Professor Falcón’s Lessons

by Matt Meyer
New Clear Vision

Solidarity and Camaraderie in a Puerto Rican Context

On Monday, March 10, Puerto Rico’s leading intellectual — sociologist, educator, lawyer, author, organizer, and Independentista — passed away at age 84. A world renowned authority on colonialism, repression, and Puerto Rican history, Dr. Nieves Falcón was founder/director of the University of Puerto Rico’s Department of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, founder of the Committee on Human Rights, president of the International PEN Club, and a member of the International Advisory Board of the Peace and Justice Studies Association. He was also this author’s mentor, godfather to my son, and a great friend; it was an honor to be the only non-Puerto Rican to deliver a eulogy at his March 12th funeral. This essay is based on my remarks that afternoon.

We were driving, late at night, in the middle of Manhattan — Alejandro Molina of Chicago-based National Boricua Human Rights Network and me in the back seat. In the front seat was Puerto Rico’s legendary Luis Nieves Falcón, our boss. In the driver’s seat was Dr. Manny Rosenberg, beloved upper west side activist and dentist who daughter Susan was doing hard time for her involvement with the anti-war and anti-imperialist movements of the 1970s and early ’80s. We were brought together by the plans for the 1990 International Tribunal on Political Prisoners/POWs in the USA, but we were held together and pushed forward by the dynamic vision and steel hand of Nieves Falcón. It was the first major public symposium of the current generation which made the issue of political imprisonment in the USA a widespread, central focus throughout left and progressive circles, beyond the movements whose leaders were the ones behind bars. Close to one thousand people attended that momentous event, but the ragtag coalition of individuals and groups who were responsible for it would never have survived without the leadership of Nieves Falcón.

The joke of that story is this: Alejandro and I almost got kicked out of the car and left by the side of the road, for giggling out of control at the conversation between Nieves and Manny. Theirs was a friendship and collaborative connection which expressed and defined the very essence of solidarity: two peoples working together out of mutual respect, love, friendship, and unity for the freedom of all oppressed people and the liberation of all humankind. But to Alejandro and me at the moment, all we could hear was the word “comrade” and the way it was being pronounced — not with a Puerto Rican accent or a New York one, but in the clipped British intonation of a graduate of the London School of Economics (where Nieves Falcon got his PhD)! Here this descendant of African warriors and indigenous Taino peacemakers was saying “comrade” this and “comrade” that like a member of some bizarre communist royal family — and Alejandro and I were rolling on the floor with laughter! Nieves Falcón might have fumed a little at our gentle teasing, but the truth is that I learned a lot that evening about the true meaning of the word.

When one reflects on the legacy of Dr. Luis Nieves Falcón from the context of solidarity and camaraderie, there are five phrases which are important to keep in mind. These attributes should be taken as sign-posts of how to develop effective leaders of the future.

Coalition-builder: Nieves understood like few others in modern times that all great united fronts must be broad enough to reach large and diverse sectors, masses and masses of people, while still being controlled and coordinated by a clear and principled center. This concept is different than old-fashioned democratic centralism and more complicated than social democracy; grassroots initiatives must be allowed to spring up, take a shape of their own, and develop organically in ways appropriate to different communities. In this way, Nieves Falcon took a page from the book of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who noted that “true leadership is not the search for consensus, but the molding of consensus.” Nieves Falcon taught us how to provide strong leadership while allowing large coalitions to flourish.

Internationalist: Without for one moment giving up an inch of his proud Puerto Rican identity — his passion for his homeland and the beauty of its people — Nieves Falcón was a true man of the world. He could and did converse with leaders from every continent, earning respect for the cause of Puerto Rican freedom and for the full recognition of the great Puerto Rican socio-cultural contributions to world history. He did this with great knowledge and appreciation of global dynamics past and present, centering Puerto Rico in an internationalist perspective which holds no place anywhere for empire, militarism, capitalism, or greed.

Master strategist: Few could argue that, as the architect of so many successful campaigns — bringing home the prisoners, working against the Navy in Vieques, working for expanded higher education and legal rights — Nieves Falcón was one of our greatest experts at sizing up situations and figuring out how best to achieve victories. That success might take more years or more money than we could ever imagine was no excuse or deterrent; that we would have to work harder than we ever imagined was a given — but together and focused we would find a way to win. Reforms were understood in calculated fashion as part of the larger efforts for more radical and revolutionary social change. And Nieves Falcón’s eyes, and all of the campaigns he led, were always set on the goal of full freedom and liberation for the Puerto Rican people, and for all people.

Master teacher: The way in which Luis told stories, with his whole body and with every nuance of every language he so expertly crafted, one was bound to listen and learn. Whether talking to a group of young women and men with little consciousness, or to experienced professionals, Nieves made you want not just to comprehend, but to act. His teaching was always in the service of social justice and action, with an aim to move forward in new ways which would enable each of us to fulfill the best of our potential. Education, for Professor Falcón, was based on the need for collective understanding to lead to lasting change.

Defender of the people: In San Juan, it is the stuff of legend that noted scholar Luis Nieves Falcón — at a time when all of his colleagues were preparing to retire – decided to leave his comfortable position at the University of Puerto Rico and work to obtain a law degree. He did this for the sole purpose of defending the imprisoned Puerto Rican independence activists who were languishing in US jails with lengthy sentences served under torturous conditions typical of the treatment of political prisoners; over a dozen had been found guilty of the “thought crime” of seditious conspiracy: planning a world where basic Puerto Rican rights, culture, and policy wouldn’t be under foreign control. As legal counsel, Nieves Falcón knew he had a new key to get into the jails and converse with his fellow patriots. More importantly, however, he also understood that he had only earned a one-way key: he could get in, but his legal skills alone could not get his compatriots out. Nieves Falcón was the type of lawyer who always comprehended that, in working for freedom, legal struggle must be coordinated with political struggle; no courtroom or negotiated maneuver could substitute for the door-to-door, grassroots campaigns which would mobilize a nation to call for the freedom of its prisoners, to call now for the immediate release of Oscar López Rivera. Nieves Falcón was much more than just a lawyer; he was a true defender of the people.

We love Luis Nieves Falcón, and the true, loving comrade that he was to so many of us. We understand that, like all people, he had faults and shortcomings, and could be a master pain in our sides! But as we mourn the loss of Dr. Luis Nieves Falcón, we understand that today’s message — Nieves Falcón’s message — is, more than ever: Don’t mourn, organize!

Matt Meyer is a New York City-based educator, author, and activist who serves as War Resisters International Africa Support Network Coordinator and as a UN/ECOSOC representative of the International Peace Research Association. His recent books include Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan-African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle and Liberation (Africa World Press, 2000), the two-volume collection Seeds of New Hope: Pan African Peace Studies for the 21st Century (Africa World Press, 2008, 2010), and Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U. S. Political Prisoners (PM Press, 2008). Meyer is a contributing member of the Editorial Advisory Board for New Clear Vision.

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