Luis Rosa says it’s the only way to make up for time lost while he was in prison
By Daniel Rivera Vargas / email@example.com
September 23, 2010 6:05 a.m.
Translated by Jan Susler with edits from Luis Rosa
The youngest of the ex-political prisoners, Luis Rosa is a friendly and expressive man.
The father of three children— Luis, Inara Tanairí y Esaí Sebastián, the latter two from his marriage to Magdalena Cortés Acevedo, the sister of another ex-political prisoner Edwin Cortés— is starting to explore the possibility of exporting products to farmers markets in Chicago, where he spent a good part of his life before his arrest in 1980. At 50 years old, he spent 19 years in prison, and is a percussionist and construction worker without any permanent job.
What do you do for a living?
I live in Aguadilla; I’m unemployed; I promote cultural events and work in light construction.
What impacted you most when you came out of prison?
I used to see more countryside, more people proud of working the land, more help in that sector. What impacted me a lot was the amount of cement. I know it’s necessary because it’s related to development, but we lose this sense of culture, that “plantain stain” is a little less of a stain when we’re away from the land. I think that now there’s a resurgence in agriculture. I’m trying to start a project to export agricultural products to Chicago.
How far along is that project?
I’ve already visited a Farmer’s Market in Chicago. I took a suitcase full of avocado and pana (breadfruit). This week I’ll take quenepas, pineapple and bananas. I couldn’t take the corn I’d grown. Man, they fought over the panas. In Chicago they cost $6 or $7 each.
What do you mean about promoting cultural events?
As part of the group “Por la libre,” we organized a festival in Caguas celebrating the 30th anniversary of the group Mapeyé, and then a concert of Batacumbelé in Carolina. And before that, as soon as I came out of prison, we put on a four day long festival, a peace festival in Vieques. We’ve also organized theater and bohemias in this area (Aguadilla, Aguada), along with the exhibit Not Enough Space. We also have something we’re working on presenting soon in Aguada with Sandra Rodríguez that I wrote, “Here’s grandma, with her black rhythm.” It’s in response to the results of the 2002 census. For Chicago, we’ve recruited talent for the Fiesta Boricua there, and a concert were doing for the second year, Navijazz, with talent from here. This year it’s with Luis “Perico” Ortiz. I’m also involved with the struggle for Oscar (López, the only one of the group that’s still in prison). Our priority is to bring Oscar home. Without him, the family isn’t complete. Everything we do is to win his release. Without him, we aren’t completely free.
How’s it gone for you as a percussionist?
I’ve already taped a cd with Tony Rivera and the Orquesta Nacional Mapeyé, and with Los Reyes Cantores de Isabela. Before going to prison, I taped a couple videos for high school, of musicalized poetry that won awards. I’ve also been invited to the stage, especially right after I got out of prison, with Andy Montañez, Roberto Roena, Plena Libre, and several times with Cachete Maldonado.
Don’t you feel discrimination? For example, isn’t it hard to find work after people in the street find out about your past?
No, because before they know who I am, I try to win them over with my work.
It’s been 11 years since your release, after serving 19 years as a political prisoner. What reflections can you share with us?
There’s a saying that time spent is time lost, but I think that now, after all those years in prison, I want to live life to the fullest, appreciating every second of the day. I’ve learned to live life, participating in the struggle for our homeland, the cultural struggle. I think that’s the only way to make up for lost time; well, not to make up for lost time, but to appreciate life.
What was the hardest thing about prison?
I think the hardest thing was being separated from our families. That feeling of ineptitude, of impotence, that when something happens to someone, and we can’t do anything about it. It’s a process of adjustment. Inside prison, there was discrimination because we were political prisoners. There was a process designed to break our spirit. I spent 200 days in solitary, with showers every 14 to 20 days. They transferred me 22 times, to eight different federal and state prisons. There were 28 gangs that controlled the prisons. The jailers tried to put my life at risk, but didn’t count on the prison population’s support and respect for us. But the hardest was being separated from the family. The rest… well, from the beginning, we internalized who we were and what we represented.
What did you represent?
We were Puerto Ricans who wanted to contribute to the struggle for the independence of Puerto Rico. That carries a responsibility to help your fellow man, to stay away from vices such as drugs and other harmful things; and it carries with it a discipline, to study, to exercise. You’re not just an individual; you represent a struggle, a people.
Anything positive about prison?
In prison, there were times I could play music. I’m a percussionist. I play conga, timbales, bongó, drums. We set up cultural centers and orchestras. We celebrated the 5th of May, the Grito de Yara, Grito de Lares (revolutionary dates in Mexico, Cuba and Puerto Rico, respectively). That was very important for our mental health and for peace. We tried to create a neutral space, where the gangs could feel peaceful. We also gave history classes (to other prisoners). It was important to stop the wave of negativity and violence in the prisons. We won the respect of the prison population and our jailers. We didn’t belong to gangs, and we were trying to help. There was even a warden who said, “If I had 100 prisoners like you, this prison would run much better.”
Do you regret the acts they attributed to you in the 70’s?
They charged me with offenses that took place when I was only 14 years old. But we didn’t present a defense, because we didn’t recognize the jurisdiction of the criminal court. It’s not a crime to struggle for independence, and that is recognized by international law.
They say that Lolita Lebrón said that armed struggle was a mistake.
I never heard her say those words. My position is that armed struggle is a tactic that is only used in specific moments, and that colonized peoples shouldn’t discard any method of struggle to achieve freedom. Right now (in Puerto Rico), I don’t think that the process of conscientization in society is at that level. I think that there’s a large sector of the population that has been pacified.
I don’t dismiss armed struggle as an option. (While) personally I’m not on that wavelength, I wouldn’t deny that right for our people. We were inspired by the Nationalists’ actions. When we arrested, here on the Island initially there not unanimous support within the independence movement, for a variety of factors, including issues about armed struggle and that many of us were children of the diaspora. The poem, “Boricua en la Luna” was written for us by don Juan Antonio Corretjer, after he visited us in jail, addressing some of those issues. The “peón de Las Marías” in the poem was the sisters’ father (Alicia and Ida Luz Rodríguez, also ex-political prisoners).
How do you see the independence movement today in Puerto Rico, and what do you think of the Independence Party?
I see the independence movement today as fragmented. The PIP has functioned as an organization that’s given structure to the independence movement, that has helped to educate about independence, but, like every organization, it should renovate itself, and I think that’s in process. I am really optimistic that a new strategy will soon emerge to unite us all. I think we have the answer to many of the problems that exist in Puerto Rico.