Alicia Rodríguez: Ten years of constant challenge
By Perla Franco
February 11, 2010
translated by Jan Susler
“In my interview with Claridad a few weeks after leaving (prison in 1999), I said I preferred shoes suitable to living out in the country over high heels. That was like a sneak peek at what was to come, because I can’t even count how many pairs I’ve used working up here (in Guavate).”
For Alicia Rodríguez, one of the ex Puerto Rican political prisoners released in 1999, the past 10 years have been “a constant challenge.” Instead of returning to Chicago, she preferred to move to Puerto Rico, where she’d never lived before. She’s had so many experiences since then- for purposes of this interview we are separating them into two parts: this time with Alicia, and the next time with her sister, who is also an ex political prisoner, Ida Luz, better known as Lucy.
When they arrived in Puerto Rico, both sisters went to live in an apartment in San Juan. However, given the high cost of housing, in December of 2000, they moved to a small apartment in Guavate. Alicia had a car which, even she admits, “we didn’t know how it worked, and we didn’t check the oil, and I burned up the engine.” They were able to fix the car with money from a previous accident.
In 2001, Alicia converted her bedroom into a pottery studio and moved her futon to the living room. The artisan certificate from Fomento gave her to opportunity to get a kiln, a wheel and clay.
Alicia worked with Remi the Clown (José Vega) the first two years. She met him when he visited her in prison. “He was very patient with me,” admits Alicia. And the most difficult thing of that first job after 19 years in prison, she recalls, was “the language. Speaking and understanding Spanish. Remi understood this and always helped me with the spirit of a brother. Feeling that support in that moment of my life was really important. And something I like about him is the respect he has for his public and for the children. I stopped working with him because we decided on this project, which was to build our house and studio.”
And in 2004, a small vacant structure on a hill in Guavate, near where they were living, became what would soon be the home of Alicia, Lucy, and their mother Josefina, who, since they left prison, spends several months a year with her daughters, especially the frigid winter months in Chicago where she maintains her home.
“In 2004 we started to work on the house, and in 2005, we moved in,” says Alicia.
Enthusiastic with her studio, she moved to another stage, that of working on the building that would become their house, and that of constructing a second floor for their studio. A $15,000 loan, added to the sales price of the house, made it possible to provide the first floor with floor tiles, windows, doors, a kitchen, electricity, and a septic tank, “and my mother bought the refrigerator and the stove she wanted, because that’s her kitchen,” relates Alicia.
The photos she keeps of the original structure that resembled a warehouse, and its surroundings greatly contrast with what it is today. Plants and fruit trees now surround the house, where before there was grayish growth and tuff rock. On the second floor is the studio. To make this transformation happen, Alicia carried cement blocks, sand, stones and cement, pulling a wheelbarrow tied to her waist, up an improvised ramp from the road to the house, where the material couldn’t be brought. She keeps talking while she shows photos of “the brigades” of friends and compañeros who helped her with the construction. “We started to work here. It was May, and it rained for 23 days. So we worked on the land, weeding, cleaning, working with the earth. And that introduction to the earth led me to know the space and make me feel part of it.” Alicia arranged and installed the PVC tubes to bring water to the house, and “when they broke, I would put on a poncho and boots and go out in the rain to fix them.” She also dug ditches to deviate the water away from the structure. One of the earth walls had occasioned a collapse.
Alicia is conscious that “someone with money can build something pretty solid, but with few resources, you have to deal with what there is.” So, she explains, it’s taken several years to finish the house and the studio. But since then, even though there are some problems, she has been producing ceramic pieces, including beautiful sets of dishes. Power outages gravely affect kiln firings. Alicia changed the automatic mechanism to manual “thinking that it was better, and when it kept over firing my pieces, I called Texas (where the manufacturer is) and they told me that I’d simplified it so much that it would never reach the desired temperature.” So she had to repair the kiln on her own. “I remember that (the manufacturer) told me to get a multimeter and check the amps and the voltage, and I said, ‘how do I do that?’ And, like Lucy says, I’ve graduated.”
There is a lot of love in this house, humble but full of color. There is peace. The months her mother spends with her, they try to catch up for lost time. Several dogs and cats also have a space at home. Alicia takes responsibility for almost everything. “Because you can’t call maintenance. You have to look and say ‘who’s going to fix this?’ Well, I am. And if you don’t know how, you call Ramoncito at the hardware store and ask him how you can fix it.”
Alicia admits that “I sleep alone here, with my dogs, when Lucy and Mom aren’t here. I feel well protected in Puerto Rico, but not outside of Puerto Rico.” She has no doubt that her ancestors are present in this Puerto Rican nation and “the ancestors are not forgotten.” She recognizes that because of them, she never felt alone “in those four walls in prison, because I always feel that we are a race worthy of struggle.”
How do you see those years in prison now, from this life so far from that life?
“As an education. It was a time of much challenge, of growth. I don’t see it with bitterness. Sometimes there is pain, difficult moments, though not so much for what I experienced. I remember the faces of the women, mostly from state prison, where I spent 16 and a half years in maximum security.” There, she shared with marginalized, mistreated, discriminated, and raped women, who she never judged, understanding that their conduct, “often perverse,” was the result of those experiences. She describes prison as “institutions of pain,” and in the last 9 years of prison, she was with women who had killed their children. “And I, who had never had children, it was something I had to deal with, to look at them and not judge them. That requires a different perspective than what prevails in society… to get out of that mold, to break the mold.”
Alicia doesn’t deny that “in prison there was torture intended to drive us crazy and really to destroy us. But they didn’t break our human soul, nor the soul connected to a very deep identity. It is not just my identity as a woman, but also the right of a nation to take the concept of freedom to other levels. Puerto Rico has the inherent right to defend national dignity. That’s what our jailers intended to stop with all those years behind bars. It was a constant struggle with those jailers.”
Now she describes herself as “a volcano that is moved and moves,” with “a lot that wants to come out,” but not in a traditional way. Among the things she likes, she says, “I love to draw and paint,” and warns that “you have to be patient…” And she has been achieving that patience, in the process of sowing a seed and harvesting its fruit. A process that compares to human beings. “Often, we don’t want to let the seed germinate little by little. You want to be running, looking outside. But the human being must look within, touch bottom.” Even when you recognize that “I don’t know much about planting seeds, (but) I am trying to understand and enter into that world, because I am the daughter of farmers; I come from the mountains. It’s in our blood.”
In her narrative, she doesn’t forget her still imprisoned compañeros. “Oscar, Berti and Avelino”… “this isn’t a time of desperation for them. One looks and observes as does the farmer. Is a storm coming? Then we prepare for the storm, because the storm passes. You watch and you know when, whether or not the sun comes out, that the seed is in the earth, protected until it can grow, until the right conditions.”