BannanEastHarlemMarch.jpg
Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan at a 2014 East Harlem, New York march for Oscar López Rivera. (Photo courtesy of Virtual Boricua)

After a Prism investigation revealed that Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan—a white woman of European descent—spent more than a decade pretending to be Latina, the prominent human rights attorney resigned from her job as senior counsel at LatinoJustice Puerto Rican Legal Defense & Education Fund.

In a January 9 statement released by LatinoJustice, the organization’s President and General Counsel Juan Cartagena announced Bannan’s resignation, writing that the revelations about Bannan’s identity “conflicts with the mission and values of LatinoJustice.”

“We cannot accept actions that displace Latinos and Latinas, including within our own movement,” Cartagena said in the statement. “Ms. Bannan’s actions, regardless of intent, have caused harm not only to those who were displaced by her role in the movement but also to those who have been her allies and collaborators.”

As Prism previously reported, though Bannan’s family came from Ireland, Italy, and Russia, she accepted opportunities expressly intended for Latinas and other people of color since at least 2006, including awards, internships, scholarships, and prestigious fellowships. Previously, Bannan identified as Colombian, likely because she had a Colombian step-father, but in more recent years the attorney claimed to be Puerto Rican, appearing many times on video identifying as a member of the Puerto Rican diaspora and speaking for Puerto Rican people

In previous statements to Prism, the attorney said that she is “racially white,” but that her “cultural identity” is Latinx—an impossibility that the 43-year-old continues to maintain in public statements posted on Twitter and Facebook.

“I have identified as a Latina for decades, not out of a desire to exploit or take advantage of a community that helped raise me, but rather because I genuinely knew it to be part of my story, even though I do not trace ancestral roots to Latin America,” Bannan said in a statement posted online. She also said she regrets the “pain and disappointment” she caused the Latino community.

“While my work has always intended to serve the community that has helped define me, I am also sensitive to the concerns that I took spaces away from other Latinas. I hear those concerns and that pain, and understand the legacy of discrimination and oppression that many Latinas and their families have gone through that I personally have not been made to bare. I offer my sincere regrets and apology to those who feel harmed. As someone who believes in transformational justice, I am committed to restoring the trust in my relationships and movement spaces that I have been a part of for so many years,” Bannan wrote.

Prism’s reporting on Bannan received an overwhelming response, most notably from Puerto Rican women who worked in the same circles and fought for the same causes as Bannan. While some continue to support her, others reached out to Prism to share their experiences—about being rendered invisible in their own movements; about work that was co-opted; about being unsupported during moments of crisis; and about the implications of Bannan’s misrepresentation for women fighting for independence for Puerto Rico. All of them say Bannan’s apology is not enough.

‘My name has been erased’

Marina Ortiz first met Bannan in 2014. As she tells it, it was inevitable that their worlds would collide, given Bannan’s years-long misrepresentation as a Puerto Rican activist.

Ortiz is an outspoken writer, organizer, and community activist better known as Virtual Boricua. She has spent much of her adult life advocating for Puerto Rican independence and against gentrification in East Harlem. When Ortiz met Bannan, she and another woman began to organize around the political prisoner Oscar López Rivera, leading to the formation of the group 35 Women for Oscar that circulated petitions and performed monthly actions in support of the imprisoned Puerto Rican activist.

“By the end of it all, my name has been erased from much of that work,” Ortiz told Prism in a phone interview, noting that not only did she participate in actions, but it was her role during the campaign to promote and document every monthly action. This included designing all the flyers, photographing every event, managing all social media, and handling email alerts.

López Rivera was released in 2017 after spending 36 years in prison. Those behind 35 Women for Oscar played a major role in López Rivera’s release as the “public face of the movement to free him.” In coverage of the group’s actions, Bannan was regularly quoted and photographed in Spanish and English language media, including large outlets like The New York Times. In a now highly circulated 2017 video, Bannan used an affected accent while speaking on behalf of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) and 35 Women for Oscar to demand freedom for the political prisoner. Bannan also wrote extensively about López Rivera, and he was the subject of one of her first columns as president of the NLG where she was heralded as the organization’s first Latina president.

“I’m not a clout chaser, but I really resent that my labor was co-opted, exploited, and my contribution has been erased. That’s the way I was treated towards the end, and I just kind of gave up,” Ortiz said.

Ortiz said her interactions with Bannan over the years were “brief” and strained. During an early interaction, Ortiz alleges that Bannan asked her if she was willing to get arrested during an action.

“I’d never been arrested at a protest, so I had a lot of questions. I asked how it would work out, who [else] would get arrested, how many people would get arrested, stuff like that. I thought I was asking valid questions. By then, I accepted her role as a leader in the campaign, but she didn’t answer any [of my questions],” Ortiz said. “She kind of stood to the side and was typing on her phone. About five minutes later, I check Facebook and I see that while still in my presence, she made a post about people being ‘divisive assholes.’”

Ortiz said she confronted Bannan, but the attorney denied she was referring to Ortiz in the post. Ortiz kept her distance after the exchange.

Ortiz said she is going public to make people aware of the effect of Bannan’s actions on long-time Puerto Rican activists in New York. Bannan, who sometimes represented herself as being from the Bronx, has lived for more than a decade in Westchester County, New York. As a white, privileged, and highly educated legal advocate, Bannan’s positioning of herself at the forefront of Puerto Rican movement work had a detrimental impact on Ortiz and other Puerto Rican women, who like her were sidelined because of class and respectability politics. In other words, they were perceived as being less “educated, polished, and professional,” Ortiz said, and their identities and commitment were questioned because they didn’t have the means to regularly travel to Puerto Rico.

“This isn’t just about the Oscar campaign. This has been very damaging and disturbing to our community because she has been everywhere fighting for Puerto Rican issues and talking about Puerto Rican independence,” Ortiz said. “There were red flags, but I bit my tongue because I was made to feel like speaking out would harm the movement.”

‘I couldn’t identify the feeling’

Puerto Rican women who interacted with Bannan over the years told Prism they are now revisiting interactions they had with the attorney in which they ignored their intuition and brushed off uncomfortable exchanges to give her the benefit of the doubt as a fellow Puerto Rican woman. This was the experience of Elizabeth Yeampierre, a powerhouse in the climate justice movement.

As the co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance and the executive director of UPROSE, Brooklyn’s oldest Latino community-based organization, Yeampierre is an internationally recognized attorney and environmental and climate justice leader. But this did not stop Bannan from being condescending toward Yeampierre, treating her more like a competitor than a colleague when they appeared on panels together after Hurricane Maria.

“I work with a tremendous group of women and I sincerely get joy from rolling into a room with badass women, so when [Bannan] gave me this weird feeling, I went through this process where I really tried to check myself,” Yeampierre said. “I’m flawed like everyone else, so I thought it had something to do with me. I asked myself why I was feeling the way that I was around her—the way I usually feel with white men. I thought: Is it me? Am I jealous? She’s smart, but I didn’t feel threatened by it. I couldn’t identify the feeling.”

The environmental movement is overwhelmingly white and Yeampierre—a Puerto Rican woman of African and Indigenous ancestry—told Prism she is comfortable advocating for herself and addressing people who speak over her. But a panel event left her feeling rattled.

Bannan heard Yeampierre speak at Yale University before the two were scheduled to appear together on a panel at Hunter College, where each of the Puerto Rican women featured were given an allotted amount of time to speak. Bannan went over her time considerably, and folded Yeampierre’s presentation into her own.    

“I know how to handle this when it’s some white guy because it’s happened before. But I was sitting across from who I thought was another Puerto Rican woman and I’m not joking, I felt physically ill. I didn’t know what to do because she’d given my entire presentation,” Yeampierre said. “I’m not powerless. I’ve been a fighter my whole life, but in that moment I ran to the bathroom in a cold sweat. I remember thinking: How can a radical Puerto Rican woman do this to another woman?”

When Prism’s article on Bannan was published, Yeampierre said she was facilitating a nationwide meeting over Zoom when her phone “blew up.” The feeling she had around Bannan began to make sense. But she also found the reporting triggering, as someone who had to fight hard to access and pay for higher education.

“When you come from a family like mine and you decide to do this work, you are giving up the possibility of financial stability. It’s so much easier for people who come from privilege to do this work,” Yeampierre said. “[Bannan] is diminishing the journey and the story of women who have sacrificed so much to have the honor of serving their own people, and we can’t sweep that under the rug. I keep thinking of how many women were harmed by this, how many women were pushed out.

‘Quantifiable aspects of her harm’

Puerto Rican attorneys who left the National Lawyers Guild because of its previous handling of an accountability process told Prism they have little faith the organization will properly address Bannan’s harm.

In 2016, Chicago-based attorneys Iveliz Orellano and Lillian Jimenez left the NLG after it failed to address a 2014 complaint they filed with other women of color regarding a man who was a NLG member and member of The United People of Color Caucus (TUPOCC) who engaged in inappropriate behavior, including sexual harassment. Jimenez herself was part of Guild leadership, serving on the organization’s board and as TUPOCC co-chair, but still she says the serious nature of the women’s allegations were not taken seriously.

Orellano told Prism that NLG leadership failed the women behind the complaint. By the time Orellano was exiting the organization in 2016, Bannan was new in her presidency at the Guild and had been deeply involved in people of color-only spaces within the organization, including TUPOCC. At the time, Orellano thought Bannan was the Guild’s first Latina and Puerto Rican president, which made an exchange she said she had with Bannan particularly painful.

“[H]aving [Bannan] tell me that I was distracting the Guild from doing ‘the work’ by complaining about harmful misogynist behavior was incredibly harmful. I second guessed myself because…  it was coming from someone who I thought was a fellow Boricua,” Orellano said in an email.

Over the course of two years, Orellano and Jimenez allege they were repeatedly told by the NLG that the organization was undergoing an accountability process with the man who was the subject of their complaint, but nothing much seemed to happen—and he even ran for a leadership position within the Guild during the same time period. The more they brought it up within the NLG, the more contentious things seem to become, based on documents Orellano and Jimenez shared with Prism. An attorney for the man even threatened the women behind the complaint with a defamation suit if they continued speaking out.

“Under the guise of radical politics, we had to center his humanity and remember his humanity through all of this, but at the same time we were pushed aside,” Orellano said. “We were asking for the bare minimum, which was for the Guild to follow their own sexual harassment policy and to have some accountability. But that never happened.”

In a statement to Prism, the Guild clarified that the man who was subject to the complaint is no longer a member of the organization; his membership was suspended in 2017.

As the NLG embarks on an accountability process with Bannan, Orellano and Jimenez have questions and concerns about how it will unfold.

In previous statements to Prism regarding Bannan’s misrepresentations, TUPOCC and the Guild’s Anti-Racism Committee said they were “initiating an accountability process” with Bannan rooted in “abolitionist politics.” On January 13, TUPOCC and the Anti-Racism Committee told Prism that they have contacted Bannan to initiate an accountability process, but the attorney has not responded. Her membership and leadership positions within the NLG, including but not limited to the Puerto Rico Subcommittee, Colombia Subcommittee, and Taskforce on the Americas, have been suspended.

In a January 13 statement, the NLG said it was taking steps to remove Bannan’s authorship from essays for forthcoming NLG publications; remove Bannan from the NLG Scholars speaking list; disallow Bannan from accepting speaking engagements on behalf of NLG; suspend Bannan’s access to NLG listservs pending an accountability process; and provide funds to support TUPOCC’s efforts to support those directly impacted by Bannan through a process of their choosing. Those who have been harmed by Bannan’s misrepresentation and want to participate in the accountability process are still being urged to contact the Anti-Racism Committee at antiracism@nlg.org.

As for Bannan’s continued insistence that she is Latina, TUPOCC and the Anti-Racism Committee told Prism in a statement  that she is “creating additional harm.”

“As part of the NLG’s accountability process, we will require that [Bannan] issue an apology to the National NLG and to all of the committees that she has participated in and often secured leadership positions within, including TUPOCC, Puerto Rico, Colombia and Palestine Subcommittees, Task Force on the Americas, and International Committee, where she embraces and acknowledges that when she identifies as Latinx, she is engaging in cultural appropriation. We urge [Bannan] to immediately stop asserting that she is Latina,” said TUPOCC and the Anti-Racism Committee’s statement.

The San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the NLG has also issued a strongly-worded statement regarding Bannan. Among other actions, the chapter is demanding that Bannan’s membership be revoked; that she return to the NLG any funds she took for travel or work related to TUPOCC; that she extricate herself from movement spaces in which she centered herself and took up space reserved for Latinx activists and organizers; and that the NLG issue a statement rescinding its reference to Bannan as the organization’s first Latina president. TUPOCC and the Guild’s Anti-Racism Committee said they support these demands, clarifying their records show that Bannan never received a TUPOCC travel stipend but rather donated to TUPOCC travel stipend fund.

Orellano feels strongly that Bannan should repay the “quantifiable aspects of her harm,” including scholarships, fellowships, travel stipends, and any other funds obtained or used while falsely claiming to be a Latina.

“It took me almost nine years to finish my undergrad degree because I had to work full time and take care of my son, who I had when I was 17. My parents didn’t go to college. I didn’t have any help. I didn’t get any scholarships. I still live paycheck-to-paycheck because of student loans. There is real material damage to address when someone takes funds and opportunities that could have gone to Puerto Rican women who were struggling,” Orellano said, growing emotional. “These things are quantifiable and they can be repaid and they should be repaid because that’s actually money taken away from people that needed it much more than she did. That is real harm and at the bare minimum, she needs to pay back what she got.”

Activist María J. Torres-López, founder of the Puerto Rican advocacy organization Diáspora en Resistencia, has worked with Bannan in the past and she is demanding accountability from the organizations that uplifted Bannan’s leadership.

Torres-López is especially concerned that communities Bannan once worked with will be left “stranded” without the legal aid and resources Bannan and her affiliated organizations once provided. In an Instagram post, Torres-López said Diáspora en Resistencia was taking steps to ensure these organizations “go from restorative justice to reparations.”

Juan​ Cartagena would not comment on whether Bannan’s work would continue at LatinoJustice in her absence, but he said those impacted could contact LatinoJustice directly. In a statement to Prism, TUPOCC and the Anti-Racism Committee said the NLG and its committees “are working very hard to ensure that the communities who [Bannan] worked with will not be further hurt by her absence from the work.”

Diáspora en Resistencia’s founder told Prism the organizations that promoted Bannan’s leadership have a responsibility to the communities they serve.

“They too are responsible for this and they must ensure that the work [Bannan] was doing continues, and these communities continue to have and perhaps improve the legal representation they once had,” Torres-López said.

Bannan’s false identity has caused ripple effects for her colleagues, friends, and the communities she purported to represent. In fact, it is the same people Bannan was in community with—Puerto Rican women who grew up working class and fighting for justice—that have been most impacted by her actions and are left to pick up the pieces.

“What Natasha has done is tearing the community apart in some ways—in the National Lawyers Guild and in the Puerto Rican community. There are just so many things this is bringing up and personally, I don’t know what the future of legal advocacy and political organizing is for [Puerto Rican women],” Jimenez said. “How can I continue to organize and do radical lawyering if the two places that I have spent my career in and considered my political home are unable to address this one person’s harmful actions?”

Bannan did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In recent days, she resigned from the boards of both the Center for Constitutional Rights and MADRE. 

Tina Vásquez

Tina Vásquez is a contributing writer at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.