Elizam Escobar: It was a little easier for me
Ex political prisoner Elizam Escobar recalls the social shock he experienced when he came back to the Island after 19 years of prison
By Daniel Rivera Vargas / firstname.lastname@example.org
September 21, 2010
translated by Jan Susler
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Several minutes of this interview had passed by the time painter Elizam Escobar remembered that he didn’t have his hat on, as he always wears one in all the public activities. The painter is the ex political prisoner best known publicly of the group that was released in 1999.
In his studio on the second floor in a neighborhood in Hato Rey, Escobar talked about the social shock he experienced when he returned to Puerto Rico after serving 19 years in prison, and the current situation of the independence movement.
He recognized the weight of the first years, being a public figure, due to the combination of being an artist and an ex political prisoner, but he assured that for him, his work as a professor at the School of Plastic Arts and his involvement in the cultural struggle have been really important.
The artist urged the independentista sector to seek unity, although he recognized that isn’t easy, and to struggle for the release of political prisoners Oscar López and Avelino González.
What’s been the most peculiar thing about integrating into the free community during this past 11 years?
There have been stages. I arrived to Puerto Rico having been one of the few prisoners to have been born and raised here; I studied at the University of Puerto Rico. For me it was a little easier. The first year was a year that, in terms of artistic activity, I had to integrate myself again, to get a sense of what was happening in Puerto Rico. At that time there was a cultural effervescence in Puerto Rico. Of course, that’s diminished now, due to the current crisis. For me, it was coming out of a reality where there was no privacy to another reality. For me, Puerto Rico is what I call an open prison.
What are you referring to?
I’m referring to when I arrived, I was at my mother’s house in Lomas Verdes, Bayamón. I’d go out for a walk, and my mother would tell me, “Are you crazy?” Due to the crime wave in some communities, people hardly ever go out for a walk any more. The issue of bars, which in the ‘50's was for decoration, had become a necessity. All that made me feel like there was a new reality. Public tension was also really strong. There was a lot of public pressure. At the beginning it was really strong. In jail I had no privacy, and I didn’t in Puerto Rico either, because I’d become something like a public figure, in the art world as well as in civil society.
Did you feel any discrimination on the Island after your release from prison?
What happened is that I found work at the School of Plastic Arts, and that allowed me a transition that wasn’t hostile. At the beginning a lot of police would greet me, and then after the first seven years, people started to remove their masks. There are some obvious conflicts in Puerto Rico. There are people who see you as the incarnation of an ideal they don’t agree with. I was invited to mount an exhibition in the Capitol by Jenniffer González, and I told the person who brought the invitation to me that it was very difficult for me to accept her invitation because it could be seen as a way of legitimizing the Legislature’s work and the cultural policies of this government.
Give me some examples of ‘taking the mask off’?
My participation in any struggle is interpreted as part of “a hidden agenda.” We’re no longer those who came out of prison, who were victims, admirable people for the time we served. Now, instead, we’re participants in the society. Now we are identified with a social and political struggle.
What most impressed you when you came back to the Island?
Seeing an army of sick people at the stop lights, the addicts. That really struck me. The other is when I started working at the School of Plastic Arts, which was a huge change for me, because the Old San Juan of the ‘60's wasn’t the scene of cultural activity as it was when I came back (1999). So for me, the School of Plastic Arts was really liberating, because I started to work with youth, and that has been and continues to be a fundamental experience of how I can situate myself and contribute in this society. I realized that my work would be principally in the cultural arena.
What was the hardest thing about prison?
To lose what is called freedom, and contact with the people you love, to be censored from society. Everyone has to deal with it in their own way. When I got to the first prison, I did an analysis for what I would be able to do, and what I wouldn’t be able to do. And from there I started to live that other life, which was a form of death.
Anything positive about prison?
I was in more than a dozen prisons. I was able to organize classes from inside prison. I was able to teach an illiterate 50 year old Puerto Rican to read and write. But in the entire trajectory of prison, the best was trying to maintain hope, of how to be a human being without having to escape from the cell. I still have paintbrushes that I brought from prison. We celebrated a Grito de Lares in prison. That had never been done before. What happens is that in the federal prisons you’re allowed to celebrate some dates, like the 4th of July, the 5th of May for the Mexicans, to keep the population sort of happy. The Puerto Ricans approached me and said, “Listen, Escobar, the Colombians, the ‘Rastafarians,’ everyone has their activity, and we don’t have anything.” “Well,” I told them “we don’t have our independence, but we could celebrate the Grito de Lares.” But I imposed a condition that we had to invite everyone. It turned out to be a beautiful thing.
How do you see the independence movement today?
The principal agenda of the independence movement should be to seek unity. That conception is problematic. (Juan Antonio) Corretjer used to say, for example, that unity is only achieved through action. What we have here are two governments of colonialist countries one wants to be the ‘super colony,’ which is statehood, and the others, who can’t even make an argument about what they want. The PIP is a good tool, but the PIP and all the organizations ought to seek dialogue. It’s obvious that in a colony there could only be colonial elections.
What do you think of armed struggle now?
At Lolita (Lebrón)’s burial, I spoke, and I said that Puerto Rico needs to seek its independence using all means available. And when the moment arrives, the Puerto Rican people will choose what means or combination of means it will use. When we returned to Puerto Rico, the method of peaceful struggle was being used in Vieques. Every historical moment will define the means of struggle.
It’s said that Lolita renounced armed struggle.
I don’t know what changes Lolita made, but I can tell you that everyone has the right to change her strategy, and if she thought that in the Puerto Rico of today the armed struggle wasn’t the necessary way, that is her choice.
What can you say about Oscar López, the prisoner who remains inside?
Oscar is about to mark 30 years of prison. That is truly an intolerable situation. A person who has always maintained steadfastness, in addition to all the studies that have been done about how disproportionate our sentences were. In the Human Rights Committee we’re going to focus principally on Oscar; Avelino as well, but his sentence is much shorter. Oscar is the one who has an obscene sentence. If he doesn’t come out soon, he’ll come out as an old man, when he’s over 80 years old. It would be an honorable gesture of good faith on the part of (president Barack) Obama if he released him without conditions. The Cubans are releasing those ‘political prisoners’ without conditions. In our case, we have the political prisoners with the longest sentences in all of Latin America. Lolita was the woman who spent the most time in prison in all of the Americas, maybe in the world.