It was in Mayagüez, during the celebration of his 87th birthday, when I heard Don Rafael speaking about the Ponce Massacre, which occurred on the 12th of March 1937. He described how his mother’s dress was full of blood, how he heard gunshots, and how his mother and father had protected him. But not once did he say that he had been scared, in spite of all the commotion and the different noises he must have heard. While listening to him, I realized how early in life he had started to accumulate courage.
Just how much courage he started to accumulate at that young age I continued discovering as he spoke of the moment he refused to pledge his allegiance to the flag of the imperialist ogre from the North. He was only seven- years old when he told his teacher that he wasn’t going to salute or pledge allegiance to the flag of the U.S.A. As he related that experience, I realized that from a very early age he had started to walk on the revolutionary path that Don Pedro Albizu Campus had created.
Later in his discourse, he spoke of his refusal to be drafted for military service and used as cannon fodder by the same colonizer and oppressor of Puerto Rico. He was only 19 years old, but the U.S. government decided to send him to Tallahassee federal prison in Florida.
He recounted the story of a guard who had disrespected him, so he punched the guard. For that he was sent to the hole, where conditions were terrible, and the food was worse. But a Puerto Rican prisoner was able to send him a message letting him know that he was going to receive a good meal disguised as the regular junk the prisoners in the hole were receiving. For the duration of the time he was in the hole, that was the good and tasty food he was receiving. Once his sentence was completed, he left behind a group of Puerto Rican prisoners who had become his good friends.
The last part of his discussion concerned the attack on the Congress of the U.S. At age 23, he joined the team that was planning this attack. The team was made up of Lolita Lebrón, who was the leader, Andrés Figueroa Cordero, Irving Flores Rodríguez, and himself. On the 1st of March, 1954, the four entered the Congress, fired their weapons, and the whole world was made aware that Puerto Rico was still under the yoke of U.S. colonialism. Lolita let the world know that “She had gone to Washington not to kill anyone, but to give her life for Puerto Rico.”
It was while listening to tapes of the Five Nationalists who were facing long sentences in U.S. prisons that I became aware of their plight. I was profoundly moved when I heard Lolita say, “I came to Washington not to kill anyone, but to give my life for Puerto Rico.” From that moment on, I started to work on the campaign of the Five. I had just come home from the Vietnam War –after having spent one year and three days there, and had been impacted by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had declared that the war against Vietnam was criminal.
We became increasingly aware of the plight of the 5 because of attorney Michael Deutsch, who, while visiting an African American prisoner in U.S.P. Marion, was told there was a Puerto Rican political prisoner in the penitentiary that he should meet. Michael met Rafael and from that moment on our knowledge grew about Rafael and the plight of the 5. On the 10th of September 1979, Oscar Collazo López, Irvin Flores, Lolita Lebrón, and Rafael were given their unconditional release from prison. It was a glorious day. Little did I know then that I would be sent to the U.S.P. Leavenworth after my arrest in 1981 first, then five years later to U.S.P. Marion – two prisons where Rafael had been incarcerated. What astonished me was discovering how much love and respect the prisoners had for Rafael in those two penitentiaries.
Rafael has been, and will always be, my mentor and best example of what it means to love and fight for the freedom and sovereignty of our homeland. He was the oak and the Albizuista who embodied what is courage, sacrifice, and love. Rafael, you will always be present in my heart, mind, and actions. I hope that all Boricuas who want to see and live in a free and sovereign Puerto Rico emulate his example.
By Oscar López Rivera, Puerto Rican Former-Political Prisoner