April 13, 2024

WATCH | Father-daughter lawyer duo fights for the rights of Black residents in Puerto Rico

This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.

CAROLINA, PR- When Marcos A. Rivera Ortiz, Esq. walks into his law offices in Puerto Rico, the walls are covered in reminders that justice isn’t always blind.

On this day Rivera is dressed to the nines, in a brown plaid suit with a purple bowtie, speckled with blue flowers decorating his neck.

Rivera’s small salt and pepper grey afro is neatly trimmed to match his full mustache. Warm eyes sit behind a pair of thin-rimmed glasses on his dark brown skin.

As office assistants busily type away, and his young grandson dips in and out of the hallway playing with toys, Rivera describes each of the framed pictures bearing his face.

He points to photo of himself and boxer Muhammad Ali.

“1974 in Puerto Rico,” Rivera says in Spanish, his melodic voice booming with pride.

He stops at another photo of himself.

“And here, defending civil rights at a conference.”

He moves on to the next, reading the headline of a news article featuring his photo and the photo of Afro-Puerto Rican reggaeton artist, Tego Calderon:

“Lawyer defends the Blackness of an artist discriminated against for being Black.”

In Puerto Rico, a society which is often touted as a racial utopia where discrimination doesn’t exist, these walls tell the story of a man who believes that it does.

“The government of Puerto Rico does not recognize the existence of racism- but it exists,” Rivera tells theGrio. “If you go to any government organization and you’re black, you don’t get the same treatment as if you were white.” 

Marcos A. Rivera Ortiz stands outside of court in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Photo by Natasha S. Alford/theGrio)

“There are two important issues: economic power and social power. Here, the ones who are the richest are able to keep the power. White people can reach where Black people can’t reach.” 

As a Black man, also known as a negro or afro descendiente (afro descendent), Rivera wants to bring visibility to both the plight- and pride- of Black people in Latin America and Puerto Rico.

“Since [1976] I’ve been fighting to help black people who are being discriminated against,” Rivera tells theGrio, while sitting in his office at Bufete Rivera Ortiz & Asociados. “I started the town of Loíza in my hometown, a predominantly black people. We are proud of our culture. We are proud of our descent from our African roots.”

Loíza is a town in Puerto Rico originally founded by Nigerian slaves in the 1600s. African traditions have been maintained throughout the centuries, and to this day, Loíza has the highest population of Puerto Ricans who identify as Black. According to the most recent U.S. Census, the majority of Puerto Ricans identified themselves as white-only, even though many have mixed racial ancestry.

Spanish, the African and the Indians that were here. Here no one can say ‘I am purely white,’” says Rivera. “I’m very proud to be black, and I defend my race, and when I became a lawyer I said ‘I’m going to defend mine.’”

“I’m very proud to be black, and I defend my race, and when I became a lawyer I said ‘I’m going to defend mine…’”

The son of two parents who never attended college, Rivera graduated from law school in 1976 and became of the few Black attorneys to open his own law office in Carolina, Puerto Rico.  In all his years practicing law, Marcos Rivera says he never experienced outright discrimination on the job, except for one time:

“By a judge, who did not allow me to speak with her in the Chamber of Deputies because there was a white man waiting to see her- she preferred to speak with Blanco (white man) and not with me,” recalls Rivera.

The only time I’ve ever felt discrimination. Because they already know me and don’t dare. But a rich white man won’t let me marry his daughter,” Rivera says with a laugh.

While Rivera’s office handles all kinds of cases, it’s the ones that relate to race, police brutality, and discrimination that tug at his heart.

Rivera insists that Puerto Rican police may not have enforced legal segregation like U.S. police did against Black citizens, but police prejudice still rears its head. And even Black police officers are not immune to bias.

“Policemen abuse the Black citizens because almost always the Black citizens are the poorest in society,” says Rivera. “Economically they are the most defenseless and here unfortunately, the poor and the Black are marked and abused.”

Since 2013, Puerto Rico’s Police Department has been under a federal court order to reform, after officers were accused of police brutality, corruption, and violating people’s constitutional rights. One of the areas of compliance for reform is non-discrimination and equal protection under the law.

Rivera’s latest client, a young man, was tasered by police one year ago, during a personal family dispute. Now the case is in court, as prosecutors work to determine discrepancies between police officers’ testimony and the testimony of the boy’s mother.

Maraliz Rivera Gutiérrez, Esq., is one of the lawyers at her father’s firm. Her shirt reads “¡La luche sigue!” or “The continues!” (Photo by Natasha S. Alford/theGrio)

Rivera claims that cases like these are common, but there have been fewer anti-police brutality movements led by Black residents than in the United States. According to him, outside of the ACLU, Puerto Rican organizations haven’t grown to the same power or influence.

This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

“Blacks in Puerto Rico never learned how to complain,” Rivera insists. “Never learned how to raise their voice to say “I’m being abused.’ It’s a constant fight.”

“I directed a group called Punto Negro to create consciousness- ‘Look, if someone is discriminating against you, say something! Claim your rights and demand to be respected!’”

Rivera’s leadership is something that has inspired one of the young Black lawyers in his firm, Maraliz Rivera Gutiérrez, Esq.. She just so happens to be his daughter too.

“He created … my father for me, thank God… created hope,” says Rivera Gutiérrez, while sitting in her office. She wears an burnt orange button up uniform shirt etched with the phrase “¡La Luche Sigue!” meaning “The Fight Continues!”

“Because of that hope, everyone recognizes him as the one who fights for the rights of black people.”

Rivera Gutiérrez was not only inspired to attend law school thanks to her father but also to speak her mind unapologetically.

“I always had problems at school because of that, because I was the one who was always fighting for what I thought and what I believed,” she recalls. 

“Many times they used to tell me ‘You are too problematic,’ because I was always taking part in discussions, saying ‘I don’t believe in any of that,’ always ‘prove it to me,’ always ‘bring me evidence.’

Marcos A. Rivera hugs his young grandson, who is also pictured in a painting above his office desk. (Photo by Natasha S. Alford/theGrio)

She now brings that analytical mindset to court, where she has even represented a female police officer who accused municipal agents of sexual harassment and racial discrimination.

Rivera Gutiérrez is also defiant when it comes to traditional mainstream beauty standards. In a society where many Afro-Latina women are expected to wear their hair straight or perm pelo malo (“bad hair”) she proudly rocks natural, unprocessed hair.

Her confident example is closely watched by her young son, who plays around the law offices on the day of this interview. A large portrait of the boy wearing an afrocentric hat sits above her father’s desk.

“I have tried to educate my son,” says Rivera Gutiérrez. “To get him to know his heritage, his color, his race, and teach him to value it… and defend it. If you’re sure of your color, you don’t have to get upset by being called ‘Black.’”

As all eyes are were on Puerto Rico this past summer during political protests led by citizens calling for an end to sexist, homophobic and classist ideologies from the elite, both Rivera and his daughter and fellow attorney, Rivera Gutiérrez, see opportunities to highlight instances of racial injustice, inside and outside of the criminal justice system.

“I am glad that the people rose up and demanded the departure of an abusive and corrupt governor,” says Rivera. “Because that is an example for the Black man also to learn to stand up for justice. It is part of the same process.”

Editor’s Note: Quotes from these interviews have been translated from Spanish to English.

Natasha S. Alford is an award-winning journalist, digital host and Deputy Editor of theGrio.  Her story series on Afro-LatinX lives was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Follow her news and culture updates on Instagram and Twitter at @NatashaSAlford.





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