Boston’s Puerto Ricans honor the fallen
‘We are U.S. citizens and we shed blood’
Puerto Ricans have fought in the U.S. military for the past two centuries, but do not always garner the same recognition as other American citizens who did.
Those who gathered at Puerto Rican Veterans Memorial Plaza in the South End addressed that complicated history this Memorial Day, while also paying tribute to the fallen Puerto Rican soldiers who served in the U.S. Armed Forces.
"It is no secret to anyone that these soldiers from the 65th Infantry Regiment made significant contributions to the history of the United States," said Roberto Santiago, Boston's commissioner of veterans services, standing alongside the nation's first-ever memorial to Puerto Rican veterans on Monday.
Also known as the Borinqueneers, the all-Puerto Rican military regiment fought for the United States in both world wars, but made its most pivotal contributions in the Korean War, where the 65th was deployed for the first time as front-line troops.
In Korea, the 65th regiment was tasked with exterminating enemy detachments and waging guerilla warfare. These troops withstood the advance of the Chinese army long enough for allied forces to take up positions, said Santiago, the city's first-ever Puerto Rican veterans services commissioner.
"We know that Puerto Ricans not only fought against foreign enemies in war, but they also faced discrimination, often from those that they served with," Santiago said.
This complex history is due in part to Puerto Rico's continued designation as a U.S. territory, and the past segregation of the U.S. military. Puerto Rican troops served in segregated military units until 1948, when this practice was officially outlawed in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Perhaps, as a result, it's been an uphill battle for those seeking widespread recognition for Puerto Ricans who fought and died in battle for the United States.
"We are part of this country, regardless of what other people may think," said Boston Police Deputy Superintendent Luis Cruz, who is Puerto Rican. "We are U.S. citizens and we shed blood. We've lost soldiers for this country."
In Boston, it took 14 years of advocacy by the Puerto Rican community, particularly from Vietnam War veterans Antonio Molina and Jaime Rodriguez, to create the memorial that now stands in the South End.
"This iconic landmark began in 1999 with a plaque for the first 65th Infantry Regiment, the ones that made so many sacrifices during the Korean War," said Molina, board president for the Puerto Rican Veterans Monument Square Association, which hosted the Memorial Day event.
And it was just two years ago, in 2021, that Congress proclaimed April 13 as a national holiday for Borinqueneers Day. It's one of the most important holidays for Puerto Ricans, Santiago said.
Vanessa Calderón-Rosado, CEO of the South End nonprofit Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, said her father served in the 65th U.S. Army Infantry Regiment during the Korean War, a unit that she said has become "an icon for Puerto Ricans."
She spoke of how her father, who died two months ago at age 92, loved war movies and would often urge her to watch them, despite her distaste for the films.
This was important, CalderónRosado recalls her father as saying, "because we needed to learn from history so we wouldn't repeat the same mistakes," and "because we needed to honor those who fought for freedom and lost their lives."
Calderón-Rosado also spoke of how her father would write two sets of letters during his time in Korea, a sanitized version to his mother that would assure her everything was going well, and a more honest version to his sister.
The latter talked about the difficulties of war, "the danger and the fear," and included the names of those who died, she said.
"That story always made me think of the difficulties and hardship that our servicemen and women have endured during these conflicts," Calderón-Rosado said. "And today, not only do we honor our veterans, but we honor those who never came home and whose names were sadly mentioned in letters like the ones my dad sent to his sister."