Articles

An Artist’s Powerful Letter on Post-Hurricane Puerto Rico

Yasmín Hernández lives in Puerto Rico, and instead of attending a panel discussion at El Museo del Barrio in New York last week she sent this letter outlining the realities of post-hurricane life for an artist.

Yasmin Hernández’s mixed media on canvas (18″ x 14″) work created for the Debt Fair/Occupy Museums installation at the 2017 Whitney Biennial in New York, NY. The Puerto Rican archipelago is presented within a nebula. From the main island emerges the face of Political Prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera, held by the US for 35 years on sedition charges. His sentence was commuted by Obama 1 week after I completed this work. (all images courtesy the artist and used with permission)

Yasmín Hernández is a Brooklyn-born and raised artist whose work is rooted in struggles for personal, political, and spiritual liberation. She explores these themes through her paintings and mixed-media works, portraits primarily, that weave storytelling through layered images, text, and calligraphy.

Hernández is also Puerto Rican and she was scheduled to be part of the Debt Fair panel at El Museo del Barrio in Manhattan on Saturday, October 14. She was unable to make it and instead sent a letter that shares her experience and appeals to other to help Puerto Rico. Hyperallergic has agreed to publish her statement in full here with little editing in order to maintain the author’s voice and because of the current realities on the island of Puerto Rico.

Occupy Museums, which organized the panel, has also released a statement in solidarity with Puerto Rico, and it is published below Hernández’s letter.

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Letter from Yasmín Hernández

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, my flight out of Puerto Rico was canceled. As a result, I missed a long anticipated meeting with the legendary bell hooks in Kentucky and lost my place at a healing justice retreat for artists and activists in Tennessee, to which I had received a scholarship. I have now canceled my rescheduled relief flight to NYC where I was to spend time with my mom in Brooklyn, help with hurricane relief and be present at this panel.

Having been born and raised in Brooklyn, in 2014, I answered a soul call to repatriate to my ancestral homeland of Borikén. My Queens-born and raised Colombian husband and I, and our two small boys made our home in Moca in the northwestern part of la Isla Grande. On Wednesday, September 20, 2017, still recovering from loss of power and water from Hurricane Irma, her sister hurricane Maria took an unexpected turn at the point it had been predicted to exit the island. Its center passed right above us, and its eye wall, with wind gusts of over 200 miles per hour, thrashed us twice. Our beloved Moca looks more like winter in Brooklyn. Trees left standing were seemingly punished for weathering the storm, stripped bare of their leaves, flowers, and fruit. They stand brown, broken, and brittle revealing homes, rivers, and roads once hidden within lush tropical landscapes. Our view of the green Jaicoa range of hills bares the brown earth lacerations carved by landslides.

I will spare you the details of our experience during the storm, its effect on our home, our family and community in an effort to focus on the topic at hand and because with limited access to news and communication, there is much we have heard but have not been able to confirm. Infrequent communication with the outside world brings atrocious accounts that might be true, though I haven’t seen any of these first hand. Since we have chosen to stay here through whatever this brings, we prefer to focus on the gestures of solidarity and love that we have witnessed. It seems the human tendency is to speak mostly of the tragedies while acts of heroic survival, including the sharing of resources and community building, go uncelebrated for the most part. For example, the morning after the storm our neighbors provided us with access to their generator which they turn on just a few hours every day. This has allowed us to provide fresh food and cold drinks for our children since the storm. It is the reason that I am able to charge a computer and type this statement, though I must still figure out an internet connection with which to send it. Another neighbor gave us her telephone when Claro was the first and only company with cell signal. She sent us out to an antenna in Aguadilla with her phone and that is how after 10 days I was finally able to call my mother and family in New York. Afterwards she had us drop the phone off at her Moca home where she waited for the municipio to install a tarp since she had lost half of her roof. These are the accounts we must circulate. These are my heroic, generous people whose selflessness fuels our commitment to stay.

Since arriving in Puerto Rico, my work explores nebulae to transcend the abyss of colonialism and oppression, to claim ancestral connection and to affirm our spiritual space in the cosmos.  Moreover painting our ancestors in transparent layers of nebulae is how I combat the invisibility imposed by colonialism. In the spirit of the latter, I send this statement in my absence, having been rendered invisible yet again, this time by the (un)natural disaster of hurricanes unheard of,  compounded by the complexities and contradictions of colonialism.

The difficult decision to not have boarded my flight this morning is testament to the often impossible intersection in which artists work — the intersection between inspiration, sustainability, struggle, and survival. To have the opportunity to escape to New York City for a few days, unable to secure plane tickets for my family until November, would have meant leaving them behind with no running water, no power, no communication. Eight years ago, I left my teaching artist positions with El Museo del Barrio and the Studio Museum in Harlem after birthing my first son. This fall, I was celebrating my return to a full-time artist practice, having recently resigned from a teaching position and enjoying that both of my sons are in school now. I began the fall with a commission that funded these trips that would mark that return to my full artist self. These two hurricanes have cost me my trips, these opportunities and my studio — dark for three weeks and counting — houses a commission unpainted. Our children attended school four days in the last month and a half. Classes were canceled for hurricane preparations or for lack of water and power in the aftermath of the storms. Semi-rural and rural communities like mine, already accustomed to losing light and water periodically, are threatened with the possibility of living without these services for months.

Yasmin Hernandez’s mural of Oscar Lopez Rivera with the Three Kings in San Sebastian, Puerto Rico

Instead of packing for this trip, I divided and packed six boxes of rations and three cases of water that arrived at our home yesterday from various sources. The boys look forward to packing these in the car and delivering them to folks we know need them. The last two boxes and a gallon of water were delivered by the mayor of Moca himself going door to door. It was a wonderful gesture except it arrived three weeks after the storm, consequently the day after US military planes circled above our home repeatedly before finally landing in el pueblo. What does three weeks mean to those with no access to a car or gas, no access to cash, no water, no food? Especially considering that parts of Puerto Rico had already been without water or light for two weeks after Hurricane Irma.

To say this has been an eventful year for Puerto Rico is an understatement. It opened up with las promesas a los Reyes, much like El Museo del Barrio’s Three Kings Day Parade. Some of these, like in the town of Hormigueros were dedicated to Oscar López Rivera, the Puerto Rican freedom fighter who was held as a political prisoner by the United States for 35 years. On Three Kings Day, which is also Oscar Lopez’ birthday, I received an email from Occupy Museums inviting me to participate in the Puerto Rico bundle of their Debt Fair installation at the 2017 Whitney Biennial. I set out to create a nebula piece in honor of this goddess island, this verde luz as described by Moca’s own Antonio Cabán Vale, el Topo. I included the words “De-Debt/ Decolonize,” along with an image of Oscar Lopez Rivera. The following week, it was announced that Obama had commuted his sentence. His release was scheduled for May 17. It is possible that as the exhibition opened up at the Whitney, no one had any idea who the face floating on the Puerto Rico nebula was. Not until he was listed as an honoree at New York’s Puerto Rican Day Parade and corporate parade sponsors began to withdraw from the event was Oscar Lopez Rivera regularly discussed throughout the mainstream media. There had also been US media blackouts in the previous weeks surrounding the paro nacional or national strike fighting the austerity measures of PROMESA as well as a months-long mass student strike protesting obscene budget cuts to the University of Puerto Rico system. Occupy Museums however made sure to include the UPR strike in an action they held around student debt at the Whitney Museum.

In the weeks leading to Oscar’s release, as I finished my final school year teaching at the school his sister founded in Aguadilla, I managed to complete a mural in his hometown of San Sebastian. His image appears alongside a rendering of a Santos de Palo carving of the Three Kings. This is my first outdoor mural since “Soldaderas,” my 2011 East Harlem mural of Frida Kahlo and Julia de Burgos. I call it “el Regalo de los Reyes” after the Julia de Burgos poem of the same title. An excerpt of this poem is included in the mural and is also featured in my Soldaderas mural in the shared red stripe of the Mexican and Puerto Rican flags. With all our two nations share in our cultural and artistic history, and our conflicted political tie to the US, today we share more in the solidarity of struggle, survival, and strength post-earthquake and post-hurricane.

No one is ever prepared for a natural disaster, but a natural disaster within an economy crippled by colonialism, an odious debt, and weak infrastructure is beyond disastrous. Employees already threatened with furloughs, days of no work to compensate for a failing economy, were left homeless by the storm. The Jones Act or la ley de cabotaje regulating all imported goods to arrive through US ports on US ships, reveals now more than ever the economic strangulation suffered by a colony. My abuelo used to say, no hay mal que por bien no venga (there is no misfortune that does not come with good reason). It seems like the warrior winds of change of the Yoruba orisha Oya, these sister hurricanes came to turn, change, and reveal things that no longer serve us, things kept hidden that must be overturned. Folks who cared not about Puerto Rico, its people or its political status are being made aware of what is happening. They are outraged and are demanding justice. The colonial theater crumbles under its own absurdity.

De-Debt: Decolonize. We cannot speak of art and debt in Puerto Rico without addressing colonialism. We cannot speak of what Puerto Rico owes and who they owe it to without considering the paralyzing changes imposed on Puerto Rico’s economy and unfolding since the US occupation in 1898. The introduction of an industrial economy is a moot point when it entirely replaces an agricultural economy, denying Puerto Rico its own capacity for self-sustenance, imposing the importation of 80% of its food products at inflated prices. Colonialism constructs failing economies because its existence relies on the dependency of its subjects. Colonies are designed to build wealth for the colonizers while maintaining the colonial order among the colonized. To speak of healthy economies and self-sufficiency in a colony is a contradiction unless it is tied to a dialogue on political self-determination and self-rule. Our approach must be a decolonial one that also extends to post-colonial and neo-colonial structures. That said, we cannot address these recent hurricanes’ crippling of the Caribbean without addressing the US militarism and business interests that have meddled in Caribbean affairs for over a century and the US consumerism that has rendered this region a mere playground for the privileged. We must eradicate the ignorant, pompous gaze that so many direct at the Caribbean, especially by those incapable of naming the islands, the languages they speak, or locating them on a map.

We cannot address the creative capabilities of artists in debt without addressing the lack of basic amenities available to enable inspiration to flow and manifest. We must first address an artist’s means of daily survival. Access to a roof over their heads literally as these storms turn the common, corrugated metal roof into flying shreds of aluminum foil. Despite the abundant rains of this season’s skies providing ample water for bathing, laundry, and bathroom needs, drinking water remains scarce. Access to power, a cold fridge to keep food fresh, the internet, telephone service, light to work with in the absence of daylight, to power tools and equipment are all basic necessities for an artist’s daily studio practice. These are also important to the survival and functionality of any person in today’s world. Access to childcare when schools have literally been closed for almost a month is another issue standing in the way of a person’s ability to work and earn a living. I remember how a snowstorm and a one-day shut down of the NYC subway system could paralyze the city, now imagine the sustained, perpetual reality of life without power or water. Consider this next time you flush the toilet, send a text or email, flip on the light switch, or grab a cold drink out the fridge. Consider driving one hour through rush hour with no traffic lights.

It becomes necessary to reverse the gaze, turning an eye away from Puerto Rico and the Caribbean and back at the US, even to Puerto Ricans and other communities of color based in the US. As participants of a US privileged economy, built on the exploitation of less privileged, marginalized communities, how might one be complicit in the current situation? How much effort is being invested daily in challenging for example la ley de cabotaje which catastrophically impacts the Puerto Rican economy, prices, and access to food daily beyond the storm. How are funds earned from working in the US being funneled back into Puerto Rico beyond an annual vacation? How can dollars of the American dream, some of that wealth built on tax free incentives for US corporations and the US wealthy in Puerto Rico be invested in Puerto Rico-based businesses, organizations, real estate? How is the Puerto Rican community participating in the art market, supporting their artists, purchasing their work? Are Puerto Rican and allied professionals and academics based in privileged institutions providing ample opportunities to Puerto Rican entrepreneurs and artists to provide talks, presentations, and residencies? How do we fight the commodification of water from Detroit to Standing Rock to Puerto Rico? How do we restore its status back to that of sacred survival versus a a political weapon in a bottle? Prior to the hurricanes there were two other disasters in Puerto Rico, the repeated dumping of tons of toxic ashes in Peñuelas, as well as the infrastructure disaster that resulted in Puerto Rico’s island-wide power outage last year.

The Puerto Rican left and their allies who have always spoken out against colonialism and injustice cannot be the only ones to carry the torch of peace, justice, and humanity. By turning a blind eye to the dehumanization and exploitation of our community in order to buy into the financial gains, we become complicit in said dehumanization and exploitation and sell our souls in the process. Holistically we can learn to refocus all of our organizing, our programming, our activism, our art, our thinking to be decolonial, to reject the supremacy of one group over another and to reject the internalizing of inferiority complexes that plagues many of our people even long after political independence has been secured.

In closing, I offer the words of James Baldwin, “We cannot be free until they are free.” Anyone’s enslavement, or oppression, equals the enslavement and oppression of us all.

In solidarity, love, light and liberation,

Yasmin Hernandez
October 12, 2017
Moca, Puerto Rico

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In Solidarity with Puerto Rico: Cancel Colonial Debts Now!

September 2017. It was a month of sequential natural disasters that left multiple American cities underwater and in various states of crisis. Reflecting on the contrasting recovery outlook for two of them: Houston,  and 1800 miles to the Southeast, San Juan Puerto Rico, we are brought to face with something extremely ugly: an American colonial legacy that is alive and well.

Vulnerability is not simply a product of natural conditions; it is a political state and a colonial condition.”[i]

In today’s world this condition can be summarized by a single word: debt. Puerto Rico owes 74 billion dollars to a consortium of vulture investors, hedge funds and bond holders.[ii] Like most colonies, the island has a long history of financial disempowerment wielded through the mechanisms of extractive loan terms, snowballing interest payments and tax breaks for corporations and the ultra-wealthy.  Colonial debt is a thread that winds through history, connecting Puerto Rico’s past slavery-based sugar economy to the extractive financial economy of the present neoliberalism. Colonial debt is structural, concrete racism. It’s high time all colonial debt is considered odious.

Recently the US Congress enacted the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) Bill. It ceded widespread powers of governance to an undemocratically appointed group. Since the Promesa bill was enacted in June 2016, draconian decisions have been made that hold the public accountable for the irresponsible actions of the financial class, including, “cutting spending on public health by 30 percent, closing schools, and lowering the minimum wage for young people to a little over $4 an hour.”[iii] Since Promesa has been enacted,more than 150 schools have closed on the island.

As we know from the 2008 housing crisis, debt is primarily a tool of power;  a game in which the financial elites win every time. 2008 taught us that financial giants like Goldman Sachs who take on risk stand to lose little in the end; in fact the inevitable crisis helps them by killing off competitors and socializing loss.  On the other side of the equation, historically disempowered people like Puerto Rican children see their schools and hospitals concretely shut down. It’s not surprising that a hedge fund that has been deeply involved in Puerto Rico, Stone Lion, was founded by the equity chiefs at Bear Stearns: players at the epicenter of the 2008 collapse in which no one was held accountable except millions of individual citizens – a pattern set to play out again with Promesa.[iv]

Meanwhile, the biggest players of the financial markets such as shadow bank Blackrock Inc is a heavy investor. This is the mega-firm that Occupy Museums focused on in our Debtfair project at the Whitney Biennial. Blackrock has ballooned to 4.7 trillion of managed assets since 2008 mirroring the exponential enrichment of elites during economic crisis worldwide. So we must be clear: Puerto Rico is next.

“I think tomorrow the island will develop into the Singapore of the Caribbean.”[iii]

‘“One reason I came here is I thought it hit bottom. In a democracy, you really need a crisis to bring about change,’ says Tennebaum, a former Bear Stearns executive. He is in the process of building a home on the island and starting a merchant bank.” – Michael Tennenbaum

But this all reads like old news now. Then came Irma and Maria, knocking out much of the island’s infrastructure setting it back “nearly 20 to 30 years.”[v] The climate change-fueled super-storm means massive capital is needed to rescue and rebuild the island – capital attached to austerity and privatization. In New Orleans following Katrina, this rush of capital with ideological strings attached ultimately left the city without public schools and incentivized displacement of its own citizens, remaking the city in a whiter image.

We are witnessing the pairing of debt and crisis to serve the neoliberal goal of extreme privatization around the world: from the selling off of public land in Greece to water in Detroit. It’s time to call this what it is: colonial extraction. To echo the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz  “you don’t put debt above people, you put people above debt.”

Occupy Museums joins the many voices calling for a complete cancellation of colonial debts and the anti-democratic agenda of Promesa. Our group is inspired by activists who have long connected politics and culture such as the Young Lords in New York. We join this call in solidarity with the long struggles of the Puerto Rican people and especially the artists we have collaborated with in Debtfair for the last year.

For too long, the arts and culture industry has become a civic front for the violence and extraction of the finance industry. The same sharks destroying entire economies are shamelessly heralded for their ‘stewardship’ as a blind eye is turned toward the havoc they wreak on millions around the world. If cultural institutions want to face in the direction of greater equality and decolonial and anti-racist justice  they must divest themselves from the financial colonists of Puerto Rico: MassMutual, Oppenheimer Funds, Goldman Sachs, Franklin Resources, and UBS, the financial sponsors of the Basel Art Fairs and the third largest mutual fund holder of Puerto Rican debt. MoMA’s feted board member Larry Fink is CEO of Blackrock, the world’s greatest single engine of debt extraction. Until he is kicked off the board, the museum stands on the wrong side of Puerto Rico’s crisis and the programmed crises to come.

Cancel Puerto Rico’s colonial debts now!

Fire the Promesa oversight board – Real democracy now!

Viva Puerto Rico!
Occupy Museums
October 14, 2017

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[i] Professor Yarimar Bonilla

[ii] https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2017-puerto-rico-debt-crisis/

[iii] http://www.slate.com/articles/business/metropolis/2017/09/hurricane_maria_could_lead_puerto_rico_s_electric_utility_prepa_to_privatize.html

[iv] http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2015-12-12/eerie-echo-2007-it-really-bear-stearns-all-over-again

[v] according to Resident Commissioner Jennifer Gonzalez https://newrepublic.com/minutes/144985/us-government-fails-puerto-rico-again

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