El Grito de Lares and the Body of Sacrifice

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A packed house celebrated el Grito de Lares on Tuesday, September 23rd, at the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture (NMPRAC, formerly IPRAC) on Division Street in Humboldt Park.  As with every year since the historic uprising against Spanish colonial rule in 1868, Puerto Ricans came together to commemorate the spirit of resistance, but this year in Chicago, 33 people were asked to fast for the day in support of freedom for Oscar López Rivera.  Every seat was filled, as local parents and children, university students, educators and activists listened with close attention to testimonials of collective action, personal sacrifice, healthy sustenance, and political solidarity, as folding chairs shuttled into the room and lined the walls.  Professor José López opened the event and spoke of the profoundly international character of the national struggle for Puerto Rican independence, and its historical linkages to liberation struggles and the abolition of slavery throughout the Caribbean.  It is no accident, he explained, that the Lares flag parallels the Dominican flag, and the Puerto Rican flag parallels the Cuban, as leaders like Ramón Emeterio Betances, Lola Rodríguez de Tió, and Segundo Ruiz Belvis had Dominican and Venezuelan roots, and connections to wider struggles throughout Latin America.

The Network then hosted a panel of former political prisoners of the Puerto Rican independence movement, including Edwin Cortés, Ricardo Jiménez and Luis Rosa, all of whom had served years in federal prison and were granted clemency by President Clinton in 1999.  Jessie Fuentes, Community Liaison of Roberto Clemente Community Academy, moderated the panel and posed questions regarding their struggles and victories while incarcerated, the reaction and aftermath of their release, and the present campaign for the release of Oscar. In particular, Jiménez delivered an impassioned appeal to all those present to take a moment to reflect on the meaning of sacrifice, and to consider all the ways and means to support the campaign in the year to come.

Audience members were then asked to stand if they had spent the day keeping to the biblical Daniel Fast, eating only fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and refraining from consuming any meats, alcohol, sugar, processed foods, and-particularly difficult for Puerto Rican participants-coffee.  “That was the hardest,” said Matt Rodríguez, principal of Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School.  One by one those who had fasted offered testimonials, speaking of how the fast transformed their day, how it started conversations with children and parents, and linking the desire for personal wellness with the desire for the freedom of Oscar.  Participants spoke of a persistent need for more affordable and local fresh fruits and vegetables, and the larger movement to create a Community of Wellness in Humboldt Park, as well as very personal accounts of what it means to discipline the body for a heartfelt cause.  Minister Abel Muhammad, Latino Representative of the Nation of Islam, took part in the fast and expressed his solidarity with the campaign, while joking that Muslims can show you what a real fast is.  Others talked of their memories of Oscar as a builder of local institutions, the history of the hunger strike in Irish political struggle, a vision of the celebration the day Oscar finally comes home to Chicago, and the renewed call to resume the fast for a full 33 days starting in April 2015.