Puerto Rico Resilience Fund - 24 Months
Lolita, Maria, and I Part II
The Possible Puerto Rican Nation
by Irene Vilar*
Today, March 1st, 2018, as I walked up the steps of the US Capitol, I understood what my island of Puerto Rico needed more than funds, leadership or a #JustRecovery. I was holding hands with a Boricua sister from New York City, Betty A. Rosa, Chancellor of the State of New York Board of Regents, the first Latina and Puerto Rican to ever hold that position.
As we came together for a picture in honor of my grandmother #LolitaLebron – who 64 years ago, on another March 1st, put those Capitol steps on the front page of all major newspapers for her violent act of resistance in the name of our country's independence and against US imperialism – the realization came to me as clear as the devastation this administration's utter failure to meet fairly and responsibly post Maria recovery needs.
Faith. We need Fe. Not good old traditional faith grown and fed by religion, but the kind of faith we all at some key moment of our lives feel rise from within us, like a swell of resistance against the limitations of our human nature. This kind of faith arises from the tics and antics of our poverty of character, the failures here and there, not rising to the occasion, not digging deep enough to summon the best of us, our generosity of spirit, our empathy and our redeeming capabilities for gratitude. This regenerative faith manifests only, in my experience, and in crucial moments. Like a perfect storm, where multiple factors come together that seldom coincide.
This climatic upheaval of the spirit is incubated in profound suffering and is led by symmetries that stop you dead in your tracks, with your historical families surfacing to remind you of the work that must be done. You are filled with a most warming certainty that the work - a work that for once does not have to do with you but others - indeed will be done if only you believe so if you simply let go of the distractions and pour this rare and wholesome kind of faith into it.
My two uncles - Episcopalian priests and advocates for a liberation theology able to achieve the justice governments can't - spoke often of Epifanias in their sermons. I remember growing up between their churches in Trujillo Alto and Arecibo longing for God to speak to me, for some sign that the pending death of my mother dressed up at the time as erratic destructive sadness fed by Valium addiction and the ever-present absence of my father driven by patriarchy, was not all there was. The conditions of my suffering then were the portal for my first epiphany, when I felt this faith I'm trying to describe rise inside of me.
What were the symmetries that powered it? A book, a monk, a menstrual period, and a migrant condition. I had just arrived in this country in the middle of winter. The boarding school deep in the woods of New Hampshire was led by a John Muir like a man who knelt before the cross above the blackboard each time he went by. His quiet passion mirrored that of my beloved uncles. The monk, Arthur Boynton, seldom spoke, out of a modesty I've never known again. So, when one morning he found me crying by a bookcase and pulled a book out of the shelf asking me to read it, I knew I had to. When I saw It was my own grandmother's book of poetry written in jail, "Sandalo en la Celda", my back straightened and I am certain I grew an inch or two. Monolingual at the time and ashamed of being me, I held on to that book as if to a lifesaver.
Mirna Mendez Lebrón
One windy high noon shortly after cutting wood during the work period, I bled through my blue snow pants. I could feel the blood run down my inner thighs and into my socks and see it draw a bright red path on the outside layer, like pure simple magic. I was eleven years old. I can see this child as clearly today, three decades later, with an ax in hand, sinking into the snow to hide her bleeding looking up at a bright northern sky, scared, reciting grandmother's verses she’s memorizing. Her shame begins to lift off her and leaves to dissipate in the snowdrift, and then faith, this faith, takes its place giving the child a most sacred reassurance that all will be fine, that she, the child, will one day save the world, save things, save her island, just like her Abuela, and that her loss and sadness and shame are so small in the face of others' suffering. That as long as she keeps her FE, all will be fine.
Lolita, Irene and Lorreta
Today. March 1s, 2018. I am sitting in room SVC 209 of the US Capitol Visitor Center. I have flown from Denver, Colorado to attend the Shanker Institute summit on Puerto Rico's Road to Recovery and to represent our Puerto Rico Resilience Project. I am feeling guilty. I have left my eleven-year-old Lolita and thirteen-year-old Loretta back home with their aunts. Lolita cried before I left. She said I am not the same Mom I was. I work too much, She misses me, she says. She hugs me with the same despair I wish I could have hugged my own mother with had she not killed herself that horrifying March 1st of 1977. I struggle to not let our farewell fester with that fear of loss I know so well. I feel guilty my work is taking me away from my daughters. I feel guilty I am divorcing their father. I feel there is so much that needs to be done for my island. I wish I had never left my country. I wish I had come to know courage so much earlier in my life. I feel the dread of having wasted so many years cloaking myself in someone else's power, so fearful of my own agency.
Lolita & Lorreta
Irene & Lolita
A powerful woman takes the stage. Her presence is almost wounding. I cannot take my eyes off her. She looks just like my grandmother and mother, the same cheekbones, eyes, nose, lips. She speaks of her life in the Bronx, her schools, her students, our diaspora, our duty to help manifest a #JustRecovery for our island. She left Puerto Rico when she was ten years old. She is the first Latina-and Puertorrican- to hold the leadership position she holds. She is sitting next to another extraordinary presence. I cannot stop looking at her either. Dra. Aida Diaz Rivera, President of the Asociacion de Maestros de Puerto Rico. She speaks of a most shameful education bill tailored at destroying any capabilities for a resilient future. They are brilliant, passionate, fierce. They are "la de aqui" y "la de alla", they are bookends holding space for the full potential of our island's future, our children's education.
When the woman who looks like my family leaves the room I follow her. I put my hand on her shoulder. I am surprised I am shaking. I tell her I love her. That she reminds me of my grandmother. And then it happens. Her real name is Betty Lebron, not Betty Rosa. Her father and Lolita were family and lived for years, side by side, in the Bronx. My Lolita is her Lolita. She has guided her destiny, Betty says, holding me tight. How can this be we ask? We both had decided to not come to DC. Everything conspired for us not to come. And yet we each pushed through for reasons we both in bed the night before in our hotel rooms did not fully understand. We were consumed by personal doubts, frustrations, and yet could not stop ourselves from doing the work. Earlier in the day as we walked towards the Visor Center we had both looked up at the US Capitol and thought of Lolita Lebron and the 26 years of prison she served for her struggle to end colonialism in our island. We thought of how today the spirit of Lolita was with us as we continued the struggle to end colonialism through advocacy for a #JustRecovery.
Betty Lebrón & Irene
And as we saw with awe the symmetries coming together and we realized that today was March 1st, Faith showed up and replaced all guilt, shame, and dread, leaving in its wake a most meaningful reminder of who we are, why we are here, and what needs to be done.
To be continued next month...
*This the first of twenty four testimonials by AFC+A`s founder Irene Vilar