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A place of recognition for Puerto Rican vets

‘This is the way Puerto Ricans should be known.’

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
A place of recognition for Puerto Rican vets
Gov. Charlie Baker and City Council President Ed Flynn lay a wreath at the Puerto Rican Veterans memorial in the South End as city councilors Ruthzee Louijeune and Ricardo Arroyo and state Rep. Jon Santiago look on. BANNER PHOTO

Growing up, Brenda Samuels knew her father, Jose Santiago, was a big deal in the military. But as a lieutenant colonel with the 82nd Airborne Division, a unit that specialized in covert operations, he wasn’t at liberty to discuss with his family the operations in which he was involved.

The respect he commanded in military circles, however, gave his family an inkling of his achievement in the armed forces. Until now, Santiago’s military accomplishments, rising from a drafted man to a high-ranking officer, were not widely recognized. Monday, as members of Boston’s Puerto Rican community looked on, Santiago was honored with a plaque at the Puerto Rican Veterans Memorial in the South End.

(left to right) City of Boston Commissioner of Veterans Services Robert Santiago and Puerto Rican Festival of Massachusetts President Edwin Alicea speak with Brenda Samuels and Mary Santiago, daughter and wife of the late Lt. Col. Jose Santiago. BANNER PHOTO

The memorial park centers around a bronze statue of a Puerto Rican man and woman in combat uniforms set on a dark granite block with the words “La libertad no es gratis,” or “Liberty is not free.” Plaques in the triangular park, at the intersection of Washington and West Dedham Streets, pay homage to Puerto Rican units and individual soldiers who served in U.S. conflicts.

Santiago, who was from Puerto Rico but moved to Belmont, is now among those honored for their military service at the monument — the only monument in the continental United States dedicated to honoring Puerto Ricans. Samuels said she was grateful her father received recognition from the community.

“I feel honored to be his daughter and to have the honor of raising the flag — I’m speechless,” she said. “I find this place now a place where I can come and be with him. It’s an honor to know that he’s being recognized the right way.”

The park, founded in 1999, has become an important stop for elected officials and community members on Memorial Day. Among those in attendance this year were Gov. Charlie Baker, Mayor Michelle Wu, Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins, state Reps. Jon Santiago and Nika Elugardo, and City Councilors Ed Flynn, Ricardo Arroyo, Ruthzee Louijeune and Erin Murphy.

Prominent community members in attendance included Tony Molina and Jaime Rodriguez — the Vietnam veterans who spearheaded the creation of the memorial — as well as former Police Commissioner William Gross, former Boston Housing Authority Director David Cortiella, and prominent community activists, including Jovita Fontanez, Regla Gonzalez and José Massó.

Baker, noting the display of 37,000 flags on the Boston Common, which represent the number of Massachusetts residents who died fighting for the U.S. Army since the War of Independence, spoke about the importance of honoring the war dead.

“I think it’s important for us to remember that the folks who are buried here in the United States and around the world deserve to be honored,” he said. “God bless all of them and their families.”

Among those flags on the Common, many would represent Puerto Ricans. The island has a higher percentage of people killed in action than any U.S. state. While Lt. Colonel Jose Santiago was not killed in action, his recognition in the South End park is important, said his wife, Mary Santiago.

“This is the way Puerto Ricans should be known,” she said. “I’m beyond grateful this monument is here for Puerto Ricans.”

Memorial Day, Puerto Rican Vets, veterans