lunes, noviembre 28, 2011

Remembering my friend Juancho


Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero

It's been over a year since the passing of Juan Antonio “Juancho” Agostini, faithful Catholic, relentless and militant independentista activist, and dear friend. And since then I've been meaning to write the following, lest my memory of him start blurring with the passing of years.

My friendship with the Agostini family goes back just over thirty years, when as a student in Colegio San Ignacio I met Juan, one of Juancho's sons. The discipline and severity of the Jesuits did not have any effect on either one of us- let's just say that it was natural for him and I to become pals. 1980 was a very important year in my (de)formation. It was the year that Cable TV arrived in my neighborhood of San Ramón, when I traded my Star Wars toys for rock 'n roll albums, and also when Juan and local radio station Alfa 105 both convinced me that seventies' epic progressive rock was humankind's crowning artistic and cultural achievement.

That summer Juan introduced me to his mother, Sonia, who was then starting work in the Colegio as adviser to the seventh and eighth graders, a job description which involved oratory and persuastion as well as a lot of counterinsurgency and riot control. Also that summer I brought Juan over to my house, only a short walk away from school- San Ramón was not a gated community back then. He thus became the only fellow Ignaciano ever to visit my house. I should say that house, because before the year ended we moved to another town and I changed schools. I had no more news of Juan until I reencountered him several years later in the University of Puerto Rico, moving around the enormous campus by bicycle.

It was during my college years that I met Juancho, by way of my close friend and mentor, legendary San Juan Star reporter Harold Lidin, also deceased. I looked for Harold during the course of my first journalistic investigation. During our first meeting he told me about an international peace activist organization he was involved with called Pax Christi. Shortly after that, I started attending their meetings and ended up joining them.

It was through my friendship and camaraderie with Harold and my membership in Pax Christi that I made some excellent and very valuable friends, such as Carmina and Carmencita, Harold's wife and daughter respectively; ace journalist Jesús Dávila; María Libertad, daughter of the courageous independentista Gabriel Mezquida; cartoonist Melvin Villabol; Paquita Pesquera, ex-wife of patriot Juan Mari-Brás and an outstanding patriot in her own right; old-school nationalist Héctor Dávila; and Juancho Agostini.

After one Pax Christi meeting in the house of the Agostinis in Cupey one evening, I stayed around conversing with Juancho and Sonia. On my way out the door I passed by the family photos and saw my friend Juan in one of them. It had not dawned on me that they were Juan's parents. I did not remember Sonia from those days in San Ignacio. I did not even pick up on the name Agostini, which is not very common in Puerto Rico. They told me that Juan was in the United States Navy and it turned out, unluckily, that the first contest of power between the Bush family and Saddam Hussein had just begun. But fortunately he came back home in one piece.

Juancho took over the reins of the local Pax Christi chapter after Harold's passing in 1992. It was at a Christmas party in the Agostinis' that I met Juan's son, back then a toddler playing with Star Wars toys- like me twenty years earlier. I saw him again in Juancho's funeral, all grown up and now a student at the Interamerican University.

If memory serves me well, that Christmas party was my earliest meeting with Rosita Cintrón, Quique Medina and Alejita Firpi, who have been good friends and comrades in arms since then. To this day, Rosita does not seem to miss a single cultural or independentista activity. Quique is nephew of Domingo Vega, one of the unsung heroes of 20th century independentismo, and he himself is a pro-independence militant like few I have ever known. Alejita, devout Catholic and irreplaceable community leader. I have had the privilege of having Quique and Alejita as neighbors since the start of the century, when I moved into the Santa Rita neighborhood. Rosita might as well be my neighbor, since she pops up in every other activity I go to.

As for dear Juancho, his most outstanding traits were his good temper and gentleness of spirit. These qualities, pretty rare in Puerto Rico today, really shone through when he was faced with all kinds of adversity, whether personal or political. We could always count on him in both good and bad times, on his good humor, solidarity and patriotism. It was always a good thing to run into him and Sonia in marches, protests, celebrations and all sorts of activities. I interviewed him for the Claridad newspaper a number of times, given that he was one of the most credible, articulate and eloquent voices of the Puerto Rico peace movement and the Catholic lay community.

As for his politics, Juancho was a hardcore militant "pipiolo", that is member of the Puerto Rico Independence Party (PIP). But unlike other pipiolos I have met, he was always corteous and diplomatic, yet emphatic, when dialoguing with those who proposed electoral alliances with non-independentista parties (known as "watermelon alliances" or alianzas meloneras) instead of voting PIP. Juancho lived through the final years of the leadership of party founder Gilberto Concepción-De Gracia in the 1960's, the ascent of his successor Rubén Berríos, the days of the short-lived PIP-funded newspaper La Hora, the successful non-violent struggle against the US Navy presence in the island of Culebra in the early 1970's, the rise and fall of the leftist terceristas within the party, and in fact all the ups and downs of the party, its vicissitudes and tribulations until his death in 2010. And in times when it became fashionable within independentista circles to declare oneself an "ex-pipiolo", especially in the late 1990's, Juancho remained stalwart in his PIP militancy. Never once did he intend to join the ranks of the "ex-PIPs".

Juancho will be missed. His very particular mixture of inner strength and gentleness will keep on being necessary and badly needed in Puerto Rico today. So long, my friend.

- November 27 2011

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