Estelí Capote: “Neither the State nor the Church Can Take Precedence Over Women’s Rights in Puerto Rico”

17/08/2022 |

By Capire

Puerto Rican activist on the connections between feminism and the struggles for independence in her country

Aborto Libre Puerto Rico

Estelí Capote Maldonado is a member of Movement 29 (Movimiento 29) and the Socialist Front, two organizations dedicated to promoting the independence of Puerto Rico. She argues that the feminist struggle is fundamental because, “despite all the progress that has been achieved in Puerto Rico in recent decades, we still experience forms of inequality that are very covert yet very strong and deep-rooted in culture; for example, wage inequality and gender-based violence, which is also very real in other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean.”

With feminist organizations that joined efforts, Estelí took part this year in the call for the “Green Tide,” a protest against a bill that plans to increase restrictions for women who want to abort. The country’s House of Representatives passed the bill, which is still pending until it is ratified or vetoed by governor Pedro Pierluisi. In Puerto Rico, the right to abortion has been ensured since 1973, and the procedure is allowed until the second trimester. However, Estelí explains that “this bill, which is almost religious, sets more ambiguous definitions of what life is and what a fetus is, violating the law on the right, which was radical and trailblazing for its time.”

We need to protect the rights that have been achieved. Nothing was given, it was all achieved through the struggle.

Estelí Capote


Abortion has been legal since 1973 — is there only a time limit or are there specific legal conditions?

The law does not set restrictions. What defines the limits on abortion is regulation. It has mainly to do with health issues. During the third trimester, women have the adoption program as an alternative instead of having an abortion—because in that trimester it can be particularly catastrophic for the woman’s health. It is important to say that, in Puerto Rico, 97 percent of the abortions are carried out in the first trimester, and usually happen due to some medical condition that can represent a risk to the life of the mother or the fetus.

What led to the legalization of abortion in 1973? Do you know what the process was like?

Well, I wasn’t born then, but, from what I have heard, during the 1960s and 1970s, the Socialist Party of Puerto Rico was very strong and comprehensive. There were movements that were broadly organized and, among their sectors, they had feminist groups. The women who represented this movement include Yosi Pantoja and others. Actually, my mother was part of the Puerto Rican Organization of Women Workers [Organización Puertorriqueña de la Mujer Trabajadora]. They realized that the main problems women faced were related to access to health care, and one of them was illegal abortion-related deaths. As part of women’s rights, they waged a great struggle, not only for the right to decide over their own bodies, but also maternity rights. Back then, the short-term challenge was to pursue gender equality through measures that not only fostered pay equity through labor unions, but also through their rights as women, the right to make decisions about our own bodies.

Now back to the present time, how are Puerto Rican women organizing and struggling? What are their agendas?

There are several organizations in Puerto Rico. We have an umbrella organization called March 8 Coalition [Coalición 8 de Marzo], a group in which we organize throughout the year to take part of the global March 8 celebrations. Within this coalition, there are sectors that are providing public services, where the state is not. I can mention the Health Care Workshop [TallerSalud] and the Women Helping Mothers Center [Centro Mujeres Ayudando Madres—Centro MAM].

There is also a very strong work being conducted in terms of tackling gender-based violence, which has spiked since the pandemic, not just against women, but also against homosexual people and especially trans communities. In Puerto Rico, during the pandemic, three trans people have died under conditions that remain unclear, but which have been so grimly violent, it is assumed they must have been motivated by gender issues.

There is a very interesting project that concerns the economic problem faced by women after Hurricane Maria in 2017 and now due to the pandemic. The downturn process of the economy has become sharper. Women have been impacted because they have lost their jobs or had to sacrifice their paid jobs to take care of their children, staying at home with them, being their teachers, housekeepers…  As a result, they have lost their ability to generate income. The concept of “feminist dinner” was then created: in marginalized sectors, some days of the week, women under precarious conditions can come and have access to basic supplies for their families, such as rice, beans, milk, bleach, essential items.

Another topic that has been worked on is actually the way how the bill to restrict abortion created levels of insecurity in family planning centers or centers where abortion procedures are carried out. We are staging protests outside these centers to stop religious or conservative organizations from blocking the way for women who go to these centers to receive care. Family planning centers offer gynecological and mental health care like any other facility—they are comprehensive health care centers. With this kind of conservative action, religious organizations have taken on a duty of protecting what they call unborn life above women’s lives.

Do you think that, because it is a colony, things happen differently for women?

One of the conditions we have as a US colony is actually importing roles. There are diehard annexationist groups that emulate models from the United States. One example is the case of abortion, which is now under dispute in the US. It is not a coincidence that they are using this situation when they are reviewing Roe v. Wade to do the same thing hastily in Puerto Rico. These bills are artifices to promote or claim they are annexationists, that they are part of the United States, even though the US repeatedly denies us. What they promote is cultural and political assimilation.

We are a colony, but women have been historically empowered and are very active in the progressive and left-wing political struggle. Regardless of the colonial status, women have taken on the task of continuously promote better conditions and better rights for women. So while on the one hand there are groups that want to promote an assimilation against rights that have been achieved, on the other, there are feminist groups that are constantly struggling—and which have not stopped struggling.

We know that there are many challenges when you are part of mixed-gender processes, but also women play a very relevant role in organizations. What is women’s participation like in the struggle for independence and self-determination? Do you think there have been changes in recent years?

I have observed very carefully—and I say this as an exercise in self-criticism—a female figure in Puerto Rico called María de Lourdes Santiago. She comes from a pro-independence party that represented, at some point, bourgeois interests, even though its president, Ruben Berríos, claims to be a socialist. In the party’s political structure, María de Lourdes represented a minority, a very small group of women with very little exposure. By waging a consistent struggle and exercising self-criticism herself, María de Lourdes eventually took on a more independent political approach, while remaining loyal to her party—which I think adds determination and value to the Puerto Rican Independence Party. Meanwhile, she has been very vocal when she had to express herself to demonstrate her opposition or show the party that it had to take different attitudes.

I would also like to mention Tati Fernós, a lawyer who passed away recently. She was an Attorney for Women and played an essential role in making many laws passed since 1973 finally have protocols so that they could be implemented and enforced. Tati Fernós was an educated woman and a member of the Socialist Party. At some point, she understood that she would rather focus on feminist organizations, because the work to be conducted in socialist political organizations would have to be so hard that she felt she was missing an opportunity. So she moved away a bit from these pro-independence organizations to carry out effective feminist work regarding women’s rights and LGBTQIA+ rights.

María de Lourdes, on the other hand, in this generation, was able to change gender norms inside her party, and she is probably the first woman in the Independence Party to aspire to be governor through community participation. From her party, she was able to break the system and restructure it. And she did it with citizens’ participation, joining the community’s struggles, such as the struggle against LUMA [power company] and environmental struggles, finding allies within her organization.

Finally, could you talk about the current strategies of the struggle for independence?

The struggle for independence is a continuous, tough, and constant process. It is a paced process. Puerto Rico has had its ups and downs. In the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, the Nationalist Party was probably one of the most important movements of the 20th century. It should be noted that Pedro Albizu Campos, its greatest leader, set a big precedent, with women, for women’s work in the party, such as with Blanca Canales. They actually organized international solidarity efforts with US women, like Thelma Mielke. And we have followed this precedent.

Right now, the pro-independence movement has three big poles of work. Domestically, in Puerto Rico, we are doing a great job to show what economic development could mean for a sustainable and independent country. This way, we debunk the myth that we could not live without the United States. Thanks to the economic crisis, young people and women who have businesses saw the need to organize around new economic forms, creating themselves an economic model to guarantee their livelihoods. So they help us build a vision about this sovereign and independent country that we want.

Our responsibility as pro-independence activists is to show these projects, showing people how these projects can help us build a country.

Also part of our political project for independence is the appreciation and protection of our natural resources. Our natural resources are being taken by foreigners, especially from the US, speculators and investors who come to Puerto Rico protected by the law. We have to raise awareness among Puerto Rican citizens of how valuable the resources they have in their hands are: the value of the land, the value of the water. We work to prevent them from selling their lands and resources to investors and speculators, to protect ourselves from companies that come and conduct experiments in agricultural lands, like Monsanto, and to stop land pollution, like in the case of the ashes in Peñuelas. The protection of our land also has to do with preventing the ever increasing number of telecommunication antennas, which not only contaminate the land, but also harm the human body with constant radiation.

We have yet another pole related to mobilizing international solidarity. We conduct intense work with the Caribbean through the Caribbean Peoples’ Assembly; we work with ALBA Movements; and we took an active part in the 3rd Continental Assembly held in Argentina. I loved taking part in it, especially because we brought the motto “there is no Americas without the Caribbean.” The way Latin American sisters and comrades received us was very telling. I think there is solid ground to expand our bonds and work with South America.

We also have solidarity groups in Europe and the United States, particularly diaspora groups. The strongest work we are conducting there is about helping Puerto Rican citizens who migrated to the US. We help them understand that their need to move to the US is an active policy by the US itself, to plunder our human resources, which is the most important resource any country has. These young people who leave Puerto Rico are victims of an extraction process, as if they were things being taken to other countries—in this case, the US, because of a citizenship we did not ask for, but they gave to us, taking away our Puerto Rican citizenship.

Interview conducted by Helena Zelic
Translated from Portuguese by Aline Scátola
Original language: Spanish

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