Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry
In his last week of presidency, Barack Obama commutes the sentence of political prisoner Oscar López Rivera (El Viejo), who is released after serving thirty-five years for “seditious conspiracy.”
When Oscar arrives in Puerto Rico under arresto domiciliario, this changes the scenario for hundreds of life-size cardboard cut-out standup Oscars. They have given it their all, jangueando en los balcones del Viejo San Juan, posing for selfies with thousands of boricuas aquí y allá, marching with their stiff, un-posable feet in hundreds of Free Oscar street protests.
Concerned that ephemeral figuras de cartón may be packed away as souvenirs or even deemed less necessary—given that in a few short weeks 74-year old Oscar López Rivera will be able to walk freely and in the flesh in his homeland, the cardboard Oscars decide to take a temporary break from selfie-takers and manifestaciones.
After dressing for so long in eye glasses, white sweat shirt, khaki pants, and tennis, the cardboard Oscars continue to dress this way every day. Thus, they are recognized everywhere they go.
One cardboard Oscar in black gafas dances over the hot sand in bare feet with his cardboard daughter and nieta en la playa Buyé de Cabo Rojo. They all eat paper piraguas.
One cardboard Oscar works as a waiter in the restaurant Made in Puerto Rico en la Calle Loíza, donde el menú incluye sangría de guayaba y el mofongo Bling Bling, que está relleno de churrasco, camarones y pollo con una salsa de oro 24 kilates comestible.
One cardboard Oscar leans into the Cueva del Indio to feel the sea spew, his paper doll feet rooted in sand.
One cardboard Oscar joins the food scavengers’ movement, gathering fruit, trading seedlings, and growing makeshift organic gardens on small plots of captured land. Él no come caviar ni corn beef. He practices yoga.
One cardboard Oscar becomes an advocate, listening to the stories and changing bandages of tecatos en la calle, even after he puts on a suit and becomes a senator.
One cardboard Oscar volunteers at the Aula Verde, a San Juan mariposario for monarch butterflies. He spends the day watching them float away from the netting, flying off to join the great migration.
One cardboard Oscar, despite his white hair, becomes a young university student working for $4.25 an hour under the reforma laboral.
One cardboard Oscar is rebranded with the red logo of UPR on his forehead, working as a no-docente professor on a contrato de servicio at the Facultad de Lucha Sí, Entrega, No! El pago no cubre el gasto mensual de la gasolina.
One cardboard Oscar becomes a deambulante, swaying to the clave beat at an intersection, until he is captured by cameramen of National Geographic, who claim that the street drug of choice, the horse tranquilizer Xylazine, is turning Puerto Rico “into a ZOMBIE NATION.”
One cardboard Oscar paints more graffiti murals of Oscar on the walls of San Sebastián.
One cardboard Oscar haunts the phony offices of voted-out politicians or other batatas who have been hired on jugosos contratos y el panismo, with repugnantly high salaries, como asesores a la Legislatura. That cardboard Oscar gathers dust and lint, waiting for one of them to show up at work.
One cardboard Oscar still stands on Dos Hermanos bridge during the hour of el tapón, missing the selfie-takers.
One cardboard Oscar returns to Chicago, glittering city of water canals and bright flower boxes, to stand in the gift shop of the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture.
One cardboard Oscar picks up a divine homemade pique of red peppers in a Don Q rum bottle at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center. He doesn’t buy the pique in the Cruzan rum bottle.
One cardboard Oscar receives love letters, Valentines, and offers of marriage by the cardboard boxload and boatload.
One cardboard Oscar writes “Paro Nacional, Ahora!” and “Soberanía, la Causa Noble” in super-thick magic marker on the side of the colmado.
One cardboard Oscar stands in a long food line with elders, mothers, and children who know hunger in Toa Baja, waiting to receive a week’s ration of donated milk, orange juice, canned food, and a baggie of rice.
One cardboard Oscar walks the paths of the green rainforests of el Yunque. His prison eyes adjust to the colors of allamandas, amapolas, heliconias, orchids, torch ginger lilies, red firespikes, and impatiens.
One cardboard Oscar reads or paints on a canvas by a louvered window on the second floor of his daughter’s home in a soft overstuffed chair, wrapped in a fleece blanket. When he drops off to sleep, his snores sound like, “paz, paz, paz.”
One cardboard Oscar gets tired of book presentations, public speaking engagements, and keynotes at dinner parties, the echarpalantismo, gritando ¡Me cago en ti, sociedad positivista, progresista y luchista!
One cardboard Oscar doesn’t remember what it was like to just be a piece of cardboard.
A squad of cardboard Oscars visits el tren urbano, el Centro de Convenciones de la Bahía de San Juan, Plaza Universitaria, and the megaport El Puerto de las Américas Rafael Cordero Santiago de Ponce. They marvel at what must be the immense costs of such public works projects. They mutter “Mi valiente país está arranca’o!”
One cardboard Oscar walks to el Capitolio after the new governor’s public address, joining the crowd chanting down the governor’s plan, Promesa, the U.S., and the coming austerity whirlwind. Protestors have carved riot shields from plastic traffic barrels. Encapuchados beat the shields in rhythm on the road barriers set up by the police, who are now in formation on the steps of the Capitol. The crowd sings, burns a flag, and burns a man in effigy inside a silver garbage can.
Author’s Note: The poem refers to Puerto Rican independence leader Oscar López Rivera, who was imprisoned for 35 years in the U.S. He is a veteran of the Vietnam War. In 1976, he joined the clandestine group Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN), which engaged in activities against U.S. colonization of Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans in the U.S. and on the island have mounted a massive campaign for López Rivera’s release. He has been seen by some to be a Nelson Mandela-like personage. Protests have involved community forums, the signing of petitions, and marching with or taking selfies with life-size cardboard photos of López Rivera, as well as the painting of many street murals, among other efforts. His prison sentence was recently commuted by President Barack Obama, and he has been repatriated to Puerto Rico. At this moment, he is still under house arrest in the pueblo of San Sebastián. The poem includes some details from his letters to his granddaughter, which were originally published in El Nuevo Día, a daily newspaper of Puerto Rico, in 2013-2014.
Copyright 2017 Loretta Collins Klobah.
Loretta Collins Klobah is a professor of Caribbean Literature at the University of Puerto Rico. Her poetry collection The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman won the 2012 OCM Bocas Prize in Caribbean Literature. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Missouri Review, The Antioch Review, Cimarron Review and Poet Lore.