Ex political prisoner Carmen Valentín enjoys her work as an English teacher
by Daniel Rivera Vargas / email@example.com
September 22, 2010
translated by Jan Susler
Whether it’s an irony of destiny or not, ex political prisoner Carmen Valentín earns her living offering tutorials in English at a pro-statehood city college in San Juan.
Valentín, at age 64, works a lot. In addition to the tutorials, which is a full time 40 hour job, she has a second, part-time job at a pharmacy in the Condado. That’s where she’s lived since shortly after her release in 1999, in a small apartment with a spectacular view of the ocean.
Regretting that her closest family lives in the United States, she lives among paintings done by her friend, Oscar López, who is still in prison.
It’s curious that she’s chosen to teach English, after being in prison in U.S. prisons. “First, we need to learn that languages are important, all languages. Second, they helped me find this job. It’s a federal program to give attention on an individual, group, or class basis.”
What kind of students do you have?
Interestingly, when I entered prison, I was working at a community college, working with low income students, and it was something that spoke to me. When I got to Puerto Rico, I found a job... with low income students, who I really understand.
What are you referring to?
Well, I come from a situation of poverty, and I overcame it. I always try to advise them. I love to be surrounded by people I can help, and stimulate them to move forward.
You also have a second job...
I also work at a pharmacy. Like all good Puerto Ricans, I love to work, and so I found this second job. Things aren’t so great right now, but eleven years ago the economic situation was better, when I found this job. It’s not like I want to get rich, but that’s one of the problems we have here: low salaries and a high cost of living.
Have you ever felt discrimination when people learn that you were a political prisoner?
Never, not a single time. I work in a predominantly pro-statehood environment. (Carlos) Romero Barceló founded the college (of San Juan), which has always been in the city’s hands. There, I am loved and admired by everyone. I feel comfortable, happy. I’ve never been rejected. Maybe when I was looking for work initially, I had a disagreeable situation. Looking for other work, someone said, ‘Only in Puerto Rico could it happen that a terrorist would want to work in a federal program.’ Someone who overheard that comment called me and said, ‘They’re not going to hire you.’ That was one of the only times.
It’s been 11 years since your release. What are your thoughts about spending those 19 years in prison?
For me, and I think for everyone who struggles for an ideal, that makes prison more tolerable. We have so many examples of people who were in prison for many years, and come out mentally healthy. It’s not that we didn’t encounter huge problems in prison, but we were able to overcome them. I was studying for my doctorate in psychology at the time I was arrested, and I had a lot of knowledge about how to deal with some guards, the ones who caused us problems. I always try to remember the good people I met in prison... prison is full of good people. I try to keep my memories positive.
What’s the most positive thing you recall about prison?
The day we left, we had to say goodbye to that entire population that had accompanied us for so many years. We never had problems with the population, but that day, they showed us the love and respect they felt. The prison administration couldn’t control the masses of prisoners who left their jobs to bid us farewell.
And the worst thing?
The searches they'd do were completely indecent. After our visits, they would rob you of any good feelings you had from having shared with your family, when you felt almost free. They would require you to completely strip, and, well, I won’t even go into the details. That was something that was really repugnant.
Do you sometimes regret your participating in pro-independence groups?
I was 34 years old when I joined. I was an adult. I joined with a clear head. I was
convinced that the colonial situation of Puerto Rico could not continue. When one acts like in such a way, then the decision is clear and firm, and you can tolerate whatever comes. As Ramón Emeterio Betances said, ‘if you want to eat an omelet, you have to break the eggs.’ Thus we decided to confront that with humility, to make that offering to our homeland.
What struck you when you left prison and returned to Puerto Rico?
My parents had to emigrate when I was little, and I would come to visit. You have that romantic view of the Island, that it could be paradise if we weren't in this colonial situation. One thing I didn’t know: I love flowers, and near here they sell flowers. I asked the man, ‘Those flowers, are they from Aibonito?’ ‘No, from Colombia,’ he responded. Then I was going through Lares, and I stopped to buy some tubers (ñames) and I asked the man: ‘No, they’re from Costa Rica.’ One thing that shocks me is that here, agriculture no longer exists, that we have to buy from them, because it’s more advantageous for the U.S. government. In prison I would ask, ‘God, let me get to a free country. I don’t want to leave prison to return to the colony and have to face all that for which I’ve been a prisoner all these years.’ But that didn’t happen. You have to think that some day it will happen.
Will we ever get independence here?
I can’t tell when. There is a contradiction, and I think contradictions demand a resolution. Other countries have achieved their independence. I don’t know why Puerto Rico can’t. It’s inevitable. It will happen. There is a strong nationalist sector here that isn’t heard, that doesn’t vote, but that doesn’t alarm me. The little I recall of the history of the United States is that they won when their revolutionary struggle was the most fragmented. The independence movement has been the target of much repression and abuse, and I respect them because they've gone through so much.
Is armed struggle an option?
Armed struggle is what will save the homeland in the future. As long as that contradiction exists, there will be people who take up arms. Those acts (the acts attributed to the Armed Forces for National Liberation, the group she was connected to) weren't done with the intention of bringing down the most powerful empire in the world. They were symbolic acts to show the empire and the entire world that not all Puerto Ricans accept colonialism. The acts had the advantage of showing that, for one instant, we were free. We never thought we were going to destroy the United States.