Last Sunday’s Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City marked the 57th year the parade strolled up Fifth Avenue, but it was a much different event than in recent years. This parade wasn’t just a cultural celebration; parade organizers called for the release of Oscar López Rivera, who has spent 33 years in prison for seditious conspiracy.
Like Lopez Rivera, this year’s Grand Marshall, or ‘king’ of the parade, has strong political views: Organizers chose the frontman of Grammy Award-winning group Calle 13, René Perez Joglar, to lead the parade. Perez Joglar supports independence for Puerto Rico and unlike most Latin pop stars, is known for being very vocal about his political views, which makes him controversial.
It was a full circle moment for Perez Joglar, who first visited the parade with his dad and brother when he was an 18-year-old college student. He might’ve watched from the sidelines then, but he was already politically conscious. That day he wore a t-shirt of Puerto Rican nationalist Pedro Albizu Campos, who’s considered the father of the Puerto Rican independence movement from the U.S..
René Perez Joglar showed Fusion a photo of when he attended his first Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City. “I was already scheming what I was going to do. Planning it,” he told us.
López Rivera, the man who parade organizers called to be released, is a modern-day nationalist who has been in jail for 33 years under “seditious conspiracy” charges. His daughter, Clarisa Lopez, walked alongside Pérez Joglar and hundreds of parade participants.
“Seditious conspiracy,” from Title 18 of the U.S. Code, declares that a crime only needs to be planned, not actually attempted, to be against the law. First used during the Civil War against secessionists, “seditious conspiracy” was not applied again until 1937 when Albizu Campos was charged after organizing pro-independence marches in Puerto Rico, according to attorney Luis Nieves Falcón in a 2013 Democracy Now interview.
In 1981, Oscar Lopez Rivera was convicted of “seditious conspiracy, use of force to commit robbery, interstate transportation of firearms and ammunition to aid in the commission of a felony, and interstate transportation of stolen vehicles” for his alleged involvement in the paramilitary group Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN) in Chicago during the 1970s. A decorated Vietnam veteran, Lopez Rivera was not charged with killing anyone but according to the Department of Justice, his offenses “arose out of his role in FALN” and was charged with a 55 year sentence. Fifteen more years were added to his penalty in 1988 for conspiring to attempt to escape prison.
Out of the 33 years he’s been in jail, Lopez Rivera spent 12 of those in solitary confinement. The United Nations says solitary confinement beyond 15 days can amount to torture and result in lasting mental damage.
In 1999, President Clinton offered clemency to more than a dozen imprisoned Puerto Rican nationalists, including Lopez Rivera. He however, refused clemency since it required to “renounce the use of terrorism to achieve their aim of independence for the Caribbean commonwealth,” according to a 1999 New York Times article.
King of the Parade
René Perez Joglar from Calle 13 chose to walk the parade with supporters of Oscar Lopez Rivera.
The frontman of Calle 13 said he finds being honored or celebrated in the Puerto Rican Day Parade a bit strange, like a “Miss Universe thing.”
“The reason that I’m here is that they’re dedicating the parade to Julia de Burgos, one of the best poets in Latin America and also to Oscar Lopez so he can be free,” said Perez Joglar.
Oscar Lopez’s daughter says she’s grateful for anything that brings attention to her dad’s case.
“In his concerts, he’s been asking people to turn on their phones. And my dad has seen those pictures and he was asking me the other day ‘What are they doing? I see a black picture with many white dots.’ Remember he’s been out of the world for 33 years so I was trying to tell him,” Clarisa Lopez, the only daughter of Lopez Rivera said, speaking about Perez Joglar and Calle 13’s support.
Clarisa says Lopez Rivera gets 300 minutes of phone time a month, which he has to use between his family and lawyers. During the parade, she received a call from her dad, and she immediately passed the phone to Perez Joglar. “Just a few minutes ago I gave my minutes to René. So for the first time he could hear René’s voice and René could hear him.”
Calle 13's Rene Perez Joglar speaks to prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera for the first during the Puerto Rican Day Parade on June 8, 2014. He then passed the phone to Melissa Mark-Viverito.
Perez Joglar then passed the phone to Melissa Mark-Viverito, the Puerto Rican-born Speaker of the New York City Council and instrumental supporter of Lopez Rivera’s cause. Mayor Bill DiBlasio and Mark-Viverito honored Perez Joglar at Gracie Mansion last Thursday for his outspoken views, including calling for the release of Lopez Rivera. (Perez Joglar wore a t-shirt with the face of Lopez Rivera to the ceremony.)
Perez Joglar said he’s tried to visit Lopez Rivera in prison but his requests have been denied.
“When I was talking to him it reminded me of my family...my uncle or my grandfather. A very humble guy,” says Pérez Joglar. “But he’s also very proud of being Puerto Rican and very proud about his fight to have Puerto Rico free.”