning came, they were gone from the island and the city was saved from a possible invasion. Four statues, sculptured by Lindsay Daen in the "Plazuela de la Rogativa" (Rogativa Plaza) in Old San Juan, pay tribute to the bishop and townswomen who participated in "La Rogativa". [ [http://www.lindsaydaen.com/pages/page10.htm Lindsay Daen] ]

Revolt against Spain

Puerto Rico had witnessed various slave revolts and minor calls for independence from Spain during its history, but none compared to what was to become known as "El Grito de Lares". This call for independence was organized by a group of prominent Puerto Ricans led by Dr. Ramón Emeterio Betances and Segundo Ruiz Belvis. Hundreds of men, slaves and women participated in the short-lived revolution.. [Moscoso, Francisco, "La Revolución Puertorriqueña de 1868: El Grito de Lares," Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, 2003] Of all the women who participated in the revolt, two have become part of Puerto Rican legend and lore:

:Lola Rodríguez de Tio believed in the cause of furthering women's rights and equality, the abolition of slavery and she actively participated in the Puerto Rican Independence Movement. Inspired by Ramon Emeterio Betances's quest for Puerto Rico's independence and by the attempted revolution called the "Grito de Lares", she wrote the patriotic lyrics to the existing tune of La Borinqueña. [Toledo, Josefina, "Lola Rodríguez de Tió - Contribución para un estudio integral", Librería Editorial Ateneo, San Juan, Puerto Rico, 2002]

:Mariana Bracetti, "Brazo de Oro" (Golden Arm), was the wife of revolution leader Manuel Rojas. Bracetti knitted the Lares Revolutionary Flag, taking into consideration suggestions made by Betances. Upon the failure of the revolution, Bracetti was imprisoned in Arecibo along with the other survivors and later released.The Women from Puerto Rico. [http://users.aol.com/boriken01/mariana.htm "Mariana Bracetti"] . Retrieved on September 26, 2007.]

World War I

Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States in accordance to the agreement reached in the 1898 Treaty of Paris which officially ended the Spanish-American War. In 1917, with the advent of World War I, the United States approved the Jones-Shafroth Act which conferred U.S. citizenship on Puerto Ricans. Puerto Ricans, with the exception of the women, were eligible for the draft. [http://www.womensmemorial.org/H&C/History/historypr.html Women's Military Memorial] ]

When the United States entered World War I, the U.S. Army Medical Corps believed that they had enough male physicians to cover their needs. By 1918, the Army realized that there was a shortage of physicians specializing in anesthesia, a low-salary specialty required in the military operating rooms. Therefore, the Army reluctantly began hiring women physicians as civilian contract employees. One of the first civilian doctors contracted by the Army was a Puerto Rican woman, who despite the fact that she was not an active member of the military, contributed with her professional skills to the war effort. [http://www.womensmemorial.org/H&C/History/historypr.html Women's Military Memorial] ]

Dr. Dolores Piñero, born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, was the first Puerto Rican woman doctor to serve in the Army under contract. In 1913, Dr. Piñero had earned her medical degree from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Boston, Massachusetts. She set up her medical and anesthesia practice in what was then the town of Rio Piedras (it is now a section of San Juan). Upon the outbreak of World War I, she applied for a position as a contract surgeon only to be turned down. After writing a letter to the Army Surgeon General in Washington, D.C. explaining her intentions, she received a telegram ordering her to report to Camp Las Casas at Santurce, Puerto Rico. On October 1918, She signed her contract with the Army. [http://www.womensmemorial.org/H&C/History/historypr.html Women's Military Memorial] ]

She was assigned to the San Juan base hospital where she worked as an anesthesiologist during the mornings and in the laboratory during the afternoons. Dr. Piñero and four male colleagues received orders to open a 400-bed hospital in Ponce, Puerto Rico, to care for the patients who had been infected with the influenza or as it was also known "the Swine Flu". The Swine Flu had swept through Army camps and training posts around the world, infecting one quarter of all soldiers and killing more than 55,000 American troops. After the flu epidemic ended, Dr. Piñero was ordered back to the Army base hospital at San Juan. Dr. Dolores Piñero returned to her private practice in Rio Piedras after her contract was terminated at the end of the war. [http://www.womensmemorial.org/H&C/History/historypr.html Women's Military Memorial] ]

World War II

When the United States entered World War II, the military was in need of nurses. Puerto Rican nurses wanted to volunteer for service, however they were not accepted into the Army or Navy Nurse Corps. As a result, many of the island's women work force migrated to the mainland U.S. to work in the factories which produced military equipment.In 1944, the Army sent recruiters to the island to recruit no more than 200 women for the Women's Army Corps (WAC). Over 1,000 applications were received for the unit which was to be composed of only 200 women. The Puerto Rican WAC unit was assigned to the Port of Embarkation of New York City, after their basic training at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. They were assigned to work in military offices which planned the shipment of troops around the world. [http://www.womensmemorial.org/Education/PRHistory.html Puerto Rican Woman in Defense of our country] ]

That same year the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) decided to accept Puerto Rican nurses. Thirteen women submitted applications, were interviewed, underwent physical examinations, and were accepted into the ANC. Eight of these nurses were assigned to the Army Post at San Juan, where they were valued for their bilingual abilities. Five nurses were assigned to work at the hospital at Camp Tortuguero, Puerto Rico. [http://www.womensmemorial.org/Education/PRHistory.html Puerto Rican Woman in Defense of our country] ]

The Navy also recruited a small number of Puerto Rican women as members of the Navy Women’s Reserve known as WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) during World War II. Among the women who served in the military and distinguished themselves were:Tech4 Carmen Contreras-Bozak (born December 31, 1919 in Cayey, Puerto Rico), was the first Hispanic to serve in the U.S. Women's Army Corps as an interpreter and in numerous administrative positions.

She arrived in Northern Africa on January 27, 1943 and rendered overseas duties in Algiers within General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s theatre headquarters. Her responsibilities included the transmission of encoded messages to the battlefield. [ [http://www.utopia.utexas.edu/explore/latino/narratives/07Bozak_Carmen.html Young woman's life defined by service in Women's Army Corp] , Retrieved 2006-07-22] Second Lieutenant Carmen Lozano Dumler (born 1924 in San Juan, Puerto Rico), was one of the first Puerto Rican women to become a United States Army officer.

In 1945, Lozano Dumler was assigned to the 359th Station Hospital of Ft. Read, Trinidad & Tobago, British West Indies, where she attended wounded soldiers who had returned from Normandy, France. [http://www.womensmemorial.org/Education/PRHistory.html Puerto Rican Woman in Defense of our country] ] Lieutenant Maria Rodriguez Denton (U.S. Navy), born June 14, 1909 in the town of Guanica, Puerto Rico, was the first known woman of Puerto Rican descent who became an officer in the United States Navy as member of the WAVES. [http://www.womensmemorial.org/H&C/History/historypr.html Women's Military Memorial] ]

The Navy assigned Denton as a library assistant at the Cable and Censorship Office in New York City. It was Lt. Denton who forwarded the news (through channels) to President Harry S. Truman that the war had ended.

One of Puerto Rico's greatest composers of Boleros, Sylvia Rexach, dropped-out of the University of Puerto Rico in 1942 and joined the U. S. Army as a member of the WACS where she served as an office clerk. She served until 1945, when was honorably discharged. [http://www.musicofpuertorico.com/index.php/artists/sylvia_rexach/ Music of Puerto Rico] ]

Another renowned artist who served during World War II was Marie Teresa Rios. Rios, mother of Medal of Honor recipient, Capt. Humbert Roque Versace and author of "The Fifteenth Pelican" which was the basis for the popular 1960s television sitcom "The Flying Nun", drove Army trucks and buses. She also served as a pilot for the Civil Air Patrol. Rios Versace wrote and edited for various newspapers around the world, including places such as Guam, Germany,Wisconsin, and South Dakota, and publications such the Armed Forces "Star & Stripes" and "Gannett". [ [http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/mtrversace.htm Marie Teresa Rios] ]

Revolt against the United States

The Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, organized on September 17, 1922, became the largest independence group in Puerto Rico by the 1930s. The party under the leadership of Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos, a former Army Lieutenant, opted against electoral participation and advocated violent revolution. The women's branch of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party was called the Daughters of Freedom. Some of the militants of this organization included Julia de Burgos, considered by many as the greatest poet to have been born in Puerto Rico, Dr. Margot Arce de Vázquez, a writer, essayist and educator who founded the Puerto Rican Academy of the Spanish Language, and Dr. Olga Viscal Garriga, who became a student leader and spokesperson of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party's branch in Rio Piedras. [ [http://www3.primushost.com/~ginorio/garriga/Old_Pictures/old_pictures.htm Viscal Family] ]

Certain dramatic and violent confrontations during the 1930s in which the Nationalist Party partisans were involved led to the call for an uprising against the United States and the eventual attack of the United States House of Representatives of the 1950s. One of the worst incidents was the Ponce massacre on March 21, 1937, when police officers fired upon Nationalists who were participating in a peaceful demonstration. About 100 were wounded and nineteen were killed, among the dead was one woman Maria Hernandez del Rosario and a seven-year-old child, Georgina Maldonado. [ [ Albizu Campos and the Ponce Massacre] ] On October 30,1950 the Nationalist Party called for a revolt against the United States and uprisings were held in the towns of Ponce, Mayagüez, Naranjito, Arecibo, Utuado, San Juan, and most notably in Jayuya which became known as the Jayuya Uprising. The military intervened and the revolts came to an end after three days on September 2. Two of the most notable women who bore arms against the United States were Blanca Canales and Lolita Lebron. [ [http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Caribbean/Puerto_Rico-Uprising_1950.html Puerto Rico Uprising - 1950] ]

Blanca Canales who is best known for leading the Jayuya Revolt. Canales led her group to the town's plaza where she raised the Puerto Rican flag and declared Puerto Rico to be a Republic. She was arrested and accused of killing a police officer and wounding three others. She was also accused of burning down the local post office. She was sentenced to life imprisonment plus sixty years of jail. In 1967, Canales was given a full pardon by Puerto Rican Governor Roberto Sanchez Vilella. [ [http://www.peacehost.net/WhiteStar/Voices/eng-canales.html Blanca Canales] ]

Lolita Lebron who was the leader of a group of nationalists who attacked the United States House of Representatives in 1954. Lebrón's mission was to bring world attention to Puerto Rico's independence cause. When Lebrón's group reached the visitor's gallery above the chamber in the House, she stood up and shouted "¡Viva Puerto Rico Libre!" ("Long live a Free Puerto Rico!") and unfurled a Puerto Rican flag. Then the group opened fire with automatic pistols. A popular legend claims that Lebrón fired her shots at the ceiling and missed. In 1979, under international pressure, President Jimmy Carter pardoned Lolita Lebrón and two members of her group, Irving Flores and Rafael Cancel Miranda. [ [http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&contentId=A48918-2004Feb17 A 2004 Washington Post article on Lolita's life] ]

Post World War II

After World War II, the Armed Forces of the United States reduced their military personnel. This reduction also applied to the women's military auxiliary units such as the Women's Army Corps, The Navy's WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) and the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots). However, several conflicts such as the Korean War and the Vietnam War produced a demand for the services of these women.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Puerto Rican women continued to volunteer for military service. CWO3 Rose Franco, born January 22, 1934 in Guánica, Puerto Rico, was the first Puerto Rican woman to become a Chief Warrant Officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. With the outbreak of the Korean War, Rose surprised her family by announcing that she was leaving college to join the United States Marine Corps. In 1965, Rose was named Administrative Assistant to the Secretary of the Navy Paul Henry Nitze by the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson. [http://www.womensmemorial.org/H&C/History/historypr.html Women's Military Memorial] ]

1st Lieutenant Gloria Esparra Petersen, born May 1, 1927 in the town Barranquitas, Puerto Rico, was an Army nurse at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, DC, during the Korean War. [http://www.womensmemorial.org/H&C/History/historypr.html Women's Military Memorial] ]

Captain Julia Benitez Aviles, (January 28, 1912-January 15, 1978) born in Orocovis, Puerto Rico, was the first Puerto Rican servicewoman to obtain the rank of captain. She joined the Army Nurse Corps in 1950 and served in Occupation Germany; Washington, DC; Texas; and Puerto Rico as a nurse anesthetist, retiring in 1964. [http://www.womensmemorial.org/H&C/History/historypr.html Women's Military Memorial] ]

Lieutenant Nilda Carrulas Cedero Fuertes, born in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, joined the Army Nurse Corps in 1953, serving on active duty until 1964. She then joined the Reserves, where she served until 1990. Among her assignments in the military was teaching the latest modern nursing techniques to Nicaraguan Army nurses while TDY (on temporary duty) in Nicaragua for six months. [http://www.womensmemorial.org/H&C/History/historypr.html Women's Military Memorial] ] The WAC was disestablished in 1978. Since then, women in the U.S. Army and other branches of the military have served in the same units as men but do not have combat duties.


Certain events helped expand the participation and roles for women in the military,, among these the establishment of the All-Volunteer Force in the 1970s. Puerto Rican women have continued to join the Armed Forces and some have even made the military a career.

Major Sonia Roca born December 4, 1955 in San Juan, was the first Hispanic female officer to attend the Command and General Staff Officer Course at the Army's School of the Americas.

Captain Linda Garcia Cubero was the first Hispanic woman graduate of the Air Force Academy in 1980, when the first class with women graduated. [http://www.latinastyle.com/currentissue/v10-5/punto.html Latina Style Magazine, Retrieved May 12, 2007] ]

Captain Haydee Javier Kimmich (U.S. Navy) from Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico, was assigned as the Chief of Orthopedics at the Navy Medical Center in Bethesda and reorganized their Reservist Department during Operation Desert Storm. In 1998, she was selected as the woman of the year in Puerto Rico.

Second Lieutenant Hila Levy from Guaynabo, Puerto Rico made history in 2007 when she became the first Puerto Rican Rhodes scholar. As a Cadet in the United States Air Force Academy, she finished as the top graduate, earning the Outstanding Cadet in the Order of Graduation Award and a spot on the academy's 100-year Honor Roll. [http://www.topix.com/world/puerto-rico/2007/11/afa-cadet-first-puerto-rican-rhodes-scholar Puerto Rico, Nov 27, 2007, AFA cadet first Puerto Rican Rhodes scholar] ]

Puerto Rican servicewomen have served in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. They were among the 41,000 women who participated in both military operations. They have also served in the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. As of July 2007, four Puerto Rican Army women have died in Iraq. They were:

SPC Frances M. Vega (June 1983 – November 2, 2003), also known as "That Girl Benitez", born in San Francisco, California, was the first female soldier of Puerto Rican descent to die in a combat zone. She was deployed to Iraq in what is known as the War on Terrorism. On November 2, 2003, a surface-to-air missile was fired by insurgents in Al Fallujah and it hit the U.S. transport helicopter (Chinook) which Vega was in. She was one of 16 soldiers who lost their lives in the crash that followed. [ [http://projects.washingtonpost.com/fallen/dates/2003/nov/02/frances-m-vega/ Washington Post] ]

SPC Lizbeth Robles (1974 – March 1, 2005), born in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, was the first female soldier born in Puerto Rico to die in the War on Terrorism. On March 1, 2005, SPC Lizbeth Robles and Sgt. Julio Negron were riding in a Humvee by the town of Bayji, when they had an accident and the vehicle flipped over. They were rushed to the 228th Command Support Hospital in Tikrit where both of them later died of the injuries sustained from the accident. [ [http://www.fallenheroesmemorial.com/oif/profiles/robleslizbeth.html Fallen Heroes Memorial] ]

SPC Aleina Ramirez Gonzalez (1972 – April 15, 2005) born in the town of Hormigueros, Puerto Rico died in Tikrit, Iraq, when a mortar struck her forward operating base. [ [http://www.militarycity.com/valor/793598.html Honor the Fallen] ]

Captain Maria Ines Ortiz (1967 – July 10, 2007), born in Camden, New Jersey was the first Puerto Rican nurse to die in combat and first Army nurse to die in Iraq. [ [http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/miotriz.htm Arlington National Cemetery] ]

The names of these four women along with the others who have perished in Afghanistan and Iraq, was engraved in "El Monumento de la Recordacion" (Monument of Remembrance), dedicated to Puerto Rico's fallen soldiers and situated in front of the Capitol Building in San Juan, Puerto Ricoand unveiled by Puerto Rico Senate President Kenneth McClintock and PR National Guard Adjutant General Col. David Carrión on Memorial Day, 2007. [ [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/


ee also

*List of famous Puerto Ricans - Military
*Military history of Puerto Rico
*History of women in the military
*Puerto Ricans in World War II
*Military history of Puerto Rico


* [http://www.lindsaydaen.com/pages/page10.htm La Rogativa-Lindsey Dean]
* [http://www.elboricua.com/lares.html El Boricua-El Grito de Lares]
* [http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/jayuya-revolt.htm Jayuya Revolt]
* [http://www.womensmemorial.org/Education/PRHistory.html Puerto Rican Servicewomen in Defense of the Nation]
* [http://www.rootsweb.com/~prsanjua/mil-003.htm El Monumento de la Recordacion]

External links

*cite web|accessdate=2007-04-09
title= Puerto Rican Servicewomen Answer the Call to Serve
work=History Archive
publisher=Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation
date=April 2006

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