Nationalism and Defiance

Garcia - Puerto Rico - 2 pueblos
UPR Students Support Chilean Student Movement. Mural in Social Sciences Building.

The University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras has historically been a flashpoint for confrontation and protests. Since 1948, when the students protested the University’s decision to ban Don Pedro Albizu Campos from speaking, it has been the center for leftist activism and a hub for independentistas of all stripes. During its history, the protests have been varied and at times violent. Anyone will tell you that they rarely stayed constrained by the University gates and would flow into the streets of Río Piedras and at times beyond. There was once a march protesting the draft and the war in Vietnam that went from the campus to Old San Juan (some 8-10 miles) ripping and burning American flags as they went. Then there was the infamous strike that occurred to rid the campus of the ROTC in which a wooden building behind the ROTC building burned, rocks were thrown, police in riot gear descended on the campus, an ROTC cadet was killed defending the building, and 21 year old Antonia Martínez Lagares was murdered in cold blood by a police officer after looking down from her balcony and yelling at him to stop beating a protester. He calmly looked up at her, pointed his gun, and shot her in the head. Then, of course, there have been the more recent protests against the fee hikes and privatization of the university, which as the ACLU report has shown, has also ended with police brutality and a disproportionate amount of force. Americans that were shocked by the use of force against Occupy protesters in New York would be horrified to see what occurred on this island.  However, while protests, especially at or around UPR-RP, have been one of the loudest mechanisms used by independentistasand nationalists in the past, protests that directly address suppression or colonialism are not the only way Puerto Ricans express their nationalism.

Mural of Carlos Arroyo after the U.S. defeat in Old San Juan.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many more must a mural be worth? Murals are everywhere in Puerto Rico. I’ve seen them all around campus protesting or supporting various causes and remembering victims such as Antonia. I’ve seen them throughout Puerto Rico on buildings, under overpasses, everywhere. There is the flag, there is Carlos Arroyo proudly showing his Puerto Rico jersey after the humiliating defeat Puerto Rico served the U.S. Dream Team at the Olympics in 2004 (92-73), there’s the revolutionary flag, Pedro Albizu Campos, Luis Muñoz Marín and the list goes on. Nationalism is intrinsically intertwined in Puerto Rican life. It is apparent in diverse settings, Christian music festivals, bank commercials, music, and these murals. To have nationalist pride does not equate being an independentista, but there is this sense of pride that is apparent in Puerto Ricans, a pride that isn’t cheapened by the commercial use of nationalist symbols. It is a pride that they cannot keep to themselves, a pride the seeps into art from murals to music. These commercials and works of art produce feelings/emotions that I haven’t seen other people express; it’s not an air of superiority or hyper-patriotism like we see in the U.S., it’s almost a primal pride like one feels for a loved one, it is a pride in a history, a culture, and a people who have not been completely dominated by 500 years of colonialism, a people who have forged their own identity that they do not subordinate to their American citizenship. And while some people face this colonialism head on, others take a more round about approach.

This weekend I was able to visit Casa Pueblo in the municipality of Adjuntas. It was an incredible experience because it showed just how engrained nationalism is in many aspects of Puerto Rican life. Casa Pueblo began in the 1980s as a response to the Puerto Rican government’s attempt to exploit copper mines that lay under three towns, including Adjuntas. The exploitation would have destroyed the land to create open pit mining, leaving many displaced and destroying the environment in the process. Slowly but surely, one man garnered the support of the entire community to stand up to the mining interests and stop the plans for the destruction of their homes. He knew that he had to get the interest of the people, so Casa Pueblo would put on cultural events with music, food, and dancing and then disseminate information about the plans and how they would affect the community. But they did not stop there; they have also fought to preserve the forest, the water supply, and to stop the controversial natural gas pipeline. You see, nationalists, he explained, are not just those who fight against the United States for colonialism. In protecting their land, their water, their people, they are protecting their patria, something that is theirs; something that no American company can dominate if they can help it. Environmentalism, as a form of nationalism, is also apparent in the antics of Tito Kayak who is currently kayaking from Venezuela to Puerto Rico to try to liberate the last Puerto Rican political prisoner, independence activist Oscar López Rivera. The question today is, why have these nationalists and environmentalists risked their lives? How can such a proud people be content with the current limbo that is their political status? This question is not easily answered, especially with a current generation that is rejecting this basic, primal, Puerto Ricanness that has set apart these proud people from other nations and colonies in the world.

This weekend I also had the pleasure of taking my educational field trip with a few teachers. On the car ride to Adjuntas they lamented the lack of interest their students show for their language and their culture. One teacher took her students to a South American country and almost started crying when one of the symbols of that country brought out a percussion box so that they could sing songs of Puerto Rico. She cried not because of the kind gesture, though that was part of it, but because this man a world away knew the songs of her nation, while her own students who had been raised there did not. There are various causes of this disconnect: globalization—while other generations grew up with local TV channels and radio in Spanish, this generation grew up in the era of cable and internet access—and the fact that language has been used as a political pawn by the competing political parties on the island just to name two. These children get angry when orthographic mistakes are corrected, assuring that they are neither proficient in the Spanish they neglect at school nor the English they learn through the mass media. The result is a lost generation, one that does not know, or wish to know its history and culture, its music and its heroes. How can such a proud people be content with the current limbo that is their political status? The answer used to be political repression or economic dependence on the metropolis; in the future, however, it will be perceived as the spread of American culture and lack of interest. Slowly, everything these proud people have fought to preserve during centuries of direct colonialism and repression will disappear, not because of a stronger direct colonial influence but because of globalization. Welcome to the global community Puerto Rico, good luck.

Posted by Leani García – MA Candidate at CLACS at NYU

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