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Loved Ones Remember Prominent Local Activist José Soler, Who Died At 74 Amid The Pandemic

Perhaps more than anything, José Soler was known by friends and family for speaking truth to power — and never forgetting to weave humor into his speeches.

Born in New York City in 1945, the proud Puerto Rican Soler was a photographer, labor journalist and academic who dedicated his life to an array of social justice causes. For two decades he headed the Labor Education Center at UMass Dartmouth, and moved to New Bedford in 2007.

José Soler. (Courtesy James Mahaney)
José Soler. (Courtesy James Mahaney)

Soler died in late April of respiratory failure. A COVID-19 test came up negative, but Soler's children say it’s clear that his care was impacted by the outbreak. According to family, a week before he died, Soler called his doctor for an appointment and a COVID-19 test, and the doctor told him to stay home. A week later, Soler could barely breathe, and by the time he got to the hospital, it was too late to save him.

He was 74. His death was attributed to pneumonia.

But not all of Soler's family is convinced he did not have COVID-19 — a significant percentage of COVID-19 tests may produce false results. But they're glad he tested negative, because it prompted doctors to allow Soler's son to be at his side for his final moments, with his other children present by speakerphone.

To practice social distancing, friends and family organized a “celebration” of Soler’s life online, joining 162 of Soler’s family and friends via Zoom from around the country with an array of homages, photos and some of Soler's favorite songs.

Here are some edited snippets from the celebration:

New Bedford spoken word artist Erik Andrade was a student of Soler's at UMass Dartmouth, where they collaborated on political and social activism efforts.

We gather here together in 162 different places, collectively filled with memories, and we are here in awe of your legacy. See, you left an imprint of your energy in us all. Whom he planted seeds of love in as he labored for us to all bloom, as [Amílcar] Cabral said, as the flowers of our revolution.

Kimberly Wilson, director of the Labor Education Center at UMass School of Law, was hired by Soler.

I had the honor to work side by side with José for 17 years at the labor education center. Years ago, then-Chancellor [Peter] Cressey pressured José to turn the labor center into a labor management program. You may not know this, but José was very skilled in working within the bureaucracy — despite how much he hated working within the bureaucracy. But he was able to maneuver until Cressey left and save the mission of the center.

Photographer James Mahaney, of Fairhaven, was a dear friend of Soler, who was an award-winning photographer in his own right.

We touched base just a week ago. I was culling old images I had – José, on the other hand, was out there shooting at the empty streets of downtown New Bedford, and a particular local playground that was void of children. You'll find this was his last project.

Mahaney then quoted one of his favorite photographers, Lewis Hine. Hine used his camera as a tool for social reform. He told the group that José said, “This guy's a master. I only wish I could do that.”

Well, José, my friend, you have indeed done that in your lifetime. And your beautiful photography is proof of your legacy.

José Soler. (Courtesy James Mahaney)
José Soler. (Courtesy James Mahaney)

As the Zoom celebration ended, Soler’s colleague at UMass Dartmouth, Ricardo Rosa, closed with this:

Thank you, everyone, for participating in this celebration of life for our magnificent friend, comrade and brother, José A. Soler. Presente!

Soler's daughter, Maria Soler-DuBreuil, wrote in a text message, seen below, that for now, no other events will happen to honor her father:

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated when Soler moved to New Bedford and worked at the Labor Education Center at UMass Dartmouth. 

This segment aired on May 8, 2020. The audio for this segment is not available.

Simón Rios Twitter Reporter
Simón Ríos is an award-winning bilingual reporter in WBUR's newsroom.

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