March 4, 1970: University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras–From her balcony, Antonia Martínez Lagares yells “¡Asesino!” to a riot police officer who was beating a student protester with a truncheon. UPR-RP students were protesting American advancement in Vietnam, ROTC presence on campus, and American imperialism in Puerto Rico. The officer looks up and fires a single shot. Antonia falls dead; the bullet exits her head and injures another student.
The scene of the protests at the UPR in 1970. Image via El Nuevo Día.
May 4, 1970, Kent State University, Ohio–Students at Kent State University in Kent, OH, like many students across the nation, were protesting against the Vietnam War and the “Cambodian Campaign,” the military draft, and ROTC presence on campus. The Ohio National Guard was present on campus that day to supervise the scheduled protest and, when the crowd refused to disperse, they immediately began to fire at the protesters. The guardsmen fired 67 rounds over a period of 13 seconds; they killed four students and wounded nine others, one of whom suffered permanent paralysis.
For decades, university campuses have been hot beds for civilian unrest and protest and, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, notoriously so. Following outrage about American advancement in the Vietnam War and the draft, university and college students in the United States and Puerto Rico protested against military occupation and American imperialism. Unsurprisingly, these protests often became violent, but only some were deadly; the murders and Kent State University in Ohio and the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico will forever live in infamy.
While there were other campus murders related to Vietnam resistance, like in Jackson State University (neé College), where two students were murdered and twelve more were injured by police just eleven days after the Kent State murders, the murders at Kent State and the UPR Rio Piedras are famous because of their place in history as well as pop culture.
Both tragedies have eerie similarities: they occurred in the spring of 1970, exactly two months away from the other, by state-ordered officials and, in both cases, nobody was prosecuted for their crime. And, understandably, both events sparked social outrage, which was translated into music.
The murder of Antonia Martínez Lagares inspired a few songs in Puerto Rico folklore genres, such as Roy Brown’s “Antonia murió de un balazo” and, perhaps most famously, “El Topo” Antonio Cabán Vale’s, “Antonia.” Unsurprisingly, Antonia’s murder and El Topo’s heartfelt tribute to her have since become symbols for resistance in Puerto Rico, both for students, young activists, and against American imperialism.
“Antonia, aquí estamos presentes para mostrarle al mundo la luz que nace en tí/Aquellos que un día derramaron tus pétalos de sangre no sabían/que así echaban las semillas en el aire/y a la vista del pueblo habrían de surgir.”
The outrage over the heinous murders and Kent State also left their mark on American folk music. Countless artists have immortalized their outrage over the murders, but perhaps most famous is Crosby Stills Nash and Young’s aggressive, heavy “Ohio.” The song name-drops the Guardsmen (the “tin soldiers”) and President Nixon, but is also refers to the young women murdered at the scene (“What if you knew her/ And found her dead on the ground/ How can you run when you know?”).
The protest and counterculture anthem was recorded just a little over two weeks after the shootings and released the following month.
The songs and the events that inspired them are a reminder that student protests matter and the lives of activists should not be forgotten. While the images and the music inspired by them serve as a testament and legacy of these movements and their victims, the most pertinent way to honor them is by continuing and defending their struggles. The tragedy at Kent State contributed to the end of the military draft and continued anti-war sentiment across the US. Meanwhile, even though the UPR-RP does not have ROTC presence on its campus, it and the ten other campuses of the UPR system are often the site of turmoil, resistance and continued brutality.