‘The Last American Colony’: Documentary examines Puerto Rican independence movement

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    Jose Ramon Garcia, seen here in his Williamsburg home, says "The Last American Colony" examines the Puerto Rican independence movement through the eyes of one of its proponents, Juan Segarra. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Williamsburg filmmaker Jose Ramon Garcia says Juan Segarra, seen here as a teenager in a still from “The Last American Colony,” was a Harvard-educated man who turned to radical means to fight for Puerto Rican independence. STAFF PHOTO JERREY ROBERTS

  • Garcia, co-producer of the documentary “The Last American Colony,” spent several years interviewing Juan Segarra, seen here in a still from the movie, about his life. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • An image of Juan Segarra from “The Last American Colony.” Segarra was arrested in 1985 in connection with a $7.2 million robbery of a Wells Fargo depot in Connecticut; the money was used by a Puerto Rican resistance group advocating independence for the island. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • An image from “The Last American Colony.” Puerto Ricans protest a now-shuttered U.S. military base on the island. Image courtesy Jose Ramon Garcia

  • Poster for the documentary film “The Last American Colony.” Submitted image

Staff Writer
Published: 5/15/2019 4:37:15 PM

Jose Ramon Garcia calls it, in part, a story of redemption.

But it’s much more than that. It’s a story of an island with a fractured and painful history, and of a man with an Ivy League degree who decided to dedicate his life to winning independence for his native Puerto Rico — even if that meant armed struggle against the world’s most powerful nation.

“The Last American Colony” is a documentary film that builds its narrative around Juan Segarra, a Harvard University graduate from the early 1970s who later became a key figure in Los Macheteros (“The Machete Wielders”), a Puerto Rican guerilla group that in the 1970s and early 1980s led a direct action campaign — including the destruction of 10 U.S. military aircraft in Puerto Rico — in its efforts to win independence for the island.

Garcia, the film’s co-producer and a Williamsburg resident, says the documentary has been a long time coming; he initially conceived of the project about 15 years ago, and in more recent years he and his film crew have been trying to get their work screened in various film festivals, without success.

“We just weren’t getting any traction, maybe because there was this sort of ‘odor of terrorism’ to the subject,” Garcia said in a recent interview at his home. “We had some earlier versions of the film, with a different kind of narrative structure, too, that maybe didn’t work as well.”

But this weekend (on Sunday), “The Last American Colony” makes its debut at the Harlem International Film Festival in New York City, and Garcia says he hopes that will give the film a leg up in getting attention and finding more audiences.

The documentary’s central premise is that Puerto Rico is stuck in an oppressive, dependent relationship with the U.S., built on, as production notes put it, “decades of economic and political inequality where many perceive the only benefit … is US citizenship. It is a qualified benefit as one cannot vote for President, have a representative congressman or senator, but can be drafted into the military.”

Segarra (full name Juan Enrique Segarra Palmer) makes for a companionable and articulate narrator of the film — Garcia did all the interviews with him — and he’s up front about how he got involved with Los Macheteros. He describes how despite a privileged background, he felt drawn to fight for Puerto Rico’s independence and early on became convinced working through conventional political channels wasn’t going to be enough.

He paid a big price for his beliefs: He was arrested in 1985 for his central role in an 1983 robbery, engineered by Los Macheteros, of $7.2 million from a Wells Fargo depot in West Hartford, Connecticut, and sentenced to 55 years in jail.

Segarra was offered conditional clemency in 1999 by President Bill Clinton and released from prison in early 2004, and today he works as a translator in the Puerto Rican criminal justice system. “I was arrogant,” he says at one point in the film, noting that he’s long since renounced violence for achieving any goals, though he still supports Puerto Rico’s independence.

“We stuck with this project for years because we thought it was a really good story, and very compelling given what’s happened in Puerto Rico during the last few years,” said Garcia, who grew up mostly in Westfield but was born on the island in 1951, one year after Segarra. “It’s a real David and Goliath story.”

Indeed, the movie debuts at a time when Puerto Rico continues to struggle with serious damage from Hurricane Maria in fall 2017, and when aid to the island remains a point of controversy (the film opens with images of the destruction caused by the storm, which killed over 3,000 people).

President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly criticized the island’s leaders and rejected their criticism of his administration’s response to the disaster, has falsely claimed Puerto Rico has received $91 billion in federal disaster aid. The amount allocated so far is actually $41 billion, and only about $11 billion of that has been spent, according to widespread media reports.

Then last week, Red Sox manager Alex Cora, a native of Puerto Rico, did not attend a White House ceremony honoring the team for winning the 2018 World Series, saying he “would not feel comfortable” celebrating, given many Puerto Ricans are still struggling. (Virtually all of the Latino and black players on the Red Sox skipped the ceremony as well, though most did not give reasons or said it was not a political decision.)

The problem of Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States, Garcia said, “isn’t going away.”

From the Ivy Leagueto the barricades

Garcia, a former commercial photographer who says he once worked as a cameraman for Channel 22 TV in Springfield, also served in the past as artistic director for the Northampton International Film Festival. He says his interest in making a documentary about Segarra stemmed from reading about the Wells Fargo robbery in 1983 and then Segarra’s release from prison.

“A friend of mine asked me then, ‘What movie would you make if you could?’ ” said Garcia. “And I said, ‘This movie here.’ ”

Through a rather long process, he got in touch with Segarra in Puerto Rico and visited him a number of times there to pitch his idea. The two eventually became close, Garcia said, and at one point Segarra took him to the University of Puerto Rico library, got out several books on the island’s history, and told Garcia “After you read these, then we can begin to talk.”

The film weaves in a good amount of that history, from Puerto Rico’s time as a Spanish colony to its takeover by the U.S. following the Spanish-American War, then its conversion in the early 1900s to, essentially, a giant sugar plantation run by the Domino Sugar Company. There’s also coverage of the Ponce Massacre of 1937, when police, on the order of Blanton Winship, the island’s U.S.-appointed governor, opened fire on a peaceful march by members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, killing 19 people and wounding over 200.

In addition, the film profiles other leading Puerto Rican nationalists such as Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, a one-time jazz musician who came to lead Los Macheteros and recruited Segarra to the group. Ríos later became a fugitive and in 2005 was shot to death, at age 72, by dozens of FBI agents in Puerto Rico, a shooting Puerto Rican officials have long maintained was illegal.

But at the center of the film is Segarra, whose story in the U.S. began in the 1960s when he attended Phillips Andover Academy, the famous Massachusetts prep school; Scooter Libby, the assistant to former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, was one of his classmates, Garcia says. There’s a great bit in which Segarra describes walking into the school’s dining hall for the first time, wearing a sharkskin suit; another student greets him with a racial epithet.

“I slapped him right in the face,” Segarra says, shaking his head and laughing.

Garcia and his crew, some of whom are affiliated with the Cambridge-based film company Northern Light Productions, filmed Segarra in Puerto Rico, in Cambridge and Hartford (and in Williamsburg), even at his 50th reunion at Phillips Andover. It was while he was a student at Harvard, Garcia says, that Segarra first started becoming radicalized, especially after a police crackdown of a student protest/building occupation in 1969 against the university’s ROTC program.

“He had a friend at the protest who was in a wheelchair, and the cops threw him out of the wheelchair and arrested him,” said Garcia. “Juan sees that and he just thinks, ‘I can’t sit on the sidelines here.’ ”

Garcia also recalls an early episode in the film’s development, not long after he’d met Segarra, that gave him the sense he was moving in the right direction — but that he’d need to do the story justice.

“I was talking to two of Juan’s lawyers, and one of them says, ‘Do you know who this guy is? Do you know what he is?’ ” he said. “And I said, ‘Well, I guess you’re going to tell me,’ and he said ‘This guy is a patriot — don’t do anything negative to him.’ ”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

To see a trailer for “The Last American Colony,” go to kickstarter.com.

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