Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Rise of Puerto Rico's Nationalist Labor Movement: The Politics of Resilience

And here, I had always been (secretly) ashamed of being the descendant of native-born Puerto Ricans. I have no recollection of a history lesson in primary, secondary or post-secondary schooling of Boricuas fervently fighting for their political, economic and social independence. Growing up in the South Bronx, the cruelest insult you could hurl at another child was to say “That’s why your mother’s on welfare.” I felt deeply ashamed of the way Puerto Ricans in particular were stigmatized as 'Welfare-leros' or the ‘Welfare People’. Upon entering my teens - I rejected finding myself an island where the people did not love their blackness or their independence. Instead, I identified with the Dominican Republic and later with Cuba and West Africa where I traveled to do further research... 

This blog gives voice to my African heritage and pride but, also serves as an antidote to the silent discontent towards the political, economic and social conditions many Afro-Caribbean people living in the United States and their respective island homeland(s) have come to accept.

In my three years as a Holyoke resident, I have never heard of or been invited to a political gathering hosted by and for the Puerto Rican community that is, until last week. A friend sent me a Facebook invite to attend a lecture by Mr. Jose Lopez, the younger brother of Oscar Lopez Rivera. Rivera passionately narrates his older brother’s bitter-sweet legacy of a ‘Politics of Resilience’…

“During the Vietnam War the US's Army policy was to use Black and Latino males as scouts; they would send them first because their lives are seen as expendable.”

Oscar Lopez Rivera was drafted into the Vietnam War and it was there that he had an awakening.

“My brother he was 5’4, had Asian-slanted eyes and jet black hair. Oscar’s battalion of 25 men was ambushed. All were killed except my brother.”

As a result of the ambush, Rivera was shot in the head but, his helmet protected him from death. Rivera locked eye contact with a Viet Kong, raised his riffle, but it would not release on his target. It was in this split second, Rivera questioned...

“My people were fighting the Vietnamese but no Vietnamese had ever hurt me; how could I be fighting a people in the same condition as me?”

Rivera earned a Bronze medal of honor for saving the life a soldier in his regiment. Witnessing the oppressed conditions of his people upon his return to his hometown of Chicago, Rivera refused both the medal and his uniform. Instead, Rivera took up the cause of fighting colonial imperialism in Puerto Rico; becoming one of the most effective community organizers in the 70's. Rivera and his brother Lopez helped to conduct research for the first study published in 1970 documenting Puerto Rican high school dropouts in the city of Chicago.

“The oppressor could never be creative because he is always thinking about oppressing. The oppressed are always thinking about freedom and, freedom is creative.” Jose Lopez

Rivera and Lopez became educators which further raised their consciousness about their privileged status as “fair-skinned” Puerto Ricans. Determined to address the socio-economic disparities Puerto Rican high school students suffered, Rivera and Lopez founded The Pedro Albizu Campos High School, an alternative school designed to provide equitable education in a culturally affirming environment.

Why would Oscar Lopez Rivera want to fight for Puerto Rico’s independence from the United States?

This intimate gathering at Salsarengue, a small local restaurant bar in Holyoke, MA penned yet another chapter rich in political, economic and social history. My journey to further uncover my Afro-Latino heritage continues...

Rivera’s 1943 birth in Puerto Rico was cradled by the island-nation’s 1930’s heated, class struggle to regain political, economic and social autonomy from US imperialistic capitalism which rested solely on a one-crop slave plantation economy.

The North American ‘Fair’ Trade Act which (currently), installs corporate factory farms and insular governments in Mexico to protect US corporate interest while consequently, driving small farmers out and forcing them to immigrate to the United States in search for work, works in similar fashion to the Jones-Costigan Act of 1930. The Jones-Costigan Act imposed a quota on production and exports of sugar to the US causing 15, 000 laborers to lose their jobs and join 150,000 unemployed laborers in Puerto Rico. Small and medium growers were penalized by mills whom refused to grind sugar and by US banks who denied financing of their crops. As a result of the quota, small and medium Puerto Rican sugar growers faced possibility of losing their crops and land.

According to an article published by Emilios Pantojas-Garcia titled: Puerto Rican Popularism Revisited: The PPD During the 1940's "Throughout a five year period (1931 – 36) a total of 207 laborer and small/medium farmer strikes occurred; 91 happened in less than one year from July 1933 – June 1934."

The greatest blow to the US domination of the Puerto Rico was the 1934 Sugar-workers rejection of the Federacion Libre de Trabajadores (FLT) a local affiliate of the American Federation of Labor. The FLT formed a “Coalition” with the Partido Republicano (PR) or, the Republican Party whose aim it was to protect sugar interest. Laborers and small/medium farmers become suspicious of the FLT's "Coalition" with the Republican Party protesting a contract signed by the FLT with the PR which they denounced as treason to the labor union's interest. The laborers and smaller farmers reject the FLT's policy of 'Conciliation' and invite Pedro Albizu Campos, President of the Partido Nacional to lead the 1934 Sugar-worker’s strike.

This alliance between the interests of workers and the nationalist petty bourgeoisie had the potential to produce a strong anti-imperialist alliance. The PN was the only party calling for the immediate liquidation of colonialism and questioning the very basis of North American domination in Puerto Rico.

Fearing this alliance, US corporations granted all the worker’s demands only after Albizu Campos is invited to lead the Sugar-worker’s strike. By doing so, the US hoped to end collaborations between Nationalist and field workers. Having reached their goal of dividing the PN and laborers, the US imposes political suppression via the installation of military General Blanton Winship as Governor of Puerto Rico and Colonel Elisha Francis Riggs as Chief of Police.

Immediately after the 1934 Sugar-workers Strike the US government unleashes further political repression directed at the PN’s leadership as evidenced by the 1935 and 1937 Massacre of students at Rio Piedra and Ponce, respectively. The insular government imprisoned PN leadership and harassed and persecuted insurgents opposed to US domination. Sound familiar?

In an unprecedented move to preserve US corporate interest in the island nation and under the guise of ‘Reconstruction’ and ‘Emergency Relief’ President Franklin D. Roosevelt executed the deadliest and most insidious political repression via the installment of Welfare programs euphemistically named: The Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration (PRRA) and the Puerto Rico Emergency Relief Administration (PRERA) which served to mobilize political forces on the island and to preserve US interest via a political machine based on patronage.

Growing up in the South Bronx one of the many US annexes for generations of poor ousted farmers and field laborers - I now know the shame we felt was by design. But, just as Roosevelt's attempt to monopolize and control the sugar economy failed so did his efforts to impose an legacy of 'Welfare'.

Pa,pa,, pa!

The 'Clave' is the sonic embodiment of resilience. Enslaved Africans used the 'Clave' to unify sonic and physical movement and communicate messages of revolt and rebellion. The 'Clave' is present in all Afro-Caribbean music: Guaracha, Sone, Cumbia, Salsa and Merengue. As such, Puerto Ricans are spiritually imbued with a 'Politics of Resilience' which like the 'Clave' survived the horrific middle passage to unite us under one rhythm.

Brother, Elder and political prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera has been unjustly incarcerated for over 30 years for the thought-crime of seditious conspiracy. Rivera has never been accused of attempting or committing any violence against; his only crime - being a voice for liberation.

For more information on the lengths to which our government will go to punish and silence voices of liberation, please visit: WWW.UPSIDEDOWNWORLD.ORG

Please purchase: "Between Torture and Resistance" it is a vivid tale of human rights abuses in the U.S. which are largely unreported. But it is also a story of hope—that there is beauty and strength in resistance.

Many thanks to Jose Bou owner of Salsarengue Restaurant and Bar for hosting Mr. Jose Lopez, Professor at Northeastern University.

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