The Double Life of Ernesto Gomez Gomez
Through the Wire
Consider the question of indie filmmakers as freedom fighters. Every now and than, some flagrant injustice will capture the imagination of an auteur who becomes obsessed with setting things right by making a documentary. Does attention from the alternative media help people in dire situations to get out? What happens to them (and their kids) afterward? Americans who decades ago were labeled terrorists, and either incarcerated or hounded out of the country – including Tupac’s auntie – are still making news.
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Imagine a happy, carefree boyhood in Mexico. Now, imagine being told that your mother and your father… aren’t. Instead, they are your adoptive parents. A mental health professional has advised them to reveal only that much, then wait for your questions. Which you don’t ask, because you’re so freaked out already.
Years ago, someone handed over a mystery baby to Gabino and Alma Gomez. They understood it was a political situation. Although no details were supplied, they suspected that the U.S. authorities were interested in your whereabouts. In honor of Che Guevara, they named you Ernesto.
Of course, relatives and friends were curious to know whose baby just showed up one day out of the blue. The simple answer, “He’s ours,” left everyone free to imagine telenovela-inspired scenarios of past indiscretion and spousal forgiveness.
Turns out you’re not Mexican, either, but a Puertoricano whose real name is Guillermo Sebastian Morales Pagan; whose biological father lives in exile in Cuba and whose birth mother is serving a 55 year sentence in an American prison for “seditious conspiracy.”
So goes an indie film called The Double Life of Ernesto Gomez Gomez, which follows the journey of this child of fugitives. “I grew up in Mexico with a beautiful family, being the eldest of four siblings with many uncles, aunts, three wonderful grandparents. I had a beautiful childhood and a normal life until the “truth” was told. I was ten, almost eleven, when I first was told by my parents that I wasn’t their ‘belly borned’ son.”
Ernesto was taken to the States to meet Dylcia Pagan in prison. At age 15, accompanied by a Puerto Rican patriot whose own children were grown, he moved to the US so it would be easier to get to know Dylcia. His guardian introduced him to Berkeley filmmakers Catherine Ryan and Gary Weimberg.
“She knew that we had made political videos, and she called and suggested a meeting,” Weimberg says. “We met for dinner and he enjoyed the evening. He borrowed one of our videos, “Maria’s Story,” produced by Cathy, about an El Salvadoran wife, mother, and revolutionary guerilla leader. The next time we saw him he asked, more out of curiosity than as a demand, ‘Could you make a film that would free my mother from prison?’”
That question resulted in a beautifully crafted documentary that includes historical background on the Puerto Rican independence struggle, and such gleaming side themes as the quietly persistent dedication of friends on the outside who try to ease the privations suffered by prisoners of conscience. There is fascinating and wrenching first-person commentary from the teenage Ernesto himself, exposing the complicated mesh of thoughts and feelings that encircled his young life.
In the late 1970s and early ‘80s the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional may have been responsible for as many as a hundred bombings. (Of course, taking the FBI’s creative bookkeeping into account, this could translate into 20 people charged in each of 5 incidents.) The organization was responsible for the deaths of six people and the permanent wounding of many others. Pagan and several FALN comrades were all apprehended at the same time. Within the system, they comported themselves as prisoners of war, refusing to recognize the jurisdiction of the court, to put up a defense, or to participate in their trials. Still, the government was unable to convict them of bombings or of any crime that injured anyone.
FALN member Alejandrina Torres, arrested in the same year as Ernesto’s father, was a subject of the 1990 documentary Through the Wire (directed by Nina Rosenblum, narrated by Susan Sarandon, and shot by legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler, veteran of his own fierce encounters with federal authorities.) Convicted of several counts, including “seditious conspiracy,” Torres was sentenced to 35 years. And that was the shortest sentence among the Puerto Rican independentists, the longest being 97 years. The average sentence meted out to these separatists was many times longer than the typical murder conviction in the US at the time.
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“Supermax” prison design actually originated in Australia in the 1970s at a facility known informally as the “electronic zoo,” which was soon shut down by pressure from human rights groups. Undaunted by this example, the US penal system adopted the Supermax paradigm for, supposedly, the most ferocious inmates: serial killers, high-profile criminals, prison gang leaders, and those who have assaulted or murdered someone in less secure facilities.
None of the three women in Through the Wire was convicted of violent crime, either in or out of prison. Yet they were labeled “high risk” and singled out for special attention by the injustice system, not so much for their real-world actions as for their perceived wrong-headedness. As Susan Rosenberg said, “What put us in jail in the first place is that we made a commitment to say it’s possible to resist the strongest state in the world.” One of the movement’s slogans is Si, se puede, meaning “Yes, it can be done.”
Rosenberg, formerly of the Revolutionary Action Task Force, was arrested in 1984 and sentenced to 58 years for not the use of, but the mere possession of, explosives. (That’s another interesting bunch of numbers. Whenever her story is retold by law’n’order types, the number of pounds of explosives grows.) Hers was the longest sentence anyone in the United States had ever drawn for a similar charge.
Silvia Baraldini was sentenced to 43 years for aiding in a prison break. The escapee was Black Liberation Army soldier Joanne Chesimard (now called Assata Shakur.) Actually, Baraldini only got 40 years for that, but another three years were tacked on when she refused to tell a grand jury about the Puerto Rican independence movement.
A 1997 stage play, Bombs in the Ladies Room by Megan Rodgers, highlighted the cases of Baraldini and Torres, as well as two German women held in similar circumstances where the object is to get the political prisoners to inform on others and to renounce their deeply-held convictions. Baraldini is again featured in a film called Silvia, made by Margo Pelletier and Lisa Thomas, which was finished recently and is being shown in various venues now. This documentary, six years in the making, was partly financed by foundation grants.
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Through the Wire describes the high-tech high-security “control unit” in the basement of the federal prison at Lexington, Kentucky, where the isolation cells formed an environment specifically designed to break the spirits of dissenters and change their stubborn minds. In fact, these three women were clearly told that conditions would improve if they renounced their political beliefs. If you’ve ever voiced such thoughts as “Our foreign policy sucks,” there may be a similar place reserved for you.
From various sources, a picture is built up of this experimental hellhole’s methods. Sleep deprivation by being awakened every hour. Sensory deprivation in a stark white environment with round-the-clock bright fluorescent lighting and the absence of any natural light. Constant surveillance by male guards, even in toilets and showers, and daily strip searches by male staff, including frequent and unnecessarily brutal cavity searches which, had they occurred anywhere else, would be classified as rape. No books, no pictures on walls, petty humiliations over sanitary napkins and similar personal needs, lack of care for even the most serious medical conditions.
Geographical isolation from families, such that even the few visits allowed caused extreme hardship to the visitors, and harassment of what few family members and lawyers were allowed in. No contact with other prisoners, guards instructed to say nothing beyond the giving of orders, and everything said by the inmates logged in a journal. It is a Kafkaesque world of unrelenting psychological torture, stress, depression, fear, violation, and even physical mistreatment. “You will die here,” the prisoners are told. The only kind of “good behavior” that can earn any points is the renunciation of political beliefs and the giving of information about comrades on the outside.
Through the Wire doesn’t attempt to prove anyone’s innocence, or to say they shouldn’t be in prison. The point is that nobody, but nobody, should be in this particular type of prison, a test lab with human subjects where the authorities studied how much pressure prisoners could withstand before changing their views, admitting their thought-crimes, and renouncing their belief in justice. And, equally important, how much ill-treatment of political prisoners would the public put up with? When people who think about and, yes, even talk about violence are punished worse than many who actually commit violence, would the average American stand up and object?
The isolation of such prisoners is only partly punitive – it is also meant to keep the other inmates from being contaminated by the example they set. “We conduct ourselves with dignity and respect,” says Rosenberg, “and stand up for the other prisoners. They don’t want us in the general prison population.” This is a widespread policy in lockups. Ideological rebels, pacifists, and other dangerous thinkers aren’t allowed to pollute the minds of rapists and murderers.
Of course now, with the revelations of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and myriad forms of torture including electric stun implements, Lexington’s program may seem tame. But in that era, the punishment there was considered sufficiently cruel and unusual to attract the outrage of the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and the Center for Constitutional Rights. From the moment the High Security Unit opened in October of 1986, a number of organizations focused their efforts on closing it.
The Federal District Court in Washington finally ruled that confining inmates to an isolated prison under constant surveillance is a “dangerous mission for this country’s prison system,” as well as unconstitutional, and in 1988, after two infamous years of operation, the Lexington Unit was shut down. At the same time, however, sixteen similar facilities were being created in anticipation of a ruling the following year from the Federal Court of Appeals, which held that a prisoner’s political beliefs and associations are legitimate basis for placement in special “control units,” and that’s not going to change.
When Lexington was immediately replaced by a newer, much larger control unit within Florida’s Marianna prison, Torres, Rosenberg and Baraldini were transferred there. In this place and others like it, each 7 x 12 foot cell has a solid windowless “boxcar” door with a locked food port, and is almost totally soundproofed. The isolation is intense, with every type of human contact reduced to the minimum possible.
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At the time of her trial, Rosenberg’s lawyers pointed out that normally the things she was convicted of would have drawn maybe a five-year term. But she had been an outspoken activist against the Vietnam War and in favor of the freedom struggles of Blacks and Puerto Ricans. So in the system she stayed, until in January of 2001 Bill Clinton commuted her sentence, over vociferous objections from those who insisted that she was an unreformed terrorist. Indeed, the brainwashing hadn’t worked. Someone managed to interview her in the early ‘90s, when she was quoted as talking about “necessity for armed self-defense” in the cause of “revolutionary anti-imperialist resistance.”
Where do people like Rosenberg get their wild ideas? Maybe from Alexander Hamilton, one of those men we call the Founding Fathers. He wrote, “If the representatives of the country betray their constituents, then there is no recourse left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense.” Thomas Jefferson, another Founding Father, also thought it was a good idea for the rulers to be warned occasionally that the spirit of resistance is preserved in the people. “Let them take arms,” he wrote. “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
Once released, back in the world, Susan Rosenberg taught literature at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice in New York, but police officers who were students there objected. She was hired to present a creative writing seminar at Hamilton College, but alumnae donors got wind of it and withdrew hundreds of thousands in contribution pledges, so the gig was cancelled. The controversy got plenty of press well into 2005, and John Jay didn’t renew her contract.
President Clinton also exercised his right of executive clemency in 1999 to release former FALN members Alejandrina Torres and Dylcia Pagan, among others. Filmmaker Gary Weimberg describes how he, Catherine Ryan and Ernesto Gomez went to pick Dylcia up “at the very moment of her freedom after nineteen and a half years in prison – one of the most worthwhile and wonderful moments of my life.”
Bill Clinton did not just arbitrarily decide to issue pardons or commutations to the Puerto Rican nationalists. Nor, still refusing to recognize the right of the United States to hold them, did they request clemency, which is the usual first step. The request, made by their supporters, had been on the table for years, during which the FBI had plenty of time to react, and indeed did its best to insert a monkey wrench into the machinery.
Clinton may have done the right thing, but don’t cheer for him too loudly. This is the same president who in 1996 signed a wicked piece of law called the Prison Litigation Reform Act that severely curtailed the rights of prisoners to challenge brutal conditions by filing suit in federal courts.
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Like Alejandrina Torres, Dylcia Pagan returned to Puerto Rico where she now lives in a house of her own, free from restrictions after a period of parole. Her voice is still heard, saying what it has always said. She wrote about the death in 2005 of Ojeda Rios at the hands of the FBI, a shooting that many feel was no more than an extrajudicial execution. Regarding such matters, Pagan quotes United Nations Resolution 2621, which “affirms the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples under colonial and alien domination recognized as being entitled to the right of self-determination to restore to themselves that right by any means at their disposal.” Sustained by belief in the rightness of her cause, she is currently working on a book about her life.
Ernesto’s bio-father William Morales is a noteworthy revolutionary who in 1977 was severely injured by a bomb he was constructing. Still, he managed to escape from the maximum security area of New York’s Bellevue hospital, elude pursuers, and make it to Cuba, where later on his grown-up son visited him several times. Morales, who married many years ago and also has a 13-year-old son, is still making news. Early this year, students and alumni filed a lawsuit against the City College of New York. They claim their First Amendment rights were violated when a sign, which had been there since 1989, was removed from the door of the Guillermo Morales / Assata Shakur Student and Community Center. Currently, the US government is pressuring Cuba to prove its commitment to democracy by extraditing Morales (specifically named) and others. H.R. 525 has five sponsors and, you can count on this, a significant “or else” factor written between the lines.
Assata Shakur, member of the extended family of Black activists who all adopted the same last name, was best friends with the mother of rapper Tupac Shakur. Although there is a very convincing case that she was framed, Tupac’s godmother is still in Cuba with a million-dollar price on her head, offered by the US Department of Justice. The FBI and the state of New Jersey say she killed a state trooper. (Actually, a real cop-killer can be picked up much more conveniently – his name is Judge John M. Walker, Jr. and he lives in Connecticut.)
The Gomez family who raised Ernesto are still in Chihuahua, working with social movements to improve the lives of their fellow Mexicans with fewer economic opportunities.
And what of Guillermo Sebastian Morales Pagan, aka Ernesto Gomez Gomez? If his life was so complicated already, one can only guess how it changed after the film was released. In the comments section of a PBS website discussing the movie, one entry begins, “Dear Guillermo: By way of this letter, I would like to express my opinion on your life.” Whoa! Who needs it?
But let the man, who has returned to going by the name of the parents who raised him, tell it: “I right now live in Puerto Rico with my girlfriend. I finished college some three and a half years ago. I currently bartend to pay the bills and I’m trying to open a film production company with some Mexican partners. I tend to say my blood is Puerto Rican but my heart is Mexican.”
Ambivalent about the forces and historical events that have shaped his life, Ernesto says, “I feel that many people have turned this whole political prisoners issue into a romantic tale of heroism and sacrifice. And every mistake and wrongdoing, every pain they’ve caused, is supposed to be right and understandable because it was in the name of the struggle for Puerto Rico’s independence. I have learned by my own experience it isn’t like that. I was an innocent victim (and I hate the word victim) of both my biological parents’ decision to join a clandestine armed movement inside the US. Luckily for me, an exceptional family took me in as one of their own. But I was the only one with such luck. Most of the children of the other political prisoners had pretty difficult and, some, even horrible childhoods.”
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How much difference have these films made? Well, exposure has certainly not stopped the building, staffing and filling of institutions as bad as Lexington and worse. There are now two entirely Supermax federal prisons (Florence in Colorado and Marion in Illinois) and 30 others, both federal and state, that have Supermax wings or sections.
Silvia Baraldini served over 16 years in the U.S. prison system before being repatriated to Italy in 1999 to finish her sentence. Did being in two movies influence her fate? Whether it did or not, let’s hope she is better off in her native land, even if incarcerated.
Nearly ten years after Through the Wire, the still-imprisoned Susan Rosenberg was featured on 60 minutes in December of 2000. Did this lead to the commutation of her sentence the following month? One columnist suggests that Bill Clinton was influenced by the TV show. But, given the lengthy process involved in clemency, it’s more likely that the purpose of the show was to prepare the public mind to accept the executive decision that released her.
What about Dylcia Pagan and the other Puerto Rican independentists? “Yes, we were very much part of the seven-year international campaign that lead to the successful petition for clemency,” says Gary Weimberg, who took earlier versions of his film to fund-raisers and other events. Dylcia’s son Ernesto says, ‘The film played, in my opinion, a key role in the whole campaign for their freedom.”
It’s hard to measure just how much difference, in any given case, attention from the alternative media actually made. The increased visibility certainly didn’t hurt the cause. It’s an interesting point to consider, now when the political complexion of America has changed so much that anybody who speaks against the rapacious, murderous government could be picked up and made to disappear. Remember habeus corpus? Our leaders don’t. If something doesn’t change, there won’t be enough indie producers to make movies about all the potential victims of governmental injustice, and besides, all the filmmakers will be there in the Halliburton Hotel along with us.