Activism, Politics, and Hip Hop: Interview with Luis Gallardo

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By: Ada Álvarez

Luis Gallardo has spent much of the last decade organizing communities, combating gentrification, filing activist lawsuits, and drafting citizen initiative legislation. Gallardo, a second term city council member in Aguas Buenas, has now decided to turn his activism up a notch and run for San Juan’s State House district 5 under the Popular Democratic Party. He has since taken to outlets such as The Hill, The Guardian, Latino Rebels, La Respuesta, and Al Jazeera to clamor for citizen participation, the redistribution of power, and a common front against statehood. Recently, Gallardo spoke with me about politics, the diaspora, and his love for underground hip-hop music. Here is what he had to say.

5_luisgallardoWhile many young people flee Puerto Rico, you stay. What do you see needs to be done for that to stop?

Jobs. Folks here can find only low-paying, minimum-wage jobs, but they can’t find good-paying jobs that you can raise a family on. If you hop a plane stateside you could find that same job paying double or triple more. We jump with joy when a manufacturing plant or a big box department store opens up shop in Puerto Rico, but often their jobs are crap. What we need is better paying jobs and we have to create and try new ways to do that. The House of Representatives is pushing big time for small, medium, and local business development. That’s the right path.

I am an advocate of Senator Cirilo Tirado’s proposal to increase the Puerto Rican minimum wage, obviously with safeguards for small and local businesses. Hell, I’d love to eventually see a living wage. I’m also down with House President Jaime Perelló’s small, medium, and local business development initiative. Big box and foreign inventor jobs might be fast and numerous, but they are also the first jobs to disappear. We need to build from the bottom up.

Democratic participation is something you promote. What is that and why is it important?

The government doesn’t work. I can agree with Reaganites up to this point [laughs]. It suited its purpose during Puerto Rico’s Industrial Age when we needed a highly centralized body to construct highways and public utility infrastructure. But during the last decades we have seen government efficiency grind to a halt. San Juan Representative Sonia Pacheco [PPD, district 3] is always complaining on her Facebook about how slow government agencies are. If a legislator is finding obstacles wrestling with public agencies, just imagine how hard it is for everyday average citizens.

Even after former governor Luis Fortuño’s overhaul of certain government processes, things still seem just as bogged down. The solution is not more government programs and reform packages. The solution is radical decentralization and democratization. We are surrounded by so many abandoned, unfinished white elephant public works. We are swamped by massive public debt. But the citizenry has never had a say so in construction projects and government loans. That’s why I have been very adamant about citizen participation, particularly through initiatives such as participatory budgeting and bond referendum. Citizens are not only in the best position to identify their own needs, but also have the know-how and urgency to identify solutions to those needs. Politicians cannot be scared of democracy and must shake off the stigma that people don’t have the capacity to run the roadshow.

Define activism and what is your bigger cause.

Activism is just an extension of citizen participation. The worst thing that we could do is be passive. We can’t just sit around and wait for the government to do things for us. That just fosters paternalism and top-down politics. That in turn fosters things like bureaucracy and corruption. The budget and other public goods are not assets owned by some sort of mythical third-party. Every street, park, and lamppost belongs to us, collectively. We need to realize that and be responsible custodians. Part of that includes inserting ourselves into public processes and even politics.

As for my biggest cause, I would have to say it is democracy. Not that watered down, generic, once-every-four-years democracy, but real democracy where every citizen can and has a say so in the things that goes on around them.

1_luisgallardoWhat impact did Hip Hop have in your life?

Oh boy. It has probably been one of the biggest influences in my life. I grew up listening to gangsta rap, glorifying things such as violence and materialism. But it wasn’t until I stumbled upon a KRS-ONE album that I fell head over heels for underground, old school, and alternative hip-hop. You know, stuff with a positive message. Hip-hop culture introduced me to activism, community organization and self-education. It was cats like KRS, Chuck D, and Rakim that motivated me to crack open a book. I think that the glitter and crap of modern day rap prevents people from seeing just how much of a revolutionary movement it was during its golden years. It still is. What comes to mind is that Dead Prez line, “would you rather have a Lexus or justice? A dream or some substance? A Beamer, a necklace, or freedom?”.

Culture is a method of resistance. How do you pair that with your musical interest?

Many of these sub-cultures and fringe music genres that pop up every few years are efforts by youth to try to wrestle away from the establishment. “Just leave me alone, I’m trying to do my thing. Stop trying to fit me in a box,” is the recurring message. You hear that in everything from punk to hip-hop.

Why politics?

I know that politics has a bad rep, but when you break it down into its most literal definition, community organization and activism are forms of politics. Electoral and partisan politics are one way of doing it. It just happens to be the route that I tumbled into. I found my niche within the Popular Democratic Party.

How do you feel as a young candidate?

Good, I guess. How am I supposed to feel? [Laughs]. I first got into public administration at 22, and that was pretty hard. Supervising up to 14 employees, all of whom are older than you, is definitely a challenge. But whatever. You have to prove yourself in almost every aspect of your life. I enjoy that I can connect and hang out with young voters. I also hope to demonstrate to them that they too can inject themselves into the political process.

What are the most common critiques you receive?

You would think that I would receive criticism from my age, but that hasn’t been the case. I’ve been in this world for quite a while, so I feel that I can hold my own.

I have received comments from fellow politicians from both ruling parties telling me that citizen participation in politics is dangerous. Sometimes my fellow candidates think that it’s just discourse. But when they glance at my municipal legislator record and proposals they can sometimes get uneasy. There are plenty of people, including a lot of voters, that believe that average citizens do not have the capacity to rule themselves. That they are too easily swayed by cheap political slogans and generic campaign promises. Maybe I’m an idealist, but I simply do not agree. We have been governed for decades by technocrats, top dollar consultants and highly trained bureaucrats. And look at the mess that we’re in. So you really can’t dog participatory democracy until you try it.

People are tired of traditional politics. They’re tired of generic photos, empty slogans, baby kissing and campaign promises. We have to admit that.  The fact that I am a member and militant of one of the two main ruling parties may upset said folks who are disenfranchised with the way things are, especially independent or nonaffiliated voters, and people with activist or advocacy credentials. I myself come from a community organization background, which tends to be a sector that doesn’t involve itself in partisan politics. There’s a negative perception that every politician is crap. It’s a bit of a challenge breaking through that stereotype. The Popular Party is what brought the Special Communities program, the Caño Martín Peña trust, the Citizen Participation office in the House, participatory budgeting in San Juan, and protections against eminent domain. There is plenty of space to push for social justice and participatory democracy within the Party.

You lived in the States and now you’re in Puerto Rico. Define that process and explain your formation.

I was raised stateside but would come to Puerto Rico twice a year to spend time with family. I would look forward to our summer and Christmas trips and would be eager to run and roll around the mountains of my family’s Aguas Buenas. I would spend the rest of the year talking about how Puerto Rico was the best. When I turned 18 I came back to Puerto Rico and still walked around talking about how it’s the best. Living here and vacationing twice a year are two different experiences, but I still walk around stuck in a constant state of nostalgia. I love this island.

Despite living in the States, my mother did instill into me a very strong Puerto Rican identity. Though apolitical, my household was very proud. Of course there were some adjustments that needed to be made. I had to relearn Spanish, being one of those kids that understands what their parents are saying in Spanish but responds in English. Being around my grandfather who always had a dirty mouth, it took me a while to discover that many bad words were actually bad words. I still mispronounce some words in Spanish incorrectly and only now have I gotten the swing of writing accents. I also had to get used to the traffic jams, long lines, and the seemingly endless bureaucratic process every time you need to get something like a license or certificate. This is a readjustment that all of us have to go through. When I run into fellow Puerto Ricans born or raised in the states, we laugh about these things.

What do you have to stay to the diaspora?

We are all one in the same. Don’t pay attention to stateside Boricuas who talk mess about the island, and don’t pay attention to the occasional island Boricuas who downplay our “boricua-ness”. We have to maintain communication between our two communities and we need to keep building. I’m pumped up each time I see someone like Carmen Yulín Cruz in New York, or New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito in Puerto Rico. I also love seeing stateside artists throwing up tags and murals in our Santurce streets. We have to keep this back-and-forth cultural, political and demographic exchange alive. Diaspora Boricuas are an integral part of Puerto Rican culture. I always point out that our flag was designed in New York and our salsa music developed in the diaspora. If it wasn’t for our migrating and diaspora brethren, God knows how much longer Spanish danza and Cuban guaracha would have been the dominating musical force in our island. How more “Puerto Rican” can we be?

Also, come home as often as you can. Enjoy your island and don’t be scared away by media sensationalism concerning crime and economic woes. I always joke around saying that the water pressure may be low in rural Aguas Buenas and the traffic might suck, but those are the prices the pay to live in paradise.


Ada Álvarez is an activist and freelance reporter. She earned a Master’s in Science in Mass Communication from FIU, and a Bachelor’s in Arts in Journalism from the University of Puerto Rico.

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