Meet Puerto Rico’s First Black Queer Lawmaker
A number of candidates clinched historic victories on the federal, state and local levels in the 2020 election — including several politicians in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory. Among them is Ana Irma Rivera Lassén, a lifelong activist and human rights attorney who was elected Senator for Accumulation, and who will become the first Black and openly queer woman lawmaker.
In 1974, Rivera Lassén co-founded and edited the feminist publication El tacón de la chancleta to bring attention to the issues impacting Puerto Rican women. In the 1980s, after becoming a lawyer, she sued a judge and won when she was refused entry into a courtroom for wearing pants instead of a dress or skirt. By 2012, she was the president of the Bar Association of Puerto Rico — the first Black woman and lesbian to occupy the post. During her tenure, she changed the name of the association to Colegio Abogados y Abogadas de Puerto Rico to reflect women attorneys.
The first-time candidate, who ran on a third-party ticket she co-founded last year, the Citizens’ Victory Movement, will help lead Puerto Rico at a time when an economic crisis, destructive natural disasters, and the Covid-19 pandemic have all been compounded by gender-based violence and elected officials being unseated by political scandals and government corruption.
Rivera Lassén told Supermajority News about her historic win, the political changes occurring in Puerto Rico, how her party hopes to resolve the island’s colonial status, and what an inclusive and diverse Puerto Rico could look like.
This was a historic win for Puerto Rico and for your party, the Citizens’ Victory Movement. What was your reaction when you learned you won your election?
There was joy, but also some conflicting feelings. In addition to being the Senator-elect, I’m also the president of the Citizens’ Victory Movement, and we were all together that night. I was aware of the impact this news had, but I was also with other candidates from my party who had been working and fighting hard who had not won. On the other hand, our wins were a recognition that our party is a third political force in the country and that we accomplished this very quickly. In a short amount of time, we have been able to impact and change the discourse of Puerto Rico’s party system.
As you said, you won representing a party you helped co-found just last year. What are the key objectives of the Citizens’ Victory Movement and how is this different from the leading parties in Puerto Rico: the New Progressive Party (PNP), which advocates for statehood, and the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), which advocates to maintain the current status?
The main motivation of the Citizens’ Victory Movement is really to work on an inclusive country project that helps us escape from the troubling direction [in which] we are headed. Right now, Puerto Rico has an economic crisis and a crisis of political corruption. It has a government that doesn’t know how to manage the aftermath of the hurricanes, earthquakes, or the pandemic. Even more, it has a crisis that is called the Fiscal Control Board, which is an entity that was created by the U.S. Congress [to restructure Puerto Rico’s debt]. We need to organize ourselves in a different direction, and we need a government that understands that people are first, that guarantees essential services for these people, and that resists the neoliberal political economy that the board wants to establish in Puerto Rico.
Our party also recognizes the issue of diversity as one that’s equally important. We need to build a country that in the face of economic and social crises, also advances an inclusive, diverse and plural country, which views all identities as strengths and not as weaknesses.
Doing this is going to take recreating institutions, building new social and economic-political understandings, and recognizing the problem of Puerto Rico’s status, the colonial problem. Our platform works to decolonize Puerto Rico, but we tackle decolonization differently from the traditional parties. The Citizens’ Victory Movement realizes that Puerto Rico is a colony and to overcome this status we need to work together as a country. This means that there are people who want statehood for Puerto Rico, there are people who want independence for Puerto Rico, and there are people who believe in the free associated state status. We are saying we need to conduct a serious process, along with the U.S. Congress, so that Puerto Rico, meaning Puerto Ricans, can finally decide its own status. But we also say that Puerto Ricans must be fully informed before making this decision. That’s why we endorsed the constitutional status convention, [which was proposed by Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nydia Velázquez in August.] Our vision for decolonization is distinct from the traditional parties. The other parties are divided by their own visions for Puerto Rico, but we are saying that we have to come together to create the country we want. So this is an economic project, a political project, and a social project that simultaneously works on the status problem.
You weren’t the only candidate from the Citizens’ Victory Movement to win elections this year. Why do you think Puerto Ricans are moving away from the dominant two-party system and increasingly adopting the ethos of the Citizens’ Victory Movement? What do you think this could mean for the future of Puerto Rico?
I think the election results show that Puerto Ricans are in a different ideological moment. People are looking for answers to their needs, answers for their futures, and answers for their country. Puerto Rico is a viable country. We can move forward here. To speak only of status – only of independence, only of statehood, only of the free associated state – and nothing else, to not speak of other components — that’s not the answer. The answer is much more complex, much more profound, and needs to provide solutions for the short-term and long-term.
During this election in Puerto Rico, no candidate won by majority — neither the governor nor the legislators. People in Puerto Rico are voting increasingly for candidates rather than for political parties. That’s a distinct change of mentality. That’s why a lot of political analysts were surprised. They failed to understand who the Citizens’ Victory Movement was … The Movement started in March 2019, and in November 2020 we changed the political history of Puerto Rico … because it [came] out of the historic moment that Puerto Rico is living in right now. That’s the only reason for our success: because we respond to the needs and moments that our country is experiencing.
The people [are taking] on a power that they never have to give up: the power to decide who governs them. [Take, for example,] the summer of 2019, when the people arose and ousted the governor. In a lot of parts of the world, there are recall referendums, where voters can remove an elected official from office through a direct vote before that official’s term has ended. In Puerto Rico, this doesn’t exist in our laws. But even without them, we did it. That is also a change of mentality that we need to look at, and if you’re ignoring this, then you’re not paying attention to what is happening in Puerto Rico. People are more alert, and they’re not accepting political corruption as if it’s something normal.
There is a saying that goes, “change doesn’t occur when it should but when it can,” and I apply that to politics and to this. Change is always needed, but it’s successful when it has all the ingredients needed to succeed. And I think here we had all the components for a movement like the Citizens’ Victory to succeed.
You’ve been a long-time activist and human rights lawyer. What motivated you to run for office?
It’s exactly that: Above all else, I’m an activist for human rights. I started very young. I was 16 years old when I began my feminist activism in Puerto Rico with some of the first feminist organizations here during its second wave. From then to now, I’ve been a part of several organizations. I started doing that activism work long before I became a lawyer. That came later.
For many years, I’ve worked to change legislation [as an activist]. So when we started to create the Citizens’ Victory Movement, we discussed possible candidates. I was asked if I’d be a candidate. I had thought about running for office before, but I never felt like there was a party where I’d fit comfortably. But, obviously, if I was a part of the Citizens’ Victory Movement, then it followed a lot of what I believed in. I felt like the Senate would be best for me because it had a lot of power to create change for the islands overall.
Your win is historic. You’re not new to breaking barriers – you’ve done this throughout your career – but what do you think this means, even symbolically, to queer communities in Puerto Rico who have long had to fight for basic resources through community organizations because they haven’t had champions in public office?
I think that a lot of people felt like what’s in [the Citizens’ Victory Movement] platform represents them. That’s what they’ve told us. In my particular case, I honestly am still seeing that this win has impacted many, because someone who is so open in all their identities won. I live this life every day, so I’m not always as conscious about what this could mean to others. However, if it inspires others, then I think that’s great and I hope that I don’t fail them. I try to live by my principles, but if that serves for something beyond that, that brings me great joy.
What I do know is that we have a lot to do. Puerto Rico is a racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic country, and we need solutions to these discriminations and exclusions.
What are your ideas for tackling huge problems like gender-based violence and gender inequity, as someone with a keen understanding of what these problems look like through your experience as an activist?
Puerto Rico has one of the first legislations in the world – the first in Latin America and before the United States – to tackle intimate partner violence. And we have a Women’s Advocate Office that has a lot of power, and that also doesn’t exist in most parts of the world. But nevertheless, the law doesn’t work because it isn’t practiced, and that’s the problem: It’s a problem of execution. If the laws aren’t being followed, then the legislature needs to take measures to evaluate the laws that exist to understand what needs to be done so that there is compliance, and it also needs to investigate if the governor, and others in power, need more transparency and accountability. [The legislature also] needs to look into why the police aren’t doing their jobs, what’s happening to the rights of victims and if they are seeing justice in the courts.
It’s also critical that we look into discrimination and determine if all who suffer violence have the same access to justice and remedies. We have to recognize violence against the trans community. Transphobia is a problem in Puerto Rico. The amount of trans killings this year are alarming. This is why a gender perspective is necessary. When you are looking at budgets for different agencies, you need a gender perspective in order to allocate the appropriate amount of funds to tackle these problems. Without a gender perspective, you might not even know these problems exist.
You have a long track record in Puerto Rico’s social justice movements. What drives you as a fighter for gender justice and human rights?
I’ve always been this way. Since I was a very little girl, I spoke up about these subjects. I never liked when someone tried to tell me I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. I never liked when I heard that Black people are inferior. And I never liked that I couldn’t be open about being a lesbian.
What I do know is that I had the great luck of growing up in a family that didn’t intervene in what I was doing, even if they didn’t understand it. I think that’s what was important. I grew up in an educational environment. My father was a professor, and my mom worked at home and later became a teacher. I grew up with education very present and also with a great pride in being Black. Both were always found in my house. I think that has helped inform who I am today.