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Holyoke fetes recently freed Puerto Rican activist Lopez Rivera

  • Oscar Lopez Rivera, controversial activist for Puerto Rican independence, center, is honored with a gift from José Bou, owner of Salsarengue Restaurant and Bar, right, during a June 22, 2017 Holyoke neighborhood celebration in honor of Lopez Rivera. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Top left, Oscar Lopez Rivera, an activist for Puerto Rican independence who was freed this January after 35 years in prison, speaks Thursday during a Holyoke neighborhood celebration in his honor. Above, Carmen Ocasio of Holyoke, president of the South Holyoke Neighborhood Association, waves the Puerto Rican flag during the event. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Gladys Lebron-Martinez, Holyoke Ward 1 Councilor, speaks June 22, 2017 during a Holyoke neighborhood celebration in honor of Oscar Lopez Rivera, a controversial activist for Puerto Rican independence. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Nelson Roman, Holyoke Ward 2 Councilor, speaks June 22, 2017 during a Holyoke neighborhood celebration in honor of Oscar Lopez Rivera, a controversial activist for Puerto Rican independence. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Jossie Valentin, Holyoke Ward 4 Councilor, speaks June 22, 2017 during a Holyoke neighborhood celebration in honor of Oscar Lopez Rivera, at left, a controversial activist for Puerto Rican independence. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Oscar Lopez Rivera, a controversial activist for Puerto Rican independence, center, stands for a photo with Fernando Flores of Holyoke June 22, 2017 during a Holyoke neighborhood celebration in Lopez Rivera's honor. Holyoke Ward 2 Councilor Nelson Roman looks on, at left. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Oscar Lopez Rivera, controversial activist for Puerto Rican independence, speaks June 22, 2017 during a Holyoke neighborhood celebration in his honor. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Oscar Lopez Rivera, controversial activist for Puerto Rican independence, center, stands for a photo with Ruben Palacio and Nathalie Vicencio of South Hadley and their children Mauricio Palacio, 10, left, Gaia Palacio, 4, not pictured, and Luna Palacio, 3, far right, during a June 22, 2017 Holyoke neighborhood celebration in honor of Lopez Rivera. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Oscar Lopez Rivera, controversial activist for Puerto Rican independence, center, looks on as Holyoke Ward 1 Councilor Gladys Lebron-Martinez speaks June 22, 2017 during a Holyoke neighborhood celebration in his honor. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Holyoke Ward 2 Councilor Nelson Roman speaks June 22, 2017 during a Holyoke neighborhood celebration in honor of Oscar Lopez Rivera, to his left, a controversial activist for Puerto Rican independence. Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse looks on, at Roman's right. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Oscar Lopez Rivera, a controversial activist for Puerto Rican independence, center, greets guests June 22, 2017 during a Holyoke neighborhood celebration in his honor. Holyoke Ward 2 Councilor Nelson Roman looks on, at left. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Oscar Lopez Rivera, controversial activist for Puerto Rican independence, center, is honored along with Manuel Frau-Ramos, founder of bilingual newspaper El Sol Latino, left, and José Bou, owner of Salsarengue Restaurant and Bar, during a June 22, 2017 Holyoke neighborhood celebration in honor of Lopez Rivera. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Oscar Lopez Rivera, controversial activist for Puerto Rican independence, speaks June 22, 2017 during a Holyoke neighborhood celebration in his honor. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Oscar Lopez Rivera, a controversial activist for Puerto Rican independence, speaks June 22, 2017 during a Holyoke neighborhood celebration in his honor. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Oscar Lopez Rivera, a controversial activist for Puerto Rican independence, center, is welcomed to speak by Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, left, and Holyoke Ward 2 Councilor Nelson Roman, right, during a Holyoke neighborhood celebration June 22, 2017 in honor of Lopez Rivera. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Brendaliz Cepeda of Bomba de Aqui, center, dances June 22, 2017 during a Holyoke neighborhood celebration in honor of Oscar Lopez Rivera, a controversial activist for Puerto Rican independence. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A man waves a Puerto Rican flag June 22, 2017 during a Holyoke neighborhood celebration in honor of Oscar Lopez Rivera, a controversial activist for Puerto Rican independence. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Oscar Lopez Rivera, controversial activist for Puerto Rican independence, center, is presented with a framed collection of photos depicting important moments in Holyoke's Puerto Rican history by Maria Salgado-Cartagena of Hampshire College during June 22, 2017 Holyoke neighborhood celebration in his honor. Holyoke Ward 2 Councilor Nelson Roman, left, and Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, right, look on. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Oscar Lopez Rivera, controversial activist for Puerto Rican independence, center, is honored by Holyoke Ward 2 Councilor Nelson Roman, along with Manuel Frau-Ramos, founder of bilingual newspaper El Sol Latino, left, and José Bou, owner of Salsarengue Restaurant and Bar, right, during a June 22, 2017 Holyoke neighborhood celebration in honor of Lopez Rivera. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A man holds a painting of Oscar Lopez Rivera during a Holyoke neighborhood celebration Thursday. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY



@dustyc123
Friday, June 23, 2017

HOLYOKE — It was with music, chants of “freedom” and fists raised high in the air that Holyoke welcomed the controversial, long-jailed Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar Lopez Rivera on Thursday.

Lopez Rivera, 74, is known for his role as a leader of the pro-independence Armed Forces of National Liberation, or FALN, a clandestine Marxist-Leninist organization that committed more than 100 bomb attacks on U.S. buildings in the 1970s and ’80s, including an unsolved bombing at New York’s Fraunces Tavern in 1975 that killed four and injured more than 60.

A Vietnam War veteran who spent his youth in Chicago, Lopez Rivera was never charged with setting bombs. He was convicted in 1981, however, on charges including the transportation of explosives with intent to kill, injure and destroy government property, and seditious conspiracy to overthrow by force the U.S. government in Puerto Rico. He was sentenced to 55 years in federal prison, with an additional 15 years tacked on in 1988 for planning an escape from Leavenworth prison.

President Bill Clinton commuted Lopez Rivera’s sentence in 1999, but Lopez Rivera refused the commutation because two of his co-defendants remained imprisoned. In January, President Obama again commuted Lopez Rivera’s sentence after he had served 35 years in prison, 12 of which were spent in solitary confinement.

Mixed reception

Following his release, many Puerto Ricans — both on the U.S. commonwealth and across the diaspora — have greeted Lopez Rivera as a hero of an anti-colonial struggle.

Others look on his political militancy less favorably, labeling him a terrorist. At this year’s Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City, several prominent officials and corporate sponsors pulled out of the event after organizers announced Lopez Rivera would be the parade’s first “National Freedom Hero.”

The crowd gathered at Carlos Vega Park on Thursday was full of enthusiastic community members, however, including the mayor, several city councilors and a large contingent of students from the city’s elementary schools. More than 44 percent of Holyoke residents identified as Puerto Rican in the 2010 census — the largest percentage of Puerto Ricans in any U.S. city not on the island.

“I haven’t seen this community this mobilized in some 20 years,” said Maria Salgado-Cartagena, a Holyoke resident, community historian and a program coordinator at Hampshire College’s Community Partnerships for Social Change program.

Like many of the day’s speakers and spectators, Salgado-Cartagena said the event was in part about introducing young people to the history of Puerto Rico’s struggle for independence.

“The diaspora here in Holyoke need to educate our children,” she said. “So they can feel pride, so that they can feel a sense of belonging.

“This guy is the Nelson Mandela of the Caribbean,” Manes Pierre, an ethnic studies teacher at the Dr. Marcella R. Kelly School in Holyoke, said while keeping an eye on the students he brought with him. “The kids are super excited to connect with their ethnicity, with their history.”

Uncertain future

Last spring, the Holyoke City Council unanimously passed a resolution calling on Obama to pardon and free Lopez Rivera. City councilors played a large role in Thursday’s event, with Ward 2 Councilor Nelson Roman serving as master of ceremonies.

“The diaspora here is going to be a huge part in the future of Puerto Rico,” Roman told the Gazette, describing Lopez Rivera as a “guiding star” showing Holyoke’s young people that even though they weren’t born on the island, it needs their help.

That future is full of uncertainties. The commonwealth is saddled with around $123 billion in debt and pension obligations, has been put under the control of a financial oversight board, will shut down 184 public schools because of economic hardship and has become the first U.S. state or territory to essentially declare bankruptcy under a new federal law, called Promesa.

All those difficulties were the backdrop to a controversial referendum earlier this month on the island’s political future. Some 97 percent of those who voted said they want to become America’s 51st state, although turnout was low, with 23 percent voting in the expensive referendum after opposition parties called for a boycott.

One of the organizers for Holyoke’s event — 28-year-old Juan Sanchez of the community development organization Nueva Esperanza — said he himself favors independence, though he said the city’s Puerto Rican community was divided on the issue.

Independence was in the air on Thursday, however, with calls of “freedom” rising up from the park as the afternoon carried on.

‘Freedom fighters’

Roman, the city councilor, honored Lopez Rivera with a key to the city, praising him together with two prominent community members — Jose Bou, owner of Salsarengue Restaurant and Bar, and Manuel Frau-Ramos, founder and editor of the bilingual local newspaper El Sol Latino.

“These three men are our freedom fighters,” Roman said before introducing Lopez Rivera to chants of “Oscar! Oscar!”

“With a heart full of gratitude and also full of humbleness, I thank every single one of you,” Lopez Rivera began his speech, much of which was directed at the youth in the audience.

“Every day, fill your hearts with love and compassion,” he said. “You will never allow, you will never allow, your hearts to be poisoned by hatred and fear.”

After touching on several topics — Puerto Rican history, heritage, environmentalism and pollution on the island — Lopez Rivera ended his speech with a call to action.

“Go forward,” he implored the crowd. “Dare to struggle, dare to win.”

When reporters asked how he felt about the fact that some consider him a terrorist, Lopez Rivera said he was unconcerned with such labels.

“All my actions have been actions of love — love for my people, love for the future of my people, love for humanity,” he said. “So I don’t have any problems with people and their labels.”

The afternoon’s festivities ended with what Roman billed as the first raising of the Puerto Rican flag above what has been designated as the city’s Puerto Rican cultural district.

As Lopez Rivera slowly hauled the flag up the park’s flagpole, the crowd sang the Puerto Rican national anthem, with the original revolutionary lyrics written in 1868 by the Puerto Rican poet, abolitionist and advocate for independence Lola Rodríguez de Tió.

“We want freedom, and our machetes will give it to us,” the crowd sang in Spanish, fists in the air. “Come, Boricuas, come now, since freedom awaits us anxiously, freedom, freedom!”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.