The Seditious Foreigner

Reissuing the writing of Puerto Rican labor leader Luisa Capetillo

by Dennis Hogan

A newspaper photograph of a woman dressed in a suit

Luisa Capetillo wasn’t trying to make a statement when she was arrested by Cuban police in July of 1915. She just wanted to be practical — comfortable — and had decided to wear pants. Some months earlier, she had traveled to Cuba to join the Federación Anarquista de Cuba to support striking sugar cane workers on the island — typical business for the Puerto Rican feminist and labor organizer. She was soon identified by the Cuban government as a seditious foreigner, and the authorities ordered her deportation. When she reappeared on the streets of Havana a few months later wearing a man’s suit, she was almost immediately apprehended and hauled in front of a judge for provoking a scandal with her choice of dress. Capetillo, no stranger to encounters with the authorities, was unbowed, explaining to the court that compared to women’s fashions, pants were more comfortable, more hygienic, and better suited to the new roles that women were fighting to play in a modern society. Indeed, she maintained that she had worn such outfits before, in Puerto Rico, Mexico, and the United States, always without issue. When she asked the judge to cite which Cuban law which specifically prohibited women from wearing pants in public, he had no response, and was forced to let her go.

This mix of practical and flamboyant, matter-of-fact and provocative, unassuming and proselytizing, was typical of Capetillo, a woman who was as much an organizer as she was a speaker, writer, and intellectual. Over the course of her decades-long career with the Puerto Rican and North American left, Capetillo traveled through the United States and Caribbean, organizing workers, evangelizing for revolution, and helping to build an international network of anarchist and socialist organizers who challenged large landowners as well as the growing dominance of imperialist business interests in Latin America. If her pantsuit scandalized the conservative public and provided her with an opportunity to propagandize, so much the better.

Beyond her considerable contributions to the workers’ struggle in Puerto Rico, Capetillo is best remembered as the author of Mi Opinión, the first published Puerto Rican feminist treatise. An English translation of that book, A Nation of Women: A Puerto Rican Feminist Speaks Out, has now been reissued in a new edition from Penguin Classics. Capetillo’s work encompasses a number of political, personal, and moral concerns, some standard for the left — calls for a workers’ revolution, denunciations of the tyranny of men over women, condemnations of the church’s role in perpetuating social inequality — others more wide-ranging, such as her reflections on the harmony of anarchism and spiritism, the sublimity of nature, and the importance of leading a hygienic and vigorous life. 

While Capetillo does not enjoy the same international renown as some of her contemporaries —  such as Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman, or even Louise Michel — her work did become a major inspiration to Puerto Rican feminists during the 1970s second-wave project of alternate canon formation. It’s now time for another wave of recognition. Capetillo’s life and work model that of an engaged intellectual, one whose influence on the anarchist, socialist, and labor movements was not concentrated solely in the realms of theory, polemic, and propaganda. She was a worker, a labor leader, a veteran of countless strikes, marches, and demonstrations, and an agitator whose movement work, together with her intellectual trajectory, shaped her as a feminist thinker.  

Capetillo made two unusual choices for a working-class girl in late nineteenth-century Puerto Rico: First, she fell in love with the heir to a landowning fortune, Manuel Ledesma, with whom she had two children and lived out of wedlock for several years. Second, when the relationship broke down due to opposition from Ledesma’s family, Capetillo refused to allow Ledesma to support her, insisting that she would go to work to take care of herself. Later, in a short essay entitled “Thinking of You: For M.L., Arecibo,” Capetillo looks back on her choice with pride and sadness: “My great satisfaction is that I have nothing material of his, I keep only the imperishable memory of the freedom with which I loved him.” After choosing to work, Capetillo began by taking in sewing piecework before becoming a reader in a cigarmaking factory, a profession she would continue to pursue for the rest of her life. Thanks to these readers, who would read a wide range of fictional, nonfictional, and theoretical texts to workers, cigarmakers became conversant not only in popular literature but also in the theoretical debates active within radical political movements. Everywhere cigars were made, including Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Ybor and New York cities, radical unions sprung up.

Capetillo’s writing embodies the concerns of an intellectual who arose organically out of the worker’s movement; her work reflects lived experiences of political and personal struggle. She is less worried about having the right analysis of capitalist oppression or the correct line on some urgent political question than she is in staking out the contrast between the world we inhabit and the world we fight for. During the most intense years of her activism, Capetillo maintained an extraordinary schedule of speaking and organizing engagements. Describing her participation in the 1909 Cruzada del Ideal, a national blitz of the island conducted by the left-wing union Federación Libre de Trabajadores, Capetillo writes: “I had the opportunity to attend and contribute with my modest help to the workers’ talks in Caguas, Juncos, Gurabo, and then go back to San Juan, then to Arecibo to help with the literature for the tobacco union in Utuado, where we remained for a few days and held several meetings.” The content of these meetings was often explosive, sometimes provoking backlash: “I attacked Catholic fanaticism energetically and because of this some rather insolent and impolite broadsheets were published.” Yet the opposition Capetillo faced only hardened her resolve and persuaded her to deepen her analysis beyond the church to the entire political and social infrastructure of gender oppression, which she described as a “bundle of stupid preoccupations for the ill development of women.” In her radical critique of marriage and the family, she drew as much from her own early experience of lost love as from her encounters with patriarchy both within and outside the labor movement.

Capetillo is steeped in the late-nineteenth century tradition of free love — not as a defense of sexual promiscuity, but rather as an assertion that romantic relationships must be actively chosen, and couples’ commitment to one another renewed daily. For Capetillo, legal marriage is a trap designed to keep women in servitude. At the same time, she points out, the burden to remain in the home as a mother and wife is even more complicated for those who labor to sustain the capitalist system: “And the working-class woman who leaves her children at home in order to tend those of the rich, and who works in factories and workshops, doesn’t she jeopardize her home?” While these ideas had currency within more radical anarchist and communalist circles at the time, what distinguishes Capetillo is how she championed left feminism within the workers movement, and the ways in which her own dissatisfaction with her romantic life helped inform her critique. After splitting with Manuel Ledesma, he claimed the children, and his family educated them. Capetillo was prevented from taking an active role in their upbringing, while Luis, another son from a subsequent relationship, remained close to her for the rest of her life). Capetillo’s writing on the role of mothers in childrearing and family care — and the role of women in achieving the revolution — points back to her own life, tracing not only how she sacrificed the traditional comforts of marriage, family, and motherhood to pursue a political path, but also how her views and reputation may ultimately have weakened her bonds with her own children. Capetillo could not be both ideal mother and exemplary revolutionary in a world in which a man and his wealthy family still governed her access to her own children. In her utopian vision of the world, her family’s reunification would be possible alongside the end of class oppression. 

In an essay addressed as a letter to her daughter Manuela, Luisa writes that feminists and socialists are both obligated to fight for a better world: “How can we be silent and go with the flow? … To accept things as they are, without proposing new forms of freedom is cowardice. We have ample means to emancipation offered us by Radical Socialism. Why don’t we use them?” Capetillo’s life and work stands as an example of this imperative. But the fact of Luisa addressing this letter, however publicly, to Manuela, reveals a deeper struggle: while it was possible, if uncommon, for a woman to be a writer, speaker, and labor leader in the radical circles that dominated the Puerto Rican left in the early twentieth century, it was much harder to do so and remain connected to a respectable family and even one’s own children. Beyond the fact that Ledesma insisted on raising Capetillo’s two children as good bourgeois citizens, Capetillo’s reputation as a scandalous figure, a freethinker, and a corrupting influence meant that neither Gregorio nor Manuela chose to follow their mother’s path. 

Capetillo’s story demonstrates the danger posed to anyone who chooses to honor their political commitments in a society that leverages familial ties to keep people quiescent. A whole social world on the left propelled Capetillo to political power and intellectual satisfaction, but in finding a professional and intellectual life worth living, she had to sacrifice her family. She never quite came to terms with this loss, writing in “Thinking of You”: “So here I am with this eternal pain of wanting companionship.… And I tried to nurture new dreams for my soul, new fires for my mind, I tried to dream and seek experiences to alleviate my sad solitude, and… they were erased… I could not fool myself.” For Capetillo, the fight for socialism is the fight for the world she deserved — the world we still deserve — in which all of us are free to love, to dream, to travel, to write, and to nurture sustaining bonds with children, parents, lovers, friends, and, yes, comrades, too. 

Dennis Hogan is a writer, academic, and organizer based in Providence, Rhode Island.