Like many College alums, Gustavo A. Espada ’96 has tried to remain active in the Harvard community. But instead of contributing to the University’s coffers or participating in Harvard Clubs across the country, Espada has taken a less conventional and perhaps more controversial route.
For the past two years, the former Quincy House resident has protested outside the Science Center with his trademark black bag and poster calling into question the American government’s account of the events of September 11, 2001.
He has become something of a landmark, a geographic reference point for people on campus.
Espada chuckles as he recounts overhearing a cell phone conversation in which a passer-by said, “Oh yeah, I’m outside Mem Hall, right outside the Science Center, where 9/11 Guy is.”
But unlike a static landmark, the nature of Espada’s presence in Harvard Square has evolved over the years. From handing out fake dollar bills with the addresses of 9/11 truth movement Web sites—while wearing a horse mask—to adopting the subtler approach of sitting outside with his poster, Espada remains a symbol of dissidence in Cambridge.
But Espada says he thinks his current mode of activism needs an upgrade. When the weather improves, Espada says he will unveil his latest tool: an enormous banner. The banner is so cumbersome that Espada says he will only start using it regularly once the April winds die down so that he can display it without fear of it blowing away.
His original companions in protest have whichever way the winds blow, he’ll still be protesting.
The man who would become “the 9/11 Guy” says he never participated in any sort of protest until after college.
A native of Puerto Rico, Espada and his family moved from place to place throughout the Americas because of Espada’s father’s job in the Department of State.
“I learned to be a little bit skeptical from my dad, to understand that you can believe in your country and work for your country without having to accept everything that the government does,” he says.
Espada attended high school in Maryland, where he excelled in the classroom and on the tennis court.
Eduardo J. Espada, Gustavo’s brother who works as a professional illustrator in the Boston area, says that he and his family were not particularly surprised when his brother was accepted to Harvard College.
The future sociology concentrator says that his academic experience as a Harvard undergraduate had an influence on his disbelief of the U.S. government’s report of 9/11. Espada says that he learned a great deal about conspiracies in such classes as Political Sociology as well as Organizational Sociology.
But Espada says that instead of focusing primarily on academics, while in college, he spent much more time making friends and getting to know people.
A former freshman entryway-mate, Aristarchus Patrinos ’96, says he fondly remembers one of the Espada’s social escapades.
“Everybody was kind of stressed out because of finals and papers, so Gus went out and built [an igloo.] He really made a name for himself on campus that way,” said Patrinos.
Another entryway-mate, and later a Quincy blockmate of Espada’s, Martin J. Son ’96, says that he remembers eating pizza in the igloo while Espada entertained a chilly audience by playing guitar.
Espada says that he also spent a fair amount of his time working at the Language Lab, which was housed in Boylston Hall at the time.
His then-supervisor at the Lab, Connie J. Christo, says that she remembers Espada having many positive qualities, including diligence and modesty.
“He was not at all filled with himself,” said Christo.
It was the summer after the U.S. invasion of Iraq that Espada first began his activism. He joined the small movement of people openly skeptical of the government’s explanation for 9/11. But he says this was not without hesitation.
“I was not ready to believe that this was all a big lie, as cynical as I was,” he says.
But Espada says that things took a turn when he began to notice what he considers inconsistencies in the official account of 9/11.
The Harvard grad began protesting with a Boston-based 9/11 truth group that used to gather in Harvard Square every Saturday, handing out literature and occasionally wearing animal costumes to attract attention.
Although the group no longer convenes weekly in the Square, Espada says he considers his presence on campus to be a continuation of the group’s activity.
He says that he enjoys his current location in front of the Science Center. It allows him to protest during his lunch breaks as financial and systems coordinator for the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations.
He also says he just enjoys the pleasantness of sitting outside on sunny spring and summer days.
But Espada’s activism has not always gone smoothly.
Espada recounts one event that he found particularly shocking, which occurred during an otherwise routine visit to the Holyoke Center to deliver financial documents for his job. He was carrying one of his 9/11 posters and says that as he was leaving the building, a security guard stopped him and requested that he never return to the Center again.
Espada says that he felt indignant after hearing that the reason he was stopped was that a security guard disagreed with his views on 9/11.
“Look, I realize that what I’m doing on campus may be a bit disturbing to some people, but it’s still totally unacceptable to be singled out, constantly and consistently,” he says.
Espada says that run-ins such as this with people including administrators and students, have motivated him to extensively research the laws and policies protecting free speech on campus. He says that one of his preferred modes of dealing with threats to his rights is speaking with University Ombudsman Lydia Cummings.
Espada’s brother Eduardo maintains that his sibling has never flagged in his determination to change his community’s views on 9/11.
“I’m proud of him. He has for many years stuck to his beliefs. I can remember when [they] first started taking root, and [they’ve] never waned since,” he says.
Yet Espada says he worries that others in the 9/11 truth movement might not remain as consistent as he, due to much of the nation’s positive response to the Obama administration.
“When you have an administration that is perceived as much better than the previous one, it takes a lot of the wind out of the sails of any dissenting voices,” he says.
Aside from planning on regularly displaying his recently acquired banner—which the weather has not yet allowed him to do—Espada says that he has little in the way of ideas for changes from his current routine.
“As much as I like to keep it fresh, it’s more important to keep it consistent,” he says.