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Memories Of Paradise (Plus A Few Bombs)

by Jan Hoffman

May 9, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

TO watch Juan A. Figueroa sit in his Manhattan office and describe his favorite family vacation spot, where, for years, he took his wife, Helen, and their daughter, Taina, is to see the sparkle of paradisiacal sun on surf in his eyes:

"It offers Puerto Rico without the pollution, development and the McDonald's," he says rhapsodically. "It is so serene and beautiful, tropical and green. There are scarcely 100 hotel rooms on the whole island. And the bioluminescent bay!

"Talk about the Seven Wonders of the World, man! You go at night, tap your hand on the side of the boat, and the fish streak by, lighting up the plankton. People can jump in and go swimming, wrapped around an aura of light.

"And then, every once in a while, you'd hear thud!"

Ah, the island of Vieques, P.R.: lovely refuge for tourists, ideal practice range for Navy bombers.

As president and general counsel of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York, Mr. Figueroa has been a leader in organizing much of the mainland Latino response to the Navy's use of Vieques to train its pilots on the finer points of aerial bombardment.

He has been a frequent commentator on the subject, and the point man on letters to President Clinton also signed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and by other Latino leaders and politicians. And he was the connective tissue for a Times Square rally held last Friday, the day after federal agents removed 200 demonstrators from the military range.

Next up: an environmental lawsuit against the Navy, now under discussion by several groups, over the damage they say has been wrought by more than 50 years of bombing.

Mr. Figueroa heats his rhetoric appropriately, but is careful to keep within the boundaries of indignant discourse. His bite is tempered with irony and affability.

He is, essentially, a polite person -- a sweetheart, actually -- raised not on the tough streets of San Juan or New York but in the tobacco fields of Ciales, a jewel-like Puerto Rican mountain town.

The man even dreams of going to chef school.

Mr. Figueroa, 47, who has been a community organizer, an assistant attorney general and a Connecticut state legislator, is less a rabble-rouser than a diplomatic, if forceful, negotiator.

He finds his role as a legal rock-thrower -- for workers fired for speaking Spanish, Puerto Rican political prisoners and New York City's immigrant college students -- almost amusing. For Mr. Figueroa was raised with conservative values and a pro-Washington outlook.

"I was brought up to believe that America was best," Mr. Figueroa says, although he has just treated his visitor to his stump speech about Vieques, featuring the United States as despotic colonizers. His grandfather cursed the Spanish, saying, "Thank God for the Americans!' "

To earn money, Mr. Figueroa's father brought the family to the mainland.

Wary of city evils, he settled in Haverstraw, N.Y., in Rockland County, working as a baker. The family eventually went home to Ciales, but in the meantime, Juan Figueroa became bilingual, bicultural.

"The dream of every Puerto Rican at that time was to own his own plot of land and a house of cement," recalls Mr. Figueroa, whose family had been tenant farmers for generations. "My parents assumed I'd go to school here, but return to Puerto Rico." Twenty-five years later, he adds, abashed, "we're still talking about it."

Mr. Figueroa attended Macalester College in St. Paul, which had recruited minority students. "They gave me a full scholarship," he says, "plus a plane ticket and a parka."

His view of America lost its glow when he majored in history. He stayed on in St. Paul to study organizing at a center dedicated to Saul Alinsky, the labor activist. After marrying Helen, his college sweetheart, who lobbies for comprehensive day care, Mr. Figueroa spent two years in Nashua and Manchester, N.H., going door to door, forming Latino groups around employment and educational issues.

After law school at Santa Clara University in California, he moved to Hartford. Energetic, restless and personable, Mr. Figueroa, who had pursued day care center abuse cases for the attorney general's office, started going door to door again, in Hartford's gritty Third District, winning election to the State Assembly.

He found his three terms, working within the system, surprisingly rewarding. Mr. Figueroa helped defeat English-only legislation and prevented deep cuts in the welfare budget. He did little to endear himself to suburbia in pushing through bills to help moderate-income families leave Hartford's poorer neighborhoods.

Since he joined the defense fund in 1993, his colleagues say, Mr. Figueroa has significantly refocused the 28-year-old civil rights organization. A telegenic master of the stinging sound bite, he has raised the group's profile, expanding its work to include policy research, a campaign urging Latinos to complete census forms, and political advocacy, like that on behalf of the Puerto Rican nationalists released from prison last year.

As an issue, he is rather fond of Vieques. "Who wants bombing in their backyard?" Mr. Figueroa says. "It's not a complicated question. And we can use it as a way of mainstreaming the message of who we are. Last year it was Ricky Martin. Now it's Vieques that has captured the public's attention. And it's not just someone dancing around!"

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