It Was More than the Chat
On the second week of protests calling for the resignation of former governor Ricardo Roselló, every Boricua on the island had eyes locked on their phones. Whether it was news blasts, memes, videos, photos, or coordinating protests via group chats, social media and telecommunications played a vital role in the ignition and transmission of a decentralized political revolution. In a storm of civil unrest spanning all parties, genders, ages, social classes, and identities, Boricuas protested with style and humor, from elaborate body makeup and wardrobe, to motorcycle and equestrian caravans, to jet ski and kayak invasions of the San Juan Bay, to a dramatized collective reading of the infamous chat in front of the Capitol Building.
Our creative weapons go well beyond a protest sign.
An investigation published this past summer by Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (Center for Investigative Journalism) exposed nine-hundred pages of a leaked chat between the governor and eleven close advisors and cabinet members. The chat not only offered an intimate look into the real values and morals of those who shape Puerto Rico’s public policies, but it also provided abundant evidence to put many of its participants under federal investigation for corruption and mismanagement of public funds. Forget about soundbites made for television or long speeches at political rallies; this is what they think and say behind closed doors. This was the talk of colleagues and close friends, a language that everyone understood.
We all felt insulted by the chat in some way. Whether you were offended by the hateful jokes about female journalists, feminists, gay celebrities, “fat” people, the 4,645 deaths after Hurricane María, the death threats to the Mayor of San Juan, or the blatant manipulation of the press, every Boricua was infuriated. The collective rage that kicked Ricardo Roselló out of office was a reminder of our power. And, in spite of our victory, we all knew that “Ricky Renuncia” was the beginning of a longer battle. It was more than the chat.
The chat is emblematic of a legacy of misogyny, racism, corruption, and negligence by current and past administrations. Black and poor Boricua women are among the groups that feel the weight of this oppression the heaviest. They have been pushed to declare a state of emergency in the wake of twenty-three women murdered at the hands of their partners last year. This loss of life in the context of unequal wages, unemployment, the loss of pensions, the closing down of 400 schools, and the privatization of the state university.
What began in 2016 as a struggle against austerity measures by the U.S. Congress-imposed PROMESA Law and its Financial Oversight Board was further exacerbated by Hurricane María in 2017. That same year, women were challenged with anti-abortion measures such as Senate Project 950 and the House Project 1653. Raúl Maldonado—the former Secretary of Finance currently under federal investigation (who was participant in the chat)—had informed the press in 2018, as Secretary of State, that the current administration had not changed their mind about eliminating gender perspective from public school curriculums. Finally, upon learning of the Governor’s hateful words spoken in private life, we now see clearly that systematic and cultural violence against women on the island truly stems from the root of power. What lies ahead is the inevitable unrooting of this entrenched misogyny.
On September 6th, 2018, now governor Wanda Vázquez declared a “state of alert” after the ongoing pressure and campaigning by Colectiva Feminista en Construcción (Feminist Collective Under Construction) to place gender violence in the spotlight of national politics. The collective is one of several backed up by a new generation of Boricua cis, queer, and trans women who have stepped into their own power and are using the arts as a means to combat gender violence and find ways to heal and move forward.
Freedom Starts in the Body
The Financial District in San Juan was packed with thousands of demonstrators marching for International Women’s Day on March 8th. As I walked down Carlos Chardón Avenue towards the march, I heard in the distance the voice of performer Macha Colón and the roaring of the crowd. The city had closed down two blocks before the intersection with Juan Ponce de León Avenue where the protest was taking place. Walking in the middle of the street without cars invoked a further sense of freedom and expansiveness. A spell was broken, and the city was ours to be redrawn with our footsteps, our bikes, our skateboards. We were no longer in the service of cars and the circulation of capital. Our bodies alone ruled the streets again.
In the spirit of Boricua creativity and its use of art as a political weapon, LGBTQIA community members and feminist collectives organized a “Catwalk Against The Debt” as part of the Women’s March. The idea was to bring attention to how women have been affected by the restructuring of Puerto Rico’s economy for the payment of its 74 billion USD debt. Bodies of all shapes and genders walked with pride and rage as onlookers chanted ¡Estoy jayáaaa!. The colloquial word jayá, roughly translates to “being happy with who you are and where you stand.” Macha Colón’s emblematic phrase and song of empowerment stresses that freedom must begin with self-love. As Macha Colón fan Vanchi Robao’s statement appears on the band’s famous poster: “In this classist, racist, hetero-sexist, patriarchal and crisis-ridden country, trying to be happy by other means is in itself a revolutionary act” (translated by author).
Performance artist and filmmaker Gisela Rosario Ramos—better known as her alter-ego, Macha Colón—has found her means of reaching a state of jayaera (the act of being jayá). Months after the Women’s March, we sat in the dressing room of Shorty Castro Theatre in Santurce. I interviewed her as she performed a private ritual she often invokes before a performance. Once I set up my gear, she slowly began applying shimmery pastel tones around her eyes.
The birth of Macha, Gisela explains, came in her late thirties with a sense of urgency in pursuing music. After completing her Black and Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College (currently known as Africana and Puerto Rican/Latino Studies) in New York City, she returned home… performance studies at Hunter College in New York City, she returned home, working as a video editor for local public access station, WIPR TV – Channel 6. Gisela had always dreamed of pursuing a musical project that would give her free reign to experiment with the multiple skills that originate from her main creative instrument: her body. “I asked myself how I would feel if one day, when I’m eighty years old, I wake up and realize I have done nothing to pursue that. I knew it was something I would regret, and I didn’t want to feel that.” The band—Macha Colón y los Okapi—is led by Gisela as lead vocalist and backed by a guitarist, bass player, drummer, and cuatrista (local traditional string instrument).
The line that separates Macha the performer from Gisela the filmmaker, can sometimes be blurry and is often where she creates her best work. The first presentation of Macha Colón was built around a script, she remembers. She had it all planned out like a TV show, weaving in stories between the songs. However, she quickly realized that she could deviate from the script and improvise.
“I feel that Macha gave me the skills to work better with a subject. Improvisation has helped me become a better filmmaker, and to better recognize important moments in filming and take advantage of them. I think that’s a vital tool for a filmmaker working with documentary”.
In 2015, Gisela received funding from the Tribeca Film Institute for her first feature film, Perfume de Gardenias. Last year she released an abbreviated version of a documentary on Boricua singer Lucecita Benítez, Cartas de amor para una ícona (Love Letters for an Iconness). As a working professional in the local film industry, Gisela sees Macha as a form of rebellion against the representation of women’s minds and bodies in the mainstream music and film. In her own films, she continues to defy this lack of representation by highlighting stories of women, immigrants, and queer Boricuas.
Marching alongside feminist cis women in recent protests was a trans and non-binary community experiencing even deeper and more complex levels of violence. A week after the Paro Nacional (National Shutdown) on July 22—in which over 500,000 people marched on Las Américas Highway in San Juan—I spoke on the phone with poet, performer, and activist María José. We had a brief conversation about their work as a non-binary, trans, female artist in Puerto Rico. They had delivered a moving speech on top of a mobile stage set up for the Paro by local artist-activist collectives: el Hangar, Papel Machete, y Jornada: se acabaron las promesas. Regarding their use of multiple creative outlets, María José explains “they’re all methods of communication that shed light on my existence and truth as a trans woman. I try to take that role with care and authenticity. Photography, performance, poetry, they all look for truth as well.” The artist identifies as both a trans woman and as non-binary. I feel there’s a sense of emergency for me to clarify and educate the masses about these topics (violence against trans people), before I can take another road. I think that’s important.”
In 2011, María José moved to New York City to pursue a BFA in Photography at Parsons New School of Design. Exposure to people of color and trans people like themselves was an important aspect of their formation as an artist. After seven years, they moved back to the island and for over a year have been directing House of Grace, a refuge and safe house for trans and non-binary people in Río Piedras. They have also collaborated with other queer artist collectives like Sombrilla Cuir, Espicy Nipples, and el Hangar to plan events for the queer community. María describes their performance as intuitive, incorporating elements from voguing, singing, drag, and theatre. Influenced by artists such as Azealia Blanks, Rita Indiana, Amy Winehouse, and Nina Simone, they also follow in the footsteps of Boricua queer performance artists such as Macha Colón, Mickey Negrón, and Freddy Mercado.
In 14 de Diciembre, María José wears a crown with the smiling faces of all five contestants from Puerto Rico who have won the Miss Universe contest and a ribbon with the letters “XY” embroidered on it. They were bringing attention to the fact that the first trans woman participated in the contest last year. “It embraces the surreal and fantastical. It’s not explicitly about Puerto Rico but about wanting to be something else, to live in another reality, another context.”
In response to the colonial undertone of violence against cis and trans women, the artist adds that: “The colonial status runs down the economy and whatever we aspire to be. The austerity measures make more difficult our access to medicine, psychological therapy, and surgery in order to take care of our bodies in the healthiest way. Minimum wage is not enough to cover housing.” In spite of the constant struggle, the artist assures that “this systematic violence has not taken away our desire to feel jayaera. It’s essential that our creative outlets can be a means of both communicating a message and facilitating some kind of healing.”
The collapse began in silence. One by one, audience members started to gather around a wooden platform in the middle of a concrete court next to Estudios Sociales, underneath a tall palo de rosa tree. A small structure stood at the left back corner, something that seemed to be the remains of a bathroom or storage room in a building that was no longer there. I later find out through Noemí Segarra—founder and co-director of dance and activist group PISO Proyecto—that it used to be a residential building for professors. The University of Puerto Rico’s Program for Women and Gender Studies had created the stage in collaboration with students, dancers, and activists. They received no money from the university for materials.
In the beginning of April, the Río Piedras Campus of the University of Puerto Rico hosted the 2019 Women’s Colloquium with the help of the Program for Women and Gender Studies. PISO Proyecto had organized a Coloquio del Cuerpx, in which dancers and movers engaged in a collective collapse. The premise was to step onto the wooden platform and express through movement the idea or feeling of “collapse,” conveying personal meanings in the midst of the country’s political crisis and economic recession. The DJ watched over the dancers in silence. Most of the audience had just walked out of the last session of forums and workshops.
The dancers started to slowly make their way down to the floor, yielding to gravity as if finally letting go after a long day of work. Some were repeatedly tripping over their own feet, or lying belly flat on the floor, as if struggling to get out of bed. A girl with a trash bag over her head took her time rolling out from under a pile of palm tree leaves and debris.
Awilda Rodríguez Lora was wearing a white helmet, sunglasses, a long-sleeve shirt, and sweatpants. She sat down on the platform, one leg straight and the other knee bent and close to her chest, head resting on one hand, as if looking out a window in boredom. She continually tried to stand up and break out of the trance. After rolling around, as if fighting through invisible quicksand, she sat down at the edge of the platform. She took off her helmet and shoes and walked towards the remaining structure of the building with a bright red duffel bag in hand. She squatted in front of the bag and pulled out a pair of black stilettos, a small glass bottle, a hand-radio, and a well-worn t-shirt with the phrase “I’m not exotic, I’m exhausted.” She lays them out in front of her creating a kind of altar.
According to Awilda, her third piece as a solo performer, Mujer Maravilla: Cuerpa (Wonder Woman: Body), is the work of a lifetime. It began in 2013 and will continue until the day she dies. The artist recalls growing up in admiration of Lynda Carter’s character even though she knew from a young age that she didn’t look like her. Nor did her mom. La Mujer Maravilla: Cuerpa is Awilda’s search for self-love and acceptance in the midst of the violence that she experiences as a female, black, queer, and colonized body. She explains that “shame takes up too much space in our daily lives.” Awilda feels that it has to do with our colonial conditioning of feeling less, “because we are not them, we are not our colonizers.”
Awilda also feels the violence against her queer identity: “You’re a colonial body and then you decide not to be heteronormative. Well, it’s going to be uphill. You’re going to be considered less of a person, as a third-, fourth-, or fifth-class citizen.” She believes that the fear of being less inhibits people from stepping into vulnerability and realizing they deserve a better life.
“Mediocrity does not need to be our reality. The constant collapse does not have to be our reality. We can create the change if we demand it. Because we are worth a lot. Without our bodies there is nothing else. When there’s no one taking care of our bodies with health, education, and emotional wellbeing… Well, there’s a lot of work to be done. And there isn’t time for anything else.”
A Safe Space for “Todes”
How can we create a safe space within the colonial reality for women and queer people to collapse? To just be themselves? Activist and organizer Carla Torres Trujillo asked herself this question a year and a half ago, and sought answers with the help of her close queer and feminist colleagues. Now she runs el Hangar, a radical and inclusive queer space in Santurce that also serves as a cultural and political education center. The space also served as a centro de acopio, or distribution center, shortly after Hurricane María. The work and collaboration in a time of distress gave form to its new political and cultural mission. The space now hosts antimachista (anti-mysogynist) art and music events, workshops in bomba, queer anatomy drawing, self-defense, and alternative economy classes. They also hold a monthly Mercado Cuir, a market for local queer craft makers, farmers, and chefs to sell their goods.
I visited her a few days before their antimachista multidisciplinary arts festival on March 23, No la dejes caer (Don’t let it drop). El Hangar is located in a sort of green oasis in the middle of the city. Its home is a repurposed hangar surrounded by plantain trees and pumpkin vines in a quarter-acre lot in the sub-barrio of el Gándul. A huge mango tree’s canopy rustled against the structure’s metallic roof, scattering yellow fruit on the sandy soil below.
As I leaned over the six-foot fence to check out the space around the hangar, Flaco quickly announced my visit and approached, barking. I walked past the gate and into the metallic structure to see Carla and Marienne all the way in the back, elbows on the kitchen counter and eyes on their phones. After a few seconds of texting, Carla put down her phone. She apologized; she’s been non-stop organizing and coordinating logistics for upcoming events. She lives in a garage in the back corner of the lot so it’s often hard to separate her personal life from her work in the collective. She offered me mangos and we sat outside behind the hangar and in front of a young quenepa tree.
At the moment, there are eight members of the collective behind El Hangar, but this can fluctuate. In the past year and a half, they have been actively facilitating a diverse array of activities, both educational and cultural, with or without funds. Carla feels the collective is like her family. They all have a common interest in creating a space for politicized art and a new, grassroots strategy of political organizing outside the party system.
“There’s not a lot of collective alliances that come from below, free of liberal political interests. We don’t have that process and that conviction, at a generalized level, in which people can make and provoke something different. That collective self-determination is not necessarily at a mass level in Puerto Rico.”
I asked Carla which of the many fronts in this struggle against gender violence she identifies with the most. She explained she feels more affinity with immigrant women and trans communities on the island because they are the most vulnerable. “When trans women are killed, they’re not even counted as women. Those statistics are invisible.” She feels a personal connection to the immigrant community, as Boricuas have long been pressured to move from the island by similar colonial and economic forces. “A large part of my family lives outside the country. For me, one of the moments in which I feel more in conflict with the colony is when the distance hurts. It hurts because many of these people don’t have other opportunities.”
The members of the collective have also been aware of their proximity to Placita del Gandúl’s homeless community, residing across the street from el Hangar. They have supported neighboring charity workers from la Fondita de Jesús, a religious group two buildings down, on the corner of Hoare St. and Fernandez Juncos Ave. For over thirty years, La Fondita de Jesús has done community work in feeding, clothing, and aiding the homeless community. El Hangar also addresses the needs of Santurce’s sex worker community, hosting events that feature workshops on LGBTQI and human rights and free HIV testing. Today, the collective’s work continues to expand, organizing and inspiring amidst the protests and civil unrest that is birthing a new nation.
Taking it Back Home
The granddaughters of Manuela and Nonó live in the San Antón sector of Carolina, just outside of San Juan. Manuela and Nonó are no longer present in body, but still live in the land. Michel and Lydela continue to honor the land-based knowledge of their predecessors by transforming their property into Patio Taller—a community space that hosts art, ecology, cooking, and homesteading workshops. There are two structures, the main house where Michel lives, and another house converted into a theatre space and a studio. Lydela lives nearby with her two kids. They have a few fruit trees around the property, like papaya and tamarind, and have an organic garden with medicinal herbs and vegetables.
I interview the sisters on a Friday afternoon in mid-April, in front of a giant maguey next to their studio. They talk about how they were raised between their grandparent’s home in Carolina and the Manuel A. Pérez housing project in San Juan. Their work draws on the memories of their family’s struggle against institutionalized racism, drug trafficking, mass incarceration, and obstetric violence. Not only emotional memories, but ancestral practices connected to land. Their performances integrate elements from dance, theatre, “emancipatory education” and homesteading. They create masks and props from the bones and leather of green iguanas they hunt on the property. The iguanas are an invasive species and a widespread problem across the island, as they destroy people’s gardens and farm crops. Michel and Lydela, like many others on the island, hunt the iguanas for meat and as a measure of pest control, but have taken it a step further, integrating a ceremonial process:
“You go in (to hunt) with a sensibility and within a ritual of gratitude for all that they help us, in terms of food and our creative practice. The iguana has been super important because it brings us closer to that practice of gratitude. It supports us to work creatively in a way that also supports our daily life.”
They also experiment with fermentation, using SCOBYs (Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast) to develop a sort of leather-like fabric used for masks and props. SCOBYs are shaped like a pancake, new layers forming on top of older ones. Their practice is a way of repurposing material which is usually discarded to produce the fermented beverage which they serve at performances. Some of these masks and props were used in a performance at the 2018 10th Biennial of Contemporary Art in Berlin, called Ilustraciones de la mecánica.
When considering the venue for their first performance, Bestiario Doméstico, they thought of several theatres in the metropolitan area. But upon facing production expenses they decided to host the play in their home. Since then, they focus on producing as little waste, with as little expense as they can, sourcing surplus material from old industrial junkyards, hospitals, and schools.
The artists also look for ways to integrate their audience into the performance. As Michel explains it: “to push the limit of what’s expected from the audience members who usually watch passively. We set up a performance at our grandparents house and we realize, ok, these people are also visiting our home.” In Bestiario, for example, Lydela creates a classroom scene and invites audience members to participate as students, playing the strict teacher and posing mathematical problem-solving questions that involve low paying jobs, inadequate wages, and budgeting expenses to raise children. The dynamic is both humorous and disturbing, the awkwardness creating an intimacy between performers and audience.
“It’s not a distant audience, it’s a spectator who’s present, who feels their body and their breathing. That’s why we appeal to intimate spaces where people can be mingling, touching each other, having an interaction. It’s everything that involves welcoming the spectator: looking at each other, touching each other, and giving each other an offering,” Lydela adds.
Michel and Lydela want to create a more “neighborly” experience for their audience. Before and after the performance, they offer drinks and food made with ingredients from their garden as a way of helping the audience connect to the land that hosts them. It’s one of the ways in which they eliminate the line between their creative work and domestic life. Through their work and their domestic practices, they conjure a premonition: that we must return to the land in order to survive the drastic changes that lie ahead. It responds to the current food crisis in Puerto Rico, where over 80% of food consumed is imported, and the most fertile lands for farming are given over to agroindustry giants like Monsanto.
Finally, these domestic practices honor a system of knowledge passed down by women like Doña Manuela, who was a curandera, or healer, of the San Antón neighborhood. Lydela expands on how many women like her grandmother were ridiculed and underestimated for their knowledge of plant medicine due to the presence of the pharmaceutical industry on the island.
“You live this way and suddenly there’s a structure of power that invalidates all that information you had, like how to cure a stomach ache with a santiguo your grandmother would make. And now you need to go to the doctor or the emergency room. These are issues that are often ignored, we don’t recognize them, those certain details.”
The sisters make a point to remind us that botanical medicine is not some kind of recent trend for the rich to consume, but the medicine of poor people who live off the land. Their work continues to oscillate between psychomagic gestures that honor their family’s memories, to absurdist images that draw on Western medicine’s obsession with whiteness, sterility and hygiene. Offstage, Lydela and Michel heal their family memory through their community work and activism from Patio Taller, so that the creative practices they have learned and the tools they have shaped can be passed along to those who need them.
Creativity Runs Like Water on this Island
A common thread between recent protests and the work of these artists is that Boricuas are learning to value themselves again. The most persistent manifestation of the colonial condition is self-hatred. The means of personal healing that these women find in their creative practices is a way to reclaim the power of their diversity and fight the misogyny within and outside themselves. The young generation of women, currently living these protests, have witnessed how creativity and humor can overthrow a corrupt politician and bridge racial and class divides. They have seen the colonial undertone of this political and economic system with the payment of the illegal debt. They are beginning to understand that they deserve—and can reach for—a better future.
Back at el Hangar, Carla Torres Trujillo talks about how internalized colonial violence makes us blind to the abundance that surrounds us: “There’s so much talent in this country, it’s like water, it springs from beneath the earth. Everyone’s involved doing something. We live in a paradise, this soil is super productive. We’re standing on a sandy mangrove soil where there’s a mango tree that produces mangos eight times a year! We live in a country that’s a real treasure, in terms of people, in terms of soil, culture. However, we live in a country that’s colonized. The colonizers won and they win every day. We are blind to this wealth because our minds are colonized.”
In our commitment to eliminate misogyny and colonialism from our bodies and minds, may the creative practices of these women—and all women on the island—keep moving us forward into la futura. With the assertion and power of our creativity—from our diversities, our bodies, and our freedom—the inevitable demise of the colonial and patriarchal state begins to feel like a real possibility.
Karla Claudio-Betancourt is a visual artist living in Santurce, Puerto Rico working primarily with illustration, natural paints, text and video. Her creative practice is guided by ethnobotanical investigation, oral history and regenerative practices connected to land and food sovereignty.