Today in labor history: Puerto Rican labor organizer and feminist Luisa Capetillo born

Luisa Capetillo was born on Oct. 28 1879 in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Her parents gave her a very liberal education that wasn’t common for women at that time. They encouraged open and free debate as a vital part of her education. This allowed her to be exposed to many philosophical views of which she adopted anarchism. While most anarchists at the time were atheists, she maintained her faith in God. Luisa viewed being a Christian as believing in justice and equality.

Luisa had a love affair in her late teens that lasted three years and resulted in two children. By 1898 she was a single mother and had to look for work. Luisa eventually found a job as a reader at a cigar factory owned by American Tobacco Company, which hired readers to read stories and current events to the employees while they worked.

A reader sat or stood at a podium on the factory floor and read aloud so that the workers who stemmed the tobacco leaves and rolled the cigars could hear It was tradition i to have open discussions and debate on particular lectures without interrupting the work. Workers also debated and voted on which works would be read each day.

The tobacco factory was where Luisa first came into contact with labor unions.  The Federación Libre de Trabajadores (FLT), which translates as Free Federation of Workers was organizing tobacco factory workers in the area.  Luisa quickly took to organizing and educating women across Puerto Rico.

She wrote political literature to support a sugar cane workers strike in 1905. As the Puerto Rican sugar industry boomed, the workers demanded better wages and fewer hours.

She was also one of Puerto Rico’s first women suffragists. As a leader in the FTL she asked at the convention of 1908 for it to support women’s suffrage. While she was an anarchist, Luisa still campaigned for the Partido Socialista (Socialist Party) the political arm of the FTL.

In 1912 she traveled to New York City to organize workers in the tobacco factories there. 1916-1918 was an intense period of strike activity and she would travel between New York City and Puerto Rico.  Luisa traveled to Cuba to work with la Federación Anarquista de Cuba (Federation of Anarchists of Cuba) organizing sugar cane workers. 

In 1922 she contract tuberculosis and died at the age of 42.  While becoming well known as the first women to wear pants in public in Puerto Rico, she led a very dynamic life and played a major role in the feminist and labor movements.




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