Politically ignored and for a long time largely perceived as a mere tourist destination in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico recently experienced social and political protests that led to the resignation of its governor. We spoke to members of the artistic community in Puerto Rico about the ongoing protests and about the future they envision for the island.
Protesters on July 25, 2019, celebrate in Puerto Rico following the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rosselló. Foto: Daryana Rivera. CC BY-SA 4.0.
Following the largest protests in the history of Puerto Rico, in which more than 500.000 people participated including prominent artists and musicians, Governor Ricardo Rosselló stepped down from office in early August.
In the weeks leading up to his resignation, hundreds of pages had been discovered and published, containing misogenous, homophobic, racist and offensive comments on the Puerto Rican people stemming from conversations between the Govenor and eleven members of his cabinet. We spoke to four activists from the Puero Rican artistic community about the protests and about the kind of future they envision for the island.
Michy Marxuach, curator, co-founder of Beta-Local and former director at M&M, an alternative space dedicated to support and promote contemporary art in Puerto Rico.
The incidents of these past weeks in Puerto Rico are like an organic choreography without the choreographer. The protests have uncovered the diversity of all the different groups who have struggled for years to organize ways of survival and response – each group departing from their own most urgent issues. Recent events however have inspired a collective action in response to the aggression that has been going on for years in Puerto Rico.
It was a moment of emancipation and decolonization in all senses of the word – not just with regards to the political structure which continues to appear indispensable but also an objection to the missing rights of women, the LGBT community – basically the rights of all of us who exist in this territory.
Creating a new political and social space is only possible by starting to build the future in the present. The way I see it, there has to be a radical change in power relations, not only those of administrative policies, but also policies on how and with whom we relate ourselves and of how and to what end we want to develop. If we do not decolonize to reconstitute ourselves, we will continue skating towards the collapse of our systems and our planet… The answer to the question of an ideal structure needs to be embedded in practice; it cannot be imported again as part of a “master plan”.
Tony Cruz Pabón, artist and co-founder of Beta-Local
About Roselló’s resignation: It’s an incredible sensation, that when we stand together and unite forces, change can happen. This is a big step for us as a country.
With regards to the form of the protests: I have always believed that music is the most powerful means of cultural expression that we have and in this situation, that became very clear. Without discounting the other forms of resistance, music was the uniting force in these protests.
As for the political future of the island: I am not sure it’s even possible to imagine a new political structure at this point. Maybe, but personally I don’t really see it yet. What is clear however in the way that Pedro Pierluisi took office, is that this is very much a question of class struggle. There is a group of people protecting and looking out for one another, and this is one of the hardest things to change. [Editor’s NOTE: Pedro Pierluisi was appointed governor of Puerto Rico for only a few days. On August 7, 2019, he was dismissed by the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico. Current governor: Wanda Vázquez Garced.]
Michel Nonó, activist and one of the two sisters of the art collective Las Nietas de Nonó
The current political crisis demonstrates the urgency of the claim that the Puerto Rican people has been making on various fronts to review the debt adjudicated to the people of Puerto Rico; a debt that has pushed our communities into austerity. It exposes how the government (and not only under the current administration) has been acting to its own benefit. The Participatory Audit is a process of healing and justice towards the people.
The diversity of voices in the streets against the corrupt and apathetic government has been significant; the power of the voices of people living in hamlets and those of the LGBTQIA+ community. We had been made invisible and but we are also part of the people.
My dream is that this will put an end to neoliberal bipartisanship and its status quo… The communities of Puerto Rico have been reorganizing themselves economically, environmentally, pedagogically and socially. This is an indication that we know what we want and what we need.
Karlo Andrei Ibarra, artist and co-founder of the Km 0.2 Gallery in San Juan
I think that what has happened in Puerto Rico is a collective turning point related to the moral fiber of the country. The arrogant chatter of politicians in the face of the pain of a people who has not healed and who has literally not yet buried their dead after Hurricane Maria (2017), was the last drop. I also think that the political climate will continue to be afflicted by instability; as the events in recent weeks have shown, the unification of all sectors, together with media pressure, can carry a message of rejection and abolition of corruption. From this moment on, it should be clear to politicians that the era of acting at their own will and for personal benefit is over.
The question about the future of the island is very complex. Personally I would like a free and sovereign country. On the other hand, the actions of the ruling party have pushed the prospect of being an independent state further into the future than ever. We have a fiscal control board whose function is, like hyenas or birds of prey, to favor Wall Street and great economic interests. I hope that the first thing to be examined/scrutinized is the debt, which, as is screamingly obvious to everyone, is illegal, that the fiscal board is dismantled and that people begin to change the way they vote in the elections… Hopefully all sectors will come together in a great coalition that will finally put an end to the bipartisanship that has bled out the country so excessively.
Statements gathered by Lisa C Soto. She was born in Los Angeles, California and grew up in New York and in a traditional town in southern Spain. Her Caribbean heritage and her continuous displacement between continents and islands have informed her artistic production.
Translation from Spanish by Zarifa Mohamad Petersen