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Puerto Ricans have been fighting the United States’ wars since 1917. Washington only gave citizenship to 20,000 Boricuas so they could fight during World War II, not for much else. As Al Pacino says in the film Scent of a Woman: “Puerto Ricans, they make the best infantrymen.”
Since the 1800s, Puerto Ricans who lived in Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts joined the US armed forces when war threatened. In Civil War records, Puerto Rican soldiers were described as “Spanish” since Puerto Rico belonged to Spain until the U.S. invaded in 1898.
One of these soldiers was Lt. Augusto Rodriguez.
Augusto Rodriguez was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and emigrated to the US in the 1850s, settling in Connecticut.
In 1862, Rodríguez volunteered and joined the 15th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry. The 15th Connecticut was from New Haven, Connecticut, and began in 1862.
It was known as the “Lyon Regiment” in honor of Nathaniel Lyon, the first general officer killed in the U.S. Civil War.
Unfortunately, Rodríguez’s was misspelled in the military records and listed as “Augustus Rodereques.” (That made him harder to find when historians tried to find his remains.) He first held the rank of First Sergeant and, in 1864, was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant.
The infantry defended Washington, D.C. Soon after, Rodríguez became the division commander and led his men at the Battle of Fredericksburg and the Battle of Wyse Fork.
After three years of service, he received the Army Civil War Campaign Medal. Augusto Rodriguez went on to own a cigar store and became a bartender, saloon keeper, and firefighter. His army pension — after he developed arthritis — was two dollars a month.
In 2013, Rodriguez was recognized as the first known Puerto Rican veteran of the U.S. military. After Rodríguez came so many other men and women, fighting wars from Vietnam and Iraq to Afghanistan, wars they never started in the name of a country that continues to deny Puerto Ricans their freedom.
“Before they (the US) were a nation, when their national unity was in crisis, before they invaded us in 1898, before they extended us citizenship, before we went to other front-lines to defend their ideals, we shared — hand to hand, shoulder to shoulder, blood to blood — their aspirations of freedom and their unity of the nation,” Puerto Rican historian Nestor Suro said.
Suro dedicated years of his life to getting Rodríguez back home.
In 2029, Suro finally saw the soldier back where he belonged, in Puerto Rico. He received full military honors and is buried at the Puerto Rico National Cemetery, where his remains (a bag of his earthen remains — including the half-length femur) are resting in a special section of the cemetery.
For years Puerto Ricans have been told that we owe the United States, but it is clear that it is very much the other way around.
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