Xavi Burgos Peña

Xavi Burgos Peña is a Founder of and an Editor and Designer at La Respuesta. He's been active in community-based journalism and organizing for a over a decade. Contact: xavi@larespuestamedia.com

Something Rotten is Happening in Holyoke

HolyokeMuralThe debacle in Holyoke continues. A few weeks ago, we published a statement from artist David Flores whose public mural was being denied display in the highly Puerto Rican-populated Massachusetts city.

“On Saturday, September 20, 2014, my Puerto Rican Diaspora-themed piece was commissioned and then excluded from being displayed as part of a public art initiative specifically because of its affirmation of Puerto Rican identity.” – David Flores

A day after we published his statement, the town’s mayor, Alex Morse, responded to the public outcry and decided to give the Boricua-themed public art piece a permanent home in City Hall.

Now the city’s council wants to ban all public art installations. The mayor vetoed this measure. In return, the council is attempting to override this – tomorrow! Read the mayor’s full statement, here.

“Last week, the City Council voted to place a moratorium on future public art installations. I vetoed the order, and tomorrow the Council will decide whether to override my veto. In addition to my veto, I have signed an executive order formalizing the process by which public art may be installed. With this step, I am confident that the Council will choose not to override the veto.” – Mayor Alex Morse.

We should all keep in mind that almost half of Holyoke’s residents are Puerto Rican, but with very few representation in political office and public initiatives. This measure by the city council is in direct response to the controversy over David Flores’ mural, which was created to pay homage to the Holyoke’s Boricua community. In other words, the city’s elected leaders (outside of the mayor) rather trash all public art initiatives than let Latina/os or Puerto Ricans play a role in it. Let’s hope they do not succeed.

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Could the U.S. Government Deport Puerto Ricans?

“Plainly the USA should get rid of this millstone. That’s easier said than done, though. In theory I guess Congress could simply end the “commonwealth” relationship and cut the place loose. In practice this would mean revoking the citizenship of the 3.7 million inhabitants. And what about the five million or so Puerto Ricans who reside in the USA?

Another approach would be to get Puerto Ricans thinking that independence might be a good idea. Perhaps we could try oppressing the place: Make them tenant farmers under absentee landlords, proscribe use of their native tongue, and shut down their churches. Hey, it worked for Ireland.” – How Can We Get Rid of Puerto Rico?

BarrioIcon-Newsletter1x1Ay, nothing seems to surprise me these days, especially when it comes to imperial subjects talking about their colonies. While the above quote and article disturbs me (especially since what the author describes was actually done to Puerto Rico by the U.S. government), I have come to know that the viewpoint does not just belong to extremists, but is part of the mainstream – whether it is said publicly or not. It could also speak to a dangerous trend in political discourse that one day may become official policy.

First, the belief that Puerto Ricans are fully responsible for their (internal)colonial reality allows for Puerto Rico to be in a political limbo with the United States government for over 100 years. Let’s not forget that the archipelago colony is under the legal auspices of the U.S. Congress, as determined by the Supreme Court, i.e. “Puerto Rico belongs to but is not a part of the U.S.” Let’s not forget that there has never been a legally binding referendum (unlike what took place in Scotland) to give its people the opportunity to decide their own future, i.e. self-determination. So, if the author wants to get rid of this “burden”, then they should be pushing the U.S. government to stop practicing imperialism. That also includes taking responsibility for what it has done to the archipelago, namely destroying the local economy for the benefit of its multi-national companies. It’s also curious that the author likes to perpetuate the pathology of the colony’s residents, but forgets the billions of dollars and thousands of jobs the U.S. acquires from the colony – way more than it “invests.” Let keep it real.

Second and, most importantly, the author alludes to a theoretical probability of all Puerto Ricans loosing their U.S. citizenship, including the Diaspora. Yup, you heard me right.

For the last few years, mainstream politicians have been clamoring for the revocation of the 14th amendment, which allows for birth-right citizenship. This is obviously due to anti-immigrant xenophobia. As pathologized colonial subjects Puerto Ricans are racialized as non-white and therefore are also understood as “alien” and “dangerous” to the imperial “body.” If the 14th amendment is ever gotten rid of, then the U.S. Congress could simply strip away the Puerto Rican right to citizenship. Even more – and this might depend on ensuing lawsuits, as well as other factors – is that Boricuas who were born in the U.S. to parents from Puerto Rico could also get their citizenship taken away. That coupled with immediate independence, which the author recommends, could mean that the Boricua Diaspora could be “illegalized” and deported “back” to the archipelago. Scary, isn’t it?

Of course, there is a lot of social, political, and economic factors that need to be considered for what I have described to fully materialize. But the ideas and conditions are out there and, sadly, no one is engaging with them. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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Gentrification, Island Hipsters & Diaspora Communities

BarrioIcon-Newsletter“If gentrification means that more artists are going to move here and make it a better place, then sign me up.”

The above quote has probably been said a million times over by global urban dwellers who have something to gain from the destruction of historic communities. Puerto Rico’s capital is no exception.

For over two decades, there’s been talk, incentives, and concrete projects to “revitalize” San Juan’s Santurce district. This included a heavy rail station connecting it to parts of the metropolitan area, a new art museum, and street festivals.

Today, the New York Times reported on one such “revitalizing” festival, Santurce Es Ley 5. This annual event seeks to restore the peninsula to its former glory through art, music, and murals. One problem however: the quote above was said by its organizer.

Whenever folks with money and influence talk about gentrification being so wonderful and great for everybody, especially when its connected to “universally loved” and allegedly neutral things like art, an eyebrow begins to raise. “Good for whom?” should be the question we’re asking, along with “who has the right to define what’s ‘good’ for a community?”

Its also very telling that this organizer was stated to have lived in New York for a time. Too often colonial governments and their insular middle-class seek to replicate the economic and urban structures of their metropoles – even at risk of their own traffic-filled, polluted, and consumption-obsessed demise.

That’s why my mother’s town prefers to have its lush tropical landscape annihilated for exclusive, gated neighborhoods and biotech factories. Who asked my cousins, aunts, and great-aunts if the land their familial tribe has lived on for generations could be occupied by Disney-esque subdivisions and contaminating industries? Where is the dialogue with longtime residents? Are their visions for their communities included in its development? Also, we should ask – and what’s the most controversial – is the racial and class experiences/ identities of those proposing and benefiting from gentrification. And I ask the same questions for those seeking to “revitalize” Santurce or any other community facing displacement.

In the case of Santurce, I assume its the light-skinned Boricua bourgeoisie who felt more comfortable in a gentrifying Williamsburg with white hipsters than their Nuyorican kin. These are the same minority who enjoy making comparisons between Santurce and Williamsburg without mention of displacement – its origins and implications.

It must also be stated that while all these initiatives have certainly sexied-up these places in the eyes of some, we must keep in mind that San Juan – and Puerto Rico – is a colonial entity. In other words, La Ciudad Capital is a city that cannot control mass emigration and economic collapse, among other things. So no matter how much debt the insular government goes into in order to fund grandeur projects, nothing is really going to change unless there is a process of decolonization. All this is not to say that the amplification of an artist presence and external economic investment doesn’t have positive results; there are folks who feel proud about what’s happening in Santurce. But let’s be more intentional about how – and by whom – its happening and to what ends.

In the end, its the most marginalized (socially, economically, and historically, etc.) who get left out of redefining their communities. In the context of the U.S., that means people of color – Black, Indigenous, Boricua, etc. In Puerto Rico, that means the historically poor in which the negra/o, mulata/o, and trigueña/o are overrepresented. We can’t ignore that. We need to talk about it. We need to acknowledge that there are folks and organizations resisting gentrification. And I comment on all of this not as a Santurce resident, but a Nuyorican exile who have been gentrified out of my home-place more than once, making me more than ready to challenge those who celebrate gentrification, even if they may deny me being a part of our/ their “imagined community.” That is an easy cop-out instead of actually confronting the hard questions and processes towards self-determination.

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