During the final days of his presidency, Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 64 people in prison. One of them was Oscar López Rivera. Depending on who you ask, the 74-year-old is either a freedom fighter, political prisoner, and activist or a terrorist. He was a member of Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña (FALN), a paramilitary organization that claimed responsibility for more than 120 bombings in Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C., between 1974 and 1983, according to the Chicago Historical Society. FALN’s goal was a free and socialist Puerto Rico, and those bombings killed six people and injured many more.
Yet in Chicago’s heavily Puerto Rican Humboldt Park, a neighborhood Rivera called home for 16 years, he’s regarded in high esteem. On Thursday, the day after his early release from a 70-year prison sentence, the neighborhood plans to celebrate him at the unveiling of an honorary street sign, followed by a brief march to the Humboldt Park boathouse. Once there, he’ll be honored by the community and its leaders, including Rivera’s younger brother Jose Lopez, one of the founders of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center.
“In this community in particular, on Paseo Boricua and in Humboldt Park, there is a 50-year legacy that Oscar has left,” says Jessie Fuentes, a coordinator with Chicago’s chapter of the National Boricua Human Rights Network, which was focused on freeing Rivera and is organizing Thursday’s events. “He’s truly a leader and an activist in this community that wanted to address all of the inequity of the Puerto Rican people in Chicago, and also across the diaspora.”
Born in San Sebastián, Puerto Rico, in 1943, Rivera first came to the U.S. with his family when when he was nine. Their first home was in New York, but around the time Oscar turned 14 his family moved to Chicago. It was here that Rivera graduated from high school, and when he turned 18, he was drafted into the army to fight in the Vietnam war. During the war he was awarded a Bronze Star, and once his tour of duty ended, he returned to Chicago in 1967 and saw firsthand the people of his neighborhood suffering from anti-Latino prejudice and segregation.
“You have to imagine Division Street in the 1960s and ’70s—the recent migration of Puerto Ricans here from Lincoln Park because of gentrification and the type of racial attacks that were placed on the Puerto Rican people using different institutional barriers,” Fuentes says.
Puerto Rican students who didn’t speak English were segregated into separate special education classrooms—often just closets filled with desks—because teachers couldn’t offer them a bilingual education, Fuentes says. Slumlords tolerated rats and roaches, and didn’t keep up repairs if they had Puerto Ricans as tenants.
“Oscar was steeped in that discrimination, and never understood how that was acceptable,” says Jan Susler, Rivera’s attorney from the People’s Law Office. When he came out of the army and tried to buy a house for his mother, no bank would give him a mortgage even though he was a veteran with money, Susler says. (Rivera isn’t allowed to speak to anyone other than his legal counsel before he’s released Wednesday.)
At the same time, Fuentes says, police brutality in the neighborhood was at an all-time high. During the first Puerto Rican Parade on June 12, 1966, a riot that lasted two days began on Division Street after Aracelis Cruz, 20, was shot by Chicago police on the corner of Damen and Division.
“This was the first time that Puerto Ricans were celebrating the Puerto Rican People’s Parade downtown, and simultaneously there’s a Puerto Rican who gets shot by police in this community,” says Fuentes. “That is the community that Oscar comes to after coming home from Vietnam. He understood very quickly that instead of fighting a war for this country, he needed to be fighting for justice for his own people in this country, because Puerto Ricans were being marginalized and oppressed.”
During this period Rivera helped to found La Escuelita Puertorriqueña, now known as the Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School, and the Juan Antonio Corretjer Puerto Rican Cultural Center, and worked with various community organizations advocating for Puerto Rican rights like El Rincon Family Services and the Spanish Coalition for Housing.
Rivera also became a member of FALN around this time. In 1980, 11 men and women were arrested and later charged with conspiring to oppose U.S. authority over Puerto Rico, and on related weapons and stolen cars charges. Rivera wasn’t arrested at the time, but he was named as a codefendant in the indictment, according to the People’s Law Office. He was arrested in 1981 after a traffic stop, and was also tried for conspiracy to oppose U.S. authority over Puerto Rico. He was initially sentenced to 55 years in prison, but in 1987 his sentence had 15 years added to it for conspiracy to escape.
But even during his incarceration, Rivera didn’t stop trying to improve the lives of those around him, Susler says.
“In order to keep his humanity, he needed to be creative, and taught himself how to draw and paint,” she says. “He offered his self-taught skills to others. He also was very much a mentor to the other younger prisoners, helping them to figure out how to do their time productively. He helped them to learn to read and write, and taught them Spanish and history.”
President Obama’s commutation of Rivera’s sentence was controversial, with surviving family members of those killed in FALN’s bombings like Joe Connor objecting to his release. Connor was nine years old when his father died in FALN’s 1975 bombing of a crowded restaurant in New York’s Financial District.
“I’m hearing he’s a freedom fighter, he’s done all these things, he’s not violent,” Connor told NPR ahead of Obama granting Rivera clemency. “But what did he do, if not be a terrorist? There’s no answer to it, because he was a terrorist.”
Earlier this year, 26th Ward alderman Roberto Maldonado proposed an ordinance designating a section of North Luis Munoz Marin Drive as Oscar Lopez Rivera Way. The measure was opposed by several aldermen, including Patrick Thompson and Nicholas Sposato (himself a former first responder), whose wards are home to large populations of police officers.
“Naming a street after a known terrorist, I was totally opposed to it because of the stuff he did, the families he wrecked,” Sposato says. “It’s just unbelievable to me that when he comes back here he’ll have a big party. But if Maldonado thinks it’ll get him votes, it’s his ward, and I’m not going to step on his toes.”
“For me, the only thing controversial about President Obama’s commutation of his sentence is that it took so long,” Susler counters. “There’s so many ways to talk about the controversy [around Rivera], but in the United States, we don’t admit that we have political prisoners.”
Despite opposition to Rivera’s return, Fuentes says she hopes for a large turnout on Thursday, because he’s one of Paseo Boricua’s founders.
“It’s really a warm, welcoming celebration for him,” she says. “Many of the directors and leaders of institutions that Oscar has had influence on will be giving him thank-you speeches so he can really see what the institutions have become over the last 50 years, how much they have grown.”
Oscar Lopez Rivera Welcome Home Event Thursday, May 18, 3:30 PM. Begins at La Casita de Don Pedro, 2625 W. Division, 773-394-4935, free.