On May 17, Oscar Lopez Rivera will be free at last. In January, President Obama commuted his prison sentence after 36 years behind bars. But when the Puerto Rican Independence activist is finally freed, the women’s groups in New York and elsewhere who have long supported him won’t stop their demonstrations. Their issue is the future of Puerto Rico.
On Sunday, February 26, one of those groups—called “35 Mujeres,” meaning 35 Women—was rallying once again in New York, at 1 Fordham Plaza in the Bronx. Chanting “Puerto Rico must be respected,” holding signs and wearing hats with “Free Oscar Now,” playing the Puerto Rican song “Vamonos Pal Monte,” and then wrapping up with the Puerto Rican national anthem “La Borinqueña*.”
IN 1981 Rivera, a member Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional or FALN, a 1970s clandestine movement advocating Puerto Rico’s independence, was charged with seditious conspiracy after being connected to a 1977 armed robbery carried out by the FALN. Other FALN members gained conditional clemency in 1999, and Puerto Rican independence activists have taken up Rivera’s cause.
The New York group formed back in 2014, after a 2013 New York City conference of activists from Puerto Rico and the U.S. diaspora. A group from San Juan, Mujeres en El Puente (“Women on the Bridge”) inspired a group from the Bronx to begin supporting Rivera too. They initially called themselves 32 Mujeres, to mark the 32nd year of Rivera’s incarceration. The New York group changed its name with each year of Rivera’s incarceration.
One activist at Sunday’s rally was Iris Colon Dipini*. She is a member of the Puerto Rican Independence Party. Dipini said the 33 Mujeres was actually the second such group on the mainland. “There are some in Chicago and other places,” she said. “We decided to go into communities where we have allies, particularly the African-American community and the Puerto Rican community. Historically we have fought so many struggles in the diaspora together. We had people in rallies that came from South Africa, from Colombia.” Rivera’s release, she said, will be “a victory for the people.”
Dipini believes street rallies are effective. “I like the streets,” she said. “Everybody has their place and chooses where they work better. Some better work better doing paperwork or diplomatic work, but I like the streets.” As she spoke, the rally garnered honks from passing cars in support.
“Every Sunday we’ve been out there, rain, snow, or shine,” said Mili Bonilla, a 35 Mujeres member. “I joined right away. I think it was one way to bring to Oscar’s cause and different parts of this city and different parts of this borough.”
The rally featured others in addition to the 35 Mujeres, including Jose Rodriguez, a former teacher and dean at P.S. 197, which served the Bronx before its 2014 closure. Proudly waving a Puerto Rican flag, he joined the cheers led by Dipini. “These women are my heroes,” said Rodriguez. He welcomed Rivera’s sentence commutation, but as a victory for the cause of advancing Puerto Rican rights.
Rodriguez was born in Caguas, Puerto Rico, but has lived in the Bronx for 60 years. After Rivera’s realse, he said, “Maybe the world will be more aware of our plight. Some believe that the solution is statehood, but now we are a property—not a partner—of the U.S.,” he said, amid the chants celebrating Rivera’s freedom and calling for Puerto Rican self-determination. “They view us as leftists, but all we want is independence.”
Activists from 35 Mujeres plan to be in Puerto Rico in May to celebrate Rivera’s release, including Ana Lopez, the New York Coordinator to Free Oscar Lopez Rivera and A CUNY-Hostos Community College Professor of Latin American and Caribbean studies. “On May 17, we are meeting with the 35 Women in Puerto Rico,” said Lopez. “We want to enjoy that victory with everyone.”
For Dipini and many others in the diaspora, Rivera’s release is a central issue to advocate for as a form of resistance to the treatment of Puerto Ricans. “He is a political prisoner is because we’re oppressed people, colonized people,” she said.
Bronx politicians and community organizers were present at the rally. The New York State Assemblyman for the 78th District, Jose Rivera, joined the chants, as did City Council candidate Michael Beltzer, running for the 18th district. The Bronx has the highest Puerto Rican population in New York City at 21.6 percent, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. And in the Bronx, 33 percent of Puerto Rican families live below the federal poverty line.
The island has been awash in difficulty in recent years. Last week, the Fiscal Control Board—a financial oversight body structuring Puerto Rico’s budget—proposed that Puerto Rico slash $300 million from its public university budget. In July 2016, Puerto Rico defaulted on debt, and is constitutionally obligated to pay creditors before it pays state employees, including police. Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Every year, the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization reviews Puerto Rico’s case for self-determination. On June 19, Rivera will come to the United Nations to address the committee. Lopez said she will accompany Rivera for his UN trip.
*Corrections: The story originally confused Iris Colon Dipini with Iris Morales, an activist formerly with the Young Lords. It also incorrectly stated the rally wrapped up with the song “Vamonos Pal Monte.”