For the last ten years, when faced with internal political and ethical frustrations about teaching, research and community advocacy on campus or in my hometown, Chicago, my correspondence with Oscar López Rivera provides clarity. I write to him because, as I struggle with where I wanted to continue the legacy of those bridge builders that came before me, I need some grounding. I write to him because the most powerful boricua women around me are scholars and women political leaders who do not hold the political clout of the intellectual outsiders-looking-in or the male veterans who are the face and the voice of community work. I write to him because I need to remain connected to the political impetus that drives why I continue to work with Latino immigrants. I write to him because I need ground from which to bear in mind the greater context of my own frustrations, impatience and disillusionment with the way I am following my commitment to education and scholarly research.
And yes, I had initially started writing to him because of the woman question. As a political prisoner and a political elder, Oscar was inside Humboldt Park as much as prison kept him out of the Chicago Puerto Rican community. Letter correspondence allowed reflection on the intention of the work as well as my relationship with it. As the years passed, however, whether, in graduate school, working alongside undocumented youth and their families, while working around issues of food justice, the political consciousness upon which I reflected evolved.
As a graduate student in the Pacific Northwest, I had grown aware of the unique, albeit complex cultural capital to which I had access as a Chicago Puerto Rican. Throughout the research process, our conversations through correspondence answered the questions I wanted to pose. As a result, his letters dialogued with Puerto Rican and Latin American intellectual thinkers, profoundly shaping my final dissertation. Since graduating, I continue to write to him, in the contemplation of how much further to take those questions that we initially posed to each other. Those questions, which continue to shape the advocacy efforts in which I engage in Chicago, or when I worked with immigrants in Portland, are critically encapsulated in an excerpt from the second letter he wrote me, in which he explains:
In life we are constantly facing crucibles and challenges. We are constantly evolving and changing. Just establishing a new personal relationship can change one’s direction and to reset new goals. I’ve met individuals who were very sincere about wanting to struggle for a better world, but for one reason or another they decided to drop out after struggling for a while. Was it a question of disillusionment and disconnection or was it one of will and spirit? Was it a question of exhaustion or of new interests? (López Rivera, 1/8/2005)
These questions prompt an interest in more letters, from other Puerto Rican political prisoners as well as those that remain closest to them throughout their imprisonment and since their release. Given what has changed not only in how Oscar reflects over Puerto Ricans’, Latinos’ and other colonized communities struggles, I am left wondering what has changed and remains the same in those with whom he organized and those who have been working on his amnesty campaign over the years.
Critically understanding the sustainability of collective mobilization for community improvement needs more attention to the conversations that emerge through political prisoner correspondence. To remain in line of Oscar’s earlier questions, I will pull from his seventh letter to his granddaughter Karina, in which he narrates a story he also shared in one of his first letters to me. The story Óscar shares is of a woman who said no one listens to Puerto Ricans.
At the time Oscar was working to organize Puerto Ricans living under a negligent landlord, and in response to his initial intent, she asked: “Who is going to listen to a Puerto Rican woman?” His response to her, as he explains, was not grandiose nor promises, he explains that “[his] answer came from [his] heart: [he] would listen to her, and then the two of [them] would go to listen to the rest, and finally, everyone would listen to each other…” (López Rivera, 10/19/13)
This story outlines the heart of critical organizing and, while his letters have been a wealthy gift for which I am eternally grateful, it is imperative that we find a way to share the wisdom and insight of all those years political prisoners served. In rereading letters, he answers the woman question by stating in between the lines, “they are here; you are here; I can see you. I know our movements are successful because of women like you…” I have gleaned that from years of studying his letters to me, even in his six-page critique of my dissertation, but so many of us —students, activists, historians— have something to gain from the historical moment intimate and reflexive letters provide.
They’re not just the tools I needed to keep me honest in graduate school; to keep me grounded as I was writing my dissertation. Those letters can, if we take the time and energy to gather and review them, fill in many gaps left as we wonder what Puerto Ricans and Latinos have done for themselves and what still, in the midst of adversity and possibility, we still have left to do.
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Erika Gisela Abad Merced is a poet, fiction writer, essayist and independent scholar. You can follow her @lionwanderer531.