Willie Colón & Oscar López: The pathology or revelation that colonialism inspires in the psyche

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Ironic cover art by the incredible Izzy Sanabria


Yo creo en muchas cosas que no he visto y ustedes también, lo sé

No se puede negar la existencia de algo palpado por más etereo que sea
no hace falta exhibir una prueba de decencia de aquello que es tan verdadero
el unico gesto es creer o no.
algunas veces hasta creer llorando
se trata de un tema incompleto porque le falta respuesta
Respuesta que alguno de ustedes, quizas le pueda dar

(I believe in many things I have not seen and I know you also have
The existence of something palpable cannot be negated for however ethereal it may be
It is unnecessary to provide proof of that which is so real
The only choice is to believe or not
Sometimes even believe crying
This is about an incomplete song [or topic] because it lacks an answer
An answer that perhaps one of you might provide )

“Oh que será” (What can it be?) has been, and has not ceased to be, my favorite song by Willie Colón. It is a song that contemplates the “magical realism” of our existence, of what is, even when others or we ourselves cannot see it. I have loved this song since I was a little girl. Perhaps my upbringing and continued beliefs in espiritismo drew me to Colón’s voice singing “son fatasmas, son los fatasmas.”

This is the song that came to mind as I contemplated the recent controversy with Colón denouncing the New York Puerto Rican Day Parade’s decision to name as one of its honorees, the recently released Puerto Rican Political Prisoner of 36 years, Oscar López Rivera. Actually it was a collection of Colón-shaming posts involving his family that brought this song to mind. This isn’t a simplistic testimony in defense of Colón. Nor am I here to judge him. The accounts of sexual pathology, drug addiction, negativity, inferiority complexes, throwing oneself and each other under the bus, actually read like stories of my own family and yours too probably. Remember, as a colonized people, our trauma and pathology run deep.

elregalodelosreyes_YasminHernandezArt
detail, my mural celebrating Oscar’s release. “El regalo de los reyes” 2017, San Sebastian, Puerto Rico.

This isn’t even a defense of my hero Oscar López Rivera, though I must say this. Pro-statehood, New Progressive Party Governor of Puerto Rico Ricky Roselló advocated for Oscar’s release but now calls for supporters to pull out of the parade. Protecting his plans for a pro-statehood referendum he now finds it beneficial to disassociate from the freedom fighter whose very release he supported. Statehooders speak passionately about becoming part of the United States, so why won’t they take former US president Barack Obama’s decision as legitimate? In response to the people’s petitions, and a decades-long campaign with international support, Obama decided that, approaching 36 years in prison, López had served his time. He commuted his sentence. Why are we seeing hypocrites rising to put Oscar back on trial? Colonialism is a helluva drug.

This is not a note on boycotts and it certainly is not a note on electoral politics. This is a contemplation on that palpable, though invisible, yet real as fuck thing that like Willie’s fantasmas and el cuco scare the shit out of every Puerto Rican and every human being for that matter. This is about liberation. Yes liberation. That thing that most of us are afraid to speak of and would rather sell out our own to convince the overseers that we aren’t crazy enough to think such terrible things, dare dream such dreams? 1776 dreams of independence for another colony.

It is 2017 and this colony with the colonial capitalist name of Rich Port still exists… mostly because we have been taught to fear well enough. But this isn’t about those who fear the responsibility that the maximum expression of their highest liberated selves would bring. Many of us speak of liberation as this incredible thing that we must all achieve. Few of us are willing to take the necessary steps to get there. What if Puerto Rico became independent today? What is the state of our collective psyche to manage independence? We know the scary narrative of the colonized mentality that persists long after the imperialist has lifted their yoke. We know the narrative of destabilized economies globally, left in ruins by colonialism, as we bear witness, joining the ranks of these.

Money is tangible, counted and measured. But what about those elements, those colonial cucos, those fantasmas, invisible ghosts that are not always seen? What of the pathology that colonialism injects then leaves to spread like cancer in the minds of the colonized? What are the ramifications of having had your land, your culture, your history taken from you? What are the end results of having your heroes systematically demonized then erased entirely and replaced with foreign heroes? How many of us have been raised in invisibility then spoon-fed the heroes of our oppressors as the true examples of great men (in their perpetual imperialist patriarchy)? How many of us have been raised to doubt the value of our own identities and go to great lengths to assume false identities that are more digestible to others? How many of us, attempting and failing at keeping up this charade, have fallen to alcohol, drugs, to sexual pathologies, to eating disorders, to abusing our loved ones, to abusing our own bodies in myriad ways?

Never mind the oppressor for a minute. Do you colonize yourself daily? How do you work to decolonize yourself? How do your work to liberate yourself? Are you already conscious and woke but still see random bouts of subliminal fascism, internalized racism creeping into your day to day life, into your relationships? How many of us are conscious of these truths? How many of us pursue, love, sex, grades, degrees, careers, children, money, houses and cars as conquests that we claim for our own false sense of validation? Do we patch up the wounds of being a conquered people by taking any opportunity possible to conquer something for ourselves?

ElizamdetailYasminHernandezArt
detail, “Eso que llamamos la libertad” my 2016 portrait of Elizam Escobar”.

Lets take a close, compassionate look at the greater implications of nationhood, humanity, true liberation lest we build a country of broken spirits carrying out the same abusive tactics of our oppressors. Former political prisoner/ Oscar López comrade Elizam Escobar once said at a conference that liberation is not a state of being, it is a practice. In other words, there’s no signing on the dotted line that can free us. The Nationalists were arrested, imprisoned and tortured with a straight colony prior to 1952 and they still were post 1952’s bullshit new “Free Associated State” status. The only thing that status did to shift the reality was create more paperwork–a newly drafted-for-us constitution, a new de-clawed version of our national anthem. That sort of thing. We are still a colony over 60 years after that law was passed.

It seems that Colón has rescinded his message, even stated that he too had advocated for the release of Oscar López, just does not agree with his being honored in the parade. Those who know, know not to ever talk of Oscar López having been freed. See, the fact of the matter here is that it should have been the other way around. Oscar himself, from his cell in Terre Haute, Indiana should have advocated for the freedom of all of us on the outside. “Aquello que es tan verdadero” is that Oscar and all these political prisoners past and present, given their sacrifice, having survived the ordeal of physical confinement and torture, had no choice other than to figure out how to get free. In their case, colonialism, bearing down with imprisonment and torture, inspired in them a profound understanding and appreciation for that which had been stolen from them. Stripped of all amenities, coca colas, parades in confinement, the one thing they find themselves with day in and day out is their own spirit. What fuels a spirit is simple and simultaneously complex: love, light, liberation and progress. There in solitude one learns that their own company is the love of their own spirit and the love from the outside that one cannot touch or necessarily see, but is felt. Like Willie’s fantasmas it is palpable nonetheless. There in the hole, in solitary confinement with no light of the sun, one finds that all the light we need is already to be found within so long as we nurture it. The human spirit in adversity finds that we are born fully equipped with all that we already need. So before their release, before any pardon or commutation signed by Carter, Clinton or Obama, our political prisoners had long been free. “No se puede negar la existencia de algo palpado por más etereo que sea.”

2006YasminHernandezArt_Dylcia
“Querer ser libre” my 2006 portrait of Dylcia Pagán”

Former political prisoner Dylcia Pagán said, “I went into prison a free woman and I came out definitely as free as a woman could be.” 19th century revolutionary, liberationist/ abolitionist/ physician Ramon Emeterio Betances said “Querer ser libre es empezar a serlo” (having the desire to be free is the first step towards ones freedom). So the question we must ask is what are we waiting for? No parade, nor march, nor government can give us our freedom. It would be fucked up to achieve independence for Puerto Rico and be a nation full of emotionally dependent, broken spirits. And what’s lovely is that this is not a Puerto Rican matter. This is a matter for all humanity. Hell the US is almost 250 years old, but having been founded with that desire to conquer, to conquer land and to conquer other people that they deemed to be inferior to themselves, 250 years later, the country is still run by the very racist principles with which it was founded. Out of almost 250 years in existence, the civil rights movement only happened in the last 60 years. We still see those who believe it never happened, living out life with the same archaic principles by which those lands were conquered. We have modern-day conquerors trying to change the name of Harlem, using their bikes to run over boricuas in Williamsburg, dumping toxic ashes in Peñuelas and flattening trees in Playuela in the name of one of the most ferocious conquerors to walk the planet. How’s that for Darwin and evolution? Not much has changed.

The corporate capitalist cyber battle against Oscar López Rivera is nothing to be shocked by. It is the truth revealing itself more and more. It is colonialism unraveling before our eyes. As it does, it reveals the missing “respuesta.” The answer is a new, anti-colonial strategy that beckons us to evolve as a people. It beckons us to not repeat the same ole’ anti-colonial strategies that have successfully secured independence in the past but have failed in producing effective nations of peace and justice.   It beckons us to reflect back on our ancestors’ struggles, on previous revolutionary struggles and on the lessons learned from global human and civil rights struggles. May these strategies be decolonial, meaning they transcend beyond the relationship to the imperialist to examine, overturn and heal the long-lasting effects of colonialism, racism and oppression well beyond the achievement of independence.

All this bad mouthing, betraying, violence, patriarchy, homophobia, conquest stems from an absence of love. We have all conquered or been conquered. Been the victim, and fucked someone over or fucked someone up or just plain fucked somebody along the way with our own fucked-up-ness. It is all the organic, human process towards liberation–one that is intrinsically woven into the pursuit of love and the act of loving. We as a nation cannot arrive at liberation without the suffering and struggle we have already been through. We as people cannot arrive at our highest selves without the struggles and challenges that we have survived and inflicted and without healing from these and helping those we hurt heal. Lets honor each of these adversities as a necessary path towards that ultimate goal. Willie and the boycotters are a necessary part of an intricate universal plan to bring us all where we need to be. Before we take another blow at the colonizer or at each other, we must take the necessary steps to self-liberate or at least get the process started. It would make our efforts and strategy way more effective and our nation an expression of humanity at its best. By no means take a break from tronando contra el tirano (thundering against the tyrant), but if that is your only strategy, you have already failed.

Just to illustrate the irony and complexity of colonialism, I will end this message with words that Willie Colón himself speaks at the end of that intro to my still favorite song of his:

“Es un tema en technicolor para hacer algo útil del amor. Para todos Nosotros, amén”

(It is a technicolor song to make something useful out of love. For all of us, amen)

May your living and loving be decolonial, the ultimate liberation strategy.
In gratitude always to the goddess teacher that is Borikén,

Yasmín Hernández Quirindongo
May 27th, 2017
Moca, Puerto Rico

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