Barrio Nerd

Something Rotten is Happening in Holyoke

HolyokeMuralThe debacle in Holyoke continues. A few weeks ago, we published a statement from artist David Flores whose public mural was being denied display in the highly Puerto Rican-populated Massachusetts city.

“On Saturday, September 20, 2014, my Puerto Rican Diaspora-themed piece was commissioned and then excluded from being displayed as part of a public art initiative specifically because of its affirmation of Puerto Rican identity.” – David Flores

A day after we published his statement, the town’s mayor, Alex Morse, responded to the public outcry and decided to give the Boricua-themed public art piece a permanent home in City Hall.

Now the city’s council wants to ban all public art installations. The mayor vetoed this measure. In return, the council is attempting to override this – tomorrow! Read the mayor’s full statement, here.

“Last week, the City Council voted to place a moratorium on future public art installations. I vetoed the order, and tomorrow the Council will decide whether to override my veto. In addition to my veto, I have signed an executive order formalizing the process by which public art may be installed. With this step, I am confident that the Council will choose not to override the veto.” – Mayor Alex Morse.

We should all keep in mind that almost half of Holyoke’s residents are Puerto Rican, but with very few representation in political office and public initiatives. This measure by the city council is in direct response to the controversy over David Flores’ mural, which was created to pay homage to the Holyoke’s Boricua community. In other words, the city’s elected leaders (outside of the mayor) rather trash all public art initiatives than let Latina/os or Puerto Ricans play a role in it. Let’s hope they do not succeed.

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Could the U.S. Government Deport Puerto Ricans?

“Plainly the USA should get rid of this millstone. That’s easier said than done, though. In theory I guess Congress could simply end the “commonwealth” relationship and cut the place loose. In practice this would mean revoking the citizenship of the 3.7 million inhabitants. And what about the five million or so Puerto Ricans who reside in the USA?

Another approach would be to get Puerto Ricans thinking that independence might be a good idea. Perhaps we could try oppressing the place: Make them tenant farmers under absentee landlords, proscribe use of their native tongue, and shut down their churches. Hey, it worked for Ireland.” - How Can We Get Rid of Puerto Rico?

BarrioIcon-Newsletter1x1Ay, nothing seems to surprise me these days, especially when it comes to imperial subjects talking about their colonies. While the above quote and article disturbs me (especially since what the author describes was actually done to Puerto Rico by the U.S. government), I have come to know that the viewpoint does not just belong to extremists, but is part of the mainstream – whether it is said publicly or not. It could also speak to a dangerous trend in political discourse that one day may become official policy.

First, the belief that Puerto Ricans are fully responsible for their (internal)colonial reality allows for Puerto Rico to be in a political limbo with the United States government for over 100 years. Let’s not forget that the archipelago colony is under the legal auspices of the U.S. Congress, as determined by the Supreme Court, i.e. “Puerto Rico belongs to but is not a part of the U.S.” Let’s not forget that there has never been a legally binding referendum (unlike what took place in Scotland) to give its people the opportunity to decide their own future, i.e. self-determination. So, if the author wants to get rid of this “burden”, then they should be pushing the U.S. government to stop practicing imperialism. That also includes taking responsibility for what it has done to the archipelago, namely destroying the local economy for the benefit of its multi-national companies. It’s also curious that the author likes to perpetuate the pathology of the colony’s residents, but forgets the billions of dollars and thousands of jobs the U.S. acquires from the colony – way more than it “invests.” Let keep it real.

Second and, most importantly, the author alludes to a theoretical probability of all Puerto Ricans loosing their U.S. citizenship, including the Diaspora. Yup, you heard me right.

For the last few years, mainstream politicians have been clamoring for the revocation of the 14th amendment, which allows for birth-right citizenship. This is obviously due to anti-immigrant xenophobia. As pathologized colonial subjects Puerto Ricans are racialized as non-white and therefore are also understood as “alien” and “dangerous” to the imperial “body.” If the 14th amendment is ever gotten rid of, then the U.S. Congress could simply strip away the Puerto Rican right to citizenship. Even more – and this might depend on ensuing lawsuits, as well as other factors – is that Boricuas who were born in the U.S. to parents from Puerto Rico could also get their citizenship taken away. That coupled with immediate independence, which the author recommends, could mean that the Boricua Diaspora could be “illegalized” and deported “back” to the archipelago. Scary, isn’t it?

Of course, there is a lot of social, political, and economic factors that need to be considered for what I have described to fully materialize. But the ideas and conditions are out there and, sadly, no one is engaging with them. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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Gentrification, Island Hipsters & Diaspora Communities

BarrioIcon-Newsletter“If gentrification means that more artists are going to move here and make it a better place, then sign me up.”

The above quote has probably been said a million times over by global urban dwellers who have something to gain from the destruction of historic communities. Puerto Rico’s capital is no exception.

For over two decades, there’s been talk, incentives, and concrete projects to “revitalize” San Juan’s Santurce district. This included a heavy rail station connecting it to parts of the metropolitan area, a new art museum, and street festivals.

Today, the New York Times reported on one such “revitalizing” festival, Santurce Es Ley 5. This annual event seeks to restore the peninsula to its former glory through art, music, and murals. One problem however: the quote above was said by its organizer.

Whenever folks with money and influence talk about gentrification being so wonderful and great for everybody, especially when its connected to “universally loved” and allegedly neutral things like art, an eyebrow begins to raise. “Good for whom?” should be the question we’re asking, along with “who has the right to define what’s ‘good’ for a community?”

Its also very telling that this organizer was stated to have lived in New York for a time. Too often colonial governments and their insular middle-class seek to replicate the economic and urban structures of their metropoles – even at risk of their own traffic-filled, polluted, and consumption-obsessed demise.

That’s why my mother’s town prefers to have its lush tropical landscape annihilated for exclusive, gated neighborhoods and biotech factories. Who asked my cousins, aunts, and great-aunts if the land their familial tribe has lived on for generations could be occupied by Disney-esque subdivisions and contaminating industries? Where is the dialogue with longtime residents? Are their visions for their communities included in its development? Also, we should ask – and what’s the most controversial – is the racial and class experiences/ identities of those proposing and benefiting from gentrification. And I ask the same questions for those seeking to “revitalize” Santurce or any other community facing displacement.

In the case of Santurce, I assume its the light-skinned Boricua bourgeoisie who felt more comfortable in a gentrifying Williamsburg with white hipsters than their Nuyorican kin. These are the same minority who enjoy making comparisons between Santurce and Williamsburg without mention of displacement – its origins and implications.

It must also be stated that while all these initiatives have certainly sexied-up these places in the eyes of some, we must keep in mind that San Juan – and Puerto Rico – is a colonial entity. In other words, La Ciudad Capital is a city that cannot control mass emigration and economic collapse, among other things. So no matter how much debt the insular government goes into in order to fund grandeur projects, nothing is really going to change unless there is a process of decolonization. All this is not to say that the amplification of an artist presence and external economic investment doesn’t have positive results; there are folks who feel proud about what’s happening in Santurce. But let’s be more intentional about how – and by whom – its happening and to what ends.

In the end, its the most marginalized (socially, economically, and historically, etc.) who get left out of redefining their communities. In the context of the U.S., that means people of color – Black, Indigenous, Boricua, etc. In Puerto Rico, that means the historically poor in which the negra/o, mulata/o, and trigueña/o are overrepresented. We can’t ignore that. We need to talk about it. We need to acknowledge that there are folks and organizations resisting gentrification. And I comment on all of this not as a Santurce resident, but a Nuyorican exile who have been gentrified out of my home-place more than once, making me more than ready to challenge those who celebrate gentrification, even if they may deny me being a part of our/ their “imagined community.” That is an easy cop-out instead of actually confronting the hard questions and processes towards self-determination.

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Naked Freedom?

BarrioIcon-Newsletter1x1I love to see a naked body any day. A naked Puerto Rican body? Even better! But I’d also like to consent to seeing such things. Apparently, friends and people in the virtual world don’t feel the same, especially since its in the name of art.

Yesterday, three folks were arrested for baring all in the middle of San Juan’s busiest square while being sketched by art students. The performance piece was the graduate project of one of the accused, who upon her release grudgingly stated to Noticel that “the law continues to define the body as something dishonest and impure”.

That is true. The law (in both the colony and Empire) is indeed made up of shaming and dehumanizing mandates towards our bodies and the identities and practices associated with them.

But lets not lose sight here of that fact that they just strolled up onto the plaza and got naked for all and I mean all to see. That means the viejos playing chess, the abuelas going to church, youth going to school, tourists looking for an authentic experience (and ‘chacho they may have found it!). How was their consent received, how were they engaged in the concepts apparently inherent in this act? They probably weren’t, which also speaks to the elitism of performance art, but I digress.

They most likely did it to receive the press they are now gushing over and with the knowledge that they’d be arrested for violating the indecent exposure laws of the Código Penal. In other words, they proved their point.

I bet you’re thinking: Wait, what, Xavi is conservative?! That asshole… Well, I’m all for civil disobedience and provocative acts of protest, but is “freedom of expression” something that we should apply for every act conceived? No. Should we run around supporting every act in the name of art and radical forms of expression? Naw, Im good. Sometimes we got to check ourselves and others.

Interestingly enough the mayor of San Juan said that she personally doesn’t have anything against this form of art and would’ve approved it if they had requested permission. According to her statement to El Nuevo Día the city could’ve provided some type of notice regarding the performance to offer people with a consensual choice whether to view it or not. And I think pedestrians would more often than not decided to see it.

Whether she’s telling the truth its hard to say, since this happened after the fact. But it’s a pretty progressive statement for a mayor of a major city and seemed like a good compromise. Like, who really likes to get arrested? It seems the performers didn’t, as one can see in the video below. Bendito. 

So let’s be mindful of who’s the audience we’re trying to provoke and engage with; and the manner and context of the engagement. And be willing to compromise and not be so quick to support everything because its “art” and “freedom” after that pesky government gets involved. Bandwagon politics really aren’t that cute of a look.

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Puerto Rico Teacher Victory and Penepé Political Opportunism

BarrioIcon-Newsletter1x1According to this article, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court struck down the Governor’s plan to tweak the pension of island teachers. The government claims that the pension system is “$10 billion deficit and would run out of money by 2020.” But the court found their plan to give teachers less in retirement than what they put into the system unconstitutional.

Pro-statehood Resident Commissioner Pierluisi responded with: ”Taking away [teacher's] rights in a disproportionate manner is not fair.” He is right, but what a way to jump on the political bandwagon! It’s as if his party even cares about the island’s public educational system.

Wasn’t it under Pedro Rosselló’s pro-statehood administration that a Secretary of Education went to jail for stealing millions of dollars? Or under Luis Fortuño’s pro-statehood administration where university students were beaten by the police because they dared advocate for affordable, public education? What short term memory these penepés have.

This kind of political opportunism is sickening. Puerto Rico is in a bundle and its government officials don’t know how to get it out of it without flipping the bill on the public, destroying valuable human resources, and adequately addressing one, major root cause: the island’s political relationship with it’s imperial padrino. What a “Macondo” Borinquén continues to be.

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Puerto Rico’s New Immigrants Raises Questions about Race and Empire

BarrioIcon-Newsletter1x1On March 28, LatinoUSA published a story about Dominican and Haitian immigration to Puerto Rico. The report raises (but doesn’t discuss thoroughly) some interesting questions about race, the island’s colonial status, and Caribbean solidarity and xenophobia.

Disrupting Race in Puerto Rico

“In 2006, only two Haitians were apprehended by Border Patrol. Last year, the number was 600.” – LatinoUSA

Puerto Rico is considered to be the “whitest of the Caribbean” due to the amount of residents (75.8 percent) who identify with a white racial identity on the U.S. Census.

One reason, including internalized racism, is because there are few options available for other categories popularly used on the island, like mulata/o, trigueña/o, etc. Another is that there are a lot of European-descended folks. Puerto Rico received nearly half a million Europeans between 1815 and 1898 due to the Real Cédula de Gracia law, which promoted their settlement. There was also a comparatively low amount of enslaved people (unlike Cuba and Jamaica, which were island-wide factories of African genocide); but there were indeed many free folks of color and cimarrones - like my family. 

I bring up this history to help us ponder some important questions. In which ways do recent immigration from a “Blacker” Caribbean disrupt current racial categories? Are they discriminated against primarily due to their (undocumented) immigrant status, accents/ language, or their blackness – or a mix of all these characteristics? What will there influence be on Puerto Rican national culture and identity in future generations? How do Haitian and Dominican immigrants engage with each other in Puerto Rico, when the latter has a history of genocide and legal exclusion of the former – is there solidarity between them as immigrants in Borinquen? In the context of a decreasing and aging population, these questions should be more actively studied, reported on, and addressed.

A Colony With No Control Over Its Borders | Nationalism Can = Solidarity

“My dream isn’t to go back to the Dominican Republic. It’s to pledge allegiance to this flag, to the United States,” she says. “Truthfully, Puerto Rico, I love you.” - LatinoUSA

According to scholar Juan Manuel Carrión, some academics claim that “What a Puerto Rican nationalist really wants, deep down, is to kill a Dominican.” He refers to an imagined perception of nationalism being acquainted with xenophobic hatred and genocide (and not the anti-colonial, liberatory form I’d argue Puerto Rican nationalism often takes). But, this past month Claridad, Puerto Rico’s oldest pro-independence newspaper, dedicated its huge annual festival to the island’s Dominican community. As a part Dominican, Boricua independentista, this makes me proud. To me, there is no disconnect between affirming one’s national identity and standing in solidarity with other oppressed people. Plus, when was the last time pro-statehood folks were called racist; wasn’t it Santini’s penepé administration that denied a permit for a Dominican festivity in San Juan? No hay peor ciego que el que no quiere ver.

However, I do understand where some of the anger – from folks of all ideologies - towards island immigrants may come from (besides issues of language and race). Borinquen is a colony and therefore with no control over its own borders. The current economic collapse only heightens such discontent. Also, there are those who are infuriated by some immigrant’s sworn fidelity to the U.S. imperial project.

There were once a Cuban family who rented an apartment from my cousins in Juncos. Although they only had been on the island for two weeks, they were more pro-statehood than Barbosa or Ferré!

Still, I’d never advocate for them to leave or take an anti-immigrant stance. My nationalism is based on solidarity, as it has been between Puerto Rican independentistas and Mexican communities in Chicago or Blacks in New York, for example. It is my belief that the island’s liberation can happen when – among many other things – new immigrants are engaged and embraced, not ignored or discarded. Thankfully, the island’s independence movement has begun to do this while the Diaspora’s movement continues this long trajectory.

Below is a video (in Spanish) on an “Antillian Solidarity” mural production in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico.

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Thoughts on Puerto Rico’s Million-Dollar Construction Projects

According to this news source, “Puerto Rico is planning a $26.5 million ‘revitalization’ plan for the island’s waterfront areas”

The construction projects will include nine municipalities and apparently produce 300 temporary and 145 permanent jobs to spruce up the look of these locations.

When I first read this I thought – ‘where is the money coming from and to whose benefit?’ Maybe for the North American millionaires the island wants to attract (and maybe as replacement for the poor and middle-class islanders escaping on la guagua aérea)?

In a country in near bankruptcy (but can’t officially file for one), under billions of dollars in debt, a multi-million dollar project is a drop in the bucket. But still, why spend it on fixing playgrounds and touching-up boulevards? Is it because Puerto Rico’s political currency is gained by building something – anything?

This reminds me when former Governor Pedro “El Mesías” Rosselló flirted with a return to politics (he eventually ran again for governor in 2004 and lost – thank God! Unfortunately his son might run for office.). Family, who were thankful he was gone were praising his return. “There was massive corruption in his administration, but at least he did something,!” they cried. What he did was build stuff – coliseums, trains, highways, etc. All construction projects that look nice, gets votes and some low-paying and mostly temporary jobs, and remain as monuments to fantasies of modernity in an island loosing nearly 50,000 people a year. We also can’t forget that construction contracts are generally tied to political connections.

The question also arises who – if anyone – is engaging the surrounding communities of these proposed seafront projects? Will residents be able to have or maintain kiosks to sell merchandise? Are government officials asking them how they think these project could be better designed or executed to more precisely fit the needs of their communities? Or are they just getting notices of construction and jobs and that’s it?

I don’t know for this exact case but I do know how governments generally work. I assume one or two meetings were or will be held to get feedback that someone will take notes on and put in a remote folder as proof that the public was “heard.”

Well, at least, architectural students from the Catholic University of Puerto Rico allegedly produced the project’s conceptual framework – at least!

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