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i was born Boricua,
i will keep being Boricua,
and will die a Boricua.
–Oscar Lopez Rivera, Puerto Rican Independentista
(Oscar does not capitalize the “i” when referring to himself, in order to deemphasis the individual with respect to the collective)
I picked up Oscar López Rivera: Between Torture and Resistance (Amazon | Indiebound) at a local event in Berkeley where I signed up as a security volunteer. Even though I didn’t know who OLR was, I was excited to be part of an event celebrating the release of a political prisoner. Apart from Angela Davis whose book inspired me, I don’t hear many stories of political prisoners being released.
Maybe it was the timing, but I wanted to learn more about Oscar and his own struggle as a Puerto Rican independentista. As I write this, ten political prisoners were just released in the Philippines as part of ongoing peace talks between the NDF and the government. But more still languish behind bars. Many of the political prisoners released by the Philippine government are out of jail on certain conditions — as consultants for the peace talks.
The event was rapidly filling up, as people walked in with the widest smiles. On the stage was a big “Bievenído Oscar!” banner. The reception hall was lined with artwork calling for Puerto Rican independence. The air had an electric feel to it and I’ve never seen so many activists in one space so joyous.
Oscar was born in San Sebastián, Puerto Rico in 1943. At age 14, he moved to Chicago with his family and soon enough, he was drafted into the U.S. Armed Forces where he was awarded the Bronze Star for his service. But what came out of his time in Vietnam was not an increase in patriotic fervor, but a realization of who he was — Puerto Rican.
As soon as he came back from the service, he started to organize his communities and push for an end to U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico. From 1969 to 1976, Oscar helped found several programs and initiatives: the Pedro Albizu Campos High School, an alternative school for Puerto Ricans celebrating innovator Paulo Freire (who wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed); the Puerto Rican Cultural Center; campaigns for bilingual education support; Project 500 at the University of Illinois, an educational initiative to ensure the annual admission of five hundred Latino and African American students; the Latin American and Latino studies, as well Proyecto Pa’lante; the Latin American Recruitment Education Services; the first Latino Cultural Center in the state of Illinois; the Spanish Coalition for Housing and many others.
His civil activism between 1969 and 1976 clearly evidenced his genuine and significant effort to use every possible route of change within Chicago’s existing official structures. The question, however, remained: was it really possible to develop lasting (and not merely cosmetic) change within the prevailing dominant structures of U.S. society?
In November 1976, Oscar went underground and joined the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña or the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN). The FALN carried out and promoted armed struggles against the U.S. government to draw attention to the colonial condition of Puerto Rico, founded “following decades of alleged harassment, attacks, illegal imprisonments and assassination against members of the Puerto Rican independence movement.”
Before he went underground, Oscar was a clear target by Chicago’s police department because he was a well-known community leader. In 1981, he was captured under the charge of seditious conspiracy — to conspire to overthrow by force the authority of the United States over Puerto Rico.
For over a hundred years it has been the independence movement that has formulated the concept of our political reality, always asserting that we are a colony. Against sea and storm, paying the price of persecution and criminalization, independentismo has affirmed, and reaffirmed, that Puerto Rico’s political status is that of a colony. It is an irrefutable truth for everyone who loves justice, freedom and truth.
For 35 years, Oscar spent time in four North American prisons where different forms of abuse and torture were enacted on him. He was harassed by his jailers and was even a victim of an entrapment plan where FBI informants fabricated an escape conspiracy to put even more years on him. He was subject to solitary confinement and absolute segregation. He suffered sleep deprivation constantly.
What gives me the certainty that my spirit will be reborn after this difficult test is not an enigma that must be deciphered. My certainty lies in my confidence that i have chosen to serve a just and noble cause. A free, just, and democratic homeland represents a sublime ideal worth fighting for. There is an organic relationship between my motivation to struggle and that ideal.
In spite of the conditions of his captivity, he remained strong and resolute in his beliefs. What followed is a series of correspondence between Oscar and his family, his closest circle which revealed the ultimate strength of his character. Spending 35 years in prison can do a lot of damage to a person’s spiritual and mental health, but Oscar never wavered in his longing for an independent homeland.
Reading his letters to his daughter, his granddaughter, friends and other supporters gave me a sense of a spiritual abundance, of what he held close time and time again.
i know material poverty as i know my own hands. i know the pain caused by material poverty and spiritual poverty. i know the pain of stubbing a toe on a stump for lack of shoes to wear. i know the pain of hunger. Because i have suffered in flesh, bone, and spirit, i reject and detest material poverty as much as spiritual poverty. And maybe i detest the latter more than the former because it causes more ignorance and insensitivity.
In January 2017, Barack Obama commuted Oscar’s sentence and in May 2017, he was finally released.
Back at the event in Berkeley, I glanced up as the crowd welcomed Oscar to the stage. Many were waving Puerto Rican flags, and I was (as always) overcome with emotion. People were wiping tears from their eyes, clapping hard for Oscar, his release and his resilience.
His life and his struggle for Puerto Rican independence is an inspiration to many people like me, people engaged in anti-imperialist movements and movements of liberation. I was feeling a little bad that up until the event I didn’t know who he was and that I wasn’t able to participate in any actions to call for his release. But I learned something even more valuable, as he stood on stage, surrounded by the kinds of people I want to build movements with: that the fight doesn’t end until all political prisoners are free, until people can fully claim their homelands as their own, until the ravages of imperialism are destroyed.
I never knew Oscar personally, not even from afar, but I am indebted to his words and the strength of his spirit. As he always says, pa’lante always.
…i can go to bed every night with a clean conscience because there is no blood on my hands, and because my heart remains full of love and compassion.
i was born Boricua, i will keep being Boricua, and will die a Boricua. i refuse to accept injustice, and will never ignore it when i become aware of it. If i can’t do good to someone, at least i will never do them harm. And if i have nothing good to say about someone, i’ll say nothing at all.
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Pia Cortez is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She runs a book blog called Libromance where she reviews books and publishes literary features with a queer Filipino immigrant lens. She is a contributor at Hella Pinay, an online magazine for Filipino-American women and at New Life Quarterly, a literary magazine based in Oakland, California. She is currently working on her first novel.