I worried over my outfit, my makeup. I didn’t want to look like I was trying too hard. I didn’t want to be too dressed up but I didn’t want to look too casual. A red lip would have been too much. The occasion in my mind called for a certain level of respect but I wanted to be me. I only lined my upper lid, I would cry for sure. I texted my mother about how nervous I was. She texted back for me to tell her all about it when it was over.
I did the math in my head and then on paper to double check.
How long had it been since I had first learned about him?
He had been gone for longer. He had been gone since I was five years old.
I asked questions to the spirit because the person I wanted to ask had been gone physically for 14 years.
What did it feel like when you wrapped the flag that hung from the statue of liberty around her?
What did you say to her?
Thank you seemed appropriate but not enough. It certainly didn’t feel like enough for the 36 years.
On the drive over I promised myself I would try not to cry too much. Falling at his feet would be too dramatic. I needed to be as composed as he had seemed since he was released. Why the fuck would I cry? I hadn’t endured solitary confinement. I hadn’t been taken from my family. I had written letters, read, marched, chanted but I came and went about my life as freely as I could.
When I walked into the living room of the gracious hosts he was sitting on the sofa, dressed casually, speaking casually. I didn’t cry, not immediately. He stood up, gave me a warm hug and put a fist to his chest, over his heart. I sat next to him and we chatted, about his trip here, about his dislike when people fell asleep when he spoke, about how other former political prisoners were doing. As other people entered I cried as we greeted each other. We were all mostly strangers but we shared respect, dare I say reverence. One person told me he too had met Richie as a teenager. Richie, had helped bring us to this moment. I put my hand on the shoulder of this now no longer stranger. We were connected even though we hadn’t met before yesterday.
Yesterday I met Oscar Lopez Rivera, Puerto Rican former political prisoner, at an intimate lunch that jumped off a week long tour of Southern California.
It was hard to eat the delicious fresh food prepared for us as we sat around a table and he placed his imprisonment and release in a larger historical context. I wasn’t reading his analysis as I had in books and letters. He was looking across the table at me. I got to tell him who I was. I got to share my own concern, reflecting back his concern about how the independence movement for Puerto Rico had become elite. We talked about what needs to come next after he shared his vision of the work post Maria on the island. We got to talk about the role of the diaspora, of what solidarity looks like and how to make entry points accessible and real. He smiled, nodded. He is a small man in stature but such a presence. He reminded us how critical the current moment is. What is at stake and how if we love Puerto Rico and all it is how we have to fight.
After lunch we all drank coffee and posed for pictures. In the pictures you can’t tell how I cried a little. I am beaming. What is Richie thinking as he watches this scene.
When he hugged goodbye I tell him I will see him again. There are a few more speaking events I will be at. There will be more people so this one on one time is gold. I soak it up. All I can think about is what a gift this moment is. It’s like when I met Dylcia Pagan in 2008. I was speaking at LaGuardia Community College and she is in the audience. When I came off the stage and hugged her and thanked her, I also didn’t cry. Even though I wanted to – thinking about the sacrifice, not being able to raise your child. Would I ever be that brave if it came down to it? If I was called in the same way? La Patria really is valor and sacrificio and there are real, living examples.
Tomorrow evening my younger daughter will meet Oscar. She begrudgingly reads up on him at my insistence. She doesn’t get how important, how special this is. I didn’t either at 11 so while I want to be mad at her, I control it. How long did it take me? 16 years. That’s not so far away but I don’t want her to feel the same anger I did when I learned that Puerto Ricans were killed and imprisoned for believing in and acting on behalf of their sovereignty. Why hadn’t my parents told me? Why did they raise me to believe I could be anything, including free? I know it was well-meaning. I know it was a parental act of protection but especially now I wonder how long until my own children will realize how much more we have to do – until we are free.