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n February 15, 2018, at an investor’s conference convened in New York City, Rosselló and members of his administration declared that Puerto Rico was “open for business.” Less than six months after Hurricane María ravaged the archipelago, when many Puerto Ricans still lacked electricity and access to basic necessities, Rosselló stood before a flashy PowerPoint telling would-be investors to think of the storm as a “restart” for the local economy. The storm had created untold opportunities and accelerated his administration’s austerity policies, the implementation of which would have taken years otherwise. During the conference, Rosselló and other representatives of the colonial government failed to mention the deaths caused by Hurricane María or the oppressively slow response from the local and federal governments. While the official death count stubbornly remained at 64 despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated as many as 4,645 excess deaths seemingly caused by the combined forces of climate change and governmental neglect. This, however, would not be the last time Rosselló presented Puerto Rico as a homogenous spatial void for capital to project its fantasies onto.
On September 28, 2018, one year after Hurricane María destroyed the archipelago’s infrastructure and forced thousands to migrate, Rosselló spoke at the Skift Forum, a think tank for the global travel industry, in an effort to convince international investors to bet on an archipelago mired in a deepening financial, social, and ecological crisis (Villanueva, Cobián and Rodríguez, 2018). From the Skift Forum, Rosselló took to twitter to share his vision of post-disaster Puerto Rico with the rest of the world:
I see Puerto Rico as a blank canvas for innovation. Innovation is about thinking differently and being disruptive. My hope is that we can turn #PuertoRico into the home for the human cloud. We want to innovate in our rebuilding. #SkiftForum @skift
With one tweet, Rosselló obliterated the pain, suffering, and struggles of hundreds of thousands of families that for the last twelve months were struggling to tread water.
The ability to carve such a sleek image out of what was a devastated society, constituted a violent act if we consider that “discourse itself exerts violence through omission” (Butler, 2004: 34). Omission is not subtraction but abstraction, it is the discursive act of removing bodies from the landscape as if nothing but a contentless form – a blank canvas – remained. Lefebvre was right to underscore that “violence intrinsic to abstraction.” (Lefebvre, 1991: 289; Loftus, 2015). Lefebvre conceived space under late capitalism as dominated by the power of abstraction. Controlled mostly by corporate and state power, space – land and property – becomes a commodity to be produced, exchanged, (productively) consumed and, of course, accumulated. As a commodity, space must be rendered abstract – void of concrete and human elements – for what must be advertised is its exchangeability in the world market. The notion of Puerto Rico as a “fantasy island” has always been bound up with the functioning of colonial capitalism, but in the post-María moment it took on a new significance as thousands of premature deaths and hundreds of thousands leaving the archipelago were implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) positioned as essential for creating optimal conditions for accumulation. Now more than ever it felt to many like the goal was a Puerto Rico without Puerto Ricans, something, it would later be revealed, that Rosselló and his cronies joked about.
This forum is about Puerto Ricans’ refusal to accept the violence of abstract space – the unwillingness to imagine a future from which they have been disappeared. While Rosselló and his administration paid millions to consultants, publicists, and lobbyists to represent space logically and homogenously to investors, many Puerto Ricans were left to fend for themselves receiving neither financial or technical aid from the government as they navigated the archipelago’s intersecting crises. Abandoned by the state, communities organized to restore their lives, build networks of solidarity, and reconstruct their communal spaces. Unintentionally, governmental neglect helped sow the seeds of a political culture that eventually grew to oust the governor and some of his accomplices from office. The contributors to this forum document the events that led to the two-weeks of protests that transformed Puerto Rico during the summer of 2019 as well as the political futures that mass mobilization forcefully placed in the realm of the concrete and the possible.
In our introduction to the forum we want to more firmly situate Puerto Rico within geographical debates precisely because there is much to be learned about and with this U.S. colony. Our approach consists of reading and writing Puerto Rico “with and beyond Lefebvre,” an analytical maneuver familiar to many readers of Society and Space (Kinkaid, 2019: 2). To do so, we conceptualize the 2019 summer protests, as well as the multitude of alternative political spaces that emerged before, during and after the protests, as differential spaces (Lefebvre, 1991). As the interventions of this forum demonstrate, to conceptualize the differential spaces that decolonial struggles in Puerto Rico have produced we need new analytical tools, new positionalities, and new departures that take us beyond the whiteness, androcentric, and Eurocentric epistemologies of Henri Lefebvre (Fenster, 2005; Samara, He, and Chen, 2013; see also, Oswin, 2019). That is one of the many lessons that Puerto Rico and the protests of the summer teach us.
From Colonial Abstract Space to Differential Space
Frantz Fanon once described colonial societies as “a world cut in two,” whose “frontiers are shown by barracks and police stations.” (Fanon, 1963: 38) Beyond the frontier, Fanon also noted that the colonial city was “a world of statues:”
the statue of the general who carried out the conquest, the statue of the engineer who built the bridge; a world which is sure of itself, which crushes with its stones the backs flayed by whips: this is the colonial world (Fanon, 1963: 51-52).
La Fortaleza, the Governor’s mansion, a monument inherited from the Spanish colonial era, has been a historically potent symbol of colonial and imperial power in Puerto Rico. There, in the old colonial city of San Juan, sits the governor of a colony that once belonged to Spain but since 1898 has been part of the United States’ imperial realm. Actual colonial power, however, lies beyond San Juan in the hall of the US Congress in Washington DC. As Mónica Jiménez traces in her contribution, a series of legal decisions have constituted Puerto Rico as an “unincorporated territory” ruled by the US Congress and devoid of true democratic power. Taking into account that socio-legal history, we can more clearly see the careful construction of a “colonial abstract space” (Kipfer, 2007). Jiménez challenges us to consider the meaning of democracy in a place “that has only ever known colonial rule.”
Aurora Santiago-Ortiz and Jorell Meléndez-Badillo in their contribution show that in the “world of statues,” as Fanon would say, claims to democracy involve “repurposing” those historical symbols of colonial rule. It was no coincidence that protesters assembled at La Fortaleza from July 11 to July 24, 2019 to demand the resignation of governor Ricardo Rosselló. At La Fortaleza – guarded, of course, by barricades and rows of riot police – crowds returned night after night and in growing numbers to express their indignation and demand accountability. In defiance of colonial authority, protesters changed the name of the street leading to the Governor’s mansion from Calle Fortaleza to Calle de la Resistencia (Resistance Street), to more accurately define the new uses given to the appropriated space. The streetscape of Old San Juan was momentarily decolonized and democracy became embodied and embedded through the protesters’ claims to space.
But why were people assembled on the newly christened Calle de la Resistencia during those long days and nights in July and to what end? One way to answer that question, is to go back to September 20, 2017, the day that Hurricane María, a category 4 storm, made landfall and slowly moved through the Puerto Rican archipelago leaving in its path piles of debris, leafless trees, roofless homes, and an unquantifiable amount of human suffering. Hurricane María was one of the deadliest storms in US history, although both the federal and local governments attempted to downplay the human toll of the storm. After much controversy, the local government finally admitted that 2,975 people died as a result of Hurricane María. That figure came from a study by George Washington University commissioned by the Rosselló government leading some to doubt the official death toll. In Puerto Rico and its global diaspora, people continued to grieve over 4,645 deaths. That number can still be seen on black t-shirts, black painted Puerto Rican flags, and murals across the archipelago that serve to remind everyone that the country is still in mourning. In the post-María recovery period, rage and resentment, just like debris, piled up inside an already traumatized people (Bonilla and Klein, 2019).
Hurricane María hit a territory that was already reeling from a series of disasters that were taking a toll on people’s lives and reshaping the terrain of the everyday. Two years before María struck, then governor Alejandro García Padilla publicly admitted the Puerto Rican government’s inability to pay back its growing debt. Unprotected by bankruptcy law, another effect of colonial abstract law, Puerto Rico sought help from the US Congress and President Obama. A bailout was out of the question. Instead, Congress passed the PROMESA law in July, 2016, which, among other functions, created the Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB, or la junta as it is known in Puerto Rico). Members of la junta were not democratically elected, but rather appointed by the US Congress. When María arrived, Puerto Rico was under the full authority of la junta, a colonial structure that has power over the archipelago’s budget and finances. The FOMB represents Puerto Rico in bankruptcy court and thus far has restructured part of its debt in ways that overwhelmingly favor creditors – Wall Street banks, hedge funds, and an increasing number of vulture funds (Morales, 2019). To pay back creditors, la junta is imposing a harsh austerity regime that includes cuts in education, health, and other basic services. Hurricane María simply accelerated the austerity process. The road to Calle de la Resistencia leads back to PROMESA and the imposition of la junta, which made painfully clear to Puerto Ricans that their futures were being foreclosed in order to generate huge profits for Wall Street and helped pave the way for the destruction that María left in its wake.
Reports by committed journalists and activists begun to surface soon after Hurricane María questioning the official death count (Minet, 2019) and criticizing the slow response from Congress, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the local government. During the post-María recovery period, stories about corruption dominated the headlines. As José Atiles discusses in his contribution to this forum, U.S. colonial capitalism has fostered pervasive corruption in Puerto Rico to the benefit of local and international elites. The Rosselló administration enacted a series of very timid anticorruption measures that targeted “petty corruption,” but ignored the systematic corruption that characterized the post-María recovery period and was, indeed, vital for the “blank slate” opportunity zone desired by capital. For instance, a study revealed that 90% of reconstruction funds received in the first year after Hurricane María were granted in contracts to US based companies, undermining the local economy and, in some cases, failing to provide necessary services. This is what Atiles calls “colonial corruption.” In contrast, the cost of life in Puerto Rico kept rising, infrastructure was crumbling, access to basic services was increasingly denied, and for many staying or leaving the archipelago became a decision over “life and death.” Given the increasing inequalities that have characterized the post-María period, some of us wondered why Puerto Ricans were not “more fiercely resisting” these conditions. Or in the words of the nineteenth century freedom fighter Ramón Emeterio Betances during the early days of US colonial rule, “¿Que les pasa a los puertorriqueños que no se rebelan?” (What is wrong with the Puerto Ricans that they haven’t yet rebelled?”)
And then they did.
While the outrages had been accumulating for a long time, one could even say more than a decade with the beginning of the contemporary debt crisis, the spark for the protests was the publication of an all-male private group chat over the Telegram Messenger platform between Ricardo “Ricky” Rosselló, members of his cabinet, and private consultants. The scandal took various names, including #TelegramGate, #ChatGate, and #RickyLeaks. On July 13, 2019, the Center for Investigative Journalism published the full Telegram chat thread, 889 pages of primary evidence implicating the governor and close allies in a litany of crimes, corruption, and abuses of power. In addition, the chat exposed a disgusting “brotherhood” that had no problem mocking women, the LGBTQ+ community, obese people, members of their own party, political rivals, journalists, racial minorities, low-income people, and even those who died as a result of Hurricane María. For two weeks, as Barbara Abadía-Rexach documents in her first-person narrative of the protests (see a version of the article in Spanish), a wide cross-section of Puerto Rican society – the “great racialized Puerto Rican family” – took the streets of Old San Juan to demand the resignation of Rosselló and close allies. Historically oppressed groups were leading the protests, becoming protagonists of a political process that has often excluded them. Pensioners, young people, racialized minorities from poor neighborhoods, queers, the unemployed, the underemployed, individuals who had never been to a protest in their lives, and the politically active all converged at La Fortaleza. As a result of this ongoing, multi-sectorial pressure, Rosselló announced his resignation on July 24th and officially stepped down on August 2, 2019.
From Differential Space to Decolonial Geographies
and even though many are uncomfortable with the thought,
in the fissures of crisis there is joy,
for without it,
there is death
Ana Portnoy Brimmer, “In the fissures of crisis”
“In the fissures of crisis,” one of three poems by Ana Portnoy Brimmer presented in this forum, shows us the cracks within the dominant geographies of abstract space, or what Katherine McKrittick (2006) calls “traditional geography.” Produced as we have seen by juridical reason and violent discourses that desire nothing else but to strip the landscape of its complexity, colonial abstract space can never fully lay claim to the entirety of the territory. Social space, Lefebvre reminds us (1991: 349), “contains potentialities” precisely because “differences endure…on the margins of the homogenized realm.” (1991: 373) All it takes is a body, or an assembly of bodies, to appropriate space and give it a different meaning (i.e. Calle de la Resistencia) and to inaugurate “the project of a different space.” (Lefebvre, 1991: 349)
The 2019 summer protests that forced Ricardo Rosselló out of office were the continuation, not the inauguration, of a project to create a different space and a different future for Puerto Ricans. Rocío Zambrana, in her essay, locates the confrontational politics to “hold the state accountable” that marked the summer protests to the Black feminist tactics of La Colectiva Femnista en Construcción. Since its creation in 2014, La Colectiva has developed a sophisticated Black feminist and decolonial critique that continually draws attention to the interlocking systems of oppression that condition the colony, which is a “necropolis” (Lloréns and Stanchich, 2019). In 2018, La Colectiva camped outside La Fortaleza demanding that Ricardo Rosselló sign a declaration of “State of Emergency” due to the alarming rates of femicide and sexual violence in the archipelago. Even though La Colectiva’s demands were not met, the embodied politics of spatial appropriation created a “fissure in the once-impenetrable walls of La Fortaleza,” as Santiago-Ortiz and Meléndez-Badillo point out in their essay. As Zambrana demonstrates, La Colectiva’s “tactics are risky, shifting, evolving because anchored in material conditions, committed to tracking and denouncing the violence of state/capital, aiming to build power from within positions of disempowerment.” La Colectiva’s actions prefigure the 2019 summer protests by naming and actively opposing the violence of colonial abstract space.
Mass movements are rooted in everyday politics that can alter “time- and place-specific social relations.” (Beveridge and Koch, 2019: 148) The repeated alteration of dominant social relations by collective and strategically organized practices, like La Colectiva’s, can further open “fissures” that allow us to see the contradictions of abstract space. In her piece, Hilda Lloréns alerts us to the diverse publics that for years have come to constitute a veritable challenge to the archipelago’s only coal-powered plant. This “coal-ash material public” joined the protests in 2019 and exposed the contradictions of a colonial government engaged in the “brutal degradation of life in the name of capital accumulation.” Through Lloréns’ analysis we can more clearly see how the 2019 summer protests were a continuation of years of struggles by collectively and strategically organized groups that over time have constructed a networked geography of differential spaces in resistance to a “government that had at best acted neglectfully, and at worst, disrespectfully.”
Similarly, Gustavo García-López directs us to the differential spaces created by the ongoing struggles of the environmental justice movement. Active mobilizations over the past several years have cracked open the fissures that allow us to see the “disasters generated by the corrupt necropolitics of colonial-capitalism.” Moreover, García-López’s contribution documents various efforts of self-assembly and autogestión that in the post-María period, but certainly after the 2019 summer protests, constitute a strategy for “decolonization from below: decolonizing concretely through actions that transform the socioecological relations of (re)production of the colony, particularly those tied to the basic needs of life: food, energy, water.” At this point, we can begin to appreciate the transition from differential spaces of resistance and contestation to decolonial geographies of transformation. These spaces are constituted by differential bodies that have fallen victim to the interlocking system of oppression of the colony. One of the most important takeaways from the summer protests was that the work of creating a decolonial future for Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans means centering the demands of the archipelago’s most vulnerable populations – a Black feminist tactic that suffused the streets and points to another way of building new futures that are grounded in solidarity.
Sarah Molinari’s essay takes us into the decolonial space of people’s assemblies – “the autonomously-convened (auto-convocado) emerging spaces of popular democracy that are shaping the afterlives of #RickyRenuncia and modeling alternatives of self-governance” – to demonstrate the ways in which Puerto Ricans are beginning to articulate “anti-debt futures.” As opposed to the futures imposed by the FOMB and the bankruptcy court debt-restructuring process, in the decolonial geographies forged through anti-debt organizing people are re-articulating the morality of debt “to rethink what is owed, and to whom.” This move is fundamental in that it situates Puerto Rico within Black diasporic, anti-capitalist, and anti-colonial traditions that deepen our undeJoaquínrstanding of “conversation[s] about debt reparations in Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, and beyond.”
These scalar geographies of decolonial struggle are more explicitly discussed in Sara Awartani’s intervention about “freedom dreams.” In it, Awartani traces the global politics of Puerto Rican liberation struggles to map the careful construction of networks of solidarity that were ultimately re-activated during the 2019 summer protests. #RickyLeaks circulated globally in a way that “gave way to global visions of shared anti-colonial struggles for self-determination against corrupt local elites.” Drawing on the nascent solidarity between the Palestinian and Puerto Rican people and their shared anti-colonial struggle, Awartani ponders about the types of “futures could we build from these emergent solidarities and global visions.” These global decolonial geographies, we must emphasize, are rooted in everyday practices of spatial re-appropriation.
The last intervention we present takes us back to the colonial geographies described by Fanon and the decolonization of those dominant spaces. Pedro Lebrón describes in great detail the temporal and spatial implications of organizing and holding the conference “Teorizando el giro decolonial: reflexiones en torno a Puerto Rico” (Theorizing the decolonial turn: reflections on Puerto Rico) in a site with a long history of colonial dispossession and violence. The conference, which took place on July 26 and 27, 2019 merely two days after Rosselló was forced out of office, “centered around decolonial thought and praxis in Puerto Rico,” and “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 conference brought in leading decolonial activists and scholars – such as La Colectiva, environmental justice organizations, community organizers, and keynote speaker Nelson Maldonado-Torres – to broaden and connect decolonial critiques and practices with and beyond the 2019 summer protests in mind. Lebrón’s intervention shows us what happens when the military “barracks” are occupied, repurposed, and transformed into decolonial spaces of liberation.
Together, the interventions in this forum engage in various modalities ranging from poetry to theoretical analysis and employ a variety of methodological approaches from archival research to ethnography, in order to make sense of the contradictions generated by colonial abstract space and better situate the differential and decolonial geographies that emerge from the margins and which force themselves to the center. The interventions demonstrate, finally, that perhaps we must begin to theorize space from places like Puerto Rico, otherwise the decolonial geographies variably described in this forum will always remain in the realm of the unknown and the “inexplicable.” (Schmid, 2018:603) Reading and writing from and with Puerto Rico, Palestine, and the colony will demystify the geographies of difference and decoloniality.
Essays from this forum include:
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
Aguadilla, Decoloniality, and the Summer of ‘19, Pedro Lebrón Ortiz
Beveridge, R and Koch, P (2018) Urban everyday politics: politicising practices and the transformation of the here and now. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 37(1): 142-157.
Bonilla, Y and Klein, N (2019) The trauma doctrine. In Y Bonilla and M LeBrón (eds) Aftershocks of disaster: Puerto Rico before and after the storm. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, pp. 21-37
Butler, J (2004) Precarious life: the powers of mourning and violence. London, UK: Verso
Fanon, F (1963) The wretched of the earth. New York, NY: Grove Press
Fenster, T (2005) The right to the gendered city: Different formations of belonging in everyday life. Journal of Gender Studies, 14(3): 217-231.
Kincaid, E (2019) Re-encountering Lefebvre: Toward a critical phenomenology of social space. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, DOI: 10.1177/0263775819854765
Kipfer, S (2007) Fanon and space: colonization, urbanization, and liberation from the colonial to the global city. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 25: 701-726.
Lefevbre, H (1991) The production of space. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers
Lloréns, H and Stanchich, M (2019) Water is life, but the colony is a necropolis: Environmental terrains of struggle in Puerto Rico. Cultural Dynamics, 31(1-2): 81-101.
Loftus, A (2015) Violent geographical abstractions. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 33: 366-381
McKittrick, K (2006) Demonic grounds: black women and the cartographies of struggle. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press
Minet, C (2019) María’s death toll: on the crucial role of Puerto Rico’s investigative journalists. In Y Bonilla and M LeBrón (eds) Aftershocks of disaster: Puerto Rico before and after the storm. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, pp. 73-79
Morales, E (2019) Fantasy island: colonialism, exploitation and the betrayal of Puerto Rico. New York, NY: Bold Type Groups
Oswin, N (2019) An other geography. Dialogues in Human Geography. DOI: 10.1177/2043820619890433
Samara, TR, He, S and Chen, G (2013) Locating right to the city in the global south. London: Routledge
Schmid, C (2018) Journeys through planetary urbanization: Decentering perspectives on the urban. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 36(3): 591-610
Villanueva, J, Cobián, M, and Rodríguez, F (2018) San Juan, the Fragile City: Finance Capital, Class, and the Making of Puerto Rico's Economic Crisis. Antipode, 50(5): 1415-1437.