Saturday, May 8, 2010

Latin America: Guardian of the 21st Century

In a fiery speech at the advent of the new century, the controversial populist President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, proclaimed that the 21st century will be the century of Latin America. As a key representative of the “New Left” in Latin America, Chávez was symbolically foreshadowing the important role Latin America will play in reshaping the world.

If one is to understand the modern world, one only needs to look over 500 years ago, when feudal Europe shook of its medieval cloak and entered into a new stage of development. This was no accident. As Columbus landed onto the shores of the Caribbean, it was the subsequent brutal enslavement and genocide of the indigenous populations and the squandering of their natural resources that made thar new stage possible. Furthermore, it was the devastation of Africa and the mass deportation and bondage of its peoples to colonial Latin America that also propelled Europe onto the pathway of modernity. In the midst of all this, began the composition of new peoples, new identities, and new strategies of resistance. Most importantly, alternative societies (to the rigid colonial system imposed by Europe) were created, most notably the maroon societies.

Even though Latin America has partially shrugged off the overt colonial enslavement of Europe, the United States has entered the scene under the banner of divine intervention and destiny. From the occupation of Puerto Rico and México, to the multiple interventions in Panamá, Dominican Republic, and Haiti, the U.S. rose to a superpower on the strained backs of its “backyard,” explicit in the Monroe Doctrine of 1823.

Nonetheless, with multiple revolutions, such as the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and the Sandinista Rebellion in Nicaragua in 1979, Latin America has told the U.S. to get its hands off of the region. However, the 20th century was the self-proclaimed “American Century” and the noose from the North tightened, as the policies of neoliberalism became à la mode. Through deals with México, Chile, and Central America, poverty was exacerbated and forced millions into a diaspora to work in the Northern metropolis. Puerto Rico was its experiment station.

After the often failed urban and rural guerilla movements that spread across the region during the 1960s, 70’s, and 80s, many put down their guns and thought of a new way to build an equitable society: electoral politics. Thus began a wave of left-wing presidencies, from Hugo Chávez in Venezuela to Evo Morales in Bolivia, to the return of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega. These leftist presidencies and governments continued the work to insert their nation’s marginalized who live in the barrios and favelas in a process of self-determination so they can build a bright collective future. The U.S. still looks on with great caution, meddling its dirty fingers once in a while.

From music to literature, art to language, those at the margins of colonial and post-independence Latin America have produced a different vision of the world. From reinventing education through the writings of Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, to re-imagining the future city through the “metrobus” system in Colombia, Latin America looks back at the abuses of the past and sees the future as a challenge full of possibilities. When late last year the Brazilian city of Río de Janeiro was chosen as the host city of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games – the second in Latin America and the “Third World” and the first in South America – the words of Hugo Chávez never echoed so true.

Originally published in Que Ondee Sola magazine, April 2010

There is No Democracy in Puerto Rico

The Farce of the Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2009

On April 29, the United States House of Representatives approved the Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2009 or Bill 2499, leading the push for a nonbinding referendum on Puerto Rico’s status with the U.S. Nothing is new and certainly, nothing is certain.

In 1998, the Young Bill passed through that branch of the U.S. legislature by one vote and stalled in the Senate. In response to the inaction of the U.S. government, under the pro-statehood regime of then-Governor Pedro Rosselló, an island-wide and nonbinding referendum was held. The option, “None of the Above” won. Twelve years later, another pro-statehood regime, now under auspices of Governor Luis Fortuño and his right-hand man, Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, who is the island’s only representative to the House, is pushing for another Congressional referendum. This time though, it passed the House by 273 votes, with 169 in opposition. Is this bill really providing democracy to Puerto Rico?

One problem: Puerto Rico has never, ever, in the entire 112-year history of the U.S. occupation of the island, has been allowed self-determination. Every organic act by the U.S. Congress has been without the full consultation of the Puerto Rico people.

The Foraker Act of 1900 removed the martial law inflicted on Puerto Ricans since 1898 and established a governor for the island – handpicked by the U.S. President, of course.

The Jones Act of 1917 imposed U.S. citizenship onto Puerto Ricans just in time to draft its men into World War I.

In the 1922, U.S Supreme Court case, Balzac v. Porto Rico (the U.S. changed “Puerto” to “Porto” to fit its linguistic needs after the 1898 invasion), the island legally was defined as “belong[ing] to, but…not a part of” the United States.” That legal standing of being an unincorporated territory has not changed, even with Public Law 600 signed by then-President Truman in 1951, allowing for the island to have a constitution. The only vote of that era was whether Boricuas wanted not to have a constitution or to have one. There was no option for a constitution as an independent or sovereign republic or any other status option for that matter.

By July 25, 1952 (the anniversary of the U.S. invasion) when Puerto Rico officially became the “Estado Libre Asociado” or “Freely Associated State,” and the Puerto Rican flag, which was illegal until then, became the official (and redesigned) symbol of this new “autonomous” territory, some believed that the island reached a new era. Though it was officially removed a year later from the list of colonial positions (at the request of the U.S government, not the Puerto Rican people) from the United Nation’s decolonization committee, the U.S. Congress still is the dominant force on the island. The Puerto Rican Constitution itself says that all Federal Laws supersede island laws. Thus, there is no “free association.” That is a bold face lie!

What is an even greater lie is the idea that Bill 2499 will provide democracy for Puerto Rico. The U.S. Congress has never granted a legally binding (meaning they are obligated to follow through) referendum for the Puerto Rican people to decide our future, despite having full constitutional authority on the island. Bill 2499 does not even provide a binding referendum for the island. It provides a two-step symbolic nonbinding vote. First, whether Puerto Ricans are content with the present status or not. If not, a second vote will be held with the options of Statehood, full Independence, Associated Republic (independence with some matters in the control of the U.S.), or, yet again, “Commonwealth.” To the lament of Fortuño, the “Commonwealth” option was tagged on last minute, which clearly contradicts the first vote, but is a clear message that the U.S. Congress is afraid that people will vote for statehood. Even the estadistas recognize that the U.S. is conducting a colonial enterprise on the island, benefiting through millions of dollars the Social Security benefits that Puerto Rican workers feed into the system, the billions of dollars spent on U.S. consumer products, and the multiple military installations.

Furthermore, what the pro-statehood movement is not telling the Boricua people is that the United States Congress, even if Puerto Ricans one day go insane and vote for statehood by an immense majority, does not have to grant it. It’s a nonbinding referendum! Moreover, even if the path to eventual statehood is made by the U.S. Congress, it could take nearly 100 years, as it did to states like Alaska and New México. Just like the 1922 Supreme Court case, Puerto Rico is like a T-shirt, to be taken off or buttoned up when convenient; it is just property that happens to have 4 million people. True democracy is allowing the Puerto Rican people to decide. Democracy is self-determination, not lies.

Originally published in La Voz del Paseo Boricua, May 2010 and

To Study & To Struggle

A Massive Student Strike Paralyzes the University of Puerto Rico

Some say that the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) was founded in 1903 in order to produce a local intelligentsia subservient to the demands of the United States, which only five years earlier ripped the island from Spain. In the 107 years since, the exact opposite has taken place.

In 1948, pro-independence students invited the president of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos, as a guest speaker, who recently had been released after serving ten years in a U.S. prison. The then-chancellor of the UPR’s Río Piedras campus, Jaime Benítez, refused to allow Albizu Campos to enter, prompting student protests. In response, a group of student leaders who held Puerto Rican flags, which was illegal during the time, were expelled.

In 1970, a massive student struggle emerged in the midst of the Vietnam War, calling for the removal of the ROTC from the Río Piedras campus. During the conflict, a policeman killed a young student, Antonia Martínez Lagares, who subsequently became a symbol of the Puerto Rican student movement.

On April 21, 2010 a new student movement commenced in response to the austerity measures proposed by the UPR President, José Ramón de la Torre, and the Governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Fortuño, spawning an indefinite strike that is paralyzing the UPR system and brought international attention to the island.

Entering his second year in office, the right-wing and pro-statehood governor has proven to have little respect for Puerto Rico’s institutions. From firing nearly 20,000 government employees that provoked a massive one-day general strike to cutting the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture’s budget in half to getting rid of the membership requirement for lawyers to one of the island’s oldest institutions, the Puerto Rican Bar Association, Fortuño is reshaping the island, as many believe, in order to prepare it for statehood.

The UPR is no exception to Fortuño’s reign of terror. A new proposal, Certification 98, passed by the university’s Board of Trustees, eliminates fee exceptions for student athletes and university employees and their families. Furthermore, there is a proposed budget cut of up to $100 million. In response, a student-driven Negotiating Committee of 16 members were created and a list of demands were composed, which includes alternative measures to the massive budget cuts. These measures include the budget reduction of the burdensome Office of the President and a call for payment of multiple private and public entities that owe the university millions of dollars. The UPR president and the Río Piedras chancellor, Ana Guadalupe, refused to meet with the committee and washed their hands of the issue by transmitting their demands to the Board of Trustees, which are dragging their feet to review them.

Thus, on April 13 over 3,000 students from the Río Piedras campus assembled in an auditorium and the majority of those present voted in favor of a 48-hour strike. The UPR administration still refuses to meet with the students.

Now the UPR is experiencing an indefinite strike, which has expanded to include eight of the 11 campuses throughout the island.

Hundreds of students and staff even occupied, for a time, the Río Piedras campus until Riot Police, at the insistence of the Chancellor, forcefully removed them. Then she officially closed down the university’s operations, locked the main entrance, and ordered police to guard the campus. This prompted a student lawsuit and the Puerto Rican Supreme Court ordered the university to re-open its gates by May 3. Meanwhile, hundreds of students have congregated at the gates, holding theatrical performances, discussions, and even clean-ups and beautification projects of the surrounding area.

The response of support for the UPR strike has been major. The official Student Council of Río Piedras initially opposed the action but soon joined the Negotiating Committee. The Puerto Rican Association of University Professors and the Committee of Students of Private Universities have also joined the strike. Moreover, on April 27, a huge concert with thousands of students, called “¡Qué Vivan Los Estudiantes!” – “Long Live The Students!”, was held in front of the locked gates of the Río Piedras campus. Musical artists from the island and around the world, such as Calle 13, Ricky Martin, Rubén Blades, and Juanes, offered their support.

Nonetheless, the opposition has remained firm. Fortuño himself, a day before the concert, spoke directly to the strike in his yearly “State of the Commonwealth” address. In his incendiary speech, which received massive applause by the pro-statehood controlled Congress, he chastised the students for abusing their “privilege,” especially in the face of such a gracious government system. Reminiscent of a national speech by Mexican President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz when confronting massive student protests on the eve of the 1968 Olympics, Fortuño said that the people of Puerto Rico are of law and order and believe in democracy. At the conclusion of his address, he said “…we are here, ready and willing to offer the help… to protect the rights of all the students – both to the miniscule group that protest to the immense majority of those who want classes to continue.”

As mentioned earlier, there is a long trajectory of student struggle at the UPR, proving that one of the most important institutions in Puerto Rico is producing minds eager to reshape the challenge with a fair dialogue and open arms or continue a tradition that left the Plaza of Tlatelolco in México City stained with blood in the summer of ‘68.

Originally published in La Voz del Paseo Boricua, May 2010 and

Is Latina/o a Race?

“I’m going to put Black as my race,” says Andrew Torres, 16, a student of the Barrio, Arts, Culture, and Communications Academy after school program in Humboldt Park. “But, you look white and got red hair!” I exclaimed with a smile of interest. “Yeah, but don’t Puerto Ricans got Black in us?” he responded with a look of confusion. “Yes we do,” I said.

The U.S. Congress requires for the counting of every person in the United States every 10 years and the U.S. Census Bureau puts a lot of work in making this happen. After everyone is counted the results play a very large role in deciding on how much funding is allocated to schools, special projects, political representation, among other important things. In many ways, the relationship between the government (on all of its levels) and communities are determined by who and how many live in those areas. For Latinas/os, the census plays a unique role.

Now that “Hispanic” and “Latino” are official options in the census since 1970, they are still ethnic options, not race options. In other words, the U.S. government recognizes that there are Latinas/os in the U.S. (now more than 40 million of us and growing!) but we are not at the level of “white,” “Black,” or “American Indian” as a category.

First of all, the idea of race is different in Latin America. My student could easily pass for white, but his entire life is not that of a white person, but of a Puerto Rican growing up in Humboldt Park among people of color. He also recognizes that Puerto Ricans are a mixed people – Taíno Indian, European, and African. The U.S. Census Bureau’s neat categories do not fit the Puerto Rican or Latin American reality of a beautifully mixed people. That is why we are forced to choose, but is that choice really reflective of our history; of our experiences?

I consider myself a “Black” Puerto Rican – my African ancestry is more obvious in my skin-color and facial features more so than other Boricuas, but is my experience the same as an African-American? What about my uncle Junior? He is very light-skinned, but was called “spic” when he was in the South because they knew he was not white. Is he going to put “white” on the census?

It also must be noted that being Puerto Rican is different from being Mexican or Dominican or any other ethnic group from Latin America. The grouping of all these different nationalities into one category like “Latino” is limiting, but making them all separate races will not solve anything. “Latino” is empowering. There is much that makes us distinct, but there is so much that binds us. The great show of solidarity between the Puerto Rican and Mexican communities in the Immigration Movement proves that.

In the end, my people, put on the census that you are “Latino” and do it proudly. We all must be counted – only then could we tell this country that we are a people to be recognized and our issues must be taken into account, from immigration to gentrification. Also, make sure you put what Latina/o grouping you are from. In communities like Humboldt Park, which is experiencing displacement because of rising rents and property taxes we need to know how many Puerto Ricans are still here so we can continue to build what we have struggled so much to build. Those Paseo Boricua Flags are not going anywhere! “¡Boricua, Házte Contar!

As for the “race” question, put what you like. I put “other/ mixed” because that is what I/we are. As a Mexican educator put it, we are la raza cósmica, the cosmic race.

Originally published in La Voz del Paseo Boricua, April 2010 and

A Prison Behind a Glass Window

A mock cell in Humboldt Park is bringing attention to the plight of the Puerto Rican Political Prisoners

Passing Western Avenue and entering through a humongous steel Puerto Rican flag, marking the entrance to Paseo Boricua and Humboldt Park, what one sees is totally dependent on who you are talking to.

Some see a ghetto. Others see a strong community, and there are those who listen to their iPods and stay clueless. What I guarantee most do not expect to find as they pass old men wearing well-pressed guayaberas is a window-front prison cell with volunteer prisoners.

In 2006, National Boricua Human Rights Network (NBHRN) thought of an idea to bring the issue of the Puerto Rican Political Prisoners to the forefront of the community’s and city’s consciousness. The organization, which focuses on issues of human rights in the Puerto Rican community in the U.S. and on the island, decided on a new type of performance art that would engage residents, activists, and of course the federal government. At that time one of the two political prisoners, Oscar López Rivera, was completing 25 years in jail. So NBHRN built a mock cell at the window-front of the Café Teatro Batey Urbano Youth Space, exactly 6 feet by 9 feet, with prison bars, a bed, and a toilet. For 25 days straight a volunteer stayed imprisoned for 24 hours with only books, paper, and pen to pass the time. The event even reached the pages of the Chicago Tribune.

“The response was overwhelming,” said NBHRN National Coordinator Michelle Morales, 34. “From the media [to the] community and it was positive! We decided to revisit it this year for the 30 years of incarceration of [political prisoner] Carlos Alberto Torres.” Now, four years later, as one walks down Division Street, white-shirt prisoners can be viewed again, imprisoned behind glass.

On one of my visits to the cell, I met a young woman sitting solemnly on the bed who was very much proud of her contribution. When first hearing about the prison cell project, Julia Montañez, 17, thought, “I wish I could do that. I want to be part of this movement to free the political prisoners.” When asked what her family thinks about her doing this, she said, “They support this and visited me. They support the movement also. We’re a very politically aware family.”

Although all this began in Chicago, it is spreading throughout the country. “I’ve been involved [in NBHRN] for 8 years and this is the first time I see the campaign in an upswing. We’ve developed new chapters in Detroit, New York City, and New England,” said Morales. New York City is also conducting a similar prison cell project in the El Barrio/East Harlem community.

On April 3 the last volunteer prisoner was released from the mock cell followed by a commemorative event at Batey Urbano. That date was chosen because it marks the 30th anniversary of the capture of Alberto Torres alongside 10 other political prisoners. After decades of activism and a swelling movement, all were released by presidential clemency in 1999, except Oscar López Rivera and Haydee Beltrán (who was released last year). April 3 is also the birthday of the last volunteer prisoner, who at one time was a real political prisoner in federal prison.

Ricardo Jiménez, 53, was 23 years old when he was captured by the police in Evanston, Illinois in 1980. “Based on international law, colonialism is a crime against humanity. We were part of a national liberation struggle for Puerto Rico,” said Jiménez in a strong tone. “The 11 who were captured in 1980 were sentenced with a peculiar crime called “seditious conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government.” Though they were not charged with any particular violent crime, the group received sentences ranging from 55-105 years. Jiménez was sentenced to 98 years.

Now Jiménez spends his time ensuring that his two imprisoned compañeros get released just as he was. “We must bring them home,” he says with determination. He recently traveled through the East Coast with the NBHRN sponsored play, “Crime Against Humanity,” visiting the multiple NBHRN chapters, speaking at community centers and universities. The play, which offers firsthand accounts of the suffering the political prisoners experienced while in incarcerated, is co-authored by former political prisoner, Luis Rosa, who was also at the April 3 event.

When asked what she would say to Oscar López Rivera and Carlos Alberto Torres if they were released, Julia Montañez paused and thought carefully for a moment, and with a smile uttered, “I’d say, ‘We did it!’”

Originally published in La Voz del Paseo Boricua, March 2010 and