Interview with Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, A Champion of Freedom and Solidarity

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La Respuesta recently got the honor to speak with Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-IL), ‘El Gallito’ from Chicago. In our phone conversation, the senior Congressman spoke passionately about immigration reform and solidarity, Puerto Rico’s failing economy, the campaign to free Oscar López Rivera, his book tour, and the Boricua Diaspora.

ALM: What has been your reaction to the economic developments occurring in Puerto Rico? Will there be a “federal bailout?”

LVG: Puerto Rico has no real way forward unless it changes its basic relationship with the United States. As long as the Congress of the United States—the Federal Government—has the sovereignty of the people of Puerto Rico controlled in its hands, I don’t see how Puerto Rico can take measures to combat its economic decline.

Puerto Rico produces what it doesn’t consume, and it consumes… what it doesn’t produce. The huge dependency on the Federal Government is spiraling out of control, and it has always been part of the debate between the two major parties who can bring more federal aid to the impoverished island. As long as that’s the debate, new economic energy is not being created.

ALM: Are you taking any actions on Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi’s congressional bill pushing for statehood? What is your response to those who would question your right to support island independence as a Congressman representing a district in Chicago?

I’m not going to waste a whole lot of time on legislation that isn’t going to go anywhere and isn’t ever going to have an impact on the people of Puerto Rico. Pierluisi has the right to promote legislation in the Congress of the United States. Those of the 435 actual members of the Congress of the Unites States have that right. I have never introduced legislation promoting the independence of Puerto Rico. I have amended legislation and introduced legislation that would give the people of Puerto Rico the right to have a Constitutional Convention, which I think is the best and most correct way for people to come together, discuss, and delineate the future steps on the status of the people.

There’s this funny notion as if somehow there’s a contradiction between being a Member of Congress and supporting the independence of Puerto Rico. There could be nothing further from the truth. I was raised on the Fourth of July, Independence for the United States, and there’s certain inalienable rights, and that freedom and independence and sovereignty are a good thing.

ALM: Why is the campaign to free political prisoner Oscar López Rivera important to you, personally? After he’s released, what other issues should the independence movement tackle?

LVG: Oscar López Rivera is in jail for his beliefs. He is the longest political prisoner held in the Western Hemisphere. He has taken a principled position on his beliefs for Puerto Rican independence. And I think that now it is time for Oscar to return home.

There are many parallels between Oscar López Rivera and Nelson Mandela. They both fought for the freedom and sovereignty of their country. And that’s why Oscar’s in jail. He’s in jail because he believes in the right of Puerto Rico to be a free and independent country.

I remember Oscar when I was a college student. He’s always been a leader in our Boricua community here in the city of Chicago. And always been a proponent of self-reliance of our community.

I think the independence movement has to continue to create the conditions that will lead to the independence of Puerto Rico, whatever those might be. If there are needs in the University of Puerto Rico, we should raise our voices. If you’re going to try to build a gas pipeline that destroys the ecology of Puerto Rico, we should raise our voices. The independence movement should be at the forefront of raising our voices in the best interests of the people of Puerto Rico.

ALM: Are you still hopeful that Congress will pass comprehensive immigration reform this year? What kind of work are you doing to push President Obama to stop deportations?

LVG: Yes. I am still hopeful that we can get it done this year, as long as we continue to raise our voices, make sure that we are not silent, make sure that we are visible, and that we are determined that Congress must pass this issue. We need to expand the base. We need to not only be increasing in numbers, we need to be increasing in power and influence. Actions of peaceful civil disobedience, of massive protests, of registering… We need short-term and long-term strategies, but we’re going to get it done this year.

ALM: Are you thinking of running for mayor of Chicago once Rahm Emanuel’s first term is up? Or another political office?

LVG: No. I’m going to keep myself focused on bringing about comprehensive immigration reform. The most important priority for me and for our community as a whole will be to create the kind of infrastructure that is going to be necessary to help 11-12 million people gain access to a process of legalization in the United States under the law to be drafted and signed by the President this year.

ALM: You recently published a memoir, Still Dreaming, and went on a speaking tour. Why was it important for you to publish a memoir? While on tour, what kind of feedback did you receive?

LVG: It was a wonderful personal experience for me. I thought it was important to put my life as a Puerto Rican in the United States into context. Not only for Puerto Ricans, but also for us who are many times viewed essentially as another group of American citizens—to say, well it’s a little more complicated than that.

I wanted to, number one, put our experience within a context as a migrant community to the United States, not an immigrant community, but certainly a migrant community who reflect so many similar, and sometimes identical, challenges the immigrant community confronts when they come to the United States. I thought that was important.

In the end you can say part of being Puerto Rican is a lack of tolerance for abuse, and that once we see abuse we have an obligation, a need to denounce that. And so that’s why we’re denouncing the lack of immigration reform and the deportation and separation of our families, because we know what that’s like. We know what it is like to arrive in the United States, as we did in the hundreds of thousands during the decade of the 1950s, and face a mean, cruel, racist, discriminatory reception.

ALM: Our magazine strives to highlight what makes the Boricua Diaspora distinct. Do you think there is a distinct Diaspora identity and experience?

LVG: Yes, absolutely. It’s going to be different, it’s going to be distinct, and at the same time it’s going to be the same, right, and have many, many parallels. When you look at the mass communications system, when you look at cable, and radio, and music, when you look at those things across the board, you see the impact of those things both on Puerto Ricans in the United States and those in Puerto Rico.

Language is going to be an issue too. English is going to be the more predominant language for those of us born and raised in the United States, with Spanish being the predominant language for those born and raised in Puerto Rico.

The fact is that for the first time ever, there are more people who identify themselves, according to the U.S. Census, as Puerto Ricans living in the United States of America than those living on the island. Every year, Puerto Rico loses tens of thousands of people. They leave much as my parents left the island of Puerto Rico in the 1950s to the United States of America.

If you look at the Puerto Rican Members of Congress, the two members from New York and myself, you see how deeply involved we are with the issues of Puerto Rico. Look at Vieques, and how many Puerto Ricans from the United States went there, protested, put their freedom on the line in order to stop the bombing of Vieques. That’s just one particular example.

I think there are many parallels. And I think it’s going to be increasingly more important that we continue the dialogue between those of us in the States and those who live on that beautiful island of Puerto Rico. One day I could be in la plaza of San Sebastián and the next day I could be in the park, in Humboldt Park, because that’s the kind of movement which exists between Puerto Ricans on the island and those of us here.

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