BY JOHN STUDER
CHICAGO - Braving frigid temperatures, 350 people, many waving Puerto Rican flags, marched February 12 from Roberto Clemente High School to the Chicago Sun-Times, protesting a series of articles attacking the Puerto Rican community here.
Many of the placards carried at the protest underscored the theme of the right of Puerto Ricans to learn their history: "Students have a right to know their history," and "Our history is part of education."
Sparked by a front-page Sun-Times article on February 4, titled "School funds used to push terrorists' release," the protest organizers demanded that the newspaper issue a "statement of apology to the Puerto Rican/Latino community." The Chicago daily has refused to meet with leaders from the Puerto Rican community so far. Outside New York, Chicago has the largest Puerto Rican population in the United States.
The Sun-Times reporters based their article on an internal School Board report, which has not been made public. The main charge was that state funds were used to "support a campaign to promote Puerto Rican independence and free convicted terrorists."
"The money," the paper said, "helped turn the school into a hotbed of Puerto Rican nationalism underwritten by taxpayers." More than $150,000 was spent between 1992-1995, the paper claimed, to "indoctrinate" students politically.
The Sun-Times reporters said that funds were used to "bankroll" fund-raisers for Puerto Rican political prisoners in the United States, and to bring in outside speakers who, in addition to addressing students at Clemente, "also appeared at pro-independence political events and fund- raisers."
Examples cited by the Sun-Times were the invitation of Piri Thomas, a well-known Puerto Rican poet and author who received accolades for his novel Down These Mean Streets, and another Puerto Rican poet, Avotcja Jittonlro. "A schedule obtained by the Sun-Times shows that they were booked not only to lecture students, but also to perform at two evening poetry readings from which proceeds went to an organization working to free the FALN [Armed Forces of National Liberation] terrorists."
A special target of the Sun-Times investigation was the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, which holds classes for Clemente High School. The center is headed by José López, whose brother, Oscar López, is one of 15 Puerto Rican political prisoners held in U.S. jails. The reporters also claimed that the U.S. flag was "forbidden" in some classes and that funds were used to finance student trips to Puerto Rico and Mexico.
Another target was Edward Negrón, who had been the school's acting principal. Negrón, a long-time supporter of Puerto Rican independence, was recently transferred to another school.
The school authorities have made a veiled threat to remove a mural of Carmen Valentín, who was sentenced to 90 years in prison in 1981 "for conspiring to overthrow the U.S. government," according to the Sun-Times. The mural dedication says: "We would like to dedicate this work of art to Carmen Valentín, a person we believe struggled for the rights of Puerto Ricans and sacrificed her freedom in order to make things better for her culture and people." Before being imprisoned, Valentine was the companion of Negrón.
Chicago Schools chief executive Paul Vallas said the mural is "totally inappropriate.... I think we have to depoliticize the school."
The person in line to replace Negrón as principal, Jerry Anderson, refused the position after it was reported to the police and the Sun-Times that she had received death threats. In the wake of the Sun-Times coverage, the FBI, prodded by Illinois elected officials, has begun an investigation of the alleged death threats and "of the school's link to a campaign to free Puerto Rican terrorists."
This move was protested by the Latino Institute, whose executive director, Migdalia Rivera, accused the Sun-Times of carrying out a "witchhunt" against the Puerto Rican community.
At a press conference, Rivera answered the charges in the Sun-Times article point-for-point. In response to using government money for outside speakers, she said, "Schools across the city, with approval of the Chicago Board of Education, have used state Chapter 1 monies to pay for outside speakers, artists, dancers, and entertainers. Citing the pro-independence ideology of these speakers somehow implies that this ideology is inherently illegal."
Democratic State Representative Edgar López will be chairing the McCarthyite committee put together to investigate the Puerto Rican community. He said he plans to subpoena "anyone who's received money, anyone who's been in a position to authorize vouchers... elected officials, school officials." In addition, Cook County State Attorney Richard Devine has jumped on the bandwagon, calling for more prosecutors to look into Clemente.
In the recent events, U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), is taking some heat. Gutierrez represents the 4th Congressional District, where Clemente High School is located. More than 50 percent of Clemente's students are Puerto Rican, and the school itself is 85 percent Latino. Known as a supporter of Puerto Rican independence, Gutierrez has recently called on President Clinton to grant pardons to the 15 Puerto Rican political prisoners.
In response to Sun-Times attacks, Gutierrez, has now joined the calls for audits of how Clemente spent federal funds. "These vital funds should be used for nothing other than reading, writing, and arithmetic," he said. Gutierrez has also praised the Sun-Times for "doing the right thing about disclosing the problems at Clemente."
As part of the campaign against the Puerto Rican community, more police are now deployed near the school, adding to the intimidating atmosphere. One teacher was removed from the school for handing out political literature. And after threats of a possible student walk- out, school chief Vallas said he would close the school down. "This is no game," Vallas stated. "If the school doesn't get its act together and if there is any exploitation of the students against their best interests, we will dismantle the school and reconstitute it."
The witchhunt climate has been backed by Mayor Richard Daley, and by the Chicago Tribune, the other major daily in the city. The Tribune has been somewhat low-key in its coverage, perhaps out of fear of inflaming the Latino community as it did last year when it printed an anti- Mexican column by liberal journalist, Mike Royko. More than 1,000 people, mostly Latinos, protested in front of the Tribune building.
On February 7, supporters of the Militant Labor Forum in Chicago publicized an event featuring the showing of the video Mí Puerto Rico (My Puerto Rico). The video tells the story of 100 years of struggle by the Puerto Rican people against U.S. colonialism. Following the Sun-Times attack on supporters of Puerto Rican independence, four TV news stations - Channel 5, 7, 11, and 66 -covered the forum showing.
In an introduction to the forum, Frank Forrestal,
Socialist Workers write-in Senatorial candidate in 1996, and
a member of United Auto Workers Local 551, said, "This is an
attack on free speech and on the rights of students to
discuss and learn their heritage and the real history of
U.S. colonial domination of Puerto Rico." The story appeared
that night and the next day on all four stations.
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