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A Puerto Rican Account of the Ferguson Decision and Day-After Protests

We at La Respuesta magazine believe in and practice solidarity. You can find us side-by-side at events and demonstrations with our brothers and sisters facing oppression and actively engaged in people’s resistance.

My role as NYC Regional Editor of LaRes encourages me to fulfill our pledge to solidarity. Nevertheless, I was personally motivated by the grand jury decision in Ferguson, MissourI to join the day-after demonstrations taking place in my city and across the U.S.

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The author helping facilitate a youth circle dialogue at El Puente on the Ferguson decision

The Grand Jury Decision on TV

When I saw the decision made by the grand jury not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of 18-year old Michael Brown, minutes after getting home from work, my reaction was admittedly of surprise. Not because I wholeheartedly believed in the capacity of the legal system – I didn’t – but because I thought it was clear enough that Officer Wilson had used excessive force and murdered an un-armed Mike Brown.

Of course, considering the long chain of injustices produced by the systemic discrimination that exists within the U.S., the decision is no surprise. As I watched the TV, suddenly the broadcast changed to a live message from President Obama. As he talked about justice, I could not help but begin to get distracted by the outline of his figure. Immediately I thought about the nearly 4 million people living in Puerto Rico. Here on the screen was the man they cannot vote for, but who, along with Congress for over 116 years now, controls the entire structure of Puerto Rico.

Also, as friends of La Respuesta have noted on Twitter, Puerto Ricans have also experienced their share of police violence in the U.S., with a number of cases where the officer was similarly not indicted.

After the President’s message, the news returned to coverage of Ferguson. Not too long after, I began seeing coverage of actions taking place in New York City. A mass of people walking through the streets of Times Square in nonviolent protest, it was a rare sight. I already knew there would be day-after demonstrations, and so everything within me worked to inspire my own participation in these actions.

The Day-After Demonstrations

With cities across the nation taking part in protest, NYC had a number of contingents focused at various locations. The one I took part in gathered just outside Union Square Park and marched all the way to Fulton Street and Nostrand Avenue in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn.

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Protestors in the streets of Loisaida

The route of the march first took us through the streets of Greenwich Village towards the busy FDR Drive. Once there, people began jumping the barricade onto the highway, blocking off an entire lane of traffic. Though a few demonstrators began moving back, claiming that police were gathering up the highway waiting to arrest people, the great majority stayed together and continued until reaching the Lower East Side.

By this moment, the first high point of the march for me had occurred. The cops unaware of the route of the march, we suddenly made our way through a large public housing project, making me feel a special sense of satisfaction as a public housing resident myself. Often times we say it is the people in NYCHA and low-income housing/neighborhoods in general that rarely and need to see this type of protest in their community, and so this was a welcome change. As we went through the projects, dozens of residents watched and/or cheered us on from their windows, others actually deciding to join us.

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Marching through public housing

This was soon followed by the first challenge to the protest when a heavy police presence prevented our entrance onto the Williamsburg Bridge as we stopped traffic there. Uncertain for a few minutes as to what would happen, someone got on a bullhorn and called the mass to march on, which we did. Marching through the streets of Loisaida, passing by a NYCHA space named after Mariana Bracetti as well as a school named after Roberto Clemente, in addition to a number of Puerto Rican-inspired murals, we made our way down to Chinatown and the entrance of the Manhattan Bridge. Entering the bridge, we stopped an entire lane of traffic and slowly crossed the entire structure, with some cars honking us on in support, and the drivers of others actually stepping outside to cheer us on.

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At the entrance to the Williamsburg Bridge

Once over the bridge, we continued down Flatbush Avenue Extension, making our way to the Barclays Center. It was there we staged a powerful sit-in in the middle of the intersection, holding four and a half minutes of silence, all while the cops looked on helplessly. Moving forward together, we continued to march through Downtown Brooklyn, eventually making our way to Fulton Street. Passing through the neighborhood of storefronts, cheered on by people mainly of Black Caribbean descent, we came to a stop at the intersection of Fulton and Nostrand in the middle of Bed-Stuy.

Bringing the march to a close, after taking over the streets, highways, and bridges of NYC, we gathered to hear people speak through the people’s mic/bullhorn. The last person to speak recited the words of Assata Shakur, asking us to repeat, ‘it is our duty to fight for freedom, it is our duty to win… we have nothing to lose but our chains.’

Revolutionary Change is Needed

Much of the protestors being young people thoroughly distrusting of ‘the system’ and committed to radical social change, when an organizer called through the bullhorn for the abolition of the police and the development of community control, the mass erupted in applause. Such a revolutionary vision is not beyond our reach, as far away into the future such a possibility may seem. For a more short-term solution, an economic boycott of Black Friday was also called for. In general, we were called to continue our protest in our communities and organize our people to affect the change we want to see.

This is not the end, but it was an incredible addition to the movement for justice that is growing throughout the United States. It was my honor to take part in it, passing through neighborhoods much like my own, and people who look like those in my community. Let us continue to educate and organize our communities to assert our human rights through word and deed. Let us dare to struggle. Let us dare to win.

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The Flag On My Way To Work

I had seen it before, in my days as an NYU student commuting from my project building in South Brooklyn to West 4th Street on the D train. It served as a reminder of what and who I am: a Boricua raised in a working class family and community.

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Photo by the author

A Puerto Rican flag waves from a set of windows four stories below the top of a high-rise building. It can be seen while crossing the Manhattan Bridge, on the side that gives the bridge its name.

Shortly after ‘Hurricane Sandy,’ when I next took that trip over the 100+ year old structure, the flag had disappeared from sight. It was a disappointment, causing me to feel a sense of loss. From then on, gazing through the scratched glass train window, it was like looking into a void, not focusing on the building, but looking at the space where an object once lied.

Recently, I interviewed for a position in the Williamsburg Leadership Center, a community space opened in Los Sures by El Puente, a human rights organization founded in 1982. As I made my way to Williamsburg’s south side, an unexpected sight became an omen of good fortune: the Puerto Rican flag reappeared, tightly fastened to two window guards.

Now, as I make my way to work, I once again reflect on my circumstances and feel a sense of direction. In part I am driven to such deep contemplation because of my strong sense of national identity and my reading of the Puerto Rican nation as incomplete due to its bondage under U.S. colonial rule. In a sense, when I look at the flag I begin to understand my own self also as a work in progress, ever striving to better myself.

When I see the flag on my way to work, and begin to reflect, it’s a reminder of the soul of a people. A reminder that no matter the odds, I will persevere. It’s as if the flag is saying, to use a popular phrase at my workplace, “¡Pa’lante!”

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The Discovery Of A Family Relic

BkIcon-Newsletter1x1When my sister’s 10-year old son couldn’t remember the name of his grandfather, who passed when he was just 3-years-old, she decided to reach back into our family archives. Taking out pictures and chess sets, my nephew soon recalled the name of the person seen with him in baby pictures, who he also ‘kinda‘ remembered had showed him how to move those black and white pieces over the green and cream checkered mat.

To my sister’s surprise, in a little pocket of one of his chess set bags, she found a sticky note with writing in pen. It was a draft for a letter our father had wrote to someone in regards to a genealogy workbook he wanted to pay for. He knew it was available free of charge, but was “willing to make a donation to cover mailing cost or any other costs.” What he wrote in the letter impacted us in a profound way. It began like this:

“I have just started to do family genealogy and I am very much interested in your Family Genealogy Workbook. I want to learn about my family heritage, and hopefully this workbook can help, but I plan on starting with this book so that it can help me put together a good gene [tree] so that one day I can pass it on to my son. Hopefully it will get him interested in family history and he will take it even farther.”

FamilyRelicWhen my sister called me to share her find after I came home from work, we both began reflecting on who I have become as a young adult. When my father wrote those sentences around the year 2004 I was an “at-risk” student. I really didn’t have much interest in my family history, or even our Puerto Rican culture. It was as I pushed myself through college that my interest in such issues sparked, coincidentally just before my father’s passing in August 2007.

Not only have I taken an interest in my cultural identity as ‘a Puerto Rican in New York,’ I’ve continued the genealogical work begun by my father. I’ve corrected some of his findings, added on, and have had a most enlightening experience doing so. The things I’ve learned about my ancestors have changed the way I see myself within the context of my family, and within the context of history. Having been able to trace my family tree back six generations, I’ve learned a great deal. As my sister and I reflected on this, we were also conscious that I took on this path after our father’s passing without knowing about the existence of this letter, and without him, to our knowledge, having ever bought the workbook, let alone later giving it to me – I took on this path on my own.

Such discoveries are rare, and I am among the lucky ones able to have such a connection to a most beloved family member. It was a powerful experience learning of the letter through my sister, and I am humbled to know I am on a path of my own making that is in tune with the dreams of my ancestors.

For tips on conducting Puerto Rican family history research, view my article, Discovering My Boricua Roots On Ancestry.com.

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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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