Wednesday, April 24, 2013

"Watching Me in My Dreams": Film Review of "The Files"

by Xavier "Xavi" Luis Burgos

“We appear to be in a democracy,” remarks former police officer Andrade, in a satirical tone as he looks nervously into the camera.
“I was beaten by a barrage of batons,” asserts Miguel, speaking of the police abuse against students during a university strike.
“They would report me for saying things like ‘men and women are the same’ or ‘women should fight for her rights,’” reveals Norma, explaining her experience of censorship as a feminist university professor.
“I’m sleeping and they’re watching me in my dreams” says Pupa, a preeminent badass in grandma glasses describing the round-clock surveillance of her home by the secret police.
“We were prisoners in our own land,” exclaims Ismael, describing the feelings of residents towards the presence of a U.S. naval base and daily military exercises on the island of Vieques
These words in the Puerto Rico documentary The Files (Las Carpetas) offer us a small glimpse of life under a police state. It gives us a quick glance of politically-motivated persecution; a multi-character montage of those who dared to speak of or work towards justice, equality, and freedom. And in sincere chats with the camera, they describe the suffering they endured because of it.
The four main protagonists detail over 20 years of personal repression due to their involvement in multiple causes connected to the Puerto Rican independence movement. Pupa is an activist and friend of Fidel Castro. Miguel was a student leader from a pro-U.S. family. Norma is a journalist and teacher with a feminist worldview. And Ismael is a fisherman who led a movement to rid his island home from the navy. In small and large ways they each challenged the U.S. government’s presence on their lands of birth; they also confronted embedded Puerto Rican societal norms. As a consequence, the police’s “Intelligence Division” worked to crush them, along with about 135,000 others.
With the films’ camera operating as a tool of espionage, horrifying stories of survival intertwines with a depiction of their daily routines. This transforms the audience into the violating peeping Toms prominent in their chronicles, stirring feelings of intrigue, but in no way producing empathy for the secret police. The protagonists’ stories are a testament to the appalling lengths the state was willing go in order to maintain “national security,” as Andrade calls it. False criminal charges, murder, imposed destitution, and a network of informants – nothing was off limits and it is all detailed incarpetas or files released by the island’s Supreme Court in the 1990s.
Unfortunately, we too often associate despotism with extreme examples, like Nazi Germany or Pol Pot’s Cambodia. This blinds us from examining the oppressive elements of the societies we live in. Puerto Rico is far from the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields, but in an intimate way the film unveils just how far the Puerto Rican government, in cahoots with the FBI, went to ensure U.S. control over the island. What it stresses is that if folks are restricted from expressing their beliefs, if entire populations are prevented from exercising self-determination, we may appear to be living in a just society, but in reality, we are far from it.
The Files is a short, but complex narrative of the ways in which “everyday citizens” could be deemed a threat. It does not feel like a long, boring history lesson nor does it turn into a campy spy film. Its style and approach is as sincere as the voices heard through the screen. Nonetheless, it leaves much to desired (including the crews’ editing skills); but gives clues for independent research and provides room to contemplate important issues, like democracy and colonialism. This, I believe, is intentional and essential.
In the final scene, Pupa exalts the beauty of her homeland, looking at a sunset over her balcony. By giving us a panoramic view of those purple clouds passing through mountains tops, the audience is encouraged to see that many sacrificed so that all in that beautiful land may live a more liberating existence. It also makes us question how could Hell enter into that Garden of Eden. While some may be comfortable turning a blind eye towards or even justifying repression,The Files, in a way, forces us to ask: what must we to do in order to make our societies more free, just, and peaceful?
Originally published at on April 17, 2013. 

Democracy or Empire? On Puerto Rico’s Political Status

by Xavier "Xavi" Luis Burgos
Lazy. Ungrateful. Primitive. Dependent. Loud. Pathological. These were the descriptors of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. media following the island’s November 6 non-binding referendum on its political status. Not only do such comments dehumanize millions of people but also says a lot about this society’s unwillingness to acknowledge its own racism and imperial policies. Essentially, the United States government is the root of the Puerto Rico quagmire regardless how one feels about the Boricua people. We must not lose sight of this.
In 1898, the U.S. marines invaded the island and took it as war booty from Spain in the Treaty of Paris. There was no Puerto Rican representative at the treaty discussions or any vote by island residents. With the 1922 Supreme Court case Balzac v. Porto Rico, the island’s subservience to the U.S. Congress was solidified: Puerto Rico “belong[s] to but [is] not a part of” the United States. Although proponents of the “Commonwealth” status claim that the island is in a mutually binding pact of association, its 1952 constitution does not have the legal authority to override any Supreme Court decision. Puerto Rico thus continues to be property of the U.S. Congress, subject to all its laws and desires. There is no voting representatation in Congress nor can Puerto Ricans who live on the island vote in the U.S. presidential election. In other words, 3.7 million human beings are colonial subjects existing under a tyrannical system. The “Commonwealth” status is a farce, and with it is the notion of a free and democratic United States.
It must be said that on November 6, the majority of registered voters actually did not vote for statehood. According to the Puerto Rico State Election Commission, nearly 500,000 people or 26.3% of the ballots cast, opted not to vote for a status option. There are many reasons for this, including divisive partisan politics and the wording of the question. For me, the most important reason could be that the referendum was non-binding. The U.S. Congress has actually never officially sanctioned a referendum despite numerous attempts to in the House. This means that it could reject any non-binding majority vote, whether it is for statehood or independence. All the ballot questions – in 1967, 1993, and 1998 – regarding Puerto Rico’s political status were actually sponsored and funded by the island’s government. As you can see, in the last 114 years the U.S. government is the real power on the island and therefore the source of its problems and possible solutions.
Thus, the real debate is not whether Puerto Ricans voted for statehood and whether the United States is going to “allow” that to happen. Instead, we must beg the question: What is the responsibility of the United States in living up to its rhetoric of democracy? This is not to say that the U.S. government must address the problems it created with religious paternalism, like it does when it brings “democracy” to places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Democratic processes are about having people engaged in determining their futures, through discussion, debate, and consensus. Puerto Rico was never offered this. Puerto Ricans have never been seen as full human beings in need of true self-determination. Therefore, in order for the United States to strive for a democratic potential, it must recognize its imperial stains and be a sincere and dedicated companion to reconciliation. How will this be done? Only time and a consolidated effort by Puerto Rican communities across the U.S. will tell.
See the complete results of the referendum.

Originally published at on November 13, 2012. 

Unpacking the Tipsy Cake Crack House

by Xavier "Xavi" Luis Burgos
Yo no tengo pelo en la lengua” - “I don’t have hair on my tongue” is probably one of my favorite Puerto Rican sayings, usually spoken in a defiant and assertive tone. While it could be deciphered as simply the fearless ability to communicate something, there is also a greater message at hand: the awesome power of language. This is accentuated by an era of Internet social networking and mass media. Accordingly, if one is prepared to speak, one must additionally be equipped to face and understand any subsequent consequences. This is a lesson we all learn, one way or another.
On February 21, I, like many others, discovered their Facebook pages and e-mail inboxes full of brewing outrage and frustration. Then the text messages and phone calls began. Claims of racism, calls for protest! And it all started with a mix of ill-humor and coded language from a mere Australian pastry chief, Naomi Levine. The infamous words: “I bought a bakery in Humboldt Park in 2006 and there were just too many gunshots in the cakes….” said on the City Soles TV promotion of her bakery, Tipsy Cake. To make matters worse, Levine laughingly advertised her “crack cakes,” popular among the area police officers, which is distributed by the Whole Foods market chain. Some disregarded this “slip of the lip” as misguided, ironically tasteless, and even unintentional. But for many, this is impossible if one is mindful of the greater historical, social, and economic paradigms that informs such comments. Levine, like anyone on this Earth, exists not in a vacuum. Nor are such words, broadcasted to thousands of people in this age of information, without broad implications. The powerful language she used leaves a lot to unpack.
First, we must highlight the community she speaks so ill of. Humboldt Park, for nearly everyone who lives in Chicago and even in this country, is specifically synonymous with the Puerto Rican enclave and generally as a neighborhood of color populated by Blacks and other Latinas/os. Her statement of “gunshots in the cake” and the showcasing of her crudely named “crack cakes” serve as coded language for Puerto Ricans and other people of color and associates them to violent crime, vice, and social pathology. She perpetuated and reproduced the racist notion and stigmas that saturate mainstream print and visual media. In other words, she paints Humboldt Park as a savage no-man’s land, following in a long tradition of “urban pioneers” who bravely seek to tame the indomitable through imperial mechanisms of power and privilege.
Secondly, her white-skin privilege affords her the social and economic capital to open a business in a community suffering the displacement of its long-time residents, businesses, and institutions. This is made ever more problematic by the absence of a humble dialogue, on her part, regarding the implications of opening her business in such a community. Instead, Levine arrogantly laments the negative affect the community apparently has on Tipsy Cake: “Bucktown…as opposed to Humboldt Park…could get any client in [t]here not feeling nervous….” Like many “yuppies,” she eventually became upset that her investment in the community’s decimation and sterile “revitalization” is developing too slow. The question arises: why open a business here? Because, like the settlers from the Mayflower who saw economic potential in ravaging the lands of millions of indigenous peoples, the native residents of Humboldt Park are faceless and meaningless to yuppies. 
Oftentimes we forget or stay silent to the fact that gentrification is a process guided not by the invisible hand of capitalist economics but by actors and protagonists with agency and intentionality, justifying their actions with racist and classist worldviews. Levine nor any representative from her business has yet to publicly apologize and community critiques have been deleted from Tipsy Cake’s Facebook page.
Lastly, the reactions to the comments were phenomenal and visceral. Many Puerto Ricans and allies yelled “without hair on their tongues” from the mountain tops, voicing their anger. In doing so, they defended their people and community. Many of those same people recognize that Humboldt Park has its share of social ills, but are frustrated at the continual onslaught of negative media attention given to us while our efforts to construct a vibrant cultural and economic epicenter is belied and ignored. The Humboldt Park she failed to mention is a place of hope and activism, with rooftop gardens, affordable housing drapped in Caribbean façades, and youth programs that groom our future leaders. 
However, Levine and Tipsy Cake alone are not the problem – they are symptomatic of a greater issue which is gentrification, manifested in a variety of ways. We thus must move beyond momentary urgency to daily vigilance. We may protest today, but we must all also contribute to the well-established efforts to build a community of possibilities.

Originally published at on Feb. 22, 2012. The version presented here include light edits from the writer.

Speak the Truth and Set the Path

by Xavier “Xavi” Luis Burgos

“Pueblo que olvida su pasado no alcanzará nunca la grandeza de sus fines.” - José De Diego

In my life, there is no political work that I have internalized the most than that of taking the leadership of Que Ondee Sola (QOS) and the Union for Puerto Rican Students (UPRS) at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU). In high school I dreamed of and aspired to be a part of an organization that actively engaged, head-on, the socio-political issues facing the Puerto Rican community. I also sought-out a space in which critical reflection on inequalities and colonialism was encouraged, celebrated, and discussed. I found this when I walked in the office of QOS in the fall of 2005, which left an undeniable mark on my existence.

Among the staff of the magazine, there were diverse characters and personalities: poets and activists, intellectuals and cultural workers.  Above all, there existed a youthful exuberance and zeal. This manifested itself in protests and initiatives designed to build a more humanizing discourse and space for Boricuas, Mexicans, and other Latinas/os on campus. The first activity I participated in with QOS, UPRS, and ChiMexLa (Chicano Mexicano Latino Student Union) serves as a prime example. A dozen of us organized a silent march, dressed in black and with our mouths taped-shut, through the various public venues of NEIU. Two or more people carried a black-painted cardboard coffin; all theatrics to raise consciousness on the militarization of communities of color and our Latin American homelands. In hindsight, I ask myself: how effective was this in actually changing the situation? Miniscule, of course! Nonetheless, we effectively confronted and challenged the issue, brought it to the forefront of students’ minds, and instilled among us the notion that complacency is not an option. To struggle, to envision, to make a presence - how small a contribution it may seem - can be stepping stones to more tangible goals.

As a publication we thus had a responsibility to embody the very values that we critiqued our society for lacking. As editor, I ensured the continuation of a legacy of publishing what was rarely published anywhere else: the voices of the subaltern, the marginalized, the invisible. We did this in subtle ways, such as making it a point to always write “Latina/o” instead of “Latino” or even “Latino/a,” as a nonconformist gesture to gendered and sexist language. In more explicit ways, we published yearly an edition - as tradition dictates - dedicated entirely to the experiences and contributions of Puerto Rican and Latina/o women. We also covered the multiple manifestations of Puerto Rico’s colonial situation, the campaign to free the Puerto Rican political prisoners, the unfolding events of the immigration movement, and the progressive and left-wing struggles of our Latin American compatriotas. In addition - outside of tradition but in accordance with the magazine’s philosophical foundation and mission - we dedicated entire editions to the story of Puerto Ricans, Latinas/os, and Latin Americans of African descent. We also reserved editions to highlight the varied contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Boricuas and Latinas/os. This was all done utilizing a critical framework. To the extent possible we sought not to essentialize our cultural identities and historical experiences. We presented them with nuance and complexity, beauty and dignity, but never shying away from affirming our national identity.

Whatever we did in our publication we certainly carried into our organizing work on campus. The two most important QOS-led initiatives - torches set fire by generations before us - were to transform the Latino and Latin American Studies program (LLAS) into a major and construct a Latina/o Cultural & Resource Center (LCRC). When I entered the university, these topics were rarely discussed outside the offices of QOS or that of sympathetic faculty. I could not count how many times university administrators personally told me, “no, we cannot have a LCRC, there’s no funding or space, and, besides, its exclusionary.” It is undeniable that our yearly Plantando Semillas event, campus forums, magazine editorials, surveys, and meetings with faculty, staff, and elected officials made a LCRC possible. I remember an occasion when the university leadership organized a forum to discuss a multicultural center and had to cancel it for lack of attendance while simultaneously we organized fifty students - Black, White, and Latina/o - to discuss and gain support for a LCRC. The administration even sent a student representative to hear what we had to say.

We got LLAS to be a major but did not get our full vision of a LCRC. We wanted to concentrate the current Latina/o-focused resources and cultural initiatives on campus in a single space (visible resources beg not to be forgotten or bulldozed, which was the unfortunate fate of the Office for Adult and Women’s Services). This included offices for Latina/o-focused student organizations, LLAS, Proyecto Pa’Lante, and ENLACE, with classrooms. We did, however, open a pandora’s box. Students and faculty are now clamouring for a LGBTQ and Women’s Center and the main campus has a stronger Black student presence than ever before. It is up to the next generation of QOS and UPRS to ensure that we get a fully realized LCRC, for it is just and right. May the pages of QOS and the historical memory of student struggle, which this organization transmits so well, speak the truth and set the path.

Struggle is never romantic. It is draining, time-consuming, annoying, threatening, but not romantic. It is, however, cathartic, prophetic, and valuable. In an oppressive and dehumanizing context, to struggle is to construct meaning and community. Thus, to struggle is to envision what seems impossible: a liberated future.

“Thus, to struggle is to envision what seems impossible: a liberated future.“

Originally published in Que Ondee Sola magazine's 40th anniversary edition, April 2012

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Call to Action: Free Oscar López Rivera

by Xavier "Xavi" Luis Burgos

Any student of history could and should be able to communicate that what is placed in one’s school books is far from objective. Historical events walk along the lines of power and influence. In our contemporary society, what is considered notable to tell future generations must reaffirm (and be repackaged to fit the) status quo, even if it appears to be one of dissent. That is why very few people in the United States know about Oscar López Rivera, a Puerto Rican political prisoner for the last 29 years.

There are very few people who could argue that Puerto Rico is not a colony of the United States. In a 1922 case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the island belongs to but is not a part of the Union. Moreover, the U.S. Congress (which only has one non-voting representative from Puerto Rico) can exercise full powers over the possession, including overriding any laws adopted by the local legislative body. This, among other reasons, is why Oscar López Rivera, in the 1960s and 1970s, struggled for independence in a long trajectory of other movements and figures.

Born in San Sebastián, Puerto Rico on January 6, 1943, López Rivera was a part of the massive migration of islanders in the 1950s, and settled in Chicago. By the advent of the Vietnam War, he was drafted into the military and earned a Bronze Star for bravery. Like many other servicemen of color who returned to their communities, he witnessed extreme forms of poverty, substance abuse, and other manifestation of racism and inequality. This motivated López Rivera to organize other community activists and build institutions, initiatives, and programs that still exist today, like the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School, and the Latino Cultural Center at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Furthermore, he advocated for fair housing, bilingual education, and an end to police brutality and racist practices in public utilities. Following the international spirit of the times, by the mid-1970s he joined a guerilla organization to step up the pressure on the U.S. government to address the colonial question of Puerto Rico.

By 1981, he and other alleged members of the organization were arrested for seditious conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government in Puerto Rico and were sent to prison with disproportionate sentences. All but two of his compatriots were released by 1999 due to an international campaign that persuaded President Bill Clinton to offer them clemency. The remaining two were released on parole. Oscar López Rivera remains in prison despite, like his fellow prisoners, denying being a part of any acts that killed or injured anyone. More importantly, he was never charged with such actions.

What is interesting is the fact that many U.S. citizens are absent-minded about this country’s imperial history, while elevating towards sainthood those whose background are very similar to that of López Rivera. Nelson Mandela, the famed South African hero of racial equality, is a great example. In the early 1960s, Mandela was one of the founders and leaders of an armed guerilla group that took responsibility for multiple bombings on civilian and military installations, resulting in many deaths. He also spent 27 years as a political prisoner of the white, apartheid system that sought to destroy the spirit of the black indigenous population. Mandela was never charged with attacks on human lives, but with seditious conspiracy, just like López Rivera and his compatriots. Ironically enough, President Barack Obama is slated to write the forward of Mandela’s new book while ignoring the plight of his government’s own political prisoners and colonies. Therefore, it is safe to say that if anyone believes Nelson Mandela is a historic figure of great stature and justly represents global struggles of national liberation (which, he indeed, does!), then Oscar López Rivera should also be out of prison.

On January 5, the U.S. Parole Commission hearing examiner, Mark Tanner, recommended to the parole board that López Rivera serve his full sentence (slated for 2023) or serve another 15 years before being released. This was done despite the fact that thousands of people signed petitions asking for his release, including three Congress people, the Archbishop of Puerto Rico, the Resident Commissioner of the island (who does not believe in independence, but in statehood!), and numerous elected officials in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York City, and even Haiti. In an act that uncovers the political nature of López Rivera’s case, the parole board never responded to the Puerto Rican Bar Association’s request to be at the hearings, but victims of the bombings that López Rivera was never charged with conducting, were allowed to testify – unbeknownst to his own lawyer until the day of.

Nonetheless, the parole board still needs to make a final decision and could do so as early as February 1. The National Boricua Human Rights Campaign is asking for petition signatures and phone calls to the U.S. Parole Commission everyday, between 9-5pm at (301) 492-5990. Everyone’s voice can be influential.

Originally published at on January 31, 2011.