July 25th 1998 marked the centennial of the US military occupation of Puerto Rico, taken as war booty from the US’ “splendid little war” against Spain. The year prior to the centennial date, I was graduating from the university and looking for a job. With such a significant date approaching, I sought an opportunity where I could dedicate my time to this issue. I spent my 4 years at Cornell University exploring colonialism and the decolonial struggle of Puerto Rico. Investigating and documenting this process through my art, I was able to earn my degree on my terms, tailoring self-education projects to fulfill the academic requirements set for a Bachelors in Fine Arts. Like Albizu’s Harvard experience, shaped by the local Boston Irish community and their decolonial struggle, I researched other struggles to better understand my own. Aside from art courses, I focused on those from the Latino Studies Program, the American Indian Program and the Africana Studies Department. I supplemented my research with English classes like Revolutionary Thought and Action, a writing seminar with Nigerian-born Igbo Professor Don Ohadike, and Writing Resistance, a graduate level course on the writings of political prisoners taught by Chicano professor Ben Olguín. For this class I wrote a paper on the women political prisoners of Puerto Rico. This course also pushed us beyond the classroom, requiring that our final project be carried out within a prison. In my art, I photocopied subversive political cartoons and passages collected from the many Cornell libraries and collaged these into my paintings so I could take them back to Brooklyn. After graduating, I didn’t want to get stuck in anyone’s office working on anything that had nothing to do with liberation. It was worthy of all my time and attention.
It was 1997. The campus has just recently gone cyber. We had just started to communicate through this thing called email. Not long before, I had to pick up a campus phone to reach someone in another part of campus. When we took over Day Hall, Cornell’s administrative building in 1993 to protest racism on campus, the police shut down the phone system, cutting our communication with the outside. Pero bregamos. 25 years before, during the Willard Straight Hall Takeover on that campus, African-American students had to smuggle in firearms to protect themselves from threats of local white supremacists. In my college days, being an activist wasn’t a choice. If you were a person of color, under financial aid, and chastised for being a product of “affirmative action” by the largely privileged white student body, you were under constant threat and therefore had to act…physically…without email…without cell phones… without text messages…without social media. Such is my generation: the in-betweens. We have lived and understand both sides of the situation. We were the kids who went from rotaries to smart phones and from black and white television (with coat hanger antennas and pliers to turn the channel dial) to Net Flicks.
So one fateful day on that campus in 1997, I received the same email 7 times. Taller Puertorriqueño, Inc. a Puerto Rican based Cultural Arts Center in North Philadelphia was looking for a Youth Artist Program director. The person needed knowledge on Puerto Rican arts & culture and the studio arts background to run a high school art portfolio development program. These 7 emails came from people who believed this job to be perfect for me. I read the description and thought the same thing, but I had never been to Philly and my moms was in Brooklyn and my boyfriend of 4 years (now hubby) was headed back home to Long Island. I had all sorts of reservations, but a few days later was on a Greyhound bus to Philly.
I stepped off the bus, picked up a copy of the Philadelphia Weekly to find Johnny Irizarry (the man who would interview me) on the cover with a mural backdrop of iconic poetess Julia de Burgos in a Puerto Rican flag dress. I boarded the 47 bus up 5th street to North Philly. Reading that article on the bus was like being handed a cheat sheet for a test. By the time I got off on Huntingdon Avenue, I knew that Johnny was leaving his post as Executive Director after 12 years, I knew a whole lot about the organization and what I wanted to be focusing on that year.
I walked in with Ivan who took the trip with me, left him downstairs in the theater and went upstairs for the interview. There was the famous Johnny, stepped off the epic cover of that Philadelphia Weekly and into this office. He sat next to, now Hormigueros-based artist, Damary Burgos. She was leaving the program to move to Puerto Rico with her new husband, artist Ramón López. We introduced ourselves and Johnny asked “You hungry?” He called to someone who returned with a bowl of Puerto Rican pastelón! The heavenly layers of seasoned ground beef and sweet plantanos, topped off with cheese happened to be on the menu that day for the Summer Camp! It was a Puerto Rican interview! I made the mistake of mentioning my boyfriend downstairs. “How you gonna leave him downstairs alone?! Bendito!” Next thing I know Johnny had sent for Ivan. I was grateful but feeling all sorts of awkward being interviewed with my boyfriend sitting in the room just listening (and scarfing his pastelón. They made sure to get him a bowl too). I only regretted being brought into this organization at a time in which these two incredible people were moving on.
Two weeks later I was moving the few boxes I had brought down from Ithaca to Brooklyn to Philadelphia. Two weeks after that, a man walks into my office in a black trench coat and black beret. He sticks out his hand to shake mine and introduces himself, “Luis Sanabria.” Months later Luis is ordering me a mofongo con camarones at a restaurant in a private room they had booked with a whole group of us sitting down to dinner with the freedom fighter of freedom fighters: don Rafael Cancel Miranda.
I was 21. Our freedom fighters had done tons by this age but I still felt like a bright-eyed bushy-tailed (dare I say it) culicagá. Luis had pointed out a painting of mine to don Rafa where I had collaged an image of him and Lolita Lebrón. I was too busy being in a daze of seeing before me, in the flesh, the folks that I had to bust my ass to uncover books about in the Cornell libraries. These people weren’t just in the tales papi told in the car driving down the West Side Highway, across Canal to the Williamsburg Bridge to ENY Brooklyn. They were actual people and nothing was more alive in Philly at the time than the struggle for the release of all our political prisoners. In a little center called Pedro Claver we sat to hear the message of another released political prisoner Antonio Camacho Negrón.
Ivan visited on weekends, joined me on the liberation adventures across Philly. Just as I had dreamed, my job was working with the community around the centennial. The teens themselves gave the program the name Parranda de libertad for a parade we held the eve of the centennial. Collaborating with the Spiral Q Puppet Theater, the students designed puppets and installations around the issues of fertility/ sterilization in Puerto Rico, our political prisoners, colonialism and liberation. On the centennial there was a mobilization in Washington to demand the release of our political prisoners and at the United Nations in New York for Puerto Rico’s liberation.
The following year, April 19, 1999, a US Navy pilot training in Vieques missed his target dropping two 500 lb bombs on an observation point and killing civilian David Sanes Rodríguez. The tragedy revitalized the anti-Navy struggle in Vieques. The people succeeded in forcing the US Navy to close its Camp Garcia base on May 1st, 2003. At midnight of that date, with more than 60 years of US target practice angst pent up, some protesters entered the portones and began destroying tanks, hummers and whatever property they could find. Several of them were arrested as a result and sent to federal prisons in the US to serve their sentences.
This past May 1st, May Day/ the anniversary of the closing of Camp Garcia, the people of Puerto Rico had a paro nacional (national strike), protesting its continued colonial state; the imposition of the colonial junta; the harsh austerity measures forcing the people to pay a debt that the pro-statehood governor refuses to audit; forcing students to be held responsible for paying back bond holders with criminal cuts to the public university. After the mobilizations dissipated, there were no US military tanks, but other such oppressive entities became a target. A group of protesters began destroying bank properties along the infamous milla de oro (golden mile) in Hato Rey. There were many debates as to who these people were and whether or not it should have happened, just as the talk after the Vieques May 1st, 2003 events. As in 2003, protesters were arrested and are being held on harsh charges. But regardless of who acts, whether or not their faces are covered and what people think is the appropriate way to protest, the fact remains that these structures are symbolic of US colonialism in Puerto Rico, destructive structures that at some point or another will fall to karma. The lands taken by the US Navy, have not all been returned to the people. Vieques’ eastern end remains littered with bomb craters and live munitions that they supposedly clean with open-air detonations. With this continued contamination, Vieques has disproportionately high cancer rates. Ironically, in spite of the continued struggle for peace and justice, the closing of the base still marks one of the biggest victories of a colonized people over their oppressor. With supreme court rulings, with la junta colonial, the ugly truths of US colonialism in Puerto Rico have been revealed to the world.
Two weeks ago, May 17, 2017, I traveled to Rio Piedras for the celebration of the release of Oscar López Rivera who served 36 years as a political prisoner of the US. Of the political prisoners we were trying to release back then, 11 were released in 1999. Since then others had been released, except Oscar. It took another 20 years almost to release him. That’s a whole generation’s worth of a struggle. When I arrived at la plaza en Rio Piedras, the first person I recognized on the stage was Luis Sanabria, wearing his black boina (beret) like he did 20 years ago walking into my office at Taller Puertorriqueño. Who besides Oscar delivered a goose bump-inducing message? Don Rafael Cancel Miranda of course. I could scan the crowd and see so many faces I have met over these last 20 years from New York, Connecticut, Chicago, Puerto Rico, all there together celebrating this victory. How many were in the theater of Taller Puertorriqueño in Philadelphia on September 23rd 2005, commemorating el Grito de Lares with former political prisoner Alicia Rodriguez when the program paused for a moment of silence because word was received that the FBI had assassinated Filiberto Ojeda Rios en Hormigueros? Every one of us I’m sure remembers exactly the moment we heard and where we were. This year’s NY Puerto Rican Day parade has Oscar Lopez as one of its many honorees and the town of Hormigueros, where that FBI assassination was carried out, is being honored. It’s no surprise that the corporate entities that have made a sport of exploiting us colonial subjects have chosen to pull support from this act of self-determination. Self-determining is a threat to consumerism.
20 years later, I am making a different commitment. On May 15th, 2017, I celebrated 3 years since my move to Puerto Rico from the NYC where I was born and raised. That same day I resigned from my position as art teacher at my nenes’ school. More than their school, it is a school founded by Mercedes, Oscar’s sister. We moved here to western Puerto Rico, when our boys were 2 and 5 years old, our eldest about to start kinder. Days after our arrival, none other than Damary Burgos, the artist who together with Johnny Irizarry had built the Youth Artist Program in Philly, told me of this school that I needed to visit. I arrived to find Mercedes there and her daughter Wanda. Mercedes spoke to me of the racism she and her family endured after arriving in Chicago from San Sebastian and how it informed her philosophy as an educator and for the school she founded and developed with her heart and soul. She has since retired. The school was the stability we needed moving to a part of Puerto Rico that we have no family in. When Wanda asked me to teach art there, I broke a vow. The vow was that I would never teach in a school. That was my rule in NY. Non-profits, after-schools, CBOs, museums yes, never in-school. But how could you say no to this family or to my nenes’ school? Not to mention I arrived right before the colonial economic crisis went haywire. In Puerto Rico it is rare to say no to a job.
I taught at the school for two years before deciding to return to my art full time. More important is what the school taught me. Not having been raised in Puerto Rico I learned about the diversity of experiences among the youth here; the views towards our history and socio-political situation; the lack of historical context and information for a people bred to not question; the fears and doubts of the young people here, the challenges. With the support of the administrations past and present, I began this last semester with a conversation on Oscar the painter. That afternoon, on January 17, we all went home and heard the news of his sentence having been commuted. The students returned to school the next day buzzing with excitement.
I spent the last weeks of this semester teaching three days and then running the others to Pepino to create a mural of Oscar in his hometown in time for his return home. On the third anniversary of our move, the day that I resigned, I walked back to the art room with tears in my eyes. This school that gave us a home; this school where a family bred in struggle and sacrifice gave their hearts for the betterment of other families. But I knew something had lifted. This land was giving me permission to move on. This teaching experience that was among my greatest challenges in my move to Puerto Rico was a training ground. It gave me so much understanding and clarity about the situation here, something necessary to any decolonial work.
May 17th, the day that Oscar was released, also happened to be my last day teaching at the school. My last group of the day was my nene’s second grade class. Afterwards I traveled to Rio Piedras to Oscar Lopez’ release celebration. There Oscar López Rivera, the people (Diaspora and allies included) and a crowd of freedom fighters spanning a good 7 decades came together affirming a decolonial struggle that is alive and well within a colonial reality that bites down harder as it bears witness to its own demise. My Brooklyn born and bred self may have learned about my ancestral homeland through oral history, books and self-education, but there was an unavoidable calling to live it and feel it for myself. Many of us from out in the Diaspora are being called back. Oftentimes we don’t know where to or why. We often land in random places that we have no family roots in, feeling even more displaced. But we oblige. My family hails from Ponce and Peñuelas. I ended up in Moca. As I bear witness to history in making, I know that all is unfolding perfectly, intricately, as it should, moving us right to where we need to be. I believe in this goddess Borikén and in her truth. Her freedom fighters are testament to the greatness and transcendence of spirit in humanity’s perpetual pursuit of liberation.