Wise Men and Macheteros

Three Kings Day is a time of gift-giving, celebrated on January 6th in Connecticut, across the nation, and throughout Spanish-speaking countries. 

In Hartford, the most unusual sight one typically encounters are camels sauntering down Park Street in a traditional depiction of the wise men’s visit to the manger, where they delivered gifts to a vulnerable, homeless child.

But on January 6, 1985 a very different trio arrived in Hartford, not by camel but by a huge Eastern Moving Company trailer truck. The van parked on Bedford Street where three men dressed in royal garb handed out $12,000 to several hundred local residents in cash, food, and toys over a period of two hours.

Big wheels, Strawberry Shortcake dolls, Star Wars toys, canned hams, and $20 bills were distributed to the crowd. “Everybody started jumping,” said one 17-year old girl. “It was wild.”

Liberating the Trillion Dollar Bank 

The giveaway was funded—involuntarily— by Wells Fargo, the multinational financial giant worth $2 trillion. The company was robbed in September 1983, a daring, nonviolent daylight theft, allegedly by a young Hartford man named Victor Gerena. The haul was $16 million, at that time the largest heist in U.S. history (all figures are calculated in current dollars).

The robbery and the toy giveaway were organized by Ejército Popular Boricua, the Boricua Peoples Army. The clandestine Puerto Rican independence group, nicknamed Los Macheteros, claimed credit for the plan and Victor’s escape. 

It was just the latest battle in the 185-year war against United States occupation. The capture of Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines in 1898 for power and profit began the worldwide U.S. project of old-fashioned colonialism. 

Allegations of torture, deadly force and civil rights abuses (including the anonymous Hartford jury that found Victor and others guilty) exposed how far the government was ready to go as a lesson to revolutionary Puerto Ricans. Official denials that the robbery was a political act rang hollow in light of these actions. 

Victor Gerena was removed from the FBI’s most wanted list in 2016. The million dollar reward is no longer advertised. But the search for him is ongoing, and his story is bound to live on. 

Outlaws and Varmints

The Wells Fargo corporation has profited off its “wild west history” by promoting the legendary characters who used to rob their stage coaches, at one time describing them as “varmints” on the corporate website. 

American culture has a long history of celebrating the outlaws who rob the rich and protect the poor.  Woody Guthrie sang about Pretty Boy Floyd and made him even more famous than he already was. JB A traditional song about Jesse James goes: “Jesse was a man, a friend to the poor, He never would see a man suffer pain.” And Charles Bolton, aka Black Bart, robbed Wells Fargo twenty seven times. 

Black Bart’s last Wells Fargo robbery was 1883.  Victor Getena’s first was 1983. How long will it take before songs are sung about Victor?

The case against Victor Gerena and his compañeros raises one final question. At a Hartford rally against government repression of the independentistas, one protestor’s sign read:

Who brings the empire to trial?”

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