Picric Acid & colonialism

About a forgotten mass grave of 176 Puerto Ricans in Arkansas.

Credits to for the story & for this picture.

March 21st can be a sensitive day in Puerto Rican social media. A day — like September 23rd — in which la mancha de plátano[1] has a particular itch. Puerto Ricans will argue about what happened that dark day in 1937. Regardless of the discourses exchanged, the Puerto Rico Insular Police — ordered by Governor Blanton Winship — killed 21 and wounded hundreds in the city of Ponce, Puerto Rico.

It is very easy to come across the usual procession of half-truths & colonized discourse in PR social media, especially when it comes this massacre of Nationalists — forever vilified by large sectors of Puerto Rican society.

Almost a decade ago — 2012, to be exact —

I was consuming social media on that day of an early, hot, and humid Puerto Rican Spring. One comment to this picture caught my attention: someone — a white American male — posted the following link:

Marker dedicated to Puerto Rican immigrants sparks a historical rediscovery
(via Elvin Demirel):

“Miers entered Calvary Cemetery to inspect the marker. On the tombstone, he read, “In Memoriam of the Porto Ricans who died at Picron, Ark. 1917–18.” A mass grave.”

Almost 180 Puerto Ricans died in a picric acid plant in Arkansas, and no one — teachers, professors, historians, media, etc. — told me or anyone I know about this tragedy.

This highly explosive organic compound — used for brewing, dye preparation, and as an antiseptic , among many other uses— had an important role to play in early XXth century warfare:

When picric acid is melted, it assumes the appearance of honey,
which property suggested recently to an ingenious Frenchman,
anxious to pose as one who is entitled to exercise paternal rights here,
the name mélenite (from μέλι, honey) — and when picric acid has been
taken on this side the Channel to Lydd, a military establishment
on the Kentish coast, it assumes the name of lyddite. It is used
there not as a substitute for Kentish hops nor as a dye for silk, but
as a charge for shells of prodigious force intended to be used as the
ultima ratio in disputes with those, who dare to oppose England’s
will. Woe! to fortresses and ships to be lyddited! [1]

Poor, brown, Spanish speaking, and freshly minted US citizens — via the Jones-Shafroth Act, signed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1917 —met their end because of a war that changed all wars. The bitter (picric) and syrupy substance would be a tool for death, providing the spark for troubles we’re still unable to solve. For millions of Puerto Ricans, colonialism is one of those problems. Centuries later, it still kills — regardless of the melliferous discourses used to hide its bitterness…

Prohibido olvidar.


[1] “banana stain”; the nature and character of the Puerto Rican.
[2] The discovery of picric acid (melinite, lyddite) as a powerful explosive. (1903). Public domain book.

SP & EN | poetry | society | teaching | science | tech https://about.me/oniricvonnegut

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