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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Former San Juan Star photographer visits Marshals Museum, where a photo he took hangs

Retired San Juan Star photographer Roso Sabalones said he viewed his visit to the U.S. Marshals Museum in Missouri as a chance to clarify what the conflict he captured several decades ago signifies to all involved -- Puerto Ricans and the U.S. Marshals and Navy -- to demonstrate the need to try to follow the rule of law to improve lives. (Photo courtesy of Gabriel Szoke)

By John McPhaul

Retired San Juan Star photographer Roso Sabalones paid the newly opened U.S. Marshals Museum in Missouri a visit on Columbus Day to view a photo he took that hangs in the museum and to help bring attention to an important period in Puerto Rico’s history and the problems it faces now.

Sabalones, 78, arrived in River Valley, Missouri last Monday with members of his family from San Juan, as well as friend Gabriel Szoke of Indianapolis, to have his photo taken holding a Puerto Rican flag next to one of the exhibits.

The exhibit is in a portion of the museum’s “A Changing Nation” gallery that showcases how the U.S. Marshals Service enforced the rule of law throughout history. It contains an enlargement of a black and white photo Sabalones took back in mid-1979 called “David vs. Goliath.”

The photo depicts a fisherman standing in a boat off the south shore of the Puerto Rican island municipality of Vieques, his right arm drawn back to ready a slingshot against a U.S. Navy speedboat during a protest of the Navy’s presence there.

Sabalones, who has Parkinson’s disease, said he viewed his visit to the museum as a chance to clarify what the conflict he captured several decades ago signifies to all involved -- Puerto Ricans and the U.S. Marshals and Navy -- to demonstrate the need to try to follow the rule of law to improve lives.

“Demonstrations happen and conflicts happen, but it doesn’t have to be permanent,” Sabalones said. “It can be changed.”

Szoke said he and Sabalones planned to send the photos they took at the Marshals Museum with a news release to “at least a dozen” press contacts, including some who wrote about the photo’s inclusion in the museum.

Sabalones, who was born in Cebu City in the Philippines, shot “David vs. Goliath” as a contract photojournalist for United Press International, according to a resume Szoke provided. He went on to work at publications such as the San Juan Star in Puerto Rico, El Nuevo Herald in Miami, Hoy and El Nacional in the Dominican Republic and the website before retiring in 2013.

Protests and the photograph

An online Library of Congress document titled “A Latinx Resource Guide: Civil Rights Cases and Events in the United States” says the U.S. annexed Puerto Rico in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. The Navy began converting about two-thirds of Vieques into an extension of the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station in Puerto Rico in 1941 against the backdrop of World War II. The Navy set up a training base, firing range and ammunition storage on the island, evicting those who lived in the area in the process.

The Navy conducted 180 days of military exercises per year in Vieques after World War II, according to the resource guide. It ramped up its presence after leaving Culebra -- another Puerto Rican island municipality used for military training -- in 1975.

“Island civilians felt the economic and environmental impacts of U.S. Naval control of Vieques’ land, water and air rights,” the guide states. “With no economic compensation for the land acquired by the Navy, the blow was especially acute.”

Among the Navy’s activities during its more than 60-year tenure on Vieques was firing live ordnance into both the sea and the island itself, including those containing toxic chemicals like napalm, depleted uranium and lead, according to a May 2023 article from the Guardian.

The Navy pulled out of Vieques in 2002 after mass protests following the accidental bombing that took the life of local security guard David Sanes in 1999.

Sabalones said the fishermen involved in the protest he covered in 1979 had five engine-powered boats with a news photographer in each one. They picked up some rocks and pebbles and rode out to an area the Navy was using, where they shouted nationalistic slogans.

The Navy responded by sending out larger steel patrol boats manned by U.S. marshals, according to Sabalones. Sabalones said the fishermen were able to run circles around the Navy ships, during which he snapped a photo of one of the men in his boat firing rocks at one of their pursuers with a slingshot -- the photograph later named “David vs. Goliath.”

Sabalones said though he initially didn’t think much of the photo, he now believes it “gelled” to become iconic due to the action it captured of the fishermen against the Navy.

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