Cabo Rojo municipal building still has the name of J.L.M. Curry (photo courtesy of Comité Pro-Edificio María Civico)

Residents of Puerto Rico’s southwestern coastal city of Cabo Rojo have been up in arms since finding out that the historic building that houses the former J.L.M. Curry school bears the name of a Confederate States Army officer from the United States. 

The school was built in 1903 and now serves as a municipal building, but the name of Jabez Lamar Monroe (J. L.M.) Curry is still etched on the front façade.

Dr. Luis A. Ramírez Padilla has joined with people who live in Cabo Rojo, and other concerned Puerto Ricans, to push for the renaming of the building. As members of the Comité Pro Edificio Maria Cívico (Pro-Maria Cívico Building Committee), they want the name of J.L.M. Curry removed and to have the name of María Civico, a native from Cabo Rojo, put in its place.   

María Cívico was born Jan. 4, 1860, in Cabo Rojo. Though born enslaved, she was granted an initial freedom in 1870 which, after 3 years of required service, led to permanent freedom. Cívico was talented and smart; she became an advocate for the rights of Black workers and women. During her lifetime, she was able to earn her living as an haute couture fashion designer.
Having the name of J.L.M. Curry, a prominent slaveholder and southern Confederate, on a street named after the Puerto Rican independence leader and slavery abolitionist Ramón Emeterio Betances––whose remains are buried in the nearby church––is a slur on Betances’ legacy, activists say.

Dr. Ramírez initially brought the subject of the Curry school’s name up in an online article he published in 2020. As an historian, he explained, the building of schools and other buildings in Puerto Rico began soon after the United States took control of the island in 1898. These buildings were a way of asserting cultural dominance—particularly when the name of a slaveholder with racist views about Black people was placed on the city’s central school building.  

Curry never actually set foot in Puerto Rico, so the idea of having his name symbolize the education system was also a promotion of U.S. values over those of the island.

“It is time to reassess and begin to correct and reconstruct our people’s true historical and cultural memory,” Ramírez wrote. “What is the legacy we want to leave for posterity? For many generations, whether through ignorance or simply not wanting to know, we have continued to commemorate and perpetuate the values that J.L.M. Curry represents. His name has remained untouchable. It is time to rename the school.”  

“María Cívico represents the opposite of J.L.M. Curry,” said Comité member Ana Troche. “No one knew about María Cívico. She is part of that unwritten history of Puerto Rico. Now it is written because recently Dr. Luis Ramirez wrote the biography of Maria in a pamphlet that we are distributing so that everyone knows about her. She was born on Betances street in Cabo Rojo which at that time was called Mirasol, she was born on the same street as Betances himself, but about two or three houses down, and as a slave.” 

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The Cabo Rojo Municipal Legislature stated in an email to the Amsterdam News, “We approved a bill ordering that the Municipal Public Works Office change the name of the aforementioned building. We are in the process of purchasing the lettering in accordance with the permit given by the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture.”

And the city’s press contact, Victor Matos, assures that this month they have put workers in place and set funds aside to make the necessary name change. “It’s important that we herald the true contributions of African descendants in Puerto Rico. Imagine, in Cabo Rojo, where the father of Puerto Rican independence, Dr. Ramón Emeterio Betances, was born, where he stood in front of the Catholic Church, bought enslaved children and freed them on the spot. ….

“We didn’t know about Curry before. But thanks to the work of Dr. Ramírez and the committee, the people of Cabo Rojo wanted to come to a decision about this jointly. We’re just waiting for the go-ahead from the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture —as soon as that comes, we are going to get rid of the name of this confederate, slaveholding, racist Curry on the building.”

José Escabí, the great-grandson of Maria Civico, is a retired chemistry professor. He told the AmNews his family would be honored to have the school building carry the name of his great grandmother. “Of course, she died long before I was born, like 20 years or so before. But her name was always mentioned a lot in my house, almost every day.

“She was trying to get us, the whole family, to better ourselves and be better people, educated people. My grandmother was an agent of God.”

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