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Recalling a Puerto Rican nationalist who took part in 1954's shooting at U.S. Capitol

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps. Coverage of the January 6 attack on the Capitol left Rafael Cancel Vazquez in disbelief.

RAFAEL CANCEL VAZQUEZ: Watching the news, they kept on talking about how this was the first armed attack in the U.S. Congress. And I was like, what? You don't know about 1954?

MARTÍNEZ: Seventy years ago today, his father, Rafael Cancel Miranda, and three other Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire in the House of Representatives and injured several congressmen. The demonstration for Puerto Rican independence earned Cancel Miranda 25 years in prison. At StoryCorps, he was remembered by his son and his wife, Maria de los Angeles Vazquez. And a warning - some of their recollections include graphic descriptions of violence.

MARIA DE LOS ANGELES VAZQUEZ: It was presented to the public that the people that took part in that act were crazy. Rafael was sent to Alcatraz, and they were forgotten.

CANCEL VAZQUEZ: How did you meet Papa, and how did you fall in love?

DE LOS ANGELES VAZQUEZ: Well, it wasn't until the '70s that people started talking about these four Puerto Ricans that were imprisoned in the States. They had been in jail already for about 20 years, and there was this big campaign to send a Christmas card to nationalists. So I sent him a picture of an orchid, and he wrote back, to my surprise, telling me how thankful he was because he had forgotten that flower pots existed. You know, I thought, gosh, this man has been in jail for so many years, and he is still moved by a flower pot.

CANCEL VAZQUEZ: When I was growing up, there was always orchids at our house. But I just thought that you loved orchids. I didn't know that it was very special for him too.

DE LOS ANGELES VAZQUEZ: Si.

CANCEL VAZQUEZ: You know, when I was a little kid, I had no clue about what Dad did. I just knew that whenever we went somewhere, everybody wanted an autograph, a picture, or, like, oh, Don Rafa, it's an honor to meet you. And I was like, wow, my dad is so cool. He's cooler than yours.

DE LOS ANGELES VAZQUEZ: After you learned about March 1, '54, did that change your relationship with your father?

CANCEL VAZQUEZ: Of course. Some of the things when I was a little kid then made more sense. He would always be in state of alert. For example, when he would take me to eat, I would always notice that he would sit in a way that he could look at the exit, and he would say (speaking Spanish), like, always look everywhere. But he was always so loving and gentle and kind. I remember asking him, like, Dad, how on earth did you grab a gun and started shooting people? And he told me about when he was a little kid. His mom and dad went out to a march, and one of the police chiefs was like, shoot to kill. So his mom and dad went to a protest dressed in white, and they came back dressed in red because they had to drag themselves over dead bodies. That was his first memory.

DE LOS ANGELES VAZQUEZ: How do you think your father would like to be remembered?

CANCEL VAZQUEZ: For me, Papa - he was my best friend. But I think he would like to be remembered (speaking Spanish) - as a true Puerto Rican from head to toe and able to look at himself in the mirror every day and feel respect. I think that's how he would love to be remembered.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTÍNEZ: Rafael Cancel Vazquez with his mother, Maria de los Angeles Vazquez, remembering Rafael Cancel Miranda. He died in 2020. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jo Corona
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