Ada Rivera Ruiz and Miguel González Rodríguez
We vigiled with Ada and Miguel in their tiny shack as threats came over the radio of an invasion of Villa Sin Miedo. Each time a warning sounded, the children would line up armed with sticks and stones in defense of their community. Villa Sin Miedo (Town Without Fear) was one of a number of "squatter" or "land rescue" communities in Puerto Rico. Having tried unsuccessfully to gain use of government land actually set aside for housing, but used only for the pasturing of a few cows, families in desperate need of housing had moved in under cover of night. Carrying boards on their backs, they had stealthily built crude houses. Roads were hacked out by hand. In time the community expanded to three hundred families.
Among the organizers and leaders of the community were Miguel González and Ada Rivera. Miguel's father had followed the current trend of leaving the farm to seek a better livelihood in the city. The only work he could find was driving a truck. He served also as a Pentecostal minister. Miguel added his bit to family support by selling newspapers and by shining shoes for the wealthy of the Condado. They were living in the land rescue community of Shanghai.
From correspondence courses in business administration, Miguel turned to social problems. He became acquainted with Concepción de Gracia, president of an independence party. He was inspired by the patriotism of Lolita Lebrón, Oscar Collazo and others, and became aware of his own national identity. He came to understand that Puerto Rico had been colonized by force and not by choice, that American citizenship had been imposed on the Puerto Ricans, and that there was a wide gap between the democracy professed by the United States and the colonial situation.
Miguel took on a variety of construction jobs, and finally worked as a union organizer, attempting to make unions more democratic.
Ada had grown up in the small mountain town of Camerio in relative poverty. Her family of nine subsisted on a federal check accorded her father, who had been wounded in Korea.
Her earliest political awareness came from literature passed out in her school, and from the shock of seeing two Catholic priests expelled from the church because of their social concern. With a scholarship to the University of Puerto Rico she majored in social work. This was during the university uprisings of the 1970s. Students demanding the ousting of the ROTC clashed with the police. One student, Antonio Martínez, was killed. The ROTC program was finally removed from the campus, but was placed in an adjoining area.
United in marriage, Miguel and Ada found themselves unemployed, and, asindependentistas, practically unemployable. Their need for shelter led them to the realization that though the United States Constitution recognized shelter as a human right, this provision had been removed from the Puerto Rican Constitution. It was then that they saw the necessity of providing housing through their own efforts. They were among the first to settle in Villa Sin Miedo.
When the police became aware of the expanding community, harassment began. Miguel told of four thugs entering the community and threatening one of its members with a gun. As another member of the community emerged with a gun, the gunman dropped his. Miguel seized it and fired shots at the fleeing gangster. They learned later that the gang had had a two-hour planning session the night before with an undercover agent. Miguel was accused of wounding one of the thugs and sentenced to two years in prison. Our first meeting with Miguel was at the court trial. With shy reluctance, Ada found herself in the role of the leadership Miguel had held. Despite a strong macho tradition, the community accepted her.
We camped for a month in the community, feeling perfectly safe and secure with our camper doors wide open. The "security guard" rode by periodically on his white horse, and night guards were placed at the entrance to avert further harassment. We were struck by the intensity of the work, as community members put up their shacks of wood and tin, laid water pipes, put up spigots, planted flowers and vegetables, built a schoolhouse for adult classes, and a chapel. And now there was the threat of complete destruction of the community.
Villa Sin Miedo, in its striving for economic independence, had begun to pose a threat to a colonial system requiring complete control over a docile people. Despite vigorous popular support for the community, Governor Romero vetoed a bill to give it title to the land. The members refused to give up the land they felt was rightfully theirs, since they had developed it. The last picture we took was of a man on his knees planting seeds.
We then had to leave because of a reservation to transport our camper to the island of Vieques for the summer. Two days later, came the invasion. Three weeks of training at Culebra Island by U.S. military officers in Vietnam-style tactics had prepared police for the attack. The troops stormed in, five hundred strong, heavily armed, driving out the terrified men, women and children with tear gas, setting fire to their homes and all their possessions, destroying the flourishing gardens. An hour-and-a-half later, nothing remained.
The homeless band straggled into San Juan. A friendly legislator arranged shelter for them on the floor of the Capitol. They were finally rescued by the Episcopal Church, which gave them use of five acres of their land. Tents were provided. Food, clothing and bedding were brought in to an erstwhile self-sufficient people. We visited "tent city" in its early beginnings. It was pathetic to see the few remaining families marking off their tiny allotment of land with bamboo poles, and setting out pots of geraniums for a bit of beauty.
As the tents wore out, they were replaced with wooden 12'x12' cabins, each with a hanging light bulb. When next we camped with them, families were already involved in making clothing, craft products, and fruit ices for sale. Gardens had sprung up. Classes in history and health had begun. Miguel and Ada were working together again in leadership roles. Ada's work was praised in a community news-sheet. "Her work and commitment for and with us have been a struggle shoulder to shoulder. She is an example of the valor of our Puerto Rican women." It compared her with their national heroines—Lolita Lebrón, Blanca Canales, and Adolfina Villanueva, among others.
In time, religious organizations granted the community sufficient funds to but fifty acres in the foothills of El Yunque, the rain forest. [What my mother, Jean, is too modest to tell is that an article of hers read by a German religious group was partially responsible for a majority of that funding—Daniel.] Shacks were knocked down and moved, potted plants transported. A community of about fifty families was miraculously restored.
Illness forced Ada to go to the United States for treatment, and her three children needed psychological treatment for emotional scars from the brutal eviction. Miguel followed her shortly. But the community continues on in confidence that it can overcome its economic problems through its own efforts and hard work.