A leader in the political and labor struggles of the working class at the beginning of the twentieth century, Luisa Capetillo (1879-1922) condemned the exploitation of workers by political parties, religious institutions, and capitalism. She was also a crusader for the rights of women.
Luisa Capetillo was born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, on October 28, 1879. Her mother, Margarita Perón, was French, and her father, Luis Capetillo, was Spanish. Her biographers agree that, while she might have had some formal schooling, she was primarily self-taught. The knowledge of French she gained from her mother, for example, enabled her to read the works of French writers. History remembers her as the first woman to wear pants in public, which could be considered symbolic of the personal freedom she expressed in her actions and writings.
Capetillo lived at a time when the industrialization of Puerto Rico had just begun; wages were low for men and still lower for women. She believed that good wages were a worker's right. Better pay would result in happier families, less domestic violence, and more educational opportunities for children. While she acknowledged that men were as oppressed as women, she was especially concerned with the plight of the female worker. Her skill was in the way she managed to relate and interweave the issues of the private world (such as the family, single motherhood, and women's rights in general) with those of the public world (such as politics, wages, and education).
As Edna Acosta-Belén observes in The Puerto Rican Woman: Perspectives on Culture, History and Society, during Capetillo's lifetime the women's movement was "characterized by two major trends: the petit bourgeois and the proletarian." Although Capetillo was supportive and understanding of both groups, she definitely focused on the world from the perspective of the proletarian or working woman, rather than her middle-class sisters. In her book Mi opinión sobre las libertades, derechos y deberes de la mujer como compañera, madre y ser independiente, she pointed out that affluent women were never touched by the problems that affected working women, mainly because they didn't have to take jobs outside the home to help support their families and they always hired another woman to take care of their children.
Capetillo's involvement in the labor movement began when she participated in a 1907 strike in Arecibo's tobacco factories. Within a year she was an active member of the Federation of Free Workers (FLT). In 1910, she became a reporter for the federation's newspaper. That same year, she founded La mujer, a newspaper which addressed women's issues.
Over the next few years, Capetillo traveled extensively. She visited New York in 1912 and contributed some articles to the newspaper Cultura Obrera. Capetillo collaborated with some union workers in Florida in 1913 and gave lectures on how to start cooperatives in Cuba from 1914 until 1916. By 1918 she was back in Puerto Rico, organizing strikes by agricultural workers in Ceiba and Vieques. That same year, Capetillo was arrested for violence, disobedience, and being insubordinate to a police officer.
A thorough examination of Capetillo's writings from her activist days provides some insight into her opinions and the ideas for which she fought all her life. In many ways she was so far ahead of her time that the society she envisioned could exist only in her imagination. Ensayos libertarios appeared in 1907. Dedicated to all workers, male and female, it is a compilation of articles that Capetillo originally published between 1904 and 1907. In 1910, in La humanidad en el futuro, she described a utopian society in detail and from a broad perspective. She also discussed the power of the church and the state, the institution of marriage, and private common property. In her 1911 work, entitled Mi opinión sobre las libertades, derechos y deberes de la mujer como compañera, madre y ser independiente, she analyzed the situation of women in society, focusing on what she viewed as the oppression and slavery of women and affirming that education is the key to freedom.
Among Capetillo's writings are several dramas. According to Angelina Morfi in Historia critica de un siglo de teatro puertorriqueño, the theater provided Capetillo with an alternative way to express her ideas effectively, especially her opinions about the oppression of women and the moral codes that strangle them culturally and socially.
On April 10, 1922, Capetillo died of tuberculosis in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico, at the age of 42, leaving three children, Manuela, Gregorio, and Luis. As Yamila Azize declares in Luchas de la mujer en Puerto Rico, "The more we know the life of this woman and become familiar with her ideas and writings, we confirm the special importance of Capetillo in our history."
Azize, Yamila, Luchas de la mujer en Puerto Rico, 1898-1919, Litografía Metropolitana, 1979.
Azize, Yamila, La mujer en la lucha, Editorial Cultural, 1985.
López Antonetty, Evelina, Luisa Capetillo, Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños (Hunter College), 1986.
Morfi, Angelina, Historia critica de un siglo de teatro puertorriqueño, Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, 1980.
The Puerto Rican Woman: Perspectives on Culture, History and Society, edited by Edna Acosta-Belén, Praeger, 1986.
Valle Ferrera, Luisa Capetillo: Historia de una mujer proscrita, Editorial Cultural, 1990.