BkBoricuaDre

Why I Support the Release of Oscar López Rivera

Oscar López RiveraThe reason i support the campaign for the release of political prisoner Oscar López Rivera is that i firmly believe he is not what the criminal justice system would have us believe he is. He is not a criminal. What makes Oscar special is that not only is he a patriot, he was also a community activist who struggled considerably in Chicago on education, housing, employment, and health care.

Oscar López Rivera struggled for the liberation of the Puerto Rican people. He struggled so that Puerto Ricans can emerge from the social-political-economic constraints imposed on them by U.S. colonialism, both in the Diaspora and on the island.

Students continue to graduate from the Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School that Oscar co-founded in 1972. The Juan Antonio Corretjer Puerto Rican Cultural Center – another institution he co-founded in 1972 – still exists. On another occasion in that era, he even helped bring radical educator Paulo Freire for a community dialogue.

Nevertheless, my reasons for supporting his release go beyond who he was. My support for his release is also based on who he is: a man of integrity, of commitment to principles founded in freedom and liberation, who became a prolific artist after being incarcerated. To suddenly become a prolific painter under any circumstances is remarkable. To do so while going through 12 years of solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, prison transfers, arbitrary searches, and other extremely difficult circumstances, is simply outstanding.

The Governor and mayors in Puerto Rico support his release, as do Members of Congress, Nobel Laureates, governments in Latin America, and a United Nations special committee on decolonization. Oscar has become the rallying point for the entire Puerto Rican people, both on the island and in the Diaspora, creating a real expression of national unity. For natives of the Boricua Diaspora like myself, Oscar provides a significant example and lesson of struggle. He is a patriot who committed wholeheartedly to grassroots community struggle, and an activist who connected his local work to the struggle against colonialism.

November 23, 2013 march over the Williamsburg Bridge, NYC. [Photo: Virtual Boricua]

November 23, 2013 march over the Williamsburg Bridge, NYC.
[Photo: Virtual Boricua]

Recently, i took part in a march over the Williamsburg Bridge into Brooklyn in support of Oscar’s release. An initiative led by 33 Mujeres NYC x Oscar has also sprung up through solidarity with a similar women’s group in Puerto Rico. Also, a 33 Man March has been called for May 3, adding to the existing demonstrations of support for Oscar in NYC.

Here is a man, a community activist and revolutionary nationalist, who struggled with courage and sacrifice so that i may live in a better, more just world. All without knowing me, before i was even born. It is with firm resolution that i support the release of Oscar López Rivera.

Free Oscar!

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Manuel Rafael Suárez Díaz, Martyr Of The Puerto Rican Flag

The Puerto Rican people are well known for the proud display of their national symbol, the flag adopted in 1895 in New York City. Lesser known are the acts of sacrifice in defense of its patriotic root – a yet extinguished independence sentiment.

One such act occurred 82 years ago, on April 16, 1932.

PRflagBlogThat day, the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party was holding one of its several commemorative events recognizing the life of a patriotic figure. The focus was José de Diego, the “father of the independence movement” who died supporting the goal of an Antillean Confederation that included a free Puerto Rico. Hundreds filled San Juan’s main plaza that night listening in silence to the captivating, inspiring, and informative oratory of Pedro Albizu Campos.

At the same time, however, a special meeting of the colonial legislature was being held in the nearby Capitol building. During this session, a project to convert the Puerto Rican flag into the official symbol of the colony was to be proposed for approval.

Receiving word of this toward the end of the nationalist rally, Albizu Campos took the audience’s attention and informed them of the legislator’s plans. He provoked a great commotion among them when he asked, “And what shall we do now?!” The response was, “Let’s stop it!” The crowd of hundreds voiced their agreement that attempting to convert the flag into a colonial symbol on José de Diego’s birthday was a double insult. What followed was a protest march, led by Albizu Campos, to the Capitol.

Once there, the mass of people confronted the armed police at the entrance, passing them without a single shot being fired. As people entered the building, rock throwing and stick fighting began outside, much of it including young students.

Inside the building, Albizu Campos led a group up a flight of stairs, leading to the legislators on the second floor. In a tragic turn of events, the struggle between the mass and police caused the railing and part of a balcony to collapse, throwing everyone 25-feet to the ground, injuring dozens. Once everyone had crawled off each other, one person laid dead: Manuel Rafael Suárez Díaz, a nationalist high school youth. Albizu Campos was arrested under charges of inciting a riot, but later acquitted. Suárez Díaz was buried in San Juan and raised to the status of martyr for sacrificing his life defending the honor of the Puerto Rican people’s national symbol.

Few peoples on this Earth have given as much to preserve the meaning of their flag as have Puerto Ricans. As we note the prominent display of la bandera puertorriqueña throughout the communities of the Boricua Diaspora, let us also note the history of sacrifice that made the flag the sacred symbol it is today.

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Black & Boricua Unity Against Gun Violence in Coney Island Projects

While police servicing Coney Island have reported a 70 percent overall drop in crime since 1993, there has been a 13 percent increase over the past two years. Last December, 17-year-old Yaquin English and 25-year old Shawn White were shot dead just two days apart. Such facts make gun violence a particular concern here.

On West 22nd Street and Surf Avenue, a mural outside a local corner store calls on Black and Boricua youth to “stop the violence.”

AntiGunMuralCI

The prevalence of guns in Coney Island has made it a location for the NYPD’s gun buyback program, where $200 bankcards are given for every illegal, working gun turned in. According to a Brooklyn District Attorney, clergy became involved and local churches were used as buyback locations, “to overcome the fact that some people are intimidated when it comes to turning guns in to a police precinct.” Last summer, some 65 weapons were turned in, including several revolvers, semi-automatics, and rifles.

The gun violence is concentrated in Coney Island’s public housing, whose residents are predominantly Black and “Hispanic”, with Puerto Ricans making up much of the second group. As of January 2013, the two groups made up 89.8% (45.9% Black, 43.9% Hispanic) of the total New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) population of more than 400,000.

Recently, the Daily News reported a 31% increase in major crimes in NYCHA over the last five years, compared with a 3.3% increase for the city. It noted that, although the NYPD has made considerable efforts since 2012 to make public housing safer, by increasing “vertical” patrols in buildings, beefing up their presence in “impact zones”, and installing dozens of cameras, major felonies continue to climb. Furthermore, these efforts have angered residents who say they are unfairly stopped and questioned by police.

Despite such views towards the NYPD, community leaders in Coney Island are calling for more street cameras and a greater police presence as a means to quell local violence.

On the other hand, outside supporters from a Brownsville-based community organization, Man Up!, claimed that one of their anti-violence programs could benefit Coney Island. This program has men in vans patrolling streets in the middle of the night, in some cases talking to the very people in danger of adding to the circle of gun violence.

There are no easy ways out, but the change definitely must come from the people. And as we address the violence we face as public housing residents, as well as neglect and public health concerns, we ought to connect this desire for peace and justice with our historic struggles. In other words, as Black and Boricua people, we should connect our community efforts with our centuries-old struggles against racism and colonialism. By placing our grassroots work in the present within this historical context, we might better approach the level of dignity, self-worth, and agency needed to end gun violence in Coney Island and any major issue of social concern facing our communities.

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¿Una Sola Bandera? One Single Flag?

In New York City, community gardens can be found in a number of neighborhoods. In the Puerto Rican community, these gardens are common and also serve as sites of cultural affirmation. Puerto Rican flags and other national symbols, including “Taíno” iconography as in one East Harlem garden i came across in my travels, are staples of such spaces. In fact, rarely will you see Puerto Rican community gardens displaying only one Puerto Rican flag. More than likely, you will see two, three, or more images of our national symbol on proud display.

Each time i make my way to the Coney Island YMCA, i pass by one of these spaces – a much underdeveloped version thanks to Hurricane Sandy. When i see its Puerto Rican flags, i always take a moment to appreciate their movement in the wind. Usually, i become conscious, even if for only a quick moment, of my existence as a Boricua in the Diaspora. i remind myself of the personal and social commitments i have made as such – commitments i have the fortune of partially fulfilling through my work with La Respuesta. i focus on la estrella solitaria, and become filled with a unique sense of Boricua pride. Sometimes, when finishing my day’s workout with a 5-minute, uphill run on the treadmill, i’ll even look out the window at the flag just across the street as i run in place, attempting to gain strength from it.

And sometimes, i can’t help but react to the bigger picture.

PRCommunityGarden1

In 1926, during a public rally of the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico, Pedro Albizu Campos made a gesture towards the U.S. flag unforgotten by history. Upon his turn to speak as Vice-President of the Party, before saying a word, Albizu Campos dramatically removed every U.S. flag on the stage, placing them in his pocket, until only those of Puerto Rico remained. He then declared, “Flag of the United States, I do not salute you; because although it is true that you are the symbol of a free and sovereign country, in Puerto Rico you represent piracy and plunder!”

Today, as in 1926, and as has been the case since the invasion of July 25, 1898, the U.S. continues its colonial domination of Puerto Rico. Plenary or absolute power over Puerto Rico remains in the hands of the U.S. President and Congress, so that even if Puerto Rico’s so-called “commonwealth” government issues a productive piece of legislation, that legislation can be revised and vetoed at the whim of the U.S. government, and therefore must ultimately be approved by it as well. Puerto Rico has no real self-determination.

PRCommunityGarden2

As a Boricua conscious of this history, i can’t help but question the presence of the U.S. flag alongside the Puerto Rican in this and almost every other Puerto Rican community garden i come across in NYC. In my personal life, i have made the conscious, and at times difficult decision to take a stand for the right of Puerto Rico’s self-determination. At both of my graduations at NYU, for example, i refused to stand and take part in any national ritual honoring the United States. Instead, i chose to remain seated, feeling awkward as all of my friends stood up around me, but proud for having performed a patriotic act of resistance. i was admittedly also greatly relieved by the fact that none of my fiends and colleagues felt personally disrespected by it.

Truth be told, i agree with Albizu Campos in this respect. While the U.S. flag may represent one thing for some, for others it represents something completely different. i wonder how many other Boricuas also feel the way i do about seeing the symbol of their nation flying alongside the symbol of its colonial occupiers. Maybe New York City requires community gardens to fly the U.S. flag. Maybe i should be complacent in the fact that at least here in NYC, as seen in the pictures, both flags can be flown at equal height, whereas on the island the official mandate is to have the Puerto Rican slightly lower.

Puerto Rican community gardens are special places. The best of them are so decorative that they can be walked through time and again, each time offering a new sight previously overlooked. They’re undoubtedly sites of Puerto Rican cultural affirmation. But they’re also sites of cultural tension, with the symbols of the empire often finding their way in.

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Super Salsa ’78 Concert Video

BkIcon-Newsletter1x1Of all the music videos i’ve come across on YouTube, this is one of my favorites. Good quality, great music, and it’s long without being too long.

Each singer backed by a band led by Willie Colón, starting off is Ruben Blades, followed by Héctor Lavoe, until finally La Guarachera de Cuba, Celia Cruz, sings two numbers she recorded with Colón the year before.

Yomo Toro plays an electric cuatro solo in the first song, and Héctor Lavoe fills the theatre aisles with dancers spinning in circles singing “Te Conozco Bacalao!”

Enjoy! Below is a song listing.

Song list
Ruben Blades
1) Según el Color
2) Planatación Adentro
Héctor Lavoe
3) Juana Peña
4) Canto a Borinquen
5) Medley (Ché Ché Colé, Barrunto, Te Conozco, Calle Luna Calle Sól)
6) Periódico de Ayer
Celia Cruz
7) Pún Pún Catalú
8) A Papá
Run time: (1hour 14minutes)

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Pedro Albizu Campos: The Teacher

Pedro Albizu Campos (1893-1965) is at the same time one of Puerto Rico’s most accomplished individuals, and its foremost nationalist leader of the 20th Century. Starting school at the late age of 12, he distinguished himself at Ponce High School with his intelligence, as well as public speaking and debating skills. All of this while being taught in the U.S.-mandated English. Albizu Campos would go on to the University of Vermont and Harvard University on scholarships, becoming licensed in Chemistry, Philosophy and Letters, and Military Science, and earning a degree in Law. In addition, he was fluent in English and his native Spanish, more than proficient in French, Portuguese, Italian, and German, and also comfortable with Greek and Latin.

An exceptional student, he became an exceptional teacher. The following video, from the upcoming documentary Who is Albizu?, gives one interpretation of how Albizu Campos came to be called ‘El Maestro’, or ‘the Teacher’.

On a personal level, i have been greatly influenced by what i have learned about the legacy of Albizu Campos. The more that i learn, the more he seems to offer me. And the more that i seek out information about his life and legacy, the more i appreciate how misunderstood and misrepresented he is by mainstream society. Over the past number of years learning about Albizu Campos, as a native of the Boricua Diaspora, i’ve also come to appreciate the need there is for comprehensive information about him in English. In my opinion, most of these resources usually either contain historical errors, or focus on his politics, both painting him as an extremist and neglecting the deeper content of his character and message, or both. My hope is to one day write a book that can fill this gap.

But for sure, Pedro Albizu Campos is still my teacher. And i mean this in a very real way. After going through much of the English-language resources on Albizu Campos, it got to a point where i had to look at Spanish-language sources if i wanted to learn more. So i did exactly that. Now, as i increase my knowledge of Spanish by reading about el Maestro, i can say that he still teaches me today.

More on Albizu Campos to come.

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Basketball: The City Game

Before i start getting into Puerto Rican history and Boricua identity, which i plan to do in the coming days, i want to talk about my first true love – basketball.

Canadian-born Dr. James Naismith created the first set of rules for basketball on December 21, 1891 while working at a YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts. Born out of a real social need, basketball was invented to provide athletes, and people in general, a form of indoor exercise and entertainment during the harsh New England winters. The game quickly spread and is now a worldwide phenomenon. It’s even improvised in homes using balled up socks and hampers, paper and trashcans.

In 1970, sportswriter Pete Axthelm published a book focusing on that year’s championship-winning New York Knicks, and NYC playground legends such as Earl ‘the Goat’ Manigault. In the introduction to his book, titled ‘The City Game’, he writes, “Basketball is more than a sport of diversion in the cities. It is a part, often a major part, of the fabric of life.”

Youth from Marlboro Projects playing at the local park

Youth from Marlboro Projects playing at the local park

It was my father who taught me basketball, himself having learned growing up in 1970s Brownsville, Brooklyn. As a youth in the projects, the game was definitely a major part of the fabric of my life, and i would say was key in my early development. We spent countless childhood days in the open sun putting up shots and playing games of ‘21’ or 3-on-3, developing relationships with each other and the social skills needed for adulthood.

Flames, a local basketball league, also played a key role for all of us in the neighborhood. Created in the early 70s, Flames was established to bring together the mostly Black and Puerto Rican residents of Marlboro Projects and Coney Island, with the mostly White/ Italian residents that also live in the neighborhood. A specifically anti-racist project, its founder, Gerard Papa, literally risked his life to make it happen. Sent death threats on numerous occasions, especially during those early years, Gerard placed greater importance on the need for the program, stood his ground, and still runs it today.

As i started to learn about my history as a Puerto Rican, and about the native element of this history (aka my “Taíno roots”), i began to see my love of basketball as part of a tradition we began by playing on ball courts. This is something i definitely plan to post more about in the future. For now, you can read more about it here. Being Puerto Rican and playing basketball is a beautiful thing, and today, the game is more popular on the island than baseball itself.

In the future i’ll share basketball stories from the local court in my hood. Until then, i thought i’d share these thoughts about my first true love. Basketball is more than a sport to me; it’s also a tool for personal and social growth/change.

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