José Celso Barbosa was born in Bayamon, Puerto Rico on July 27, 1857. He attended a Jesuit school in San Juan, with the assistance of his aunt, and determined that he would go to college. After his graduation in 1875, he tutored the children of his father’s employer to save for college. The employer, a sugar plantation owner, was impressed enough to help Barbosa make his way to the United States.
He spent a year at prep school polishing his English, and then went on to study medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he graduated as valedictorian in 1880.
He was the first person from Puerto Rico to graduate from medical school in the United States.
When he returned to Puerto Rico to practice medicine, he had to struggle to have his degree recognized. Spain accepted only European degrees. The American consul assisted Barbosa in his negotiations, and he was allowed to practice.
Barbosa provided medical care in Bayamon and beyond. He was a member of the Red Cross, and cared for soldiers in the conflict in San Juan during the Spanish-American War.
Barbosa was a prominent medical doctor, and he was also a visionary. He had the idea that employers should pay a fee to ensure medical care for their workers, much like modern health insurance. He developed the first Credit Union in the Western Hemisphere and established the first worker’s collective in 1893, “El Ahorro Colectivo.”
The father of the statehood movement
Barbosa admired the ideas he had met in the United States, and in a speech in 1898 he said,”We aspire to be another State within the Union in order to affirm the personality of the Puerto Rican people.”
On the 4th of July in 1899, Barbosa became one of the founders of the Republican Party of Puerto Rico. This party favored statehood for Puerto Rico. It was not the first political party in which Barbosa was involved, but it addressed the frustration he felt at seeing Puerto Rico continue in the same colonial patterns he had known before. He wanted Puerto Rico to have the same rights and responsibilities he had seen in the United States.
In 1907, Barbosa founded El Tiempo, the first bilingual newspaper in Puerto Rico. He owned this highly successful newspaper even as he became more involved with his political career.
He served in the Cabinet, Puerto Rico’s first civilian government, from 1910 to 1917. During those years he worked for citizenship for the people of Puerto Rico. This was accomplished in 1917.
He served in the Puerto Rican senate from 1917 to 1921. He died in 1921, at the age of 64, having served Puerto Rico well.
Barbosa’s birthday is an official holiday in Puerto Rico.