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Circulating a New Currency to Build Community Across New York City

Valor y Cambio (Value and Change), a new project by artist and scholar Frances Negrón-Muntaner, gives participants newly designed “Pesos of Puerto Rico” to use in businesses around the city in exchange for their stories.

A participant holding a Valor y Cambio’s new Peso (all images courtesy of Valor y Cambio)

“We accept Pesos of Puerto Rico,” announce posters placed at businesses and cultural institutions across New York City. These are not real Puerto Rican Pesos that the posters refer to — those have passed from the world since the American occupation of the archipelago in 1898 — but a new community currency created by artists at the Lower East Side Loisaida Cultural Center.

Valor y Cambio (Value and Change) is an art project that started in Puerto Rico in response to the island’s protracted economic crises. It is the brainchild of Frances Negrón-Muntaner, an artist, filmmaker, and professor of comparative literature at Columbia University in New York City. Together with graphic designer Sarabel Santos Negrón, Negrón-Muntaner has designed and printed new bills honoring notable boricua figures and places. Valued 1:1 to the United States, the currency is printed in six denominations:

The 1 Peso bill is dedicated to the afro-puertorriqueño Cordero siblings, who were pioneers of education on the island; The 2 Pesos bill features surgeon and abolitionist Ramón Emeterio Betances (1827—1898) who helped enslaved Puerto Ricans flee to neighboring countries; the 5 Pesos paper honors writer and feminist activist Luisa Capetillo (1879-1922); poet and independence advocate Julia de Burgos (1914-1953) appears on the 10 pesos bill; a portrait of former baseball star Roberto Clemente (1934–1972) adorns the 21 Pesos bill; the 25 Pesos paper pays tribute to the residents of the self-governing Martín Peña Channel communities in San Juan.

1 Peso bill featuring Cordero siblings

In exchange for the bills, participants are asked to speak their stories and dreams into a refurbished ATM machine (named the “VyC”). The installation is equipped with a camera and a voice recorder to tape people’s answers to a series of questions beginning with “What do you value?” Other questions revolve around life in the local community. After recording the answers, the machine dispenses a random bill that can be used in a list of businesses across the city — from bars and cafes to theaters and museums. Partnering vendors earn a promotion on social media platforms in return.

The project arrived in New York City on May 31 after a month of trial in Puerto Rico. The VyC machine is currently placed at Loisaida Cultural Center as part of the exhibition Pasado y Presente: Art After the Young Lords, where it will remain until July 15. In the past month, the machine has traveled between several locations in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where there’s a large Puerto Rican community. This coming Fall, it will be moved to locations in East Harlem.

2 Pesos bill featuring surgeon and Ramón Emeterio Betances (1827—1898)

The idea for the project started fermenting during a working group that Negrón-Muntaner formed at Columbia University under the title “Unpayable Debt.” The group’s name comes from a speech by Puerto Rico’s former governor Alejandro García Padilla, in which he described the island’s $70 billion debt as “unpayable.” The group’s discussions, which aimed at understanding Puerto Rico’s austerity crises in a global context rather than viewing it as an isolated case, brought Negrón-Muntaner to new conclusions about today’s economy.

“What happened in Puerto Rico is not anomalous,” she told Hyperallergic in a phone conversation. “It happened before and will keep happening at a brisker clip,” she continued, adding that “austerity is going to be the norm” across the globe. On the bright side, Negrón-Muntaner also found that community currencies flourish in times of economic crises to facilitate local exchange economies. Many of those projects, she said, were led by artists.

25 Pesos bill pays tribute to the residents of the self-governing Martín Peña Channel communities in San Juan

Following these realizations, Negrón-Muntaner and Santos Negrón set out to create an art project that would facilitate an “alternative conception of the economy” and a more just system for those expelled from the current capitalist system. More than distributing free money to the community or encouraging an exchange economy, the project’s purpose is to register the community’s needs and concerns and evaluate ways to address them. Those issues vary from one community to another: respondents in Puerto Rico reported food security as the thing they value the most, while participants in New York City expressed fear of gun violence. In the future, the artist plans to compile the responses in a report that would also discuss alternative solutions to these problems.

Community currencies (or grassroots complementary currencies) are parallel monetary systems that exist in various forms, from loyalty points systems to barter schemes. They emerged from civil society and the NGO sector to serve social causes that are overlooked by mainstream economy: keeping money circulating locally, providing liquidity in cash to poor areas, and allowing unemployed people to meet their basic needs. Community currencies exist in countries all over the world including the United States. Their number spiked dramatically after the global financial system crashed in 2008. In Spain alone, there are 400 alternative currencies.

The VyC machine at the Carmen Pabon Garden in the Lower East Side

After a month of trying the project in Puerto Rico, six different communities have started their own alternative currencies. That, according to Negrón-Muntaner, manifests the untapped creativity and resourcefulness of people who were forced out of the job market (Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate is 8.8% as of March 2019). “Community currencies empower communities to think about what resources, skills, and assets they might have, particularly the so-called poor communities or low-income communities,” said Negrón-Muntaner. “They allow communities to recognize their resources, value them and then circulate and exchange them.”

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