De-Citizens: Albizu, abuelo and our nation of ancestors

Yasmin Hernandez Art, Dignity/ Dissent, 2017, Acrylic on canvas, 12″ x 12″. Part of the Citi100 exhibit commemorating 100 years of the Jones Act.

March 2, 2017, marked the 100 anniversary of the Jones/ Shafroth Act signed by US President Woodrow Wilson. It imposed a second class US citizenship on Puerto Ricans. Second class because although they were made citizens, Puerto Ricans would not be able to participate in presidential elections. Immediately after the signing of the act, the US entered World War I and could recruit Puerto Ricans to fight in their wars or draft them as they did in subsequent wars like in Korea and Vietnam.

My neighbor across the street here in Moca, Puerto Rico marked the occasion with a large US flag waving on his lawn. My community in New York City commemorated the event with a group exhibition that united 100 different artists of the Diaspora in a show called Citi100 (Citi-cien). Each artist was asked to submit a piece in black and white, the colors of our resistance. This resistance is one that has recognized the discrepancies, the injustices, the hypocrisies that said citizenship has represented here in Puerto Rico and throughout its Diaspora.

Living in Puerto Rico for almost three years, it has been startling to see in the flesh how the media, education, the church and society work to perpetuate the colonial cycle by painting everything US as good and beneficial. I see the self-doubt and even elements of self-loathe attached to many things Boricua. For a good part of the population the idea of independence and an existence that isn’t intrinsically tied to the US is deemed unfathomable. The statehood party of Puerto Rico is fixing to storm on Congress with their own representatives insisting on inclusion. Meanwhile in the US folks are running from the theater of the absurd being carried out by the Trump administration. The young people in Puerto Rico pursuing their education to learn their history and truth are responded to by the pro-statehood government with the threat of $300 million cut from the University of Puerto Rico budget.

There was a time in which we were the locas and locos. We liberation lovers were a bunch of idealists living a dream, fantasizing. Now any Diasporican knows the ridiculousness of asking this current US administration for statehood, for inclusion. Hell for a whole century we had citizenship and yet no inclusion even with all those democratic US presidents some of you may have warm and cozy feelings for. Kennedy wanted to enact Plan Dracula that removed graves from Vieques cemeteries to keep its people out of land taken by the US Navy. Bill Clinton offered clemency to 11 of our political prisoners but kept Vieques as a dumping ground for US bombs and weapons testing. Obama gave clemency to Oscar Lopez Rivera but never followed through on clean-up promises made to Vieques and his administration’s idea of help for Puerto Rico came in the form of a fiscal oversight board better known as the colonial junta. It seizes more power from an already powerless Puerto Rican government. Statehooders admit that we are a colony and they respond with wanting in all the way. They want a piece of the pie.

I am of the school that says, take your pie and shove it. It’s like the first wave of feminism dominated by white women in the US, demanding equality for women. Why would we want equality in a system built on oppression? Equality for whom? For white women? Where does that leave the rest of us? Where does that leave our black and brown men already kept out of that system? Feminism had to go back to the drawing board and address these questions. Here we have a bunch of my compatriotas demanding inclusion into a system designed to keep them out. They don’t want you! Stop hanging on to your abusive lover’s leg. Stand the fuck up and leave while you still have a smidgen of dignity!

Yasmin Hernandez Art, Pedro Albizu Campos, 1994, Silkscreen on paper, 14″ x 8″

Speaking of dignity, my piece that I created for the Citi100 exhibition is titled Dignity/ Dissent. It is for me yet another, in a collection of portraits, of my hero Pedro Albizu Campos, introduced to me by my father who was proud to reveal the dignity of his fellow Ponceño/ prócer don Pedro. I created my first portrait of don Pedro when I was 19. It too was in black and white. 23 years later, I create this other black and white Albizu.   El Colectivo Moriviví here in Puerto Rico made it a symbol of our resistance when they repainted a mural of our beautiful flag in black and white. It was taken as a symbol of mourning. All the events of 2016, supreme court rulings, PROMESA, marked the death of the Estado Libre Asociado. Today with Oscar Lopez Rivera back on his ancestral land after 35 years imprisoned in the US on sedition charges, the black and white is a symbol of resistance and a reclaiming of our dignity.

The original black and white of our resistance was in the colors of el Partido Nacionalista de Puerto Rico, of which Pedro Albizu Campos came to be president. In the 1930s he and his party went toe to toe with the oppressive, fascistic regime of US-appointed governor Blanton Winship, a racist military General that had no intentions on helping the Puerto Rican people. By 1936 Albizu Campos and 7 of his comrades were on their way to complete prison sentences on sedition charges. Where? Not in Puerto Rico but in Winship’s own Georgia.

The flag of the Puerto Rican Nationalist party is black and white. This is what I used for my painting together with an image of Pedro Albizu Campos, sitting in a military uniform and high boots. He sits erect in a fancy, hand-carved wooden chair almost like a throne. The image itself seems fascistic, but this fascistic image we see is not of this impassioned Nationalist. This military portrait is of a young Albizu, a Harvard student who thought it was of merit to enlist in the US military in 1917 to help stop the spread of fascism in Europe. He sits in his first lieutenant US Army uniform, not drafted but voluntarily having enlisted. The image on the right of Albizu and his fist up almost shows Albizu resisting not just the new US militarized, colonial version of his homeland of Boriken, but resisting his own former self, having been educated and trained in the institutions of his oppressor.

Albizu’s life reads like a tragic novel or a poem, from being born the grandson of a woman born into slavery; to living in deep poverty; to not starting grade school till age 12; to being brilliant and recruited to study biochemical engineering at the University of Vermont; to being the first Puerto Rican to graduate Harvard Law; to speaking 7 languages; to spending most of his adult life in prison for sedition; to being tortured with radiation by the US government until he finally passes from cancer in 1965. It is a book, a poem that I have spent my life rereading, admiring, crying over, analyzing and painting. I never tire of this story. To get to our school you must drive down carretera 107/ Avenida Pedro Albizu Campos. But virtually none of the students know who he is or that the damn carretera is even called Pedro Albizu Campos. I tell them. Again and again. I make them draw his portrait. Again and again. There is a fundamental pathology to willingly waving the flag of a government who tortured and killed your ancestors and then erased them from your history and stole their names out your mouth.

So like the poetry that is my Borikén, my cousin Kim was sending me messages yesterday with incredible documents and photos she has found while doing our family’s genealogy, the Hernandez Rivera’s from Ponce. I turned off my phone last night after seeing all the amazing images posted of the Citi100 exhibition opening, which in a poetic twist was held at the Clemente Soto Velez Center in the Lower East Side, Soto Velez having been one of Albizu’s comrades also sent to serve a prison sentence in Atlanta, Georgia in 1936 on sedition charges. And he was a poet! We are all living poetry. In the late hours of March 2nd, 2017, 100 years after the Jones Act was signed, I did not see the last image my prima Kim sent. I woke up to it this morning. Kim found my abuelo’s/ her great grandfather’s enlistment card. I had asked yesterday if he had been in the military. She said no. All men had to register in the event of a draft. And there was the document on my phone: Ramón Hernández Rivera; listed as Citizen of the US; birth year 1900; age 18; raza: negro. This document is from 1918, the year after the Jones Act. If I am not mistaken, it is the same year the military photo of Albizu had been taken. Might Albizu had been there at the time my 18 year old grandfather registered in Ponce? Had their paths crossed? My abuelo and tios survived la Masacre de Ponce while Albizu was in prison in Atlanta. To add to the poetry, abuelo is listed as being from Tibes, Ponce, the name shared with the Taíno ceremonial grounds found in this pueblo.  Further poetry, the inscription date is October 30th, date of the famed Jayuya/ island-wide revolution waged against the US 32 years later in 1950.

My abuelo’s military inscription card from Ponce, Puerto Rico, 1918, just one year after the passing of the Jones Act, making Puerto Ricans citizens/ enlisting our men in the US military.

I swear abuelo and Albizu sent that message with this image last night. Our ancestors speak to us poetically through these strategic dates. They want us to know our history, its significance and chronology. They want us to reclaim the dignity they fought for. We see changes in the tides. We see Don Rafael Cancel Miranda on Puerto Rico prime time news speaking about Oscar Lopez Rivera and how this nation does not want to be enslaved by colonialism. There is a beautiful part of this nation and this Diaspora that want no part of anyone’s broken system, built on the backs of oppressed people, people still oppressed. With them I am inspired to live the poetry of my ancestors, taking notes on their instructions on how to build a better way. There IS a better a way waiting to be built by us.

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  1. Pingback: News (March 2017)

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