The Golden Arm
Mariana Bracetti Cuevas was born on July 26th, 1825 in Añasco, Puerto Rico and died on February 25th, 1903. She was a seamstress turned political activist.
She was one of ten children of Venezuelan rancher Francisco Bracetti and Antonia Cuevas.
She studied sewing, knitting, embroidery, religion, grammar, geography, and history. Hence, she was an educated woman, something very rare in the nineteenth century.
Mariana Bracetti is one of those historical characters we do not know much about and with the years, their legend grows. However, what little we know for certain is amazing.
For example, yes, she was a political leader and a political prisoner.
She had a reputation for helping the poor, especially orphans, and teaching slaves how to read (slavery was abolished in 1873).
She was twice a widow and had four children: José Adolfo, Rita, Antonia, and María Bruna.
Historians said she died in poverty and forgotten. I disagree. Yes, she died poor. But forgotten? Never.
Puerto Ricans remember her kindly and two of our greatest, Luis Llorens Torres and Cesáreo Rosa Nieves immortalize her in their writings.
Llorens Torres described her as “the elegant lady of the lost glance, protruding cheekbones and indigenous face with the long braided hair over her chest.”
Don’t Call Her Betsy Ross
Any Puerto Rican will tell you she sew the first Puerto Rican flag by petition of Ramón Emeterio Betances. It invites comparison with Betsy Ross who famously sewed the first US flag. Hold your comparisons.
I do not remember Ms. Ross being incarcerated for helping George Washington, being an intellectual conspirator of the US revolution, or riding into the battlefield carrying state secrets.
Conversely, Mariana Bracetti was one of the leaders of the Grito de Lares uprising. Again, a rarity for women of her time to be trusted in such a position.
Historians have discovered there were other women who also created flags and were involved with the Independence movement, such as Eduviges Beauchamp and Dolores Cos. And yet, the evidence does seem to confirm it was Mariana who created the first flag.
Her revolutionary code name was “brazo de oro” (Golden Arm). This seems like a play on her last name (Bracetti seems like the Spanish diminutive for arm).
Codenames? What was this? GI Joe? James Bond?
No, not at all. This was life in Puerto Rico during Spanish rule. Any kind of insurrection against the crown meant dead penalty, so codenames were needed.
Mariana Bracetti probably met Betances when he took charge of the healthcare policies combating the cholera epidemic in Puerto Rico, a cholera epidemic that killed José Adolfo Pesante Paz, Bracetti‘s first husband.
She married Venezuelan Miguel Rojas Luzardo, another of the leaders of the pro-independence movement, and brother of Manuel Rojas Luzardo, the commander of the Revolutionary army.
Therefore, we could argue Mariana Bracetti became a part of the movement by accident. Nevertheless, once a part of it, her contributions were relevant.
Patriotism means love and pride in your country. So, what can this 19th-century lady teach us 21st-century people about patriotism?
Lesson One: Patriotism Means Sacrifice and Commitment
Anyone thinks they are patriotic just by wearing their country colors and displaying the flag. Except patriotism means more, much more.
Patriotism means defending your country, being a good citizen, respecting the laws, and helping your community.
Similarly, it means, as Albizu Campos famously said, courage and sacrifice. How many of us are willing to die for our country? For our nation?
Mariana Bracetti fought for independence out of conviction and love of her country. She paid for it too.
She lost her freedom, lost her plantation, lost her husband, and lost her reputation. Even after she was pardoned, she lived the rest of her life in extreme poverty.
It is said she had an abortion while incarcerated. However, since she was a devoted Catholic and since this was the 19th century, I believe she had a miscarriage instead. Either way, the loss of a child is depressing.
Moreover, I believe she will willingly go through it again. Because she believed in the Puerto Rican nation.
Lesson Two: Give People a Visual Symbol
Symbols, like stories, have power. Symbols, patriotic symbols are powerful instruments of the myth-building of a nation.
For example, will the USA be the same without its Liberty Bell and its Statue of Liberty? Or the Constitution?
Will England be the same without its Magna Carta or México without the Aztec Sun Stone? Symbols matter to rally people around a common cause.
Therefore, sewing the first Puerto Rican flag was a step towards creating the idea of a nation.
The symbology of the flag, with the white Christian cross in the center for redemption, red squares for the blood of the martyrs of the future republic, and a white star for freedom among a blue sea of solitude. So poetic.
Granted, yes, it is the Dominican Republic flag with the colors inverted. But considering it was the Dominican Republic that gave shelter to all the revolutionary Puerto Ricans in exile, it is not surprising.
And although Puerto Ricans ended up adopting another flag modeled after Cuba‘s, the city of Lares in Puerto Rico and the pro-independence still use the Lares flag to this day as a sign of rebellion.
Why? Because it is a powerful symbol two centuries later.
Lesson Three: Real Patriots Work in Silence
Because history books focus on kings, presidents, leaders, and protagonists, we tend to forget it is the common men and women who are the true patriots.
History is written as much by the background characters as by the leaders.
In effect, the people who work quietly, in silence, doing their work, voting, and raising their families, unseen but committed to making the country better.
Historians now know there were other women besides Mariana, and many more men fighting for the dream of a Boricua republic.
The history books may not mention their name. They might not have a holiday or a statue. But they are just as relevant and just as patriotic nonetheless.
The loudest are not necessarily the most patriotic. Neither are the ones who wear the flag as a fashion statement. The most patriotic ones are those who contribute to the nation, quietly, doing.
They don’t need a title or demand recognition because they understand we, the people, are the nation.
Mariana Bracetti’s Final Lesson
After El Grito de Lares‘s uprising, Mariana returned home, a widow, with four children to raise. Alone.
She disappears from the history books and we don’t know much about her. Since she passed in 1903, I can imagine her sadness when in 1898 the gringos invaded the island with guns and cannons.
Imagine dedicating decades of your life fighting for independence from Spain only to end up being colonized by the United States. Heartbreaking.
And yet, she kept going without realizing decades later she would end up becoming a patriotic symbol for all Puerto Ricans.
Nevertheless, she set an example for us. She lived a life of sacrifice and courage. Also of charity and teaching others. How can we not love Mariana Bracetti? We could not ask for a better role model.
Although she gave us the first flag, there is more to her than that. We Puerto Ricans should remember her other achievements.
Mariana Bracetti lived a life of service to her community, her neighbors, and her country. Let that be her final lesson.
Reader, what does patriotism means to you?