Instead of the usual warm, smiling, open-arms welcome of Don Pedro, I was greeted by stern silence. A slip of paper was placed in my hands:
The Call to Non-Violent Direct Action
XXXXSpeaker: Miss Jean Wiley
XXXXTime:XX a) for meditation 10 minutes
XXXXT po: XXb) for delivery 15 minutes
At the bedside of the great Puerto Rican patriot Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos, I was to deliver the first of my practice speeches. To the revolutionary leader of the independence movement I was to present a convincing case for nonviolence. Don Pedro knew of the Gandhian movement, but chose to follow the example of the Irish patriots in their struggle for freedom.
Released after six years in the Atlanta Penitentiary, Don Pedro was committed to Columbus Hospital, New York City, in broken health and with a serious heart condition. The years of ill treatment in a southern prison for a man with Negro blood all but destroyed him. When the famous Chilean poetess Gabriela Mistral sought to visit him at Atlanta, she reported, "I looked, with what sorrow, at that large mass of prison where the greatest Puerto Rican and possibly our greatest Latin American was imprisoned."
Our Harlem Ashram members, pacifists living cooperatively, and activists in interracial problems, had been invited to meet Don Pedro. Since our leader, Jay Holmes Smith, had been a follower of Gandhi, we were involved in the "Free India" movement. "Why not 'Free Puerto Rico'?" Don Pedro challenged us. As a result, Ruth Reynolds and I committed ourselves to spend a day each week with him, while Jay became involved in writing and speaking on the Puerto Rican issue. Thursday was my day for lessons in Spanish (Castillian) and the colonial situation in Puerto Rico. Lunch was a time for relaxation. Professing a distaste for the hospital fare, he had me buy sandwiches for him while I ate his lunch. Afternoons were open for visits from his friends. They would swarm in, hat in hand, immaculately dressed, eyes focused on Don Pedro with intense devotion. Envelopes were left by his bedside containing gifts of money. But whatever gifts he received, he inevitably shared with others, claiming that he had few personal needs.
The pajama-clad, soft-spoken Don Pedro I came to know was quite different from the public figure and fiery orator distinguished by formal attire and a black bow-tie. I saw him not so much as the great patriot spoken of with reverence throughout Puerto Rico, but in the role of a personal friend. Eyes fixed on whomever he was speaking with, he radiated warmth and affection. His gentleness and humility put everyone at ease and on an equal plane. It was not until later, when I read about him and his magnificent leadership in the independence movement that I became fully aware of his greatness of stature.
When he once joked about leaving the hospital bed and attending an affair and being the handsomest man there, it was with an impish sense of humor. This, he could well have been. Olive- complexioned, with regular features and a well-groomed mustache, his brown eyes reflected pain as he recounted injustices done to his people, but could flash with anger over a disagreement.
There were days of special note. One was when Congressman Marc Antonio learned of a bugging device in Don Pedro's room, shouted words of wrath into it, and tore it out of the wall. Then there was the day when Ruth and I were both asked to spend the day there as witnesses to whatever might transpire. He had been threatened with rearrest because of his refusal to sign papers promising to cease all talk of independence. We suffered fear for his life knowing that his precarious health would not endure further imprisonment. We were aware of figures lurking in nearby doorways, no doubt prepared to defend their beloved leader. But no arrest came.
Though Don Pedro knew us to be pacifists and loved us nonetheless, he maintained his convictions that his followers should be prepared to defend themselvesand even us, should the need arise! Despite our disagreements in this area, we revered him for his great talents and passionate love for his native Borinquen (historical name for Puerto Rico). We shared his passion for a free Puerto Rico.
With a degree from Harvard Law School, he was brilliant in his oratory, which had swayed his followers to rebellion against United States repression and exploitation. He exemplified the fervor of our own American patriot, Patrick Henry, who proclaimed, "Give me liberty or give me death!" In time, death came to Don Pedro for the cause he espoused.
I knew Don Pedro as a warm, sensitive human being, a deeply devout Catholic with a great love for his people and compassion for all humanity. As a lawyer, he was astute and brilliant in his analysis of the Puerto Rican situation. A man of culture, he loved the poetry and music of his country and gifted me with records and sheet music of the dances of his uncle Juan Morel Campos. One of my speech assignments was "The Contribution of the Negro to American music." Many a time he had me stand at the foot of his bed to recite to visitors the entire poem, "Borinquen, nombre al pensamiento grato como el recuerdo de un amor profundo." ["Borinquen, name to the thought as pleasing as the memory of a profound love."]
When my involvement in preparing to bring the great Canadian poet Wilson MacDonald to New York necessitated my giving up a few of my regular days with Don Pedro, he sent me a note. "Maude is coming Saturday morning. I'm compelled by rival MacDonald to wait to see you at his convenience."
"When he comes I will shoot him," he teased me. But when I brought Wilson MacDonald to his bedside, Don Pedro thrilled to his readings and later gave me an envelope with some money to give him, knowing him to be in need.
Of Don Pedro, MacDonald wrote, "I will remember the day when you took me to Columbus Hospital to meet with Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos and my delightful conversation with this apostle of sensitiveness."
Don Pedro showed his own poetic creativity in an Easter greeting he composed centered on creation and resurrection. "From the quarry of shadows, the creative ray of light cuts out each being, with his shadow unto himself."
Upon my engagement to Abe, Don Pedro called us both to his bedside for his blessing. Taking a sip from his own glass of wine, he passed it on, that we might all become united by drinking from the same glass. Placing Abe on one side of his bed and me on the other, he embraced us both. Stroking Abe's hair gently, he gave us a beautiful discourse on love, marriage, and family. His thoughts were both practical and idealistic. He saw no conflict between one's duties to family and to society. "Your home is a holy sanctuary." And to Abe, "Shake off all that is brutal and lowly before you enter your home, as you would remove your shoes before entering a temple. Be your finest self in your home."
He urged us to get married before Abe went off to prison as a conscientious objector; it would give him greater courage. As we sought to leave, Don Pedro held us firmly. "We must celebrate." Pinto Gandía had left with a sly, "I shall return." He did, with a basket of delicious Puerto Rican foodfricassee of chicken, rice, mushrooms, and more. After a 2½-hour visit, Don Pedro embraced us again and asked us to return soon. Every moment of the visit had been skillfully converted into a pearl of beauty and joy. All was harmony and perfection, with never a wasted word.
Then there was a celebration for my departure from New York to join Abe in California. "A party for my family of the Ashram has been arranged in your honor," Don Pedro wrote. "I will try to be present. Do not fail to take Jay, Maude, and Ruth. I do hope it will be a perfect evening in joy and inspiration." His offer to be present was only a sly teasing on his part, as he knew he would be unable to leave the hospital. The party was a Metropolitan Opera production of "Pelleas and Melisande." He knew of my love for music and for French.
Then came the day for my departure. It was a sad farewell. Once in California, Abe and I received letters congratulating us on our marriage, and later on the birth of David. "In marriage," he wrote, "the most privileged relation, there is the expectation of identification. This realization means bliss." In reference to our work with spastic children he wrote, "Seldom have I read anything more touching than your account of the activities in which you keep your children, that they may be happy, recover assurance and maintain in their hearts of innocence the hope of faith and joyful inspiration."
In another letter he expressed regret that he could not be of financial assistance to us. "It is clear to me from self-evident facts that our beloved friends are having difficulties in making both ends meet.... Forgive me for saying this, since you do not make any request, but I feel a great solidarity with you and I sense the economic reality facing you. I will always keep you in mind, seeking the opportunity to accompany you in your endeavors spiritually, and in material things."
Upon news of our expecting our first child he wrote, "Keep with you only thoughts of beauty and inspiration. I do believe that is a birthright of the child before seeing the light of the universe."
When David was seven months old, we took him to New York. Don Pedro had been released from the hospital and was staying in the home of a friend. David played merrily on his bed and received a beautiful Spanish blessing. Though our visit was unannounced, he insisted on our partaking of a bountiful lunch which we suspected could have been prepared for him.
We never saw him again, but received clippings of his triumphant return to Puerto Rico and the oratory that was again attracting thousands. Then we read tearfully of his rearrest, saw pictures of how his legs had been affected horribly by radiation. And finally he succumbed. "The funeral procession," Ruth wrote, "from the Catholic Church to the cemetery, was too long for the intervening distance and had to double up." On our first visit to Puerto Rico in 1971 we made a pilgrimage to his tomb, a simple marble slab beneath the flags of Puerto Rico and Lares.
This I would say to you, beloved Don Pedro: I regret my years of silence in the cause of independence, but my life is now dedicated to doing my utmost for your dreams of freedom. I feel your spirit pushing me on to greater efforts.
Previous to his final imprisonment, Don Pedro sat in his apartment, water cut off, bullets whizzing around the room, as he composed a prayer for his imprisoned secretary. It was passed on to her secretly, folded neatly in the palm of a guard's hand as he distributed meals to the prisoners. It read in part:
My God, have pity on me: Grant me Thy light. Grant me Thy eternal life. Grant me the humility and lowliness of our Lord Jesus Christ, His love, His pardon, and His generosity toward those who crucified Him. May these be our sentiments toward those who have done us evil. Free us from hatred, from thirst for vengeance, and from bitterness against them.... We implore Thy eternal Grace upon us, that we may find ourselves at Thy call, in Thy divine Presence, where our adored ones are.