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Why the Puerto Ricans In Minnesota Committee is bringing Oscar López Rivera to the Twin Cities

Alan Panelli and Maria Isa Perez
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Alan Panelli and Maria Isa Perez during a PRIM board meeting.

“Puerto Ricans need their coffee!,” exclaimed singer/rapper/writer/activist Maria Isa Pérez to her fellow board members of the Puerto Ricans In Minnesota Committee last Thursday. “We must have coffee at these events, it’s a crucial part of our culture!” 

It was a lighthearted moment during the group’s otherwise no-nonsense meeting at the Indigenous Roots Cultural Arts Center, the newly opened “collective of artists and organizations dedicated to building, supporting and cultivating opportunities for indigenous peoples and communities of color through cultural arts and activism” in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood of St. Paul.

But Isa and her fellow Puerto Rican-Americans had more important things than coffee to discuss this night — namely, the two appearances by Puerto Rican nationalist and activist Oscar López Rivera Monday and Tuesday in St. Paul.

López Rivera, the 74-year-old political prisoner who spent 35 years in jail until President Obama commuted his sentence during the last month of his presidency, is often referred to as “the Mandela of Puerto Rico.” López Rivera moved from Puerto Rico to the mainland with his family when he was 14 years old under the United States’ “Operation Bootstrap” campaign; he was drafted to fight in the Vietnam War when he was 18, and he was imprisoned on domestic terrorism charges when he was 40. He has maintained his innocence, and spoke out against violent radicalism, ever since.

Coming at a time when Puerto Rico is facing bankruptcy and America is going through an accelerated soul search around race, immigration and white power, Rivera’s “Decolonization, Community & Arts” speaking engagements this week are the highest-profile events yet for the two-year-old Puerto Ricans In Minnesota Committee. 

“Our mission has been to bring the diaspora of Puerto Ricans together, to deal with the economic issues and political status issue of our island,” said PRIM’s executive director Miguel Fiol, a physician and professor at the University Of Minnesota. “And since that time, we’ve done a number of activities to advance those two issues’ resolution. We’ve had political meetings with leaders, and cultural events, and the reason why this board was created is to bring our point of view to the Anglo community and be participants, not just observers, of issues that are happening in our country. We want to empower the diaspora to become involved.

“Oscar López Rivera represents one point of view of resolving Puerto Rico’s political crisis, and he also brings points of view of social and economic angles as well to enrich our understanding and our educational process. In the ‘70s, he was involved in clandestine activities for the liberation movement. He was not associated with any particular violent event when lives were taken, contrary to what some of the public believes, however he was part of an organization that was involved with advancing the political independence by means other than the voting system.

Puerto Ricans In Minnesota Committee
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Puerto Ricans In Minnesota Committee posing outside the Indigenous Roots Cultural Arts Center on E. 7th Street in St. Paul.

“We are here to reassert our identity. There’s this feeling among Puerto Ricans, both in Puerto Rico and here, that we’ve been robbed of our political power. We relate to the Native Americans, who very similarly were robbed of their identity, and the group is about reasserting our identity and culture.”

According to the most recent Census figures, some 12,000 Puerto Rican-Americans live in Minnesota. Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory in 1898, when U.S. troops invaded and acquired it from Spain after the Spanish-American War. Since 1916, Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens, but the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States remains complicated.

“We say that, in a Puerto Rican family, you’ll find differences of opinion even within one Puerto Rican family,” said PRIM board member Luis Ortega. “So our intent is to honor the differences of opinion and bring in educational information regarding those opinions. For us, too. They’re very complicated issues, and they’re not easily understood or described, even.”

“Herstory or history tells us that many Puerto Ricans did not want U.S. citizenship,” explained Rene Antrop-Gonzalez, PRIM board member and dean and professor of urban education at Metropolitan State University. “It was imposed because it would have been unconstitutional for the U.S. to draft Puerto Rican men to fight World War I. It wasn’t because they like us, or that they felt sorry for us, it’s that their modus operandi was that they needed us to be fodder on the front lines of Europe. That’s just the bottom line, and I think a lot of people don’t know that.

“Oscar is briefly going to talk about how schools strip people of their primary languages and cultures. And that has been part and parcel in being Puerto Rican. I was raised in Florida, which is now a major destination for Puerto Ricans, and I was never, ever encouraged to learn about my own people or history. My mother worked in a deli and she was constantly told by customers, when she tried to engage in Spanish, ‘You’re in America now, spic, speak English [or] go home.’ 

“Oscar co-founded a small Puerto Rican-centric school in Chicago, and he’ll talk a little bit about that. Education is important, because it’s trauma. It’s trauma, and in the same way our indigenous brothers and sisters suffer and experience intergenerational trauma, we do, too.”

Why PRIM?

In its short time together, PRIM has gathered around food, music, dance, and lectures on politics and economics. This week, at a moment in time when the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of America’s first people and its slaves are demanding its family stories be told and reparations be made, Oscar López Rivera and PRIM are here to remind all concerned exactly how Puerto Rican lives matter. 

“It’s healing work, is what’s happening, because we are products of the trauma that our parents [experienced] and we are carrying through a lot of that,” said Aiyana Sol Machado, director of strategic partnership and member artist at Indigenous Roots Cultural Arts Center, which hosts Monday’s López Rivera event. “We are waking up and undoing the rage, and undoing the pain that our ancestors [experienced]. I have cousins who are products of sterilization, and we see that in all our families. We were the first contact, on the island. The erasure that has been happening with the Native Americans in the United States is what happened [to the Puerto Ricans]. We are products of what is now happening in the United States.” 

“We are survivors,” said Isa.

Oscar Lopez Rivera will speak at two Puerto Ricans In Minnesota Committee events
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Oscar Lopez Rivera will speak at two Puerto Ricans In Minnesota Committee events this week.

“We are survivors of that,” said Sol Machado, nodding. “In my work, I’m going to be committed to reclaiming our indigenous [roots and identity] as boricuas because that has been left behind,” she said. “Our African roots and our Spanish roots, what makes us boricua is that we are a product of colonization, of the mixture of the indigenous, the African, the Spanish, and we have survived — and we continue to heal through community, and art and song and dance.” 

“We’re products of our parents fighting for liberation, and we’re continuing that fight. My daughter now, who is 14 years old, it’s her responsibility now because it’s not going to end in our lifetime. And how do we continue to teach?” said Sol Machado, wiping tears from her face.

“I get emotional, because it’s painful. We deal with it every day. It’s not just what happened to Native Americans in this country; not just the slavery that happened with the African-Americans here in this country; not just white supremacy that exists here in this country — it has impacted us all, and it continues to. So that is this work.”

Isa: “Being Puerto Rican and born in Minnesota has paved my life.

A recent board meeting of the Puerto Ricans In Minnesota Committee.
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
A recent board meeting of the Puerto Ricans In Minnesota Committee.

It’s paved all of our lives, but my father fought as a [U.S.] Marine, my grandfather was drafted from San Juan at 18 years old and served in World War II, Normandy Beach. The benefits of that isn’t the same. There are inequalities just in military.

“Then we talk about the sterilization, testing on our women, both on our island and off. There’s so much unknown, even within our community, which is why this is a very amazing circle. We come in as these Latino millennials, and we’re not going to allow this to happen. My life was raised so that their history passed on to us, so that we could be able to polish it the way that it’s been trying to be buried.

“You’ve got to think: Puerto Rico, before the U.S., goes back to Spain, so 1492 landed on us, first. We’re the first reservation. We’re the first enslavement on this land. So we have to recognize how pivotal the Puerto Rican history is—not just to Puerto Ricans, but to American history before America.

“We have scholars, we have doctors, we have legislators, we have congressmen — not just starting yesterday, but throughout this history of the country. And it’s not that we’re throwing rocks at the U.S., it’s ‘You have to rebuild these rocks that we’re throwing, because you’ve broken it.’ ”

As Isa showed the group a prototype of her newly finished PRIM promotional postcards, board member Alan Panelli stressed that PRIM isn’t anti-America.

“It’s essential for our culture and our national identity, and by default the political issue comes into play because a lot of us feel like we could be swallowed by the U.S. and we could lose our identity,” said Panelli. “For many of us, that is something that’s non-negotiable, and we’re constantly struggling to celebrate and promote our culture: Who we are, and how we, in our own way, are trying not to get into that melting pot, if you will.

“We are not about hating the U.S. We’re more for Puerto Rico than against the U.S., and this is a fight that we have done for 500 years, and we’ll continue to fight.”

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Comments (4)

What a Disgrace this is...

As a Puerto Rican who grew up in Trujillo Alto, PR and moved away from the island at age 17, I cannot begin to tell you what an embarrassment this is. Sure, Puerto Rico is a Colony of the United States but let’s be clear here, the island has had the opportunity to change that Colonial status six times since 1967. This terrorist they are honoring “fought” for independence at a time when there was a democratic process for the island residents to choose its destiny. Time and again, except the last to plebiscites, Puerto Ricans elected to remain a colony.

But of course, those that do not know Puerto Rico politics are not aware of the fact that Puerto Ricans have had their cake and have wanted to eat it too. We wanted to keep our “identity” because as politicians convinced many that our identity would be lost if the island became a State. To be fair, the other band of politicians convinced us that if we were to become a State all our problems would magically disappear.

That this terrorist is celebrated is nothing more than a reflection of the dysfunctional politics of the island where its citizens are either unable or willing to see facts for what they are. These people are a disgrace and should be ashamed of themselves.

No Disgrace here - A Hero Fighting for all Puerto Ricans

Hello Hector,

You should not feel embarrassment for Oscar's actions. He was fighting for freedom, just like George Washington and all the other founding fathers of the USA. Oscar was fighting for what all citizens want in the USA, Freedom and the right of defining our future without the intervention of a foreign country.

Removing the chains of colonialism is not easy and requires many efforts from all. Saying that Puerto Rico has had the opportunity to change the colonial status six times, is the same as saying that Crimea had the opportunity of returning to Ukraine during their 2014 Referendum after the Russian invasion.

The people cannot vote for independence if the empire creates a dependance and fear in the population that changing the status will create a bad situation.

Regards,

Terrible journalism

"he was part of an organization that was involved with advancing the political independence by means other than the voting system."

That means was violence. That means was killing people. Puerto Ricans chose not to advance independence by voting. So this guy and his compatriots turned to violence.

Two minutes on Google reveals a very, very different picture of this guy than what the people Walsh interviews present. A responsible journalist would have included some of the reasons why this guy is so controversial.

This is nothing more than a press release.

Oscar was not a killer

Hello Pat,

Oscar was convicted for "Seditious conspiracy, use of force to commit robbery, interstate transportation of firearms and ammunition to aid in the commission of a felony". Nothing states he was a killer, because there was no proof/evidence of Oscar being a killer.

Keep in mind that George Washington and the Patriots would have been called terrorist had they lost the war with England. We can argue that George W. was fighting for the same thing Oscar L. wants, just that Oscar L. did not reach his goal.

Regards,