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Oscar López Rivera’s Tour Through Puerto Rican Community In Chicago Following His Release From Prison

Freed political prisoner Oscar López Rivera condemned the colonialism of the United States when he appeared before the United Nations Special Decolonization Committee one week ago.

“Colonialism is a crime against all humanity,” Rivera proclaimed. “If the United States government is the nation of laws it claims to be, then it behooves it to decolonize Puerto Rico by adhering to the tenets of international law that prohibit the crime of colonialism.”

Rivera highlighted the privatization efforts against Puerto Ricans, which he believes are intended to extract the “last dime from every pocket of every Puerto Rico person.” He noted interference in countries was a major problem, particularly in Cuba, Venezuela, and other Latin American countries, and urged renewed struggle to decolonize Puerto Rico.

President Barack Obama commuted Rivera’s prison sentence, and he was released from prison on May 17. He was arrested in 1981 and charged with “seditious conspiracy.”

A judge sentenced Rivera to 55 years in prison, and later, in 1987, he was given a 15-year sentence for “conspiracy to escape,” as a result of a “plot conceived and carried out by government agents and informants/provocateurs,” according to the People’s Law Office that represented him.

Rivera was a community organizer in the Puerto Rican community in Chicago throughout the 1960s. He was a part of the resistance against U.S. colonialism, a leader in the Puerto Rican independence movement.

He joined the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña (FALN), a Marxist-Leninist organization engaged in fierce anti-colonial struggle in Puerto Rico. Though the organization claimed responsibility for violence, he never was accused of harming anyone.

He also was drafted to fight in the Vietnam War and was in the army from 1961 to 1967.

On June 15, Shadowproof joined Rivera for a tour of the neighborhood in and around Humboldt Park in Chicago. Rivera shared memories of organizing, talked about a few of his experiences in prison, and addressed some of the controversy in New York over his participation in the Puerto Rican Day Parade on June 2.

Corporate sponsors of the parade engaged in a boycott when Rivera was to be honored with a “National Freedom Award.” AT&T, Coca-Cola, JetBlue, and the New York Yankees refused to support this year’s parade. The New York Police Department Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association came out against the parade’s board of directors as well.

Rivera opted to decline the award but still participate in the parade. He was on a float with New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who defended the parade’s board of directors along with other local officials.

He maintained the controversy was wildly exaggerated by the media. He counted those who were along the parade route giving him a thumbs down. They tailed him as the parade progressed, which he said made it seem like there were a lot more opposed to him. “I would guarantee you that no more than 30 people were the ones that were putting their thumbs down.”

“The Puerto Rican contingent with the float was the largest one in the history of the Puerto Rican parade in New York City. So that means a lot to me,” Rivera added. “It means a lot that Puerto Ricans were able to celebrate. And the board of the Puerto Rican parade did a wonderful job.”

“It stood its ground. It did not collapse. It did not succumb to the demands of corporations. And I say the corporations have the right to do whatever they want to do but so does the board of the Puerto Rican Day parade. Nobody should be dictating to the board what it has to do.”

Rivera described the Puerto Rican diaspora in Chicago as “very unique,” and said, “We have things here that you don’t see anywhere else.”

“I can look back where we were 40 years ago and where we are today, and I think it’s a tremendous positive change,” Rivera suggested. “But we are under the threat of gentrification so I don’t know how long this will last or how long we’ve got to expand.”

“The good thing is I see a lot of young people. The youth [are] the future of every society.”

The neighborhood tour, led by Jessie Fuentes, a coordinator with the National Boricua Human Rights Network who was a key participant in the struggle to free Rivera from prison. It made stops along the Division Street’s Paseo Boricua, which translates to Puerto Rican Promenade.

Rivera spoke at: the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture; a giant flag statue that bookends Division Street; La Estancia, an affordable housing complex; Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School, an alternative school where Rivera helped promote bilingual education; the Adalberto United Methodist Church, which is a declared “sanctuary zone” for immigrants; the storefront for the El Rescate Transitional Living Program, which helps homeless LGBTQ youth; and the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, where the Vida/SIDA initiative helps Latinos and other minorities with HIV prevention.

Rivera recalled how there was only so far he and other Puerto Ricans could go in Humboldt Park or else they would be attacked by gangs. “Little by little, we started conquering the park. So it took us about two years to conquer all the way to Kedzie.”

“At that time, we were not organized. We were facing back then a lot of the issues that other communities have faced. We were facing discrimination. We were facing racism,” Rivera shared. “Our community was not really ours yet.”

“This is the first community, where we said we can identify as Puerto Ricans. We called Division Street ours,” Rivera added, mentioning Studs Terkel’s work chronicling the communities along this major thoroughfare. “This is the most solid Puerto Rican community and the one that identifies best, who we are as a people.”

Outside the Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School, Rivera recounted the problems of overcrowding and dropouts in the late 1960s. He described how the school had 2,100 students but was built for 850 students. “The whole yard was filled with mobile units,” to accommodate all the students. This complicated issues with students who had learning problems and did not receive enough individual attention.

Puerto Rican students were wrongly designated “educable mentally handicapped,” which was a system that started up in 1969. It turned out he could not speak English. The school did not have bilingual teachers. Rivera founded the alternative school to bring bilingual education to the community.

“Most of the students, who were dropouts—some of them had a fifth grade reading level,” Rivera noted. “In a year’s time, we had a students on par with the high school students in this area.”

Rivera enrolled in the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1969. While at UIC, he encouraged fellow students to open up enrollment to more Latinos. But the students were not initially interested in this issue.

“We kept on talking about the issue of bringing in more Latinos and how would we be able to keep them in the school. Because a lot of Latino students, when they entered the university, they were not really good academically. They were not prepared to deal with the university system,” Rivera recounted.

Rivera and others demanded a project to help students stay in the university and recruit more Latinos to the university. “It took us until probably 1974, fighting and fighting, and finally the chancellor decided to give us what we wanted.”

At the Adalberto United Methodist Church, Rivera described building solidarity between the Chicano community and Puerto Rican community. Both communities fought for bilingual cultural centers at the same time. The state government of Illinois sought to divide. The two communities came together to ensure both centers were approved and given funding.

Pastor Walter L. “Slim” Coleman also shared how the church was started. The Catholic church, a bit east of this community, was “very racist.”

“They had about 40 Polish people meeting in a beautiful sanctuary every Sunday and about 2,000 Mexicans meeting in the basement,” Coleman recalled. “They condemned the activities of the community organization fighting for a new school.”

Mexican members of the Catholic church left the congregation. They learned what it would it take to practice the Methodist faith in a new church. Uncharacteristically, they brought the Virgin of Guadalupe with them and Methodists, who were reluctant to have this in their church, learned why that was culturally important to Mexicans.

While at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, Rivera spoke about the stigma of AIDS in prison.

“I remember the first prisoner who had AIDS. This guy used to weigh 275 pounds, was a weightlifter. And one day out of nowhere he disappeared, and probably about six months later, he came back from the hospital and he lived in the same gallery that I lived in. He said, hey Oscar. I did not recognize him.”

This prisoner was treated really bad because it was 1984. The stigmatization of people who were HIV positive escalated sharply. Those close to him distanced themselves, and the prisoner was taken to a prison hospital in Springfield. Four or five months later, he was dead.

In 1987, Rivera was in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago. They brought him back for his “escape” trial.

“One guy who had AIDS cut himself and put blood all over the shower. I had to pull him aside and tell him that he shouldn’t do that. He was so angry,” Rivera shared. “He thought by putting blood all over the walls that would get someone else to suffer, become HIV positive.”

Outside the storefront for the El Rescate Transitional Living Program that helps LGBTQ youth, Rivera praised the work of the community and openly hoped these initiatives could become more popular in Puerto Rico.

“Discrimination is still very deep into the minds of Puerto Ricans, especially because we still have a colonized mind,” Rivera suggested. He made it clear that it was critical to fight back against the dehumanization of people who society was quick to turn against and discard.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."