By Xavier "Xavi"Luis Burgos on Gozamos.com April 1, 2010
Passing Western Avenue and entering through a
humongous steel Puerto Rican flag, marking the
entrance to Paseo Boricua and Humboldt Park, what
one sees is totally dependent on who you are talking to.
Some see a ghetto. Others see a strong community.
And there are those who listen to their iPods and
stay clueless. What I guarantee most do not
expect to find as they pass old men wearing well
pressed guayaberas, is a window-front prison cell with volunteer prisoners.
In 2006, http://boricuahumanrights.org/National
Boricua Human Rights Network (NBHRN) thought of
an idea to bring the issue of the Puerto Rican
Political Prisoners to the forefront of the
community’s and city’s consciousness. The
organization, which focuses on issues on human
rights in the Puerto Rican community in the U.S.
and on the island, decided on a new type of
performance art that would engage residents,
activists, and of course the federal government.
At that time one of the two political prisoners,
Oscar López Rivera, was completing 25 years in
jail. So, NBHRN built a mock cell at the
window-front of the Café Teatro Batey Urbano
youth space, exactly 6 feet by 9 feet, with
prison bars, a bed, and a toilet. For 25 days
straight a volunteer stayed imprisoned for 24
hours with only books, paper, and pen to pass the
time. The event even reached the pages of the Chicago Tribune.
“The response was overwhelming,” says NBHRN
National Coordinator Michelle Morales, 34. “From
the media [to the] community and it was positive!
We decided to revisit it this year for the 30
years of incarceration of [political prisoner]
Carlos Alberto Torres.” Now, four years later as
one walks down Division Street, white-shirt
prisoners can be viewed again imprisoned behind glass.
On one of my visits to the cell, I met a young
woman sitting solemnly on the bed who was very
much proud of her contribution. When first
hearing about the prison cell project, Julia
Montañez, 17, thought “I wish I could do that. I
want to be part of this movement to free the
political prisoners.” When asked what her family
thinks about her doing this, she said “They
support this and visited me. They support the
movement also. We’re a very politically aware family.”
Although all this began in Chicago, it is
spreading throughout the country. “I’ve been
involved [in NBHRN] for 8 years and this is the
first time I see the campaign in an upswing.
We’ve developed new chapters in Detroit, New York
City, and New England,” says Morales. New York
City is also conducting a similar prison cell
project in the El Barrio/East Harlem community.
On April 3 the last volunteer prisoner will be
released from the mock cell and a large event is
planned for this. That date was chosen because it
marks the 30th anniversary of the capture of
Alberto Torres alongside 10 other political
prisoners. After decades of activism and a
swelling movement, all were released by
presidential clemency in 1999 except López Rivera
and Haydee Beltrán (who was released last year).
It is also the birthday of the last volunteer
prisoner, who at one time was a real political prisoner in federal prisons.
Ricardo Jiménez, 53, was 23-years-old when he was
captured by the police in Evanston, Illinois in
1980. “Based on international law colonialism is
a crime against humanity. We were part of a
national liberation struggle for Puerto Rico,”
says Jiménez in a strong tone, stating what was
his crime. The 11 who were captured in 1980 were
sentenced with a peculiar crime called seditious
conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government.
Though, they were not charged with any particular
violent crime. For this, the group received
sentences ranging from 55-105 years. Jiménez was sentenced to 98 years.
Now Jiménez spends his time ensuring that his two
imprisoned compañeros get released just as he
was. “We must bring them home,” he says with
determination. He recently traveled through the
East Coast with the NBHRN sponsored play “Crime
Against Humanity,” visiting the multiple NBHRN
chapters, speaking at community centers and
universities. The play, which offers first hand
accounts of the suffering the political prisoners
experienced while in incarcerated, is co-authored
by former political prisoner, Luis Rosa, who will
be attending the April 3 event.
When asked what she would say to Oscar López
Rivera and Carlos Alberto Torres if they were
released, Julia Montañez paused and thought
carefully for a moment, and with a smile uttered, “I’d say, ‘We did it!’”
*If you’d like to see the cell project and its
volunteer prisoners for yourself, it is located
at the Café Teatro Batey Urbano, 2620 W. Division
St (by Rockwell St.). The culminating event will
be at the same location on April 3 from 6-9 PM.