In the name of Puerto Rican independence, Juan Segarra ’67 stole $7.2 million, the largest cash bank heist in American history at the time. Segarra and his activism group Los Macheteros took the money from a Wells Fargo bank in Hartford, Conn. in 1983. After evading the FBI for two years then spending almost 15 years in prison, Segarra was granted clemency by President Bill Clinton in 1999.
A new documentary debuting this Sunday, September 15, called “The Last American Colony,” explores Segarra’s life and his role in the Puerto Rican independence movement. The film, directed by Bestor Cram and Michael Majoros, and will be screening at the Newburyport Film Festival this weekend.
“The film is an examination of the relationship between Puerto Rico as a territory and the United States as essentially a colonial power. And through the eyes of Juan Segarra, who graduated from Andover, he reflects not only his own education about the world that he grew up in, and his new perceptions of the relationship between Puerto Rico and the US, but he reveals his own saga when it comes to making decisions about the degree to which he’s willing to stand up for what he believes,” said Cram.
Cram and Majoros felt that Segarra was a good example of the sense of desperation one feels under an oppressive system. According to Cram, the filmmakers were first drawn to Segarra’s story after hearing about the assasination of Segarra’s former commandant in Los Macheteros, Filiberto Ojeda Rios.
As an organization, Los Macheteros sought Puerto Rican independence from the United States by performing violent and extrajudicial acts between the late 1970s and early 1980s. Two of the most famous that the group carried out were “the destruction of 10 US military planes at the National Guard runway in San Juan and the enormous heist of 7.2 million dollars from a Wells Fargo depot in Hartford, Connecticut,” according to the Newburyport Documentary Film Festival website.
“I think that Juan Segarra helps us learn what are the consequences of oppression when one is perceived that there is no way, or no good way out of the power struggle that exists. So it’s a personal journey that Juan goes through. He pays a big price. But, you know, having been a graduate at Andover in 1967, this is a man who is not reacting in a callous or superficial way. This is obviously a very educated individual self aware of opportunity and privilege and also reacting to an era in which all sorts of people were looking for ways in which to enact their demands for change, equality, and justice,” said Cram.
As a young student at Andover, Segarra faced a reckoning with both his own identity as a student from Puerto Rico as well as a political reckoning his senior year as a history student. Within his first day at Andover, Segarra was called an offensive slur.
“That, I think, was a wake up call to him in terms of identity politics, and a sense of the fact that he would be perceived as being different being Puerto Rican, period…And Juan’s reaction was immediate. He turned around, and he slapped the guy. And the guy was astonished. And it was during an era where people used words, hateful words without appreciating actually how hurtful they were,” said Cram.
By his senior year, Segarra was researching the historical and modern relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. According to Majoros, Andover majorly shaped the way that Segarra thought about the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States, as well as his own political stance.
While he respects Segarra’s conviction and strength in his beliefs, Salvador Gomez-Colon ’21 says he doesn’t quite agree with Segarra’s actions or rhetoric as a fellow Puerto Rican. Gomez-Colon explained how he felt that the motivation behind Segarra and other independence movement activist’s actions didn’t quite justify their actions, nor the violence that they perpetrated.
“Puerto Rico’s endured over 500 years of colonization whether it was from the Spaniards, or now from from the Americans, it’s definitely a fact. The problem there is that when you have people like Juan Segarra…basically committing criminal actions and planning criminal conspiracies…that is when the movement loses credibility and the movement loses its value, because it’s now it’s no longer about the benefit and the vision they have for for Puerto Rico,” said Gomez-Colon.
Majoros acknowledged the relative unpopularity of the independence movement in Puerto Rico, but challenged how we perceive people’s actions in the name of their country. Majoros also criticized what he feels is an unfair judgement of documentaries as necessarily objective. Majoros argued that while the film presents Segarra positively, it’s up to the audience to judge.
Majoros said, “I don’t know, there’s this sense of ‘documentary should be objective’…And I think that’s a falsehood. And I think all documentaries are subjective and the own viewpoint of the filmmakers always comes across. It’s a subjective documentary. We present Segarra in a relatively positive light. And I think he definitely has detractors. But it was a real gift that he gave us to present the details of his life, and then allow audiences to judge.”
Gomez-Colon clarified that while he does not agree with the actions of Segarra and the fringe independence movement of Puerto Rico, he can still find common ground and points of agreement with Segarra.
“The fact that [Segarra] has fought for the end of the oppression of the colony of Puerto Rico, whether or not we have different views of how that should end, he would like independence. I see statehood as the best option. I think that we can both find common ground in the fact that we both care about Puerto Rico, we both want the best for Puerto Rico and we do both recognize that the United States holds Puerto Rico as a colony under colonial rule.” said Gomez-Colon.