By Cándida Cotto
December 10, 2009
It’s not the same to reflect on one’s incarceration a month after leaving prison after 16 years of imprisonment, as it is to reflect after a decade in freedom.
“It’s hard to get back lost time, especially when it has to do with the family,” is the first reaction of former Puerto Rican political prisoner Alberto Rodríguez, reflecting on these 10 years after his release in 1999. He admits that there are still times when it’s uncomfortable to receive affectionate embraces from people he doesn’t know, and explains that in prison, people don’t embrace each other, as it could be seen as a sign of weakness.
Alberto Rodríguez was one of the 11 Puerto Rican political prisoners released by former president Bill Clinton in 1999. Because of his family, Alberto decided to return to Chicago, where he was born [sic], raised, and learned to be Puerto Rican.
“My experience has been very different from the compañeros who live in Puerto Rico. Here, I’ve had to deal with many different issues like racism, particularly police racism, just as every other Puerto Rican must. It’s also difficult to reconnect with the family after 16 years in prison.”
At times he feels a little like an outsider, listening in family reunions to his brothers and sisters and his children talk about when they were in school, their experience as children, and even stories about what they went through on their way to visit him in prison. But above all, Alberto expresses much gratitude and feeling, recognizing the benefits of having a large family of 14 siblings, three children, and friends who have helped him, emotionally as well as economically.
Outside of his family, his work as a paralegal at the Peoples Law Office has allowed him to maintain contact with the struggle for the defense of civil and human rights. “I do a little of everything. This law office has been key in the struggle for civil rights in Illinois, in police brutality cases, death penalty cases, and prisoner abuse. In Chicago, for almost 30 years the police have used torture to obtain false confessions. The office is a unique institution in the United States. They take cases other lawyers don’t want to touch, like jail suicides, to force the state and federal government to deal with the problem.”
Part of his work is reading letters from prisoners, and responding to their requests, if it’s something that he can do, such as send information. “I like it because every day I do something different, and the attorneys include me in the group discussions about a case, which is part of the process of developing a case. It’s really interesting work. There are some progressive attorneys in the office who have done a lot to help me personally.”
As for his return to the Puerto Rican community in Chicago, things have changed, he says. “There has been progress. The community is no longer as centralized as it was in 83. On the south side, in Humboldt Park, there was a history of struggle against gentrification. Today the community is more dispersed throughout the city, but the sense of community continues, as is seen when there are events in Humboldt Park. Today there is more representation in the political centers of the state and the city; there is more a sense of participation in politics, but at the same time it continues to be an almost invisible community, and they only talk about Puerto Ricans in negative terms. But when this community has to stand up and defend itself, it does so.”
During these ten years, when have you felt you have been able to free yourself from memories about prison, if that’s possible?
“Well, I think that I have always thought that in ten years in prison, one changes, friends change, your family members, your children, everything changes. After 10 years, you start to think more of life in prison than of life outside, and you start to live more the life of a prisoner. When I left prison, I felt a large part of myself inside. Now, since there are still compañeros in prison, and I work in an office that represents Carlos and Oscar, I always hear about their lives, and every day I feel that pain, that imprisonment. I know how it feels to be alone in a cell day after day and eat a sandwich and drink a carton of milk.”
Those sentiments deepen with the posture of the United States government, whose false accusation interfered with Carlos Alberto Torres receiving parole. That conduct, said Alberto, took him by surprise. “Clearly it’s a maneuver. You would think that with (Attorney General) Holder, who supported our release, that they would be more open to the idea of Carlos’ release on parole. I think that there are still great forces in the Obama administration who follow the mentality of repression of the independence movement. Although the movement has changed and taken different routes, they still have this old idea of war against us. It’s so that Puerto Ricans remember who the masters are. It’s taking a stab at the Puerto Rican people, who want Oscar and Carlos Alberto free.”
His experience in the belly of the beast leads him to think that the Obama administration is very timid, considering all the hopes that the African American community, Latinos, and north american people had who voted for him. “Talking with my Mexican and African American neighbors, with the youth, there is still much support for Obama, and lots of hope, but I haven’t seen anything that’s going to be something different.”
During these ten years, Alberto has visiting his homeland several times, and he stays in touch with his compañeros Adolfo Matos, Luis Rosa and Edwin Cortés. The other way of keeping in touch with the island is: “Since I came out of prison and before that, I received Claridad, I waited for it. It is my source of information for knowing what’s happening in Puerto Rico.”