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n July 22, 2019, half a million Puerto Ricans took to the streets of San Juan, Puerto Rico in demonstration against Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s administration. As news of the protests spread from social media to major US newspapers and evening network television, those in the United States began to take serious notice of the island’s politics. Of course, as the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and the controversies surrounding the debt crisis have shown, Puerto Rico has, to some degree, always mattered to these everyday citizens of US empire, although often out of pity, resentment or—at its opposite ideation—desire. But with this summer’s protests, how Puerto Rico mattered seemed on the cusp of change. “So, if more people than voted for Trump shut down the DC Beltway and spent days protesting in front of the White House insisting on his resignation, would Trump resign? #askingforafriend,” one Twitter user mused. Screenshotted, this tweet circulated rapidly across social media platforms. I saw it reshared multiple times by friends and acquaintances in my Facebook News Feed, many who had expressed little interest in Puerto Rico beforehand. If this tweet serves as any indication, many US residents were watching the events unfolding in Puerto Rico and wondering: might we be better off understanding Puerto Rico—and Puerto Ricans—at the forefront of resistance movements and democratic change?
Among scholars weighing in on the protests against Rosselló, the answer, largely, has been resoundingly yes. As historians Dan Berger and Carly Goodman wrote in The Washington Post, the utter tenacity Puerto Ricans demonstrated by taking their politics to the streets is worthy of not just celebration but emulation, especially as it stood in marked distinction to this summer’s other major political headline: the Robert Mueller hearings. “Those tuning into Mueller’s testimony this week to see democracy in action should have looked to Puerto Rico instead,” Berger and Goodman wrote. It was twelve days of collective action—not private deliberations and decision making by elected leaders—that ushered in political change in Puerto Rico. How, they argued, might those in the United States organizing against Trump’s presidency replicate the energy and political will emanating from Puerto Rico?
In his 2017 reflections on the first anniversary of Donald Trump’s election, historian Robin D. G. Kelley similarly proposed we pay more careful attention to the political organizing occurring in Puerto Rico. “But there is hope, and I don’t mean impeachment or a Democratic sweep of the House and Senate in midterm elections,” Kelley wrote in the Boston Review. Speaking of our possibilities for political resistance, he continued:
I argued a year ago that we need a transformative, multiracial movement committed to “dismantling the oppressive regimes of racism, heteropatriarchy, empire, and class exploitation that is at the root of inequality, precarity, materialism, and violence in many forms.” Such movements are emerging now, and they are coming from the South. One source is the far South, which is to say Puerto Rico. The combination of Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, the neoliberal stripping of assets, resources, and democracy, and the devastation of hurricanes Irma and Maria, has turned the island into a global site of resistance.
By defining Puerto Rico as the “far South,” Kelley locates the island’s political struggles within a geography of Black radical consciousness that extends from the Caribbean through North America. Indeed, from formal coalitions to everyday affinities and cultural fusions, many scholars have traced how Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican diaspora have long been central to the history of twentieth-century antiracist and anti-imperialist movements in the United States, including civil rights struggles, the War on Poverty, and protests against the Vietnam War (Torres and Velázquez, 1998; Thomas, 2010; Fernández, 2012; Lee, 2014; Wanzer-Serrano, 2015; Thomas and Lauria-Santiago, 2018).
Yet Kelley simultaneously locates Puerto Rico as a “global site of resistance”—a statement which, especially in light of this summer’s uprising, begs us to consider Puerto Rico within transnational and international geographies of struggle. I argue that while the demonstrations leading to the ousting of Ricardo Rosselló’s can certainly teach us the necessity of popular protest in the United States, they also illuminate the global dimensions of Puerto Rican liberation: how the island has long been a source of inspiration and solidarity to international freedom movements.
Global Visions of Puerto Rican Liberation
Perhaps surprising to those only newly attuned to this US “territory,” Puerto Rico—including its diaspora—has always been a global site of resistance. As historian Sandy Placido revealed, this summer’s protests represented a renewal of the “long tradition of Caribbean resistance” to US imperialism. In the 1960s, for example, Ana Livia Cordero, a Puerto Rican physician and political organizer, built connections between Puerto Rican, Caribbean, African American, and other Third World liberation movements. “Like many other Caribbean activists,” writes Placido, Cordero “understood the Puerto Rican freedom struggle to be part of a global anti-imperialist movement.” In her organizing in defense of Puerto Rican independence and self-determination, Cordero collaborated with leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois, Salvador Allende, and Kwame Nkrumah. She likewise played a substantive role in Puerto Rico’s incorporation into the agenda of the September 1964 Second Conference of Heads of State or Government of Non-Aligned Countries in Cairo, Egypt. It was, in large part, because of Cordero’s lobbying that the Movimiento Pro-Independencia (MPI), a pro-independence organization in Puerto Rico, participated as an observer. By the conference’s conclusion, forty-seven nations in attendance had signed a letter demanding the United Nation’s Ad Hoc Decolonization Commission reconsider the case of Puerto Rico. With the establishment of the Free Associated State in 1952, which decreed Puerto Rico self-governing but maintained the United States’ ultimate control over the island’s affairs, and with intense lobbying by the United States, Puerto Rico had been removed from the United Nations’ list of colonized territories in 1953.
Ironically, it was this attempt by the United States to recast Puerto Rico as a “decolonized” nation that most propelled Puerto Ricans into global visions of anti-imperial struggle. Some independentistas, like Ana Livia Cordero and the MPI (which would reorganize as the Puerto Rican Socialist Party in 1973) pursued international support for Puerto Rican independence through diplomatic channels. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, activists spoke before numerous meetings of the UN’s Special Committee on Decolonization, participated in international conferences such as the 1966 Tricontinental Conference of Havana, and networked with members of the Organization of Solidarity of the People of Asia, Africa, and Latin America (OSPAAAL). Meanwhile, other Puerto Rican radicals sought to garner the world’s attention to US colonialism in Puerto Rico through more direct means. On March 1, 1954, Lolita Lebrón, Rafael Cancel Miranda, and Andres Figueroa Cordero opened fire on Congress—an attack meant to coincide with the opening of the Inter-American Conference in Caracas, Venezuela. “Before God and the world my blood claims for the independence of Puerto Rico. My life I give for the freedom of my country. This is a cry for victory in our struggle for independence,” explained a note found in Lebrón’s purse.
The era of Third World liberation proved an especially generative moment for the Puerto Rican diaspora’s “Nuevo Despertar” (New Awakening) of radical political organizing. For example, founded in Chicago and later spreading throughout cities in the Midwest and Northeast, the Young Lords embraced militant protests in an attempt to spur reform of poor housing, poverty, and inadequate city services plaguing Puerto Rican diasporic communities. At the same time, the Young Lords taught themselves Puerto Rican history, and developed an educational platform committed to understanding anticolonial struggles across the globe. As former New York Young Lord member Juan González recalls:
Back in 1969, a few dozen Puerto Ricans, all children of post-World War II working-class migrants from the island, gathered in Tompkins Square Park on the Lower East Side, sporting purple berets and green field jackets, and we announced to the world that the Young Lords were here to start a revolution. […] For a brief few years, we became convinced that nothing could stop us, that the revolution was around the corner.
At the Puerto Rican independence movement’s apex during the 1970s, Puerto Rico’s central role in global struggles against imperialism was nearly unquestioned.
Following the Vietnamese defeat of the United States, many US leftists believed Puerto Rico was destined to become the next successful decolonization movement. After all, the island’s struggle—shaped as it was by a commitment to anti-imperialism, labor movements, and antiracism—charmed the US Left’s progressive politics. Plus, if a small nation like Vietnam could outmatch the United States, couldn’t Puerto Rico be next? That was, at least, how the Puerto Rican Solidarity Committee (PRSC) framed Puerto Rico’s anti-colonial struggle in its founding document: “From the liberated capitals of Cambodia and South Vietnam, to independent Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique, to the worldwide recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization as the official representation of the Palestinian people, imperialism suffers one setback after another.” With veteran Black activist Ella Baker at the helm, the PRSC brought together a diverse range of US leftists to demand a free Puerto Rico, including gathering 20,000 people for the Puerto Rican Socialist Party’s “National Day of Solidarity” at New York City’s Madison Square Garden on October 27, 1974. Several thousand from across the US Left would gather again two years later on July 4, 1976 for the Bicentennial Without Colonies rally in Philadelphia.
Yet by the early 1980s, the Puerto Rican independence movement appeared on the verge of collapse. Many US Leftists shifted their attention to the growing US counterinsurgency efforts in Central and Latin America. Meanwhile, the mid-1970s emergence of the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN) and other clandestine organizations committed to achieving self-determination by any means necessary, including armed struggle and people’s war, indelibly fractured the Puerto Rican Left. Some became convinced the FALN was a state-designed operative meant to destroy the movement internally—an accusation harkening back to the intimidation, infiltration, and sabotage of the COINTELPRO era. This fracturing intensified following the arrests of suspected FALN members, with many in the independence and solidarity movements objecting to the prisoners’ maintenance of their prisoner-of-war status, especially their unwillingness to mount a traditional legal defense (retraimiento, or non-collaboration). Nonetheless, Puerto Rico remained central to global conversations, particularly in the political mobilizations against the intensifying carceral and security states ushered in by Ronald Reagan’s administration and New Right conservatism. According to the most militant sectors of the independence and solidarity movements, including the Movimiento de Liberación Nacional, Liga Socialista Puerrtorriqueña, and the New Movement in Solidarity with Puerto Rican Independence, the incarceration of the Puerto Rican prisoners illuminated how Puerto Rico laid at the heart of Reagan’s extensive counterinsurgency agenda bent on quashing national liberation movements across the globe.
To Fight For, Not Fight Back
Given this history of Puerto Rico as a crucial node in the geography of an international left, it is no surprise that solidarity messages from across the globe poured into social media as the protests against Ricardo Rosselló unfolded. For example, with my own investments in charting histories of Puerto Rican solidarities with Palestine and the broader Middle East widely known, colleagues and activists alike forwarded me photographs of young Palestinians holding signs in solidarity with Puerto Rico. Even activists associated with Decolonize This Place, a New York-based movement space committed to indigenous struggles and Palestinian liberation, declared solidarity with the Puerto Rican uprising from the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramallah, Palestine, where they had gathered to speak on the protests against New York City’s Whitney Museum. In the image, a Puerto Rican flag is draped across a table, with flyers set atop. Below, the caption reads “there is a serious shout out from Palestine to the […] People of Puerto Rico rebelling.” In other words, as demands for #RickyRenuncia traversed the globe, the sanitized veneer of protests against “leaked chats” gave way to global visions of shared anti-colonial struggles for self-determination against corrupt local elites.
What futures could we build from these emergent solidarities and global visions if they moved beyond temporary, conditional investments to concrete demands for self-determination, as the peoples’ movements of previous eras had? In our political present, too few, it seems, are aware of Puerto Rico’s rich history of anti-colonial struggle. Without this crucial historical memory, organizational methods and campaign strategies are borrowed and superimposed as a means to fight back when, in actuality, our goal must be, to again cite Robin D. G. Kelley, “to fight for the world that could liberate and sustain us all.” As former Puerto Rican political prisoner Luis Rosa reflected on the popular uprising’s future, “Let us create projects that can take independence out of the realm of the abstract and intangible or unexplainable. We are building something we can use to break the fear of change.” To fight for this world, we must continue attending to, building from, and organizing with Puerto Rico’s own freedom dreams.
Other essays from this forum include:
Making Space for Decolonial Futures: An Editors’ Introduction, Joaquín Villanueva and Marisol LeBrón
“Esta ‘democracia’ no la entendemos”: On Exercising Democracy in the World’s Oldest Colony, Mónica A. Jiménez
La Calle Fortaleza in Puerto Rico’s Primavera de Verano, Aurora Santiago-Ortiz and Jorell Meléndez-Badillo
“One of the most corrupt places on earth:” Colonialism, (Anti)Corruption, and the Puerto Rican Summer of 2019, José Atiles
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
Black Feminist Tactics: On La Colectiva Feminista en Construcción’s Politics without Guarantees, Rocío Zambrana
Puerto Rico’s Coal-Ash Material Publics and the Summer 2019 Boricua Uprising, Hilda Lloréns
Environmental justice movements in Puerto Rico: Life-and-death struggles and decolonizing horizons, Gustavo García-López
The Public Reckoning: Anti-debt Futures After #RickyRenuncia, Sarah Molinari
Aguadilla, Decoloniality, and the Summer of ‘19, Pedro Lebrón Ortiz
Fernández L (2012) Brown in the Windy City: Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Postwar Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lee S (2014) Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement: Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and the Pursuit of Racial Justice in New York City. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Thomas L (2010) Puerto Rican Citizen: History and Political Identity in Twentieth-Century New York City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Thomas L and Lauria-Santiago A (2018) Rethinking the Struggle for Puerto Rican Rights. New York: Routledge.
Torres A and Velázquez J (1998) The Puerto Rican Movement: Voices from the Diaspora. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Wanzer-Serrano D (2015) The New York Young Lords and the Struggle for Liberation. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Sara Awartani is a doctoral candidate in the Department of American Studies at George Washington University. A broadly trained social movement historian, she researches Latinx and Arab American radical politics, interracial solidarity, and U.S. empire. She has published in Radical History Review, Middle East Report, La Respuesta, and Kaflou: A Journal of Comparative and Relational Ethnic Studies.