I once read about a writer who had seen a woman pushing an empty stroller in Central Park and it created a question in her mind. Why would the woman be pushing an empty stroller? She decided to write a short story to answer the question. In like manner, sometimes I’m driven to write short stories as a way to answer a question I might have. Sometimes they’re grand philosophical questions – issues like the extent of God’s grace or the pervasiveness of evil – but sometimes they’re smaller questions, too. While I was a student in France, I saw a man collecting money for Puerto Rican independence. I eventually heard he was a fugitive from American justice and could not return to the United States under threat of imprisonment. That situation created a question in my mind. What had the man done to warrant incarceration if he returned to New York? The attached story is a potential answer to that question. Without giving away the ending, I should note that in my initial draft the climactic scene was entirely different.
I never believed in numbers.
Independence will instead be
achieved by the intensity of those
that devote themselves totally to the
Pedro Albizu Campos
In France, I met Irving Rivera, a Puerto Rican born in New York City, about twenty years older than me. He lived on the same floor as I did in the Maison Américaine1 at the Cité Universitaire in Paris. I saw him often, since there was a cafeteria in the basement of the dorm room, where both he and I often ate. We gravitated toward a group of Spanish-speaking friends, some Latin American but mostly Spaniards, who also lived at the huge American dormitory. I would also regularly see Irving on a table in the plaza behind the Maison Américaine, with a sign saying, “Independence for Puerto Rico Now!” He requested donations, ostensibly to help rid Puerto Rico of its American colonial masters. At some point, he even asked me to sit at the table with him to help him collect the funds. I agreed, but he failed to tell me that his purpose was to finance revolutionary violence against the Yanquis.
Irving Rivera was a mixed-race man, African and European, with brown skin, steel blue eyes and jet-black hair which he held in a ponytail. At the cafeteria, especially when the Spaniards were present, he never spoke about politics, since some of the Spaniards – most of whom were physicians seeking a postgraduate degree in France – were what Irving would consider reactionaries. Some defended the Franco regime, and most did not recognize what Irving considered the horror of Spain’s history of imperialism. And Irving never even deigned to sit with the Americans, for reasons I would fully understand only with time. With me, however, it was different.
I had told him I was a direct descendant of Simon Bolívar and that I shared the Liberator’s dreams of a united Latin America. Knowing that, he considered me some sort of fellow traveler and did not eschew the subject of politics when talking with me. On the contrary, he treated me to long professorial soliloquies about American imperialism in general and about the subject of Puerto Rican independence in particular. He confided that at some time he had been a professor of history at the Río Piedras campus of the University of Puerto Rico. But he did not tell me the entirety of his history. I eventually heard from another Puerto Rican at the Maison Américaine that Irving was a fugitive of some sort, that he had been engaged in “direct action” not only in Puerto Rico but also in the mainland, and that he could not return to the United States under threat of imprisonment. But I only learned that after having helped him collect funds for the cause of Puerto Rican independence for a period of about two months.
I confronted him as soon as I heard about his past.
“For whom are we collecting funds?” I asked him point-blank as he was sitting on his table in front of the Restaurant Universitaire.2 “Don’t tell me we are collecting money for terrorist activities. A student at la Maison has told me you are a fugitive from the law, that you have been involved in insurrection.”
“Calm down, Javier. What we are doing is perfectly legal. Don’t you see the gendarmes3 all around us?”
“Tell me the truth, Irving. Where do these funds end up?”
“Everything goes to the Puerto Rican Independence Party, a legitimate political party that routinely participates in elections in Puerto Rico. They are trying to obtain independence through the democratic process.”
“And what about this business about your being a fugitive?”
“Whoever told you that is twisting history. When I was very young, no older than nineteen, I participated in an armed strike. There were certain hotheads in our group who shot at the police. I was incarcerated along with the entire group. As the old proverb goes, the righteous pay for the faults of sinners. But I’ve kept an impeccable record ever since.”
“Well, I’m sorry,” I said. “I just can’t take your word for it. I can’t continue to collect funds without knowing how they will be used. I fervently believe in the cause of Puerto Rican independence, but I just as fervently disagree with the idea that political goals should be achieved by violence.”
“I respect your firm adherence to your principles,” Irving said. “But I urge you to reconsider. You admire Simon Bolívar. I can assure you he’d do anything to help the independentista4 cause. All I’m asking is for you to continue to collect money for the glorious goal of Puerto Rican independence. The other side is so well-funded, and those who clamor for independence have so little.”
“I’ll think about it,” I replied. “On the one hand, I don’t want to help arm terrorists. On the other, I realize those who fight for independence through nonviolent means must be funded.”
“I hope you’ll give me the opportunity to persuade you,” Irving said as he puffed on a Ducado. “I hope this doesn’t mean our friendship is over.”
“No, it’s all right,” I responded. “We both share the goal of an independent Borinken.5 But I doubt you’ll be able to persuade me as far as collecting funds. I’m firmly opposed to political violence, and I’m afraid that you’re trying to fund it.”
I first realized the intensity of Irving Rivera’s passions – the racial and the political – when we were both sitting at the cafeteria with four or five Spanish students, all of them female except for one, a certain Doctor Joaquin Alcantara. He was a member of Opus Dei – the lay Catholic organization – and had blithely said that Spain had been much better off under Franco than in its present state. Irving immediately objected, stating that Franco had been a tyrant and a fascist. According to Irving, it would have been much better for the Republicans to have won the war.
“Franco turned Spain into a theocracy,” Irving said emphatically. “He didn’t allow safe, legal abortion, and homosexuals were persecuted with abandon. His men even killed the great playwright Federico Garcia Lorca merely because he was gay. They incarcerated Miguel Hernández, greatest poet of his generation, and kept him in prison until he died.”
“And you think Spain would have been better off under the Communist Republicans?” scoffed Alcantara. “The Republicans were deeply anticlerical. More than four-thousand priests were assassinated, two-thousand monks and three-hundred nuns, often raped before being killed. Even thirteen bishops were murdered by the Republicans. And many were cruelly tortured before their executions.”
“Look,” Irving objected, “it was a grueling fratricidal war that lasted several years and there were atrocities on both sides, although I question where you got your numbers. You’re conveniently forgetting that Franco’s forces used torture and execution during the war and that Franco continued to execute Republicans well after the war was over. You’re also assuming that the priests were guiltless bystanders when in fact they were outspoken in their support of the Nationalist rebels.”
“I don’t know where you get your facts,” responded Alcantara. “I’ve never heard of priests who were also combatants.”
“I was a history professor in my country. Many priests vociferously commanded the Nationalist forces to kill ‘the Reds’ in the priests’ own presence. Have you ever heard of Father Benito Santiesteban? He was a priest from Navarra who claimed to have killed fifteen thousand ‘Reds.’”
“I don’t want to argue anymore,” responded the Spaniard, waving his right hand in the air dismissively. “Your arguments are calumnious and grotesque. You’re a Communist mulatto, nothing more and nothing less.”
And then Irving punched him hard in the face. A trickle of blood spilled from the Spaniard’s nose.
“How dare you call me a mulatto just because I have African blood!” Irving exclaimed. “Just because you’re losing an argument, you resort to racist slurs.”
Alcantara punched Irving back and soon the two men fell on the ground, exchanging blows. It did not take long for Irving to overpower the smaller man, and Irving started pummeling Alcantara with a relentless fury. At some point, Irving held Alcantara by the hair and smashed his head onto the floor repeatedly. Had I not interfered, I’m sure Irving would have killed the Spaniard. There was a primal hatred in Irving which I had not seen before and could not fully understand. Perhaps it was political – Irving detested Spain for having tyrannized his country, and Franco was the poster boy for Spanish tyranny. Or perhaps Irving’s hatred was personal – he had suffered all manner of indignities because he was considered a black man in the United States and even Puerto Rico has its racial hierarchies. Alcantara’s insult was one insult too many, a singular act of disrespect. At all events, I tended to Alcantara bleeding on the floor and cleaned his face with a cloth napkin.
“Communist mulatto,” he repeated under his breath. “Atheist sudaca.6”
I guess he didn’t realize – or care – that I, too, was a sudaca.
Irving was a Nuyorican, and he had not lived on the Puerto Rican island until he was around seventeen, when he had immediately become involved in the independentista movement. Like me, Irving had a hybrid national identity, although he did his utmost to deny it. I thought of myself as American and Latin American at once, although sometimes it was difficult to reconcile those two sides of my identity. Indeed, at times I wondered whether the fundamental truth was that I was neither one nor the other. Irving was not only conflicted about the American part of his identity, but he completely repudiated it, as if he hadn’t been raised in New York City speaking English as his mother tongue. Not surprising that the Puerto Rican sociologist Eduardo Seda Bonilla had once written that “the Nuyorican is nowadays the archetypal man without a homeland.”
I remember what Irving told me once after I had disclosed to him that I had sought admission to the Harvard Law School and eventually intended to work for a major law firm.
“You’re a bright, ambitious man, Javier,” he said, puffing on a Ducado cigarette as we sat in the downstairs cafeteria of La Maison Américaine. “You aren’t going to fit in the box the Yanquis have ready for you. You’re going to rise until you get to a point where the Yanquis won’t let you rise any more. And then they will destroy you, just like they destroyed Pedro Albizu Campos, first in his class at Harvard Law School and the most important leader of the independence movement. They will destroy you, just like they have destroyed so many other Boricuas,7 Dominicans and Mexicans. Do you realize how many Latinos in the United States are addicted to alcohol or drugs? Do you think that is a coincidence, Javier? And it won’t matter if you have any fancy degrees. Those will be as worthless as the pieces of paper they’re printed on. No matter what your merits, you will be considered an affirmative action hire, with all that designation entails.”
“I’m not sure it’s quite that bad,” I responded. “Surely a Hispanic who applies himself can get ahead in America.”
“Hispanics in the United States are a colonized people, and the Yanquis have a special place reserved for them in American society – a place at the bottom of the heap together with the blacks. Even if they allow you to work in a law firm as a toady for American corporate interests, it will come at a price. You will have to renounce everything in you that is Latin American, you will have to take on an American nickname, you will have to pretend your brothers and sisters are not being exploited. And the worst thing is that they will keep you from using your talents for your own people.”
One night, Irving and I were having drinks at the downstairs cafeteria at the Maison Américaine along with Irving’s Senegalese friend Jean-Pierre, a student of economics at Sciences Po, the Paris Institute of Political Studies. Jean-Pierre was an extremely thin man, and he couldn’t have been blacker. At some point – it was nearly midnight – I mentioned that we should continue the evening at a Parisian nightclub. Jean-Pierre suggested La Plantation, a discotheque popular with African immigrants, but I countered by saying we should go to La Scala de Paris, one of the most popular clubs in the city.
“Are you sure they accept Africans?” Jean-Pierre inquired.
“We’re not in the American South in the 1940s,” I laughed. “This is Paris in the 1980s. Of course, Africans are allowed in the nightclub.”
“Don’t be so sure,” Irving interjected.
“Paris is known as the place where African Americans thrived, musicians as well as writers, as far back as the 1940s. Think of James Baldwin and Chester Himes. Think of the great Miles Davis.”
“I’m sure the men you mentioned suffered through their share of indignities in France,” Irving objected, “but that’s not the point anyway. I’ve already taught you that a few select can escape the ravages of racism – at least for a while. In Paris, a few black men of genius succeeded when there were very few men with African blood in France. Now it is altogether different. The blacks are no longer poets or jazz musicians. They are for the most part men of the working class, and there are millions of them. I assure you they couldn’t be more hated.”
“You’re obsessed with race,” I replied, “but at this point in history racists are more a nuisance than a serious threat. I’ve gone to La Scala more than a dozen times and personally know the manager. I am sure we won’t have any problem getting in.”
“Have you ever seen a black man at that club?” Irving asked. “You can pass for white and won’t have any problem, but I’m not sure that’s true for me. And it certainly isn’t true for Jean-Pierre.”
“I’m not sure, Irving. It’s not something I would have noticed either way. I do know all the bouncers are black.”
“That means nothing,” Irving retorted. “There were Jewish guards at the Nazi concentration camps. We’ve already spoken of the minorities who work at white-shoe law firms in the United States. But I suppose we don’t lose anything by trying.”
“Other than our dignity,” opined Jean-Pierre.
La Scala de Paris was one of Paris’s oldest nightclubs, located close to the Rue de Rivoli in an old structure built in the 1880s. From the outside you would never realize the building housed a three-story discotheque with multicolored lights and laser beams. Since we arrived early – midnight is considered early for nightclubs in Paris – we did not have to stand in line or wait too long to enter. The manager recognized me and smiled at me broadly.
“So glad to see you here again,” he said.
“I’ve been telling my friends this is the best club in all of Paris.”
Then he looked at Jean-Pierre and Irving as if they were Martians.
“You’re welcome here as usual, Javier,” he said, “but unfortunately not tes copains.8”
“What are you talking about?” I responded in disbelief. “You’ve always let my friends enter. Don’t tell me you won’t allow these two into the club just because they’re black.”
“Their race has nothing to do with it,” said the manager. “As you know, some people, white and black, are denied admission to La Scala. It’s more a question of presence than anything else. Stevie Wonder and Whitney Houston were even invited to our club as special guests.”
“Well, let it go this time,” I said. “Do me a personal favor and just let my friends in.”
“Don’t press it,” he said. “Or maybe next time you won’t be admitted either. Just forget about it and come back to the club with your American friends as usual.”
I looked at him with a fierce disdain.
“I’ll never return to your fucking nightclub, conard9!”
Then Jean-Pierre finally exploded.
“My money is just as good as anybody else’s,” he cried out in a furious voice as he waved a hundred-franc note in the air. “I protest! I protest! You must allow me to enter, or I’ll burn this place down.”
Then the four black bouncers appeared and took Jean-Pierre by the arms and threw him out of the discotheque. Irving followed without making a ruckus, for he knew it was useless.
“Oh, Javier,” he said once we were out on the street. “There is so much I still need to teach to you.”
From Irving, I would learn a lot about Puerto Rican history and, indeed, much about the history of Latin America in general. In retrospect, I realize he was grooming me all along and that he had a secret purpose for me. As an American, I had never even heard that there was a vigorous “resistance” to American domination in Puerto Rico, nor that it had lasted for decades. At first Irving did not tell me anything about his own involvement in what he called “direct action” – in fact, he repeatedly denied it – but that did not stop him from telling me of a long history of rebellion, beginning with the attempt to assassinate Harry Truman in 1950 and the attack on the United States Congress by Puerto Rican independentistas in 1954. He also spoke with pride about the attack at the Fraunces Tavern in the Wall Street financial district in 1975, when several “corporate toadies” died in an explosion orchestrated by Puerto Rican nationalists. Irving also described the bombing of the headquarters of the New York Police Department in 1983, the robbery of a Wells Fargo bank in Connecticut that same year, and the attack of the Muñiz Air National Guard Base in 1981, which destroyed nine aircraft and two trucks and caused damage to two ships.
When speaking about the Puerto Rican rebels, Irving did not use the word “terrorists” or even “revolutionaries.” Instead, he referred to them as “próceres,” a Spanish word which does not have an exact translation in English, but which generally means “leaders” and which is almost exclusively used to refer to the Latin American revolutionaries who achieved independence from Spain in the early nineteenth century, e.g., Simon Bolívar, José Antonio de Sucre, Francisco de Miranda.
“Contrary to what the American government would have you believe,” he told me, with a satisfied grin on his face, “Puerto Rican resistance is active to this day.”
“Aren’t they terrorists?” I probed him. “Is there an excuse for violence?”
“Terrorists!” he shot back. “They are próceres for independence. Puerto Rico has been a colony of the Yanquis since 1898. How are the Puerto Rican próceres any different from the South Americans who won independence from Spain in the 1820s? How are they different from the Simon Bolívar whom you so admire? What do you expect the Puerto Ricans to do? Get on their knees and pray so Heaven helps them?”
“Simon Bolívar never bombed a restaurant full of innocent people,” I replied. “Francisco de Miranda never bombed a police station.”
“You need to learn more about your history,” Irving scoffed. “Have you ever heard of Bolívar’s war to the death? Do you know of his execution of eight hundred prisoners at La Guaira? Have you learned about his massacre of five hundred captive pastusos10?”
“No,” I answered. “My father only taught me about his marvelous gesta11, his liberation of an entire continent.”
“Bolívar killed eight hundred prisoners at La Guaira,” Irving continued. “Eight hundred prisoners mind you... He ordered that each and every one of them be executed, without any mercy or compassion, because he feared they would escape the prison and fight against him. And he did something even more brutal at Pasto. Bolívar ordered his lieutenant José Antonio de Sucre to execute almost five hundred pastusos after having defeated them in war, without distinction of age or gender, soldiers and noncombatants alike. Entire families were killed, including children. That day is known in history as ‘the black Christmas,” for the massacre happened on Christmas day. And it was the handiwork of your beloved Bolívar.”
I muttered sheepishly, “I had never heard of such atrocities.”
It was becoming increasingly clear to me that Irving Rivera knew a lot more about Bolívar’s history than I did, even though my paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Bolívar, and my father had proudly taught me about the Liberator before abandoning the family when I was ten. In my mind, the figure of Bolívar was somehow intertwined with the memory of my absent father. My father – Guillermo Pardo Bolívar – had outsized ambitions for me and never failed to tell me I had big shoes to fill. I think that is why I was overjoyed when I was accepted by Yale College and was thinking of law school at Harvard. I still wanted to convince my father that it was a mistake for him to have left me when I was a child.
Irving kept on speaking.
“And do you know why Bolívar did all that, Javier? He did it because he had to. He did it because there was a possibility, however remote, that if he wasn’t ruthless, his enemies would regroup, and then take up arms against Bolívar’s armies. How is placing a bomb in a restaurant full of Wall Street types and killing four people in defense of Puerto Rican independence any worse than what Bolívar did when he killed eight hundred prisoners a La Guaira? How is it any more brutal than the massacre of five hundred people that happened at Pasto? Don’t buy the bullshit that the Puerto Rican próceres are bloodthirsty terrorists, Javier. In fact, they’re far less sanguinary than Bolívar. It would be nice if the Yanquis just left the island, but without armed action against them, they are never going to do it. Puerto Rico has been an American colony for almost a century. And it will remain a colony into perpetuity unless the Puerto Ricans themselves take drastic action.”
I considered his words briefly and then responded.
“The Spaniards never allowed the Colombians to have a vote to determine their status. The South American próceres had to take up arms. The Yanquis, as you call them, allow a referendum on the status of the island every two years. Isn’t it the Puerto Ricans themselves who want to remain a colony, as you call it, of the United States?”
“You’re smarter than that, Javier. Do you really believe that the Yanquis allow free and fair elections in Puerto Rico? Do you not think they engage in a concerted action to suppress the independence movement? Are you aware that the Americans in power have engaged in several massacres of Puerto Ricans?”
Irving was engaging in a slow seduction of my spirit. It was a political seduction, not a sexual one, but it was a seduction, nonetheless. I increasingly saw things the way he saw them. What was wonderful – and terrifying – is that over time I concluded he was right in everything he said.
“The Latin American continent will be united,” he told me again and again, appealing to my dreams, “just as Bolívar once promised, and it will be a powerful foil to the Yanqui empire. No longer will the Americans be able to do whatever they want in the countries of Latin America. Nor will they be able to subjugate the blacks and Hispanics in the United States in perpetuity.”
Over the months during my stay in France, I listened to him calmly and collectedly during many late-night conversations, often without interrupting him, for I was beginning to believe that I had something to learn from this reluctant Nuyorican in a ponytail. Eventually, I agreed to help him collect funds in front of the Restaurant Universitaire again. I was sure that he was lying to me by saying the funds did not go to the revolutionaries – or the próceres, to use Irving’s words – but I no longer cared. Irving had convinced me of the justice of their cause by comparing them to the Latin American revolutionaries of the nineteenth century. He had made me see the independentista rebels as Bolívar’s heirs. Through his endless lectures, he had persuaded me that armed insurrection was the only possible means for Borinken to achieve independence. And in his heart of hearts Irving knew of my conversion!
At some point, after several months of conversation, Irving finally admitted what he was doing in Paris.
“As you know,” he said to me, puffing on a Ducado cigarette as he sat on a chair in my dorm room, “I have been collecting money at the plaza in front of the university restaurant. What you don’t know is for whom I have been collecting the money. I’m sorry that I kept this a secret from you for such a long time, but it was necessary. I’m collecting money for the Popular Boricua Army, to aid them in their ‘direct action’ in Puerto Rico and in the United States. And I think it is time for you to meet some of the other people who are working with me.”
“The Popular Boricua Army,” I repeated, somewhat quizzically.
“Yes,” Irving said. “I have already told you about some of what they do. The FALN has been largely decapitated by the Yanquis. But the Popular Boricua Army is still engaging in revolutionary activity. I want you to meet some people, especially Aguirre.”
“Aguirre?” I asked.
“He’s an old geezer now,” Irving responded. “But he is one of the próceres of the independence movement. He was even involved in the planning of the direct action on Congress in 1954 when he was already in his forties. The FBI never learned of his involvement.”
“And why do you want me to meet him?”
“I have told him about you. He knows you are a descendant of the great Liberator Simon Bolívar, and that you admire his gesta. I know that in your heart of hearts you want to emulate him, Javier. Aguirre thinks that he can give you the opportunity to do so. In some small way you can become – how shall I put it? – a twentieth century Bolívar.”
“Me, a revolutionary?” I asked incredulously.
“Why not?” Irving replied. “As an American not of Puerto Rican descent, nobody would guess you are helping the Ejercito Popular Boricua. At any event, I am obviously not asking you to make any decisions right now. Nor would we ask you to do anything risky, at least at first. You can agree or disagree to any requests that are made of you. All I want you to do is meet Aguirre and some other people. What do you think?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “One thing is talking about pipe dreams. Putting your life on the line for the liberty of Puerto Rico is quite another. And I am not even a Puerto Rican.”
“You hail from Latin America, Javier. A son of any Latin American country is a son of them all. And as Che Guevara once said, and I am paraphrasing him loosely, ‘Victory over imperialism in any Latin American country is a victory for all.’”
“I don’t know,” I repeated.
“Take some time to think about it,” Irving said. “Maybe you have been preparing your whole life for this moment. I can arrange a meeting with Aguirre for next Friday.”
The truth is I had mixed feelings about Irving’s proposition. On the one hand, having anything to do with the Boricua Popular Army seemed like sheer folly. It was an invitation to end up in prison. Irving himself had told me the fate of perhaps the greatest of Puerto Rico’s próceres for independence, Pedro Albizu Campos, a Harvard Law School graduate who had been incarcerated in the United States for his revolutionary activities and had languished in jail for around thirty years, where he had ultimately been tortured with radiation treatment. Also, I knew that the participants in the attack on Congress in 1954 were still in prison, with little chance of ever being freed. So, helping the Ejercito Popular Boricua in any capacity seemed like a highly risky proposition, to say the least. On the other hand, the idea of being a revolutionary for independence intrigued me. All my life, I had dreamed of the idea of emulating my ancestor Simon Bolívar, the hero from my childhood, and finally life was apparently providing me with the opportunity to do so. What would my father Guillermo Pardo Bolívar think? Would he finally admire me?
I was sure that under similar circumstances, Simon Bolívar would have jumped at the opportunity to fight to rid Puerto Rico of its colonial masters. After all, near the end of his life, Bolívar had dreamed of liberating Cuba and Puerto Rico from the grip of Spain, just like he had liberated so many other nations – Colombia, Ecuador, Panamá, Venezuela, Perú. In a way, Irving’s proposition posed an existential question: would I continue to live in a country that pervasively oppressed Hispanics, trying to succeed as best I could, or would I fight for the cause of Latin America, just as Bolívar had? After much thought, I resolved to go meet with the mysterious Aguirre. I told myself I would not face any peril from just meeting him, and that perhaps I could do something legal for the cause of Puerto Rican independence, which would not put my life or my liberty in danger. I immediately called Irving and we set up a meeting. On the following Friday, a car would pick me up at midnight and take me to a place where I could meet Aguirre.
At the appointed time, Irving knocked on the door of my dorm room at the Maison Américaine and told me everything was ready. We walked outside the building for about a hundred feet, where a car was waiting for us in front of the Maison du Maroc12. There were three people outside the car, ready to greet me. The first was an obese woman, who spoke broken Spanish and was unquestionably an American, and whom Irving introduced simply as “Goldberg.” I suspect it was not her real name, but a nom de guerre. Then he introduced me to a Spanish woman, quite young and attractive, whose nom de guerre was Cristina. Finally, there was a young Puerto Rican man, in his early twenties, who appeared even more nervous than I was and probably a recent recruit, whom Irving introduced simply as “Bennie.” Immediately, I was made to sit in the back of the car, between Goldberg and Bennie. Cristina sat in the front with Irving, who was to drive the car. Before we took off, Goldberg told me, “This is for your own protection,” and she blindfolded me. Then we drove for about forty-five minutes – I had no idea where we were going – until we stopped in front of what I later discovered was a six-story building. Goldberg took off my blindfold and we walked to the third story and entered what seemed to be a chambre de bonne, or maid’s room, where a man sat on an armchair with his arms crossed in front of him and a ski mask covering his face. In a corner of the room, next to a table, there was a Kalashnikov rifle. Other than that table and a few chairs, there was nothing else in the room, and no other persons. It was clear that nobody slept there.
“This is Javier,” Irving said as he introduced me to the man sitting on the armchair. “He lives in the United States, but his family is from Latin America. He is interested in learning more about the Boricua Popular Army.”
And then Irving turned to me and said, “This is Aguirre, one of the greatest próceres of the Puerto Rican independence movement. I have told him a lot about you.”
Before shaking my hand, Aguirre did something unexpected. He removed his ski mask. It revealed the face of an old man, probably in his eighties, with a disfiguring mole over his left eye and dark, wrinkled skin.
“See,” he told me in a calm voice, almost in a whisper. “I trust you. We are among friends. I don’t need to hide myself from you.”
“Sure,” I said. “Mr. Aguirre. Thank you.”
“No need to say Mister,” he responded. “Aguirre is fine.”
Then Goldberg interrupted. She spoke in a loud peremptory voice. “Javier is a possible new recruit,” she said in heavily accented Spanish. “He hates the Yanqui oppressor.”
“Oh,” Aguirre replied, still speaking in a near whisper. “Why do you hate the Americans?’
“I’m not sure I hate anybody,” I answered. “I just came to learn – to learn a little bit about what you do.”
“You don’t have to hate anybody to help achieve Puerto Rican independence, Javier. You just have to love the Puerto Rican people, indeed, all Latin American people. I myself do not hate the Americans. I can assure you of that. If you hate someone, you end up becoming like them. But I have fought them for over fifty years without respite.”
And then he started a fit of coughing.
“Sorry,” he continued, after he wiped his face. “The important thing is to believe in the cause with all your heart. You have been born an American, just like Goldberg and Irving – that is your curse – but you must realize that American power depends on the oppression of Puerto Ricans and indeed all the Latin American people, your people, not only in the United States but in Latin America itself. I suspect deep down you know that. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here tonight. And so I think you might find a home with us.”
Then he added, in a whisper that was almost inaudible: “You can become a proud member of the Boricua Popular Army.”
I was entering into something of a daze. The whole scene seemed surreal. Here I was, an average American college student, talking to a group that I would ordinarily have called terrorists, and yet there was a certain sense in what Aguirre was saying. I had always decried American intervention in Latin America, though I had never done anything about it. Aguirre offered me a strange temptation, striving to complete the political seduction initiated by Irving in the cafeteria of the Maison Américaine.
“I have heard that you attend Yale College,” Aguirre continued. “It is a very fine university. But I hope you understand that American universities are just another arm of the Yanqui power structure. Yale is where the children of Puerto Rican governors go to school, the place where future members of the American corporate elite are groomed. It is not a place where someone like you can learn anything really important. And sure, they allow the brightest members of the oppressed classes to enroll – the blacks, the Boricuas, the Mexicans – but that is only done to decapitate the ranks of the oppressed by co-opting their possible leaders. It is – what is the American word? – it is a means to make them all ‘sell-outs.’ I’m sure the powers that be in America wish they had once had the foresight to give Martin Luther King a comfy job with a secretary.”
“Let us get to the gist of it,” Goldberg interrupted.
“Slow down, slow down,” Aguirre said, this time raising his voice a little. “I want the opportunity to get to know Javier.”
And then he turned to me again: “Have you ever done anything for your own people?”
“I don’t know,” I stammered. “I engaged in some protests against American intervention in Nicaragua. I delivered a speech. I signed some letters.”
“Ah,” he whispered. “The Nicaraguans...”
“The Nicaraguans are fighting the same battle that we are,” Irving interjected, speaking for the first time. “Central America is as much an American colony as we are.”
Then Goldberg interrupted again. “Let’s get to the nub of it,” she said. “Enough conversation.”
“We want to ask you for a little favor,” Aguirre said, again in a whisper, assenting to Goldberg’s demands. “We need to deliver a package to New York City. It would easily be hidden in a knapsack. Someone will be ready at La Guardia to pick it up from you.”
“A package?” I asked. “What’s in the package?”
Aguirre waved his hand in the air, as if to say that was a matter of small importance.
“It doesn’t matter what’s in the package,” he said. “What’s important, my good friend, is that it be delivered without being detected by the American authorities.”
“Is it money?” I asked. “Drugs? Or is it explosives?”
Aguirre reiterated, “I have told you that is of small consequence. But be assured that you will be performing a great service for the cause of Puerto Rican independence. We will, of course, be paying you a small fee for your assistance.”
“And if the operation is successful,” Irving added, “we will be asking you to perform more important services. Of course, you will always have the opportunity to decline.”
“I don’t know,” I said, shaking my head. I felt as if they had already decided for me. “If it is detected, I would be in a heap of trouble. If I don’t even know what’s inside the package...”
“You will be doing something meaningful with your life, Javier,” Aguirre stated. “Think of the beauty of an independent Borinken13. And that would be but the first step in a broader campaign to rid Latin America of the influence of the oppressive Yanquis.”
“The risks will be very small,” Irving said enthusiastically. “I can almost guarantee that it is a failsafe plan, Javier. I’ve done it many times, but we are almost sure the Yanquis are onto me. They can’t extradite me from France, but if I fly to La Guardia, that is another matter. You, on the other hand, are simply an exchange student with an American passport. There is virtually no chance the operation will fail.”
“I would do it myself,” Bennie interjected, as if he had just awakened from a deep sleep, “but I am needed for our operations in Europe. The Americans will never catch you.”
“No, they won’t,” Goldberg approved.
“Then why won’t you do it?” I shot back at Goldberg. “You’re an American yourself, aren’t you?”
“Listen, if you’re afraid–” Goldberg started.
“Give Javier some time to think,” Aguirre interrupted, raising his voice. “The decision to become a prócer for the independence of Puerto Rico cannot be made in a minute. Simon Bolívar did not make his decision to liberate Gran Colombia in an instant. But I will tell you this, Javier. This is perhaps the only opportunity you will have to replicate Bolívar’s gesta in your lifetime. It will be the unique chance to have a meaningful existence. If you decline this opportunity, you will have an ordinary life. And what’s worse, you will have an ordinary life as an American of Hispanic descent. You will never be allowed to achieve any of your great ambitions, of that I can assure you.”
“Well...” I began.
“So, take a week!” Aguirre shouted, suddenly animated. “Think about it and let us know if you want to be part of this great revolutionary process. The Puerto Rican people will forever thank you for helping achieve their liberation. If you decline, so be it!”
During the ensuing days, I thought long and hard about what I had been asked to do. It was a nagging temptation. In retrospect, I am surprised that I did not dismiss it out of hand. But it was, as Aguirre had stated, a unique opportunity to be part of a process to free a Latin American colony from American control. It would be the culmination of years of protesting American domination of Latin American countries, beginning with my defense of the Panamá Canal Treaties when I was just a kid in grammar school. And it was what Bolívar would have done. After all, he risked everything to achieve the liberation of the Latin American continent. The slight risk of arrest I faced for transporting drugs or money from France to the United States seemed trivial in comparison. Was I a coward or a warrior? Would my father Guillermo Pardo Bolívar think I had shirked my duties?
Aguirre had also struck a chord when he reminded me that if I went on to become a corporate lawyer, I would not be using my talents for my people. The two aunts who had raised me, as well as my grandmother, were all illegal aliens, under threat of deportation at any time. They were like millions of others. And one of them, my aunt Celia, had actually been thrown out of the country after an INS raid of the place where she worked, the Ambassador Hotel. It had been necessary to hire a “coyote” to bring her back to the United States via Tijuana. And the voters of California had just enacted the dreadful Proposition 187, which forbade so-called “illegal alien” children from going to public schools or receiving public health care. Was I to forget all about them and become a prostitute in horn-rimmed glasses for the rich? Or would I become a revolutionary and right some wrongs as Don Quixote said?
And so, the day came when I called Irving to tell him my decision. He told me to give him a minute and soon appeared at my room at the Maison Américaine.
I immediately told him, “I’ve reached a decision, Irving.”
“And your decision is?”
“I’m all in,” I said.
“You’ll see. Being a rebel will give meaning to your life. You’ll be like the great Albizu Campos, the Harvard Law graduate who gave his life to the cause of independence for Puerto Rico. And with time you’ll be able to defend all the other detested ‘spicks’ who live in the United States – the Mexicans, the Salvadorans, and all the rest.”
A week later, I found myself at Charles de Gaulle Airport, with a brown valise carrying a package whose contents I had not seen. I arrived at La Guardia safely and found the man I was supposed to meet – a black man in white slacks and a light green guayabera shirt. That was it. Nothing terrible had happened. Nobody had suspected I was a “mule” for the Boricua Popular Army. And yet I had crossed a Rubicon, had gone from words to action for the first time. I returned to Paris the next day, in order to finish my Senior Semester Abroad. Soon I received a letter congratulating me for having been admitted to the Harvard Law School, but by then I knew I would not attend. Instead, I was tasked by Aguirre with transporting other packages from Paris to New York City – I eventually learned that it was money – and I did so for more than a year without ever getting caught. At some point, Aguirre asked me to participate in a bank heist in New Jersey. I agreed to do so without hesitation, for by then I considered myself a committed revolutionary for the lovely island known as Borinken.
We looted eight hundred thousand dollars in that initial mission. Soon thereafter, I wrote a lengthy letter to my mother, telling her that she should not expect to see me for a long time. I also wrote a letter to my father in Colombia, proudly telling him I was continuing Bolívar’s gesta by fighting for Puerto Rico’s independence. After the bank heist, I had to live “underground,” although that did not prevent me from performing multiple acts of sabotage in Puerto Rico and the mainland.
The next time my mother saw me was when I was being tried for terrorism in a Manhattan courtroom, accused of planting a bomb in a police station.
1 La Maison Américaine is a dorm room for American students in Paris, although non-Americans often live in the dorm room as well. La Maison Américaine is one of about twenty different dorm rooms for residents of different countries located in a large campus known as La Cité Universitaire.
2 The restaurant for residents of the Cité Universitaire.
3 French term for “policemen.”
4 The independentistas are those who seek Puerto Rico’s independence from the United States.
5 Borinken is another name for Puerto Rico.
6 “Sudaca” is a derogatory term used in Spain to refer to Latin Americans.
7 “Boricuas” means Puerto Ricans.
8 Copains means companions or buddies.
9 Conard is an idiot, cretin, imbecile
10 Residents of Pasto.
11 “Gesta” literally means “quest” and the term is commonly used to refer to Bolivar’s quest for the independence of the Spanish colonies from Spain.
12 The House of Morocco, one of the dorm rooms in the Cité Universitaire.
13 “Borinken” is a commonly used term to designate Puerto Rico.