Let There Be Light!

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Lightning over Moca, taken from our terraza

I took a break from this blog… because deadlines happen; because other projects happen; because life happens; because sometimes you lose light and water.  Here, we have an agreement. All work/ art/ architecture related deadlines coming through this home/ office/ studio space are to be completed the day before or earlier.  We must allow at least 24 hours contingency in the event we lose power.  In the rainy season, the clouds rolling over la cordillera central, picking up moisture, heat, energy, dump their daily load, often violently, here in the west before sailing on to the waters of the Mona Passage.  One simple relámpago in the mix is enough to knock out power.  Once the rainy season dies down and the cool dry season picks up, the trade winds come raging with Oya fury through this valle to the llanos of Aguada and Aguadilla.  (note the watery names of these towns) Anything you have on the terraza will be blown over the waters to Punta Cana.  Any such wind can knock down a tree branch or weigh a thick stalk of bamboo down onto a power line, knocking out your light.  If it’s the weekend te fastidiaste because the municipio might not get to it till Monday.  When the light does go out, it’s annoying but no biggie. Turn on the grill, read a book, play outside, cuddle, stargaze.

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Moca during the September 2016 blackout

Let’s just say we live on the edge here. We do, literally. This house clings to the side of a hill, one road along a ridge on this hilltop.  I left New York City and moved to Puerto Rico vowing not to live in another city. We chose to live in el campo.  There is beauty in choices.  I can choose to live this way.  I can choose to figure out how to live independently like my ancestors did, and learn how to gather resources from the land in order to meet the basic needs of our family.  We can work towards self-sufficiency through cooperative economics, through the sharing of resources. Still if there is beauty in the choices, the bravery is in the surrender, the surrender to a greater force that we have no control over. Our ancestors called one such force a god or cemí: juracán.  Worse than last week’s fire at a power plant and the ensuing days with no power, the forces of the Juracán have left people without power for two months, have wiped out homes and entire crops.  

Here is where all our diasporan guapería gets put to the test.  Like the first time you feel the earth shake beneath your feet, or the first time you have to duck down as to not get smacked by a bat mid-flight in the night, or the first time a flying giant cucaracha lands on your hand.  We US-raised boricuas often get caught wondering why people on the island are not resisting at the scale we dream of, oftentimes the scale we ourselves are incapable of achieving in our own resistance.  But we don’t often consider if we have the bravery or commitment to brunt two months post-hurricane of no light, no AC, no fans, no Instagram selfies, no wi-fi.  (many lost cell service these last days, along with their light and water) Hell, a vacation attack by a mob of mimes y mosquitos is enough to send someone scurrying back to Jet Blue and another contingent won’t even board a flight down from media frenzy fear of zika, chikunguya and chupacabras.  I don’t write this arrogantly to say I am now here, and therefore am among the brave. A juracán might find me in a fetal position calling for my mami.  I write contemplating the many assumptions we humans make and the many ways this island has whipped my ass into shape since my arrival.  I contemplate on courage and how relative it is. Many of us criticize others for not being as on point, as brave, as outspoken, as willing to act.  But it turns out that those individuals some criticize are armed and equipped with the necessary skills to carry you through the shit you would shy away from in fear because you have just never had to experience it before and probably wouldn’t know what the hell to do in the situation.  This brings me back to cooperative economics and the sharing of resources.  We would be a lot freer if we committed to criticizing less and collaborating more. We would be a lot freer if we learned to questioned privilege in the world, while simultaneously acknowledging our own privilege and its role in the systems at work. Hierarchical as we humans are, everyone exercises some sort of privilege, down to the most marginalized. If you’re kicking the cat, you are exercising privilege.  

I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York.  Growing up on a third floor, we lost water each summer as the whole neighborhood cooled itself down en la pompa (AKA the fire hydrant).  We kept an empty pail in the tub that we religiously filled each time before stepping into the shower.  If the water happened to stop sprinkling mid-shower, all soaped up, you’d just squat with a cup near the bucket and finish it off.  In the winter I bathed just like that, squatted with a cup and the bucket.  The bathroom was cold as shit, especially those early morning, first thing baths when you know no heat was being given over the sleepy hours.  I could conserve body heat like that, huddled, splashing hot water on my still sleeping body.  But there was water.  And if the light turned off then maybe your family didn’t pay the bill.  

I thought I grew up poor.  I was 20 years old the first time I experienced the idea that light could just turn off and life would go on as usual.  I went with a class to the Dominican Republic. While there I visited one of their famous hair salons.  Midway through my blowout, the salon went dark.  Half my head was straight, shiny, still-smoking strands.  The other was a pile of soaked curls sticking to my neck and shoulders.  Oh shit, what now, I thought.  The beautician froze casually, curling brush in hand, mid-air, with a certain assurance.   A loud noise began roaring from outside. The generators kicked in, the lights came back on, and that mid-air brush caught a lock of wet curls, holding them hostage in the heat. 

My Dominican sorority sister/ DR roommate Rosio told me stories about her childhood visits to the DR when the lights would go out and her family would sing “Se fue la luz, se fue la luz” with a celebratory welcome.  I experienced it again in the community of la Surza while visiting  a one-room schoolhouse that I thought only existed on the TV show Little House on the Prairie.  Various ages and grades side by side in the one-room schoolhouse. That day, knowing they would have visitors, they planned a show for us.  An elder taught the children dances, special harvest dances that had been passed down generations by people who worked the land, passed down from enslaved African ancestors.  When the children became teenagers, he would train them as musicians.  On this day the one-room schoolhouse boomed with the sounds of just three instruments, a tambora, a guira and an accordion.  Midway through the show, the lights went out.  Without missing a beat the children continued dancing, the musicians kept playing.  Little beams of cloudy day light shone in from tiny holes in the zinc roof. I remembered thinking how brave they were.  I remembered all the NYC complaints we had as kids.  All the reasons why school didn’t seem ideal or convenient.  My stateside ego was injured further when I later learned that one of the dancing children was deaf.  He was taught the dance steps by numeric patterns that he would count in his head and he would also be guided by the vibration of the drums pulsing through the earth, into the soles of his bare feet.  

I thought I had grown up poor prior to that trip. That trip to the DR however taught me that my concept of poverty in the US was entirely different than what poverty meant elsewhere.  That day at 20 years old, I came face to face with my privilege of having grown up in the states.  For however much I was raised to see all the injustice in the world, in my surroundings, for however challenging my own experience had been, I had to measure it against a reality different than my own.  In doing so,  I learned that the ay benditos the United States shines down on the rest of the world are actually an attempt to eclipse intrepid cases of, not poverty and survival, but of bravery, innovation, creativity, resistance and the embodiment of autonomy and liberation.  That boy dancing could take out a whole community of americanos whining about some petty shit they be whining about on the regular.  Growing up there, I had inherited this whiny ass gene myself, coupled with the colonial fatalistic ay benditos.  I had to cross the charco to another Caribbean island to see that.  Not to mention that what I saw and felt in the Dominican Republic was exactly what I see and feel from the land of Borikén.  Kinda like living on the 2nd floor and visiting my tia up on the third floor.  Same family, same spirit, just a slight difference in geography.  

The US has a way of turning all into Disneylandish illusion.  What many of us accept as reality is not real at all but a construct, usually a TV or medialand construct, packaged, sold to us, believed by us and perpetuated by all. There is much that the human condition will allow itself to be subjected to in exchange for basic services like food, shelter, light and water.  From powdered milk to free cheese. From Johnny cakes, domplines and fry bread, from ghettos to barrios to the res, military surplus rations distributed as the staple of the poor.  A bunch of carb-loaded, nutrition-lacking fillers.  My tastebuds and gut are still wired to believe that coffee with evaporated milk is  luxurious.  My mouth can’t stand the watered-down consistency of coffee with fresh milk, make mine of the canned kind please!  As a kid the best lunch ever was fried Spam on buttered bread or Spam con cebollas y guanimos.  Boricua jíbaro delicacy on colonialism.  Don’t get me started on our 1898, conquered counterparts Hawaii and their kicking up Spam to notches unknown.  Not to criticize them, just mostly because I’m afraid that when I finally make it to Hawaii, Imma go to town on that Spam.  But aside from how US military food filled our conquered cupboards, free shit for conquered folks is pacification pills tossed to the masses to forget they have nothing to lose so that they don’t become the threat that Fanon wrote about.  Never mind the injustices, the disparities in childbirth, health care, education and lack of neighborhood resources like fresh, affordable, organic produce,  libraries with accessible schedules and basic programming, green space.  Never mind the racism (let’s define it por siaca: the unequal distribution of wealth and resources based on racial prejudice.)  We the conquered, we the colonized, have convinced ourselves that we do just fine as the colonies of the first world with running water, light and free, subsidized, or even ley-de-cabotaje-caro laboratory, genetically modified, carcinogenic food.

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Lightning view from our terraza

But the light though.  Though I have been on this hill for two years, it has only been during the last two weeks that lightning shows of mythic proportions have graced our skies nightly.  Light, electricity and power abound above this land.  We sat on our terraza my husband and I, our two nenes, free family night shows better than the movies. We marveled at the cracks and the glowing sky, its power, its energy. How could we know that in the midst of light shows, in the midst of electric storms, a whole archipelago of a colony would have its light knocked out, its light extinguished in satellite images high above our atmosphere? Gone with it, our water and for many, cell service.  The first world colony with Spam and “When I Was Puerto Rican”-Peanut-Butter-engorged bellies had gone dark!

What happens when the tricksters of the spirit world flip a switch to fuck with the reality you crafted out of disillusion? What happens when el imperio yanqui leaves us in the dark?  What happens when the promesa lie unfurls in universal eyes? What happens when the first world colony goes third world?  

Perhaps the darkness, the drought from el Niño and the drought from the blackout are the universe’s way of saying: the colony has expired, go get your freedom!  Perhaps history has not successfully convinced the masses, history largely unexposed: FBI shut downs of entire towns; National Guard bombings of its own citizens; holding our heroes in solitary confinement with sensory deprivation; a federal sniper bullet to the clavicle of a 72 year old freedom fighter; the atomic frying of our freedom fighters in prison cots and hospital beds; the injection of cancer on unsuspecting victims; the experimenting of agent orange, depleted uranium weapons on our soil; experimenting contraceptive pills and foam on our abuelas; the sterilization of our tías and mothers; the dumping of toxic ashes on our lands; the privatization of our natural resources.  Perhaps the ancestors, the land and all her comrades have upped the ante to ask, what will happen when they take more land, take their food, their water, their light?!  

 

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“Esas estrellas” 2015 Portrait of Rafael Cancel Miranda Yasmin Hernandez Art

“Hay estrellas en el cielo que no vemos porque no las buscamos
La razón de ser de este libro
Es ayudar a encontrar esas estrellas
En nuestros propios cielos.”

(There are stars in the sky that we do not see because we do not seek them
The reason for this book’s existence
Is to help find those stars
In our own skies)

With the above words, Puerto Rican Freedom Fighter, Korean War draft resister, former political prisoner who served 25 years for the freedom of Puerto Rico, Don Rafael Cancel Miranda describes the purpose of his collection of poems in his book Mis dioses llevan tu nombre (My gods carry your name).  The nights of the blackout in Puerto Rico, many people like myself headed outdoors and looked up at our skies.  Facebook and Instagram feeds showed off images of stars and the swirls of the Milky Way.  When the colonial services were cut off, the masses turned to the cosmos, to find our stars in our skies and in them found ourselves.  The Cosmos, as our ancestors knew, is there to remind us of our source.  We are not colonial subjects of any power-hungry mortals. We are ever traveling spirits who come here to elevate ourselves and this place.  As they say, these celestial bodies would not shine were it not for the darkness of space.  We need the darkness to see the light. In this sense, blackouts might be a beautiful thing.

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Light shining through Filiberto’s window, still dotted with bullet holes. September 23rd, 2016.

The darkness reminds us that the colony has expired like US chicken eggs sold in Vieques in November with a stamped expiration date of September 23rd–the date of a revolution usurped and a hunted freedom fighter shot dead by the feds. Driving up from slain Freedom Fighter Filiberto Ojeda Rios’ house,  September 23rd, 2016, 11 years after the FBI shut down the town of Hormigueros to hunt him down, the whole road home was lit with lightning.  Lightning the element of warrior king Shango, returned from the dead as as orisha.  I haven’t painted orishas in years except Eleggua made his way i

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Lares tee by Vagabundo Clothing Co.

n a recent painted tribute to Afro-Boricua revolutionary/ abolitionist/ physician Ramon Emeterio Betances.  I had to call the piece las cuatro esquinas, the crossroads examining systemic oppression but more importantly the intersections of our experiences and a call to unity to overturn said oppression.  Betances, Boricua-born, France-educated, also of Dominican blood, designed our first flag, used for the September 23, 1868 Lares revolution, in visual solidarity with the Dominican flag. Betances called for an Antillean unity between Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba and Jamaica. He called for the uniting of our common ancestries and resources.

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Painting Las cuatro esquinas, Galeria Betances, Mayaguez, Aug 2016


This is the glory of our ancestors and all they did.  We see across the globe that things seem to get worse, but it is a glorious process of unveiling all that does not serve humanity so it can be strategically eliminated. Let the racists unveil and identify themselves.  Let the imperialists, the tyrants reveal themselves. Let there be blackouts so that the necessary will be brought to light.  Let there be light!  Not of the AEE kind, not of the Con Ed or National Grid kind that you plug in or flip a switch.  Let there be light like the sacred bio-luminescence of Pargueras and Bieké bays, the bio-luminescence of cucubanos in flight blending with the stars.  Let there be light of the–solar–celestial plasma kind. A conscious, woke, liberated light….

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Nebula Filiberto, 2015, Yasmin Hernandez Art

 

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