Let Puerto Rico Be Free

The only just future for my home is not statehood, but full independence from the United States.

Boy with Puerto Rican flag as cape
Christopher Gregory-Rivera

In 2017, as summer ends, when news anchors first mention the oncoming Hurricane Irma, the people go to the big-box store or the Econo supermarket just a few minutes from home. They try to stock up, but by the time they arrive, the lines are long and most of the shops are running low. They get what they can: some food, a few gallons of water, a portable gas-powered hot plate in case they lose power. They refill their prescriptions and then fill the gas tank after waiting in an hours-long line at the Puma station.

When Irma moves north of Puerto Rico and across the Caribbean, it brings heavy rains, flooding, power outages. And then, two weeks later, Hurricane María approaches the archipelago. On September 20, the storm makes landfall, knocking out the electrical grid and leaving the entire population in the dark. It passes through Yabucoa and Humacao and Comerío, and the water levels in Río de la Plata begin to rise. Flash floods destroy many of the houses. Roads and bridges collapse.

The days following María bring only more misery, and there is a general understanding that everyone is up against something bigger than a storm. People lose family members. They desperately hunt for drinking water, collecting it from wells and natural springs and any other source they can find. They endure President Donald Trump, who spends the weekend after the storm at a golf tournament, tweeting that his critics in Puerto Rico are “politically motivated ingrates.” They watch him toss paper towels at hurricane survivors when he finally does visit, in early October—a performance before the world, meant as a humiliation. Eventually he will propose trading Puerto Rico for Greenland.

As the days become weeks, there is more rain; there are more floods. People live without power for months. They watch that same president deny that many people have died, even as thousands never come home. The people work with their neighbors to secure blue tarps onto roofs. Every day, more tarps go up, house after house. When people stand on a terrace watching the town below, they see an ocean of blue-covered houses. They clear debris from the road. They shovel mud out of their living rooms, their kitchens, their bedrooms, their bathrooms. They try to salvage family pictures, wedding albums, birth certificates. The storm carried so much away, dropped other people’s things inside their homes. In a bedroom is someone else’s desk lamp, a neighbor’s charcoal grill. All over the sloped back garden: children’s clothing, toys, shingles from a nearby roof. People clear fallen trees, bamboo, garbage. They clean and clean, but the job never stops. They wait for FEMA. They wait for FEMA.

For months, they live in survival mode, dealing with an archipelago-­wide mental-health crisis, a shortage of drinking water, delayed or unavailable medical services. They endure obstacles created by the U.S. government. The military arrives, the National Guard mobilizes, but the Trump administration blocks access to more than $20 billion in hurricane-relief aid and recovery funding. María, the people learn, is the deadliest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico since 1899, but nobody can agree on the true death toll. The official count, announced in December, is 64, but a study the following year by The New England Journal of Medicine finds a fair estimate to be more than 5,000.

Nine months after María, people still have no electricity. They stop waiting for FEMA. Instead, they look to their neighbors. They take care of one another. This is how it has always been. Every day, it becomes more and more obvious that the current government structure—Puerto Rico as a de facto colony of the United States, despite the official language referring to it as a “commonwealth”—is a failure. There is no benevolent American savior coming to help Puerto Rico. Every day, people see that there is only them, doing everything for themselves. Every day, more of them come to understand that Puerto Rico has always stood on its own. This is why I believe that independence, not statehood, is the path we must pursue.


Every year, no matter where I’m living, I visit family in Puerto Rico. Sometimes I spend whole summers there, sweating my ass off, driving up and down narrow mountain roads, splitting my time among San Lorenzo and San Juan and Humacao and Comerío. After a couple of weeks in the mountains, of days walking the cobblestone streets, feeding flea-bitten satos with wagging tails, mosquitoes leaving galaxies of red down my arms and legs, the coquis singing me to sleep at night, I start to feel more like myself, like the woman I’m supposed to be. Soon, I can’t remember what life is like without roosters screaming in the early morning, the neighbor’s donkey braying, wild parrots flying overhead, the peacocks train-rattling down the hill.

Last year, on my first trip back since the corona­virus pandemic began, I visited my Tío David, a Catholic priest. When Hurricane María hit, my uncle lived in Comerío, a mountain town about an hour south of San Juan, near the center of the main island. He was based in the church there. Our family lost contact with him when the power and cellphone service went down. I spent six weeks listening for his name on walkie-talkie apps, reading lists of survivors, texting and emailing and calling, until finally one day I found him and heard his voice again. He didn’t leave Comerío, even as I sent supplies and begged him to fly to Ohio, where I lived at the time. “There’s too much work to do here,” he told me. “People need help.”

In time, he transferred to a Catholic church in Yabucoa, on the southeastern coast, one of the towns hardest hit by the storm. When Hurricane María made landfall in Puerto Rico, it entered through Yabucoa, with winds of up to 155 miles an hour. Tornadoes tore through as well, and the rains led to landslides. More than 1,500 houses were damaged. So were most of the local businesses in el pueblo, as well as major structures like Yabucoa’s baseball stadium and city hall. The recovery has been slow.

It was late morning when I pulled up to the church. The sun was shining, the city center bustling with pedestrian traffic, the narrow streets busy with cars and bikes and scooters. Tío David and I drove around, taking it easy on the hills and turns, keeping an eye out for pedestrians. A pack of satos walked right in front of my Kia, bolting when I slammed on the brakes.

The city center is small, but Yabucoa is spread out over 10 barrios. Hills, then the valley, then cliffs overlooking the ocean. This is where he plans to retire, Tío David told me: close to the sea, close to family and friends and his church. The people take care of one another in Yabucoa, he said, as they did in Comerío; the people, not the government, will ensure Puerto Rico’s recovery.

Oscar Lopez Rivera in his office
Left: Oscar López Rivera at his office in Río Piedras. Right: His painting of the independence activists Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, Pedro Albizu Campos, and Juan Antonio Corretjer. (Christopher Gregory-Rivera for The Atlantic)

I told him that I would soon be meeting with Oscar López Rivera to talk about the prospect of Puerto Rico’s independence. He knew Oscar, he said. Everybody knew Oscar. In May 2017, a few months before the hurricanes, López Rivera had been released from prison in the U.S., where he had been confined since 1981 after his conviction on charges of seditious conspiracy. The sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama in one of his last acts before leaving office. For decades, particularly in the United States, López Rivera was seen as a terrorist because of his involvement with the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (Armed Forces of National Liberation), or FALN, a militant organization whose campaign for Puerto Rican independence in the 1970s killed five Americans and wounded dozens of others. But to many people in Puerto Rico and among the diaspora, he was regarded as a political prisoner, the embodiment of resistance. After his release, he was greeted by crowds from all over Puerto Rico—cheering, singing, carrying flowers and Puerto Rican flags. The University of Puerto Rico’s student choir serenaded him outside his daughter’s apartment building. Tío David was among those who celebrated his return, in part because he believed it was a sign that change was coming.

The United States seized Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898, during the Spanish-American War. Today, although Puerto Rico has its own national identity, its official political status is neither as a U.S. state nor as a sovereign nation but rather as, technically, an “unincorporated territory.” That status was supposedly determined with the input of Puerto Ricans. But the deck has always been stacked. In 1952, two years after Puerto Rican nationalists attempted to assassinate Harry Truman, the U.S. endorsed a plebiscite to settle the question of the archipelago’s status. However, only two options were available to voters: the establishment of limited self-­governance under American colonial authority—the “common­wealth” option—or continued direct administration as an actual colony. Back then, Puerto Ricans chose the commonwealth option. Most politicians in Puerto Rico—and those people wired into the American social and economic system—now favor statehood. The political consensus in Washington is that, as a practical matter, the most likely future for Puerto Rico is an indefinite continuation of the status quo. Independence is not an official choice.

The author's uncle saying Mass
The author’s uncle, Padre David Díaz Matos, says Mass at Capilla Nuestra Señora del Carmen,
a church in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico. (Christopher Gregory-Rivera for The Atlantic)

A few days after my visit with Tío David, I met López Rivera in the city of Río Piedras. Around the corner from López Rivera’s office, I walked past a mural depicting the 19th-century Flag of Lares—created to be the flag of a free Puerto Rico once it gained independence from Spain—along with López Rivera’s face and the words ¡LIBERACIÓN YA! The same flag hangs inside López Rivera’s small office, surrounded by portraits of the Afro Puerto Rican independence activist Pedro Albizu Campos; the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara (the FALN was supported by Cuba’s Communist government); and the Puerto Rican writer and activist Consuelo Lee Tapia, together with her husband, Puerto Rico’s national poet, Juan Antonio Corretjer—all painted by López Rivera himself. In a studio behind the office, López Rivera showed me more of his work: Frida Kahlo in tones of black and muted red. Another portrait of Corretjer. Back in the office, he offered me a seat and made coffee.

Since his return to Puerto Rico, López Rivera has again assumed the role of activist, protesting the private takeover of the publicly owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority by a new Canadian American company, Luma, known for its unreliable service and repeated rate hikes. The takeover has brought Puerto Ricans into the streets. López Rivera has also spoken out against PROMESA, the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, signed by Obama in 2016. Puerto Rico had been plagued by a debt crisis that would soon be worsened by ballooning pension-fund liabilities, losses from the state-owned power company, and a mass migration of taxpayers and workers to the United States after Hurricane María. Because of its political status, Puerto Rico is denied many of the legal and fiscal tools granted to states and other sovereign entities to restructure debts or seek relief. PROMESA created a financial-oversight board made up of unelected officials who have the authority to overrule Puerto Rican lawmakers—which they did when they forced Puerto Rico to accept the new power company. The oversight board is known by everyone simply as “la junta.” It has slashed pension funds, closed hundreds of schools, cut funding to the University of Puerto Rico, and created a work requirement that people have to satisfy before they can qualify for food assistance.

The damaged baseball stadium in Yabucoa
The baseball stadium in Yabucoa was severely damaged in 2017 by Hurricane María, and ultimately had to be razed. (Christopher Gregory-Rivera)

We spoke about the protests during the past few years, when Puerto Ricans came out against la junta’s austerity measures and then forced Governor Ricardo Rosselló to resign after hundreds of leaked messages on the Telegram app showed him and his associates engaging in sexism and homophobia—and perhaps political graft and corruption. Many of the protesters on these occasions have loudly and publicly demanded independence.

The quest for independence has a long history in Puerto Rico, going back to Spanish colonial times. The U.S. has spent more than a century discrediting independence movements on the archipelago and at times criminalizing them. Pro-independence sentiment has not always been openly expressed. In a Washington Post /Kaiser Family Foundation survey conducted in Puerto Rico in 2018, only about 10 percent of respondents said they favored independence. But I am not alone in believing that support for independence is growing. In the 2020 gubernatorial election, two parties advocating for self-determination and decolonization—one of them calling for full independence—­collectively garnered more than a quarter of the vote. Hurricane María was not just a natural disaster; it was a political event that, I believe, is provoking a historic shift. Americans do not appreciate the sheer scale of the trauma. To give one example: In the three months after María, a Puerto Rico Department of Health hotline received approximately 10,000 calls from people considering suicide—­a huge increase over the previous year. Of those, almost a third said they had already tried—­an even greater increase. María also made it clear to ordinary people, during the worst disaster in the archipelago’s modern history, that self-sufficiency and, essentially, self-governance were the only things Puerto Ricans could truly rely on.

man rebuilding his home in San Isidro
Recovery from Hurricane María continues, slowly. Two years after the storm, in San Isidro,
a homeowner began the task of rebuilding. (Christopher Gregory-Rivera)

In search of jobs, many were forced by María to leave. Puerto Rico lost 135,000 people in the six months after the hurricane—this out of a population of a little more than 3 million. For those still living on the archipelago, the challenges continue to mount. Changes to Puerto Rico’s tax code since 2012 have reduced corporate tax rates to just 4 percent, and have exempted all interest and dividend income, encouraging rich non–Puerto Ricans to take up residence. In recent years, Puerto Rico has become a destination for disaster capitalists—real-estate developers and cryptocurrency investors looking for a tax haven. “There are foreign­ers buying up all the property,” López Rivera told me. “Puerto Ricans are being pushed out, displaced.” Approximately 43 percent of all Puerto Ricans live below the poverty line and struggle to find work. The median household income is $21,058, less than half the median income in Mississippi, the poorest American state.

“La Operación”

There are constant reminders in Puerto Rico of its powerlessness. On April 21, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a law that denies Supplemental Security Income benefits to Puerto Ricans who are blind or disabled, even though Puerto Ricans are ostensibly U.S. citizens. Vieques and Culebra—two small islands that are part of the archipelago—were long used by the U.S. Navy for bombing practice and munitions dumping, and the Navy left behind thousands of bombs, grenades, and other live ordnance. The devastation on Vieques and Culebra—including contamination of the groundwater by hazardous substances, such as perchlorate—is so significant that the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates the cleanup will continue through 2032.

Even Americans familiar with some of Puerto Rico’s history may be unaware of major episodes—for instance, the U.S.-imposed population-control policies, starting in the 1930s, that promoted the mass sterilization of Puerto Rican women and used Puerto Ricans for medical experiments.

In 1937, under Blanton Winship, the U.S.-appointed governor, Law 116 came into force, creating the Puerto Rican Eugenics Board and subsidizing the sterilization of Puerto Ricans. Sterilization, particularly of poor women, had been proposed by the U.S. government as a solution for the archipelago’s rising unemployment rate, which, according to the colonial government, was caused by overpopulation. In the 1920s and ’30s, according to the historian Laura Briggs, “the term overpopulation had acquired another meaning, one that blamed excessive sexuality and fertility for the poverty of [Puerto Rico] as a whole.”

In truth, blame for the archipelago’s unemployment and poverty lies with the United States. After taking control of Puerto Rico, the U.S. disrupted the coffee industry, which employed much of the working class, devaluing the currency and inflating the cost of coffee production. American sugar companies supplanted Puerto Rican coffee growers, converting about half of all arable land into sugar plantations and displacing small landholders. In a variety of ways, the economy was upended. By the 1930s, more than a third of Puerto Ricans found themselves out of a job and without an income. Panic about “overpopulation” was used to indict Puerto Ricans for their own dispossession.

The idea of overpopulation drove the eugenics regime. From 1937 to 1960, when Law 116 was repealed, the Puerto Rican Eugenics Board directly forced 97 sterilizations by means of tubal ligation or hysterectomy, but many thousands of other women were effectively coerced into the same procedures—led to believe that sterilization was reversible, or told that they would not be employed unless they had been sterilized. When healthy pregnant women arrived at hospitals ready to deliver their babies, many were turned away unless they agreed to be sterilized after giving birth. It became common practice for women to have “la operación” following delivery, even after the repeal of Law 116. The 1982 Fertility and Family Planning Assessment, published in the journal Population Today, found that 41 percent of married women in Puerto Rico had been sterilized. Puerto Rican women of childbearing age had the world’s highest sterilization rate. Decades later, the sterilization rate in Puerto Rico is still among the highest. “They wanted to exterminate us,” López Rivera maintained.

I was born in one of Puerto Rico’s government housing projects, El Caserío Padre Rivera, in Humacao. El Caserío was a small community, most of us Black and brown, all of us born into poverty. Police raids were frequent, harassment routine. Most of the women were sterilized. My mother held a job at a factory in Las Piedras, working long shifts making electronic parts. She’d had three children by the time she was 22. I recall a conversation we had a few months into the pandemic, about her life as a young mother—and how she, like so many other women in Puerto Rico’s public-housing projects, had been sterilized.

“I loved being a mother,” she told me. “I would’ve filled the house with babies.”

“Then why did you get la operación?”

She didn’t hesitate. “Everybody told me to get it. All the women were getting it. Your father said I should. The nurses.” She paused, took a deep breath. “And I wanted to go back to work.” Her supervisors had never explicitly said she needed to get la operación, she told me, but she remembered that it was just understood.

My mother was sterilized after giving birth to her third child. Back then, la operación was a part of life. You went into the hospital to give birth, and you came home with your baby and with your tubes tied. There were never any conversations about informed consent or about potential risks. Sterilization was just what you did.

Puerto Rico became a proving ground for medical experiments. In the early 1950s, as the in­famous Tuskegee syphilis study was being conducted on Black men in Alabama, experimental pharmaceutical contraceptives were tested on unknowing Puerto Rican women. The project was funded and guided by Clarence Gamble, the heir to Procter & Gamble and a prominent eugenicist. Gamble established birth-control clinics across Puerto Rico and sent nurses and social workers to recruit women from the predominantly Black and brown housing projects for “perhaps one of the most notorious abuses of medical power in birth control technology’s history,” as the scholar Nancy Ordover writes in her book, American Eugenics. Without informed consent, doctors gave progesterone injections and dispensed the world’s first birth-control pills to poor women from rural and poverty-stricken communities. What would become known as “the pill” was, at the time, “a highly experimental drug administered without controlled dosage,” Ordover writes. The women suffered serious side effects, such as nausea, headaches, and bleeding, but were disregarded when they reported feeling ill. During the clinical trials, three women died.

The Gag Law

From the start, the fight for Puerto Rican independence was in­extricable from the movements in the archipelago to abolish slavery and demand racial equality. In 1856, the Afro Puerto Rican diplomat and doctor Ramón Emeterio Betances helped found a secret abolitionist society to liberate enslaved people by securing their passage to other countries or paying for their freedom. At the same time, the society promised freedom to enslaved people who joined the independence movement, and the struggle against Spanish colonial rule was embraced early by many Black Puerto Ricans. For their efforts, Betances and others were exiled to the Dominican Republic by the Spanish crown. Working abroad, Betances and his partner, Segundo Ruiz Belvís, founded the Revolutionary Committee of Puerto Rico, which demanded both abolition and independence—­together. From the Dominican Republic, the group plotted an uprising. In September 1868, pro-­independence rebels carried out their plans, but the revolt was quickly quelled by the Spanish. Betances fled to New York. The uprising, still commemorated, is known as El Grito de Lares. Slavery was abolished in Puerto Rico in 1873.

"Man Redeemed" monument (El Hombre Redimido)
El Hombre Redimido (“Man Redeemed”), a monument in the city of Ponce commemorating the abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico in 1873 (Christopher Gregory-Rivera for The Atlantic)

In 1897, Spain granted Puerto Rico a form of sovereignty under a statute called the Carta Autonómica, but when the United States seized the archipelago the following year, it dissolved the new Parliament and brushed aside the new charter, establishing its own colonial government. Under military occupation, Puerto Ricans saw their land taken, their industries destroyed, their currency devalued. They were forced to live as subjects of a nation whose Supreme Court had just promulgated the racist doctrine of “separate but equal.” Six months into the occupation, the same troops that had been called to fight in Puerto Rico were mobilized in Wilmington, North Carolina, where they helped massacre Black citizens and elected officials amid the violent overthrow of the city’s multiracial government by white supremacists.

In 1917, the U.S. Congress passed the Jones Act, which granted a form of second-class citizenship to most people born in Puerto Rico. Within weeks, it passed a second law making Puerto Ricans eligible for the military draft. In the months that followed, some 20,000 Puerto Rican men were conscripted for service during World War I. The Jones Act did not grant Puerto Ricans the same rights as most other U.S. citizens. Then as now, they did not have any voting representatives in Congress, and could not vote in presidential elections.

archival photos from the 1937 Ponce Massacre and an uprising in 1950
Left: One of 19 Puerto Ricans killed in the 1937 Ponce Massacre; the facts were initially covered up by
U.S. authorities. Right: Suspected nationalists and sympathizers are rounded up after an uprising in 1950. (Archive PL / Alamy; Bettmann / Getty)

This injustice—as well as his own experience in the U.S. military—­inspired the work of Pedro Albizu Campos. After serving as an officer in the Army during the war, he graduated from Harvard Law School and returned to Puerto Rico to practice law. He took up activism against the U.S.-owned sugar industry, leading union strikes on plantations and representing workers in lawsuits. He joined the new, pro-independence Nationalist Party and was elected its vice president in 1924 and its president in 1930.

The United States saw the independence movement as a threat and used a range of suppressive tactics against it, including FBI surveillance, long-term imprisonment, and the torture of pro-­independence political leaders. In 1935, on the campus of the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras, the police shot and killed four members of the Nationalist Party and a young bystander in what is now known as the Río Piedras Massacre. A year later, two Puerto Ricans were accused of murdering the American chief of police in Puerto Rico as retaliation. The suspects were arrested and executed without trial at the police headquarters in San Juan. Shortly afterward, Albizu Campos and several other Nationalist leaders were convicted of conspiring to overthrow the United States government and sent to federal prison, where Albizu Campos would remain for a decade.

In March 1937, the same year Governor Winship introduced the sterilization law, hundreds of Puerto Ricans in the city of Ponce gathered for a march organized by the Nationalist Party to commemorate emancipation in Puerto Rico and to protest the incarceration of Albizu Campos. Under Winship’s orders, police opened fire on the peaceful protesters: families with children; students; parishioners who had been celebrating Palm Sunday, marching with music and palm fronds. The police shot into the crowd and kept shooting for almost 15 minutes. As they walked by the dead or dying, they beat them with clubs. The police killed 19 people and wounded more than 200. Most of those who died were shot in the back while running away. An extensive cover-up followed, with Winship claiming that the protesters had shot first and the police had only returned fire. An investigation by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights determined that the governor was lying and that evidence had been fabricated. Winship was removed from office but never prosecuted.

Albizu Campos returned to Puerto Rico in 1947. A year later, the U.S.-appointed governor signed Law 53, La Ley de la Mordaza. It is widely referred to as the Gag Law, and it made flying Puerto Rican flags, even privately, illegal. The Gag Law also made it a crime to sing the Puerto Rican national anthem; to speak out against the United States; and to speak, organize, or assemble in favor of independence. Law 53, which violated the First Amendment, was in effect for nearly a decade, until it was repealed in 1957. It essentially empowered authorities to penalize Puerto Ricans just for being Puerto Rican.

Aftermath of the FALN bombing at Fraunces Tavern in 1975
In 1975, the Puerto Rican nationalist group known as the FALN carried out a lethal bombing at a New York restaurant, Fraunces Tavern—one of many attacks. (New York Daily News / Getty)

In response to the Gag Law and the attempted suppression of pro-independence sentiment, the Nationalists planned a series of revolts. In October 1950, after a firefight that killed three Nationalists in the town of Peñuelas, Albizu Campos called for an insurrection. Nationalists rose up in several towns over the following days. On November 1, after particularly serious revolts in Jayuya and Utuado, the governor called in the Puerto Rican National Guard and the U.S. Air Force. American military aircraft flew over the two municipalities, dropping bombs over the pueblos, flattening homes. According to police estimates, 28 people were killed and 50 were wounded.

After Jayuya and Utuado had been retaken by the government, National Guardsmen patrolled the streets with pistols, rifles, and bayonets. In Utuado, after a group of Nationalists surrendered, the prisoners were walked to the local police station and ordered to remove their shoes and belts. Behind the station, the police lined them up, their backs to the wall—the youngest only 17, pleading for water—and shot them, killing five.

That same day, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola boarded a train from New York to Washington, D.C. Torresola’s family lived in Jayuya; his sister had been wounded in the uprising and his brother had been arrested. Twenty-four hours later, in an effort to gain international attention for the cause of Puerto Rican independence, Collazo and Torresola attempted to assassinate President Truman inside Blair House, across from the White House, where he was living at the time. Following the Nationalist uprisings, thousands of people supporting independence were jailed. Albizu Campos was arrested again, and this time sentenced to 80 years in federal prison.


This is the world that Oscar López Rivera grew up in. Born in San Sebastián, in 1943, just a few years after Albizu Campos’s first arrest, López Rivera moved to Chicago with his sister at the age of 14. His father followed with the rest of the family a few years later. López Rivera was drafted into the Army and in 1965 was sent to Vietnam. He earned a Bronze Star, but came to see the war as an extension of the same colonial logic that had governed life in Puerto Rico—the powerful doing whatever they wanted, because they thought they could. “I kept on making myself promises about coming home and doing everything that I could do to transform Puerto Rico into an independent nation,” he told me. Back in Chicago, he began a career as an activist for tenants’ and workers’ rights and as an advocate for Puerto Rican communities. He co-founded a high school and a cultural center. In 1972, the United Nations’ Special Committee on Decolonization urged the U.S. to recognize the “inalienable right of the people of Puerto Rico to self‐­determination and independence.” Around this time, López Rivera first met the activists who would become members of the militant and clandestine pro-independence organization known as the FALN.

The FALN first emerged publicly in October 1974, when it set off bombs in New York City: two in Rockefeller Center and two on Park Avenue, as well as a car bomb in the Financial District that covered nearly two blocks in debris. No one was hurt—the bombings took place around 3 a.m., when the streets were empty. But then, later in the year, a bomb left in an abandoned building injured a New York City police officer. A month later, in January 1975, the FALN claimed responsibility for a lunchtime explosion at Fraunces Tavern, a restaurant and historic landmark in the Financial District. Four men were killed and at least 44 people were injured. One of the dead was the father of young children; the wife of another victim was pregnant. The attack, according to the FALN’s written statement, was in retaliation for a bombing in Puerto Rico in which two independence activists had been killed and 11 people injured. Over the next decade, the FALN orchestrated more than 100 bombings or incendiary attacks in New York; Washington; Newark, New Jersey; San Juan; and Chicago.

In 1980, the FBI identified and arrested 11 members of the group. They were charged with seditious conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government as well as with a number of related crimes, including weapons possession. All of the men and women were convicted. They were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 55 to 99 years. López Rivera was not arrested with the original group, and no evidence was found directly tying him to any of the bombings—­­to this day, he denies involvement in actions that killed or injured anyone. But the FBI said that, a few years earlier, it had found bomb-making equipment in an apartment López Rivera frequented, and he was named a co-defendant with the 11 others. López Rivera was already on the run, hiding in safe houses in Chicago. He was finally arrested during a traffic stop in May 1981. At his trial, Alfredo Méndez, a member of the FALN who had become an FBI informant, testified that López Rivera had been his trainer, teaching him how to make gun silencers and bomb-detonation devices. López Rivera was convicted and sentenced to 55 years in prison. After he served six years, an additional 15 years were added to his sentence for his alleged role in planning an escape. He spent 12 years in solitary confinement.

In time, supporters around the world began campaigning for his release. In 1999, President Bill Clinton extended an offer of clemency and conditional release to 16 FALN members, including López Rivera. The offer required that López Rivera “refrain from the use or advocacy” of violence, which he was prepared to do, but also that he leave behind his co-defendant Carlos Alberto Torres. Torres, a FALN leader, had been unapologetic about pursuing revolution by any means, and had not been included in Clinton’s offer. López Rivera refused the deal. “I was well aware that I could end my life in prison,” he explained. “But I was not prepared to leave anyone behind.”

Clinton’s offer stirred controversy; the son of one of the men killed in the Fraunces Tavern bombing called it “an affront” that “endangered America.” But efforts on López Rivera’s behalf continued. In 2016, the playwright and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, a Puerto Rican American, reportedly raised the matter with President Obama.

I spoke with López Rivera at length about his past. He defended attacks against property back then as a last resort, “but not with the goal of killing people. Not with the goal of taking human life.” He denied once again that he had played a role in acts that had hurt people. Of course, this sits uneasily alongside the fact that he remained a member of a group that did hurt innocent people, and killed five of them. During our conversations, López Rivera spoke about some of the events of those years—“What happens at times is that we’re thinking of doing something, and then it turns into something else”—with vagueness and remoteness rather than moral clarity.

But as we talked, it became apparent to me that López Rivera thinks differently now. There is no role for violence in the independence movement, he said. He believes, as I do, that the only path to independence is one that draws people into peaceful action. Is he a pacifist? I don’t know. What I do know is that, at almost 80, he appears to be a man trying to reckon with the past.

The Dream

Since 1952, Puerto Rico has had six nonbinding referendums on its political status. In the most recent referendum, held during the 2020 general election, only a little more than half of registered voters turned out; of those, some 52 percent voted for statehood, while 47 percent voted against it. Independence was not listed as a choice.

Despite all of the ways that America has failed Puerto Rico, joining the union more formally as a state is seen by some as the best way forward. Proponents of statehood argue that making Puerto Rico the 51st state would give it the tools and authority to sort out its own financial issues, and bring an increase in disability benefits, Social Security benefits, and Medicaid funding. As a state, Puerto Rico would finally have voting representation in Congress, and its citizens would gain the right to vote in presidential elections.

Kids playing in Maricao
Children at play in the western municipality of Maricao, which has the highest child-poverty rate in Puerto Rico (Christopher Gregory-Rivera)

But if the case of Hawaii is at all predictive, statehood would also ensure that even more Americans would move to Puerto Rico, displacing even more Puerto Ricans and putting even more non–Puerto Ricans into positions of power. Writing about citizenship, the Afro Caribbean geographer Ileana I. Diaz has argued that “the extension of American citizenship to Puerto Ricans works not so much to include Puerto Ricans into the nation, but rather to extend the borders of the United States.” The extension of statehood would have the same effect.

Is an independent Puerto Rico possible—and would it be viable? A bill for independence has little chance of moving through Congress. Of course, Washington is not eagerly opening the door to statehood, either. Puerto Rico’s present and future are also complicated by climate change: As a small archipelago in the Caribbean, it is facing rising sea levels and ever more violent storms. It is heavily dependent on imported oil. In mid-September, almost five years to the day after Hurricane María made landfall, Puerto Rico once again lost power and endured catastrophic flooding, this time because of Hurricane Fiona. Puerto Rico continues to experience grave financial difficulties, many of them with roots in its colonial history. Its path forward will be challenging, no matter what its political status.

But the future of a free Puerto Rico doesn’t need to be utopian, or easy, to be just. With independence, the citizens of Puerto Rico would have a government created by and for the benefit of the Puerto Rican people rather than for the benefit of outside interests. The newly recognized nation would be able to align itself and its political and diplomatic systems as it wishes—perhaps joining the growing number of Caribbean nations (most notably Barbados) that have fully rejected their colonial ties. Although the United States still exerts enormous influence even on Caribbean countries it does not occupy, independence might allow Puerto Rico to reassess and adjust economic agreements to better suit its people—rejecting the dominance of corporations and crypto bros in favor of co-ops and green reforms.

Those, like me, who argue for sovereignty are not simply asking the United States to “free Puerto Rico”—freedom is not Washington’s to give. A return of sovereignty to the Puerto Rican people would require a U.S. commitment to a policy of reparations designed to provide independence and security—a policy that acknowledges and begins to address generations of environmental destruction, economic dislocation, and human-rights violations. Reparations would have to cover many areas, large and small: paying for the repair of the power grid; liquidating $70 billion in debt; undergirding Puerto Rico’s pension funds; and expanding the health-care system. It wouldn’t end there, and many arrangements would have to be worked out, encompassing knotty issues involving citizenship and trade relations. The process would be complex, imperfect, messy. The point is that self-determination for Puerto Ricans necessitates not just cutting them loose, but also restoring what has been taken and otherwise making amends.

This is the future I dream about: Puerto Rico libre, all of us coming home. We arrive at night, carrying duffel bags filled with our clothing, our children’s clothing. We come with our families, hauling suitcases through the airport, boxes sealed with packing tape, whatever we can carry from Orlando, from Philadelphia, from Hartford. At the airport in San Juan, a crowd is waiting outside baggage claim, hands raised over heads, makeshift signs reading WELCOME HOME and VIVA PUERTO RICO LIBRE. We wrap our arms around family, friends, and strangers. Somebody’s grandfather plays a guiro. Women dance. Children sing. The people return to Lares, Ponce, Culebra, Isabela. We are here again after 10 years, after 20 years. We are here for the very first time.

The journey home is different from what we imagined—the road into el pueblo is narrow and potholed, and everything seems smaller than we remember. But people are out walking, riding bikes, gathering at the plaza. The schools, the airport, the power grid, the parks, the beaches—all of this, all of the land and natural resources, belongs to the people. The rebuilding is under way.

Earthquake survivors in 2019
Earthquake survivors in Guánica in 2019. The earthquakes struck a still-devastated Puerto Rico two years after Hurricane María. (Christopher Gregory-Rivera)

These are the days of reckoning, when the reparations paid to the people help fund hospitals in Vieques and Culebra, help establish universal medical care, help create a reproductive-and-maternal-health program. These are the days of land being returned, of the coffee industry thriving. The days of renewable energy, of solar and wind and hydroelectric power; the days of coastline protection, of El Yunque rain forest and coral reefs and wetlands and bioluminescent bays preserved. The days of hope, as people cry in the streets after our first free elections, the first time we’ve ever chosen a president.

I like to imagine myself there, among that crowd of family and friends and strangers. Returning. When I arrive, I carry one suitcase full of clothes and books, my laptop in my backpack. I carry my family’s working-class Puerto Rican Spanish, the way we drag our R ’s, the way Tío’s voice is like a song, the way my father tells a story, our language and its music and its Black history, our people taken from Africa to Haiti to Puerto Rico. I carry the decades I spent living in a country that never felt like home. I like to imagine an independent Puerto Rico, where more and more babies are born each year, where all the schools remain open, where winding mountain roads take us home. Where we are all a little closer to freedom.

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This article appears in the November 2022 print edition with the headline “Let Puerto Rico Be Free.”

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