|La Diva Latina
Former Puerto Rican Political Prisoner
A woman who risked her life,
lost her liberty, and gave up her son
for freedom of her country- Puerto Rico.
by La Diva Latina
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I made a call to family on La Isla. The only one I could “trust” to talk about independencia. So I thought. She said she didn’t know much but that I can speak to her husband. I guess the news of the shooting of Filiberto Ojeda Rios was still fresh in her mind and she just didn’t want to talk about it. I explain to her husband that I have to interview Dylcia Pagan- a Puerto Rican political prisoner. Tell me about the independence movement in Puerto Rico. He started out scholarly -and in English. Perfect English with the slightest bit of a stubborn accent that forever mars his American crossover. With a textbook voice-over tone, he describes the Independentistas as a “radical” and violent group.
I interrupt to ask him what they are doing know. His well trained demeanor when talking about anything political is derailed a bit. But he continues. That now it’s different. We have elections. It’s the people who vote on the future of Puerto Rico. I said that if everyone voted for independence would Puerto Rico become independent? He obediently goes back on track to news reporter-like mode, explaining the 3 political parties in Puerto Rico.
Of course, I know this already. I just want to know what to ask Dylcia Pagan. What are the real issues? Now it was my turn to derail. I said, “Why did the FBI kill an innocent 70 year old man right outside his home?!” Maybe I should have rephrased the question. But too late! It was out there.
He reverted back to his language of origin and said in no uncertain terms, in the most intellectual Spanish I have ever heard, that Filiberto Ojeda Rios was a dangerous man who was wanted by the FBI. He was a fugitive, an outlaw. The US government was looking for him and they finally found him. I didn’t want a full blown out political argument that turns out ugly. I laugh nervously and say maybe I shouldn’t even meet with her huh? It might be dangerous.
Too late! He is too far gone as well! He tells me, “You want to know what to ask her? Yo te digo. ¡Me gustaria ser yo quien pudiera hablar con ella! Pregúntale, que si Puerto Rico esta bien ahora como está, ¿por qué cambiar las cosas? Dile que estamos en paz. Dile que si quiere un cambio- que tenemos el systema electoral. El voto es la voz del pueblo y ¡el pueblo ha hablado ya varias veces!”
It’s my turn to mask my inner most thoughts with the appropriate language and I say in my best Spanish I could muster up complete with the inundations of my people on the island that I know so well from spending youthful summer vacations there, “Bueno, vamos a ver. Muchas gracias por toda la información.” And as an obedient Puerto Rican-bred respectful young lady, I say, “Bendicion!” I wait for his blessings before I hang up.
The day of the interview, I head up to Harlem to Columbia University. Walking down Broadway I get flashbacks of my college days, discussing politics over cold raw bagels smothered with even colder cream cheese in the middle of the night. Yeah, why wouldn’t Malcolm X carry a rifle if they were shooting at his house? I can hardly remember the people who became my heroes via those late night revealing conversations. Jose "Cha Cha" Jimenez from the Young Lords, Juan Gonzalez from the Daily News. It was slowly coming back to me as I walked into Barnard Hall, the James Room, at Columbia University. I remembered the poetry too from that time, Pedro Pietri and Miguel Piñero.
When I arrived, Dylcia Pagan was having dinner. At the table was a friend of hers and also an intelligent Latina, Columbia University student. She was the one who wrote the bio on the flyer. ‘Dylcia Pagan was pardoned by President Clinton in 1999 after being in prison for close to 20 years.’ I was sure that there was nothing I could ask that “Ms. Barnard” couldn’t answer for Dylcia herself.
The conversation turned to our Taino heritage because at the table was a fellow Taino. Ms. Barnard was a little baffled. He can’t be Taino. They died. Killed off, enslaved and don’t forget the European diseases. It’s true she’s a self educated empowered Latina college woman. Nonetheless, she skipped over that subject just as quickly as the history books do and on to the next major historical event.
The Spanish American War. Puerto Rico was free for about a week, before the United States snatched it up from Spain. Dylcia Pagan says that that is not exactly true. Of course it is. Ms. Barnard enchantly explains the history and continues to the 1960’s with the exodus from the island of Puerto Rico to the island of Manhattan. Groups such as the Young Lords were formed to combat the injustices the Puerto Ricans were facing. Dylcia interjects that that is not exactly the whole story. Of course it is, Ms. Barnard continued. Dylcia broke in again, “Sweetie, you don’t have to tell me, I was there!”
That’s when I understood my nervousness. I don’t have to read about it in a book. Or online. Or try to figure out the message from poetry. She’s sitting right across the table from me. She lives to tell about it. But then it hit me. I don’t really want to know about it- I want to know about her. The 3 dimensional figure in front of me, not the flat page in a book. I want to know about the woman inside. I resigned my notes and listened to what she was saying.
Dylcia Pagan: the Puerto Rican Political WOMAN. Yes, she’s just like you and I.
In her speech, she talks about how the political struggle won’t work the same with the new internet wave. She thinks that email blasts and the like is a sure failure. That the struggle has to continue at the grassroots level, going by foot, door to door, if you have to. She ends the speech asking if the audience is interested in hearing one of her poems. The crowd enthusiastically accepts. She reads 2 poems. One poem is very sensual. The other poem is about a bird flying. Then she opens up to questions and says, “Don’t worry. If it’s an FBI question, I’ll just decline to answer!”
The first question was about her life in prison and how she has re-adjusted. She says, “What can I say about prison? Heck it was prison! So it was hell! Not something you really want to talk about.
After a few more questions, she bids goodbye to the future leaders of America. There are a few that buzz around her with their final comments. She finally turns to me and says, “I’m getting some wine, want to join us?” She turns to Ms. Barnard and to el Taino as well. El Taino says of course. Ms. Barnard is tired and was going to get her much needed sleep. I looked at her like –why is youth wasted on the young? I convinced her to join us.
Dylcia was going to take a cab but I had my car. We head further Uptown. I hadn’t been up to Harlem in a while and I am amazed by all the changes. Large bright lights shining out of Pathmark. Large clothing stores like H&M and Old Navy. And don’t forget Starbucks. Dylcia is lamenting about the gentrification and the lack of bodegas and family owned businesses. I forgot my “reporter-like” role and I am now my regular devil’s advocate, and I say, “¿De qué hablan? ¿Ustedes no quieren progreso? Esto se llama progreso. ¡Mira ahí! Una tiendita. Una bodeguita queda. Ojalá ya pronto lo conviertien en un Rite-Aid o algo.” Dylcia cut her eyes at me.
That was brave of me because I had witnessed her cut someone up when she was talking about the African American struggle. She said, “That‘s another story for another day. I used to say to my sisters in prison. ‘You think slavery is over? It’s not. Look around you! This is f@#$% slavery! Look how many of our sisters there are here. I don’t give a f!@# that there no chains around your ankles. You b!@#$% are chained up in here and in your mind too.’ You know that’s just a story for another day. I have so much to say about that.”
She is tough as nails, opinionated, a little rough around the edges. But she’s also intelligent and well spoken. She will cut you up in a minute but she’s also a caring and loving Mom. She talked about her son quite often. “When I get to the house, I’ll show you a picture of my son. Very handsome man, oh yes he is!” She is typically Latina. Warm, friendly, funny. Very giving, very open and very artistically creative. She writes poetry and loves sharing her poetry. She makes beautiful colorful masks out of igueras. She has produced a few movies. And she is working on a book. She is a multi-layered, dynamic woman.
The home where she was staying was a typical Nuyorican Columbia University radical student’s home. Books lined the wall on a self-made shelf. I grab Martin Espada and say, “I remember him – la bodega sold dreams. Ms. Barnard emphatically corrects me, “That would be Miguel Pinero.” Dylcia puts on her favorite Salsa cd as me and Ms. Barnard start browsing through the cd titles.
Dylcia remembers about her son again. “Let me show you my son!” She turns on her laptop. “You know I just saw him a few weeks ago.” I ask, “Does he have a Mexican accent? You know ‘órale!’?” She smiles. “Well, you know his parents are Mexican and I am indebted to them for taking care of my son. Yeah, I guess he does have that accent.” She smiles a sweet motherly smile. She shows us pictures of her son at a party at her house in Puerto Rico. “Dlycia, do you think you’ll ever move back to New York? “I have an opportunity to move to New York but I don’t know….” She stares deeply into those pictures of her balcón in Puerto Rico. “Look at my casita. I can’t have that here. It’s just so beautiful there. How can I leave it?”
Yeah Dylcia, how can you? How can we, any of us, leave that behind? Physically, figuratively. The struggle is still there mi gente. Let’s not leave it behind!