Luisa Capetillo: Art/Agitation/Anarchy!
“When there is no longer the need to steal a roll of bread, for lack of food; when private property no longer exists and we all begin to view each other as brothers and sisters, then and only then will the prisons and useless, destructive churches disappear. Misery, hate and prostitution will cease to exist. Free trade will exist because all frontiers and borders will be abolished and then true liberty will reign on this planet” – Luisa CapetilloLuisa Capetillo was an anarchist, working-class labor activist, and women’s rights advocate living and working in the midst of the rapid industrialization of Puerto Rico during its transition from Spanish rule to u.s. control after the Spanish-American war.
"I believe nothing to be impossible; nor do i absorb myself in any particular moment or new discovery. For that reason I find no idea to be utopian. The essential thing is to put each idea into practice. To Begin!" - Luisa Capetillo
"The institution of slavery no longer exists, but as long as there are masters, there will be slaves" - Luisa Capetillo
She was born out of wedlock in Arecibo, Puerto Rico on October 28, 1879 and was home schooled by her parents and dedicated one of the books that she would later write, to her mother “who never imposed or forced me to think according to tradition.” She also declared that
The majority of my studies I have carried out in relation to myselfLuisa herself would go on to have two children of her own outside of marriage as a matter of principle, believing that
Marriage as currently practiced is an error. In our current society, women get married only to follow custom…. I think that a man should…choose the woman he loves with all of his soul, and make her his wife, and create a family. And if they are not compatible and feel obligated to separate, then they can each choose again in the futureLuisa eventually, adopted an anarchist philosophy/politic and it was those ideas/ideals that she would live by for the rest of her life.
Luisa was baptized as a Catholic, but rejected the concept of religion. But unlike other anarchists, Luisa considered herself to be a “good Christian”, who simply rejected the rigid dogmas and rituals of religion and believed that the Catholic Church was allied with the ruling class. She insisted instead that true Christianity was to be found in the eradication of oppression and exploitation.
Early on, Luisa embroidered shirts and handkerchiefs in order to help support her family, but eventually secured a position as a lectora/reader in one of Arecibo’s tobacco factories. The reader would entertain/educate the workers by reading to them from local and international newspapers, books on socialist/anarchist philosophy, and also from novels chosen by the workers themselves, while the workers would select/cut/coil tobacco leaves to produce cigars.
Often, certain passages of particular literary works or political essays would be repeated several times so that workers could commit them to memory. It was also tradition in the tobacco factories to have open discussions/debate on particular lectures without interrupting the work. Workers also debated/voted on which works would be read each day and it became common for the lectors to read anarchist literature aloud in the tobacco factories, thereby greatly aiding in the dissemination of anarchist ideas amongst the workers. It was in the tobacco factory that Capetillo had her first contact with the union - La Federación de Torcedores de Tabaco (The Federation of Tobacco Rollers) which was affiliated with La Federación Libre de Trabajadores (The Free Federation of Labor).
The first union in PR, La Federación Regional de Trabajadores (The Regional Federation of Workers), was formed during the military occupation of Puerto Rico by the u.s. in 1898. The eight-hour workday was ordered by military decree in 1899, and the prohibition against unions imposed under Spanish rule was abolished. However, because of ideological differences, a group of members broke away and formed the FLT - Federación Libre de Trabajadores (the Free Federation of Workers) that subsequently affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. Like other leaders of the FLT, Luisa associated the Puerto Rican independence movement of the time with Puerto Rico’s local elites.
During the first half of the 20th century, u.s. sugar plantations swallowed up many acres of land formerly belonging to Puerto Rican small farmers. In addition to displacing the small farmers, the new u.s. corporate controllers of the farming industry in Puerto Rico built huge grinding mills where they used new, sophisticated machinery to cultivate, harvest, and process the sugar and began hiring fewer and fewer Puerto Rican workers to do the work in Puerto Rico. As Kelvin Santiago-Valles points out in his book, “Subject People” and Colonial Discourse
Undernourishment and, to some degree, famine, were very much present in the daily lives of most of the Island's population throughout the first half of this centuryBetween 1900 and 1901, u.s.-owned corporations recruited over 5,000 Puerto Rican men, women and children to work on sugar plantations in the then u.s. territory, Hawaii, and others were shipped to Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Mexico.
A New York Times article from 1901 mentioned
inspection of the Porto Rican immigrants brought here by the steamer Colon shows that they are in such state from the need of food that they must be held at the quarantine station and fed until they regain strength sufficient to enable them to bear the journey to the other island and to the plantations on which they work.While characterized as the remedy for Puerto Rico’s economic woes, this low wage work was the equivalent of modern day slavery, so many Puerto Ricans would escape during the long ship to train to ship trip to Hawaii, while others who were not so lucky ended up working in the iron mines in Cuba. As one Puerto Rican mine worker declared
In Santiago, Cuba, Puerto Ricans cannot stand up under the duress working the iron mines, owned by an American company. The promises made have not been met and, as a result, many of our brothers have been forced to beg for charityBeginning in 1890s, and in the months preceding the u.s. invasion of Puerto Rico, attacks carried out by “extremely impoverished peasants” who came to be known as Los Tiznados, for the soot that they would camouflage their faces with, broke out all over the island. Peasants, sometimes numbering up to 200 people, burned haciendas and warehouses and stole property. Large landowners and their families were vilified and killed, while the impoverished Puerto Rican insurgents distributed the appropriated properties among themselves.
One member of the propertied class, Dr Manuel F. Rossy who was a lawyer, local political leader and editor of the local newspaper, wrote that there had been municipalities where
As many as twenty-two estates had been destroyed, and in many cases the coffee crop had been ruinedBy the second half of 1900, urban insurgencies carried out by Puerto Rican peasants had become a daily occurrence. In the mountainous town of Cayey, a mob of laborers storm the jails to liberate other previously arrested members of their group, and in several towns the Mayors were stoned and shot at.
But the movement was soon weakened by a wave of captures and arrest. Between 1899 and 1905, the rate of arrest in Puerto Rico, per 100,000 inhabitants, more than quadrupled as many poor Puerto Ricans began to find alternate means of economic survival and were quickly “criminalized.” During this period there were also riots that broke out between u.s. soldiers and Puerto Rican civilians, who were mostly poor laborers.
Capetillo’s involvement in the unions began in 1905 during a farm workers’ strike led by the FLT. Because of her previous collaborations with radical and union newspapers in Arecibo, she was able to write propaganda and organize workers in the strike. She played a prominent role in the strike, and she quickly became a leader in the union. As Kelvin A Santiago-Valles points out in "Subject People" and Colonial Discourses, the strikes in Puerto Rico
were particularly notorious for the significant degree of militant resistance on the part of the striking laborers during 1905 and 1906Santiago-Valles also mentions that at least twenty-three strikes took place at this time, "twenty-two of them involving cigar makers." In 1906, Police and 1,500 strikebreakers recruited to suppress a strike in Arecibo
clashed with strikers, leaving one worker dead, several injured, and 113 strikers arrested… an all-time high ensued in the absolute number of arrests for disorderly conduct, mayhem, riot, and fighting registered by the policeDuring this time, Luisa made her living from selling the union newspaper as she traveled throughout Puerto Rico, educating and organizing workers. Her message was simple - workers must unite under one banner in order to defend their rights for dignity and equality. She was such an effective organizer that her hometown of Arecibo became the most unionized area in the country.
In 1908, she urged the FLT, at their convention, to adopt a policy to fight for women’s suffrage and challenged union members to support women’s rights, stating that
Woman, as an important factor in human civilization, is worthy to obtain complete libertyDeparting from the elite suffragists, who recommended the vote for literate women, only Luisa insisted that all women, not just the rich or literate, should have the same right to vote as men.
In 1909, the FLT embarked on an ambitious organizing campaign, which they called “la Cruzada del Ideal” (Crusade of the Ideal). Under the auspices of the FLT, Capetillo, along with rank and file workers and union leaders, traveled on foot, by horseback and by train across Puerto Rico to organize and educate workers. During this crusade, Capetillo wrote for the union newspaper, Union Obrera, and published her own periodical entitled La Mujer. She also wrote and published a collection of essays entitled Ensayos Libertarios (Liberation Essays) where she depicted the organization of workers as the first step toward a new and more just and egalitarian society based on worker cooperatives.
Luisa also wrote and published Mi opinión sobre las libertades, derechos y deberes de la mujer (My opinion about the liberties, rights and responsibilities of women) which is the first feminist thesis written in Puerto Rico. Although she considered herself a feminist, she did not join any of the feminist organizations that emerged during that time. She instead dedicated all her efforts to the labor movement, believing that the union was the vehicle for poor, working women to obtain justice and equality. She also wore pants and other “men’s” clothing in public, challenging the social mores of the time and she advocated for free and liberal education for all men and women. One of her most controversial ideas at the time was “free love.” In one of her essays she explains that women should choose whom they will love freely, without legal interference or matrimony and that there should be no intrusion or state control on peoples personal lives. Capetillo asserted that sexuality was political, indeed central to a revolutionary agenda and stated clearly
I say that love should be absolutely free, for the woman as well as for the man, and add that love cannot really exist except under conditions of freedom. Without complete freedom, love is prostitutedIn 1912, Luisa traveled to New York City where she established ties with the Cuban and Puerto Rican tobacco workers in NYC, and she also wrote for various radical/anarchist papers while there. A year later she moved to Tampa, Florida where she worked as a reader in one of the tobacco factories. During her stay, she published the second edition of Mi Opinión.
The next stop in her travels was Cuba where she joined the sugar cane workers in their strike that was organized by la Federación Anarquista (the Anarchist Federation of Cuba). She circulated a manifesto which advocated violence and was ordered to leave the country and was later arrested for “causing a public disturbance” by wearing “men’s clothes” in public. She challenged the court, arguing that there was no such law that prohibited her from wearing men’s clothing and won the case by arguing in Court that “no law prevented her from wearing men’s garb, and that such clothing was appropriate for the changing role of women in society, and that she had worn similar clothing in the streets of Puerto Rico and Mexico without state intervention.” Capetillo saw her “right” to wear pants without state intervention as “symbolic of a larger struggle against state and patriarchal control” in the lives of women.
By 1913, many craft trades registered rising levels of unemployment notably the dock workers at 62 percent, carpenters at 56 percent and cigar makers at 23 percent; while unemployment levels among agricultural laborers in Puerto Rico as a whole, reached 47 percent.
Luisa returned to Puerto Rico where she organized and participated in several strikes, including the Sugar Cane Strike of 1916 where over 40,000 workers in 32 municipalities participated, which resulted in an average salary increase of 13%. That same year, forty thousand laborers Paralyzed most of the plantations on the island for nearly six months and appointed Governor of Puerto Rico, Arthur Yager wrote a scathing letter to President Woodrow Wilson stating that
The so-called labor leaders and agitators of the strike in Arecibo were in reality political leaders of a recently organized socialist party playing a game for political control of the municipalityLuisa led three major strikes during this time, and in the course of her work was arrested, clubbed by Police and beaten by hired strikebreakers and thugs.
During the next few years, Luisa traveled back and forth between New York City and Puerto Rico, attempting to establish a pan-Caribbean system of schools for the children of agricultural workers, but she failed to find any support for this initiative among union leaders in either the US or PR. While in New York, Luisa established a boarding house and cafe where workers/revolutionaries could conduct anarchist meetings while eating vegetarian meals. She also made a trip to the Dominican Republic in support of striking workers in 1919 and wrote several plays that incorporated her radical politic and a “newspaper for working women.”
By embodying the revolution in her daily life, Luisa Capetillo was instrumental in revolutionizing the role of women in Puerto Rican society and “became a paradigm for the new women” as well as the embodiment of resistance to the state and it’s “illegal authority” over anyone.
In one of her writings, Luisa indicated that within “nature” and its own “natural laws” (wo)man kind could find its way away from war/oppression/injustice and the dis-harmony that seems to perpetually exists in “modern” society
Nature indicates to us the true path toward goodness, but we want to be wiser than nature, and herein lies the origin of all our errors, in wanting to modify the natural laws, which is where beauty, health, harmony, and truth are to be foundIn 1920, Luisa returned to Puerto Rico, settling in a working-class neighborhood in Rio Piedras, but by 1921, she began suffering from tuberculosis, and died on October 10, 1922. She is buried in the Municipal Cemetery of Arecibo, Puerto Rico.
Absolute equality: an early feminist perspective (Capetillo, 1907)
Luisa Capetillo Biography (Wikipedia)
Luisa Capetillo in Translation: Notas para un testimonio (Centro, 2007)
La vida y obra de Luisa Capetillo (Neish Marie Geigel, 2010)
Algo más que pantalones: Un acercamiento a Luisa Capetillo (Milagros Rodríguez)
Luisa Capetillo and Charles Erskine Scott Wood: Free Love and the State at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Radical Love 2009)
Una Adelantada a su Tiempo: Luisa Capetillo feminista, anarquista y sindicalista, vivió según sus principios (Norma Valle Ferrer)
Luisa Capetillo Was Early Puerto Rican Labor Leader She Lived Life on Her Own Terms (Lucy Parsons Project)