Luisa Capetillo was one of Puerto Rico’s most recognized labor organizers and women’s rights activists. A woman beyond her time, she was a writer, a feminist, a labor leader and an anarchist, who struggled not only to bring change to the emrging labor movement in Puerto Rico, but also as a woman who worked to provide more room in a heavily male-dominated society.
Born in 1879, in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Capetillo would be raised in a politically and philosophically liberal household by her parents, Luis Capetillo Echevarria and Luisa Margarita Perone. They home schooled Luisa, as education options at the time were rare for young women. The Capetillos’ early influence on Luisa’s life would remain a constant presence in her later work, whether in her views of marriage (much like her parents, she remained unmarried), her rejection of Catholicism, and her views of labor rights.
When she was 19, she met Manuel Ledesma, a prominent man from a well-to-do family in Arecibo. The two quickly became involved and in 1898, Lusia gave birth to their first child, Manuela. Two years later, their next son, Gregorio was born. Shortly after Gregorio’s birth, Luisa and Manuel’s relationship ended, leaving Luisa as a single parent.
Luisa left her two young sons in the care of her family and found a job in one of the many tobacco factories in Arecibo. At the time, The American Tobacco Company had gained the majority of control of the island’s tobacco fields, mainly due to the Spanish-American War. While both the war and the fall of the Spanish monarchy had spurred social and economic change, most factories that employed locals still implemented the feudal system, a similar labor system to that of post-Civil War America’s sharecropping. This system would continue, as voting was only allowed to those who held property and paid taxes, often leaving many unpaid and isolated.
Her first contact with the labor movement would be during her time as a reader in the factories. She happened to meet members of La Federacion de Tabaco, a smaller affiliation of La Federacion Libre de Trabajadores. Both organizations were formed during the U.S. occupation of Puerto Rico. It was here that Capetillo would begin to write essays titled Mi Opinion, for the organization’s union run newspapers. She began doing more groundwork for the FLT and, in 1905, helped organize a farmer’s strike by organizing workers and writing slogans for their strike. Her work quickly became more and more noticed, and she became a union leader, making her living from selling the union newsletter and travelling through Puerto Rico to help organize and educate workers on their rights. Her own hometown became one of the most successfully unionized places in Puerto Rico due to her efforts.
Her position began leaning more towards women’s union and labor rights. While supportive and working towards the goal of union and labor rights for all workers, she had experienced deep-seated struggles with misogyny and patriarchal men in the movement. She began challenging her own union members to support women’s rights. In 1908, at one of the FLT’s conventions, she strongly urged the union to adopt policies that were fair to women and accepted their own struggles. She insisted that the organization should not just be fighting for the right of men who did not own property or pay taxes to be able to vote, but women as well.
In 1909, her essays and articles that had been published in the union paper for years,were tuned into a book entitled , Mi Opinion Sobre las Libertades,Derachos y Deberes de la Mujer (My Opinion About The Liberties, Rights and Responsibilities of Women) , one of the first recognized manifesto’s by a Puerto Rican woman. Her words were a great inspiration to the newly emerging feminist movement in Puerto Rico, and though Capetillo considered herself a feminist, she never became involved in the country’s feminist movement.
She began traveling outside of Puerto Rico, to places like New York, Tampa, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba, where she joined sugar cane workers in a strike. The Cuban authorities arrested her for inciting “public disturbance” as well as circulating her writings, and most surprisingly, for wearing men’s clothes in public. A simple action that seems to define most of her legacy today, Capetillo was considered one of the first women to wear pants in public. When she returned to Puerto Rico, she was jailed for the crime of dressing like a man, but later released. It was during this time, that she and her fellow labor activist were able to pass the first minimum wage law in Puerto Rico’s history.
She would continue on in her labor organizing, mostly working for the rights of sugar cane workers. She organized one of the largest strikes in Puerto Rico’s history in 1916, where over 40,000 workers participated, resulting in a national salary increase for laborers. She began working with the Socialist Workers Party, as they began to take notice of the work that the FLT had been doing around the country. She would work with them for the majority of her time organizing and political campaigning, though would later say that it was against her beliefs as an anarchist.
In 1922, at the age of 43, Luisa was overcome by a quickly onset case of tuberculosis. She died shortly after her diagnosis and was buried in the Municipal Cemetery of Arecibo. Her legacy, while often overlooked or unmentioned, had a deep impact not only on the beginnings of the Puerto Rican women’s rights movement, but a tremendous impact on the labor and union movement in the country. She was part of a change that helped create protection for Puerto Rico’s laborers, ensuring they would have a voice with the right to vote, a fair wage and by knowing that they were not alone. This makes her a badass lady of history.