DETROIT — Contemporary vernacular has a way of turning specific terms into more general concepts (for example, “OCD” and “addict”), which can lead to the erasure of those who suffer from the traditional condition. “Colonizers” is one of those words. While its mainstream use — as a kind of shorthand for the entitlement and resource grabbing committed by primarily rich, white gentrifiers of places populated by poorer people of color — is understandable, it has the unintended side effect of eclipsing the fact that the United States still holds a quasi-colony: Puerto Rico. The island nation has been a colony of the US since 1898; Puerto Ricans were granted American citizenship in 1917, but they do not have any representation in Congress.
“The relationship has shifted throughout the 119 years of colonial rule, but has always been fraught, and so the current moment should be understood within that historical context,” artist Teresa Basilio told Hyperallergic over email. Basilio is one of four Puerto Rican artists and organizers — the others are Sofía Gallisá Muriente, Adela Nieves, and Ariadna M. Godreau Aubert — coordinating the Detroit/Puerto Rico Solidarity Exchange Network. The project is part of an ongoing effort to connect Puerto Ricans on the island with those in the diaspora (the organizers live, variously, in San Juan, Detroit, and New York City). “Fostering relationships among [these communities] has been difficult, for a host of reasons too lengthy to encapsulate here,” said Basilio.
Currently, the team’s efforts are focused on bringing a delegation of nearly 30 Puerto Rican activists and community leaders to the Allied Media Conference in Detroit (where another eight members of the delegation are based). At the event, held June 15–18, there will be an all-day gathering of Detroit and Puerto Rican organizers, where they can share their work and strategize about building a stronger movement for the self-determination of their communities.
“We recognize the importance of sharing information about what is happening in Puerto Rico now and what we need to do to support efforts that promote self-determination,” said Basilio. “A central challenge is the lack of information, reporting, or analysis available in the US. The analysis, if available at all, usually centers the interests of Wall Street and offers a skewed and incomplete narrative of the colonial crisis.” The perennial focus of the Allied Media Conference — as well as the mission of its organizing body, Allied Media Projects — is the intersection of social justice and media organizing, which holds obvious appeal for those trying to bolster Puerto Rican solidarity.
“We are especially interested in learning to identify and challenge narratives of neoliberalism, austerity, and white supremacy used to justify the devastation faced by our communities and build new narratives grounded in our social justice values,” said Basilio. “We will also focus on building new narratives that tell a different story of the continued resistance, experimentation, and grassroots projects that we believe present a real alternative to ‘rescue plans’ pushed forward by politicians and Wall Street interests.”
Basilio pointed out that Detroit is an ideal locale for developing these strategies, as a city that continued to organize and strategize throughout a period of emergency management, which was clearly designed to wrest control from a voting base comprised mostly of people of color.
“The idea came out of an initial exchange in 2016, where Puerto Ricans from the island traveled to Detroit to gather information and lessons, with the goal of shaping and promoting new narratives around the Fiscal Control Board (PROMESA) in Puerto Rico,” said Basilio. “While in Detroit, presenters and community members strongly recommended that we consider returning. As we have seen, the attacks on students, health care, education, and the poor continue, but the people of Puerto Rico and Detroit are rising up. On May Day, over 100,000 Puerto Ricans marched in the streets demanding an audit of the debt, the end of cuts to the public university, the end of toxic dumping on our public lands, and more. We see this as a critical moment to foster allies and solidarity.”
To date, the collective has received 35 applications from artists and community leaders interested in participating in the program — 20 from the island, 7 from the diaspora, and 8 from Detroit. They work in sustainable agriculture, environmental justice, the arts, queer and feminist organizing, educational justice, health justice, community land trusts, and more. Among them are Nicole Rodriguez-Soto, who’s been collaborating in Detroit for years, first on Universidad Sin Fronteras and later in a creative partnership; and artist Yasmin Hernandez, whose work has long highlighted the colonization, history, and beauty of Puerto Rico.
The organizers have also launched an art auction that will help pay for the travel and lodging expenses of delegates who would otherwise not be able to attend. The majority of the artists included in the auction are women of Puerto Rican descent, with a few exceptions.
“There are many community-based efforts that encourage community self-reliance on the island (and in Detroit) and are working towards collective solutions,” said Basilio. “Taking ownership over the way our stories are told and our reality is represented is crucial to broadening these efforts. Strengthening their strategies and connecting them to people and projects with similar challenges elsewhere could lead to powerful alliances.” The Allied Media conference, she said, “would be the ideal place to gather with Detroiters who have faced an emergency control board of their own and to encourage significant exchange with Puerto Ricans, who are essential to redefining our field of action.”
The Detroit/Puerto Rico Solidarity Exchange Network’s art auction continues online through May 18. The group’s day of programming will take place at the 2017 Allied Media Conference (Detroit), which runs June 15–18.