María Arcelay – Making History

In November 1932, María Luisa Arcelay (1893-1981) was elected as the representative of the district of Mayagüez in Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives, thereby becoming the first woman to hold a government position on the island, and in all of Latin America at the time. Arcelay was a member of the Partido Coalicionista de Puerto Rico when elected to the House of Representatives, and she made use of her position as the president of the Agriculture and Commerce Commission to promote the needlework industry in Puerto Rico, while ensuring that prices and products in the sector were in line with markets in the United States.

Primarily because of her stance against the introduction of minimum wage legislation for seamstresses, when needleworkers went on strike for higher wages in August 1932, they stoned Arcelay’s workshop, as well as those of other employers. Police were called to restore order and protect properties, resulting in injuries and even death among the workers. This incident was immortalized in a song by Puerto Rican musician Mon Rivera called Alo, Quien Llama?, with Arcelay being mentioned by name in the lyrics.

The Lottery of Puerto Rico was established as a result of a bill introduced by María Arcelay in 1934, and upon being re-elected in 1936, she introduced bills to establish a children’s orphanage and a juvenile court, as well as the basis for establishing a teachers’ pension plan. The School of Medicine at the University of Puerto Rico located in Mayagüez was another initiative of Arcelay.

During World War II, María Arcelay was appointed as president of the Prices and Rationing Board for Mayagüez and also served as the director of War Bonds for Puerto Rico. War bonds were issued by governments during this era, serving as debt securities to raise money for military operations and other war-related expenses. In the United States they were referred to as Liberty Bonds, and were also known as Victory Bonds.

In addition to serving in government, Arcelay was active in community organizations such as the Women’s Civic and Cultural Club and the Altrusa Club in her hometown of Mayagüez. When she died on October 17, 1981, María Arcelay was buried in the town’s Old Municipal Cemetery, having made an indelible mark on the history of Puerto Rico.