Andre Lee Muñiz

Andre Lee Muñiz is a Boricua born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. His family settled in the Brownsville-East New York section of Brooklyn in the late 1950s/ early 1960s from the Puerto Rican towns of Caguas and Añasco. As a public housing resident near Coney Island, Andre Lee attended local public schools and Kingsborough Community College. At KCC, he earned a minority student transfer scholarship to NYU, going on to earn a B.S. and M.A. degree, while also developing his interest in Puerto Rican history and culture.

Political Prisoner Norberto González Claudio To Stay In Prison

Norberto González Claudio has been in U.S. federal custody since his arrest in May 2011. Charged in November 2012 in connection with the $7 million dollar ‘expropriation’ carried out by the Macheteros clandestine organization in 1983 Hartford, Connecticut, Norberto was sentenced to five years. His release date, as still appears on the Bureau of Prisons website, was set for September 7, 2014.

Norberto González Claudio

Norberto González Claudio

Norberto’s two brothers, Avelino and Orlando, who both completed sentences also in connection with the Hartford action, wrote a letter on August 18 denouncing a recent development in their brother’s case. Apparently, Norberto’s release date has been moved to ‘sometime’ in 2015, pending a probation hearing on October 6, 2014. “This represents a cruel and unusual punishment in retaliation for Norberto’s protest and for maintaining an upright position before the abuses to which he is constantly subjected in prison,” his brothers wrote.

Norberto’s release has been called for in the most recent resolution approved by the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization.

Human rights expert Wilma E. Reverón Collazo gave the following reaction to the news: “It is a sign that the US has no intention of respecting our right to struggle for our self determination and that the President’s proposal for a plebiscite is just for entertainment purposes. Another show of force to remind us who is the boss. However the people who are willing to give life and liberty for their freedom won’t be stopped by the US government’s shenanigans.”

Download the letter in PDF format, in both English and Spanish, here.

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Eric Garner, Police Intimidation, and Social Justice

BkIcon-Newsletter1x1On August 1, two weeks after the chokehold death by police of 43-year-old Eric Garner during his arrest on charges of illegally selling loose cigarettes, the New York City medical examiner’s office determined that the death was caused from “compression of neck (choke hold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” They ruled it a homicide. The plainclothes officer who applied the chokehold was stripped of his gun and badge pending a criminal investigation by the Staten Island district attorney’s office, another was taken off patrol duty, and two paramedics and two EMS workers were also suspended without pay. At a Harlem rally, the autopsy report was cited as clear reason for prosecutors to take further action against the officer involved.

But with the arrest of 22-year-old Ramsey Orta, the bystander who captured video of the fatal chokehold, the death of Garner has now produced another important conversation beyond the issue of police brutality. Coming just one day after the autopsy report, Orta’s arrest has reignited the concern many have about the targeting by police of people involved in documenting and exposing their abuses, and the relation of such to the intimidation of people and movements advocating, or that would advocate, for social justice.

According to Orta’s mother Emily Mercado, police had been following her son ever since the video’s release. “They’ve been sitting in front of my house. They put spot lights in my window,” she told the media. Orta maintains that his arrest, based on police allegations that he passed a handgun later found in the possession of a 17-year old girl, was a set up. His wife, Chrissie Ortiz, believes the same, explaining to media, “The day after they declare it a homicide, you find someone next to him with a gun, and you saw him pass it off? Out in public when he knows he’s in the public spotlight? It makes no sense.” Though Ortiz could not comment on her own arrest a few days later for an alleged assault, in a TV interview she suggested it was also part of the “domino effect” caused by her husband’s footage.

Of course, due to Orta’s lengthy police record, which includes 26 prior arrests, many won’t give credibility to his claims of being followed by police, let alone look deeper into the real issue of the harassment of police brutality, and other, activists. Nevertheless, i find it important to make this connection. As a student of Puerto Rican history, i understand how political intimidation, imprisonment, and even murder, can severely affect a people’s willingness to commit themselves to social justice and other forms of necessary activism.

What Emily Mercado describes reminds me of the 24-hour surveillance of the home of Puerto Rican Nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos. The claim of Ramsey Orta makes me think of Carlos Soto Arriví and Arnaldo Darío Rosado, two young independence activists set up by undercover police and killed in 1978. Whenever the Puerto Rican independence movement has come under attack by police and repressive forces, it is generally accepted to be part of a larger program of intimidating others from taking, or continuing to take part in struggle.

The UN Special Committee on Decolonization itself recently noted “the concern of the people of Puerto Rico regarding violent actions, including repression and intimidation, against Puerto Rican independence fighters.”

If the public becomes fearful of documenting and/ or exposing police brutality, knowing the harassment Orta and his family claims to have faced prior to his allegedly trumped-up arrest, we lose a key source in the monitoring of police activity. It is community residents (especially Black, Puerto Rican, and other people of color who are the primary targets of abuse) who are on the front lines of police relations, and if they fear retaliation by police, they will hesitate to act or even speak out against their abuses. This is an important concern because it would restrict the possibility of such necessary discussions as are taking place after the release of Orta’s video, and limit any real possibility of social change. As a result, such atrocious abuses would continue with even greater impunity.

And to be clear, we should be critical of Orta’s alleged police harassment despite his record the same way we are critical of Garner’s death despite his more than 30 arrests, as well as having refused to cooperate with officers. Abuse or injustice is still such regardless who the victim is. Furthermore, police have an added obligation to treat people humanely and fairly.

Of course, many will continue to display courage in the interest of resisting injustice, and sacrifice in the face of what consequences might result. In fact, many will be moved to action by such violence and intimidation. Hopefully we can all develop a similarly strong commitment, because without such, a life of peace with justice cannot be guaranteed.

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Albizu Campos, The Athletic Youth From Ponce

For many, Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos is a black and white figure – a terrorist to some, a patriot to others. But like any human being, he lived a dynamic life full of experiences, some of which are not written about in the mainstream record. While there are many aspects of his childhood, in particular, that could be further researched and written about for a broad audience, i’d like to highlight one that caught my attention: his athletic nature as a youth in Ponce.

The first stories i came across were in an oral history interview with Ruth Reynolds. An American pacifist, Reynolds became very close with Albizu Campos while he was hospitalized in New York from 1943-45, at times visiting him on a daily basis. While there, she questioned him not only on his nationalist philosophy, but also on certain details of his personal life and childhood.

In one account, Reynolds joked that Albizu Campos innovated jogging in Ponce after a teacher told him that running, because it helps get the blood circulating, is good for the health. Following this wisdom, he began regularly running up and down the long road leading to school. In another story, when Albizu Campos was 12 or 13, his father arranged for a young man to keep the mischievous youth company. This young man taught him to swim better, dive, and many other things, the only activity his father prohibited being shark hunting. Reynolds also recalled Albizu Campos claiming to be skilled with a slingshot – he killed a few birds, and then refused to do so anymore on principle.

In another source (Huracán del Caribe, 1993, Page 22), Albizu Campos was again stated to be a young aficionado of track and field. According to an interview with a childhood neighbor of his, he also enjoyed finding large, rounded boulders in the local Río Bucaná and exercising with them, lifting them over his head. This particular activity, stone lifting, happens to be a traditional sport among the people of Spain’s Basque country, whom Albizu Campos is in part descended from through his father. Whether the young Albizu Campos was aware of this fact or not may not be known, but it is a striking coincidence.

Such activities would have put the young boy’s physical health in good standing. Several years later, while on university scholarships in New England, Albizu Campos would benefit from this athletic background while completing the first ROTC program offered to Harvard students in 1917. Deciding to volunteer with the U.S. Army during the First World War on the condition they send him with a Puerto Rican troop, he later became a military instructor. Between July 1918 and March 1919, he organized a ‘home guard’ of more than sixty volunteers for the Army that conducted exercise drills on the beaches of Ponce.

As President of the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico, physical fitness would continue to be emphasized as part of the organization of the island’s liberation movement. The explicit reason Albizu Campos gave for establishing the Corp of Cadets, for example, was “to increase discipline, improve the physical condition of all Party members, and increase their devotion to the homeland.” Nationalist Cadets, which were often young people, would hold regular drills in the various locations where there was an organized Nationalist presence, mostly on beaches. Part of Albizu Campos’ philosophy was that every Puerto Rican should have “physical, moral, intellectual, and spiritual strength,” so that “a strong, educated, wise, and powerful” homeland could be constructed.

First Lieutenant Pedro Albizu Campos

The intent of this short essay was to provide a different perspective on Pedro Albizu Campos by focusing on one of the many lesser-known aspects of his life, his athletic nature as a youth. As we also saw, this interest in physical activity would go on to be of benefit to him as a university student, and of real importance as Puerto Rico’s foremost nationalist leader. No doubt there are many other experiences from his little discussed childhood and university experience that had an impact on his character and leadership development – i encourage people to research and write about such as i have done here.

References:
Huracán del Caribe. Libros Homines.
Pedro Albizu Campos. Escritos. Publicaciones Puertorriqueñas.
Ruth Reynolds. Oral History. Center for Puerto Rican Studies.
Marisa Rosado. Pedro Albizu Campos: Las Llamas de la Aurora. Ediciones Puerto.

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Discovering My Boricua Roots On Ancestry.com (With Tips For Researchers)

Ancestry.com now offers access to the largest online collection of Puerto Rican birth, marriage, and death records. With 5,376,623 new images, the collection of Civil Registrations in Puerto Rico from 1885-2001 - now available on the family history website - is sure to keep Boricua family historians busy late into the night, day on end.

Listed by the website as a new acquisition of June 6, 2014, the online resource is especially valuable to Boricuas of the Diaspora unable to make the trip to the island’s Department of Health, which was previously required. Now, instead of a plane trip and lodging, a few search phrases and mouse clicks are all that is needed to begin the journey of self-discovery.

My own father Stanley Muñiz, who died in 2007, would have deeply appreciated the resource. Having done some inquiry into his family in the years before his passing, he was able to trace his roots as far back as his great-grandparents. Of his eight great grandparents, he recorded the names for six, and the date and place of death – Caguas – for only two of these. He died with the date and place of death for six, and the date and place of birth for all eight, an unknown. In terms of my father’s four grandparents, while he knew all their names, he recorded the date and place of death for only three, all of whom died in Caguas, and the birth year for one – again, places and dates of birth remained largely unknown. Thus, according to my father’s records, my paternal family history began in Caguas, officially dating back at least to the 1932 birth of my own grandmother.

From l-r, my grandmother Cruzita, aunt Jenny, and grandfather Ernesto (1969)

From l-r, my grandmother Cruzita, aunt Jenny, and grandfather Ernesto (1969)

Always wanting to continue this research, when i heard about Ancestry.com’s new online resource, i knew it was time to start filling in the gaps. Fortunately, i already had an account with the website. My father asked me to create one when he was beginning the family tree i now find myself adding to. With this head start, i reactivated my account and began my research.

What followed was an exciting series of discoveries. Within a few hours, i found the missing date and place of death for two, and the missing date and place of birth for three of my father’s six known great grandparents. In addition, i found the two missing names and birthplaces of my 2nd great grandparents. To my absolute surprise, both were listed as naturals of Orocovis, a mountain town several miles west of the Caguas where most of their children died. This discovery was thanks to a 1943 death certificate i found of their child, my great grandparent, Francisco Ortiz Serrano, an illiterate tobacco farmer born in 1899, also in Orocovis. Francisco’s wife, Juana Muñiz Diaz, brought my family history to yet another town besides Caguas, having been born in 1894 Ciales.

Tip #1: Use death certificates of family members to find names and birthplaces of their parents, as well as the deceased persons’ most recent/common occupation.

By the end of the day, my paternal grandfather Ernesto’s line of ancestors, through his mother Juana Muñiz Diaz, was one of two that i could trace back the furthest. Juana’s parents, both listed as mulatos, were born in Ciales, with her father, Fabriciano Muñiz y Molina, listed as illiterate in 1910 and literate in 1920, being born there as late as 1873. Fabriciano’s parents, Concepción Muñiz and Agustina Molina, brought my family’s history to yet more towns, the former being born around 1810 in Utuado, the latter being born in Arecibo in an unknown year. Concepción died in 1885 Ciales, the only other information i was able to find on him being his mother’s name, Petrona, my 4th great grandparent, of unknown origins.

Juan Figueroa, not knowing how to write, left his mark between his name, which was then stamped (1920)

Juan Figueroa, not knowing how to write, left his mark between his name, which was then stamped (1920)

My paternal grandmother Cruzita’s line of ancestors, through her father Cruz Figueroa, can also be traced back to a 4th great grandparent. This ancestor, Concepción Figueroa, a female of unknown origins, gave birth to farmers whose grandchildren would continue farming the land of Caguas after them. One of Concepción’s children, Juan Figueroa, my 3rd great grandparent born in 1834, had ‘color’ listed as his race on his 1919 death certificate. His son, Juan Figueroa Colón, born in 1878, was listed as a sugar cane farmer in the 1930 Census, where his wife Laureana Vélez Vega was also listed as a farmer of ‘frutos menores’. Both were listed as mulato/a on one document, and mestizo/a on another. Their son Cruz Figueroa, previously mentioned, married Dominga Martinez Castro, a house worker born in 1899 Trujillo Alto, where her mother Maria was also born. Based on Census records, Cruz appears to have been the first in his family to learn to read and write.

Tip #2: Use the 1910, 1920, 1930, and 1940 U.S. Federal Census, as well as the special Census taken in 1935-36 Puerto Rico, to find the names of household/ family members, as well as their race, literacy, occupation and place of work.

Fabriciano Muñiz y Molina, a previously mentioned 2nd great grandparent of mine from Ciales, was the only other ancestor beyond my grandparents that appears to have been literate. Listed as a mulato, he is also the family member with the most consistent change of occupation over the years. Listed as a farmer in 1910, he appears to have become a jornalero, or wage earner, on a coffee farm by 1920. Perhaps this change was due to losing the land he once farmed on, or being unable to earn a decent living off it and being forced into wage labor. In any case, by 1935, when he would have been in his late 60s or 70s, he was listed as a carpenter in Caguas. This change again could have been brought about by the inability of Puerto Ricans to live off and keep their lands in the face of U.S. colonial-capitalism, in this case the land of his employer, or it could simply be the decision of an aging Fabriciano, by then a widow living in the home of his son-in-law and daughter.

Tip #3: Use Census records from different years to track the change in occupation for family members.

The main reason i’ve shared my own findings in such detail is to demonstrate the rich documentary history available online through Ancestry.com and encourage others to take up the effort of building their family tree. The Civil Registration in Puerto Rico collection now available online has a wealth of records and can help many researchers go back into the early 1800s. Hopefully the few tips i have provided aid in the process. One should also consult Ancestry.com’s own research guides, particularly the one on using vital records. It might take many hours and days, and you may not find everything you seek, but what you can learn about yourself in relation to your ancestors is profound. My experience researching only my paternal line proved no less.

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5K Run In Coney Island Dedicated To Oscar López Rivera

At 9am on June 29, i participated in the Brooklyn Cyclones Take Your Base 5K. The run, or walk, depending on how one entered the charity race, began outside the MCU Park ball field on Surf Avenue, continued on the Coney Island boardwalk down to Brighton Beach, and ended at home plate inside the ball field. Proceeds for the charity race were to go in large part to a summer youth program at the new local YMCA, nearly 7-months old now.

photo 1Deciding to enter the race as a personal fitness challenge, i made the added decision to dedicate my run to Oscar López Rivera. Having written so much on events held in New York in support of the demand for his release from prison, i thought it would be fun to do something different on my personal time. Family and friends supported me as well – one friend even helped me achieve a small goal by giving me the very shirt off his back at a recent demonstration for Oscar outside the UN so i could wear it at the race.

It all started when, upon registering, i was asked for a club name. Not having one, i thought for a moment, and almost immediately the idea of using “Free Oscar Lopez” presented itself. It was a done deal!

Race results showing my 62nd overall finish

Race results showing my 62nd overall finish

As the results show, i finished the 5K, my first ever, with a time of 22:22, which put my pace at about 7:13/Mile. This put me in 62nd place overall out of 860 finishers, and 15th place out of 107 within the Male 20-29 age group. Not being a jogger, and it being my first ever 5K race, i was absolutely ecstatic with my results. With only some treadmill training in the weeks prior, my performance was where it should have been – it was not a walk in the park. But by pacing myself, calmly focusing on each step and breath, i did it.

It meant a lot completing the race in dedication to the demand for Oscar’s release. What made it even more special was that my mother, along with her sister, also went to cheer me on. While i am grateful for the pictures they took of me, i only wish i could have photographed the look of joy and surprise they gave me later when speaking about how i ended the race, with a Puerto Rican flag i had hid in my shorts before we left the house proudly in my hand.

Crossing the finish line

Crossing the finish line

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Demonstrations Inside and Outside the United Nations for Oscar López Rivera

On June 23, as the Special Committee on Decolonization of the United Nations was holding its day of hearings on Puerto Rico, a demonstration for Oscar López Rivera was being held in Ralph Bunche Park just across the street.

Singing of La Borinqueña at end of rally

Singing of La Borinqueña at end of rally

Literature and petitions on Oscar’s case were made available beginning at 9am, and a rally was held at 1pm with a number of petitioners from the UN hearings, as well as diplomats from other Puerto Rican organizations, both island and Diaspora-based. The demonstration lasted into the evening, coinciding with the hearings taking place within the UN.

The Special Committee on Decolonization has addressed Puerto Rico’s colonial situation annually since it took up the issue in 1972, eleven years after its founding in 1961. A recognized part of this colonial issue is the political imprisonment of independence supporters like Oscar López Rivera. At this year’s hearings, a number of petitioners made statements in support of Oscar’s release, some asking for 33 seconds of silence for his now 33-year incarceration. The Special Committee itself, in a resolution, committed to seeking the General Assembly’s reiteration of its own request for his release.

UNprotestMockCell

While the decision by the UN Special Committee to support the request for Oscar’s release – a decision it also made in recent years – is a considerable and important part in influencing U.S. President Barack Obama to effect such, continued protest by people all the way down to the grassroots will remain key. Unfortunately, the resolutions made by this Special Committee in recent years in support of Oscar, as well as its now thirty-three resolutions since 1972 calling for the U.S. to initiate a process of decolonization, is not enough for President Obama to set him free just yet.

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