Thunderous applause greeted Rafael Cancel as he strode to the platform at the International Conference in Support of Independence for Puerto Rico, held in 1979 in Mexico City. Joining him there were three other Nationalists recently released from prisonIrvin Flores, Lolita Lebrón and Oscar Collazo. They had spent the longest term in prison of any other political prisoners. There, before representatives of some fifty-one countries, they were seen as the embodiment of the directive of their teacher Albizu Campos to exercise valor and sacrifice. We found Rafael friendly and easily approachable. By the time we met him again in Puerto Rico at patriotic observances, we were embraced as old friends.
Rafael Cancel knew at the age of seven that he was an independentista. His father, Rafael Cancel Rodríguez, was president of the Mayagüez Nationalist Party and took him to meetings. His father had been the victim of political repression, had been imprisoned and had lost everything. With the help of his brothers, he established a furniture business which Rafael now controls.
In 1937, his father and stepmother went to Ponce for the celebration of the abolition of slavery and to march for the freedom of political prisoners. One hour before the parade, permission was cancelled by the Ponce mayor at the demand of Governor Blanton Winship. Nevertheless, with the singing of the La Borinqueña, the procession started out on its way to the Cathedral. Armed police attacked, giving the marchers no opportunity to defend themselves. Twenty-one died, and over a hundred were wounded in what came to be known as the "Ponce Massacre." The white nurse's uniform of Rafael's stepmother became soaked with blood as she crawled over bodies in search of her husband. Miraculously, they both managed to return home unharmed.
Shocked by the incident, young Rafael committed his first political act in refusing to salute the American flag in school.
Participation in a school strike shortly before his graduation protested the requirement of giving school instruction in English. He was expelled, and went to San Juan to finish his schooling.
Los Indómitos, by Antonio Gil de Lamadrid Navarro, relates how Rafael once helped a beggar with his heavy load collected from a dump. Upon following him home, he became aware of the slum area. A man of deep compassion and sensitivity, he started a school there teaching reading, writing, arithmetic and social orientation.
When he reached draft age, he refused, along with seven others, to accept the authority of the U.S. government and register for the draft. There was the danger, also, of being conscripted for the Korean War. This drew him a two-year sentence at Tallahassee Prison.
Eventually, he migrated to New York City, finding work in a shoe factory. In 1953 he appeared before the Decolonization Committee of the United Nations. He testified that, despite the United States' assertion that since the formation of the Puerto Rican Commonwealth, Puerto Rico was no longer a colony, its political status was essentially the same. That assertion prevailed for some twenty years before the Decolonization Committee was convinced of the colonial status and began passing resolutions for the independence of Puerto Rico.
The following year, Rafael joined with Irvin Flores, Lolita Lebrón and Andrés Figueroa Cordero in the demonstration in Congress, the four of them firing at the legislators in a desperate plea for the recognition of their right for freedom. This drew him an eighty-four-year sentence for "an attempt to overthrow the government by force and violence."
"When I went to prison," he is quoted in Los Indómitos as saying, "I was already formed. I had character and was sure of why I was there and for what I was struggling." Even so, the first three years were particularly difficult. Being an independent person, he found it hard to adjust. "Either I break the prison, or the prison breaks me, and I'm not going to let it break me."
He spent time in Leavenworth, Alcatraz and in Marion, where he was held for eighteen months in the "hole." He read every book he could find on sociology, and learned to play the guitar. He witnessed and protested prison brutality and racism.
One particularly pathetic incident related in Los Indómitos was the visit of his wife, who had been his high school sweetheart. She had worked to save up enough for the long trip to Kansas only to find Rafael in the "hole." After three days of agonized waiting she was allowed only one hour with him.
Rafael's refusal to accept parole delayed his release. But the day finally came. He was welcomed back in Puerto Rico as a hero, and with shouts of "¡Unidad!"
"Now I'm going to do something that I've waited twenty-five years to do. Go among my people and greet them." He was fearful that he might have lost his human sensitivity amid the hostility and violence of prison life. But his emotional reunion with his loved ones proved otherwise. Throngs surrounded him and lifted him up on their shoulders. Was it merely a coincidence that the Nationalists were welcomed home on the very day that Puerto Rico was celebrating the birthday of Pedro Albizu Campos?
As with many Latin American patriots, Rafael is a poet. A musical production of his poetry, "Por Las Calles de Mi Patria," has been enthusiastically received in Puerto Rico and in the United States. The poems are those he had sent to his father while in prison. He had thought them lost, and was surprised to find them published by his father. The musical production is dedicated to those active in the struggle for freedom.
He continues to carry the cause of freedom to other countries, and returns occasionally to the United States on speaking tours in behalf of Puerto Rican political prisoners.
In a collection of the ideology of Rafael Cancel, we find the following:
The revolutionary is a man thrown from his home into combat for his highest concepts of loyalty to his people.
The strong man doesn't lack weaknesses: he simply overcomes them.
We don't beg heaven for what we can obtain struggling.