Feature photos by Lin Benitez
On July 26, 2010 the longest-held Puerto Rican political prisoner in United States prisons, Carlos Alberto Torres, was released on parole and was welcomed by over 500 people in a community he had not seen for over three decades. There are those who believed that that day would never come, while others, especially those whom for years worked tirelessly for his release, believed that the Puerto Rican imagination is full of possibilities, not impossibilities.
“I was really excited [to see Carlos Alberto Torres]… I started to cry. The work I’ve been doing the last two years really helped in his release… getting people to sign petitions, to educate other people…,” says Jessie Fuentes, 19, who, along with 50 people, drove to Pekin, Illinois to be the first to welcome Torres on his first day out of prison.
Torres, who is 57-years-old, was imprisoned on April 3, 1980 alongside 10 other women and men in Evanston, Illinois, and accused of being a part of a clandestine organization seeking the independence of Puerto Rico. The group was given prison sentences ranging from 55-105 years for seditious conspiracy, but most were ex-incarcerated by presidential clemency in 1999 due to an international campaign for their release, except for Torres and Oscar López Rivera, 67. Torres remained scheduled for release in December 2024.
Nonetheless, National Boricua Human Rights Network in Chicago, and its multiple chapters around the U.S., continued to push and defy the multiple obstacles set up by the prison system and the media. “Many people are often looking for instant results, but it took thirty years to get Carlos out… it was a slow process”, says Juanita García, 30, who attended the celebration at La Casita de Don Pedro with her three-year-old son. The plaza, named after Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos, the island’s most prominent pro-independence leader was actually created by students of a high school of the same name, which Torres helped found in 1971.
Although Carlos Alberto Torres was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico in 1952, his experiences from his childhood to his political activism is deeply rooted in Chicago’s Humboldt Park community. He also helped found the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, and his father, José “El Viejo” Torres, was a well-known evangelical pastor of the First Congregational Church for decades. Sadly, Viejo died while his son was incarcerated. The prison system did not allow Torres to attend his father’s funeral.
On the day of his welcoming Torres was full of exuberance, smiling at everyone and everything he saw; waving a Puerto Rican flag and sporting an honorary stole from the high school he helped found. As he made his way through a joyous crowd that sang, “Carlos Alberto salió” (“Carlos Alberto got out”), and made his way to the back of the plaza, in a profound symbolic gesture, Torres removed the metal bars draped over a mural of him signaling his freedom. Those bars were later placed over a mural of Oscar López Rivera, the last remaining Puerto Rican political prisoner.
After many speeches, poems, monologues from a play written about the political prisoners, and even words of solidarity from representatives of the Palestinian community, he finally spoke in almost a whisper to a mesmerized crowd: “It’s my victory, but it’s really your victory.” Despite 30 years in prison, he remained full of humility and dignity.
After the cheers subsided, he walked a few blocks from the plaza to a large mural painted in honor of his father and his stepmother, Alejandrina Torres, also an ex-Puerto Rican political prisoner. He then flew to his new home in Puerto Rico, where thousands of people greeted him at the airport singing the revolutionary version of the island’s national anthem, La Borinqueña. A Patriot was welcomed home twice in one day.