Dr. José Celso Barbosa, father of the statehood movement, was born on July 27, 1857, in Bayamón, Puerto Rico. He was educated at the Seminario Conciliar de San Ildefonso, Fort Edward Collegiate Institute in New York, and the University of Michigan. Dr. Barbosa was the first Black physician to graduate from an American medical school.
He returned to Puerto Rico, which was still owned by Spain at that time. The Spanish authorities refused to recognize his medical degree because it came from the United States, but with the support of the American consulate he was allowed to practice medicine.
Barbosa developed the first health insurance program in Puerto Rico at that time, allowing employers to pay the premiums for their workers.
A political leader
Barbosa was active in the autonomist movement, seeking autonomy under Spanish rule and supporting the U.S. annexation of Puerto Rico when Spain ceded the Island to the United States. He had served as a medical officer in San Juan during the Spanish-American War and received a medal from Spain. While he supported the U.S., he wanted autonomy in the form of statehood for Puerto Rico. “We want and we ask for equality,” he told the United States. “Not colonial control or protection. We support the same ideal of the American Union with equality in rights and in duties.”
He established the Republican Party of Puerto Rico in 1899 and remained politically active throughout his life. He was a member of the Executive Cabinet from 1900 to 1917 and a member of the Senate from 1917 to 1921. He also wrote for the newspaper El Tiempo, which he published.
His goal for Puerto Rico was statehood. “Puerto Rico aspires to reach all the rights granted by U.S. Citizenship, in the same method, in the same manner, under the same form, and under the full integrity as the one enjoyed by the residents of any of the regions that are called States of the American Union. To that we aspire, that
is what we want, that is what we shall have,” he said. “We want, and we ask for, equality. Not colonialism or protection. Since the American Flag first waved over Puerto Rico, those have been the ideals that we have defended.”
Dr. Barbosa died in 1921, at the age of 64.
His childhood home is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.