The life story of Puerto Rican freedom fighter and leader Oscar López Rivera, outlined in this book, is one of courage, valor, and sacrifice. In 1981, Oscar was convicted of seditious conspiracy and other crimes for which he is still imprisoned, making him the longest-held political prisoner in the world. This is the story of his fight for the political independence of Puerto Rico based on letters between him and the renowned lawyer, sociologist, educator, and activist Luis Nieves Falcón. Also included is Oscar’s art, including photography and paintings created in his many years behind bars. Readers will explore his early life as a Latino child growing up in the small towns of Puerto Rico, following him as an adolescent as he and his family move to the big cities of the United States. After serving in Vietnam and earning a Bronze Star, Oscar returned home and worked to improve the quality of life for his people by becoming a community activist, which led to his underground life as a Puerto Rican Nationalist and his subsequent arrest. With a vivid assessment of the ongoing colonial relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico, the book helps to illustrate the sad tale of largely unreported human rights abuses for political prisoners in the United States, but it is also a story of hope and his ongoing struggle for freedom for his people and himself—a hope that there is beauty and strength in resistance.
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About the Author
Oscar López Rivera is a Puerto Rican Nationalist who was convicted and sentenced to 70 years in prison for seditious conspiracy, armed robbery, and other various offenses and now holds the distinction of being one of the longest-held political prisoners in the world. His projected release date is in 2027. Luis Nieves Falcón is a renowned lawyer, psychologist, and sociologist, as well as a professor emeritus of the University of Puerto Rico and a longtime advocate for Puerto Rican human rights. His recent books include A Century of Political Repression in Puerto Rico: 1898–1998 and The Light from the Window: Conversations with Filiberto Ojeda Rios. He lives in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Archbishop Desmond Tutu is Archbishop Emeritus of the Anglican Church of South Africa and the recipient of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize. Archbishop Tutu has long spoken out for human rights for all, and for the release of all political prisoners. He currently chairs The Elders, a group committed to dealing with the world’s most intractable challenges and whose members include Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, and Mary Robinson. Matt Meyer is the author and editor of six books, including Guns and Gandhi in Africa and Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U.S. Political Prisoners. He is an educator who has served as national chair for both the War Resisters League and the Peace and Justice Studies Association. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. Rev. Nozomi Ikuta is the pastor of Denison Avenue United Church of Christ.
Read an Excerpt
Between Torture and Resistance
By Oscar López Rivera, Luis Nieves Falcón
PM PressCopyright © 2013 PM Press
All rights reserved.
... 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.
i have never left anybody behind. The alleged victims said that if the Parole Commission had informed them that Carlos was applying for parole they would have never allowed it and he would have had to rot in jail. We can celebrate that i am the only one left. The compa' is already making and rebuilding his life, and things are going very well for him.
Well, take good care of yourself, don't neglect your health, and pa'lante always with hope and courage. Lots and lots of love,
— Oscar López Rivera, letter to his daughter Clarisa, February 2, 2011
Oscar López Rivera was born under the sign of Capricorn, on January 6, 1943, in Barrio Aibonito of San Sebastián, Puerto Rico.
His parents were Doña Ana Rivera Méndez ("Mita") and Don Alberto López Méndez. The family is made up of six children of both parents, plus three children of Don Alberto, and one foster child. They are, in order of age: Juan Alberto (resident of Isabela), Clara Luz (deceased), Mercedes (resident of Aguada), Oscar (imprisoned), José (resident of Chicago), and Zenaida (resident of Chicago). The foster son, Hilario Medina and the three children of Don Alberto — Carlos, Iván, and Maricely — are residents of San Sebastián.
Oscar went to elementary school in Escuela Guerrero of Barrio Aibonito, and attended Escuela Hoyamala in Barrio Hoyamala for the first years of middle school. He spent those formative years — in which the values that shelter our spirit are developed — in the rural countryside, which instilled in him a profound love of the homeland and its core values: a life full of primary relationships characterized by the tenderness and affection that are distinguishing traits typical of Puerto Rican family attachment bonds.
Because of the precarious situation of the country, Oscar's family joined the thousands of Puerto Ricans who, as in the poem "The Peasant of Las Marias," found themselves obliged to abandon their native soil in the hope of improving their economic situation. His father, a small farmer, was forced to emigrate in 1952 and headed for Chicago where his wife's two brothers lived, leaving the entire family behind. Don Alberto worked in a steel mill, where he suffered a work accident, losing partial use of his right hand. As settlement of the resulting suit, he was made a supervisor and received some economic compensation. In 1957, Clara and her husband followed the route of emigration. Their older brother, Juan Alberto, joined them in 1958, followed immediately by the rest of the family. Oscar left the Island when he was fourteen.
Oscar finished high school in Chicago in 1960 and began liberal arts studies at Wright College in Chicago in 1961. He was fascinated by the sciences, especially biology and mathematics. Many years later, while in jail, he reencountered this love of plants and now often paints leaves as a representation of liberating hope.
The leap to Chicago was hard. Mita explains it like this: "My husband came looking for a better environment and it was not to be found here. We have to work harder, it's colder, [there is] more humiliation, more racism for us. ... We live humiliated by the Americans. If you go to work in a factory, they fire you because 'you don't produce.' That applies to Hispanics, Blacks, not for Americans. We Latinos all suffer. We suffer in this country."
In Chicago, the family situation became critical. The authoritarian, womanizing father from Barrio Aibonito forced Mercedes to work in a factory when she refused to be dropped back a grade because she came from Puerto Rico. Mercedes eventually married, and gave birth to two children, Fabián and Wanda. Mercedes's husband, however, had an accident that resulted in the partial amputation of his leg, and turned him into a short-tempered man, angry at the world at large. After he became abusive toward Mercedes, they separated and had no further relationship.
Don Alberto also decided to abandon the family and disappeared completely. Oscar left his studies to help support the family. Between 1962 and 1963, he worked in a medical laboratory and from 1963–1965 for GTE (General Telephone and Electronics) in Northlake, Illinois. He was drafted in June 1965. In the front lines of Vietnam, Oscar learned the horrors of war firsthand.
Oscar risked his life in Vietnam to save his comrades and was awarded the Bronze Star for meritorious service. His time there also awakened previously unexperienced feelings about Puerto Rico.
First, the Puerto Rican flag became a symbol of important unity among the Puerto Rican soldiers. Recognizing the familiar common colors filled war-tormented soldiers with overwhelming pride and the flag became a physical symbol of powerful emotions. The soldiers may have left the Homeland behind in body, but they remained firmly attached to it in spirit.
Second, Oscar began to question his role in such a terrible war. Why did they have to kill people who had done nothing to them? Why kill people who appeared to have things in common with Puerto Ricans themselves? He began to question the actions of North American imperialism in that Southeast Asian country, and the role of Puerto Ricans in the imperialist wars of the United States. These two seeds — cultural nationalism and anticolonial struggle — begin to germinate in Oscar's mind in Vietnam, and ripened later in his life.
When the horror of his involvement in the war in came to an end, Oscar returned to Chicago. He began studies at Roosevelt University but did not finish them. He was deeply troubled by the conditions of life faced by Puerto Ricans and other ethnic minorities in the city, horrified by the destruction of youth by drugs, and by the subhuman conditions in which the majority of his compatriots lived. In 1968, he began to do community work with the Northwest Community Organization (NCO).
The NCO based its work in the thinking of Saul Alinsky, who, during the 1930s, developed a movement that advocated the principle that poor people could gain power by organizing their strongest sectors. In that organization, Oscar came into contact with two of Alinsky's disciples — Shel Trapp and Gayle Cincotta — who greatly influenced him and contributed to developing his thinking about community work.
His commitment to community struggles grew. Between 1969 and 1970, he also began a relationship with Justina Ramos, whom he had met many years before. His only daughter, Clarisa, was born to them in 1971. Oscar's fervor in favor of his people intensified and he was deeply dedicated to a broad range of causes between 1969 and 1976.
Access to education for Puerto Ricans and other ethnic groups suffering discrimination claimed Oscar's immediate attention. In 1972, Oscar helped found the Pedro Albizu Campos High School (PACHS) to assure the best possible education for students in the community through an alternative school controlled by Puerto Ricans themselves. Oscar articulated a powerful vision of how alternative schools can challenge the essentially racist system of mainstream U.S. education. After PACHS was formed, Oscar called for a gathering of eight alternative schools in the Chicago area to organize for a democratizing impact on state education. In this effort to expand educational horizons for the entire city, celebrated Brazilian educational innovator Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, was invited to share his experiences of liberatory models of education.
In 1973, Oscar helped found the Juan Antonio Corretjer Puerto Rican Cultural Center (PRCC), which to this day works closely with the still-thriving PACHS. The PRCC became a center for the promotion of cultural persistence and resistance for the Puerto Rican population and its rich cultural heritage. Through the PRCC, Puerto Ricans have been able to preserve their dignity as people while heightening their appreciation of their own culture.
Oscar also joined the struggle for bilingual education in Wells High School and Tuley High School (later known as Roberto Clemente High School), which served the Puerto Rican population of Chicago. Through doing so, Oscar met others who would later be his comrades in political organizations for Puerto Rican independence. They won a minor victory with the approval of a Transitional Bilingual Education Law in 1973, establishing the first bilingual program at the José de Diego School in Chicago, where it survives to this day.
Even with these reforms, Oscar understood that the inclusion of bilingualism in the education of Puerto Ricans and Latinos would not be enough for real community improvement. He understood that access to institutions of higher education was necessary to improve the economic and social situation of these populations and chose the two public state universities — the University of Illinois and Northeastern Illinois University — as the targets of the next series of actions. The intense struggle to improve poor people's access to public universities involved protests and police brutality, continued protests and arrests. These efforts, part of the greater upsurge of protest and struggle throughout the country, led to the establishment of Project 500 at the University of Illinois, an educational initiative to ensure the annual admission of five hundred Latino and African American students.
The newly established Latin American and Latino studies and Proyecto Pa'lante at introduced curricula relating to Latinos in the Chicago diaspora and Latin American cultural and political studies of the respective countries from which the Chicago diaspora originated to the Northeastern Illinois University. Oscar's participation in this work was rooted in the belief that every person has a fundamental right to enjoy his or her own culture, and to avoid the cultural erosion produced by forced assimilation into the dominant Anglo-Saxon one.
Oscar's efforts also helped to create the Latin American Recruitment Education Service (LARES) program, also still in existence. Lares is a Puerto Rican town known for its historic nineteenth-century uprising against Spanish colonialism, and the LARES program is an intellectual effort to contribute to the persisting presence of liberation ideals in Chicago's education system.
In 1975, Oscar helped establish the first Latino Cultural Center in the state of Illinois. Named after educator Rafael Cintrón-Ortiz, the center recognizes and honors an admired professor at the University of Illinois, who was brought to Chicago from Puerto Rico to teach the history of the island.
Along with the struggles for educational reform, Oscar also helped increase employment opportunities and improve working conditions for the Puerto Rican population. Oscar and the other organizers in the Spanish Coalition for Jobs built coalitions within the Latino community to challenge the discriminatory practices of the construction and utilities industries and organized demonstrations at different construction sites, including Roberto Clemente High School, to disrupt the construction process. Massive demonstrations organized by the Spanish Coalition for Jobs also forced Illinois Bell to hire Latinos and open offices to serve the Latino community.
In the same spirit, Oscar also helped organize the Spanish Coalition for Housing to improve housing conditions for Puerto Ricans and free them from the rat- and cockroach-infested basements in which many were living. This involved direct confrontation with the (often absentee) landlords who collected excessive rents while pocketing the money and refusing to make the pigsties they rented to Puerto Ricans even remotely inhabitable. Protests in luxurious neighborhoods, in front of the homes of the exploitative landlords, acquired a dramatic character when rats and cockroaches "collected" from the apartments the landlords refused to clean up were released in front of the landlords' own mansions.
During this critical period, Oscar also participated in the movements to improve hospital conditions and medical services for the most disenfranchised groups of the city. 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?
Throughout his civic involvement, Oscar had not yet developed a definitive consciousness or position in favor of independence for Puerto Rico, but a number of historic episodes during that time moved him in the direction of supporting independence.
In 1950, the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico founded a Nationalist Board in Chicago. The group organized readings and discussions around the writings of Doña Laura Albizu Meneses about her husband, renowned Nationalist Party President and political prisoner Pedro Albizu Campos. Oscar was one of a group of young people who moved by what he read about Campos and his life.
On June 12, 1966 (while Oscar was still in Vietnam), the "Division Street riots" took place in Chicago after the Knights of Columbus organized the city's first Puerto Rican parade in a downtown area traditionally reserved for the national festivities of white groups. After the parade, they returned to celebrate in Humboldt Park, part of the Puerto Rican neighborhood. During a brawl in a Puerto Rican bar, the police came in and killed a young Puerto Rican. The enraged crowd carried the youth, on foot, to the hospital and riots erupted for three days.
Martin Luther King Jr., who visited Chicago in 1966, declared it one of the most racist cities in the United States. In 1967, the Young Lords, a Chicago street gang, transformed itself into a political movement that publicly advocated for the independence of Puerto Rico. Although Oscar did not belong to the organization, he participated in some of its activities. In the same year, a "Red Squad" was created within the Chicago Police Department, dedicated to infiltrating and repressing progressive organizations, including Hispanic ones.
In 1973, in the midst of intense and varied campaigns and movements, Oscar was invited to join the National Hispanic Commission of the Episcopal Church. He and others in the Commission advocated on behalf of the Nationalist prisoners, a group of independentistas who had attacked the U.S. Congress in 1954 and Blair House in 1950. He also worked with indigenous peoples, Chicanos, and Puerto Ricans across the United States.
Between his experiences in Vietnam and his civic activism home, Oscar began to develop a more radical ideological position regarding Puerto Rico. At this time, an underground organization — the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN) — carried out various bombings and militant actions in the United States. Grand Jury investigations, "fishing" for information about the group, were held both in 1974 and in 1976–1977. As a result of these investigations, several members of the National Hispanic Commission of the Episcopal Church of New York and Chicago (including Oscar's brother José), were jailed for refusing to cooperate with the Grand Jury in a principled stance against cooperation with colonizing authorities as modeled by Albizu Campos.CHAPTER 2
TIME UNDERGROUND: 1976–1981
The Grand Jury's "fishing expeditions" added a level of repression to an already tense situation, and Oscar — as a well-known The Grand Jury's "fishing expeditions" added a level of repression to an already tense situation, and Oscar — as a well-known community leader — was a clear target. Under the threat of immediate arrest by the FBI, Oscar and his three closest comrades in the struggle chose to go underground to continue their political action in secret, at the fringe of civil society. With this action, they joined a long tradition of clandestine political action dating back two thousand years from the early days of Christianity, through the much-celebrated Underground Railroad, right up to modern times.
The decision was necessary but more painful than they had anticipated as an abstract possibility now turned into a harsh and often frightful reality. Nevertheless, a brave person acts with determination despite misgivings and fear, and must resist panic at all costs. Oscar's experience in Vietnam had revealed to him that utter desperation could ward off fear. It took the four comrades who opted to go underground two months of constant movement before they could meet again and support one another.
Excerpted from Between Torture and Resistance by Oscar López Rivera, Luis Nieves Falcón. Copyright © 2013 PM Press. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
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Table of Contents
Preface Matt Meyer i
Foreword Archbishop Desmond Tutu iii
Introduction Dr. Luis Nieves Falcón 1
Introduction to the English Edition Matt Meyer Rev. Nozomi Ikuta 13
Life Experiences: 1943-1976 19
Time Underground: 1976-1981 29
Court Proceedings 31
The Torture of Imprisonment 39
Life Is a Constant Struggle 55
Outlook for the Future 123