On Flag Capes, Caged Flags and Border Books 

There have been many heated debates on social media as of recent. I have mostly refrained from commenting, participating in them, but have chosen to write something here.  From a time and place where the ground shakes incessantly, one must choose to find compassion in the myriad ways we are driven to respond to these desperate times.

For those who do not know or forgot, I am, have been, will always be in favor of political independence for Puerto Rico. Just as I am in favor of our collective liberation with our ancestors and future generations, who pass down not only our genes and blood but our legacies of oppressive trauma. There is a long list of historic, systemic atrocities committed by US hands in Puerto Rico and in so many other places. These go beyond climate disaster neglect from the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and María to the current “earthquake swarm” that persists and the thousands it has left homeless. It goes beyond a colonial oversight board, severe austerity surrounding an odious debt and the crippling cabotage laws keeping our economy strangled. It extends to the incarceration and torture of our freedom fighters and the disproportionate sentences imposed on our political prisoners. It roots in US military maneuvers and their experimenting napalm, Agent Orange and Uranium weapons and the contaminants and war debris they left littered across Vieques and Culebra. It reaches down into the mass sterilization of our women and the experimenting of contraceptive pills, other pharmaceuticals and even testing the effects of cancer and radiation on our people.

gilscottheronMost strategic is the deliberate omission of all this from history lessons because we aren’t supposed to know. We are supposed to sing and dance and be merry which is what our people are contracted for when hired for a televised spectacle that various artists refused to do.  It seems however that too many of us forgot that Gil Scott-Heron professed “The Revolution Will Not be Televised.” No matter the flags, the berets and formations, or the “red, black and green liberation jumpsuits”, the revolution won’t be televised. And if too many of us forgot, even more of us never knew.  It is my belief we are asking to much from a venue never designed to give it. We are wanting too much from people not equipped to offer it, but it is ok to hold them accountable, and ourselves accountable too.

For reasons already stated, regardless of where I was born, raised or live, I cannot wave the flag of or swear allegiance to my oppressor. Just as I would not ask someone battling through domestic violence and/ or emotional abuse to profess loyalty to their abuser.  I stand with Kaepernick and the refusal of outdated institutions that no longer represent today’s reality. I stand with those expressing and defending integrity and protesting the exploitation of black bodies. Ironically, I too stand with JLo and all she intended to do and didn’t intend to do but did. Given the systemic omission of historical context from our communities, given that she was offered a stage and an obscene scale of viewership with which to do it and she tried. A protected, contrived stage of North American nationalism. No matter the blonde dye, light-skin packaging and “the rocks that [you] got”, though these might aid in cross-over-ability and some access, politically these still do not buy you full immersion or entry into the US power structure.

Still, “loud” Latinas were put on this stage with their music and the national symbols of a white american nationalism gone haywire. Though I personally disagree with the choice of a certain song cover, it was a subversion of that song. And though you won’t catch me waving a US flag, our own tucked beneath and later revealed, I can understand how that brought many a similar reaction to what I felt when Monica Puig brought our flag and anthem to the global stage via the Olympics.  Others might cringe at this very statement, but I gotta be able to hold both, even if cringing. You see, the fabulousness in all of this are all the racists cringing way deeper at their symbols being reclaimed by those they would rather keep out. Forcing this discomfort on them is a victory.

Hendrix-Woodstock_small
Jimi’s Legendary subversion of the US National Anthem at Woodstock

I wholeheartedly understand I am about to compare apples and oranges, but I can’t help but think of a “freak-flag” waving Jimi Hendrix, rocking an afro and a red bandana, playing the Star-Spangled Banner to a diverse crowd at Woodstock. A crowd of people questioning the hell of their country, a crowd of people denouncing US imperialism and the war in Vietnam. The Super Bowl stage was not before this crowd. But there were crowds at home watching on TV, many of whom needed this expression of another “America.” I may need an entirely different expression of dissent, but that is for me to contend with and to create my own self.

Studio Museum Exterior
Hammons African American flag waves outside of the Studio Museum in Harlem.

Much like Hendrix’ subverted, bluesy, rock resistance US national anthem allowed him and others to collectively take up space within a country occupying indigenous lands, marginalizing anything that non-white, David Hammons offered a similar expression in his 1990 African American flag. It combines the colors of Marcus Garvey’s Black Liberation flag with that of the US. These are expressions challenging the sought-after homogeneity of white nationalists attempting to render all others not “indivisible”, but invisible with “liberty and justice” to some. Some of us did not need to see our Puerto Rican flag on that stage, or to see it in a different way. With the light blue of its original design perhaps or the black and white resistance flag that Bad Bunny waved to crowds wishing to dethrone the corrupt governor of Puerto Rico the summer of 2019, as successfully happened. But as Chuck D expressed in a documentary once, and forgive me for paraphrasing, it is easier to step up to each other than it is to go toe to toe with the man.

Perhaps the problem with all of this is not on the parts of artists like Bad Bunny and JLo por no bregar de una manera that speaks more accurately to our collective histories. Perhaps it is ours, the ones who rescue this suppressed history, for not being as deliberate, strategic, incessant in sharing this information, revealing this information as the man be doing with their many corporate venues for miseducation and their “subliminal fascism” (to quote Fishbone). Perhaps it is speaking too much to our own, and not having found successful ways of speaking to the “the masses” like musician Fela Kuti figured out how to do not only in his Nigeria, but in all of West Africa fighting colonialism, and the world. Perhaps what is required is less shaming, less blaming, more connecting, collaborating, mentoring, sharing, exchanging to build what we are needing.

 

1898Not much has changed since the 1898 Harper’s Weekly Cartoon, Holding his End Up where Hawai’i, Cuba, the Philippines, Porto Rico [sic], the Mariana islands are all depicted with the same awful caricatures used to represent African Americans in 19th century US and beyond. Politically for US imperialism, there appear to be two races: European and non-white/ us and them/ white and of color. Still, for however much we might have been bothered to see the flag displayed in that way, I must offer a nod for the cringe factor of crowds not wanting to see their flag wrapped around a Puerto Rican JLo. Was JLo’s Boricua display of a US flag an expression of US pride or a shoving in racist faces the multicolored/ multidimensional layers of what that country really is? Was it a disregard or a nod to Kaepernick? ¿Quien fokin sabe? JLo. But the outdated political and thought system of those (un)United States are a good ass reason for banning together as people of color in all our struggles. You see, though some may perceive a lighter skin privilege aiding in assimilation, racism is not colorism and racial prejudice but the systemic selective distribution of wealth according to these prejudices. This has resulted in the general racialization of a people where the US power structure is designed to believe that a Puerto Rican is a Puerto Rican is a Puerto Rican. Hair color, hair type, skin color might allow you to pass if you can for whatever charade, but at the end of the day, politically, you’re still a colonized Rican which would render you inferior to the colonizer. According to the colonizer, you are colonized for being non-white, even if you have paid to look more white. And according to our bloodline, like African Americans, we are part of the African Diaspora. Though we think we can choose, politically we need to be clear on the side we inherently stand on. We need to be clear on which ancestors we are dishonoring when trying to belong.

Moving to another stop within the beautiful expanse that is the African Diaspora, I stand with Shakira for offering us a moment to share with our children another expression of el mapalé of their West African ancestors and the champeta derived of contemporary West African rhythms.  (Check out this gorgeous version of dancers from Colombia’s San Basilio de Palenque, cue at 1:57 for el mapalé) We know of Shakira’s praising of her Lebanese roots. To see her incorporate the mapalé and champeta of the Atlantic coast of Colombia from which she hails, plus bring an assortment of dancers from Colombia with her to do so authentically is beautiful. Music is medicine, has always been.

I may not appreciate all the lyrics to the music my children listen to, but we celebrate constantly the links between their momma’s Puerto Rico and their poppa’s Colombia via the music they listen to like Bad Bunny and J Balvin. My political consciousness is good I like to think, and I grew up listening to some trifling ass music and some good ass music. I danced to “I Wanna Rock/ Doo Doo Brown” and “Fight the Power”. Perhaps it is that balance that has taught me the importance of seeing my people in all their manifestations. Again, I must hold space for the conscious artists locked out of mainstream spaces for obvious reasons (especially as a visual artist not always given access because I have always taken a political stance in my work). But I must also hold space for the not necessarily conscious music that enables us to unplug, dance, and momentarily forget our marginalized place. This is a privilege for colonized people. Other people are free to dance whenever they want. People facing genocide gotta defend their right to dance (to channel Emma Goldman). Some music will be political, some of it will just envision a free world where they are free to do what the fuck they want, like get loud. Is that a bad thing?

Now patriarchy and misogyny in the lyrics are another story, (ahem Doo Doo Brown) and interestingly have given me a whole classroom to teach my boys about these issues, about respecting bodies, about the influence of alcohol and other substances, and about consent. There is so much energy leaking in placing blame and vilifying artists who reflect their environment and times. But by listening intently, I learn how to better tailor my parenting to teach on those issues that we must collectively heal and evolve up and out of. Again, the information that will liberate us has been strategically kept from us. The focus needs to move from shaming to sharing information. This ain’t a competition of who is more woke and silencing the unwoke. What good is being woke if you haven’t found a way to help ease others from their sleep? We cannot awaken another or liberate another, but we can inspire by sharing what we’ve learned.

Growing for me has meant learning to hold this difference of opinions and sentiments without the threat of losing my own. Where we battle against one person for claiming to represent our so-called “faceless” people, another has collaborated with their own child to force a commentary on our people taken, our children in cages, into the faces of white America and all it ignores. I understand that all strikes against a system will come from within and without in ways that I recognize and may not recognize, applaud or cringe at. I recognize that the only strikes I may preside over are my own.

I stand with Dignidad Literaria for defending our integrity. I stand with Gurba’s fierce review of a book used to eclipse so many first-hand, authentic narratives of navigating borders. Any book published is up to be reviewed. I believe in the review of books and publishing practices. I do not stand however with others’ character assassination of Sandra Cisneros for supporting said book. An OG goddess creator among us, I wouldn’t risk an ancestral bofetá from my abuela nor the karmic weight of dishonoring one of our elders, even if I’m in disagreement with something they said or did. I cannot uphold the literary dignity of our people, the authenticity and sanctity of our voices, while simultaneously dishonoring one of our own. Let us not lose sight of the real enemy.

Mine is not a neutral position. Mine is a deliberate position of recognizing the free will and choice of all and not needing to dishonor their path in order to advance on mine.  We each walk our path with all sorts of side shows and shit shows happening along the way. The universe asks that we not stagnate by stopping at each. We can just all commit to advance, expand, be fierce AF in our own respective paths, trusting our deepest truth. Like Pedro Albizu Campos, “vengo de la tierra, vengo del huracán.” vengodelatierraI come from the land that quakes, from the winds of the hurricanes. They have taught me to give room in my heart to myself, to our people when responding to situations as we feel necessary at that moment. Said situations have us caught in cages, forced between fault lines, collapsing schools and crumbling homes. Our responses may not be too pretty, the most intelligent or strategic. But the earth is pushing us to feel, to see and respond.  It might look messy as hell because it is hell. Let’s forgive ourselves and each other for the mess hell has made of us. Let us not add to the war of the oppressor by battling our own people. Let’s try self-love, the weapon they work most covertly to disarm.  Lets never lose sight of the real enemy for all the ways it celebrates when we stray from our ancestral path of greatness.

-feb 5, 2020
Moca, Puerto Rico

Brooklyn-born and raised, Yasmín Hernández rematriated to her ancestral homeland of Borikén in 2014.  For over two decades, her creative practice has been centered on this land, its suppressed histories, healing and liberation practices. She shares her rematriation chronicles on this blog and her art at  yasminhernandezart.com

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