Puerto Rican Patriot Oscar Lopez Rivera and UCLA’s Latinx Identity

Design by Maya Sol Levy

As part of his Southern California Speaking Tour, the formerly incarcerated Puerto Rican independence activist and patriot Oscar López Rivera spoke in the UCLA Moore 100 lecture hall on Thursday, Feb. 8 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. The event, Decolonization, Hurricanes and Solidarity, was hosted by Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán de UCLA (MEChA) in collaboration with the UCLA Latin American Studies Institute, and the Los Angeles organization Puerto Ricans In Action.

The U.S. government held López Rivera prisoner for over 35 years, making him the longest political prisoner in the history of Puerto Rico. He was part of the militant group Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña (FALN) that fought for Puerto Rican independence, and was sentenced to 70 years for seditious conspiracy in 1981. In May of 2017, López Rivera was shown clemency by President Barack Obama at the end of the president’s term. Since his release, he has been touring the country to raise awareness about Puerto Rico and to call to arms the people in diaspora, a term used for Puerto Ricans who have immigrated to the mainland United States.

As Puerto Rico still faces severe devastation and humanitarian crises in the wake of Hurricane Maria, López Rivera spoke to the current state of the island and the passing of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), a U.S. federal law that provides a model for debt restructuring and establishes a Financial Control Board described by Puerto Ricans as “junta”, which is a board of unelected officials appointed by President Donald Trump. The passing of PROMESA has come to exemplify Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. colonial territory, further infuriating the island’s patriots and independence activists.

The crowd’s admiration for López Rivera was prominent, with numerous standing ovations. He spoke of the notion that Puerto Ricans possess the capability to decolonize themselves, in contrast to the Euro-American narrative of decolonized territories struggling to create a stable and prosperous nation.

López Rivera also spoke to the Puerto Rican identity, and the struggles of growing up in a colonized territory. Despite being a patriot from Puerto Rico, López Rivera’s heroism acquired appreciation from a vast array of Latin American countries. He has been an honored guest in many independent Latin American countries, including Cuba and Nicaragua, while a variety of Latin Americans could be found in the audience.

Jennifer Lainez, an employee for the UCLA Latin American Institute, shared why López Rivera’s talk was important to her as an El Salvadorian who now lives in the United States. She says, “One of the flyers was about central American solidarity between Panama and Nicaragua. Even though I’m not from there, I am still Central American. It really resonated with me, especially seeing how U.S. intervention elongated the civil war [in El Salvador]. So a lot of this just spoke to me. It’s an honor being in the presence of someone who stood their ground for so long and had such conviction.”

To Lainez and many other Latin Americans, solidarity among the countries is critical. The history of colonialism and independence is central to each nation’s independent history, and represents a similar chronological heritage that unites the region.

As the event came to a close, the audience was given the opportunity to ask López Rivera a few questions. One of the questions sought guidance from the Puerto Rican patriot, posing the question, “What conversations can we Puerto Ricans in the diaspora have with our family members who are back in Puerto Rico to just have them discuss colonization and the experience of being in a colonized territory?” López Rivera responded with emphasizing the necessity of fostering dialogue with those living on the island about the reality of residing in an unincorporated U.S. territory, which to many is a term synonymous with colonial territory. He emphasized the importance of acknowledging and discussing Puerto Rico’s colonial status, and to view the U.S.’s ownership for what it is – imperialism.

The final question of the evening regarded the global rhetoric surrounding the U.S., and how “On the global conception of freedom, it is hard to understand the United States as a colonizer. With the global mass media it is very hard to put the country of freedom as the oppressor and colonizer of Puerto Rico. How would you challenge the rhetoric of the mass media?” While López Rivera agreed that the mass media is part of the problem, he failed to offer a substantial answer to this question.

While the Puerto Rican patriot did not offer an explicit answer, this is a very important question that both Americans and the rest of the world must ask themselves. It is just another indicator of the false reputation that the United States has built for itself, and the conflicting history that precedes the nation.

Yarimariel Nieves-Rivera, a third-year history student at UCLA, gave her perspective on the event, and how important hearing López Rivera speak was for her as a Puerto Rican student. As she said, “Hearing him speak today is one of the most important moments of my life as a Puerto Rican activist for independence. It’s one of the most empowering things to see one of the political prisoners of the United States free and speaking against the United States government in public freely.”

According to Yarimariel, “What’s happening on the island [Puerto Rico] is that people have lost faith.” When asked what the next step for the people of Puerto Rico is, Yarimariel answered that “the people in diaspora have a responsibility and the opportunity to raise awareness to what’s happening on the island. People on the island need the support of the people in diaspora…This is a joint effort in the success of Puerto Rico. It’s not a question of Puerto Rican independence in its entirety… now it’s a matter of Puerto Rico’s survival. … We have to remind them that they are strong, they have survived. Puerto Rico always stands up, and has been standing up for the last two hundred years.”

Yarimariel is one of many young Puerto Rican independence activists in diaspora who is passionate about her home island and it’s oppression by the United States. For her, López Rivera’s speech was very close to home and what she is fighting for. For other members of the audience, like Lainez, the Puerto Rican patriot’s history and actions are a manifestation of Latin American empowerment and independence as a whole.

López Rivera’s event was much more than a re-telling of his history and that of Puerto Rico. It was a representation of the Latin American narrative of oppression and empowerment – one that resonates strongly with a large demographic of the UCLA community.

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