"Can You Imagine?": Puerto Rican Lesbian Activisms, 1972-1991.
--JULIA WALLACE AND ALEXIS PAULINE GUMBS (2010)
... the task ... is to redeem from oblivion those elements of the past that are still able to illuminate our situation.
--MAURIZIO PASSERIN D'ENTREVES (2018)
In 2017, a debate raged on Facebook about the dearth of Puerto Rican lesbian history accounts. The argument was triggered by historian Javier Laureano's assertion that "it is urgent for someone to do the work of PR [Puerto Rican] lesbian history. To date, lesbian women in the Academy have either devoted themselves almost exclusively to traditional history ... or publish little or nothing ... we deserve less timid work by queer and LGBTT scholars in Puerto Rico." (1) Responses to Laureano's post varied: some observed that critical work had been overlooked or was produced outside visible institutions. Poet and critic Lilliana Ramos-Collado perhaps went further when she stated that lesbians should not be told what to write and that "our history must be written in another form." (2)
I concur with Ramos-Collado that no one should dictate what lesbians in the academy or elsewhere write about, and that the relative absence of lesbian academic histories is methodologically and politically significant. In this sense, the most meaningful question may not be why there are no "robust books about lesbian history in Puerto Rico" to use Laureano's terms, but how, why, and in what forms have lesbians invoked the past and to what effects. Undoubtedly, Puerto Rican lesbian histories and memories have been (and continue to be) told through embodied acts (clothing, style, dancing); aural practices such as song, gossip, radio, and video; and multiple literary genres, particularly poetry. (3) Moreover, as the Facebook argument suggested, historical reflections are circulated in non-academic sites such as social media posts, blogs, magazines, weeklies, and newsletters. This multiplicity possibly points to a tension between a desire for (some) memories and an ambivalent relationship to history, described by Pierre Nora as a genre that "binds itself strictly to temporal continuities, to progressions and to relations between things " (Nora 1989, 9).
Yet, both Ramos-Collado's assumption that historical projects have not been of interest to Puerto Rican lesbians and Laureano's concluding recommendation that researchers should start an "oral history" in the future, require clarification. Evidenced by edited volumes as diverse as Documentos del feminismo en Puerto Rico: Facsimiles de la historia, 1970-1979 (2001) by Ana Irma Rivera Lassen and Elizabeth Crespo Kebler, and Companeras: Latina Lesbians (1987) by Juanita Ramos (pen name of Juanita Diaz Cotto), lesbians in Puerto Rico and the diaspora have been actively listening to others as a way to produce public knowledge about the past since at least the 1970s.
Ramos, for instance, named her effort the "Latina Lesbian History Project," conducted numerous interviews, and ultimately included sixteen oral histories by thirteen women, many of whom were Puerto Rican. Crespo Kebler, who along with Ramos and Mariana Romo-Carmona formed part of the Latina Lesbian History Project, led four interviews as part of Documentos, and the book contains interviews produced in the 1970s by Rivera Lassen and others. (4) In Rivera Lassen's own essay, she similarly makes an overt case for Documentos as a contribution to storytelling and history: "Con esta publicacion y de esta forma queremos aportar y facilitar la labor de aquellas(os) que quieren conocer estas historias" (With this publication and in this way we want to contribute and facilitate the work of those who want to know these histories) (Rivera Lassen 2001a, 146).
The persistence of interviewing over other methods during the last decades is partly related to the ethics of some feminist and queer politics. unlike most academic writing, oral histories often aim to highlight and validate the particularity of experience and plurality of perspectives. In this sense, oral history is akin to the feminist practice of consciousness-raising, which sought to promote solidarity among women, recognize common patterns of oppression, and identify the political roots of gender subordination. (5) In the context of LGBTQ liberation movements, many scholars, activists, and writers likewise adopted oral history as a way of documenting "hidden" voices and producing independent knowledge, which was not subject to or mediated by nonLGTBQ institutions, academic fields, or library professionals (Chernier 2016, 172). As historian Elise Chernier put it, "Oral history is rooted in an anti-elitist, antihierarchical politic that seeks to empower the oppressed" (2016, 170-1).
Moreover, in contrast to scholarly histories, which are rarely published without a lengthy process of research and review that may take several years, oral histories could be produced in a relatively short period of time and circulated quickly in a range of outlets contributing to the formation of new subjectivities and publics alongside social movements. In this regard, the practice of oral history has not only, or primarily, meant to serve as a source for academic history but as a practice of community and movement-building without a narrowly professional or disciplinary purpose.
At the same time, the fact that there are no comprehensive accounts of Puerto Rican LGBTQ histories has made each generation produce its own from near scratch often with partial or little awareness of other efforts, making the process of imagining, narrating, and actualizing a connection to a usable past labor intensive and limited. Not surprisingly, nearly every Puerto Rican LGTBQ organization and LGBTQ historical project to date makes allusion to the challenges and frustration of scant sites and sources. This state of affairs begs several questions: If histories and archives were more widely available would there be a greater number of accounts? Would this change the stories told and by whom? What other debates, lives, and politics would these new frameworks make possible?
The promise of these questions has prompted me to return to an unfinished project. In 1986, when I was 20 years old and had recently migrated from San Juan to Philadelphia, I began an oral history of twenty Puerto Rican gay and lesbian activists residing in the island and the United States. (6) At the time, I was neither knowledgeable nor trained to carry out this undertaking. Yet, it seemed pressing. As lesbian "scholaractivists" before me, I was moved by a "hunger of memory" (7) to make sense of the turbulent present and counter homophobic national narratives. Coming of age in the early 1980s, lesbian politics and its queer memories offered me the possibility of a politics anchored on the desiring body rather than on the bordered nation at a time when both, however, were in crisis: in Puerto Rico the modernization process in motion since the 1940s was collapsing; the callousness of federal and local AIDS policy was claiming thousands of lives worldwide, including in the larger Puerto Rican archipelago; and the traditional left appeared incapable of reaching beyond their small circles to articulate a transformative politics for a different present.
Despite my affinity to writing and reading, listening seemed the best way forward. Part of the reason had to do with the already noted scarcity of print sources other than movement publications of the period such as the Colectivo de Concientizacion Gay's (CCG) newsletter Desde el ambiente. LGBTQ archives were likewise in private hands and difficult to view. In addition, although I had access to more accounts of LGTBQ politics in the United States, these narratives rarely included Puerto Rican queer history on the island or elsewhere, and they were mostly in English and therefore could not always be shared. As there were few written sources but a good number of activists were informed, active, and accessible, I began to request appointments and travel with my tape recorder to New York, New Jersey, and Puerto Rico.
Given my limited knowledge, the core questions that guided my oral history were fairly basic: Why and when did LGTBQ activisms emerge? What forms did they take? What were their goals and objectives? What made some people risk so much? Where did this courage come from? Why did so many groups not endure? Should this be considered a failure? What would failure mean? I also wanted to understand how these groups differed or converged with feminist, left, and nationalist organizations, and whether it was possible to develop a non-nationalist queer politics in a colonial context.
In retrospect, some of these questions were old and had preoccupied earlier (and later) activists, as is evident in listening projects from the 1970s through the early 2000s. Prior activists had been concerned with clarifying the national character of LGTBQ activisms because gender and sexuality movements were often attacked as "American" and therefore foreign to Puerto Rico. In contrast, I was more interested in upending exclusionary nationalist ideologies and fostering a Puerto Rican LGBTQ politics that included the diaspora and was in dialogue with other minoritized groups. I similarly wondered whether this knowledge could contribute to democratize the most radical sectors of the U.S. LGBTQ movement at the moment such as ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), and challenge the racism of mainstream LGBTQ mythic narratives such as the Stonewall Rebellion, which was still largely seen as a (white) "American" phenomenon even if Puerto Ricans and other people of color actively participated both in the riots and subsequent organizing (Negron-Muntaner 1991-1992, 1992).
In retrospect, however, this oral history was not only about the small number of available publications, and less about the need to uncover "what really happened." It was also about engaging with lesbian praxis and making it accessible for present and future politics. It was likewise about wrestling with the process of becoming a Puerto Rican diasporic queer subject. As a young sexile living in the United States, each interview offered an opportunity for contact, a mode to imagine myself as part of a "community of memory" (Passerin d'Entreves 2018, 11), and a method to avoid losing my own memories as a movement participant. The fact that the main result to date of this archive are two articles on Puerto Rican LGBTQ history in CENTRO, the diasporic journal par excellence, is a sign of my own transformation.
Of the preserved interviews, I have presently edited, abridged, and co-translated three. The interviews feature lesbian activists who participated in critical movement-building and public debates from 1972 through the early 1990s. I selected these interlocutors to continue the project's dissemination for a number of key reasons: One, all make a significant contribution to the articulation of lesbian political perspectives. Two, many of the questions raised by their praxis and memory are relevant to current debates. And, three, each offers a distinct genealogy of lesbian political praxis. The present publication also permits the full acknowledgment of the interviewees's identities, some of who were quoted or referred to anonymously in prior work.
Titled "A Beginning," the first interview is with Ana Irma Rivera Lassen. Born in 1955 and a lawyer by profession, Rivera Lassen was the co-founder and coordinator of the most important second-wave feminist organization of the early 1970s, Mujer Integrate Ahora (MIA, 1972-1980), whose main goal was full gender equality. Although MIA was not primarily focused on lesbian politics, it included several lesbian members, particularly in its second phase; adopted a public pro-homosexual rights position, and in 1977 organized an unprecedented picket of a public figure, the national women's softball coach and house representative Alejandro "Junior" Cruz, for claiming that lesbians were ruining women's sports (Objetivos, Propositos, Reglamento, Posiciones, 2001; Varela, 1977). As a result, other feminists largely perceived the group as "una organizacion lesbiana" (a lesbian organization) (8) and by many lesbian members as una gran alternativa para nostotras como mujeres y como lesbianas (a great alternative for us as women and as lesbians), even if by 1977, some demanded that MIA more overtly address "la opresion de la mujer lesbiana y mas alla de eso" (the oppression of lesbian women and beyond that). (9)
During this period, Rivera Lassen was also a founding member of the first major LGBTQ organization in Puerto Rico, Comunidad Orgullo Gay (COG, 1974-1977), founding editor of the groundbreaking feminist magazine El tacon de la chancleta (1974-1975), and a precursor of intersectional Afro-feminism (Rivera Lassen 2001b, 280-2; Afro-feminismo con Ana Irma Rivera Lassen 2018). In all these roles--as an activist, lawyer, and feminist public intellectual--Rivera Lassen has concentrated on challenging sexist and homophobic public discourse and state policies. Specifically, she has worked on issues such as forced sterilization and inadequate legal protections for victims of rape. Rivera Lassen has similarly supported equal rights for women and LGTBQ people, sex education, child daycare centers, reproductive choice, and non-sexist media and school textbooks, among other demands. Equally significant, although sympathetic to pro-independence and human rights movements, Rivera Lassen has been a consistent defender of the idea that feminism constitutes an autonomous movement rather than an auxiliary to nationalist, anti-imperialist, labor, or socialist movements.
Following Rivera Lassen and under the title of "Dissent," I include the intervention of sociologist and public intellectual Madeline Roman Lopez, a member of MIA in its second phase, and later a prominent professor at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras. Two years younger than Rivera Lassen, Roman Lopez's impact to a history of lesbian politics and thought is different but no less relevant. She played an important part in the attempt to move MIA to the left in the mid 1970s that led to a rupture, and in 1978 became a co-founder of the lesbian-majority feminist-socialist organization Alianza Feminista por la Liberacion Humana (AFLH), which aimed to organize working class women and saw itself as an alternative to what they termed the "petty bourgeois" conception of MIA's feminism. Although the AFLH was focused on leftist and nationalist struggles such as evicting the U.S. Navy from Vieques and demanding the release of Puerto Rican political prisoners, through its dissolution in 1978, the group promoted internal discussion on lesbian sexuality and built a community that endeavored to "vivir la relacion de pareja y las relaciones afectivas y/o sexuales de alguna otra manera" (to live the couple relationship and affective and/or sexual relations in another way), beyond heteronormative monogamous pairing (Crespo Kebler 2001b).
Laureano may consider Roman Lopez as one of those academics who could, and is not, producing lesbian histories. However, over the last decades, her writings have been persistently queer. Distancing herself from the feminist and left politics associated with her early militancy, Roman Lopez's work has moved to take on dominant discourses of morality, unitary notions of the subject ("identity as destiny"), and the criminal justice system. This is evident in articles such as "La complejidad es una epistemologia queer," where she "proposes a dialogic dialogue between the paradigm of complexity and the queer as signifier" given that both allow to consider an ever more complex world from non-binary perspectives (Roman Lopez 2011c). Similarly, she has been a vocal critic of privileging law as a site to understand and address violence against subordinated subjects, problematizing the ways that legal categories and battles remain implicated in binary constructions of "good" and "evil," which in turn rely on problematic notions of "victim," "victimizer" and "crime" that have historically served to criminalize vulnerabilized groups (Roman Lopez 2011b).
Titled "Consciousness," the conversation with Mildred Braulio Martinez, one of the founders of the mixed-gender group Colectivo de Concientizacion Gay (CCG, 1983-88) and ensuing women-only Colectivo de Lesbianas Feministas (CLF, 1989-1991) closes the interview section. Although close in age to Rivera Lassen and Roman Lopez, Braulio Martinez emerges as a political activist a decade later, in the early 1980s. Since then, she has been an advocate, attorney and public servant, and worked as legal staff for the Comision para los Asuntos de la Mujer (Women's Affairs Commission, 1988-1995), the government's main agency on women's rights--a focus of her own and MIA's activism.
Braulio Martinez's leftist and feminist formation but lesbian-centered activism, allows for the consideration of a different genealogy of lesbian thought and organizing in Puerto Rico. Unlike earlier lesbian-led feminist groups, the CCG defined itself as a feminist gay and lesbian organization committed to "crear una conciencia alrededor de nuestra particular opresion" (10) (to create a consciousness around our particular oppression) with the ultimate goal of building a gay liberation movement. The CLF remained consistent with its precursor's general mission but focused more overtly on the "double oppression" of lesbians as women and lesbians. In key ways, Braulio Martinez's trajectory as a founding member of the CLF recalls the COG's Alianza de Mujeres, a pivotal lesbian group that also emerged within a mixed-gender organization to articulate a lesbian-specific politics and shared the goal of "crear la consciencia entre nosotras" (to create a consciousness among us women) (Entrevista a Carmen Torres, 2001) Her arc similarly allows to investigate how LGTBQ and feminist movements came to formally coalesce in the 1980s, and how both movements and their intersections shifted as they grew, diversified, and gained a degree of state recognition.
My intent at the time was to map out a genealogy of lesbian activism. However, listening now, the value of these interviews has arguably multiplied. Despite the goal to build unitary radical movements in the 1970s, the interviews underscore the diversity, contradictions, and constant transformation of what we may call "Puerto Rican lesbian political formations." In the recordings, it is possible to identify feminist, gay liberationist, nationalist, anarchist, Marxist, Trotskyst, transnational, labor, liberal, and other frameworks, often in tension or in combination. Additionally, they allow us to inquire into the substantial impact of Puerto Rican feminist and LGBTQ movements on the emergence of new subjectivities, modes of representation, and ways to think about the relationship between sexuality, gender, and the political, which includes rights but also sexual freedoms and modes of relating with self and others. Despite omissions such as race, the interviews suggest how Puerto Rican lesbian political praxis contributed to redefining the "political" as being less about elections and status plebiscites than as being a realm of transformative action in the Arendtian sense of a "love that is associated with responsibility for others" (Kattago 2013, 174-5).
Engaging with these interviews similarly provides a space of reflection on the politics of the queer archive itself as a site of "remembrance and imagination" in historian Abel Sierra Madero's words, without ever claiming access to a "whole" past, even to our own. The process of revising the interviews testifies to the ways that memory is constantly shifting and re-signifying the past, and underscores the importance of a continuous critical dialogue to the extent that memory is never mapped to historical "facts" (Portelli 1991). Fittingly, after I sent the transcriptions to Rivera Lassen, Roman Lopez, and Braulio Martinez, all requested to make changes to their responses. Perhaps the most common reaction to reading their own words thirty years later was: "I am clearly not the same person." I, too, made changes on the text and were I to interview them again, would likely ask different questions, differently.
Moreover, as some of the fundamental matters that consumed earlier activists such as the importance of autonomous organizing vis a vis the state, political parties, and the Left; the desire for constituting non-hierarchical political communities, and activist exhaustion and intra conflicts have come to the fore in post-Hurricane Maria time, the memories of past transformative politics become increasingly relevant. As cultural critic Jack Halberstam has argued, "The history of alternative political formations is important because it contests social relations as given and allows us to access traditions of political action that, though not necessarily successful in the sense of becoming dominant, do offer models of contestation, rupture, and discontinuity for the political present" (2011, 19). This archive can then be understood as part of the multiple and heterogeneous radicalisms that have conformed Puerto Rico's long twentieth century and continue into the future. It is also a holder of memories and omissions activated and transformed by its readers and their present desires.
I. A START: ANA IRMA RIVERA LASSEN, 1991
Frances Negron-Muntaner (FNM): One place to start is with your experience as one of the founders of Mujer Integrate Ahora (Woman Integrate Now; MIA), the first feminist organization of the 70s without lesbian leadership. How did MIA emerge and what were its objectives?
Ana Irma rivera Lassen (AIRL): It was in 1970, 71. The Civil Rights Commission, by assignment from the state legislature, began holding public hearings to find out if there was discrimination against women in Puerto Rico. A group of women like myself, who were interested in the matter and wanted to know what was said there, attended the public hearings. At that moment, the press in Puerto Rico had mostly reported the ruckus (revoluces) that feminists in the United States were creating. Some of the women who attended these meetings started to talk and meet about the need to form a feminist group in Puerto Rico to promote women's rights. But officially, the day we named the group was on January 8, 1972.
FNM: You still remember exactly.
AIRL: Moments like that are not easily forgotten, especially because I was very young, around 17, and it marked my life. In terms of MIA, there was a call to attend a meeting but only five came; we were the brave ones! Three were Puerto Rican women and two from the United States. The Americans were Mary Byrd and Patricia Shahen, who I think was married to a Latin American, although they were more Latina than anything else because they spoke Spanish all the time. The Puerto Ricans were Alma Mendez, Nilda Aponte, and I. Eventually all five of us studied law. Then more women entered the organization, and we created the consciousness-raising groups.
FNM: Were the members full time activists or did they work?
AIRL: Mary was employed in Puerto Rico. I don't remember where she worked. Patricia was studying; her husband was employed. Nilda Aponte had a little girl and a little boy; she worked from home and planned to continue studying, but was not studying at that time. Alma and I, we were students, freshmen in college. Prepas!
FNM: So, what were MIA's first actions?
AIRL: The first thing we did was disseminate the results of the Commission's study. It was said that the government did not want to promote it because the study proved that the government also systematically discriminated against women. At the time, the governor was Don Luis Ferre and some people called us anti-PNP (the acronym in Spanish for the New Progressive Party, which is pro-statehood). I remember that the newspaper El Imparcial published an editorial saying that Mujer Integrate Ahora was an arm of the rival Partido Popular Democratico (Popular Democratic Party) and that it was trying to discredit the governor. But all we had said was that the government, be it the current administration or any other, discriminated against women too. In the end, I would say that MIA's greatest contribution was to start talking about feminism in Puerto Rico and to establish an autonomous feminist organization. You couldn't be a feminist in Puerto Rico at that time without being the object of strong criticism, and we started to drive the discussion of this issue beyond traditional partisan political lines.
FNM: How did the group understand the notion of "feminism"? What did it mean?
AIRL: Well, we used a very simple definition: the search for equal rights between men and women. Not only was it the simplest, it was the least frightening. Also, from the beginning, we had the position that MIA was not going to be linked to any partisan political organization; it was going to be an independent organization.
FNM: Status politics has historically made autonomous organizing difficult. Was there ideological consensus around Puerto Rico's status?
AIRL: No. For example, among the founders, Alma and I were independentistas. Nilda sometimes seemed to support independence, sometimes not. Mary never shared her position, she respected the fact that this was a Puerto Rican issue and did not want to meddle; Patricia, also. Afterwards, more women joined who had different ideological positions in terms of the status of Puerto Rico. Overall, it wasn't an issue.
FNM: What kind of activities did you do?
AIRL: We did many things throughout the organization's existence: conferences, a type of congress that we called feminist acercamientos (close meetings) consciousness-raising groups. We also analyzed the platforms of the political parties around the rights of women, lobbied for the Family Reform of 1976, which sought equity in marriage, and promoted the creation of the Comision Para los Asuntos de la Mujer.
We also participated in international campaigns and had ties to international organizations. In 1974 we became the first autonomous organization to celebrate International Women's Day on March 8th in Puerto Rico. And we participated in radio and television programs and had an important presence in the local written press. We also led a major campaign on behalf of abortion rights and the right to abortion for rape victims. We were the first feminist organization to accompany women victims of rape to court and worked on multiple other issues: mass sterilization, credit for women, the creation of daycare centers in places of employment, women in sports, unionization, equal pay for women, social justice, free love, sexual education, the need to include women's contributions in textbooks, and the need to have an education free of sexual stereotypes, among many others. We even took a stance about the legalization of prostitution, although we did not work much further on that issue. At the beginning, we had a newsletter called MIA Informa and then in 1974 we founded a feminist magazine in newspaper format called El tacon de la chancleta.
FNM: Lesbian politics do not seem to figure prominently in MIA's activities. Did MIA view lesbianism as a political issue?
AIRL: Yes, it was treated as part of the discussion of feminism as a political movement. At the beginning of MIA, gay and lesbian rights were included in the organization's program, although no activities were carried out as such. The issue was also an important part of the discussions in the consciousness-raising groups. When the debate of a new civil code began in Puerto Rico and the Comunidad Orgullo Gay (Gay Pride Community, COG) was formed, lesbianism was discussed more in MIA. In El tacon de la chancleta, we ran an editorial in 1975 that caused a great commotion because we stated that the feminist movement is a political movement and that it was essential because it cuts across the issues and the struggles of discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, financial means, and colonialism, among others. We argued that the women in each of these struggles also suffered discrimination as women.
In what I called the second period of MIA, in 1976, there was a group of women who joined that were part of COG's Alianza de Mujeres (Alliance of Women), and they helped to move the lesbian discussion forward in MIA. At that time, other companeras who came from political groups and were lesbians also joined MIA. Although I remember that some of them were the least interested in talking about lesbianism because it was presumably not an issue to talk to the "workers" about.
FNM: I understand that there were internal conflicts when this second group joined the organization. What happened?
AIRL: They were generally from the Left, some from Trotskyist organizations, others from other political lines. I sympathized with the Trotskyist line but understood that political organizations did not have to control an autonomous feminist organization. What happened in the end was that Margarita (Gara) Lopez's group, which was not Trotskyist, left MIA because they failed to impose their political views. Finally, when Gara's group, including Madeline Roman Lopez, departed, they founded another group, which they baptized with that incredible name Alianza Feminista por la Liberacion Humana (Feminist Alliance for Human Liberation, AFHL)!
FNM: You were among a small group of feminists who were part of the Comunidad de Orgullo Gay (COG), the first LGBTQ organization on the island founded in 1974. What was your experience there?
AIRL: The COG was basically driven by a group of Puerto Ricans and Americans who lived on the island, which is why the Community's bulletin was bilingual. I was at the founding meeting of the group, and I think it was a very brave act for people to go out and say there were lesbians and homosexuals in this country.
FNM: How many people were there in that first meeting? Which groups predominated?
AIRL: At the official founding meeting, during which the organization made public a press release and offered statements on the radio, there were about 30 people. There were few women; the majority were men. The Puerto Ricans were more, but almost half were Americans who lived here. This always caught my attention because in contrast to the founding of feminist groups, the preponderance of Americans was strong in the COG, not so in Mujer Integrate Ahora. MIA had American women members, but it was not as great a presence nor did it dominate as in the first years of COG.
FNM: What were the priorities of the COG?
AIRL: The COG's main goal was to promote the rights of gay people in Puerto Rico. But la Comunidad also arose in response to anti-gay legislation. I would say it was one of the main issues in the beginning. The new Puerto Rico penal code that was approved in 1974 ratified sodomy as a crime and included lesbians for the first time.
FNM: And why did you leave COG?
AIRL: My principal interest was feminist women's groups, and I was not interested in being a part of COG because it was a mixed-gender group. But I understood that I had to participate in the COG because it spoke to another part me, the lesbian issue, which did not yet have the same space in the feminist groups. In fact, I'm going to tell you an anecdote.
On the day of the COG's founding, there was a journalist covering the event, and he asked me to read the official COG statement about what it was like to be a homosexual. I read it, but I did not think that they were going to say my full name on the radio, stating that I was a lesbian and announcing the COG. For me, that was difficult. First, because I was the president of Mujer Integrate Ahora, and although the group knew that I was a lesbian, there was a lot of lesbophobia and prejudice against feminism in Puerto Rico. Can you imagine? I'm talking about 1974! MIA was two years old and the main bogeyman was to say that feminists were lesbians. So here was this woman telling the world that she is a lesbian, and, on top of that, she is the president of the only feminist organization in Puerto Rico. You can imagine the mogollera (mess) in the group and in lots of places! To this day, some people remember when I said on the radio that I was a lesbian!
That also followed me everywhere. When I entered the School of Law at the University of Puerto Rico, the rumor spread that I was a lesbian because there was a woman who heard me on the radio show. I was also a commissioner in the Women's Affairs Commission. When they realized that they had an openly-lesbian member, it was tremendous. Can you imagine? There were also discussions and tensions at the Commission.
FNM: So this really marked you.
AIRL: Tremendously. If people had not already guessed, now there was no doubt!
FNM: Did it affect MIA?
AIRL: In Mujer Integrate Ahora, which was the only feminist organization at the time, we immediately had to discuss how the organization was affected or not with my public identification as a lesbian. We had already discussed the issue of gay and lesbian rights in general terms because as soon as MIA was created we made some brochures featuring our positions on different topics such as abortion, lesbianism, free love (back then, we talked about free love). Our official position was to respect sexual orientation, which we also called "sexual preference" at the time, and we advocated for equal rights.
FNM: And were you the only lesbian in the group?
AIRL: I was the only one who was open about it in the group. Later, other women came out. But, in the beginning, within the board of directors, I was the only out lesbian.
FNM: Did MIA survive after the departure of Margarita Lopez's group?
AIRL: Yes, they were in MIA from 1976 to 1978. The organization continued and incorporated lesbian issues more centrally in its activities. We even had to deal with the lesbophobia of other feminist (and nonfeminist) organizations, being that we were the only group that openly spoke about it. Regarding the departure of the companeras that later formed the AFLH, it underscored the importance of something that had been essential from the beginning: that of MIA being an autonomous organization. MIA ultimately continued until the beginning of 1980. In those last years, we worked more in the campaign against forced sterilization, and we also promoted legislation and provided support to the Help Center for Victims of Rape. After that, we stopped meeting. I think we burned out.
FNM: But you remained active.
AIRL: Afterwards, I attended two years of provisional committee meetings of what would later be known as the OPMT, the Organizacion Puertorriquena de la Mujer Trabajadora (Puerto Rican Organization of Women Workers). They invited me, but I knew that I wouldn't be able to stay in the OPMT because it was to repeat the history of the Federation of Puerto Rican Women: the same struggles, the same ideological questions of the Left.
FNM: And what was the issue? Was the concern that the Left and feminism should not mix?
AIRL: Well, it's not that they shouldn't mix, it's something else. Being on the Left in Puerto Rico sometimes means being an independence supporter, not necessarily having more open views on issues like sexuality or women's rights. I believe the organized Left in Puerto Rico has taken terrible positions against feminists. For example, when Mujer Integrate Ahora emerged, the position of the Left was that we were a bunch of women who wanted to bring feminism to Puerto Rico, which was for gringas. They said that the liberation of women would come when Puerto Rico became socialist. And that was a systematic campaign, what was published in Claridad (a leftist weekly). This stance endured until the Puerto Rican Federation of Women was formed because it was more aligned with pro-independence organizations.
FNM: Yet you defined yourself as an independentista.
AIRL: Yes, I believe Puerto Rico would be better off with independence. But at the same time, I understand that feminism had--or has, I still think the same thing--a potential for political development in itself; it did not have to be part of that pro-independence Left of the seventies, which was not feminist. Not even today's Left is!
FNM: One could argue that MIA developed positions similar to other feminist groups in the United States. How do you see the influence of the U.S. feminist movement in Puerto Rico? Did the developments in the United States have an impact on organizing here?
AIRL: Yes and no. The fact that there were tensions with the so-called "Left" in Puerto Rico did not mean that feminists here were Americanized. The feminist movement in Puerto Rico is part of the Latin American and Caribbean movements. We are not part of the feminist history of the United States. But I think the fact that the local press covered U.S. feminists during the seventies connected us to that movement in the popular imagination of the time. Because the first thing people told you when you declared that you were a feminist was, "Ah, are you one of those who burn brassieres?" Nobody in Puerto Rico burned brassieres, you know! They used that American feminist stereotype. We did study books written by important American authors (and from other parts of the world), and we also supported issues brought forth by American feminists. But what was done here was definitely distinctly Puerto Rican!
At the same time, one of the U.S. issues that had a great impact in Puerto Rico was abortion, which had to do with the Roe v. Wade decision in early 1973. Because MIA was the only feminist organization on the island, we had to lead the fight on the right to abortion. Obviously, this had a direct impact because of our political situation with the United States, and also put us in contradiction with the Left. Leftist organizations would tell us that, "those [abortion rights] are American concessions"! Well, I don't care! If it is a right that is recognized I do not care if it is an American concession; the important thing is that the right to abortion is a recognized right for women no matter our political status.
FNM: Why do you think that a decade later, lesbians tend to organize more as lesbians than as feminists in Puerto Rico?
AIRL: The integration into feminist groups, in some more than others, was a cloud that for a long time concealed the sexuality of the women who were part of these groups since "women" were seen as one and not in their diversity. Many times, even lesbians in feminist groups, in order to promote "the rights of women in general," were willing to relegate the rights of lesbians in particular to the background. But I think that this moment has passed. Now you can have diversity of organizations, recognize diversity among women and be equally feminist, or have lesbian organizations, without necessarily recognizing themselves as feminists. I think that before no conditions existed for this, or if it happened, it was hard, like what took place in MIA.
FNM: Why and when did you co-found Feministas en Marcha (Feminists in Motion, FEM)?
AIRL: I was one of the founders; we were several women. That was in 1983. FEM came about from a mixture of dissidents from the OPMT's founding assembly and other people. When FEM was created, it was trying to project an autonomous political feminist voice. The idea was that it was not only going to be an autonomous feminist organization but that there would be no differentiation based on sexual orientation (some documents say sexual preferences), and whomever couldn't deal with that, then couldn't be a member.
FNM: When I was a member of FEM in 1985 I wondered why lesbian politics did not arise or consolidate in the organization even when the two official spokespersons, Celia Romano and you, were lesbians.
AIRL: It's not that it did not arise, because it was in our organization documents and in our work and activities, but maybe it was not as visible as we thought. It is something I have considered many times. I believe that we fell into the trap of thinking that because it was a given, we did not have to discuss it anymore because we had no problem with this issue in FEM. If you were heterosexual and you felt uncomfortable working alongside openly-out lesbian women, then you didn't belong in FEM. Because, to me, it was very clear that I was not going to be in a group where I felt uncomfortable. If I was going to feel uncomfortable, then that was not the organization for me! I had already established that with everything learned in all the struggles MIA confronted.
II. DISSENT: MADELINE ROMAN LOPEZ, 1990
Frances Negron-Muntaner (FNM): In more than one account, including co-founder Ana Irma Rivera Lassen's, you emerge as a dissident voice in the Mujer Integrate Ahora (MIA) story. Why and when did you join the organization?
Madeline Roman Lopez (MRL): I joined MIA around 1976, invited by another woman who had been a student for some time at the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras, Margarita (Gara) Lopez. Margarita invited me, along with other women, to join that organization, which was already recognized in Puerto Rico. Our goal was to incite a number of debates aimed at forming a feminist organization within what one could call "working class feminism."
FNM: What is not possible to create an organization of feminist lesbians or lesbian feminists?
MRL: We have to remember that this was a period of great effervescence of Marxist Leninism in Puerto Rico. Therefore, those of us who joined MIA, the majority of whom were lesbians, were also women who had what was called a "double militancy." That is to say, we were women that participated in leftist organizations and at the same time took on the issue of women's subordination. This was understood as a combination of struggles. Or put in other terms, the struggle of women was seen as being part of a broader struggle, that of class struggle or the fight for socialism.
In that sense, the context was one in which we had to find the issues that united rather than divided people. It was often said at the time that one must add and not subtract. Even though we were lesbians, the issue of lesbianism was not addressed head on. It was understood that we needed to find issues that were not divisive in what could be, let's say, a joint struggle between men and women. Therefore, we couldn't tackle issues that could be understood as anti-men.
I do have to say, however, that in MIA there were discussions regarding lesbianism. In fact, I remember a meeting--famous!--where some colleagues prepared written statements to debate with the group whether they thought that MIA had to openly address the matter of lesbianism and whether lesbians were specifically oppressed because they were lesbians. I remember I was the one who wrote the document in favor of the issue of lesbianism being openly discussed. This discussion polarized women who thought that the issue should be openly addressed and those who did not.
FNM: Were the debates between heterosexuals and lesbians, or did the polarization follow other patterns?
MRL: I don't remember. But the majority of women in MIA at the time were lesbians. Ultimately, the dominant position was that lesbianism should not be openly addressed. Therefore, the issue was not spoken about again.
FNM: How did you understand the relationship between the Left, feminism, and the gay movement? Did lesbians gravitate toward feminist organizations because they didn't have the space in leftist organizations? Did you come up against this tension at any time, that one couldn't be a lesbian in leftist organizations?
MRL: No, because at that time I was not a member of a leftist group, although I was part of the Frente Revolucionario Anti-Imperialista or Revolutionary Anti-Imperialist Front (FRAI), a socialist front that, included the Movimiento Socialista Puertorriqueno (MSP, Puerto Rican Socialist Movement), the Liga Socialista (Socialist League), and non-affiliated independence supporters. I identified with the latter, that is, I was not part of any leftist organization but still identified as a leftist. Although, I would have to say that on the inside of these leftist groups, it was known that there were gay people. This was not totally hidden, but it wasn't brought to a level of open debate either.
FNM: What was the class makeup of women who joined MIA in 1975?
MRL: The women who became involved with the working class feminist project were all students. We can see why MIA's second phase did not last long. Before that moment, many members were lawyers, women already settled in those occupational fields. The fact that these women were professionals and well-off gave the struggles of that era a legalistic bias. I've fought with that quite a lot, but that's the way things were, and still are to some extent, in this country.
FNM: So, you would say that the class background of the women who joined later was different.
MLR: It was students, a transient group, more or less in limbo in terms of social class. But to the extent that they were linked to leftist groups, they promoted more than anything a kind of working class feminism. What is now OPMT (Organizacion Puertorriquena de la Mujer Trabajadora/Puerto Rican Organization of Women Workers), for example.
FNM: So, Alianza Feminista por la Liberacion Humana emerged in 1978. How did that come about?
MLR: We fought an intense battle within MIA. There was great tension between what we perceived as a petty bourgeois feminism and a working class feminism. Then there was a rupture. What happened was that a member of MIA who went to represent us in a meeting about the creation of a Feminist Front was, at the same time, a member of the Liga Internacionalista de Trabajadores (Workers' Internationalist League), which was a Trotskyist organization. At the meeting, instead of supporting MIA's position, our representative upheld the position of the leftist group that she belonged to. She subordinated what were our interests to those of the political group she was a part of.
FNM: What organizations made up the feminist Front?
MRL: That's another thing, it was a fiction, really! Perhaps at that time there was something of Norma Valle's moribund Federation of Puerto Rican Women, but that was symbolic. MIA was the only member! But being that it was during the time of fronts, there had to be a "feminist" front. In any event, we expected that the lifelong coordinator of Mujer Integrate Ahora, Ana Irma Rivera Lassen, would somehow address the situation and support us, but that wasn't the case. For that reason, we resigned en masse. Then some women who had left MIA from that petty bourgeois sector, returned after we left! But those of us who left, together with others, formed the Alianza Feminista por la Liberacion Humana (Feminist Alliance for Human Liberation).
FNM: What was Alianza and how was it different from MIA? What type of activities did it pursue?
MRL: Alianza was founded in 1978 and formally defined itself within working class feminism. Our priority was the organization of women workers. We did many things, for example, a study of the composition of the manufacturing sector within the metropolitan area. Our intention was doing some work with these women, but we never did because it coincided with all of us graduating and moving on to pursue graduate studies.
FNM: So, as graduate students, wasn't the group also part of the petty bourgeoisie?
MRL: Well, a segment, because there were people who stayed in Puerto Rico and others did not continue to graduate studies. For instance, one of the companeras works at the Comision Para los Asuntos de la Mujer and others who left for New York work in social services, bookstores, and academia.
FNM: You had mentioned that working class feminism was different from the legalistic feminism of the petty bourgeoisie. However, aren't both ideologies emerging from the same class?
MRL: Ah, of course! Of course!
FNM: So, what is the difference?
MRL: Working class feminism wasn't a legalistic ideology. We believed that we had to give priority to what was then understood as grassroots work, community work more broadly. We viewed legalistic efforts as working a bit within structures that, in some way, we sought to subvert. That was the mindset of that time.
FNM: What other activities did Alianza do? Did you have internal discussions?
MRL: Yes, there was a lot of debate about issues of sexuality. In fact, this is the organization in which I participated that discussed the subject the most, which seems to stem from to the composition of the group. The majority of the women of Alianza were lesbians, and those who weren't knew that the others were.
FNM: Why do you believe gay and feminist groups continued to identify themselves with the Left despite all the contradictions?
MRL: In retrospect, at that time we did not have the theoretical and political tools to take on the contradictory nature of our struggles, the contradictions that come with double and triple militancy. I don't think we can forget how strong Marxist Leninism was in Puerto Rico then and the way in which this approach made us subordinate feminist, lesbian, and other struggles to those of class. It was understood that there was a greater struggle that we had to engage in and, therefore, all sectors felt compelled not to abandon that bigger effort. All of this is mixed in with the question of colonialism.
FNM: Would you say that Marxism was the only available discourse to think broadly about subordination and injustice?
MRL: It was the official one.
FNM: So, my other question is in relation to influence, or the lack of impact of the U.S. gay movement on lesbian organizing here. Was U.S. influence at some point the object of debate or was it perceived as totally unrelated?
MRL: I would say it was rather unrelated. Not like now! For example, gay and lesbian writing was not what I was reading.
FNM: What did you read?
MRL: Leftist things!
FNM: Leftist things?
MRL: Leftist things! There was hardly any gay literature proper. There was feminist literature, but the foundation was leftist.
FNM: And the feminist literature you were reading, did it originate in the United States?
MRL: It came from the United States, but it was not literature where issues like mandatory heterosexuality were discussed. The prevailing framework at the time was Marxist; the materiality of the subordination of women was laid out in those terms and also the relationship between patriarchal structures and capitalism.
FNM: Was there a reason that you never joined a gay organization?
MRL: There were none!
FNM: There were!
MRL: Like which ones?
FNM: Comunidad Orgullo Gay and the Circulo de Estudios Gay (Circle of Gay Studies) at the University of Puerto Rico.
MRL: No, I did not join.
MRL: I can't reconstruct exactly what I was thinking. What I do believe is that Comunidad Orgullo Gay was a mixed-gender group, and it had more men than women. I would dare to say that for a number of lesbians who considered ourselves feminists, we saw more possibilities to advance lesbian politics within all-women feminist groups, than in gay groups where there were men. What's more, the fact is that gay groups with men and women had other ideologies that weren't exactly what we supported.
FNM: I have noticed that recent groups like the Colectivo de Lesbianas Feministas (Collective of Feminist Lesbians) or ACT UP Latino Caucus have few or no links to the traditional left. Why do you think that's the case?
MRL: On the one hand, that has to do with the way in which different sectors have dealt with the crisis of the Left, which is at all levels! And on the other, the very transformations in Puerto Rico foster the emergence of a diversity of organizations that incorporate identity politics, including women, homosexuals, and lesbians.
FNM: How do you position yourself in relation to the Left and the independence movement?
MRL: I am very much dissociated from what is understood as the Left. I think everyone is. In my case, it's mixed with an aversion to everything that has to do with nationalism. I can't stand those discussions, neither within nor outside academia. I can't stand them!
MRL: I think that discussion has obstructed precisely what is happening now, the possibility that different subordinated sectors can legitimately organize themselves autonomously. I have problems with the word "organization" as well, but being that we are trapped by language in so many ways, what I am referring to is the process by which people can legitimately and autonomously organize to represent the other's position. In some way, on the theoretical plane, I've moved on from Marxism to what's called post-Marxism and more recently on to the side of poststructuralism and postmodernism. At the least, it provides me with theoretical tools that make many things in the academic realm possible, and I'd have to say that it gives me a different view on the issues, a broader social view of things.
FNM: So, matters like the colonial relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States do not figure in your politics.
MRL: I don't care about those things! You mean, the future of U.S. -Puerto Rico relations? In what way? I think that as things stand in this world right now, this question is irrelevant to me. For me, particular struggles are more important. At least the ones I'm involved in, such as feminism in academia, though I'm not part of any group. In fact, I have a hard time participating in groups! Because sometimes I don't find much support for the discussions that I want to pursue. In the United States, I was part of a Marxist feminist group of women that were fundamentally from academia. There were Americans and Hispanic women. And some of the discussions actually had to do with the different positions that Latinas and other minorities had versus white women. After, I returned to Puerto Rico and, for about a year and a half, I became part of another group, the Grupo Autonomo de Mujeres (Autonomous Group of Women), a mixed feminist group as well.
FNM: Was this a theory or discussion group? What year are we talking about?
MRL: Yes, it was a discussion group and it was active between 1984 and 1985. The Grupo Autonomo de Mujeres created a document in which the problem of lesbians within feminism was clearly delineated and the eminently heterosexual approach to feminism in Puerto Rico was discussed. Because over there political practices were already set out in other terms, right? One of the issues we often discussed was organization, or the desire to organize ourselves. We viewed this critically, considered the ways in which the sectors of the Left and Marxism shaped the ways that feminist women understood and articulated how they were to carry out their struggles.
FNM: And what was the ideological orientation of the group? Was there diversity, or were more or less all the women on the same page?
MRL: We were all teachers at the university or in public schools. There was a sector that was connected to the Left, but in the very process of being in that group, they left.
FNM: So, why did the group dissolve?
MRL: As a result of people's everyday life calamities.
III. CONCIENCIA: INTERVIEW WITH MILDRED BRAULIO MARTINEZ, 1991
Frances Negron-Muntaner (FNM): You took a different path than some of the pioneering lesbian activists in Puerto Rico by working with mixed groups like Colectivo de Concientizacion Gay (Gay Awareness Collective, CCG). How did it all begin?
Mildred Braulio Martinez (MBM): Well, I started with the Colectivo de Concientizacion Gay around December of 1983. I was invited to a workshop regarding different aspects of homosexuality and lesbianism. There were about thirty people, more or less the same number of men and women. The workshop didn't end, so we kept meeting up. From the beginning all of us, or most of us, had the idea to create a group to continue discussing different topics.
FNM: Had you joined another group before?
MBM: No, never. I had just begun to come out of the closet, two years or less before then. But I really needed a group because my whole life I had always been interested in "lost causes," right? Like independence, environmentalism, students' rights, and civil rights activism. After the first meeting, the group began dwindling in numbers until the Colectivo was officially formed in the summer of 1984 with a clear sense of what it wanted to do, and it was quite broad! The idea was to educate and to create conciencia (awareness), to build community. We were much fewer than we were at the beginning, about ten, and we were more or less fifty-fifty in terms of men and women.
FNM: Do you know how the name came about?
MBM: I don't know, I wasn't at that meeting. But it came out of the group discussion. And the idea was to create a collective in which decisions were made by consensus and were the product of discussions among all of us.
FNM: Was the goal to raise awareness among yourselves or others?
MBM: The idea was to raise awareness in ourselves, the gay community, and the general public. We were the only gay and lesbian group at the time. I always felt it was too much responsibility because people would invite us to do a presentation in a university with a group of students, and we would also have workshops among us, for gays and lesbians exclusively. Sometimes we were feeling like classroom specimens and those kinds of things began to weigh on us.
FNM: What other kinds of activities did you engage in?
MBM: We organized workshops and fora. We even organized something that we gave a big name to: Primer Congreso Puertorriqueno sobre Perspectivas de Homosexualidad y Genero en Puerto Rico (First Puerto Rican Conference Concerning Perspectives of Homosexuality and Gender in Puerto Rico). The Collective also had a quarterly publication, Desde el ambiente (From the Scene) that arose from the group discussions. Every quarter, we had a work plan whereby, as a part of internal study cycles, we'd set a theme, and from that a bulletin came about. And we also issued a monthly letter, which often wasn't monthly, that contained notes and a breakdown of what was going on.
FNM: Did you work with other groups?
MBM: The start of the Collective coincided with the moment when organized feminism was in its heyday. There was Taller Salud (Health Workshop), Organizacion Puertorriquena de la Mujer Trabajadora (OPMT, Puerto Rican Organization of Women Workers), Feministas en Marcha (Feminists in Motion), and Encuentro de Mujeres (Women's Forum). There was a lot of militancy! Even though we were a mixed group, we adhered to feminist principles and we understood it was rather important to insert ourselves into the feminist movement as well. In fact, our first public event concerned that topic. We invited Ana Irma Rivera Lassen, who gave us a presentation about feminism and lesbianism. We understood that women are oppressed, and lesbian women doubly so, for being women and lesbians, and that this situation concerns gay men as well. This was because it is sexism and the division of roles and power that allows prejudice against homosexuals to exist.
FNM: What response did you receive from other feminists?
MBM: The Encuentro de Mujeres group was perhaps the closest to us, among other things because there were two colleagues in CCG who were also part of Encuentro. Also, on one occasion that you should remember since you were in the Collective then, we showed that film, I forget the name!
FNM: Lianna (1983) by John Sayles. I remember it well!
MBM: The idea was to promote a conversation about lesbianism with feminist groups, to bring us together, and facilitate a discussion about lesbianism that had never taken place before. We had some good conversations. I think that the best one was with Taller Salud. The other organizations didn't respond to our invitation, neither FEM nor OPMT.
FNM: And did the organizations offer a reason?
MBM: None. The feminist organizations supported us for the first time when the Comision para los Asuntos de la Mujer (Women's Affairs Commission) didn't invite the group of CCG lesbians to their fair.
FNM: What happened?
MBM: It was in 1986. The Commission invited all the feminist organizations so that each could set up an information table. The CCG requested to participate; it was the first time that the Commission did that kind of event. Then they gave tons of excuses, like there was no more space. We told them that it didn't matter; we would set up even next to the bathrooms, but no! When we got there that Sunday, the day of the event, they hadn't given us permission but that information never got to us. So, the feminist organizations united to defend us.
FNM: Who made the decision to refuse you permission?
MBM: The bureaucracy of the Commission. I think the big fear was what people would say because it was a government event, and there would be lesbians there, officially. The homophobia came from all sides.
FNM: So, the women who were representing the feminist groups there protested?
MBM: They protested! They released a statement. I understand it was Encuentro de Mujeres who took the initiative, but it was signed by the other feminist organizations. In fact, the most homophobic organization at the time, OPMT, objected to the language in one of the paragraphs, but it was changed and everyone signed. OPMT had never grappled with the issue of lesbianism! It was difficult. But that statement was finally issued, it was distributed, and we wrote a letter to the Commission requesting a meeting. We saw the commissioners, and we also met with commissioner Carmen Sonia Zayas and explained the situation to her. She didn't really give much importance to the matter. The only thing she really said at the time was, "And what do you all want?" When you finally get to the commissioner, you realize that she's really homophobic! But after this incident, they would always invite us.
FNM: How much influence did feminism have on the women of the Collective?
MBM: I think a lot. This was the only experience in activism that the majority of them had ever had. I had another political formation.
FNM: What was your political foundation, and how do you think it influenced your activism?
MBM: My foundation was leftist and this perhaps influenced our general vision and the Collective's way of operating. It also influenced our language, and that was very interesting. On one occasion there was a member in the Collective who was pro-statehood, and that was really unusual because the majority of us were pro-independence and we were on the same wavelength. So this colleague attended several meetings before he left the Collective. He said that when he would read the Collective's writings, he didn't think or talk that way. That it was very leftist. And indeed, it was the language of the Left.
FNM: Why did you stop participating in leftist organizations?
MBM: Because it didn't satisfy me, really. It required a lot. Aside from the rigidity of the concepts, you had to follow the discipline of the party. I believe in dissent. To express opinions and discover, and not necessarily have to follow what the boss says. You could disagree with the organization. That's very clear to me because the Collective was also that way.
FNM: Why do you think that the majority of gay, Puerto Rican groups in New York and in Puerto Rico, have been founded by people associated with the Left and/or those who self-identify as pro-independence?
MBM: That's a constant because there's a constant of sensibility. You arrive at a definition of your own oppression because you can also define other kinds of oppression. We who do leftist work are precisely in opposition to the established system. Furthermore, in Puerto Rico organized groups have always been about partisan politics or the status of Puerto Rico. There haven't been organized groups revolving around identity, like black identity, for example.
FNM: What kinds of gaps in communication were created between these groups that labeled themselves as leftist and the LGBTQ community and what did the Collective do to overcome it?
MBM: We tried to deal with the language in the bulletins, and to express that our priority was to fight the prejudices regarding lesbianism and homosexuality. But it was difficult to reach people. We imagined a small, ten-person group would be created and that each person would attract others, multiplying the number of members. But we didn't do that work. We remained among ourselves, and other people would join by invitation. We spoke the same language, so that by simply looking at each other we knew what the other was thinking. And other people felt excluded from the group, they did not know what was going on.
FNM: Did the group see that as a limitation?
MBM: I think it's a pretty big problem because we stayed the same; we never grew in number or otherwise.
FNM: I've heard that the men in the Collective eventually started to leave. Why?
MBM: I'd like to know, myself! I don't know what happened. I think it's partly due to what we were discussing before; we didn't grow. At the time there was Lizzy, Aida, Agnes, who was coming and going. And the only man there was Joe Toro Alfonso. But his job as a psychologist took up 16 hours of his day. So, he had little time to dedicate to the group. So, we ended up doing the work ourselves for about a year. Finally, a colleague said to us: "But you already have an organization that functions without men." It was true. And we decided to establish the Colectivo de Lesbianas Feministas (Lesbian Feminists Collective). This was around December of 1989.
FNM: How did you redirect the focus of your work?
MBM: Aside from the parties, which stayed mixed, we had more than one event exclusively for lesbian women, including workshops. No men were allowed. Finally, we decided to hold two caucuses for the Collective, men and women; the men never joined. Eventually, we received funding from the Gay Community Forum in the United States, two contributions that helped us a lot. They're still helping us.
FNM: How much influence do you think the organizational experience of the American gay movement and the AIDS crisis had on the CCG?
MBM: I think that the North American gay movement has influenced everything here, starting with the Comunidad de Orgullo Gay (Gay Pride Community), the name alone suggests that influence. With regard to the Colectivo de Concientizacion Gay, I think it was also influenced because we in Puerto Rico were linked to the United States and we received a lot more information about the U.S. gay movement than any other. And though we didn't necessarily discuss the same issues, I do think there's an influence in terms of what's being discussed because in Puerto Rico there had been no tradition of gay organizing. But to me it doesn't seem like that type of influence is bad because, really, what we do is we contextualize it in Puerto Rico. At the end American influence is due to lack of communication with other places. Once the CCG begins to receive information from other places, say from Europe and Latin America, especially Mexico, we start to realize other things and start to have other discussions.
Regarding AIDS, we discussed the topic and directed the discussion away from the idea that it was a homosexual disease. But we let it slip away. I think that was a mistake the Collective made. We didn't take advantage of the circumstances to organize the community, at least the men. But I do remember that we had an orientation activity at a bar, and the majority of the people that went there were ... women! ... who were concerned about the AIDS issue.
FNM: And was there any kind of communication with Latinas or Puerto Rican women in the United States?
MBM: It's possible that we communicated at the level of sending literature their way, but not at the level of direct communication, of "Tell us what's going on and we'll collaborate on something."
FNM: So then, how does the Lesbian Feminist Collective develop?
MBM: Feminism was initially not part of the Collective's identity. One of the members who suggested it was saying that if the Colectivo de Concientizacion Gay had such a straightforward name that, well, we should have one too! And, clearly, our feminist identity cannot be lost. We had a rather broad notion of feminism, the subject of women, the subject of power. One member had suggested that it could put off people in the Collective because there's already prejudice against feminism, that it's antimen, rigid, feminist phobia!
FNM: What was the group's objective?
MBM: Our intention was to reach lesbians directly. Right now, we've been trying to do work, but we're pretty burned out, because of trying to redefine our work to make it new, more interesting, more effective, and we still haven't achieved that. But one of the most important activities that we have planned is to do outreach with the bars on Saturdays, with our little safe sex packet for lesbians. This way, they'll learn about the Collective, about what we're doing, and at least they will know who we are.
FNM: What do you want to communicate to them?
MBM: Tell them that we're a group of lesbians; that we've been meeting for about a year, that we want to reach out, ask if they want to give us their addresses for our future events. We're even thinking of making an album with lesbian content, to create an awareness, an identity, as lesbians.
FNM: Is the ideological makeup of this group different or the same as before?
MBM: Identical. We're the same. In fact, see, now it's worse, because we're all friends, so we have a ton of experience from before the Collective. The people that come to the Collective either fit in or leave.
FNM: Did you participate in the first Gay Pride Parade this past June (1991)? Tell me a bit about that experience.
MBM: That parade was interesting because, first, Cristina Hayworth, who's transsexual, organized it. She invites organizations because she clearly can't do it alone. And I was one of those who thought that people would harass us. But it was really good! There were about 200 people, all determined to march through the entire Condado district. The reactions I saw, from other male and female members, from the people, were of support. At the end, everyone was like, "How cool!" Or, "We did it! We're here, out in the open!" Though it's true that it was not a march. It resembled U.S. parades quite a bit, a gringo concept, celebrating pride, coming out on the streets. It was like "Let them see me! I'm not ashamed!"
FNM: I collaborated in the filming of the event, and when I saw the footage, a few things caught my eye. One was that the majority of the participants were young people, and that there were more men than women. It also seems that this was a different class sector.
MBM: Yes, yes, that's true! I went with five people from the Collective. Others were from ACT UP and U.S. residents. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, it's just the way it was. And there were also people from the bars, with their limousines, their queens. Finally, there was mobilization from that part of the community! Apart from the fact that I think people like us are still not ready to come out. There's a lot of fear.
FNM: But what seems ironic to me, in a certain way, is that the ones who dare to take risks are the ones who don't end up in the Collective. In that sense, it's a crisis of ...
MBM: ... identity?
FNM: I was thinking of communication! Or do you see this as a symptom of the crisis of the Left?
MBM: Yes, I think so. We don't reach the people. There's a great divide. How to reach out, even if we can't move the masses, but that at least we reach a point where we are seen, heard. Everyone doesn't have to agree but they should think, at least, that something has to be done for the oppressed so that, little by little, you can open the closet door.
I would like to thank all interviewees as well as Yolanda Martinez-San Miguel, Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, and Xavier Totti for their sharp suggestions and support. My appreciation also goes to Ray Biel for translating two of the interviews and Francheska Alers-Rojas for revising all translations.
(1) Facebook exchange, May 22, 2017. Original Spanish: "urge que una persona haga el trabajo de historia lesbica de PR. Hasta ahora las mujeres lesbianas en la Academia o se han dedicado casi por completo a historias tradicionales ... o no publican casi nada o nada ... merecemos un trabajo menos timido de parte de las academicas y academicos queer y LGBTT de Puerto Rico." Javier Laureano had also made a similar plea in 2016, in his book San Juan Gay, when he writes: "Necesitamos, sobre todo, mas historias lesbicas, queer y transexuales" (2016, 27) and in the conclusion when he acknowledges the work of various scholars and describes it as "precedente importante" (2016, 327).
(2) Original Spanish: "nuestra historia debera estar escrita de otra forma."
(3) There is a relatively long and important lesbian poetic tradition that includes writers Nemir Matos (Las mujeres no hablan asi, 1981), Lilliana Ramos-Collado (Reroticas, 1998), Aixa Ardin (Batiborrillo, 1998), and Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro (Perseidas, 2011), among others.
(4) Crespo Keebler has also conducted oral histories for a range of other essays (see Crespo Kebler 1994a, 1994b, 2003).
(5) This is also evident in Puerto Rico. An example is Mujer Integrate Ahora's guidelines titled "Que concientizacion?" (2001, 214).
(6) One of the interviews, with Luis "Popo" Santiago, was published in 1991 in Radical America (Negron-Muntaner 1991).
(7) This term is mostly associated with the title of Richard Rodriguez's classic memoir The Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982), but the trope of hunger is otherwise amply present in the work of lesbian Latinx writers including Cherrie Moraga in works such as The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea (1995).
(8) See Ana Irma Rivera Lassen (2001, 120) and Elizabeth Crespo Kebler's interview with feminist Flavia Rivera. Rivera comments that in MIA "habian companeras que planteaban mucho la situacion del homosexualismo y del lesbianismo. Por eso, para muchas personas estaban identificadas o senaladas como una organizacion lesbiana" (2001a, 170).
(9) MIA Discussion document, 1977. See Mujer Integrate Ahora (2001, 347).
(10) Information bulletin, Colectivo de Concientizacion Gay, undated. Personal archives.
Afro-feminismo con Ana Irma Rivera Lassen. 2018. Veo Veo 31 March. <https://www.youtube. com/watch?v=8T0xxfr1pqU/>.
Alianza Feminista por la Liberacion Humana. 2001 . In Documentos del feminismo en Puerto Rico: Facsimiles de la historia, Volumen 1,1970-1979, eds. Ana Irma Rivera Lassen and Elizabeth Crespo Kebler. 448. San Juan: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico.
Crespo Kebler, Elizabeth. 1994a. Puerto Rican Women: Migration and Changes in Gender Roles. In International Yearbook of Oral History and Life Stories, Volume 3: Migration and Identity, ed. R. Benmayor and A. Skotnes, 137-50. London: Oxford University Press.
--. 1994b. Estudia por si tu marido te sale un sinverguenza. Historia y Fuente Oral 1(11), 83-95.
--. 2001a. Entrevistas a Norma Valle Ferrer y Flavia Rivera Montero de la Sociedad de Mujeres Periodistas de la Federacion de Mujeres Puertorriquenas. In Documentos del feminismo en Puerto Rico: Facsimiles de la historia, Volumen 1, 1970-1979, eds. Ana Irma Rivera Lassen and Elizabeth Crespo Kebler. 151-178. San Juan: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico.
--. 2001b. Entrevista a Carmen Torres: El activismo gay de los setenta--La Alianza de Mujeres del Collectivo de Concientizacion Gay. In Documentos del feminismo en Puerto Rico: Facsimiles de la historia, Volumen 1, 1970-1979, eds. Ana Irma Rivera Lassen and Elizabeth Crespo Kebler. 179-191, 186. San Juan: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico.
--. 2001c. Entrevista a Madeline Roman Lopez: La Alianza Feminista por la Liberacion Humana. In Documentos del feminismo en Puerto Rico: Facsimiles de la historia, Volumen 1,1970-1979, eds. Ana Irma Rivera Lassen and Elizabeth Crespo Kebler. 192-206. San Juan: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico.
--. 2003. The Infamous Crime Against Nature: Constructions of Heterosexuality and Lesbian Subversions in Puerto Rico. In The Culture of Gender and Sexuality in the Caribbean, ed. Linden Lewis. 190-212. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Halberstam, Jack. 2011. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Kattago, Siobhan. 2013. Why the World Matters: Hannah Arendt's Philosophy of New Beginnings. The European Legacy 18(2), 170-84.
Laureano, Javier. 2016. San Juan Gay: Conquista de un espacio urbano de 1948 a 1991. San Juan: Instituto de Cultura Puertorriquena.
Moraga, Cherrie. 1995. The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea. New York: West End Press.
Mujer Integrate Ahora. 2001 . !Anita Bryant, Salte de Nuestro Camino! In Documentos del feminismo en Puerto Rico:1970-1979, eds. Ana Irma Rivera Lassen and Elizabeth Crespo Kebler. 345-8. San Juan: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico.
Negron-Muntaner, Frances. 1991. Twenty Years of Puerto Rican Activism: An Interview with Luis "Popo" Santiago. Radical America 25(1), 39-51.
--. 1991-1992. Echoing Stonewall and Other Dilemmas: The Organizational Beginnings of a Gay and Lesbian Agenda in Puerto Rico, 1972-1977 (Part I). CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies 4(1), 76-95.
--. 1992. Echoing Stonewall and Other Dilemmas: The Organizational Beginnings of a Gay and Lesbian Agenda in Puerto Rico, 1972-1977 (Part II). CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies 4(2), 100-15.
Nora, Pierre. 1989. Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire. Representations 26 (Spring), 7-24.
Objetivos, Propositos, Reglamento, Posiciones. In Documentos del feminismo en Puerto Rico: 1970-1979, eds. Ana Irma Rivera Lassen and Elizabeth Crespo Kebler. 275-8. San Juan: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto
Passerin d'Entreves, Maurizio. 2018. Hannah Arendt. Stanford Encyclopedia 2 May, 1-28. <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/arendt/>.
?Que es concientizacion? 2001. In Documentos del feminismo en Puerto Rico: 1970-1979, eds. Ana Irma Rivera Lassen and Elizabeth Crespo Kebler. 214-5. San Juan: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico.
Ramos, Juanita, 1987. Companeras: Latina Lesbians (An Anthology). New York: Latina Lesbian History Project.
Rivera Lassen, Ana Irma. 2001a. La organizacion de las mujeres y las organizaciones feministas en Puerto Rico: Mujer integrate Ahora y otras historias de la decada. In Documentos del feminismo en Puerto Rico: Facsimiles de la historia, Volumen 1,1970-1979, eds. Ana Irma Rivera Lassen and Elizabeth Crespo Kebler. 97-147. San Juan: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico.
--. 2001b . La mujer puertorriquena negra. In Documentos del feminismo en Puerto Rico: Facsimiles de la historia, Volumen 1,1970-1979. eds. Ana Irma Rivera Lassen and Elizabeth Crespo Kebler. 280-2. San Juan: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico.
Rivera Lassen, Ana Irma and Elizabeth Crespo Kebler, eds. 2001. Documentos del feminismo en Puerto Rico: 1970-1979. San Juan: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico.
Rodriguez, Juana Maria. 2003. Queer Latinidad: Identity Practices, Discursive Spaces. New York: New York University Press,.
Rodriguez, Richard. 1982. The Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. New York: Bantam.
Roman Lopez, Madeline. 2011a. Violencia y delito pasional: claves para una nueva reflexion en Puerto Rico. 80grados 6 May.
--. 2011b. Maquinas de dominio, crimen y crimenes de odio. Revista Derechos Humanos y Transformacion de Conflictos 3, 63-71.
--. 2011c. La complejidad es una epistemologia queer. Revista Pedagogia 44, 133-40.
Sierra Madero, Abel. 2018. Academias para producir machos en Cuba. Trabajo forzado, memoria y revolucion. Ph.D. dissertation, New York University.
Varela, Hector Luis. 1977. El lesbianismo es la causa. El Nuevo Dia 23 August 10
Frances Negron-Muntaner (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a filmmaker, writer, curator, scholar and professor at Columbia University, where she is also the founding curator of the Latino Arts and Activism Archive. Among her books and publications are: Boricua Pop: Puerto Ricans and the Latinization of American Culture (CHOICE Award, 2004), The Latino Media Gap (2014), and Sovereign Acts: Contesting Colonialism in Native Nations and Latinx America (2017). Her most recent films include Small City, Big Change (2013), War for Guam (2015) and Life Outside (2016).
Caption: Ana Irma Rivera Lassen (1974). Photograph by Pipo Grajales. Reprinted by permission.
Caption: Ana Irma Rivera Lassen. Official Photograph as President of the Colegio de Abogados de Puerto Rico. Photographer Alina Luciano. Reprinted by permission.
Caption: Madeline Roman Lopez. Reprinted by permission.
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|Publication:||CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2018|
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