The National Boricua Human Rights Network (NBHRN) and the Batey Urbano youth collective are pleased and excited to have successfully hosted the performance art installation, “32 Days for 32 Years,” from April 20 to May 29, 2013 in Chicago, IL. The interactive installation works to raise awareness on the 32-year imprisonment of pro-independence organizer, Oscar López Rivera, by simulating his incarceration within a six-by-nine foot cell. For each of the 32 days, a different community member volunteered to live, eat and sleep in the space for 24 hours, accompanied by volunteer guards and caterers. The exhibition was housed at a Humboldt Park youth space in the heart of the city’s Puerto Rican community.
Rivera was arrested in 1981, charged with seditious conspiracy and sentenced to 70 years in prison. He is the longest held Puerto Rican political prisoner. As each volunteer prisoner spent time in the makeshift cell, the project simulated the realities Rivera faces daily. Volunteers were not allowed any use of technology throughout their entire experience. A guard provided the volunteers’ meals along with escorting them to the bathroom. And volunteers were forced to spend a night away from their family. This was a daunting task for some. For example, volunteer Michelle Morales first refused to participate to avoid spending time away from her son. The lack of privacy and indulgence in everyday luxuries and the separation from the outside world provided an opportunity for each volunteer to reflect on Rivera’s unjust imprisonment.
Rivera was imprisoned due to his belief that Puerto Rico should be free from U.S. colonial shackles. As a community leader, he created spaces for the Puerto Rican diaspora to achieve self-determination and self-actualization. Thus, the exhibition’s organizers believe that Rivera’s imprisonment reflects the imperialist actions of the U.S. government and the repression faced by Puerto Rican liberation movements. This is why it became important for us to mobilize the community – the one he helped build – to call for his release.
The exhibition also gave participants and residents an opportunity to feel closer to Rivera. “Oscar López Rivera is an important figure in this [community’s] history,” said Alex Frye, a staff member of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center’s sexual health agency. “In recognizing that, I support his freedom and return to his community.”
Alyssa Villegas is a Puerto Rican activist in Chicago’s Paseo Boricua-Humboldt Park community. She is Editor-in-Chief of Que Ondee Sola magazine at Northeastern Illinois University and a collective member of the Batey Urbano.