A keen sense of the struggle

September 27, 2010

Brian Erway remembers the life of a comrade and friend taken from us too soon.

ON SEPTEMBER 20, a car accident tragically took the life of our friend and comrade, Roberto Resto. On his way to an early-morning doctor's appointment, Roberto lost control of his car and crashed into a tree. It was his 60th birthday.

Everyone who knew Roberto--and now I know that's a vaster number than I had ever imagined--faced, on hearing the news, not only the sharp sense of loss, but also a feeling of total surprise.

For Roberto suffered from--and carried on every day in spite of--manifold and overlapping afflictions: diabetes, heart surgery, Agent Orange exposure. He met them all with a stubborn cheerfulness and determination--and that also characterized his political work, through the course of an eventful lifetime that touched an amazing number of people.

Roberto did all this while at the same time raising and doting on his family. Surviving him are his wife Iris Rivera, along with five children, nine grandchildren and one great granddaughter. We were lucky to have shared with them a portion of Roberto's energy and enthusiasm.

Roberto Resto
Roberto Resto (Al Brundage | Rochester Against War)

BORN IN Puerto Rico, Roberto had lived in Rochester, N.Y., for about five years when we met in the course of protests against the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. He quickly joined the ISO and became a featured speaker in the early rallies and teach-ins against the war. He was a disabled veteran, wounded by a mine as a marine in Vietnam. On the podium, he employed his moral authority to great effect, driving home his message of ardent anti-imperialism, delivered in such a direct and unassuming way that no one dared challenge him.

Roberto already had considerable political experience prior to meeting us in the Rochester ISO. After leaving the military in 1970, he studied first in New Jersey, then obtained a degree in sociology from the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico.

He was a participant in the protracted struggles of more than 300 families who made up "Villa sin miedo" (village without fear), a land-rescue community (comunidad de rescadadores de terreno). The families established a camp on unused land outside of San Juan and tried to set up permanent residences. But the government treated them as illegal squatters and, in 1980, sent in 500 police to storm the makeshift village and demolish the homes.

With the initial leaders of the movement in jail, Roberto stepped forward to help organize a campaign of resistance that eventually forced the Puerto Rican government's hand, compelling it to grant the families another parcel of land where they could settle. The Villa Sin Miedo, re-built, stands on this parcel to this day.

One of Roberto's most engaging qualities was the way he communicated a keen sense of the dignity and worth of ordinary working people, in everything he did. As he recounted years later in an interview at Villa Sin Miedo, "Poor people and colonized people need to free themselves from chains of subordination and develop an awareness of their own powers. The people here are beginning to speak up, make their own rule and regulations, govern themselves."

Wherever he was, Roberto appeared in the thick of struggles for social justice. If he happened to be visiting Puerto Rico, he would turn up at a blockade over the U.S. Navy's bombardment of Vieques--or, as he did last May, at the student occupation of the University of Puerto Rico campuses.

During the wonderful spring of 2006, with its huge and unprecedented marches for immigrant rights, Roberto was key to organizing two separate Rochester demonstrations a month apart, each one drawing some 800 people. Out of these mobilizations, he helped found the Rochester Alliance for Immigrant Rights, a group that carried on organizing against the daily repression by Border Patrol and ICE agents.

Not all of Roberto's demos were large. To him, the size was of little concern when a matter of principle was at stake--like our support for the struggle against U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico.

Thus, he organized Rochester's protest at the Federal Building following the FBI's assassination of Puerto Rican nationalist leader Filiberto Ojeda Ríos in September 2005. Even though only a handful responded to the call and the rally program was no more than Roberto's monologue into the bullhorn, we all counted it as a success, and exulted a bit in having faced down the ridiculous number of cops assigned to protect the building from us.

It was Roberto's talent to be able to reach out and work with practically anybody else--though he was quick to spot a phony. He could be blunt to the point of discomfort, but he commanded people's respect, by being completely friendly and open and unassuming.

He was a political omnivore whose feeding habits placed him at the intersection of numerous causes and actions. Beyond his longstanding work in antiwar efforts, immigrant rights and Puerto Rican liberation, he was a presence at demonstrations for Palestine solidarity, LGBT rights, anti-police repression and solidarity with the Mott's strike, to name a few.

I guess what I treasure most in thinking of Roberto is how much he obviously enjoyed being a socialist--enmeshed in a set of politics and struggles whose goal is the self-emancipation of the vast majority. He took seriously the need to train himself politically, and he was constantly trying out the lessons from whatever Marxist classic he happened to be reading, injecting them into whatever topic was under discussion whenever he thought appropriate. Sometimes, these trials succeeded surprisingly well.

But whatever their success, Roberto saw himself entirely at home in the ISO, among a much younger, largely student crowd. He occasionally reminded me: "In this group, I feel the same as everybody. It keeps me young."

He had plans for staying healthy in order to be ready for the struggles he could see shaping up on the horizon. He described for me a minor triumph at managing to catch up on his International Socialist Review reading while walking on his treadmill.

Right now, we are all feeling an abrupt sense of loss that such a solid rock as Roberto is gone. His example as a comrade, a friend, a father and grandfather will live on with us and prove to be just as solid.

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