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Biografía de Lola Rodríguez de Tió

Felisa Rincón de Gautier
Official Biography

Edition and photos of the Museum by Luis R. Negrón Hernández

Translation by Ann Shevlin

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Doña Fela

ELISA RINCÓN de Gautier, better know as Doña Felisa, was the first woman to hold the office of mayor of an important city in the Western Hemisphere. She served as mayor of San Juan for a period of 22 years, from 1946 to 1968. She was a pioneer in the movement for political rights for women, in establishing daycare programs for preschool children, and in establishing the first legal aid and medical assistance centers for indigents. A leader and role model for Hispanics, she also served as Goodwill Ambassador under four North American presidents. She is one of the most prominent Puerto Rican figures in the political history of our capital city.

Pioneer Puerto Rican suffragist and political leader

Through the force of imagination, ambition and perseverance, Doña Felisa became one of the first women to vote in Puerto Rico, one of the first to hold a leadership position in a political party in the 1930’s, and one of the first to be named to an important public service position in the decade of 1940. She broke down traditional sexist barriers when she was named Mayor of San Juan in 1946, a position she occupied with overwhelming public support until January of 1969. She was a model public servant, opening the door for hundreds of other women to participate in the political process. She worked tirelessly to promote the electoral participation of Hispanics in the United States, working actively in presidential, congressional and municipal campaigns from 1936 on. Photo: Puertorriqueñas sufragistas.

Roots, family

Doña Felisa was born in the town of Ceiba, Puerto Rico on January 9, 1897, the daughter of Enrique Rincón, a lawyer, and Rita Marrero, a teacher. The oldest in a family of nine children, Doña Felisa, at the young age of 12, had to take charge of her brothers and sisters when their mother died.

Museo Felisa Rincón de Gautier
(Viejo San Juan)

Doña Felisa studied in the public schools of Fajardo, Humacao and Santurce, where she finished high school. Responding to her interest in medicine and pharmaceutics, she became a practicing pharmacist. Doña Felisa was also a talented seamstress, and her interest in providing a source of work to the unemployed in Puerto Rico brought her to travel to New York to learn how to operate a dress factory and master the art of high fashion design. In time she opened a highly successful clothing shop, “Felisa’s Style Shop”, and before that, a florist shop. Her first interest, nonetheless, was always in helping and serving people.

First steps in politics

Doña Felisa grew up in a home where her father often hosted gatherings in which he would discuss political and international topics with some of the great leaders of the time. When women obtained the right to vote in Puerto Rico in 1932, Doña Felisa was not only the fifth women to register, but also was named an official representative of the Liberal Party by its president, Antonio R. Barceló. Two weeks later she was named a member of the Executive Committee of the party.
Photo at right: Antonio R. Barceló.

As a militant member of the Liberal Party, Felisa Rincón dedicated herself to carrying her party's message of reform to the poor, concentrating her efforts in the worst slums of Puerto Rico. After the Liberal Party was defeated in the elections of 1936, she joined Luis Muñoz Marín in 1938 to help form a new political party, the Popular Democratic Party (PPD). Doña Felisa became the President of the San Juan Committee of the PPD and in 1944 the party leadership asked her to run for Mayor, just as the leaders of the Liberal Party had asked her to run for the Senate in 1936. In 1946, challenging the traditions that were part of her upbringing, she accepted the appointment as Mayor of San Juan, filling out the term of Roberto Sánchez Vilella.

Doña Felisa: 22 years as Mayor of San Juan

In Doña Felisa‘s 22 years as Mayor, San Juan grew in population from 180,000 to 450,000 inhabitants, becoming the finance and tourism center of the Caribbean. Under Doña Felisa’s leadership, San Juan was transformed into one of the most beautiful cities in the Hemisphere. Working in close collaboration with her good friend and political leader Luis Muñoz Marín, she made significant contributions to the enormous task of rebuilding the economic infrastructure of Puerto Rico, a task that transformed the country from one of the poorest in the Western Hemisphere into one of the most highly developed.
Photo: Luis Muñoz Marín.

During her time in office, the priority of Doña Felisa was the welfare of the people, above all, that of the poor and disabled. Under her administration many great projects and pilot programs were achieved. Doña Felisa organized the first centers of preschool daycare in the Hemisphere, the “Maternal Schools”, which later served as a model for the “Head Start” program in the U.S. in the decade of the 1960’s. She instituted clinics and diagnostic centers in the neighborhoods of the Capital. She renovated the San Juan Municipal Hospital complex and improved services for ambulatory patients there. The Municipal Hospital of San Juan was the first in the island to receive full accreditation from the American Hospital Association in 1948. This made possible the establishment of the School of Medicine in 1950. Doña Felisa also established the first municipal centers for the care of the elderly and the first centers for legal aid to persons of limited resources. In 1959, the exemplary leadership of Doña Felisa in the area of conservation methods led to San Juan becoming the recipient of an “All American City Award”.

Beloved by the people

Under the administration of Doña Felisa, the public always had access to the mayor's office. Her famous Wednesday hearings allowed citizens to feel confident the Mayor would try in every way to solve the problems that they brought to her attention. At Christmas time, the Mayor distributed gifts to thousands of needy families. She also helped organize youth baseball teams, providing uniforms and necessary equipment, in addition to clearing land to serve as ballparks for neighborhood children. Her efforts helped in the formation of Little League teams throughout San Juan. With limited resources, but with total commitment to providing the best to her people, the administration of Doña Felisa achieved extraordinary progress in the areas of public welfare, public works, and in expanding educational and cultural opportunities.

The success of the Mayor was not limited to Puerto Rico or to the United States. Four North American presidents asked Doña Felisa to serve as Goodwill Ambassador to countries in Latin American, Asia and Europe. Her work in Latin America is perhaps one of her greatest legacies, as few people have done as much as she did to promote understanding and friendship between the peoples of Latin America and the United States. She was noted for being an ardent defender of democracy and social justice in this hemisphere for more than half a century.

International praise

Doña Felisa received numerous awards, decorations and honorary degrees from city and state governments, including recognition from the governments of France (Medal of Joan of Arc), Spain (Gold Medal of Honor, Don Quixote Medal, and The Medal of Isabella the Catholic Queen); (The Simon Bolivar Medal); (The Award of the Order of Merit) and from Ecuador (Gold Medal of Honor), among others. In 1954, Doña Felisa was recognized as “Woman of the Americas” by the Union of American Women of New York for all of her contributions to the western hemisphere. In 1958, Cardinal Francis Spellman of the Cathedral of St. Patrick in New York conferred upon her the “Medal of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem”. In 1961, Eleanor Roosevelt presented her the “Hebrew Philanthropic Award”. All of these honors transcend political and geographical barriers and recognize Doña Felisa as a model of the highest aspirations that a person can achieve.
Photo: Doña “Fela” surrounded from left to right by Hiram Cancio, Ariel Colón, Arturo Morales Carrión, Jaime Benítez and Ricardo E. Alegría.

At the age of 95

Even when she reached the age of 95, Doña Felisa did not stop promoting the worthy causes that had been the motivation of her life's work. Her integrity, devotion to duty, dedication to the improvement of opportunities for the less fortunate in society, and her love and compassion toward the people are qualities that earned her the title of one of the most distinguished public servants of her time. It was clear that she had great love for her country and for the promotion democratic values abroad. Photo: “L. Negrón H.”: Parlor of the museum/residence of Doña Felisa in Old San Juan.
Photo: “L. Negrón H.”: Parlor of the museum / residence of Doña Felisa in Old San Juan.

Final good-bye

Doña Felisa Rincón de Gautier died the 16th of September, 1994, in the Home of Our Lady of Providence in Puerta de Tierra. She was taken to the Ehret Funeral Home where she was placed in the chapel until the 18th of September where a mass was celebrated by Father Juan José Santiago. Afterwards, she was moved to the Sala Capitular of the San Juan City Hall, where she remained until the 19th of September, during which time she received demonstrations of affection from the people whom she had loved and helped so much. She was eulogized for her accomplishments on behalf of the progress and welfare of San Juan by former governors Rafael Hernández Colón (PPD), Luis A Ferré (PNP), the mayor of San Juan, Hector Luis Acevedo, Miguel A. Hernández Agist, Minority speaker of the Popular Party in the Senate, and Rubio Bedoya, of the Diplomatic Corps, among many others. Photo by Luis Negrón H.: Doña Felisa’s bedroom in Old San Juan.

At 11:00 in the morning she was taken to the Cathedral of San Juan where Cardinal Luis Aponte Martínez celebrated mass in her memory. In both locations the people carried the coffin of Doña Felisa. After mass the funeral procession left the Cathedral (Cristo and Fortaleza Streets, Ponce de León Avenue, Fernández Juncos Avenue, Muñoz Rivera Avenue) and proceeded to the Monacillos neighborhood of Río Piedras where Doña Felisa was buried with the honors of a chief of state.


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