Delivered by: Ricardo Jimenez
Estimadas y estimados,
Thank you for the opportunity to discuss with you all one of the most important issues in our community and in our times.
In 1999, eleven Puerto Ricans triumphantly returned to their families, communities, and homeland after two decades of politically based captivity. I was proudly one of those individuals—a political prisoner charged with “seditious conspiracy” and sentenced to live and die in a U.S. prison. The story of the struggle to free us is one that has been barely told and hopefully one day it will, in all of its pain and victory. But today I want to focus on another revolutionary banished to die in prison for his faith in the Puerto Rican nation—Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos—and to remind you of our collective responsibility to fight for the freedom of another patriot held in bondage.
Fifty-years ago today, one of Puerto Rico’s more revered and outspoken men died, in his home, after spending more than a decade in a tortuous prison. In total, he spent nearly twenty-five years of his seventy-four years of life as a captured bird in the U.S. government’s prison system. And what was his crime? The same crime committed by political figures that today are openly celebrated and praised, like Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned by the South African government also for “seditious conspiracy.” Mandela, as we know, fought to bring an end to South Africa’s racist, apartheid structure. For Albizu Campos, it was the U.S. occupation of the island that he sought to overturn. It was even illegal to fly the Puerto Rican flag.
Albizu Campos, or “El Maestro,” as he was known, was, by many measures, an exemplary figure whose fiery speeches aroused thousands to proclaim their freedom. He was a Black Ponceño from a poor barrio, a WWI veteran, the first Boricua graduate from Harvard, a lawyer for striking sugarcane workers, an ardent supporter of Irish independence, and a leader of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. These are just snippets of a great life that a fifteen minute speech could never do justice to, but I need to give you some context as to why we remember and celebrate him today.
But, we still must ask ourselves the question: why commemorate a dead revolutionary of a seemingly lost revolution? I respond with: are we to only remember the victors, like Nelson Mandela or George Washington, who committed treason by opposing the British Crown and now has an entire city and state named after him?
We, the Boricuas living in Diaspora, dare speak Albizu Campos’ name, because it boldly reminds us where we are at as a people and connects us to past struggles, present responsibilities, and future horizons. Our cause is still very much alive.
Puerto Rico is not the free, independent, and sovereign nation that Albizu and many others envisioned. With that fact comes the reality that there are those who remain silenced because they believe—and dare to demand—a different future for our people, a future without colonialism. Regardless of personal ideas regarding our homeland’s political relationship with the United States, I am sure we all agree that no person should be imprisoned for their political beliefs, and especially not for decades.
I was in prison for my belief in Puerto Rican independence, as were my compatriots. We were freed after our community and nation—unified in support of human rights—rose up in our defense. Yet today, we still have uno más que queda—Oscar López Rivera.
Like Albizu Campos, Oscar, as we affectionately call him, dedicated his life to what El Maestro called “el valor y sacrificio” por la patria, which translated means “valor and sacrifice” for our homeland. Like Albizu Campos, Oscar was also a veteran, but of another U.S. war—Vietnam, where he was awarded the Bronze Star for bravery. And like our Maestro, from the ashes of battle arose a more conscious, disciplined puertorriqueño that returned to his community with a vision of and commitment to a more equitable world. While Albizu Campos returned to Puerto Rico, Oscar came back to West Town and Humboldt Park, Chicago. As a child of the Boricua Diaspora, he saw his work in our ghettos as rooted in the improvement of the entire Puerto Rican nation. Just as Albizu Campos was a champion of the sugarcane workers who waged a strike against U.S. conglomerates, Oscar worked on behalf of the dispossessed, organizing protests and creating institutions for better housing, health care, education, and the preservation of our history and culture. It is without a doubt that our community in Chicago, which was organically re-named “Paseo Boricua”, would have not become the beacon of hope it is today absent of the work of Oscar and many others. In our battle against gentrification, we have organized the highest concentration of affordable housing in the city so that all members of our community can have the right to stay. Oscar helped to organize many of the institutions that have created affordable housing opportunities for our people and one of the latest ones will be named after him!
So, on this day when we commemorate Albizu Campos—a man who could’ve been lost in the abyss of history—we must remember that those who have taken up his legacy are still with us today, like Oscar. Oscar is yearning to be with his family, his community, and among you all, his people. Oscar still lives today and we cannot miss the opportunity to celebrate him now—and with him walking among us, not behind iron bars where he has endured thirty-three years out of his seventy-two years of life.
All of us should be inspired by the fact that we have freed many of our Puerto Rican political prisoners. I and my compatriots are free and model citizens in our communities across the island and in the Diaspora. The Puerto Rican people have freed many of our political prisoners. I have no doubt that we can free Oscar.
As we take this special day to reflect on the legacy of Albizu and our responsibility to Oscar, I should note that we are at a unique historical crossroads. President Obama will be leaving office soon, and just as President Bill Clinton gave us clemency in 1999 at the end of his administration, so can Obama. And what is also historic is that Puerto Ricans across political beliefs and civic positions support Oscar’s freedom, from the current Governor of Puerto Rico to the Archbishop of San Juan to City Councilwoman Mark-Viverito and State Assemblyman Diaz. We are a united front and seek to remain so until Oscar is free—and hopefully we can remain unified after his incarceration so we can continue to progress as a people.
So with love, dignity, valor y sacrificio, I implore you all to attend the May 30th march in New York City in support of Oscar’s release and to sign a petition to President Obama asking for his freedom. Do it for Oscar, Albizu Campos, and nuestra gran gente. Gracias.
Ricardo Jimenez is a former Puerto Rican political prisoner, freed in the 1999 Presidential clemency deal. He currently resides in Humboldt Park, Chicago where he works in HIV prevention and the LGBTQ Boricua community.