by Karina Valentín López
My name is Karina Valentín López. I was born on May 1, 1991, and I am the granddaughter of political prisoner Oscar López Rivera and former political prisoner Carmen Valentín. Since I was a month old my parents would take me to visit my respective grandparents in prison. My paternal grandmother, Carmen Valentín, was in the women’s prison in Dublin, California. The visits there took place in the afternoons and when I’d get to the visiting room my grandmother Carmen was already waiting for me.
This visiting room was different from my grandfather Oscar’s. In Dublin, I could visit my grandmother and go outside to a patio where we could play. The patio was one of my favorite places because I was able to spend time with my grandmother Carmen and play on the swings. Although it was pleasant it wasn’t ideal because when the visit was over, I had to leave my grandmother behind; it was very hard for me to walk to the exit door with my father, and let go of my grandmother’s hand before the guard scolded us.
During the first years that I visited my maternal grandfather, it was in the federal prison in Marion, Illinois. Only two adults and three children were permitted there. My mother told me she was allowed to bring in three pampers and twelve bottles of milk. Marion was a Control Unit, and we could only see Abuelo Oscar, we could NOT touch him, nor he touch us. For many years a window separated us. I used to put my hands on it and try and play with my grandfather in some way. There were no patio or swings in Marion, and the guards were hostile. Four or five guards escorted Abuelo Oscar. He was the only prisoner that was always brought out in this way. Then Abuelo Oscar was transferred to the prison in Florence, Colorado. The visiting room there was underground. While entering we passed three different checkpoints and we noticed, on the way, that we were going towards the basement.
The room was cream-colored, and my grandfather’s clothes were the same color. I don’t have photos of my grandfather from Marion or Florence. Photos weren’t permitted. So our first photo was in 1998 when he was transferred to Terre Haute, Indiana, after twelve years in prisons with no contact visits. It was there that we hugged for the first time. When my grandfather stood in front of us, everyone hugged him but me. I wasn’t accustomed, because during the past seven years touching him wasn’t permitted, and so I did the only thing I was used to: I put my hands in front of him like I always did in front of the window that separated us. It was my mother who told me that now I could touch him, and I hugged him. Although we could have physical contact with him at this prison, hugging was only permitted when you arrived and when you left.
To visit Terre Haute, you have to pass a drug detector called the ion scan. The problem is that although I am only 14 years old and have never been in contact with drugs or alcohol. The machine said I tested positive two times, and my visits with my grandfather were denied. For them, a drug can cat hair or medicine you are taking for an illness. The guards themselves acknowledge that the machine picks up whatever is on clothing and that there is a high incidence of potential positive results for people who stay in hotels or who rent cars. Unfortunately, I always go in rented cars, and we often stay in hotels. Now, in Puerto Rico, I take my clothes to a dry cleaner and I keep them in plastic until I’m going to use them. I bring sheets and towels and bills exactly as given at the bank. We don’t touch anything until the visit.
At the Terre Haute prison visits, they always seat us in the same area in front of the guards’ desk and in direct sight of all the video cameras in the room. My favorite game is UNO, so each time I go, I teach him how to play. We try not to laugh so they won’t punish Abuelo, but sometimes we can’t resist. While I’m with him I try to make the four hours with me marvelous.
Presently Abuelo Oscar calls us every week, and I try to communicate with him frequently by writing. I visit him a few times a year and anxiously wait for his freedom so that he can travel and enjoy so many things that we’ve been denied.
I feel very special because two of my grandparents have dedicated their lives to my country. Although this is something very special, at the same time, it has caused us a lot of sorrow and suffering. Our family’s sacrifices have been enormous, but there are no regrets because they have been for a just cause.