by Erika Gisela Abad Merced
Despite the Latina lesbians who were my teachers and supervisors, despite the friends I consoled through the trials of beginning to live honestly, I did not come out in college. Still struggling with the social stigma of being a survivor of sexual assault, I did my best to work around the stereotype of its relationship to homosexuality and focused, instead, on working with organizations and student support offices that sought to provide opportunities for people and, more specifically, students of color. When volunteering for a Puerto Rican grassroots organization in Chicago’s Puerto Rican community, Humboldt Park, did not provide the safe space I thought it would to connect racism, colonialism and sexual trauma as it affected womyn and queer voices, I started to write one of the initial cofounders of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and last remaining Puerto Rican political prisoners, Oscar Lopez Rivera, for support and clarity. I needed someone to talk to about who, in these movements and organizations, felt supported in being outspoken and why. But, before explaining further, I want to talk about Oscar.
Oscar Lopez Rivera is a Puerto Rican born, Chicago raised community organizer who was alleged by the US government to be a leader of the FALN, a Puerto Rican nationalist group, and consequently arrested over 33 years ago for possession of minor weapons and seditious conspiracy to overthrow the US government. Since his arrest, he has been in three prisons, each known for its inhumane treatment of prisoners. Despite this, he persistently vocalizes his concerns for Puerto Ricans and other communities who continue to advocate for the right to govern themselves. While volunteering with the PRCC, this goal was discussed at length, seemingly far more a priority than the healing of our community and the well-being of our womyn and girls. I needed to know what it was like for the womyn involved during the heyday of the movement, how they were treated, how their voices, needs, and advocacy was acknowledged.
To preface, I knew there were womyn leaders in the Puerto Rican independence movement and in the political growth of Chicago’s Puerto Rican community. I read about them, met some of them, and was awed to be one of the poets asked to perform for Lolita Lebrón in 2004. But what I saw and read of womyn in the struggle left me wondering about how much recognition they received and, more specifically, how much leadership they were allowed to take on outside of “womyn’s arenas.”
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In his letters, Oscar reminded me of the more political, “typically male” posts womyn took when standing up for Puerto Rico’s independence in the past. For example, Isabel Rosado, a contemporary of Lebrón, served as the bodyguard for Pedro Albizu Campos, the leader of the nationalist movement in the mid-twentieth century. And, Lolita Lebrón had lead the 1954 attack on Congress aimed at bringing attention to Puerto Ricans’ struggle for independence. I loved the legacy these womyn provided, but the answers prompted more questions. The more I read about and worked alongside of womyn and sexual minorities, the more I wanted to know why and how the leaders we remember were chosen… how their peers listened to them.
In my research, I learned of strong womyn who left the island and found alternative methods to empower Puerto Ricans, so I couldn’t understand why their legacies and contributions weren’t as regularly discussed or taught as male leaders. The majority of womyn who were idolized, were remembered for taking charge of the spaces they were assigned, quietly excelling in the positions offered to them. What Puerto Rican womyn needed to overcome oppression seemed to only be discussed when intersecting with other movements, such as the womyn’s and LGBT rights movements, not within our own agenda for independence. For those reasons, how their comrades, freedom fighters, listened to them continued to be my focus when discussing how our histories were written or which leaders were celebrated.
It was all about listening because I learned, as a young womyn who volunteered at shelters, who supported high school student friends who started living honestly as gay before I did, being heard was the first step to feeling empowered. When I was in college, being able to listen to people was the driving force behind the kind of jobs I looked for and organizations I got involved in until it got to the point where, to get further, I had to tell my own story. Writing Oscar allowed me to tell my story and figure out ways to let go of the fear. For example, consider the story of how he began organizing. He was door knocking to organize Puerto Ricans living in a building with a negligent landlord when one of the people he was organizing asked, “‘Who is going to listen to a Puerto Rican woman?’ ” His letter 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…”(Lopez Rivera, 10/19/13)
Stories like this one reminded me of what was necessary in any work someone like me wanted to do to address social inequalities—listening to the most marginalized and underrepresented members of a community, and making sure those people knew their voices would be heard and their needs addressed. While Puerto Rican womyn can be found in powerful political positions across the country, I still wonder how and where, outside of my conversations with Oscar, I can connect the day to day efforts of listening to sexual and gender minorities in ways that don’t ask us to choose between our ethnic community and our sexual/gender ones.
Back in Chicago, I am not sure where to put my words into practice. I know, as I try to figure it out, navigating the frustrating tension between race-centered and queer-centered work, writing Oscar makes the most sense to me. In his letters, I find the strength to speak and I find the courage to forgive. Every time I reread his letters, my heart swells, reminding me of the power in how Oscar and I listen to each other.
Independent scholar, poet, and budding essayist, Erika Gisela Abad Merced, Ph.D., has been published in academic journals, such as Diálogo and Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies. New to blogging, she has also contributed to Mujeres Talk and Feminist Wire. She has moved back to Chicago in an effort to begin work on collecting and writing about the historical and cultural significance of Puerto Rican political prisoner correspondence.
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