An essay remembering a Puerto Rican musician turned revolutionary killed by the FBI on September 23, 2005.
“I have dedicated myself to politics because I was born in an enslaved nation. Had I been born in a free country my life would have been dedicated to the arts, the sciences.” – Pedro Albizu Campos
Every September 23, Puerto Ricans on the island and in the Diaspora commemorate El Grito de Lares, the 1868 revolt for independence marking the birth of our nation. Starting in 2005, it also a day of outrage following an FBI operation resulting in the death of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, co-founder and commander of Los Macheteros, a clandestine organization fighting for independence and social justice. Ojeda Ríos had been wanted by the FBI since cutting his electronic monitor on September 23, 1990 while free on bail pending trial in connection with the 1983 ‘expropriation’ of $7 million dollars from a Wells Fargo Depot in Hartford, Connecticut.
The funeral of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos four days later, on September 27, 2005, would be one of the largest in Puerto Rico’s history. Clearly the impact his life had on Puerto Rican society was considerable. Now nine years following his death, the FBI agent who fired the fatal shot remains unknown and yet to face responsibility, but the legacy of Filiberto continues to grow as people learn more about the man and his unyielding commitment to revolutionary social change. This essay will serve to highlight a few aspects of his life.
The Early Years of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos
Born on April 26, 1933 in Naguabo, Puerto Rico, Filiberto Ojeda Ríos was the youngest of three siblings, two brothers and one sister. Their father, Inocencio Ojeda, was a primary school teacher and member of the Nationalist Party Cadets, and their mother, Gloria Ríos Algarín, was the administrator of Naguabo’s post office in Barrio Río Blanco. Filiberto wrote about his family: “My grandparents, on both my mother’s and father’s side, were farmers. Their land and agricultural properties were lost and businesses ruined when… the North American sugar monopolies took over the Puerto Rican economic structure.”
When reflecting on his earliest years of school, Filiberto recalls the imposition of English. “Many teachers in those days expressed resentment of this fact, and their resentment carried an independentista message directly to their students,” he would say. After moving with his mother to New York in 1944, and attending junior high schools in Brooklyn and Manhattan, the difficulty he had in adjusting to the highly prejudiced United States school system forced him to complete his secondary education three years later in Puerto Rico.
From University Studies to Factory Work in New York City
Immediately going on to university studies, Filiberto also decided to take up music. At the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras, he would join the ROTC band. Also enrolling at the Free School of Music in San Juan, it was there that he greatly developed as a musician. Initially wanting to learn the clarinet, his instrument of choice eventually became the trumpet. Practicing on a family loaned bugle for the first few months, Filiberto would win his first trumpet at a student contest held by the Free School. At the School he would play in both the symphonic and popular music bands, becoming greatly exposed to classical music, and would also at this time begin playing música típica, performing aguinaldos with groups during the Christmas season.
Forced to end his studies in 1950 and move to New York City, he began life there as a factory worker, though never giving up music and continuing to pay for private lessons. Filiberto’s new occupation, however, would cause a profound shift in his sociopolitical and historical awareness. “It was this contact with brother Puerto Ricans in the factories,” he would write, “which finally helped me understand the true nature of exploitation, racism and colonialism. I understood what life in the ghettoes meant; the reasons for being denied decent education, health, and housing services and equal work opportunities.” Nevertheless, Filiberto was at this point still a dedicated musician. In 1952, he would marry his first wife, Blanca Iris Serrano, with whom he would have four children.
Continued Music Studies and Early Glimpse at a Career
While in New York City, Filiberto reunited with the director of the Free School of Music, Angel del Busto, who continued training him. He would also train under the likes of Edward Treutel of the Juilliard School of Music, and Carmine Caruso the master teacher. From there, Filiberto would become the trumpet player for Héctor Narváez’ orchestra in San Juan beginning in 1955. The groups he would collaborate with on the island included the Miguelito Miranda Orchestra, la Orquesta Panamericana under Lito Peña, and la Sonora Ponceña under Quique Lucca, among others. Much of these performances would take place in hotels, such as those of the tourist-attracting Condado strip.
Returning once again to New York City, Filiberto would go on to be even more prolific as a musician. Playing nightclubs such as Club Caborrojeño, the Broadway Casino, Las Villas, the Palladium, the Huntspoint Palace, and more, he worked with many orchestras, including those of Carlos Acosta, Rafael Muñoz, and José Luis Moneró. Filiberto would even fill in for the likes of Pérez Prado, Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez, Rafael Muñoz, and Machito. The height of his musical career in New York would be his permanent gig as part of the El Morocco club orchestra. One of two Puerto Ricans, the orchestra was led by Freddy Alonso, a Cuban, and supported by other Cuban, Dominican, and Italian musicians.
Beginning of Political Activities and End of Musical Career
Already politicized from his time as factory worker, Filiberto would first become an activist in 1957 with the July 26 Movement through his Cuban contacts in New York City. Already committed to Puerto Rico’s independence, he then became active with the Liberation Movement of Puerto Rico led by Pelegrín García in New York. Both organizations worked closely together at the time, each attending the others’ meetings. Filiberto, besides attending countless protests and marches in the Puerto Rican community, also took part in courses and twice-weekly seminars offered by Pelegrín Garcia on Puerto Rican history. Following the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Filiberto made the decision in 1961 to move there with his family, support the revolution, while raising his children as proud Puerto Ricans.
Still a professional musician, Filiberto quickly auditioned for the orchestra of Obdulio Morales in the Club Tropicana. He began working the same day. With Morales, Filiberto also worked briefly for the National Circus of Cuba. Another orchestra he would work with was that of Armando Romero, giving performances in the Club Tropicana. He also had the opportunity to play with Manolo ‘El Guajiro’ Mirabal, the trumpeter later of Buena Vista Social Club fame. During this time, Filiberto also took up a job at the Conservatorio de Cubanacán offering classes to Cuban youth in trumpet technique. This promising career as a professional musician would come to a sudden end when, in 1965, Filiberto played his last performance at the Tropicana in a show of Cleopatra featuring Rosita Fornés. From that point forward, he decided to fully commit himself to the revolutionary struggle for independence and social justice in Puerto Rico.
Life and Death as a Revolutionary
The year before Filiberto ended his musical career, he had begun studying political science at the University of Havana. By 1966, he would become deputy of the permanent mission in Cuba for the Movimiento Pro-Independencia (MPI) of Puerto Rico. Finally moving back to Puerto Rico in 1969, Filiberto was arrested one year later in connection with the group Movimiento Independentista Revolucionario en Armas (MIRA). Released for lack of evidence, he remained clandestine in Puerto Rico for fifteen years until arrested following a shootout with FBI agents. The FBI attack on his home was part of an unprecedented operation on August 30, 1985 involving over 200 agents serving 30 search warrants in an attempt to disrupt Los Macheteros, founded in 1978. Remarkably, a Puerto Rican jury would acquit Filiberto in August 1989 after a trial in which he acted as his own lawyer, successfully arguing self-defense in a landmark case involving the shooting of a federal agent.
Resuming clandestine struggle on September 23, 1990, as previously mentioned, Filiberto would become known for sending messages every September 23 to those commemorating El Grito. He would even grant radio and other interviews as a fugitive, most notably one by journalist Daisy Sánchez produced as the video Cita con la Injusticia. As Filiberto’s message on September 23, 2005 was delivered to the public, an FBI Hostage Rescue Team flown in from Quantico, Virginia would approach the moment that caused his death. With a surveillance perimeter set up around his home days before, as well as a nearby command post, at least thirty-two FBI agents, supported by Puerto Rico’s state police, culminated their operation eighteen hours after an agent shot Filiberto and he was left to bleed to death.
The Legacy of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos
Filiberto’s death would be detailed in an August 2006 report produced by the U.S. Department of Justice. Another report produced in March 2011 by Puerto Rico’s Comisión de Derechos Civiles would reveal further information not included in the previous document. One considerable detail included an account that Filiberto was heard playing a trumpet moments before being wounded by an agent, indicating he posed no threat at the moment he was shot. The mix of revolutionary patriotism and outrage would turn Filiberto’s funeral into the largest attended in Puerto Rican history, drawing thousands of people. Dozens of prominent persons, as well as hundreds of artists, students, and children, and nearly the full range of the island’s political spectrum attended to pay tribute. The Archbishop of San Juan Roberto González Nieves even paid respects, calling Filiberto “a man of a free spirit, a belief in the Creator, and a religious sensibility.”
A man of great personal sacrifice and patriotic sentiment, Filiberto Ojeda Ríos emulated the path described by Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos in the opening quote to this essay. Giving up a promising career as a musician, he was compelled to live a life of struggle in the interest of independence and social justice for the Puerto Rican people. To be clear, Filiberto’s conception of the Puerto Rican people included those in the Diaspora. “Los puertorriqueños de acá y de allá somos un solo pueblo,” he would write. Indeed, perhaps the largest pro-independence rally to take place in New York City in recent years was that on September 23, 2006 due to the FBI-killing of Filiberto the year before.
His death has yet to receive justice, and the agent responsible remains unnamed, leaving a great desire for closure. Of course, the death of Filiberto, like that of any revolutionary, also served to increase the popular desire for closure to the very issue he gave his life struggling against – colonialism in Puerto Rico. Filiberto Ojeda Ríos remains present within the Puerto Rican national consciousness, and his legacy will no doubt continue to inspire many to work in defense of our national liberation as a people.