Luisa Capetillo Is The Fascinating Puerto Rican Labor Leader Who Wore Pants Before Frida Did
Long before the argument about whether or not leggings are pants, there was another argument: should women be allowed to wear pants? Throughout history, women have long been judged – and even arrested – for what they choose or choose not to wear, but few know the outrage and chaos created by Luisa Capetillo, the Puerto Rican labor organizer who fought for women’s rights and the liberation of Puerto Rico.
Here’s a look at most interesting facts and accomplishments about this mujer fuerte.
Luis and Luisa, parents of Luisa
Capetillo was raised by fairly independent-minded parents who insisted she was educated at home. Her mother, Luisa Margarita Perone, was a Corsican immigrant of French descent who deeply believed women should live as equals alongside men and have control of their bodies and lifestyles. Perone strongly rejected the idea that women should have to marry and abandon their goals and political ideals to marry and raise children.
Reading beccame a big part of her passion.
Luisa’s father, Luis Capetillo Echevarría, passed on to his daughter the love of reading.
With her father’s guidance, Luisa became an avid reader and developed her ideas of anarchism and romanticism from the literature she loved.
With her father’s guidance, Luisa became an avid reader and developed her ideas of anarchism and romanticism from the literature she loved. Luisa was fascinated with Leo Tolstoy, Victor Hugo, and Emile Zola. Luisa’s future as a writer and revolutionary was firmly grounded in the books her father incited her to read.
A Single Mother
When Luisa was 19, she fell in love with a young man named Manuel Ledesma. She and Ledesma would have two children before ending their relationship, never marrying. This was no era to be a single mother, much less one who had a child out of wedlock. Capetillo would leave her children in the care of her mother before joining the workforce at a cigar factory.
This would be her first encounter with labor unions and a vital part of her radicalization.
During this time, some factory workers were accompanied by live readings of written works to help the time pass. At the cigar factory, Capetillo worked as a reader.
Luisa read literary works and political essays voted on by the workers each day.
The workers would openly have lively discussions and debates while they stemmed the tobacco leaves and rolled the cigars. It was the perfect job for someone like Luisa who loved reading.
It was at the cigar factory that Luisa met and joined the Federation of Tobacco Rollers, an affiliated union of the Regional Federation of Workers. Later the union was known as the FLT – the Federacion Libre de Trabajadores, or the Free Federation of Workers.
By 1905, Luisa was writing for radical and union newspapers.
She moved on to writing propaganda for organizing workers for farmworkers strikes. Her work was so successful she soon became a leader in the union, and after traveling across the country educating other workers, her hometown of Arecibo became the most unionized place in Puerto Rico.
The First Puerto Rican Suffragist
In 1908, Luisa urged the Federacion Libre de Trabajadores to include women’s suffrage in their list of causes. Her vision was that women’s rights would include working and poor women, not just the rich or privileged and that it be considered an integral part of the workers’ rights movement.
It was during this time that Luisa began what she would call la Cruzada del Ideal – the Crusade of the Ideal.
She and other union members traveled by foot, on horseback, and by train across the country to educate and organize workers. Luisa launched her own newspaper, La Mujer, and released a collection of essays, Ensayos Libertarios.
Luisa continued writing and published her new book, Mi opinion sobre las libertades, derechos y deberes de la mujer, which is considered the first feminist thesis written in Puerto Rico.
The book, which translates to My opinion about the liberties, rights and responsibilities of women, covered ideas far ahead of her time, like free love, universal and no-cost education, and more.
The book, which translates to My opinion about the liberties, rights and responsibilities of women, covered ideas far ahead of her time, like free love, universal and no-cost education, and more. Some were incensed by her idea surrounding free love, misinterpreting it as a call for promiscuity and recklessness. Instead, her ideas would later be recognized for what they were: the idea that men did not need to legally own women through the binding legal contract of marriage as it was commonly known at the time. This is also when Luisa would start wearing pants in public.
The International Anarchist
Luisa traveled to the United States, stopping in New York to organize with Cuban and Puerto Rican tobacco workers. She began writing for radical and anarchist newspapers of the time and eventually moved to Tampa, Florida. Again, she worked as a reader at a tobacco factory there. Florida proved a great springboard for travel to Cuba, where she could join forces with the Federacion Anarquista de Cuba as they organized strikes with sugar cane workers. When her work advocated direct action – if need be by uprising – she was arrested on the grounds of her clothes choice.
Luisa was brave and challenged the courts, pointing out that there was no official law on the books prohibiting women from wearing men’s clothing.
The judge dropped her charges and let her go, but the news was already making international headlines. She would go back to Puerto Rico after this.
The Sugar Cane Struggle
When Luisa returned to Puerto Rico, she joined several different strike campaigns, notably the major Sugar Cane Strike of 1916. Historians say over 40,000 workers in 32 different municipalities joined the strike. This unprecedented turnout led to a staggering victory for workers, who saw an average salary increase of thirteen percent.
Luisa saw her success as a chance to continue traveling, and she later launched a guest house and cafe in New York City, where she frequently traveled to.
The few years after 1916 when they won were largely considered the most intense in terms of workers rights organizing during the period. Later in 1919, Luisa along with other labor activists helped pass a minimum-wage law in the Puerto Rican Legislature.
Luisa ultimately succumbed to tuberculous and died in 1922 at the age of 42. Historical accounts say she was vivacious and active almost until the day she dropped dead, fighting for workers rights and the emancipation of women.
Her burial site is at a special place.
She was buried in the Municipal Cemetery of Arecibo and many years would pass before her legacy would be rediscovered by historians and activists.
Nearly a century after her death, Luisa’s life and work were finally honored publicly by Puerto Rico. The Legislative Assembly of the country honored 12 women with plaques in La Plaza de Honor de la Mujer Puertorriqueña in San Juan. Luisa Capetillo was one of the select 12 honored women who are listed as having their merits and legacies stand out in Puerto Rican history.
In 1990, The University of Puerto Rico, Cayey Campus unveiled the Luisa Capetillo Center of Documentation Hall.
The Women Studies program uses the center, which was built with the help from the Ángel Ramos Foundation.
In 1990, a made-for-TV movie on Luisa’s life, Luisa Capetillo, pasión de justicia, aired in Latin America.
It was officially shown in 1995 at the Mar De Plata Film Festival in 1995. Her story was also turned into a stage play.
Her legacy lives on.
Today, in her hometown of Arecibo, a house named Casa Protegida Luisa Capetillo is home to a nonprofit organization that serves and protects women survivors of mental and physical abuse.
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