[In my desire to cover as many points of view as possible, I asked Professor Richard Levins to write of his own activities in the cause of Puerto Rican independence. Dr. Levins teaches at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Department. —J.W.Z].
A Permanent and Personal Commitment
by Dr. Richard Levins
In the summer of 1949 I met Rosario Morales. Our courtship was also my introduction to the South Bronx and to Puerto Rico. I frequented the mavi stand near the 163rd street elevated station and learned to fry tostones. I started to learn Spanish from a few pamphlets about El Grito de Lares [the rebellion of 1868 against Spain] and the sugar strike of the 1940s.
We were both communists. She was a recent recruit, attracted by the scientific philosophy as much as by the struggle against injustice. From her father she had acquired a pro-union stance and some knowledge of U.S. imperialism in Latin America. One uncle, a Popular Democrat, assured me that Muñoz Marín was really a communist deep down inside but the Americans wouldn't let him do anything. I was third generation Red. My grandmother had become a socialist in the Ukraine before immigrating to the United States and had been active in organizing the unemployed women's councils and the garment district strike in New York in the 1930s. My father had been a founding member of the Young Communist League in 1919. I grew up in a home where political ideas were part of everyday conversation and somebody was always involved in anti-fascist, anti-racist and pro- labor activities, and it was taken for granted that understanding the world was interesting because we were out to change it. May Day was my big holiday; I always took off from school to march with the Women's Councils or the John Reed Club. And as a child I grew up with the knowledge that I would be a scientist and a revolutionary. So I was ready on general principles to support the Puerto Rican struggle for independence before I met Puerto Rico.
We arrived in Puerto Rico in 1951. For me it was a chance to see Rosario's country, for her a chance to get reacquainted with her parents' homeland that she had only visited twice. For both of us, it was to be an interlude while we decided what to do next while waiting for the growing repression and the Korean war to disrupt our lives one way or another. It was also my first encounter with the tropics. I fell in love with the landscapes of lush forest and seaside deserts, the odd karst hills, the peculiar leathery plants on the serpentine soils of Maricao and the cattle egrets nesting in the mangroves. The encroachments of U.S. commercialism and the poverty of the people seemed all the more outrageous against these backgrounds.
It was only some eight months after the Nationalist Revolt of October 30, 1950. Repression was heavy in Puerto Rico. Many were still in jail for participating, or being thought to have wanted to participate, or as in one case, because of an expression of pride that Puerto Ricans were fighting back, or because they flew the Puerto Rican flag. While some of Rosario's relatives welcomed us, others were afraid of associating with "subversives." They did not divide along political lines. One near-falangist cousin kept us informed of police interest in us. I was looking for work at agricultural experiment stations or university branches. But a casual acquaintance, who identified herself as part of a Nationalist Party cell among government employees, told me that the FBI had gotten to my prospective employers before I did, so that jobs were unlikely.
Meanwhile I sought out the Communist Party of Puerto Rico. It wasn't easy—the Party was small, fear was widespread, and an unknown American asking people if they knew how to reach the CP or where to get the communist paper was often regarded with suspicion. I had obtained a few names and addresses from the U.S. Communist Party, but the people were either not available, or the addresses or the politics were obsolete. Finally I met Leonard Schlaefer who whispered in response to my inquiry about the newspaper Pueblo, "Hush, we'll talk later." He took us to the house on Lutz Street where the Puerto Rican flag hung from a large tree.
Here we met Mary (Maga) and her daughter, Jane Speed, and César Andreu Iglesias. The Speeds were Alabama gentry. Maga had become radicalized by the state government's repression of the Tenant Farmers' Union and by the Scottsboro frame-up in which a group of young black men had been accused of raping two white women.
While attending a communist training school she met César and moved to Puerto Rico. It is part of the pride of communists that as internationalists we can move anywhere in the world, orient ourselves politically, and join in what we see as part of one world-wide struggle for a new society.
With her flaming red hair and Alabama accent in her fluent Spanish she was soon a familiar sight in Puerto Rico. Within the Party she was always outspoken, opposing almost alone the wartime dissolution of the Party while César was away in the army. She expressed the first warnings that Muñoz Marín would strike back from the threshold of greatness in the tradition of the Latin American liberators to become merely the colony's most successful politician.
Her mother never learned Spanish nor joined in active political work in Puerto Rico. But it was she who sewed by hand the Puerto Rican flag that flew over Calle Lutz before such flags were safe, respectable and commercially manufactured. We still have that flag. Later, during the arrests of 1954, Maga and her three-year-old grandson blocked the police from searching the house and finding the now fugitive César.
The Speeds and César became close friends of ours. It was Jane's warning that we probably would not be able to find work and that the Party could certainly not hire us. That led us to buy a piece of an abandoned coffee plantation in the mountains of Barrio Indiera Baja, Maricao, and start vegetable farming.
César was a born dramatist, and I would spend hours listening to his accounts of Puerto Rican history, filled with voices and gestures that turned him into whatever orator or politician he was quoting. Even years later I sometimes forget, as I recite Albizu's speeches to my children and friends, that I was never there. I had heard it all from César as we sipped rum on some Santurce evening when the incessant rains in Maricao kept us from farming. Rather than go bats in our shuttered house we would leap into the truck and rush to the capital in time for tea or a drink. César more than anyone helped me turn my abstract anti-imperialism into a rooted identification with the Puerto Rican revolution.
The Puerto Rican Communist Party had always been a small organization. At its greatest it had a few hundred members, at least on paper, and at the time of our participation we numbered about fifty.
But it was the CP which urged through all the complexities of Puerto Rican politics that the struggles for national independence and social emancipation must develop together. Communists and Nationalists interacted in complex ways. We were on the same side in the struggle against imperialism. But whereas Nationalists saw that cause as above class divisions, we saw it as part of an international class struggle. Whereas for Nationalists the exploitation of Puerto Rican labor by U.S. corporations was one in a long list of colonialist abuses, we saw it as central, not because it was the only or most painful abuse but because it was the reason for the colonization and continued domination. Nationalists saw economic struggles as somehow less dignified than national ones. Where nationalism looked for support to other hispanic peoples, we looked to the international working class.
We were uneasy about Nationalist heroes such as José de Diego who wrote moving patriotic poetry but was a conservative who voted in the Senate against university scholarships and was the lawyer for the South Puerto Rico Sugar Company. Communists were turned off by the conservative Catholicism of many Nationalists, by their idealization of Spanish times, and by their emphasis on heroic acts. We thought these might evoke admiration but not active mass emulation, and might provoke a lot of repression.
We supported the Second World War as an anti-fascist struggle while Nationalists went to prison for refusing induction. But we were harassed by the same enemy, exposed the same imperialism, denounced the same opportunists, met uneasily on national holidays in the same cemeteries while the FBI photographed us both. We went to the same prisons during the same "arrest the usual suspects" roundups. We admired each others' steadfastness in a colony where we were both surrounded by opportunism and corruption. And we tacitly joined in an implicit compact never to denounce, for the gratification of our enemies, any of the ways in which any of us carried on the struggle.
During the Maricao years I was the Party's coffee region organizer. I naturally sought out the local Nationalist leader. But when we met he told me, "Here we can do nothing. This is a poor region, and people think only of their bellies." My own activity focused on organizing a coffee workers' pre-union movement to raise the wages above the prevailing $1.44 per day if it didn't rain (and in coffee country it rained!) We briefly published a local newspaper, Tribuna Campesina, on a gelatin hectograph that became moldy in the rainy season and was replaced by a cranky mimeograph that the police confiscated in frustration when their raid turned up no arms. Together with the local agricultural vocational teacher, Gregorio Plá, I organized a cooperative to process and market bananas, citrus and coffee. Rosario worked with the women's club of the Agricultural Extension Service. We agreed that the most important thing for the women of the barrio at that point was that they get out of their homes, meet together and get organizational experience. And of course we propagandized in the barrio for independence and socialism.
In 1953 a long bout of illness stopped me from farming. While hospitalized at Castañer I met the pacifists who worked there and soon afterward joined the hospital as a lab technician. Rosario and I worked with the pacifists in the Fellowship of Reconciliation. They were mostly North Americans, some of them conscientious objectors doing alternative service in Puerto Rico. Although they shared our anti-militarism, they were timid about criticizing the United States military presence in Puerto Rico for fear of being seen as pro-independence. Yet the association was a good one for us. We learned to appreciate pacifist commitment, abandoned the facile stereotypes of pacifism in popular thought which confuse pacifism with passivity, learned from their concept of witness the potential power of taking a stand even without a mass following. This notion of witness also provided one of the points of contact between North American pacifists and Puerto Rican nationalists, who often saw their dramatic actions as militarily futile but politically necessary acts of witness to keep the flame alive. We were impressed by the fact that outwardly our pacifist friends were both firm and gentle, and militant without hating their enemies. We trusted them enough to arrange to leave our children in care of a pacifist family if we were both imprisoned at the same time.
We went back to school in New York in 1956 and returned to Puerto Rico four years later. Much had changed. Jane had died. César had returned to San Juan after living on our farm for several years and winning recognition as a writer. The oppression had eased up enough so that I had even been offered a job at the School of Tropical Medicine by an interviewer who said that the FBI had warned them about me, and while they would really prefer a 100% White Christian American a good geneticist would do.
The lethargy of the late fifties gave way to a new excitement. New organizations arose to find new ways of struggle, new ways of posing the problems of how to relate social and national struggles; new ways of combining legal and extra-legal forms of action. César joined with Lorenzo Piñero, of Nationalist background, Juan Mari Brás and other veteran fighters along with the student movement to form the MPI (Movimiento Pro-Independencia, later to become the Partido Socialista Puertorriqueño). Juan Antonio Corretjer, who had passed through both the CP and the Nationalist parties worked with Acción Patriótica Unitaria, from which he later organized the Liga Socialista. Cuba had taught us that a Latin American country could win against the U.S., and there was a sudden interest in Marxism. Whereas previously we were ignored, now young people tracked down any rumor of a Marxist around to demand seminars.
I joined the University of Puerto Rico faculty as an ecologist with a new concern about the destruction of the environment in the colony. The contamination was hard to miss: on days when the winds shifted to the southeast the fumes of the petrochemical complex at Guayanilla rose to the crest of the cordillera where we still lived on the farm. The enterprises have since shut down. Having extracted their profits while they could, they left behind a polluted landscape and a dislocated economy. My new awareness added energy to my political commitment and helped me bring my political and scientific lives closer together. I concentrated my political work on Marxist education mostly with FUPI (Federación Universitaria Pro Independencia) both in Río Piedras and Mayagüez and in the MPI where César had recruited me as Assistant Secretary of Political Education.
By 1965 the opposition to the Vietnam war was growing, and along with a committee of professors against the war I helped organize the teach-in at the University of Puerto Rico. The press was strident in its opposition to the teach-in. Since it had been forbidden by the University administration, we set up our loudspeakers at the campus fence and spoke from a ladder leaning against the wall while the audience, press, and police listened both on and off campus. That week Rosario went into labor with our youngest son, so I stayed in the mountains and came into Río Piedras for a few hours only, for the teach-in itself. My sudden appearance and disappearance added an exotic flavor of mystery and conspiracy to the event.
The ladder we spoke from provided the name for the journal, La Escalera, edited by Georg Fromm, Gervasio García, and Samuel Aponte. La Escalera became the major vehicle for the introduction of a flexible Marxism to the independence movement. In my essay From Rebel to Revolutionary I argued for a coherent view of society as a whole, for looking at the roots of our colonial problems rather than settling for the traditional collection of atropellos, a catalog of outrages and abuses. I urged that while la patria may be valor y sacrificio, it also required good aim. Other articles dealt with the Vietnam war, draft resistance, forms of political action, labor movement issues, the need for an ecological outlook, and literary criticism. The cover was often done by Lorenzo Homar and other leading artists. We were linked to but not formally part of the MPI and FUPI, allowing us both the rich contact with the political movement in which most of us were directly involved and also the freedom to innovate without having to represent the consensus of an organization.
During all the years of participation in the struggle for independence I had very few personal encounters with anti-(North) Americanism. Independentistas had become quite sophisticated in seeing their enemy not as "Americans" but as U.S. imperialism. Paradoxically, personal anti- Americanism was more likely to be expressed by supporters of the regime whose national feelings were suppressed in their political lives by personal or class interest and therefore came out in more individual ways.
The University administration and the political police disapproved of my activities. When I came up for tenure in 1966, a press campaign led by an FBI-connected journalist urged my dismissal. I was refused reappointment on the grounds of my supposed incompetence. This forced me to emigrate again to find work, first at the University of Chicago and then at Harvard. Therefore in 1967 I left Puerto Rico, but not the struggle for independence and socialism. What had begun as a political obligation stemming from a general world view had turned into a permanent and deeply felt personal commitment.
During the political upsurges of the late sixties I was able to continue active participation in the MPI (later PSP). I also taught Puerto Rican history for the Young Lords in Chicago. Later I joined the Puerto Rico Solidarity Committee which was active in the campaign to free the Nationalist prisoners, and now publishes Puerto Rico Libre and presents a North American anti- colonial view at the United Nations Commission on Decolonization.
It is already four generations since the U.S. conquest, and who knows how many more before the Dorado Beach Hotel becomes a home for disabled workers, the delicate roots of fruit trees and pasture plants reach out to bind the wounds of the traumatized soils of Vieques, and the Socialist Republic of Puerto Rico realizes the dream of Betances and Martí and forms part of a Caribbean Federation.