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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?