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The apparent spontaneity of these demonstrations is deceptive inasmuch as it renders invisible the political work these organizations had been carrying out for at least a year prior. Nevertheless, the kairotic event of revolt never occurs “out of the blue” but rather stems from an accumulation of quotidian resistances which manifest in a series of ways. One such way can be the subversion of Eurocentric academic spaces through the organization of conferences which bring together scholars, activists, scholar-activists, and anyone interested in partaking in collective reflection and discussion. In the weeks leading up to the governor’s announcement in which he confirmed his resignation, the final preparations were underway for such a conference. This conference, which centered around decolonial thought and praxis in Puerto Rico, was to be held on land which had been forcefully expropriated, and its residents displaced, by the United States military for the construction of a military facility exactly eighty years ago. The base was eventually closed in the 1970’s and the land repurposed. The construction of this base, and the shift in intersubjectivities it produced, troubled renown Puerto Rican novelist Enrique Laguerre (1906-2005), who called that area home.
he Puerto Rican Summer of 2019 saw the ousting of a governor for the first time in the archipelago’s history. This revolt, as a kairotic event – from the Greek καιρός (kairos), which denotes a decisive or opportune moment – in which the Euromodern notion of progressive and linear time was disrupted, was led primarily by decolonial and black feminist organizations. The apparent spontaneity of these demonstrations is deceptive inasmuch as it renders invisible the political work these organizations had been carrying out for at least a year prior. Nevertheless, the kairotic event of revolt never occurs “out of the blue” but rather stems from an accumulation of quotidian resistances which manifest in a series of ways. One such way can be the subversion of Eurocentric academic spaces through the organization of conferences which bring together scholars, activists, scholar-activists, and anyone interested in partaking in collective reflection and discussion. In the weeks leading up to the governor’s announcement in which he confirmed his resignation, the final preparations were underway for such a conference. This conference, which centered around decolonial thought and praxis in Puerto Rico, was to be held on land which had been forcefully expropriated, and its residents displaced, by the United States military for the construction of a military facility exactly eighty years ago. The base was eventually closed in the 1970’s and the land repurposed. The construction of this base, and the shift in intersubjectivities it produced, troubled renown Puerto Rican novelist Enrique Laguerre (1906-2005), who called that area home.
Born in the Aceitunas district (barrio) of Moca, Puerto Rico – my place of residence and where I find myself writing this article – Enrique A. Laguerre was a novelist and lifelong pedagogue whose corpus explores themes related to Puerto Rico’s history, land, people, identity, and values. While his most well-known novel, La llamarada (1935), explores the plight of exploited sugarcane workers, his other works deal with “the Puerto Rican in San Juan, New York, and abroad; university life, feminism, and the religious practice of santería” (Irizarry, 2005: 213). In his eleventh novel, Infiernos privados (1986), Laguerre employs magical realism to critique Western notions of development and “progress” – which come, inevitably, at the expense of the environment – and the willing acceptance of their imposition.
Infiernos privados tells the story of el Pueblo, embodied by a handful of characters, and the transformation of intersubjectivities brought about by the construction of a military base, “a powerful Fortress for the forging of war with its hundreds of mechanical apparatuses and its thousands of soldiers” (Laguerre, 1986: 21). The residents describe the flybys of metallic yellow wings and the circulation of rumors of apocalyptic fire and destruction from “civilized Europe”. The residents suffered the cruel expropriation of their land by these unknown blonde men, who acted “as if there were no people in the community; to them, it was as if there were only shadows” (1986: 16). Nevertheless, the residents welcomed the construction of the Fortress because with it came “progress” and “modernization”. Laguerre also explores the abandonment of a sense of community for the sake of capitalist notions of progress when he describes that “contact with the people in el Promontorio turns everything into dollars and wonders manifest” (1986: 71). Hence the title of the novel, which may be translated to private infernos, in the Dantean sense, or private hells, in which Laguerre refers to a “selfishness that prevents the development of an authentic communal consciousness or a spirit of coexistence and solidarity” (Irizarry, 2005: 194).
The apparently fantastic events Laguerre mythologizes in Infiernos privados are a description of a not-so-well-known chapter in the archipelago’s history arguably, as Irizarry (2005: 191) rightfully pointed out, because the victims were poor farmers. The military fortress at the center of Laguerre’s novel is Ramey Air Force Base, or Borinquen Field as it was called at the time of its construction. The Ramey Air Force Base Historical Association makes no mention of the events which took place to construct the airfield (See Ramey Air Force Base Historical Association, n.d.). The acquisition of the 1,877 acres which constitute the Punta Borinquen region of Aguadilla, comprised of the Maleza Alta and Maleza Baja districts, was authorized by then War Secretary Harry H. Woodring on July 11, 1939 (Hernández, 2006: 34) and led to the forceful displacement of thousands of residents who had considered that area home for generations.
The desire of the United States government to transform Puerto Rico into the “Gibraltar of the Caribbean” (Hernández, 2006: 59) because of its geographic location resulted in a brutal episode of settler colonialism in Aguadilla, which served as a model for subsequent episodes in Vieques and Culebra.
The military base was built primarily on the lands which constitute the Maleza Alta district of Aguadilla which were the best lands from an agricultural perspective. Since displaced residents were in their majority smallholder farmers (agregados) which did not own the land themselves and depended on their harvests for survival, displacement meant inevitable ruin and impending death. One ex-resident of the region, René Ramos Cajigas, in a 1994 interview recalled the expropriations and the lack of futurity which is characteristic of the racialized/colonized subject:
The worst of it was that when they [the US military] started making roads and had to eliminate the houses, they gave residents twenty-four hours to vacate, and most of them were smallholder farmers without a penny and without a place to go. People would go into their houses and take out what they could and if the elderly couldn’t walk, they [the US soldiers] would remove their things for them and put them in front, and right there they would set fire to the houses. What were they going to do? Where were they going to hide? Many people went to live in caves and died of suffering and were not given a penny. (Quoted in Hernández, 2006: 46)
As Laguerre so perceptively realized, this military facility and the “progress” that came with it produced a shift in intersubjectivities within the community. This experience saw the concrete manifestation of what Puerto Rican philosopher Nelson Maldonado-Torres has called the metaphysical catastrophe constitutive of the Euromodern experience, which “transformed the meaning and relation of basic areas of thinking and being, particularly the self and the other, along with temporality and spatiality, among other key concepts in the basic infrastructure that constitutes our human world” (Maldonado-Torres, n.d.: 11). Laguerre, although he does not use the concept, perceived this metaphysical catastrophe as well as the naturalization of war, which Maldonado-Torres has called the paradigm of war constitutive of Euromodernity (Maldonado-Torres, 2008). Laguerre states that because most residents had lived in the Punta Borinquen region for generations, they “even gave affectionate names to the palm trees that nourished the small straw industry. Affectionate names, also, were given to their domestic animals. Goats, cows, oxen became humanized. The unknown men [US soldiers] knew nothing about this. They just bragged about their unlimited power” (Laguerre, 1986: 18-19). The influx of US military personnel, with their “white gaze” (Fanon, 2008), also dehumanized and exoticized the female body. This, combined with the poverty produced by the forced displacement of farmers to the mountainous region near the municipality’s center (casco urbano), led to the commodification of sex. This produced an area behind the now non-operational Coliseo Luis T. Díaz, previously referred to as “el Mondongo”, which was declared off-limits by the federal government due to the proliferation of sex workers (Hernández, 2006: 123). This new military base caused a shift in the way the residents of Aguadilla related to one another and to the cosmos, leading to the private infernos Laguerre alludes to in his title. “As if by the art of devilish sorcery – Laguerre states – the ancient placidity of the country soon disappeared. By parachute the Pandora’s boxes of unexpected mutations began to descend on el Pueblo” (Laguerre, 1986: 21). These mutations, of course, are the symptoms of the metaphysical catastrophe.
By July 1971, control of Ramey Air Force Base was transferred from the Strategic Air Command to the Military Airlift Command following the Vietnam War draw-down, a move which led to the eventual closure of the base in 1973 (Hernández, 2006: 129–130). The local government passed Law No. 124 (June 20, 1979) which created the Authority for the Administration and Development of Punta Borinquen who in turn presented their “Re-Use Strategy Plan” or “Renewal Strategic Plan” in March 1975 (Hernández, 2006: 133). Mismanagement of funds and corruption aside, there were some projects delineated in the “Re-Use Strategy Plan” which did in fact materialize and exceeded expectations. Specifically, the establishment of educational institutions which included a vocational high school, and intermediate school, and the Aguadilla campus of the University of Puerto Rico (Hernández, 2006: 140).
It was on the premises of that campus, in the Department of Humanities, where the conference Teorizando el giro decolonial: reflexiones en torno a Puerto Rico was held on July 26 and 27 of 2019, just two days after el Pueblo, like Laguerre’s collective protagonist and which must be understood as extending beyond the territorial limits of the archipelago, managed to force Ricardo Rosselló to announce his resignation from the governorship of Puerto Rico.
Rosselló’s resignation came after weeks of non-stop, seemingly spontaneous manifestations, demonstrations, and strikes across the archipelago and the Puerto Rican diaspora. Due to space constraints, I will limit myself to saying that the protests were in repudiation of a leaked chat which revealed symptoms of an order characterized by white supremacy, heteronormativity, Christocentric patriarchy, capitalism, and Eurocentrism. Those messages are examples of the pieces of a genuinely human intersubjectivity that was violently shattered after the experience of the ego conquiro in this hemisphere.
The philosophical import of celebrating a conference on decolonial thought on grounds which were forcefully expropriated for the creation of a military base eighty years earlier, a base which served as a springboard to carry out imperialist operations such as the military invasion of the Dominican Republic and coup d’état which overthrew Juan Bosch (Hernández, 2006: 150), cannot be understated.
The conference had forty-one “traditional” presentations with topics ranging from pedagogy, agriculture, psychology, history, feminism, art, architecture, renewable energy, literature, culture and music, all from a decolonial perspective across two days which ran from eight in the morning until seven or eight at night. The conference also included the participation of three activist organizations who shared their work, reflections, and insights. These were Universidad Sin Fronteras, Movimiento Al Rescate de Mi Escuela, Colectiva Feminista en Construcción (known also as “La Cole”). Universidad Sin Fronteras is a social activist organization that has been militant for approximately seven years and whose work is dedicated to the generation and promotion of autonomous processes of collective knowledge. Said differently, Universidad Sin Fronteras looks to decolonize, and potentially abolish, the Westernized university with its epistemic racism and sexism (Grosfoguel, 2013) and hierarchy.
Al Rescate de Mi Escuela is an organization composed of teachers, parents, students, and community members who have appropriated a school abandoned by the government, rehabilitated it, and transformed it into a community center where they offer student tutoring, art classes, and sporting lessons such as capoeira, which entails a recovery of an Afro-Latino memory and Afro-Boricua agency (Laó-Montes, 2018).
Colectiva Feminista en Construcción, a decolonial feminist organization with a solid trajectory and who were at the forefront of the events this past summer, presented an incredibly poignant self-critique in which they took the audience through the history of the organization, stopping to highlight and discuss each conjecture. They were met with a standing ovation.
Nelson Maldonado-Torres, the keynote speaker, presented what he saw as the decolonization of philosophy in Puerto Rico, drawing from auto-biographical experiences, before segueing into his presentation titled “Analítica de la colonialidad y de la decolonialidad”, and a brief discussion of his “Outline of Ten Thesis on Coloniality and Decoloniality” (See Maldonado-Torres, n.d.) in the context of Puerto Rico.
To close out two intense days of collective reflection, Maldonado-Torres sat down with different activists – Jesús Lasanta Rolón (Al Rescate de Mi Escuela), Shariana Ferrer-Núñez (Colectiva Feminista en Construcción), and Jorge Graterole (Recinto Anexo 292) – to have a conversation regarding what they each considered their greatest victory, greatest loss or failure (if there is in fact such a thing), and what principles are necessary to sustain their particular projects. This was arguably the highlight of the entire event.
Most of the conference sessions extended far beyond the time which was allocated for them. This was expected, considering that the conference was held a mere two days after Rosseló announced his resignation and those present, including myself, were struggling with anxiety. There was, at the time and still today, too much to reflect on. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that we are witnessing – maybe we have been for a while – a break in Euromodernity’s inertia. If the summer of 1939 saw the beginning of a process that resulted in the ontological sedimentation of the coloniality of being (Maldonado-Torres, 2007) under US imperialism in Aguadilla, which Laguerre would later lament, and the summer of 1973 saw the beginning of the physical and epistemic transformation of the Punta Borinquen region from a forger of war to a forger of culture, then the summer of 2019 saw the further development of a movement to undo the effects of the metaphysical catastrophe. The people of Puerto Rico and the diaspora coming together to oust Rosselló and a conference on decoloniality held at a University of Puerto Rico campus which is on the grounds of what was an old military base, outside the San Juan area, is telling of a decolonial turn. And if not, at least we have begun picking up the pieces of a truly human intersubjectivity, broken by the Euromodern experience, to reconfigure them anew.
I end this reflection by expressing immense gratitude to the individuals that made the conference “Theorizing the Decolonial Turn: Reflections from Puerto Rico” possible to highlight their role in the construction of decolonial spaces of praxis and collective reflection in the archipelago; roles which too often are rendered invisible. I would like to thank the Director of the Humanities Department at the University of Puerto Rico – Aguadilla, Alberto Martínez-Márquez, and the Department’s Administrative Assistant Mayra Serrano for their logistical help, especially during the final weeks leading up to the conference. I am also grateful for the work performed by some of my students from the Spring 2019 semester who volunteered during both days of the conference and stayed for more than eight hours each day, without any incentive, on a long weekend with beautiful weather during the summer. These students were: Amanda García, Carola Agront Arce, Shanailee Rosas, Tahani Soto, Faviola Rivera Rosado, Jennifer Soto. I would also like to thank those individuals who served as part of the Proposal Evaluation Committee, those individuals who helped spread the word about the conference through word-of-mouth and social media, to Alexis Rosado who put together the promotional poster, to John Paul Belk who helped take photographs, to my in-laws William Cruz, Lourdes Cruz, and Pedro Pérez who stopped by the university on both days to help with the set-up and clean-up process. I would like to thank those individuals who, upon learning that the conference expenses were covered with private funds, decided to donate although it was not requested. I would also like to thank Colectiva Feminista en Construcción, Universidad Sin Fronteras, Movimiento Al Rescate de Mi Escuela, and Nelson Maldonado-Torres for accepting my invitation, sharing their thoughts regarding logistics during the months preceding the event, and sharing their work with the audience. Most importantly, I would like to thank my wife, partner, and friend Nicole Cruz for sharing the burden of organizing this event with me. Her aesthetic eye, logistical acumen, and financial support were invaluable, as was the emotional support. Without her, this conference would not have happened. I am forever indebted to her. And I argue that Aguadilla, her native town, is too.
 All translations from Spanish-language sources are my own.
 Jorge Graterole is a philosophy professor at what is referred to as the University of Puerto Rico, Annex 292 campus, where his students are incarcerated in a maximum-security prison.
Other essays from this forum include:
Making Space for Decolonial Futures: An Editors’ Introduction, Joaquín Villanueva and Marisol LeBrón
La Calle Fortaleza in Puerto Rico’s Primavera de Verano, Aurora Santiago-Ortiz and Jorell Meléndez-Badillo
Summer 2019: The Great Racialized Puerto Rican Family Protesting in the Street Fearlessly, Bárbara I. Abadía-Rexach (a version of this article is also provided in Spanish)
Three Poems from the Summer 2019, Ana Portnoy Brimmer
The Public Reckoning: Anti-debt Futures After #RickyRenuncia, Sarah Molinari
Fanon F (2008) Black Skin, White Masks. 1st ed., new ed. New York: Grove Press.
Grosfoguel R (2013) The Structure of Knowledge in Westernized Universities: Epistemic Racism/Sexism and the Four Genocides/Epistemicides of the Long 16th Century. Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge 11(1). Available at: https://scholarworks.umb.edu/humanarchitecture/vol11/iss1/8.
Hernández CIH (2006) Pueblo Nómada: De La Villa Agrícola de San Antonio al Emporio Militar de «Ramey Base». Puerto Rico: Ediciones Huracán.
Irizarry E (2005) Estudios sobre Enrique A. Laguerre. San Juan: Editorial del Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña.
Laguerre EA (1986) Infiernos privados. Río Piedras: Editorial Cultural.
Laó-Montes A (2018) Afro-Boricua Agency: Against the Myth of the Whitest of the Antilles. ReVista. Harvard Review of Latin America. Winter 2018(Afro-Latin Americans). Available at: https://revista.drclas.harvard.edu/book/afro-boricua-agency-against-myth-whitest-antilles (accessed 28 August 2019).
Maldonado-Torres N (2007) Sobre la colonialidad del ser: contribuciones al desarrollo de un concepto. In: Castro-Gómez S and Grosfoguel R (eds) El giro decolonial. Reflexiones para una diversidad epistémica más allá del capitalismo global. Bogotá: Siglo del Hombre Editores / IESCO-UC / Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, pp. 127–167.
Maldonado-Torres N (2008) Against War: Views from the Underside of Modernity. Durham: Duke University Press.
Maldonado-Torres N (n.d.) Outline of Ten Theses on Coloniality and Decoloniality. Caribbean Studies Association: 37.
Ramey Air Force Base Historical Association (n.d.) Ramey Air Force Base Historical Association. Available at: http://rameyafb.net/ (accessed 29 August 2019).
Pedro Lebrón Ortiz is an independent scholar who has served as an adjunct professor at the University of Puerto Rico, Aguadilla, in the Department of Humanities and the Department of Technology & Applied Sciences and is employed full-time as a Mechanical Engineer in the private sector. He holds an MA in Philosophy (University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras) and a BS in Mechanical Engineering (Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico).