Art, Decolonization, and Action for Puerto Rico
This blog post is adapted from a speech I gave at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center on 7/25/18 at a forum that was a collaboration between the Museum, the artist David Rios Ferreira and The Root Social Justice Center. David writes, “A lot of my work is driven by the persistence of colonialist narratives in the mainstream imagination. The power dynamics that have informed these popular narratives are emotionally complex, and centuries later the thorny relationship between the colonized and the colonizer echoes in our daily lives through our connections with lovers, with “authority,” and with ourselves.” You can read more about his show here. And see more of his artwork here.
I celebrated the entry into the 21st century on the giant colonial “muro” or wall of Old San Juan surrounded by a new group of Puerto Rican friends. I was at the very beginning of a two year journey of understanding what it means to live in a new culture, to be immersed in a new language, food, music, and worldview. I moved to Puerto Rico after graduating with a BA in social work & Spanish from a liberal arts college in Minnesota and I was there to work with survivors of domestic violence and people recovering from drug addiction. Through that work I saw first hand the more devastating impacts of colonization on Puerto Ricans. At that point my gaze had not yet turned inward to look at how colonization had impacted my thinking and action! Yet I was learning important lessons that would later in life make it possible for me to become aware of my own colonized mind.
Colonization is the action or process of settling among and establishing control over the indigenous people of an area. It often involves extreme violence, and the colonizers often maintain control by imposing language, religion, and cultural beliefs and practices.
Decolonization is when a nation seeks to become free of the oppressor/oppressed regime imposed on them by a colonial power, and to physically and legally undo the colonial state, or Empire, that has dominated their society. The next step is for the colonizer to “de-colonize” – that is, withdraw and leave the lands of the oppressed they have taken by stealth or force. When I talk about decolonization I am referring to both that action, as well as to the thinking that is required to bring about that action.
For over a year I dated a Puerto Rican “independentista”, one of the 5% of Puerto Ricans who want Puerto Rico to be decolonized, or in other words, to be a free country. Through many conversations with him and his friends and professors I learned about history, about resistance to colonization, and about the challenges of that struggle.
Art plays an important role in decolonizing our minds. While in PR I was very involved in the art scene. I painted and sold at art shows throughout the island and saw the power of art in telling the story of colonization and imagining a decolonized future. I taught art therapy classes in the public housing and in the addiction recovery center. In those places art was a chance for people to express pain and paint a vision for healing. I wove the narratives of colonization and decolonization throughout my own art (I gave most of the paintings away and I couldn’t find any photos!) I painted Pedro Albizo Campos, one of the great freedom fighters for an independent PR. Fun fact: He attended the University of VT in 1912. I also painted symbols associated with the Taino, the indigenous peoples who were all but wiped out through colonization first from Spain in 1493 and then the US in 1898.
At Hogar Compromiso De Vida in front of a mural co-painted by women recovering from drug addiction and by a mural team from MN. 2001.
I was in Puerto Rico at a key moment of resistance. I was part of the huge marches protesting the US military practice bombing runs on the gorgeous, inhabited, island of Vieques. The Puerto Rican people were persistent and they won. The US military ended their bombing campaigns! This was a powerful lesson for me in understanding how colonization operates, how it impacts people, how it is perpetuated and how it can be resisted.
At one of the huge marches against the US military bombing of Puerto Rico in 2001.
The sign reads, “Not one more bomb. Marines out. Peace for Vieques.”
Right now is a crucial moment for the islands of Puerto Rico. Here are just a few examples to put this moment in perspective… Puerto Rico gets 98% of its energy from off island, and after the hurricanes 98% of food comes from off island. We think of the colonial era as over, but it is still very much alive. The Jones Act is one clear example. Because of the Jones Act, signed into law by Woodrow Wilson in 1920, all imports have to be shipped from and to US ports, which is extremely expensive and inefficient.
The Fiscal Control Board (FCB), whose Executive Director has a salary of $625,000, has closed 40% of the schools and has cut government agencies from 130 to 35. This is not what the people want, and there had been huge resistance to these measures before the hurricanes Irma and Maria. However, the FCB is using this moment of chaos to push through austerity and privatization. The Puerto Rican people are up against yet another massive challenge as disaster capitalism is descending like a vulture on these gorgeous tropical islands. Land grabs by wealthy corporations are happening as we speak and there is what some people are calling a forced relocation of Puerto Ricans with over 20% of Puerto Ricans migrating to mainland US.
AND the Puerto Rican people are BADASS! I am continually humbled and inspired by their genius persistence. As Lola Rodriguez wrote – “Cuba and Puerto Rico are the two wings of one bird”. There is a strong revolutionary spirit in Puerto Rico. There is a strong will for freedom. And this is a key moment for freedom, in the same way that it is everywhere!
Check out this Naomi Klein video and article that puts this moment in perspective.
I want to be clear – that freedom isn’t separate from us. It starts with each of us getting free – recognizing how we are being harmed by colonization and taking steps to heal. I am a settler-colonizer. My white family has benefitted from the removal of indigenous people from their land so that we could farm. This is not ever talked about in our family, nor in our schools, nor in the media. We do not openly talk about, or even think about, how we are complicit in the oppression/pain/suffering of the people who have been colonized.
Over the past few years I’ve been working much more intentionally on recognizing how my mind has been colonized – individualistic thinking, belief in separation, importance of perfection, worship of the written word. This thinking influences my actions. I’m working to interrupt that colonized thinking. I have gone to workshops with indigenous elders and healers. I have been talking more openly about the places in my life where I put myself and my family over the collective, where I am contributing to the harm being done to the land and to other living beings. Decolonizing my thinking and action is sometimes uncomfortable, AND it is making it possible for me to build authentic relationships with people who have been colonized and to take solidarity action for their decolonization efforts.
“In the truest sense of the word, for the recently colonized (indigenous and POC) “decolonization” is not a metaphor. Those in the dominant society are being asked to avoid using “decolonization” to refer to ideas or actions that do not hold indigenous resistance, sovereignty, land restoration, and other repatriations at the center.” quote from Unsettling America.
In a 2012 referendum 5.5% of Puerto Ricans voted for the islands to be decolonized – they want Puerto Rico to become a sovereign nation. When I recognize and heal from colonization I am able to show up for the decolonization efforts of Puerto Ricans.
El Fondo de la Resiliencia I want to share with you a project in Puerto Rico that is responding to very real needs and building a decolonized food system at the same time. A month ago I met Tara at a conference. She was presenting about the Fondo de Resiliencia. Before the Hurricane she was working on a healthy food revival in PR – a PR that grows its own food, instead of importing 80% of it. A PR that rejects Monsanto – it is currently the #1 spot for GMO seed testing. And now, the need is even greater. Food is so expensive. Farmers need support. Farmers need to save seeds. Tara, who is very well networked in PR, is working to change the food system in PR, not just for now, but for the future. She and her group are working for food sovereignty, or local control of the food system.
Here’s how we can support these efforts. The Fondo de Resiliencia – or the Resiliency Fund – is looking for teams of volunteers to come down and support farms with hurricane recovery and strengthening their farm for the future.
Volunteer teams spend at least three days working on one farm. They also commit to bringing down a sizable amount of funds for that farm’s recovery. This strengthens farms in the moment, and it allows for a strengthened farm and food network in PR that is planning for food sovereignty. It also builds relationships with people around the US so they can learn more about PR and more about decolonization, of which food sovereignty is key.
Check out this 3 min video about the project. Contact them directly if you have a group that would like to support the fund.
Here are other amazing organizations doing decolonization work even while they are responding to people’s immediate needs:
Resilient Power Puerto Rico is a humanitarian effort, launched just hours after the devastating landfall of Hurricane María in Puerto Rico. RPPR’s philanthropic mission is to bring independent electricity, water, and communications to the people of Puerto Rico.
Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica The Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica is a non-profit organization that brings together people from all over the archipelago of Puerto Rico who are willing to work agriculture in harmony with the environment. There mission is to promote food sovereignty and environmental conservation.
Casa Pueblo This group is amazing for so many reasons – they are providing solar for their surrounding area and doing community organizing to resist land grabs and energy and school consolidation.
Comedores Sociales de Puerto Rico Social Comedores de Puerto Rico is a self-managed food distribution initiative with social orientation and activism. It seeks to embody a very simple idea: we can meet our common needs from below. They emerged in 2013 as a clear effect of this social economic crisis
Colectivo Ilé Our mission is to educate, organize and research to strengthen the anti-racist and decolonizing work that leads to generate changes in the community, academic, spiritual, psychological-social, cultural, economic and political within and outside of Puerto Rico.
Finca Conciencia We work a community-based resilient agriculture that produces food in a healthy and accessible way for everyone; with the intention of eliminating existing inequities by germinating food sovereignty in the archipelago of Puerto Rico.
Let’s decolonize our minds, and support the decolonization of Puerto Rico, of Standing Rock, of Palestine, and of Yemen, and all the neighborhoods in the US that are being gentrified, and…. and… and… Let’s get free!
My kids at a recent rally in support of freedom for Palestine.