Interview of Rafael Bueno
by Sabu Kohso and Takashi Sakai
The most challenging squatting organization, Casa Del Sol, is located in the southern tip of Mothaven in the Bronx, where the three waters – the ocean water from Long Island Sounds (in the East), the water of Harlem River (in the West), and the east River (in the South) – meet. However, on November 30th 2004, the NYPD (in cooptation with a housing cooperative ACORN) intervened and forcibly evicted all the members of Casa Del Sol, including the members of the Cherry Tree Association, the native American activists, and young (anarchists) apprentices. Since then, the leader, Rafael Bueno had been living in a shelter in Manhattan, while preparing to challenge the case with the City. On December 29th, there supposed to be a hearing of the judge Patricia Ann Williams at the Bronx County Supreme Court. But it was notified that the entire case was dropped by the City. On that morning, we met Bueno at the court, and conducted an interview with him at a café near-by.
Q=Kohso & Sakai
Q: We would like to know your background as an activist. Would you speak about your background a little if you don’t mind?
B: I was born in Dominican Republic, then moved to Puerto Rico where I spent some time of my adolescence, then came to New York. In Dominican Republic, I came from two powerful families that were somewhat opposing to each other. My great great uncle from my father’s side was the president a few times. My great uncle of mother’s side was influential in the government for some 33 Years. My mother was part of his militia. When the great uncle was murdered by the order of the United States, my family lost the power in the country. The FBI organized this; it hired a group of 15 men who ambushed him and shot him. The guy who killed my uncle became the next president. Though he pretended that he was an ally with my great uncle, he actually plotted the murder. At that time, I had to leave the city and go to the countryside, because of the danger.
Then, in 1965, when I was 14 years old, there was a civil war. One side of my family -- my father side --took arms against the government. My father became one of the commanders of the rebellion. Their goal was to restore a constitutional government of Juan Bosch, a famous writer and respected politician. He had been elected a president in 1963, but was thrown by a coup d’etat six months after the election. The US did not like him and supported the coup. But people started rebellion to restore him in power, of which my father took part. It was just like what is happening in Haiti: people are trying to restore Aristed who has once been ousted.
During the civil war, the US invaded the country with 27, 000 Marines along with a coalition force of the North and South American countries such as Venezuela, Brazil, Canada, and so on. Then there was a ceasefire between the rebels and the government; an agreement was made among two sides as well as the coalition force that anybody (especially in the rebel side) who would want to leave the country could go to any country among those that signed the agreement. My father eventually came to the US. This happened when I was 14.
Because of the lineage, my mother thought that it would be better off for me to leave the country. In 1969 when I was 16, though I didn’t want to leave my home, I went to Puerto Rico with my mother. There I was to join the Puerto Rican nationalist independence movement. One day I met a woman in a bus, who told me about Juan Antonio Corretjer. This man with the Basque name was one of the most important poets in Puerto Rico and a leader of the independence movement. He became my teacher, especially for politics. I was a little like a young prince from Dominican Republic, but became his bodyguard and learned a lot from him. He was the number one enemy of the US in Puerto Rico. He was jailed for 22 years in his life. He was in Russia, China, and everywhere. By that time, he was struggling in court. He was accused of starting an armed rebellion for the independence of Puerto Rico. Under his influence, I became a member of his party and an organizer.
Meanwhile, however, I had to confront a kind of discrimination from Puerto Ricans against a foreigner like myself. You who don’t speak Spanish may not notice, but my accent is of Dominican, even though I didn’t look like Dominican. So in 1972, I decided to organize our own group, a group of Dominicans in Puerto Rico, called La Tribu, meaning the Tribe. This was a study group; we read Marx’s Capital and so on, but also sought to organize construction workers.
Then FBI began to come after La Tribu. I was like 20 years old. FBI came to my house. I was not there, but my mother was. She was a strong warrior woman. She asked the FBI if they had an order of my arrest. They said no, but showed her a paper, which she thought was a draft to Vietnam War that I had refused previously. They did not come for that reason. But my mother told them that her son would never go to war for them. They had to be prepared. They had to kill her before taking me to war. They left, but came to my working place to scare me. They were after me because I was part of the Puerto Rican independence movement and La Tribu. In any case, however, as the discrimination reached the point of being intolerable, we decided to come to New York in January of 1973.
Q: It has already been a dramatic story. It is also interesting in telling the situations of the Central America in the 1960s. How did you come to be involved in squatters’ movement in New York?
B: First I tried to live in Brooklyn where my father had a building. But he didn’t like that I wanted to live with my friends, so we moved to New Jersey. In New Jersey, one day I went to buy a bed, and the owner told me that I was in a wrong store. I said that I had money, but the owner told me to get out. Another day, I went to a bar after work, and they said that they would not serve people like me there. That was the typical atmosphere in 1970s’ New Jersey white neighborhood.
Then I decided to come to Manhattan. I began working with the squatters’ on Amsterdam Avenue and 112th Street. From 1974 to 1979, I organized many squatting buildings in that area: those on 105th, 108th and so on. Now all of those buildings are owned by the squatters. One of them is now a low-income coop owned by the original squatters. Then, in 1979, I moved to the Lower East side, and started the movement therein. In 1983, I went back to Puerto Rico for a year. And when I came back from Puerto Rico, I saw more homeless people than ever in NYC, so I began to take on housing movement again. That was when we began a big squatter offensive; we took many unused buildings throughout the city, centered in the Lower East Side. Then came the famous Tomkins Square Park affair. That was approximately between 1984 and 1990 when the park was taken by the City. We organized about 500 homeless people living in Tomkins Square Park.
Q: How did you organize the people?
B: To organize people means to bring people with different orientations together. In this context, we had to organize homeless people, squatters, punks, artists, tenants, and the gardeners -- I mean the community garden activists. Because we succeeded in bringing them together, we could create a scene. We had a meeting every Sunday. The gardeners were crucial that they took care of the park space. We had soup kitchen. We had a crew to bring safety to the park, and so on (…).
What was problematic was that the homeless people were segregated sometimes according to their habits: we made territorial divisions among those who did heroin, those who did marijuana, and those who did alcohol, so that they would not fight against one another. We chose representatives of each group and organized meetings among them. We sought to make a park running as a sort of symbiotic space. In this way the park was able to keep on going for three years. This was roughly between 1988 (when we took the park) to 1991. When the City intervened, however, it destroyed this cohabitation and kicked us all out, and put the fences all over.
Q: Did you have a name for the organizing group?
B: The group had no name, so it could not be traced back. But we had Sunday meetings to hear grievances from different groups. We discussed the solutions together. The biggest conflict with the city was about the right to have a bonfire in the park, especially in winter. One night a man was sleeping with fire. The police came and extinguished the fire, killing the man. We organized a big protest and brought the matter to the federal court. We insisted on the right to keep fire. In the meantime, every night we had to confront with the police who came to extinguish fire. One night the police and us, we pulled the metal barrel with bonfire which was very hot; we won. In the court as well, it ordered the police not to extinguish the fire. We won the right to have fire. It was a very important right for us. To me the importance lies not only in its life saving function but also the fact that it comes from the Native American culture. I identify myself as a fire keeper in this sense. All the fire was kept according to my specification on the park. Tending the fire was my role. As part of the role, we went to court.
So all the organizing in Tompkins Square was backstage. The city did not know our existence. We organized the Sunday meetings, inviting the leaders of different homeless peoples there. It was difficult to predict where the things would move. The representatives came and said many things, but it was extremely difficult to know how to implement their claims. In any case, whatever we agreed, we sought to follow. That was how the Tompkins Square symbiosis was kept. And when the riot happened, the City came to see who organized the riot, but there was nobody to blame. From the front stage, there were also leaders, but they didn’t last very long. Unfortunately most of them died, some by AIDS, TB, and so on. Some of the members of the Cherry Tree Association, the NPO for community garden making, that backs Casa Del Sol, were the organizers.
Q: We have just learned how things worked out in the park, and how the gardeners played a crucial role. Furthermore, you mentioned about the Native American implication of the bonfire. Do you identify yourself as a Native American activist as well?
B: Yes. Definitely. By 1991, I decided to be part of the Native American movement, the one called the 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance. We formed the 500 Years Committee. 1992 was to be the 500th year anniversary since Columbus’ arrival. Beginning from Guatemala, the native people began to organize a movement that opposed the celebration. The Declaration of Xelaju (a native town in Guatemala) was proclaimed in the name of all the native people in America from the northern tip of Alaska to the southern tip of Chile, to resist the celebration. We organized a congress of all the Native Americans to meet and talk about the 500 year anniversary. We decided to oppose the celebration, with the slogan: “Do not celebrate the genocide!” Our point was that one could commemorate but not celebrate it.
In NYC I became one of the leaders of the movement. And Carlos Eden, who is the UN representative of Kawesquar people from Chile and a member of the Cherry Tree Association, became the president of the movement. But in every meeting, there were big fights, so we realized that there were infiltrators who were causing the troubles. Then we decided to divide the committee into two: one that went to the United Nations and one that organized the community. This division was also to confront the government power.
Q: Around that time, were you already working on the Casa Del Sol Future City Project?
B: Not quite. Nonetheless I had already been in the building in the Bronx as a tenant since 1987. I was organizing in the Lower east Side, while living in the Bronx. The building of Casa Del Sol was inhabited mostly by artists-squatters.
In 1992, there was another continental encounter like Xelaju, but this time in Nicaragua. This was the second event in the context of 500 years movement. I went there. There were 270 representatives from 36 countries, besides hundreds of supporters and volunteers. There I was appointed one of the fifteen members of the Continental Indigenous Commission that would carry on the struggle after the year 1992.
On October 12th in 1992 in New York, we organized a big event involving both political and cultural affairs. There were music concerts, art show, film screening, and a big demonstration at Columbus Circle. Thereafter every May, there has been a meeting of the indigenous people at the United Nations, and we have had a meeting at Casa Del Sol where some of the representatives have stayed. That was the way we started Casa Del Sol in 1995. In the beginning, I had only three apartments at the building, but gradually expanded. Then people from all over the continent – from Alaska, from Central America like Ecuador and Bolivia -- have stayed. In fact it was by the indigenous committee, the International Mayan League that I was appointed to start Casa Del Sol. Or more precisely, I was ordained as a leader, along with a woman called Flor del Valle who lives in Brooklyn now. I was ordained as a secular leader and she as a spiritual leader of Casa Del Sol. And we developed it into a whole building.
Q: We did not know that background at all. We came to know Casa Del Sol since young anarchists had begun to stay and work there after the counter Republican National Convention in the summer of 2004 – the time when you were even jailed because you had them stay. The connection between the young anarchists and the Native American movement is very inspiring. But how have you been protecting the Casa Del Sol Future City Project against the city’s expulsion order?
B: In 1998, the City intervened to throw everybody out from Casa Del Sol. They came twice -- once with helicopters, five armored trucks, and many snipers; they shut down the whole high ways around it. But they did not understand what we were really thinking. According to the adversary possession law, the more resources they disturb the better for us. The more resources the government uses to remove you the better for you. So we sought to have the city mobilize as many resources as they could. Also more media attention, more cost, more seriousness the better. While they could remove us with five policemen technically, we challenged to have them mobilize five hundred. That was an old guerrilla tactic. You attack your enemy with five guerrillas and make them chase you with five hundred. So while only five of us were in the building, they brought five hundred troops.
In consequence, we were kicked out, but began to challenge in the court and went back into the building five days later. We told the captain of the police that we would come back to the building tomorrow, and if you were not there to protect it we would take our property back. They did not come back. They could not come to us as easily as before thanks to the court case.
Q: The adverse possession seems to be very important part of your entire thought. It seems that you know how to use it as a weapon more than anyone. Would you explain about your own interpretation of it?
B: I would like to tell you where it came from. My interpretation involves its long history. The concept was first established in the ancient cord of Hammurabi from Persia. It passed to the Greek since the languages shared the same Sanskrit root. Then when the Romans expanded its empire, the Greek passed it to the Romans. When the English became the empire, it was passed to the English. Then the English brought it here in America.
The Roman Empire contained various people, including non-Romans, who had their relative independency from the Romans. The empire devised two different laws, one for the Romans and that for the non-Romans. The latter was called “the law of nations.” That is now called the common law, meaning the law common to all nations. The adverse possession was part of the common law. It was devised by the Romans in corporation with the nations. In the empire, a lot of German came down and took the land like squatters and began farming. There was the time when they were producing most of the food that the Roman people were consuming. So their existence and use of land were indispensable. In this situation the only way to deal with the issue of landownership was the adverse possession. The German farmers needed the title of land, and the Romans gave it as the adverse possession. When the Romans conquered the England, they posed the same cord of law. And when the English came here, they brought the cord of law. That was it.
The adversary possession means that you have the title, but you don’t possess the land. It also indicates the situation that people who do not have the title possess the land. This situation has continued. One side possesses the inherited land, while the other side has the title to produce things there. So we have to go to court. The law is functional to keep the land productive instead of keeping it empty. It is a good economic policy. Otherwise you see all the abandoned buildings while many homeless people on the street. That is why the law is important.
Q: But it seems to us that what you are aiming at with this law is not limited to the general economic flourish.
B: Another crucial objective of employing the adverse possession is to find the way for the native people to recover their land legally. The task of Casa Del Sol is to show the precedent of reclaiming the land peacefully. In passing, there is a point in which various prophecies of the native people, especially Mayan and Hopi, converge that one day we could regain our land peacefully. And in a sense, I am to fulfill the prophecy. In the past whenever prophets appeared among the native people, they were murdered, because they all rose arms. For instance, Geronimo. He was not a prophet himself, but was empowered by the prophets to lead the rebellion in the North America. To us Che Guevara was the last prophet. But we should no longer take arms. Now we should begin a civil rebellion.
Perhaps our new strategy would be to take over the artery of the society, through which all the nourishment is delivered. We are going to seize Manhattan, the heart of the American society (while the brain is Washington). We close the blood, the traffic, that goes to Manhattan. We shut down the society. The Wall Street has to be closed, and the market will go down (…). But all these should be done in non-violent ways. We cannot take the land back by violence; we cannot take our sovereignty back by violence or killing anyone. We say that the land is not worth a drip of blood of somebody else. The only way to take the land is by showing a peaceful example.
What we have been doing in Casa Del Sol has been a peaceful example of building a future city: energy self-sufficient building where we need no oil, we need to borrow nothing. We are going to give an example to the Europeans who took our land, that we need to pass from the age of combustion to the age of electronic by the energy developed from chemical power -- from hydrogen to solar power. We were building Casa Del Sol as a peaceful example to the Europeans. As you have seen, however, the government had no respect in what we have been doing. But it cannot take it illegally from us. And it knew it could not. It knew it would lose in the court battle. That was why it sought to do away with trial. That was why the judge dropped the entire case with us today. By doing so, she gave me more power. While it tried to bury the case itself, I would go to the federal court and raise our right to trial. They won’t be able to escape from us.
Q: What is your prospect in the court battle?
B: This is our goal: because they took our place illegally, they will have to pay three times of what we have lost. Gods have blessed us by what happened. Because we are going to be paid three times of whatever they took from us. It is not a defeat. That is the way of an intelligent battle. We are finally going to get money that we have always needed to build the place. In November 1st of the last year, we did not have enough money to pay our expenses, but now there is a possibility. So we should feel happy in the way that things are going. We are going to get the land back and the money to do what we wanted to do. We need 10 million dollars to advance Casa Del Sol. And we are going to get more money than that. I am going to ask 500 millions in the court. Although most of the cases in NY, people would want to set the case outside the court, we will go to the jury trial, to the people. And the people are going to rule.
Personally I am also freer now: I can go anywhere I want to go. Before I always had to tend Casa Del Sol. I am enjoying my freedom right now. I went to welfare, so they have to give me money every month. They have to give me food stamps and transportation fees. I am living in a shelter now. There is a curfew between 9:00 and 10:00. But that is OK, because I don’t want to stay out late anyway. The only bad thing is that they are keeping my files in Casa Del Sol. But even that, since I don’t have a place to put them, is OK. They are storing them for me. (Laughs)
Q: (Laughs) That is amazing power of thought on your part! But how are the young people who have been kicked out doing now?
B: These kids do not think the way I do. Some went back to their parents; others are staying here in the city with friends and so on. I told them that I had a secret weapon, that is, the mind. When you connect your mind with infinite possibilities, you would know everything. Everything you ask, you would get an answer. How could you defeat your enemy like the US government that has everything? That is by letting them do wrong things to you. Then they have to pay you back.
When the housing cooperative, ACORN, came after us at Casa Del Sol, that was, December 12th of 2003, I was in fact finishing a chapter of my writing concerning metaphysics. I had to stop it to fight. They came with the city to take over the building, claming that we were there illegally. They came every week and broke the locks, and every time we had to renew them. Since then, my mind had to be focused on fighting against them. They even threatened my life by sending a thug. But in the culture of Native American, my spirit is jaguar, which comes out whenever people threaten me. I somehow could stop their violence. For that matter, I had various confrontations with the police. Whenever that happened, I sent many policemen to hospital. When I am in danger, I am in a state of mind where I do not feel anything and can coop with various threats. Maybe some chemical comes out.
Jaguar is our holy animal. My title as a priest in Mayan is Chilan Balan, meaning talking Jaguar. Chilan Balan also means priest or the title of a collection of books of prophecy written before the Europeans had come. The books of Chilan Balan, the prophecy that the Native People would get their land back -- that is my tradition itself.
Q: Sorry if we offend you, but the story reminds us a little of Carlos Castaneda’s Teaching of Don Juan. (Laughs)
B: (Laughs) Oh, the story of Yaki sorcerer. Yaki people went to the Maya land, and as a result, they became the last ruler of the association of the Mayan city-states. Our society consisted of various city-states. That was what we called the Maya League. Yaki priest became the last ruler of the Maya league, when the Spaniard came. Columbus dissolved the league by persecuting the people. Then, in the late 20th century we started the new league, the international Maya League. Based in Guatemala, it has begun to unite all the native people who tend to be separated.
Q: What would you think of the ownership of the land in America? Since we all know what the Europeans did in this land, nobody can claim the ownership any longer ethically. Also, as you stressed elsewhere, the Declaration of Independence claims that it is supposed to be for the entire humanity.
B: From the beginning, what the Europeans did was illegal. In counter to that, however, we would not claim the possession of land; instead we claim the sovereignty of the land. We reclaim the sovereignty over the land. We are the sovereign. When we met in Guatemala and Nicaragua, we reaffirmed our claim of all the islands, all the continents, of the land called America. But this is not the ownership.
Q: So what was Manhattan for the Natives before the Europeans came? In the Casa Del Sol Future City Project, would you try to restore the way it used to be, in some sense?
B: Manhattan was the trading post between the north and the south on the Atlantic Sea. When the native people traveled by sea, all the way to the other end of the continent, they stopped by at Manhattan and traded with those from other parts of the continent. When the Dutch came, they discovered that it was a great trading place and began to trade with the natives. Then Manhattan became the trading place between the Europeans and the natives as well. They traded everything: corn seed, tobacco, leather, skin, and everything. While the Europeans saw that it was just an island, it was actually used by the natives in various ways. Here in Bronx, there is a place called the Fort Square, which people think was European fort from the onset, but was originally a native’s fort. The European just succeeded it as a fort.
The natives in this area called Siwanoy were mainly fishermen; they were not warriors. They grew tobacco and corn, and did fishing and hunting. They traded fish, dried fish, dried clams, and pelt (which the Europeans themselves began to get); people ate a lot of oysters and dried them in the sun and traded them. But the people who defended the land were Mohawk; they were warriors. They were the ones who built the fort.
Manhattan was an ideal location for trading; it was safe for all the nations to come and rich in natural products. Then the Europeans came and took over not only the land but also the uses of it. Tobacco came to be grown in the north, but originally came from the Caribbean. It came with the trade. Corn, that was invented by Mayans, was brought here and spread all over the world. The native people who came from the north and wished to go to Manhattan used to cross the river by walking exactly where Casa Del Sol is now, because the water there is what is called fluvial channel – when the tide is low, it becomes marsh. That was why people could get shellfish there.
By the way, the first European who came in the area of Casa Del Sol around 1639 was Jonas Bronck, a Swedish man, who traded with Siwanoy people. He lived very near from Casa Del Sol. He had the greatest library in the North America at that time. He got a 600 acres land deal with Siwanoy people, who gave him permission to farm there. The land of Casa Del Sol was part of this land. In fact he lived just two blocks away from casa Del Sol. He cherished the solidarity with the native people rather than with the Dutch. In consequence he was murdered, possibly by the Dutch or the English. We call him a just man. Do you know that the Bronx emblem, indicating “accept no evil,” was originally Jonas Brook’s ship flag? I have the feeling that he was really a Jewish, but nobody knows the fact.
But now, I have to go to the next meeting.
Q: Now we are able to see how the local squatters’ movement is connected to the movement of the entire American continent. Thank you so much.