by Xavier "Xavi" Luis Burgos
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
by Xavier "Xavi" Luis Burgos
by Xavier “Xavi” Luis Burgos
“Pueblo que olvida su pasado no alcanzará nunca la grandeza de sus fines.” - José De Diego
In my life, there is no political work that I have internalized the most than that of taking the leadership of Que Ondee Sola (QOS) and the Union for Puerto Rican Students (UPRS) at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU). In high school I dreamed of and aspired to be a part of an organization that actively engaged, head-on, the socio-political issues facing the Puerto Rican community. I also sought-out a space in which critical reflection on inequalities and colonialism was encouraged, celebrated, and discussed. I found this when I walked in the office of QOS in the fall of 2005, which left an undeniable mark on my existence.
Among the staff of the magazine, there were diverse characters and personalities: poets and activists, intellectuals and cultural workers. Above all, there existed a youthful exuberance and zeal. This manifested itself in protests and initiatives designed to build a more humanizing discourse and space for Boricuas, Mexicans, and other Latinas/os on campus. The first activity I participated in with QOS, UPRS, and ChiMexLa (Chicano Mexicano Latino Student Union) serves as a prime example. A dozen of us organized a silent march, dressed in black and with our mouths taped-shut, through the various public venues of NEIU. Two or more people carried a black-painted cardboard coffin; all theatrics to raise consciousness on the militarization of communities of color and our Latin American homelands. In hindsight, I ask myself: how effective was this in actually changing the situation? Miniscule, of course! Nonetheless, we effectively confronted and challenged the issue, brought it to the forefront of students’ minds, and instilled among us the notion that complacency is not an option. To struggle, to envision, to make a presence - how small a contribution it may seem - can be stepping stones to more tangible goals.
As a publication we thus had a responsibility to embody the very values that we critiqued our society for lacking. As editor, I ensured the continuation of a legacy of publishing what was rarely published anywhere else: the voices of the subaltern, the marginalized, the invisible. We did this in subtle ways, such as making it a point to always write “Latina/o” instead of “Latino” or even “Latino/a,” as a nonconformist gesture to gendered and sexist language. In more explicit ways, we published yearly an edition - as tradition dictates - dedicated entirely to the experiences and contributions of Puerto Rican and Latina/o women. We also covered the multiple manifestations of Puerto Rico’s colonial situation, the campaign to free the Puerto Rican political prisoners, the unfolding events of the immigration movement, and the progressive and left-wing struggles of our Latin American compatriotas. In addition - outside of tradition but in accordance with the magazine’s philosophical foundation and mission - we dedicated entire editions to the story of Puerto Ricans, Latinas/os, and Latin Americans of African descent. We also reserved editions to highlight the varied contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Boricuas and Latinas/os. This was all done utilizing a critical framework. To the extent possible we sought not to essentialize our cultural identities and historical experiences. We presented them with nuance and complexity, beauty and dignity, but never shying away from affirming our national identity.
Whatever we did in our publication we certainly carried into our organizing work on campus. The two most important QOS-led initiatives - torches set fire by generations before us - were to transform the Latino and Latin American Studies program (LLAS) into a major and construct a Latina/o Cultural & Resource Center (LCRC). When I entered the university, these topics were rarely discussed outside the offices of QOS or that of sympathetic faculty. I could not count how many times university administrators personally told me, “no, we cannot have a LCRC, there’s no funding or space, and, besides, its exclusionary.” It is undeniable that our yearly Plantando Semillas event, campus forums, magazine editorials, surveys, and meetings with faculty, staff, and elected officials made a LCRC possible. I remember an occasion when the university leadership organized a forum to discuss a multicultural center and had to cancel it for lack of attendance while simultaneously we organized fifty students - Black, White, and Latina/o - to discuss and gain support for a LCRC. The administration even sent a student representative to hear what we had to say.
We got LLAS to be a major but did not get our full vision of a LCRC. We wanted to concentrate the current Latina/o-focused resources and cultural initiatives on campus in a single space (visible resources beg not to be forgotten or bulldozed, which was the unfortunate fate of the Office for Adult and Women’s Services). This included offices for Latina/o-focused student organizations, LLAS, Proyecto Pa’Lante, and ENLACE, with classrooms. We did, however, open a pandora’s box. Students and faculty are now clamouring for a LGBTQ and Women’s Center and the main campus has a stronger Black student presence than ever before. It is up to the next generation of QOS and UPRS to ensure that we get a fully realized LCRC, for it is just and right. May the pages of QOS and the historical memory of student struggle, which this organization transmits so well, speak the truth and set the path.
Struggle is never romantic. It is draining, time-consuming, annoying, threatening, but not romantic. It is, however, cathartic, prophetic, and valuable. In an oppressive and dehumanizing context, to struggle is to construct meaning and community. Thus, to struggle is to envision what seems impossible: a liberated future.
“Thus, to struggle is to envision what seems impossible: a liberated future.“
Originally published in Que Ondee Sola magazine's 40th anniversary edition, April 2012
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
Any student of history could and should be able to communicate that what is placed in one’s school books is far from objective. Historical events walk along the lines of power and influence. In our contemporary society, what is considered notable to tell future generations must reaffirm (and be repackaged to fit the) status quo, even if it appears to be one of dissent. That is why very few people in the United States know about Oscar López Rivera, a Puerto Rican political prisoner for the last 29 years.
There are very few people who could argue that Puerto Rico is not a colony of the United States. In a 1922 case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the island belongs to but is not a part of the Union. Moreover, the U.S. Congress (which only has one non-voting representative from Puerto Rico) can exercise full powers over the possession, including overriding any laws adopted by the local legislative body. This, among other reasons, is why Oscar López Rivera, in the 1960s and 1970s, struggled for independence in a long trajectory of other movements and figures.
Born in San Sebastián, Puerto Rico on January 6, 1943, López Rivera was a part of the massive migration of islanders in the 1950s, and settled in Chicago. By the advent of the Vietnam War, he was drafted into the military and earned a Bronze Star for bravery. Like many other servicemen of color who returned to their communities, he witnessed extreme forms of poverty, substance abuse, and other manifestation of racism and inequality. This motivated López Rivera to organize other community activists and build institutions, initiatives, and programs that still exist today, like the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School, and the Latino Cultural Center at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Furthermore, he advocated for fair housing, bilingual education, and an end to police brutality and racist practices in public utilities. Following the international spirit of the times, by the mid-1970s he joined a guerilla organization to step up the pressure on the U.S. government to address the colonial question of Puerto Rico.
By 1981, he and other alleged members of the organization were arrested for seditious conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government in Puerto Rico and were sent to prison with disproportionate sentences. All but two of his compatriots were released by 1999 due to an international campaign that persuaded President Bill Clinton to offer them clemency. The remaining two were released on parole. Oscar López Rivera remains in prison despite, like his fellow prisoners, denying being a part of any acts that killed or injured anyone. More importantly, he was never charged with such actions.
What is interesting is the fact that many U.S. citizens are absent-minded about this country’s imperial history, while elevating towards sainthood those whose background are very similar to that of López Rivera. Nelson Mandela, the famed South African hero of racial equality, is a great example. In the early 1960s, Mandela was one of the founders and leaders of an armed guerilla group that took responsibility for multiple bombings on civilian and military installations, resulting in many deaths. He also spent 27 years as a political prisoner of the white, apartheid system that sought to destroy the spirit of the black indigenous population. Mandela was never charged with attacks on human lives, but with seditious conspiracy, just like López Rivera and his compatriots. Ironically enough, President Barack Obama is slated to write the forward of Mandela’s new book while ignoring the plight of his government’s own political prisoners and colonies. Therefore, it is safe to say that if anyone believes Nelson Mandela is a historic figure of great stature and justly represents global struggles of national liberation (which, he indeed, does!), then Oscar López Rivera should also be out of prison.
On January 5, the U.S. Parole Commission hearing examiner, Mark Tanner, recommended to the parole board that López Rivera serve his full sentence (slated for 2023) or serve another 15 years before being released. This was done despite the fact that thousands of people signed petitions asking for his release, including three Congress people, the Archbishop of Puerto Rico, the Resident Commissioner of the island (who does not believe in independence, but in statehood!), and numerous elected officials in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York City, and even Haiti. In an act that uncovers the political nature of López Rivera’s case, the parole board never responded to the Puerto Rican Bar Association’s request to be at the hearings, but victims of the bombings that López Rivera was never charged with conducting, were allowed to testify – unbeknownst to his own lawyer until the day of.
Nonetheless, the parole board still needs to make a final decision and could do so as early as February 1. The National Boricua Human Rights Campaign is asking for petition signatures and phone calls to the U.S. Parole Commission everyday, between 9-5pm at (301) 492-5990. Everyone’s voice can be influential.
Originally published at Gozamos.com on January 31, 2011.