Oscar Lopez Rivera, the Puerto Rican nationalist who spent more than three decades behind bars for his role in a violent struggle for independence from the U.S., will be celebrated as a hero upon his release from house arrest in Puerto Rico on Wednesday and honored in Chicago the following day.
Lopez, who moved to Chicago from Puerto Rico as a child, is set to be in Humboldt Park on Thursday celebrating his release alongside prominent Chicagoans of Puerto Rican descent, including Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th), and civic leaders Paul Roldan and Billy Ocasio.
The event is being billed as “The Patriot Returns to his Barrio,” and will feature an honorary street naming for him at Division Street and Mozart. It’s among the last in a series of street designations before the city limits them to deceased honorees.
But while many see Lopez Rivera as a hero, others see him as a terrorist. Lopez Rivera was a member of the leftist group FALN that claimed responsibility for more than 100 bombings across New York, Chicago, Washington and Puerto Rico in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Now 74, he is to be released from house arrest in Puerto Rico, where he has been since shortly after then-President Barack Obama commuted the rest of his 70-year prison term. Supporters also plan to honor him at the June 11 parade down New York’s Fifth Avenue with the title Procer de la Libertad — National Freedom Hero.
“One can disagree or agree with him politically, but he is a symbol of resolve and conviction,” said “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who pushed for clemency. After Obama commuted Lopez Rivera’s sentence in January, Miranda on Twitter invited him to attend a “Hamilton” performance in Chicago and even said he’d personally play the title character; it’s unclear whether that is in the works, though.
The FALN, the Spanish-language acronym for Armed Forces of National Liberation, emerged in the mid-1970s, a turbulent time when militant groups such as the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army were operating.
On Oct. 26, 1974, a bomb went off outside a Manhattan bank around 3 a.m. Soon after, someone called the city’s Associated Press bureau and directed them to an Upper West Side phone booth, where a FALN letter claimed responsibility for attacking “major Yanki corporations.”
Law enforcement caught up with the group years later when a drug addict ransacking a building in Chicago found bomb-making material and missives. Lopez Rivera, a Vietnam War veteran, was arrested during a traffic stop. He and about a dozen comrades were convicted in 1981 of seditious conspiracy “to overthrow the government of the United States in Puerto Rico by force,” armed robbery and lesser charges.
“Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States and thus the Puerto Rican people have a right to fight for independence, using all means possible,” Lopez Rivera said during the trial.
He and the others were never tied to specific bombings, which caused few injuries. He served more than a decade in solitary confinement after a second conviction for attempting to escape.
“This is not about people fighting for independence. You can do that without killing people,” said Anthony Senft, a former NYPD bomb squad detective blinded in one eye by a FALN blast in 1982.
Those who have supported him, including former President Jimmy Carter, Pope Francis and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, say the draw is more about what they say he symbolizes: the plight of Puerto Rico.
The U.S. territory is currently mired in a decadelong recession for which many blame the U.S. government, partly because of the elimination of tax credits that many say led to the collapse of the island’s manufacturing sector. But independence has received less than 6 percent of the vote in four previous referendums.
Rep. Nydia Velazquez, the first Puerto Rican woman elected to the House of Representatives, said she’s seen how Lopez Rivera unites the country. “I think that he paid a high price. And that it is important for this son to be returned,” she said.
But for Joseph Connor, who was 9 when his dad, Frank, was killed in a New York restaurant bombing that Lopez Rivera had helped organize, the struggle is much more personal.
“Every time I have to defend my father’s life, it takes a little more of my life away,” he said. “My kids never met my dad, but they certainly had to deal with this. We never asked for it.”
Contributing: Associated Press writer Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico