A Portrait of Elizam Escobar

“In art, you don’t have to prove anything because art is its own evidence. The symbolic level — to me it’s the limit of freedom. It’s what you do with the symbolism that matters. You can use it to create ignorance, or you can use it to liberate people.”

On March 21, 1937, residents of the southern coastal town of Ponce, Puerto Rico marched peacefully through the streets underneath the glowing heat of the morning sun. It was Palm Sunday.

One year earlier, Pedro Albizu Campos, an attorney and then-president of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, had been arrested and tried on the grounds of “attempting to overthrow the U.S. government”. Campos was a Ponce native and graduate of Harvard Law School. In 1934, he successfully challenged the United States’ colonial grip on Puerto Rico after litigating an agricultural strike that nearly quadrupled the wages of sugar cane workers on U.S.-owned plantations.

The United States swiftly appointed Blanton C. Winship as the governor of Puerto Rico in response to the revolt. Winship, a former military lawyer, initiated an extensive effort to revamp Puerto Rico’s police force with military-grade training and weaponry. Puerto Rico’s Chief of Police, E. Francis Riggs, whose father owned a bank of the same name, promised in the wake of the strike that “there will be war to the death against all Puerto Ricans.” Soon, those suspected of having ties to Campos and the Nationalist Party were surveilled, interrogated, arrested, and in some cases killed in operations led by the insular police force and the FBI. These tactics would continue and intensify for decades as Puerto Ricans organized for independence.

On this particular Sunday, men, women, and children marched through town accompanied by a group of nationalist cadets, unarmed and dressed in black and white uniform. Police opened fire under orders from Winship. Officers killed 19 locals by the end of the demonstration. They wounded two hundred more with clubs and guns. Two officers were shot in the ensuing chaos.

Stories of the Ponce Massacre and Puerto Rico’s following insurrections colored Elizam Escobar’s childhood imagination. The now-esteemed Puerto Rican artist was born in Ponce in 1948. The nationalist movement boiled with urgent radiance around him – Escobar’s grand-uncle had been at Ponce. His mother’s brother was the first nationalist killed in a 1950 uprising in a neighboring town.

Now 70, the man’s presence is notably serene. Spending nineteen years in prison leaves one with a curious sense of humor — he agrees, and argues, “I tell everybody that if you don’t have a sense of humor, you are in trouble, and especially if you go through adversity.”

In April 1980, after a spell teaching painting at the Museo del Barrio’s School of the Arts in New York City, Escobar was arrested alongside 11 fellow members of Puerto Rico’s clandestine armed resistance, Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN). He was charged under suspicion of plotting to bomb federal installations and was later convicted of seditious conspiracy. Escobar would spend his first four years of his 68-year semtence incarcerated at the Federal Correction Instituion in Oxford, Wisconsin, until a traveling exhibition of his work titled Art as an Act of Liberation drew the ire of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Authorities sent the painter to FCI in El Reno, Oklahoma, where he was not allowed to paint for a year. Artists and writers pressured BOP until Escobar could paint again. He remained in El Reno for 19 years.

Inland plains on the road from San Juan to Ponce, Puerto Rico.

Inland plains on the road from San Juan to Ponce, Puerto Rico.

Escobar moved North to Bayamón in 1958. The humid days and cries of coquis sounding the nights were at first an unfamiliar, unwelcome change to the ten-year-old boy. He began to draw as he settled in. A drawing of a sugar cane field reminiscent of Escobar’s rural upbringing won first prize in a competition with a fellow student. His drawings won a television competition twice. The prize each time was two Brownie cameras — both of which twice quickly disappeared into the hands of older family members.

Escobar eventually decided that he wanted to be a shoe designer. In doing so his work could be worn, used, and witnessed by broader society. “In Capitalism, everything is a commodity,” he urges. “I thought that artwork was something of museums and death.” Nonetheless, at the University of Puerto Rico’s Fine Arts department, he began sketching and painting caricatures for the Puerto Rican Socialist League.

Today, a cardboard cutout of Oscar Lopez Rivera, a former FALN member, stands guard behind Escobar’s locked door. The house is not far from Hato Rey’s “Golden Mile” where the archipelago’s major banks are headquartered, an irony that he acknowledges with laughter. Lopez was imprisoned in 1981. The cutouts were placed across San Juan in celebration upon his release from prison in 2017. The photograph printed onto cardboard looks so real that Escobar often finds himself startled to see his friend when he walks through the door every evening.

A cardboard cutout of Oscar Lopez Rivera greets visitors, June 2018.

A cardboard cutout of Oscar Lopez Rivera greets visitors, June 2018.

Art, argues Escobar, can elevate the collective understanding of culture and expand ideas of what Puerto Rico could be in a way that political speech cannot.

“In art, you don’t have to prove anything because art is its own evidence. The symbolic level — to me it’s the limit of freedom,” he concludes. “It’s what you do with the symbolism that matters. You can use it to create ignorance, or you can use it to liberate people.”

In prison, unable to create, Escobar experienced bouts of insomnia matched only by periods of equally intense exhaustion. His focus shifted inward, to his own dreams.

“Combining the imagination — the conscious dreams with the element that comes from real dreams — this is not a new thing in Latin America”, he says. Escobar sees art as a means of communication simultaneously more complex and universal than politics, yet always maintains a keen awareness of the role Puerto Rico’s colonial status has played in shaping his surrounding circumstances, his perceptions, and his practice. “Sometimes I don’t like the term “magical realism”, he continues, “but it is a term that does justice to Latin American art. Here, this lyrical, dream element is part of your reality every day.”

Puerto Rico’s colonial status is inseperable from Escobar’s work. In solitude, he painted his dreams. He picked through his psyche and experiences, studied art and theory, and in turn crafted the various papers for which he is now known. The result is a collection of work that documents the real and unreal, the seen and unseen, and that strives to celebrate a culture, community, and a proud sense of identity in spite of external circumstances. Escobar’s work is self-reflexive — is aware of its own form — and in its quiet power is capable of expanding minds.

There is a fan turned off, hanging high above the weight of water, dense in the air. Escobar laughs, locks eyes — a painting of a cat with wings stares down from the wall, watching.

“Everyone says that the cat is me. It has the same look.”

An oil painting of a cat with wings, titled, 'Naufragio/Wreck', hangs in Escobar's home.

An oil painting of a cat with wings, titled, ‘Naufragio/Shipwreck’, hangs in Escobar’s home.

Escobar’s home studio — a cluttered, bright living room — is filled to the brim with art, books, painting supplies, and items collected across a lifetime. An SLR-style camera made of soda cans hangs on the wall — a souvenir by way of Cuba.

“Art is the balsam of the revolution,” he says, glancing around. “If you don’t have art — it’s like if women don’t participate in the revolution. Forget it.”

Escobar in his home studio, March 2019.

Escobar in his home studio, March 2019.

In 1999, Escobar and 12 former FALN members were granted clemency by then-president Bill Clinton following an intense campaign for their release. A free man, he returned to Puerto Rico and began teaching at Escuela de Artes Plásticas y Diseño in San Juan. Hundreds of practicing Puerto Rican artists have been his students, have learned his techniques, have created alongside him, and have sat through semesters absorbing his musings.

These days, the painter somewhat avoids his political legacy. As a part of his clemency agreement, Escobar was required to sign a legal document indicating that he would limit his contact with other nationalists, distance himself from the nationalist movement, and commit no further crimes. Fellow revolutionary Oscar Lopez Rivera famously refused a similar clemency offer as a result of the condition that he renounce armed struggle as a form of resistance.

“In terms of international law,” Escobar says, “Under the Geneva Conventions if you are a prisoner of war, you do not have the same rights as other prisoners. They can accuse you of war crimes even if it’s a war of liberation. If they capture you and let you go, you are not supposed to engage in armed struggle.”

Escobar maintains that he and other FALN members were just that — political prisoners. The U.S. government failed to recognize them as such, prosecuting Escobar and others as “criminals who have simply broken laws, effectively erasing Puerto Rican history.

“The constitution says that the people have the right — whatever ‘the people’ means — to use arms to rebel against any government that hinders the principals of freedom,” he says. “We never, ever repented using armed struggle in the fight for independence. I said, ‘We commit mistakes and everybody commits mistakes,’ but that’s not the same as saying, ‘I’m sorry’”.

“They were not recognizing that colonialism is illegal, that colonialism is a crime against humanity.”

Escobar’s revolutionary past is of particular interest as Puerto Rico functions as one of the world’s oldest colonies as a U.S. territory and under the discretion of the Obama administration-imposed Puerto Rico Financial Oversight and Management Board. Puerto Ricans are well aware that shock politics follow disaster.

Years of austerity in response to the territory’s massive debt have made clear that the idea of “recovery” in Puerto Rico is disingenuous. The destruction caused by 2017’s Hurricanes Irma and Maria visibly stacked the archipelago’s financial resources in favor of creditors, wealthy mainland investors, and the real estate industry. The privatization of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) is underway. Islanders worry that the transition will send the cost of electricity – which is nearly double the average cost in the United States – soaring. Waves of government privatization and cuts to pensions, education, and public services have amplified an organized resistance to an extent not seen in decades. Protests on Primero de Mayo (International Worker’s Day) in 2017 and 2018 drew the largest turnouts since mass demonstrations against the U.S. Navy’s occupation of the island of Vieques in 1999.

“It is all becoming more transparent, more dynamic, he explains. “These antagonistic contradictions between political agendas in the U.S. and Puerto Rico are growing.”

A hat covers Escobar’s bandaged forehead. His once-gray hair has grown white. He brings up the 1950 assassination attempt of President Harry Truman. He mentions Lolita Lebrón and the 1954 attack on the U.S. House of Representatives in which the Puerto Rican flag was dropped from the visitor’s balcony and thirty rounds were fired by Lebrón and her colleagues from semi-automatic weapons, wounding five Congressmen.

Lebrón, now legendary in the history of Puerto Rico’s resistance, yelled during her arrest, “I did not come to kill anyone, I came to die for Puerto Rico!”.

Escobar says with certainty: “The Nationalist Party did things that nobody else has been able to do.” Although his body has been weakened by cancer, his conviction is resounding. There was both logic and necessity behind Puerto Rico’s armed resistance to U.S. imperialism.

Without direct action, says Escobar, Puerto Ricans would not have maintained the Spanish language — just as the island’s native Taíno had been wiped out — as four years after the U.S. invasion, in 1902, the Official Language Act mandated the use of English in government departments, courts, and public offices. 1909 declaration that prohibited both students and teachers from speaking Spanish in public schools followed. Six years later, after attendance dropped sharply, Spanish was restored as the instructional language except for at Puerto Rico’s high schools.

“But that’s the way they do the news on TV,” he says, referencing the media’s historical illustration of Puerto Rico’s resistance as “unhinged” — a radical threat to the American public. “A group of Puerto Rican lunatics attacked the Congress”.

“We are the lunatics and the people in Congress are the normal citizens. The good guys.”

There is a long pause as Escobar recedes into silence, sitting with the history he has fought long to preserve.

“When we say ‘kill’, we don’t say ‘kill’ in Spanish,” he explains, hands raised. “We say ‘bring to justice.’”