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Published On: Thu, May 18th, 2017

Que Pasa Power: On Unity, Business Decisions, and Freedom Songs at the PR Parade

It’s nearly a year to the day since we organized 35 Poets For Oscar in El Barrio, one of five marathon poetry readings we held nationwide in solidarity with Oscar López Rivera, demanding his release from prison. I remember the energy that day being crazy. I remember having to run a national webcast off my cell phone. The Speaker of the New York City Council, Melissa Mark-Viverito, had slipped in without fanfare to help decorate the venue. Poets had driven all the way from DC and Miami to be there. The legendary Ed Randolph was in the house, and I had to check my urge to fanboy out while hosting the show. Fernandito Ferrer, an extraordinary guitarist and musician from Puerto Rico, was on duty running the sound setup.

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35 Poets For Oscar – NYC Edition Photo Credit: Albert “Taino Image” Areizaga

Dozens of Boricuas, as well as artists and activists from across generations and constituencies, showed up for Oscar in a massive way by doing small things together: reading a poem, putting an altar together, checking on each other, laughing and listening. In the moment we stood posing for the group shot, in the moments we shared on stage at La Marqueta, the energy was that of a nation coming together to speak out. Willie Perdomo, in a prerecorded message from New Hampshire—where, as he pointed out, the state motto is Live Free or Die—said to Oscar: “We need you home so we can thank you for fighting…this diaspora freedom song is for you.”

A year later, Oscar López Rivera is a free man, living on Puerto Rican soil, and the diaspora showed up to thank him at Playa Escambrón in San Juan. The sea, which he had mentioned to his daughter in copious letters home as one of the things he missed the most, provided the backdrop to a prepared statement in which he thanked each and every person who had worked for his freedom. He was wearing all black, a gesture of support for Puerto Rico’s struggle against colonialism, as well as various political movements around the world, including Black Lives Matter.

We the poets have seen this gesture before: Pedro Pietri, one of the poets laureate of the Nuyorican movement, dressed in black and wrote his magnum opus “Puerto Rican Obituary,” in order to bring us all together in love and unity: “Aquí you salute your flag first…Aquí Que Pasa Power is what’s happening.”

Fresh from serving thirty-five years in prison, twelve in solitary confinement, Oscar López Rivera also came with a message of love and unity for every single citizen of Puerto Rico—and an unapologetic declaration of allegiance to a nation. On the first day of his freedom, he rallied whoever would listen to make that same declaration. And someone at the end of the Q&A told the assembled crowd that two million Puerto Ricans would be there to greet Oscar at the National Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York.

Annette Estevez at 35 Poets For Oscar, May 2016

In the context of what had just been said, the idea of two million of us together, united in love with a nation called Puerto Rico, suddenly has the makings of hope and breath for what has been an otherwise dire situation for the island.

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Somewhere in this equation, Goya Foods decided it needed to pull its sponsorship of the National Puerto Rican Parade. In one newspaper, and in a newsletter or two, there had been some speculation and confusion about their reasoning, much of it having to do with the choice of Oscar López Rivera as “Prócer de la Libertad” of the parade. (A letter stating as much, sent in Goya’s name, was disavowed by the company.) In the end, Goya decided it was a business decision that didn’t need more explanation than a series of news articles—which were unfortunately published on the same day we welcomed Oscar home.

To use the politician’s term: the optics are bad here.

Let’s be clear. Oscar López Rivera served thirty-five years in prison. Last year, when the poets and the Parade both spoke up to demand Oscar’s release on humanitarian grounds, no one from Goya raised an eyebrow. When the Parade used Goya’s sponsorship money to send busloads of activists to DC to speak out during the PROMESA debate, or when the Parade paid out Goya’s scholarship money to college students, or when the Parade’s board of directors made a public shift back to a platform of civic pride and activism, Goya stood side by side with them. In fact, as recently as 2014, Goya said their brand was “synonymous” with the Parade.

If, as Goya would like us to believe, that what transpired here was a mere “business decision,” I’m wondering what that business plan looks like.

Here’s a question for Goya, and a question for every sponsor who might be reading this article: Is it good business to pull the rug out from under Puerto Rican kids looking to go to college, at a time when Boricua youth remain underserved in the United States, and the University of Puerto Rico is in crisis along with the rest of the country?

Is it sound marketing to pull your name and company logo from a place where two million people will celebrate having your products in their kitchen cabinets…on the basis of nothing at all?

I wonder what would have happened if the marketing team from Goya had listened to Oscar López Rivera speak on that beach this morning. What does the man stand for other than freedom for his nation? Some of the same children Oscar mentioned as the future of Puerto Rico will now have their scholarship money threatened because of this so-called business decision. While some of us are forced into defending Oscar López Rivera yet again, no one seems to be asking Goya to defend the revocation of scholarships and sponsorship of a civic pride event.

Toward the end of his speech, someone asked Oscar about Goya pulling out of the parade. He said, “Goya has the right to say whatever it wants to say. And the Puerto Rican people have the right to do what they want to do—boycotting Goya. I think Goya would have more to lose if Puerto Rico boycotted it, and all Puerto Ricans, here and in the diaspora, boycotted Goya.”

I do believe that someone with that kind of fearlessness needs to start asking the right questions to the corporate team at Goya Foods. Where are you for these scholarship kids? What’s your relationship to this community going to be moving forward? Why did you feel the need to make a stand, without really making a stand? Why are you no longer synonymous with this Parade? Has the education of Puerto Ricans become too political for you?

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While we differ greatly over how we move forward as a community, the one thing that can’t be denied is that we need an educated class of young people, both on the island and in the diaspora, to seize a future that keeps Puerto Rico alive and viable.

Make no mistake about it: Puerto Rico is in the midst of the most dire crisis in its history. A debt of $123 billion dollars (and climbing) hangs over the island, threatening schools and basic services, jeopardizing its very existence. As a territory of the United States, there is no official political voice the island can turn to, other than its champions in the diaspora. Right now, we cannot vote for President and we cannot vote in Congress. And so, Puerto Rico must make its voice known, make its struggle visible, in all the ways it has left to do so. The biggest piece of this struggle is educating our young people–about Puerto Rico’s current struggle, and about its history. To fail our young people now would be to toss our future in the trash.

I am living in the hope that Oscar López Rivera brought with him out of prison: a new hope for unity among all Puerto Ricans, in big ways and small ways, to create a fair and equitable solution to our nation’s problems. And whatever Goya’s “business decision” needs to be, I’m still living in the hope we all felt a year ago, when a group of artists here and in five other cities decided to stand up in full nationhood and speak out for Oscar. No one can extinguish that freedom song. This has been our cry since we came to this country. That should be the celebration, and the struggle, now and always. Whoever wants to get down with that, should get down with that…and fearlessly so.

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About the Author:
Rich Villar is a writer, editor, activist, and educator. His debut collection of poems, Comprehending Forever, was published by Willow Books in 2014. He has been quoted on Latino/a literature and culture by HBO, The Daily News, and The New York Times. His essays and articles have appeared in such journals as Black Renaissance Noire and Radius Lit Mag, as well as in Latino Rebels and Sofrito For Your Soul. He is Artistic Director and poetry workshop facilitator for La Sopa NYC, a community-based program for creative writers and artists in New York City.

Editor’s Note: Sofrito Media Group & Capicu Cultural Showcase are supporters and service providers of the National Puerto Rican Day Parade, however this is not a sponsored post.

Que Pasa Power: On Unity, Business Decisions, and Freedom Songs at the PR Parade