4 months of no electricity, no blog, no internet, interrupted phone service, 2 months of no running water…now that my house and light posts have been cabled up, though not yet connected…in anticipation of electricity flowing back some time in the near future (we hope), some thoughts… on darkness. Some thoughts if only to get back to this necessary blog game. The necessity of telling our experiences in our own words, in our own voices…
“Don’t forget your history Know your destiny In the abundance of water The fool is thirsty” -from “Rat Race” by Bob Marley & the Wailers
“You pity fools, you pity fools you better have some sympathy ‘Cause this educated people Running the lives of high society Making up the blues Holding back schools Lot of greed, lot of temptation Proof of one thing, we’re a hell of a nation Right on for the darkness Right on, right on!” -from “Right on for the darkness” by Curtis Mayfield
I know the lavender color of a night sky before the snow. And I know the scents of freshly watered yerba buena, romero y ruda, glowing in the light of dawn, scents that follow me, enter and fill my home. This is the part of life in which liberation takes hold. The space where you’ve witnessed yourself and yours survive every trauma imaginable, but you’re still standing. You even figured out how to thrive. This is the space where your neighbors and you survived the winds that blew through this hill tearing down fences, roofs, trees, light posts and you all stepped out the next morning ready to work, to fix, to share, to rebuild. The space where you welcomed torrential rains for the water you collected and your neighbors powered your fridge so you can keep fresh food for your babies. This is the space where sprouting babies of oregano brujo poking through the grass replace the sofrito once stored in your freezer. Where the palma that sprouted from that coco you took from the land of an assassinated clandestine freedom fighter, has given you the gift of a recao plant. Like liberation dreams unrelenting, both palma y recao survived rolling around with a large leaking propane tank, knocked over in our terraza by the hurricane that arrived before we could secure them. This is the place where we survive the unthinkable, the unimaginable. Where we cross breed, birthing creations of another species to rise to the needs of today. Renegade, revolutionary recao and survival/ thrival oregano brujo create pots of the most fragrant rice that no corporate food company jar can top.
This is the space where the vecino stands on his roof pounding his chest like a gorilla, announcing how he successfully connected the rain gutters of his roof to his cisterna. This is the power that comes not from taking orders, nor from an electric company, but from figuring shit out. This is the confianza that comes from inventing and building with your own hands like all our people once did.
The art of darkness is the spreading of invincibility like smoke rising from el fogón. In essence, like celestial bodies in outer space, darkness cultivates visibility, which would make it not a tool of, but a weapon against colonialism. We conquered people must know this, more than our conquerors who always feared darkness in theory and in our skin. They fear the magic afforded us in darkness, our invincibility in embracing the darkness that would set our spirits blazing in light. If we learn to quiet the fears of the incarnate mind, darkness impregnates the spirit with a fearlessness and motivation unknown in modern society’s mass production of docile doers taking orders from everything and everyone. It is the space in which ancestral knowledge melds with intuition to fine-tune generations and continents worth of resuelves, recetas y remedios. It is this sense of usefulness that breeds happiness. It is a happiness of the soul. One that persists even when the storm claims all your shit. It is one that persists even when the scenery changes and people drop from your life. It is one that transcends this place unlike the material things you’ve collected along the way.
It is an art, navigating darkness. From the blackness of the night, to the shadows of dawn. Darkness as an art teaches you to look up to see Los Tres Reyes, Betelgeuse and Rigel rising each night with Jupiter at their side. It teaches you to rise and set with the sun and to contract, expand and bleed with the moon. The darkness comes complimented with the revelation of new visions, spaces and places revealed where the trees fell. In a green landscape of rolling hills you now know where the sea lies, where houses and roads hide. The trees again cover all green, but you forever stand aware of what lies beyond. Hurricanes take and give. They claim your few banana plants but leave the rhizomes to sprout a whole crop. They knock down aguacate trees but leave tomatoes growing from seeds the winds deposited into cracks in concrete. Where we see disaster, nature brings balance and harmony. Darkness conceals but reveals. And we sandwiched between eclipses solar and lunar are healed whole within our light and shadow selves. We stand as celestial power sources, spirit lights shining through our skin that light up the dark like new, a cross-charco cucubano coalition. We dart across the dark like shooting stars, like fish in a Vieques bay of bioluminescence.
These two spirits “con la tea en la mano,” light up what needs to be lit up, torch what needs to be torched. They are the guerilla goddesses Frida Kahlo and Julia de Burgos. They are my muses, my guides. I follow them wherever they take me.
I was not allowed to paint them till I knew their pain. For six years I carried the idea in my body. Las Dos Fridas with its open-heart wounds, blood vessels as connective threads reinterpreted as a solidarity image of the two mujeres, and our two patrias. It wasn’t until my womb washed out a fetus unviable, birthing a child unborn, returning it to the sea, that I found the way, that I found the wall. I found it in a garbage-dumped-lot turned barrio sanctuary by community member Modesto “Tin” Flores. Beyond a garden creek carved from concrete that flowed with water and turtles. Behind a woman’s-womb-fountain sculpted by colombiana Lina Puerta. It was there where I was invited, empty womb in tow, toddler in hand, to consider this wall that I refused because of the iron bars and perpetually locked gate that surround it. But they, Julia and Frida, Yemaya y Oshun said it was not option. It was time. It was here. Solidarity forces standing in sisterhood not just in our triumph and victory but in our struggle and pain. So I started to paint.
I painted away the pain. I painted our fetuses along the top border. In between them, I painted Julia’s words: Como naciste para la claridad, te fuiste no nacido. Pie fertil caminando para siempre sobre la tierra. (Since you were born for clarity, you left unborn. Fertile foot forever walking the earth.) I painted the pain from my womb. These goddess in turn filled my womb with life again. I discovered midway that there was a Baby Josef accompanying me each day to paint, fueling my womb, my second chakra, the seat of creative energy.
For Josef’s fifth birthday this past February we took him to el Museo del Niño in Carolina. Actually he was sick for his birthday so we went a week later, around the time this island also commemorates Julia de Burgos birthday (February 17th). Sometime during that trip I realized that we were just minutes away from her mausoleum. I remember walking up the street to the corner where her statue sits. I approached the statue as if it were the embodiment of Julia herself. The statue is imbued with her aché, her energy. I sat at her feet contemplating the power that is her, staring out into a channel of el Rio Grande de Loíza flowing out into the sea. Around her were pillars, each bearing a plaque with a different poem of hers. As I began walking down a path towards her mausoleum Julia and I were back to back. I felt her calling me so I stopped to look back. I found myself face to face with a plaque I hadn’t noticed. I read the title “Poema del hijo no nacido.” Eyes welled with tears, I went on to read the first line: Como nacistes para la claridad, te fuiste no nacido….
Fast forward to June when I was invited to participate in the Puerto Rico/ Detroit Solidarity Network Gathering as part of the Allied Media Conference. I traveled to Detroit with nothing but the conference on my mind. Closing out a teaching position, I hadn’t been able to consider much more aside from the conference. It was a short stay so I hadn’t planned on seeing anything else on this first trip there. But random voices insisted that I make it out to the museum. One particular brother insisted I go and made sure I got there. I, still on my AMC high, walked to the Detroit Institute of the Arts, past the theater we had packed the night before, all chanting “wage love”. On the way in, I stopped at Rodin’s The Thinker.
With limited time before my flight out, we headed straight to Diego Rivera’s epic mural. Upon entering the courtyard, every hair was standing on my skin. The magic and spirit that filled the space was overwhelming. Immediately I zoomed in on the fetus floating above the doorway. I stood beneath it and began breathing deeply, almost panting.
Wait! I had known about this mural. I had known bits and pieces. I had never put it all together. I was led there so that I could hurry up and do so.
Wait! This is her baby! This is Frida’s baby! A scene flashed in my mind, riding in someone’s car two days before, my eyes locking with a sign that read “Ford Hospital,” not registering the tall building at the time.
Wait! This is Detroit.
It was here. It was here….
A feeling of repulsion filled my stomach.
She hated it here.
It was here… It was here…
It has to be from here, right this instance,
my cry into the world.
-Julia de Burgos “Farewell from Welfare Island” excerpt
July 4th, 1932 legendary Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, accompanying her husband Diego Rivera during his 11-month residency painting the epic Mural “Detroit Industry” at the Detroit Institute of Arts, suffered a miscarriage. She had been ordered to stay on bed rest in order to carry the baby to term, but her body still began the process of miscarriage. Taken to the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, the aborting process that was started by her own body was completed by doctors. Frida depicts this literal gut-wrenching scene in her 1932 powerful painting “Henry Ford Hospital.”
Life was somewhere forgotten
and sought refuge in depths of tears and sorrows;
over this vast empire of solitude and darkness.
-JDB “Farewell…” excerpt
The Ford Motor Company is incorporated into the background of Kahlo’s painting. Henry Ford’s only son had ironically commissioned the famous Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, (a communist whose ideals ran counter to that of Ford’s) paying him $20,000 for the piece during the heart of the depression and labor strikes across Detroit. Rivera was impressed by his patron and the modern industry of the city. Frida despised them all: the big city, the rich, the depression, the injustices, capitalism, industrialization, colonialism. In an odd twist she lost her baby on the day that the United States, which conquered half of her Mexico in 1848, celebrates its independence.
Where is the voice of freedom,
freedom to laugh, to move
without the heavy phantom of despair?
-JDB “Farewell…” excerpt
Frida’s July 4th miscarriage happened just two days before her birthday, July 6th. In 1953, Julia de Burgos passed away in New York on Frida Kahlo’s birthday.
Frida would live just one more year, having written: “Espero alegre la salida y espero no volver jamás.” (I happily await the exit. I hope never to return). I commemorated the legacies of both mujeres by unveiling the Soldaderas mural on that day in 2011. In 2017 I was led to Julia de Burgos’ mausoleum where I read on a plaque the very words I cited on the mural. While in Detroit for the AMC conference I was also led to the mural where Diego honors his and Frida’s lost child and the spiritual heritage of Mexico within a complex narrative of the contradictions of industrialization. Today Detroit, (the city that Frida and Diego left their immortal mark on) and Julia’s Puerto Rico, battle colonialism; gentrification; the displacement and oppression of black and indigenous communities; corporatization; the contamination and exploitation of water and other natural resources; and harsh austerity measures of Emergency Management and La Junta fiscal oversight boards.
Mexican painter Frida Kahlo and Puerto Rican Poet Julia de Burgos, their work, their lives, their legacies are still a light for us all. If you are ever in el Barrio in New York City, strolling along Lexington Avenue near 104th Street and see these mujeres gazing out from the Soldaderas mural, please give them my love and yours. If you must view them through iron bars and a locked iron gate, think of the people of Borikén and her sister islands, still colonized. They urge us all to decolonize ourselves and our people. They continue hand in hand, in solidarity, struggling alongside us until victory.
Charco-crossers like myself arrive at a space where we feel divided: our bodies on one side, hearts and spirits in another. Our home on one side, work on the other. Many of us have either lived on each side or travel and work extensively on both sides. Others adhere to one side only, adopting and projecting prejudices toward the other side they may know little to nothing about. We are often told which side we belong on depending on where we were born and are often expected to choose a side. I am a Brooklyn born and raised Boricua. My parents are from Ponce, Puerto Rico. I grew up with a gaping hole in my heart and soul, yearning to connect to my ancestral homeland. After two decades of dedicating my art practice and activism to Puerto Rican history, culture and liberation, in 2014 I moved to Puerto Rico. Against the odds of exodus, I have survived and thrived this reverse migration by heeding the lessons of transcendence as taught by el charco.
Colonial survival and resistance reference the realities that we must navigate, resist, heal from and move beyond as colonized people. The trauma of colonization and the myriad ways it manifests (physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually) requires that we constantly develop more creative and innovative forms of survival. This process becomes especially complicated when we leave our comfort zones and venture out cross-charco, no matter which direction we cross. In doing so we run the risk of being denied our identities, having our authenticity questioned by others and, much worse, ourselves. Oftentimes we find that the survival rules and tools we collected along the way no longer apply. We are forced to learn new ones. In resisting the displacement I felt in NYC, feeling perpetually incomplete; in resisting the sometimes rejection I felt for not having been born and raised here in Puerto Rico, I discovered a new nation. Si no soy de acá, ni tampoco soy de allá, pues coño, ¡yo soy del charco!
El charco or the pond is the term used for a body of water that separates two lands. Used by the British and the US and then the US and Puerto Rico, it seems to mostly speak of the separation between a colonizer and its colony. But what are the implications of said separation for a Diaspora of conquered people? In our case of Borikén and its various Diasporas (indigenous, West African, etc.) there are many charcos between our many ancestral homes. Beyond claiming relatives and communities in the US and ancestors in Europe and Africa, many of our ancestors moved around the Caribbean or were brought to Borikén from other islands in the Caribbean. My mother’s maiden, Quirindongo, arrived in Puerto Rico from Curacao. Her mother’s french maiden name, Balestier, has me wondering if my maternal great grandfather arrive from Haiti, Guadeloupe or Martinique. Also hailing from my grandmother’s community of la Playa de Ponce, Puerto Rican artist who shares her last name (though with a more Castilian spelling) Diogenes Ballester speaks of how he grew up hearing his mother and tía saying “bon soir” versus “buenas noches”. But we’ve been socialized to believe that the Spanish speaking Caribbean holds a unique, separate place among the Antilles, a different demographic make-up than the other islands, right?
That concept, along with this idea of water “separating” us, is part of the myth of conquest. Such intricate webs of myths and lies keep a people colonized. All of our ancestors know well that water is healing and connectivity. The revelation comes in recognizing our ability to transcend the adversities of conquest and colonialism by heeding the lessons of the water herself, by channeling or being of the water. This healing is what opens the flow towards liberation. As taught to me by Borikén, I can’t just be from el charco. I can’t just dunk myself in water, travel on water, cross bodies of water, I must straight be water.
Our bodies, like this earth are 70% water. Before birthing my two sons, I carried them and nurtured them, protected within a safe salt water bubble in my womb. When I am sad, like all of you, I cry salt water. When I sweat, when we all sweat, it is salt water that seeps from our pores. We are all already water.
Water is connectivity. Water is the lessons of our ancestral water mother Atabey. Our indigenous ancestors of these Greater Antilles were navigators. For thousands of years they navigated from the continental shores of South America, of el Yucatan, of Bimini (up by Florida), along island chains of lucaya/ Bahamas and the smaller Antilles. Packing their canoas 100 deep, they navigated those waters and traded, exchanged, interconnected with other people, other waters, other lands. Indigenous remains on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques reveal a 4,000 year presence of our ancestors on these lands, but most history books start with another navigator named Columbus just a few centuries ago.
Water is the highway upon which our West African ancestors were forced to travel. Water is the refuge, the sanctuary they sought when they jumped, choosing to join their ancestors versus submit to the slavers. Water is the lessons of Yemaya and all the West African matriarchs who nurture us back whole. Water is the portal through which they safely transported all their traditions secular and sacred, protected and intact to pass on to us afro-descendants. Water is fluidity. Water is flowing when something has you contained so you seep out the seams and escape anyway. Water is practically being beaten to submission but you still rise like a tsunami to found the first free black republic of the Americas as did the land of indigenous warrior chief Anacaona: Ayití. Water is expansive.
One day while feeling sorry for myself, being made to feel by a certain some on this island as though I was not as intelligent, not as authentic for not having been born here, for not speaking a seamless Spanish, I came to a realization. All of my heroes who have fought for Borikén were, like me, charco crossers. Revolutionary/ physician/ abolitionist/ writer Ramon Emeterio Betances was sent from Puerto Rico to France at the age of 10. As a young adult he fought in the French Revolution. Having Dominican heritage he designed Puerto Rico’s first flag in solidarity with the flag of the Dominican Republic. He dreamed of an Antillean union that not only included the Spanish Speaking Caribbean but Haiti too. He traveled from New York to Spain to Paris to Haiti, Cuba, St Thomas. His pen name, el Antillano, highlighted his island-hopping, charcos-crossing self. Mayaguezano/ independence supporter/ sociologist/ and educator Eugenio Maria de Hostos spent a good portion of his time in the Dominican Republic with his remains still resting en la zona colonial de Santo Domingo. The Dominican government holds true to its promise that he will only return to Puerto Rico once it is liberated from US rule. With a German/ Puerto Rican father and St. Croix-born mother, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg was born black in Puerto Rico, where he challenged his teachers to affirm and celebrate the contributions of black people globally. Upon crossing el charco to NYC, he was immortalized as a hero of the Harlem Renaissance and the father of global black studies.
As a member of the Cuban Revolutionary Party he was in the room that day in New York in 1895 when the current Puerto Rican flag was designed in solidarity with the Cuban bandera. A little later Luisa Capetillo a boricua arrested in Cuba for wearing pants and “men’s” clothing arrived from Puerto Rico to Ybor City in Tampa Florida, a writer, an anarchist, a labor organizer to read literary classics, and messages on workers’ rights to the Spanish-speaking cigar rollers in the local factories. A little after that, Julia de Burgos traveled from Borikén to Cuba and to New York, which she hated but still used the opportunity to forward the message of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party and to document the plight of oppressed people globally through her poetry. Lolita Lebrón, born in Lares, altar de la patria, on el día de la puertorriqueñidad, before leading an armed protest in Washington in 1954, traveled to New York where she worked in the garment industry. Vieques activist Carmelo Felix Matta worked as a cop in St. Croix where he met his Boricua wife Maria, born on the other side of another charco. They got married, returned to Vieques and started taking back lands stolen by the US Navy to build their home and a community in the area now called Monte Carmelo, named after him.
None of these folks had frequent flyer miles, cell phones, tablets or social media around. Schomburg’s research did not happen on Google. Lacking the amenities and technological advances that we celebrate today, or that we are too dependent on today, they sought the highest of resources as charco-crossers, embodying the connectivity, fluidity and expansiveness to be found when we flow like water. Their effectiveness, their reach, their selflessness and sacrifice was and is an embodiment of what happens when we transcend and make like water to simultaneously touch all lands, all peoples, all coasts, all the isles of our own selves. They are the greatness from which we come. They are the greatness we all carry within and are all capable of manifesting.
As a continued colony of the US, Puerto Ricans stand in solidarity with colonized people globally. Within the US itself we continue to be, as are First Nation/ Indigenous people and African Americas, a colonized nation within a nation. We are all fighting for liberation on one front or another. We see the seizing of Detroit and similar cities for corporate control of Great Lakes’ fresh water. We see the poisoning of water in Flint. We see the injustices and human rights violations against water protectors in Standing Rock. They continue to commodify, bottle and sell back to us the most available resource on this earth. They arrest our youth for selling it because the dollars are supposed to be theirs alone. We saw a natural disaster manipulated to flood, then seize, New Orleans. They continue to use water as a weapon of war and they say that World War III will be fought over water. How then, can we the conquered, the colonized, who learned the sanctity of water through our ancestors, not embrace water as a resource, but also as a tool for liberation?
Lets tap into this inner resource of water, tap into its wells of infinite wisdom to consider possibilities for fluidity, connectivity, expansion and transcendence in our lives and work. If water is the source and the mother, how do we mother ourselves and each other? Individual and collective healing from the continued traumas of colonialism and conquest are fundamental to our survival, our ability to thrive, our effectiveness in our work. What is fundamental is an affirmation to claim, receive and give decolonial love. What is fundamental, prior to decolonizing Puerto Rico or any place is the decolonization of our own selves. Lets identify those inner and outer spaces where fear has come to replace love. Lets wash these colonially contaminated areas out with salt water, allowing healing and love to flow in. What greater tool is there in a liberation struggle if love, like water, is fluid, expansive, ungovernable and impossible to contain? By embodying these very elements we too can flow free like water.
The above is an adaptation and expanding on my presentation for the June 2017 Puerto Rico panel during the Puerto Rico/ Detroit Solidarity Exchange at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit.
We leave lands but cannot take the remains of our lost loved ones with us. We leave the monuments behind but bring the memories with us. My son who carries his name, also carries my brother’s same birth mark on the bridge of his nose.
I said goodbye to all of his Ozone Park and Howard Beach, Queens, no longer mine. The only black brother that would walk those streets with ease and say hi to everyone. I said goodbye to his Jamaica Bay, his Charles Park. The sunset over Cross Bay released me. Said it was ok to leave. I inhabited those spaces during his last year for the purpose of being close to him but they were never mine. How long had I said I was ready to leave NYC, but wouldn’t because of my brother’s illness. Then he left. Leaving me there suspended, disconnected.
We walked that beach that cold ass day knowing we were all connected. All us people gathered on that cold beach to catch that January sunset and remember that we all hail from some place beyond the sun. Realizing that the sun would set just the same over Borikén, beyond Rincon, I knew it was ok to leave.
I had sat that last night at his bedside, keeping watch. Played a mix of Yemaya songs that would soothe him like his visits to the sea for solace. Songs that juxtapose crashing waves with Yoruba chants. Singing the whole time so he would know I was still by his side.
Seven years a spirit. Seven years since he left our physical side.
Seven seas, seven samples of how to shape shift like water.
Go from solid to liquid to gas.
How to live in this flesh while simultaneously flowing like water across these lands.
How to vaporize, elevate and expand.
We grieve, we all grieve but my brother comes and goes as easy as the tides. He rises and falls with our moods, our triumphs, our failures. He carries and lifts us afloat. But when we grieve him heavy, cling on to what was, we sink him down, pulling him under with us.
Why not flow with him and with what is?
Before every challenge or test my brother would encourage us to get a pack of Life Savers. We obliged. Did everything he asked. He was smooth like that. I had lifesavers in my mouth during my road test. After he passed, I found a lifesaver in his jacket pocket. Kept that sucker on my altar for years to come, never realizing all the while that he was just offering a metaphor for the need to keep afloat.
We encarnados love to fall the fuck apart over anything. Drama queens that we be. In doing so, we fail to recognize how intricately interwoven are we with the realm of our ancestors. If we are the manifestation of their survival and struggle, if we are testament to their thriving despite the traumas of oppression, then our healing is their release. Our collective healing is our reciprocal recompense.
When he passed I always understood that my brother would be in the peace. Not in the chaos, not in the madness. If I needed my brother then I would have to craft an environment where he was permitted to be. You can’t get caught up in chaos, living up a mess then call your spirits down to get dirty with you.
These days I barely call upon my brother, honoring that he (for all the limitations our earthly language and pronouns impose on the transcendence of spirit) has way better things to be doing than getting invoked into petty earthly shit. Then a moment comes when I find myself in a space of love and I greet him. I feel him near. I know he is there. In the love. In the peace. I think of his traits. His working constantly for the highest good, his selflessness. The temptation to call upon him escapes me. Instead I strive to elevate. Match his greatness, in turn achieving my own greatness. Floating on that lifesaver, fluid and fresh.
“…you be colonial man You done be slave man before They done release you now But you never release yourself”
-lyrics from “Colonial Mentality” by Nigerian musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti
My people are yet to be released. We are three times colonized: by Spain, by the United States and by our own selves. Colonialism is a disease that spreads like cancer. It infects the body and the mind. At times I feel literally sickened by the effects of it. Like grieving, for those of us who have suffered a tragic loss, there is this tendency for the emotional weight of it all to manifest physically, causing actual pain. Such is colonialism. It blinds the eyes. It weakens the mind. It deafens your ears. It squeezes your chest, stresses your heart. The cells in your body slowly are reconfigured to function smoothly only when you agree to go along with it. To consciously choose to decolonize, starting with yourself, is to consciously choose to live at odds with society, with the power structure man has crafted on this planet. It is to choose to fight daily when all you ever hope for is peace.
I live in a perpetual state of grief. I live in perpetual conflict. I live in perpetual pain. I know the fragility of life. I have watched loved ones die. There is a humbling, gut-wrenching, beautiful, empowering element to bearing witness to the exit of a loved one. I know the raw intensity and magic manifested in pushing life into this world. I know what it is to have everything they said we should ever have and be empty inside. I know the laughter of those who bring jokes and good times to the table but are crippled by agony inside. I sense all that is left to be achieved in the road towards liberation, man-made borders and the capitalist constructs of countries aside.
Today’s pain comes from recent events affecting my people. Only colonialism can be responsible for a people perpetually putting their own on the stand. Making accusations and guilty verdicts for those who have already served their time. Only colonialism can be to blame for those who are blinded to any of their oppressor’s wrongdoing but live ready to jump at the chance to condemn their own and serve their head on a platter to their master. Colonialism is what is to blame when you throw yourself away only to reappear masked in the oppressor’s identity. Colonialism teaches you to confess your sins each Sunday for redemption and re-condemn time and time again, your people for whatever they did and didn’t do that you refuse to forgive.
Colonialism is what teaches you to fear bombs while simultaneously overlooking the statistics that those who taught you this fear have probably dropped the most bombs on most places on this planet. Colonialism has our schools teaching the colonizer’s history while our own history is a two-time class during a 13 year education. If you missed that grade because you moved from another place, then you missed your one chance at knowing your past.
Colonialism is what gives people the audacity to question their elders on their whereabouts and what they did. Disrespectful demands that they give up hopefully incriminating information for a crime they were already tried for and not found connected to or guilty of, but to lock them up anyway they were sentenced for something else. Colonialism imprisons people for seditious conspiracy which, regardless of their definition, basically means “guilty of wanting to be free.”
Colonialism is flying another’s flag while yours is faded and raggedy in a draw. Colonialism is going out to vote with other colonized friends to beg that the colonizer lets you be a part of them. When it fails, colonialism has you running out to try again and again. Colonialism is charging students for a debt you won’t audit because it might incriminate you and the colonizer you hope to be a part of, then spending $10million for that plebiscite to ask the oppressor to let you in. Colonialism is thinking from afar that all the US is made up of money-moguls like Trump that you want to rub elbows with. Colonialism is wanting to be a part of the United States but not wanting to be neighbors with Compton, Baltimore, Detroit or the Bronx. Colonialism is complaining about Dominicans in your country, calling Mexicans illegal and convincing yourself that you’re white. Colonialism has you denying half of you living in the Diaspora. Colonialism has you denying those in “the island” (there’s more than one) drowning in debt and disillusion. Colonialism has you taking your intelligence and skills to the states to work for the colonizer. Colonialism keeps you there working for the colonizer. Colonialism has you working to free a place that you refuse to ever live in. Colonialism got you relegating your connection to la patria to a beach vacation with cool refreshments served by the corporations you claim to abhor. Colonialism got me writing in English. Colonialism got us all fucking confused.
Colonialism says it is a sin to question anything that the colonizer does, has done or will do. Colonialism has you doubting everything you did to the point that you are incapable of doing anything else. Why do the masses hate on our freedom fighters? People love to hate on those who have done what we would love to do but lack the courage to actually do it. We hate on those who remind us of our deficiencies. How dare a Puerto Rican be self-determined? How dare a Puerto Rican challenge authority? How dare a Puerto Rican not know their place? How dare a Puerto Rican do anything other than strive to be the best colonial subject–submissive, docile and grateful? All perfect prerequisites for being denied entry into a union that will never want you. No matter the packaging, all colonialism hurts.
The pain colonialism has caused me is that good pain. It’s that labor type pain that starts off slow and builds in a crescendo. It comes and goes and gives you a break in between. It signals what works and doesn’t work. It tells you when to lie still and when to get up and move. It tears the life out of you and simultaneously animates you. You are convinced that you will straight up die. Just then it alerts you to the release as you prepare to rebirth yourself: liberated!
On January 6th, Three Kings Day here in Puerto Rico, I received a gift via email. It was an invitation from Occupy Museums to participate in their Debt Fair Project, a collective installation as part of the 2017 Whitney Biennial. 10 of us were invited specifically to represent the case of the debt crisis in Puerto Rico. As a colony of the US, Puerto Rico has minimal political presence internationally. Though Puerto Rican athletes have won Olympic gold medals as part of US teams, in 2016 tennis player Monica Puig made history winning Puerto Rico’s first Olympic Gold medal. It was the first time that our flag was raised and our anthem played on the global stage. This may not seem so important to some, but for a nationality that carries no passport, (other than the Adál Maldonado/ Pedro Pietri conceptual art collaboration baptizing Puerto Ricans as citizens of “El Spirit Republic de Puerto Rico”) having your national identity eclipsed by colonialism is the equivalent of being rendered internationally invisible.
January 6, in addition to being Three Kings Day, is the birthday of Oscar López Rivera. López Rivera, a political prisoner of the US since 1981, had transcended the US/ Puerto Rico colonial bubble, making news internationally with support for his release coming from such notable figures as Pope Francis and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Turning 74, he had spent virtually half of his life in prison. In tribute, I decided to include his image in my Debt Fair artwork. My work explores nebulae as metaphors for the nebulous political state of Puerto Rico and the long battle against invisibility. The added image of Oscar López held for 36 years under the charge of seditious conspiracy, further illustrates the tie of Puerto Rico’s debt to its colonial relationship with the US. I titled the piece “De-debt/ Decolonize.”
The week after I completed the work, the White House announced that Obama had commuted López Rivera’s sentence. Knowing this was an historic time for Puerto Rico, I sought to document this history, even before the announcement. I was grateful for having gotten a piece on exhibit at the Whitney and especially proud that the work addressed the condition of my people and an historic moment in our struggle for self-determination. This was of course possible because of Occupy Museum’s necessary work examining debt and the hypocrisies of debt. Artists are among the sectors of society most crippled by debt and are mostly unfairly compensated for our work, if compensated at all. Perhaps being a Puerto Rican and an artist makes one twice colonized. Oscar López Rivera happens to be a Puerto Rican, an artist and a former political prisoner, a colonial trifecta: freedom fighter by default.
Debt Fair exhibitions feature the works of artists in debt, organized into collective installations forming “bundles.” The term, borrowed from the investment world, is a reference to a common experience in the collective artists’ debt history, or a common collector to which the artists owe money. In the case of the Puerto Rico bundle, on view at the Whitney Biennial (through June 11th, 2017), we are artists affected by and whose work examines the colonial crisis in Puerto Rico. This bundle hangs alongside two other artists bundles (10 artists to each bundle, totaling 30 Debt Fair artists), one representing Navient and the other JP Morgan/ Chase. The signage on the wall points to Black Rock CEO Larry Fink, on the board of MOMA and a member of the Trump Strategic and Policy Forum.
Debt Fair installations traditionally are not artworks hung on a gallery wall. Rather, they literally carve out a piece of the dry wall, exposing the studs and installing the work within the wall itself. The “occupy” component, beyond granting access to more artists, disrupts the white walls of the museum, directly implanting dialogues not normally had in these exclusive spaces. Having risen out of the Occupy Wall Street movement, Occupy Museums zooms in on the communities most impacted, taking a close look at Puerto Rico and at the crippling state of student debt in the US today. The Friday after May Day, they held an anti-commencement ceremony at the Whitney, in front of the Debt Fair installation. Complete with a cap and gown procession, the program also included the reading of a statement on behalf of the striking students of the University of Puerto Rico system. The public university system has been severely threatened by harsh austerity measures of the US Congress-imposed fiscal control board. Referred to locally as la junta colonial, they hold supreme power over Puerto Rico’s budget. In her light box image “Advertisement for PROMESA Act or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Enjoy Debt” artist D Gabriela Torres includes the words “Debt and Neglect” and “100% for the people, Real Colonial Rule,” detailing the irony and hypocrisy behind the PROMESA act.
US colonialism in Puerto Rico has been characterized by a military government following the 1898 invasion; 50 years of no elections/ US-appointed American governors (with the exception of one Puerto Rican appointed); the imposition of US citizenship (strategically the same year the US entered WWI); the drafting of Puerto Ricans in US wars starting with WWI, but citizens in Puerto Rico cannot vote in US presidential elections for the military commander in chief; US president has veto power over any law passed by the Puerto Rican government; no voting representation in Washington; no trade rights with other countries; all goods coming into Puerto Rico must leave from US ports on US ships; the destruction of Puerto Rico’s agricultural economy and the imposition of a mono-crop of sugar, exploited then abandoned by outside corporations; Puerto Rico imports 85% of its food as a result; political repression resulting in the arrests of thousands of independence supporters over the last century, many charged not with violent crimes but with seditious conspiracy; the appropriation and use of the 2nd and 3rd largest islands of the Puerto Rican archipelago, Vieques and Culebra for military training, weapons testing and target practice resulting in damage to the environment and deteriorating health conditions of the surrounding communities; the corporate exploitation of offering tax breaks to foreign business and incentives to the wealthy to set up homes and businesses in Puerto Rico while denying such incentives to Puerto Ricans themselves; highest concentration per mile of Walgreens of all US states and territories; the highest concentration per mile of Walmarts in the world; the imposition of a US fiscal control board whose power trumps the authority of the Puerto Rico government. Many in the states overlook the debt crisis in Puerto Rico, blaming it on local government corruption and mismanagement. In reviewing this list of just a few points out of many, anyone could have predicted a debt crisis.
It is brilliant and timely for Occupy Museums to bring this issue into the examination of global debt and its impact on the arts and on artists. It is also necessary to mention the work of Occupy Museums seeking to overturn the limited access and exclusivity of the museum. Their call received around 500 responses. From these, 30 artists were selected to contribute works to the three bundles featured. All 500 artists who responded are included in the installation via a slide show featuring samples of their art and excerpts from their questionnaire responses on the impact that debt has had on their lives and work. This all raises some burning questions regarding the dynamics of a biennial, especially such a prestigious biennial as the Whitney’s. What does it mean for the prestige of a biennial if 30 or 500 artists were invited by Occupy Museums to crash the party? Occupy by the way were not the only ones to have invited other artists to join in on their invitation. Can these artists claim the same prestige considering that they were not directly invited by the Biennial curators? In this case, curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks invited the Occupy Museums collective to exhibit an installment of Debt Fair, fully aware of the nature of the project. In essence the curators were open and accommodating to this “occupation” which says much about a shift in curatorial practices. Additionally, two artists from Puerto Rico, Chemi Rosado Seijo and Beatriz Santiago Muñoz are featured biennial artists invited directly by the curators. The curators also hired a Puerto Rico-based firm, Tiguere Corp to design the show catalog and invitations.
Much of the biennial press was dominated by the charged controversy that rose out of Schutz’ portrayal of Emmett Till and necessary questions surrounding the representation of black trauma by someone who is not black and therefore cannot claim that trauma as inherently and directly their own. One has to consider why the US loves the appropriation of other’s stories, even when they serve to point out still-archaic perceptions of race. Would an Emmett Till portrait painted by a black artist receive the same amount of press coverage? Would Lin Manuel Miranda have won so many awards for a musical portraying the life and times of Puerto Rican physician/ revolutionary/ abolitionist Ramon Emeterio Betances versus Hamilton? Do 10 Puerto Ricans addressing the debt crisis in Puerto Rico fall on deaf ears or blind eyes? Would 10 white North Americans from Kansas exhibiting art on the Puerto Rico debt be cutting edge?
It is interesting to consider the framework used by the US mainstream to control the dialogues and responses of communities of color and what they deem to be topics worthy of their time and attention. For several years the New York Puerto Rican Day Parade Board had agreed (like many, including Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood governor Ricky Rossello) to support the release of political prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera. This year they decided to include the recently released independence supporter in a long list of parade honorees. Somehow corporations got wind of it and started withdrawing their support and sponsorship of the parade. Interestingly enough, in support of a pro-statehood plebiscite to be held in Puerto Rico on the same day of the parade Rossello reneged on his support of Lopez Rivera, suggesting that the corporate sponsors demand his removal from the list of honorees or withdraw their support. Recent press is focusing on how ultimately New York City Mayor de Blasio’s office got involved to ensure that Oscar would be removed from the list. For the purpose of this dialogue, whether Oscar Lopez Rivera himself solely decided to remove himself from the list or whether it was suggested to him or he was persuaded is besides the point. Since this controversy, media outlets have gone on to state that the parade can now go back to focusing on the real priorities of Puerto Rico. The point then is who gets to determine what should be addressed, what is a priority and/ or who should be honored other than the people themselves? How is it that when a people exercise their natural right to self-determination in making such decisions, they are met with institutional backlash and pressure until the machine gets what it wants? Prior to the corporate boycott of the parade, Oscar’s release, the goings-on of Puerto Rico and our parade were barely deemed newsworthy in the states.
Within the museum space, within the art world, hell within the Puerto Rican community, I am not sure that there has been much examination of the Puerto Rico bundle of Debt Fair. Thankfully we will have another opportunity to expand on the dialogue with El Museo del Barrio agreeing to take the installation to their galleries later this summer. However we must consider, why are such dialogues mostly regulated to sanctioned spaces? Why must a museum founded by the Puerto Rican community in New York be the space where such a dialogue can take place? I am grateful to Occupy Museums for considering the issue of the crisis in Puerto Rico for their Debt Fair installation. I am grateful to El Museo del Barrio for wanting to expand on the dialogue and I am grateful to the folks at the Allied Media Conference for inviting myself and featured Biennial artist Chemi Rosado Seijo and others as part of a Puerto Rico delegation to build intersectional solidarity work with Detroit artists and activists surviving and recovering from a debt crisis. The dialogue will be a complicated one considering the role colonialism plays in Puerto Rico’s debt which unfortunately dwarfs that seen in Detroit. Puerto Rico, ironically “rich port,” is also known as being poorer than the poorest state of the US. It is apparent that a colonial tie to the US has not worked in our favor. As the saying here goes, “when the US catches a cold, Puerto Rico catches pneumonia.”
Shortly after Oscar’s Three Kings Day birthday, on January 17th, news of his sentence having been commuted hit the airwaves. The Whitney Biennial opened to the public on March 17th. On May 17th Oscar stepped out, no longer a political prisoner of the US, onto the streets of Puerto Rico. He chose to hold his press conference by the sea, ensuring that its turquoise would be the backdrop. In my painting Oscar is against the green backdrop of his island home. Playing with a green image of the California nebula, when rotated horizontally, I found that its nebulous formations become the peaks of la cordillera central, the mountain range that runs across the middle of the island of Borikén, stretching from its east coast, to the west. Peering from this nebulous island glowing green is the image of Oscar Lopez Rivera, still being held in captivity almost 36 years at the time I created it. Included is a quote from the song Verde Luz, (Green Light) by Antonio Cabán Vale, “El Topo”, son of Moca, the municipality that has been my adopted home since I left my native New York City in 2014 and moved here, birthplace of my parents. The words read: libre tu suelo, sola tu estrella. (your land, free/ your star, alone) .
In a poetic twist the last day of the Whitney Biennial is June 11th, the same day the controversial Puerto Rican Day Parade will march up 5th Avenue. It is unknown whether or not its corporate sponsors will be back. But Oscar Lopez Rivera has vowed to walk with his people, “not as an honoree but as a humble Puerto Rican and grandfather.” Here in Puerto Rico on that same day, the pro-statehood governor will be leading a too expensive plebiscite pushing his statehood agenda. Much funds have been invested in pushing the statehood platform. Virtually none have gone into explaining the possibilities of the other platforms. In essence, it is not a real democratic plebiscite and the US has never honored these plebiscites anyway just as the corporations did not honor the will of the people for this parade. Many have called for a boycott of the plebiscite. There will also be a pro-independence march that day. Puerto Rico’s crisis goes unresolved. My garbage after three weeks, has gone uncollected. Various municipalities went without light and water last week, no real explanation. Such is another day, in the life of a colony. People carry colonialism in their daily actions and interactions. My daily mission is working to be as free as the land has always been. Till then, I am an artist at her service.
This Friday, June 9th is the last “Pay as you Wish” evening to see the 2017 Whitney Biennial. The exhibit is at the Whitney’s new building in the Meatpacking district, next to the High Line:
Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort Street, New York, NY 10014
Listen to the Whitney Biennial Audio Guide, featuring various artists in the show. Scroll down to Occupy Museums #504 to hear the explanation behind the collective and the Debt Fair project.
July 25th 1998 marked the centennial of the US military occupation of Puerto Rico, taken as war booty from the US’ “splendid little war” against Spain. The year prior to the centennial date, I was graduating from the university and looking for a job. With such a significant date approaching, I sought an opportunity where I could dedicate my time to this issue. I spent my 4 years at Cornell University exploring colonialism and the decolonial struggle of Puerto Rico. Investigating and documenting this process through my art, I was able to earn my degree on my terms, tailoring self-education projects to fulfill the academic requirements set for a Bachelors in Fine Arts. Like Albizu’s Harvard experience, shaped by the local Boston Irish community and their decolonial struggle, I researched other struggles to better understand my own. Aside from art courses, I focused on those from the Latino Studies Program, the American Indian Program and the Africana Studies Department. I supplemented my research with English classes like Revolutionary Thought and Action, a writing seminar with Nigerian-born Igbo Professor Don Ohadike, and Writing Resistance, a graduate level course on the writings of political prisoners taught by Chicano professor Ben Olguín. For this class I wrote a paper on the women political prisoners of Puerto Rico. This course also pushed us beyond the classroom, requiring that our final project be carried out within a prison. In my art, I photocopied subversive political cartoons and passages collected from the many Cornell libraries and collaged these into my paintings so I could take them back to Brooklyn. After graduating, I didn’t want to get stuck in anyone’s office working on anything that had nothing to do with liberation. It was worthy of all my time and attention.
It was 1997. The campus has just recently gone cyber. We had just started to communicate through this thing called email. Not long before, I had to pick up a campus phone to reach someone in another part of campus. When we took over Day Hall, Cornell’s administrative building in 1993 to protest racism on campus, the police shut down the phone system, cutting our communication with the outside. Pero bregamos. 25 years before, during the Willard Straight Hall Takeover on that campus, African-American students had to smuggle in firearms to protect themselves from threats of local white supremacists. In my college days, being an activist wasn’t a choice. If you were a person of color, under financial aid, and chastised for being a product of “affirmative action” by the largely privileged white student body, you were under constant threat and therefore had to act…physically…without email…without cell phones… without text messages…without social media. Such is my generation: the in-betweens. We have lived and understand both sides of the situation. We were the kids who went from rotaries to smart phones and from black and white television (with coat hanger antennas and pliers to turn the channel dial) to Net Flicks.
So one fateful day on that campus in 1997, I received the same email 7 times. Taller Puertorriqueño, Inc. a Puerto Rican based Cultural Arts Center in North Philadelphia was looking for a Youth Artist Program director. The person needed knowledge on Puerto Rican arts & culture and the studio arts background to run a high school art portfolio development program. These 7 emails came from people who believed this job to be perfect for me. I read the description and thought the same thing, but I had never been to Philly and my moms was in Brooklyn and my boyfriend of 4 years (now hubby) was headed back home to Long Island. I had all sorts of reservations, but a few days later was on a Greyhound bus to Philly.
I stepped off the bus, picked up a copy of the Philadelphia Weekly to find Johnny Irizarry (the man who would interview me) on the cover with a mural backdrop of iconic poetess Julia de Burgos in a Puerto Rican flag dress. I boarded the 47 bus up 5th street to North Philly. Reading that article on the bus was like being handed a cheat sheet for a test. By the time I got off on Huntingdon Avenue, I knew that Johnny was leaving his post as Executive Director after 12 years, I knew a whole lot about the organization and what I wanted to be focusing on that year.
I walked in with Ivan who took the trip with me, left him downstairs in the theater and went upstairs for the interview. There was the famous Johnny, stepped off the epic cover of that Philadelphia Weekly and into this office. He sat next to, now Hormigueros-based artist, Damary Burgos. She was leaving the program to move to Puerto Rico with her new husband, artist Ramón López. We introduced ourselves and Johnny asked “You hungry?” He called to someone who returned with a bowl of Puerto Rican pastelón! The heavenly layers of seasoned ground beef and sweet plantanos, topped off with cheese happened to be on the menu that day for the Summer Camp! It was a Puerto Rican interview! I made the mistake of mentioning my boyfriend downstairs. “How you gonna leave him downstairs alone?! Bendito!” Next thing I know Johnny had sent for Ivan. I was grateful but feeling all sorts of awkward being interviewed with my boyfriend sitting in the room just listening (and scarfing his pastelón. They made sure to get him a bowl too). I only regretted being brought into this organization at a time in which these two incredible people were moving on.
Two weeks later I was moving the few boxes I had brought down from Ithaca to Brooklyn to Philadelphia. Two weeks after that, a man walks into my office in a black trench coat and black beret. He sticks out his hand to shake mine and introduces himself, “Luis Sanabria.” Months later Luis is ordering me a mofongo con camarones at a restaurant in a private room they had booked with a whole group of us sitting down to dinner with the freedom fighter of freedom fighters: don Rafael Cancel Miranda.
I was 21. Our freedom fighters had done tons by this age but I still felt like a bright-eyed bushy-tailed (dare I say it) culicagá. Luis had pointed out a painting of mine to don Rafa where I had collaged an image of him and Lolita Lebrón. I was too busy being in a daze of seeing before me, in the flesh, the folks that I had to bust my ass to uncover books about in the Cornell libraries. These people weren’t just in the tales papi told in the car driving down the West Side Highway, across Canal to the Williamsburg Bridge to ENY Brooklyn. They were actual people and nothing was more alive in Philly at the time than the struggle for the release of all our political prisoners. In a little center called Pedro Claver we sat to hear the message of another released political prisoner Antonio Camacho Negrón.
Ivan visited on weekends, joined me on the liberation adventures across Philly. Just as I had dreamed, my job was working with the community around the centennial. The teens themselves gave the program the name Parranda de libertad for a parade we held the eve of the centennial. Collaborating with the Spiral Q Puppet Theater, the students designed puppets and installations around the issues of fertility/ sterilization in Puerto Rico, our political prisoners, colonialism and liberation. On the centennial there was a mobilization in Washington to demand the release of our political prisoners and at the United Nations in New York for Puerto Rico’s liberation.
The following year, April 19, 1999, a US Navy pilot training in Vieques missed his target dropping two 500 lb bombs on an observation point and killing civilian David Sanes Rodríguez. The tragedy revitalized the anti-Navy struggle in Vieques. The people succeeded in forcing the US Navy to close its Camp Garcia base on May 1st, 2003. At midnight of that date, with more than 60 years of US target practice angst pent up, some protesters entered the portones and began destroying tanks, hummers and whatever property they could find. Several of them were arrested as a result and sent to federal prisons in the US to serve their sentences.
This past May 1st, May Day/ the anniversary of the closing of Camp Garcia, the people of Puerto Rico had a paro nacional (national strike), protesting its continued colonial state; the imposition of the colonial junta; the harsh austerity measures forcing the people to pay a debt that the pro-statehood governor refuses to audit; forcing students to be held responsible for paying back bond holders with criminal cuts to the public university. After the mobilizations dissipated, there were no US military tanks, but other such oppressive entities became a target. A group of protesters began destroying bank properties along the infamous milla de oro (golden mile) in Hato Rey. There were many debates as to who these people were and whether or not it should have happened, just as the talk after the Vieques May 1st, 2003 events. As in 2003, protesters were arrested and are being held on harsh charges. But regardless of who acts, whether or not their faces are covered and what people think is the appropriate way to protest, the fact remains that these structures are symbolic of US colonialism in Puerto Rico, destructive structures that at some point or another will fall to karma. The lands taken by the US Navy, have not all been returned to the people. Vieques’ eastern end remains littered with bomb craters and live munitions that they supposedly clean with open-air detonations. With this continued contamination, Vieques has disproportionately high cancer rates. Ironically, in spite of the continued struggle for peace and justice, the closing of the base still marks one of the biggest victories of a colonized people over their oppressor. With supreme court rulings, with la junta colonial, the ugly truths of US colonialism in Puerto Rico have been revealed to the world.
Two weeks ago, May 17, 2017, I traveled to Rio Piedras for the celebration of the release of Oscar López Rivera who served 36 years as a political prisoner of the US. Of the political prisoners we were trying to release back then, 11 were released in 1999. Since then others had been released, except Oscar. It took another 20 years almost to release him. That’s a whole generation’s worth of a struggle. When I arrived at la plaza en Rio Piedras, the first person I recognized on the stage was Luis Sanabria, wearing his black boina (beret) like he did 20 years ago walking into my office at Taller Puertorriqueño. Who besides Oscar delivered a goose bump-inducing message? Don Rafael Cancel Miranda of course. I could scan the crowd and see so many faces I have met over these last 20 years from New York, Connecticut, Chicago, Puerto Rico, all there together celebrating this victory. How many were in the theater of Taller Puertorriqueño in Philadelphia on September 23rd 2005, commemorating el Grito de Lares with former political prisoner Alicia Rodriguez when the program paused for a moment of silence because word was received that the FBI had assassinated Filiberto Ojeda Rios en Hormigueros? Every one of us I’m sure remembers exactly the moment we heard and where we were. This year’s NY Puerto Rican Day parade has Oscar Lopez as one of its many honorees and the town of Hormigueros, where that FBI assassination was carried out, is being honored. It’s no surprise that the corporate entities that have made a sport of exploiting us colonial subjects have chosen to pull support from this act of self-determination. Self-determining is a threat to consumerism.
20 years later, I am making a different commitment. On May 15th, 2017, I celebrated 3 years since my move to Puerto Rico from the NYC where I was born and raised. That same day I resigned from my position as art teacher at my nenes’ school. More than their school, it is a school founded by Mercedes, Oscar’s sister. We moved here to western Puerto Rico, when our boys were 2 and 5 years old, our eldest about to start kinder. Days after our arrival, none other than Damary Burgos, the artist who together with Johnny Irizarry had built the Youth Artist Program in Philly, told me of this school that I needed to visit. I arrived to find Mercedes there and her daughter Wanda. Mercedes spoke to me of the racism she and her family endured after arriving in Chicago from San Sebastian and how it informed her philosophy as an educator and for the school she founded and developed with her heart and soul. She has since retired. The school was the stability we needed moving to a part of Puerto Rico that we have no family in. When Wanda asked me to teach art there, I broke a vow. The vow was that I would never teach in a school. That was my rule in NY. Non-profits, after-schools, CBOs, museums yes, never in-school. But how could you say no to this family or to my nenes’ school? Not to mention I arrived right before the colonial economic crisis went haywire. In Puerto Rico it is rare to say no to a job.
I taught at the school for two years before deciding to return to my art full time. More important is what the school taught me. Not having been raised in Puerto Rico I learned about the diversity of experiences among the youth here; the views towards our history and socio-political situation; the lack of historical context and information for a people bred to not question; the fears and doubts of the young people here, the challenges. With the support of the administrations past and present, I began this last semester with a conversation on Oscar the painter. That afternoon, on January 17, we all went home and heard the news of his sentence having been commuted. The students returned to school the next day buzzing with excitement.
I spent the last weeks of this semester teaching three days and then running the others to Pepino to create a mural of Oscar in his hometown in time for his return home. On the third anniversary of our move, the day that I resigned, I walked back to the art room with tears in my eyes. This school that gave us a home; this school where a family bred in struggle and sacrifice gave their hearts for the betterment of other families. But I knew something had lifted. This land was giving me permission to move on. This teaching experience that was among my greatest challenges in my move to Puerto Rico was a training ground. It gave me so much understanding and clarity about the situation here, something necessary to any decolonial work.
May 17th, the day that Oscar was released, also happened to be my last day teaching at the school. My last group of the day was my nene’s second grade class. Afterwards I traveled to Rio Piedras to Oscar Lopez’ release celebration. There Oscar López Rivera, the people (Diaspora and allies included) and a crowd of freedom fighters spanning a good 7 decades came together affirming a decolonial struggle that is alive and well within a colonial reality that bites down harder as it bears witness to its own demise. My Brooklyn born and bred self may have learned about my ancestral homeland through oral history, books and self-education, but there was an unavoidable calling to live it and feel it for myself. Many of us from out in the Diaspora are being called back. Oftentimes we don’t know where to or why. We often land in random places that we have no family roots in, feeling even more displaced. But we oblige. My family hails from Ponce and Peñuelas. I ended up in Moca. As I bear witness to history in making, I know that all is unfolding perfectly, intricately, as it should, moving us right to where we need to be. I believe in this goddess Borikén and in her truth. Her freedom fighters are testament to the greatness and transcendence of spirit in humanity’s perpetual pursuit of liberation.