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Luisa Capetillo: Feminism and Labor In Puerto Rico

Luisa Capetillo wearing men’s clothing, circa 1919.

In 1915, Luisa Capetillo strolled the streets of Havana as the first Puerto Rican woman ever to wear pants in public. She was shortly stopped and arrested for “causing a scandal.” News outlets of the time reported that Luisa Capetillo petitioned ardently in her own defense. They quoted her as saying “Your Honor, I always wear pants,” and lifting her dress slightly, showing a pair of loose white pants that almost reached her ankles. She continued, “And on the night in question, instead of wearing them underneath, I wore them just like men do, based on my perfect civil right to do so, on the outside.” The judge agreed and dropped all charges against Capetillo. But her commitment to defy traditional social mores extended far beyond her fashion choices.

Luisa Capetillo was born on October 28, 1879 in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Her French immigrant mother did domestic work, and her father, from the Basque country of Spain, worked as a laborer. Capetillo’s parents, who never married, devoted their time to homeschooling their daughter and providing her with a liberal education infused with the ideological influences of both the French Revolution and the workers’ rights movement in Northern Spain. The anarchist philosophy which Capetillo embraced eventually inspired her act when she began working as a reader in the Arecibo tobacco factories. While in this position, Capetillo got into contact with leaders of the labor movement, specifically the Federación de Torcedores de Tabaco (Federation of Tobacco Rollers) and the Federación Libre de Trabajadores de Puerto Rico (Free Libertarian Federation of Puerto Rican Workers).

After launching herself as a labor organizer at an agricultural worker’s strike in 1905, Capetillo became a prominent union leader who passionately petitioned for workers’ rights. In addition to organizing laborers and publishing union literature, Capetillo worked with the Federación Libre de Trabajadores to advocate for women’s suffrage. In 1909, Capetillo wrote and published a book titled Mi opinión sobre las libertades, derechos y deberes de la mujer (My opinion about the rights, liberties, and responsibilities of women) that included a critique on the subordinate condition of women and promoted equal education for all. Its radical ideas, which included a belief in “free love,” brought the first feminist thesis written in Puerto Rico wide acclaim.

Of the many strikes Capetillo organized and participated in, the Sugar Strike of 1916 is the most well-known. That year, more than 40,000 sugar industrial workers protested for five months, making it one of the largest strikes in Puerto Rico’s history. It not only resulted in a national salary increase for laborers but also created a lasting legacy within history of economic development and political organizing in Puerto Rico. During another strike during which Capetillo (still dressed in pants) directed marchers on horseback, she fell into police custody and went to jail on the charge of inciting a riot. In spite of the constant harassment Capetillo faced as both a labor organizer and an early feminist, the significance of her activism can best be described in her own words: “Oh woman! You will set a great and dignified example by breaking all traditional customs, which are unjust and tyrannical, the symbols of ignorance, in order to establish the realm of Freedom, Equality, and Fraternity, symbols of truth and justice!”

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