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Luisa Capetillo: Puerto Rican Changemaker

(The following is a post by Hispanic Division reference librarian Talía Guzman-González)

On July 1, 1912, “The Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram,” a progressive newspaper out of Richmond, Indiana, published the photograph of a woman wearing bulky trousers and a long coat with the title “Trouserettes the Latest in Gotham.” The article talked about a certain Puerto Rican woman whose fashion was all the rage in the streets of New York City:

Luisa Capetillo, the young writer and member of a prominent family in Porto Rico, photographed in the garb in which she appeared on fashionable Fifth Ave, New York. It consists of a dainty lace and linen coat, full length, full carelessly over striking boomers, which reach from an inch or two above the ankle to the waist. Miss Capetillo’s costume attracted so much attention that the busy avenue was congested with thousands of people and scores of automobiles and other vehicles. And matters became so bad that a policeman requested her to pin down her coat as far as the knees at least, which she did. 

Luisa Capetillo in the “The Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram,” July 1, 1912.

What the text doesn’t mention is that Luisa Capetillo was a Puerto Rican feminist, anarchist, journalist, and labor union leader who was temporarily in New York working with the Hispanic communities, especially the tobacco workers and labor leaders. Remembered by many in Puerto Rico as the first woman to wear pantalones (pants) in public, Capetillo was far from a fashion icon. She was a pioneer in addressing the problems facing the working class, the condition of women and children, and the importa­­nce of labor organizing in the island.

Luisa Capetillo was born on October 28, 1879 in the coastal town of Arecibo, which boasted one of the most important ports in the island, enjoyed a high level of sugarcane production, and was the center of a “radical workers culture” (Ramos, 17).  Capetillo lived through some of the most important political and economic transitions in Puerto Rican history at the turn of the century, including the Spanish American War of 1898 that ended with Spain ceding the colony of Puerto Rico to the United States as part of the Treaty of Paris. Capetillo’s father belonged to a middle class of recently arrived Spanish and her mother was a housemaid who hailed from France, so it is odd to identify her as the daughter of a “prominent family” as the note in the “Richmond Palladium proclaimed. Nevertheless, her parents stimulated her intellectual curiosity and instilled in the young Capetillo a commitment to the working class and the oppressed.

Capetillo’s early education was influenced by the writings of European romantic and naturalist writers such as Gustave Flaubert, Emile Zola, and George Sand. Later, thinkers like Peter Kropotkin, Georges Sorel, Errico Malatesta, and Leo Tolstoy shaped her political views on the meaning of religion, anarchism, and social justice. But a lot of Capetillo’s formation also took place “in the field”: she worked as a seamstress to support her young children and was also a lectora (reader) in the tobacco factories where she read national and international newspapers and novels for the men and women who worked as leaf strippers and cigar rollers.  Capetillo’s role as a lectora in the factory was key in her development as a workers’ leader. The tobacco factory was an important cultural space where the workers (artesanos), many with anarchist tendencies, received an “alternative education” (Ramos, 19) and became the first working class intellectuals in Puerto Rico.  She was also a member and leader of one of the oldest workers unions in the island, the FLT, or Federación Libre de Trabajadores (Free Federation of Workers), responsible for many of the workers’ strikes at the beginning of the twentieth century, such as the sugarcane workers strike of 1905 in which Capetillo made her “debut” as a public orator. As part of the FLT she also worked tirelessly as a journalist and union organizer around the island.

Sugar cane workers on a plantation near Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Photo by Jack Delano, 1942.

In addition to publishing her work in local newspapers and editing the short- lived working class women’s magazine “La mujer (The woman), Capetillo authored several books of essays and plays, beginning with “Ensayos libertarios (Libertarian essays) in 1907, “La humanidad en el futuro(Humanity in the future) in 1910, “Mi opinión” (My opinion) in 1911, and “Influencias de las ideas modernas” (Influence of modern ideas) in 1916.  In “Ensayos libertarios” Capetillo’s anticlerical views are evident; she believed that organized religion was oppressive to women. Capetillo wrote about themes that were key to her political views and guiding principles in her personal life: a return to nature (she was vegetarian), free love (she never married the father of her children), universal fraternity, and the importance of workers unions (Valle Ferrer, 73). Capetillo also believed in the education of women as the basis of a just society claiming that if women were responsible for raising children, they needed to be equipped with the intellectual tools necessary to form upright citizens. For Capetillo educating women was also necessary to free them from dependency on men and to become autonomous beings.

Capetillo’s view of the role of women makes her a crucial figure in the history of Puerto Rican feminism. For her, women’s fight for equal rights was no different from the fight for workers’ rights since education was at the center of any social transformation. This belief distinguished Capetillo from other suffragists in Puerto Rico who linked the demands for women’s suffrage to a professional middle class. Capetillo’s work in favor of women’s rights was intrinsically related to class struggle “and rejected the idea of limited suffrage based on education and/or income that was supported by many professional and upper class women and men in Puerto Rico… For Capetillo, the key struggle was to be waged through the efforts of the labor movement, and that is why the female suffrage is underplayed in her writings. Capetillo, influenced by anarchist belief in the ineffectiveness of voting, concentrated her efforts on organizing strikes and disseminating propaganda.” (Matos Rodríguez, xx).

Like other intellectuals and workers’ organizers of the turn-of-the-century, Luisa Capetillo traveled outside Puerto Rico to New York, Tampa, La Habana, and the Dominican Republic where she participated in political rallies, strikes, and was active in different union related activities. Following in the steps of the Cuban intellectual and politician José Martí, Capetillo traveled to Ybor City and Tampa, Florida, where she worked with Cuban, Italian, African-American, and Spanish cigar workers who had moved to the region during the late 19th century (Matos Rodríguez, xxi). It was during her travels that she caught the eye of the local press who were intrigued by her clothes, but did little to inquire about the woman who dared to flout the rules and whom some journalists called the “Porto Rican Joan of Arc” recruiting women for her “female army.” In 1915, while in Cuba participating in the sugarcane workers’ strike, she was arrested for wearing pants in public, but was later set free and returned to Puerto Rico. Capetillo continued to organize workers until her death from tuberculosis on October 10, 1922.

Stringing tobacco in a tobacco barn near Barranquitas, Puerto Rico. Photo by Jack Delano, 1942.

You can learn more about Luisa Capetillo, the workers movement, and feminist and suffragists leaders in Puerto Rico by visiting the Hispanic Reading Room!

So we who preach and desire a fraternal world should not issue insults, nor attempt to dishonor our neighbor. If indeed we are brothers. Otherwise we will never come to practice fraternity. This does not mean that we should hide the truth, no; abuse, hypocrisy, meanness, any kind of farce must be exposed, because, for the mere fact that we are brothers, we must make others understand that we know our rights, and that if they trample on those rights, we have the right to remind them that we are incensed by the injustice of it.

Mi opinión sobre las libertades, derechos y deberes de la mujer” (My opinion on women’s freedoms, rights and duties) by Luisa Capetillo, translated by Alan West Durán.

Selected Bibliography:

 Bird-Soto, Nancy. “Escritoras puertorriqueñas de la transición del siglo XIX al XX: Carmela Eulate Sanjurjo, Ana Roqué y Luisa Capetillo.” Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, c2009.

 Capetillo, Luisa. “A Nation of Women: An Early Feminist Speaks Out.” Spanish. “Mi opinión sobre las libertades, derechos y deberes de la mujer.” Edited, with an introduction by Félix V. Matos Rodríguez. English translation by Alan West. Houston, Tex.: Arte Publico Press, c2004.

Capetillo, Luisa. “Luisa Capetillo: obra completa: ‘mi patria es la libertad’.” Introducción, notas y edición de Norma Valle Ferrer, 1. ed. San Juan: Departamento del Trabajo y Recursos Humanos; Cayey: Universidad de Puerto Rico en Cayey, 2008.

Capetillo, Luisa. “Influencias de las ideas modernas.” English “Absolute equality: an early feminist perspective.” English translation and introduction by Lara Walker. Houston, Texas: Arte Público Press, c2009.

Capetillo, Luisa. “Amor y anarquía: los escritos de Luisa Capetillo.” Edition Julio Ramos. Río Piedras, P.R. : Ediciones Huracán, 1992.

Valle Ferrer, Norma. “Luisa Capetillo: historia de una mujer proscrita.” Río Piedras, P.R.: Editorial Cultural, 1990.

Valle Ferrer, Norma. “Luisa Capetillo.” English. Luisa Capetillo, pioneer Puerto Rican feminist. Translated by Gloria Waldman-Schwartz, with the collaboration of students from the Graduate Program in Translation, the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras, Spring 1991. New York: Peter Lang, c2006.

Documentary

Luisa Capetillo, a passion for justice.” Director and executive producer, Sonia Fritz. 1993.

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