To the FBI, he was one of the most dangerous revolutionaries in the United States. To his supporters in the Puerto Rican independence movement, he was a freedom fighter.
An important part of the mission of Latino USA is rebalancing or bringing a broader perspective to how we report the news, how we tell stories, and from what perspectives they’re told.
Thirty-five years later, in an era when the politics – and the politicization – of language is a hot-button issue, the question remains a divisive one: Was Oscar López Rivera a terrorist, or a hero?
Last month, in one of his final acts in office, then-President Obama commuted the sentence of the 74-year-old López, who had been convicted for his role in a group linked to a series of bombings from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s.
Predictably, the reaction was mixed: High-profile supporters who had long called for his release praised the president. “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda tweeted: “Sobbing with gratitude here in London. OSCAR LOPEZ RIVERA IS COMING HOME. THANK YOU, @POTUS.” But there was plenty of negative reaction to López’s release, too, including a feature article from Politico.
It was a moment of reporting serendipity for the NPR program Latino USA, which had been working on a piece about López for more than a year. Just 10 days after López was freed, the episode aired, and became the most-downloaded episode in Latino USA’s 20-year history.
A few years ago, as a “Free Oscar” movement began to gain momentum in Puerto Rico and New York, López’s case had begun to pique the interest of Marlon Bishop, a 31-year-old Peabody Award-winning journalist and producer of Latino USA.
By 2016, Bishop was deep into researching López’s story, and he and the Latino USA team had decided to commit a full segment to the complicated, controversial López… all this without expecting that López’s sentence would be commuted by Obama and that their show—nearly a year in the making—would have that magic journalism moment: appearing clairvoyant about a big breaking news story.
I spoke with Bishop the day after López was released from federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, and returned to Puerto Rico to be reunited with his family. We talked about the backstory of researching and reporting such a complicated and controversial story.
Answers have been slightly edited and condensed for ease of reading.
I’d love to start by talking about how you and Latino USA decided to do a story on Oscar López Rivera. Can you tell us when and how his story was raised as a possible subject for the show, and what kind of discussion was had around the decision to devote an entire episode to tell his story?
At some point, we knew we wanted to do a story and I think it was almost a year after we first had the idea that we started reporting on it. We got in touch with a few people in Chicago — namely, Oscar’s brother, José López, in Humboldt Park, and his lawyer, Jan Susler — and we went out to Chicago for a weekend, where María [Hinojosa, the host of Latino USA] is from, and hung out in Humboldt Park, a Puerto Rican neighborhood. We met a lot of people. We didn’t really know a lot about the story at that point, to be honest. We kind of got all of those interviews about who Oscar was without having this super-detailed kind of backstory. It was after that that we realized, “Wow, this goes extremely deep.” You could write books about Oscar López Rivera and the FALN.
I think we’re all drawn to stories of people behind bars because it’s this other world that, if you haven’t experienced it, is so hard to fathom, especially when you’re talking about 35 years in prison. We’re fascinated by questions of justice and freedom.
It’s something that, for me personally – me and María come from different perspectives. We’re different ages. I’m 31, grew up not in the time of radical bombings and radical activism in the U.S., and just to imagine this world, this giant ideological battle between capitalism and communism that was playing out… the idea that there were bombs going off all the time in the 1970s seemed so foreign and out of a movie to me, almost. And for María, she had a different perspective, being more familiar with that. And so, that was what drove my interest from a storytelling perspective. It felt really relevant. It was a period of a lot of political upheaval and tumult, so to see what were the reactions and solutions and perhaps overreactions that activists in the ’70s had in response to what they saw as the need to resist….
From there, we started reading books, reading court documents and trying to find out as much as we possibly could about the story. We spoke with people from the FBI, we spoke with a lot of people in the Puerto Rican [independence movement] world.
When did you make direct contact with Oscar himself, and what were the challenges and opportunities of interviewing someone who was incarcerated and building an entire episode around him?
That was in October 2016. We did one long, two-hour telephone interview with Oscar. His lawyer helped us to set it up. To be honest, it was pretty easy to work with the prison. They were very accommodating. We had to put in a request by letter. We did ask for an in-person interview, but we were denied. He hadn’t been allowed in-person interviews for a long time.
We had one opportunity to talk with him, so we needed to get as much as we could. We needed to make sure we developed a relationship enough to ask tough questions and get honest answers in that one interview. In an ideal world, when you’re doing a documentary about someone, you want to have the opportunity to go back and build off your relationship. The other challenge was audio quality; we were doing the interview by phone, and phone audio quality is unpredictable. It’s not perfect.
But I think we’re all drawn to stories of people behind bars because it’s this other world that, if you haven’t experienced it, is so hard to fathom, especially when you’re talking about 35 years in prison. We’re fascinated by questions of justice and freedom.
In terms of rapport with Oscar, he’s a great talker. He opened up to María quite fast. María has cultivated a reputation over decades as someone who really takes care to tell Latino stories, and that reputation opens all sorts of doors all the time to people who inherently trust her with their stories. They had a great interview and I think María showed that she was going to ask him the tough questions along the lines of did he build bombs, etc., but who was also willing to really draw out a sense of empathy for his life story.
In the episode, you engage a thorny issue: There are people who view López as a terrorist, and there are those who view him as a hero of Puerto Rican independence efforts. Can we talk about how these kinds of words are used by media to either elucidate or obscure stories, Lopez’s in particular? As a producer, how did you negotiate those poles?
As much as possible, the decisions that we came to were to not bring that into the reporting. These issues are inherently challenging. As journalists, what do we gain by labeling him as a terrorist versus a freedom fighter? More important is to give the facts in the most honest way possible and allow people to make their own decisions. For us, it was a choice to talk more about what people did than about what people are.
One thing that I was thinking about a lot was – so many of the contemporary accounts of what the FALN did—if you listen to the news accounts of the time, some of the ones we play—they’re really all from the perspective of the United States, mainstream, white America, which is one perspective. But what we wanted to do was also show – to not have this story told by the FBI. We wanted to tell this story by both: by having the people who were in the FALN, who were in the circles around Oscar, who were dealing with those feelings of alienation. We also wanted the voice of the FBI. But an important part of the mission of Latino USA is rebalancing or bringing a broader perspective to how we report the news, how we tell stories, and from what perspectives they’re told. And so that was our goal: not to give just the perspective of Oscar’s supporters or to the FBI, but to tell the story from a kind of Puerto Rican perspective and allow you to get to know some people who may or may not have committed some heinous acts.
One of the issues you were dealing with, too, was the complexity of the Puerto Rico-mainland U.S. relationship. If you have an audience that’s not starting out with basic understanding of the fact that Puerto Rico is essentially a territory, and your story has way more nuance, how do you provide the necessary context to tell a story like this one?
That’s something we address in the opening of the episode: Open a newspaper, and point to the story about Puerto Rico. You can’t. There isn’t one. Ingrained into Puerto Rico’s status is its invisibility. Even if you don’t agree with Oscar’s choice to take up arms, you can kind of understand where he was and the kind of alienation he felt in Chicago as a young man, and the way he felt fighting for the U.S. in Vietnam when his own home was this colonialized place. That’s what I’m hoping to get across
Can you tell us more about the research process for this episode? Where did it take you, literally and figuratively?
We would have liked to go to Puerto Rico and it was part of our original plan, but we ultimately did not go there. We already had so many interviews—I had some 20 or 30 hours of interviews to cut together—and I realized if we were to take another trip, it was going to become impossible. We had enough characters. Both María and I have reported from Puerto Rico quite a bit over the years, so we were both familiar with the context. It would have been cool to have gone to Oscar’s hometown of San Sebastián and meet some of the other former FALN members who ended up in Puerto Rico after their sentences, but we didn’t get a chance to do that. I went to Chicago twice and interviewed a bunch of people remotely: an FBI guy in California, a guy who wrote a book in Austin, and we got a lot of old television clips we had to buy from an archive at Vanderbilt University…. The main bulk of the reporting was done in the two reporting trips to Chicago.
What kind of feedback have you gotten from listeners about this episode? And with the news that López returned to Puerto Rico yesterday, do you have any plans to follow up with him in the future?
This episode did really well for us. It was our biggest number of downloads ever, and I got a lot of feedback from people who reached out to me individually to say it was a great, gripping story. Interestingly, I don’t feel like most of the feedback was from people who wanted to take one side or the other. Most people seemed to feel torn by the freedom fighter-terrorist question in the end. But the feedback has been positive.
As to whether we’ll follow up with him, we were definitely thinking about an Oscar sequel. I would love to. We’ll see what opportunities come up, whether he’ll become a public figure or not, or whether he has more of a private life. I think some kind of follow-up will definitely happen at some point.