La nación imaginaria
Podía ser que estuviera en La Fonda Boricua Lounge –el semi-famoso Latin jazz antro del Barrio de Nueva York– para olvidarme de algo. Pero no fue así. Cuando los hermanos Andy y Jerry González, el corazón del conjunto llamado Fort Apache, se botaron interpretando el “Nefertiti” de Miles, y quizás más importante, el “Evidence” de Monk, se hizo claro que esta noche no era una para olvidar, sino para revivir la historia, y re-hacerla a la misma vez.
Andy is always the bass, the interpolator between Barretto-Palmieri and bebop, cool, walking bass, and Jerry is two people at once. Jerry is the height of modernist blues, the cool jazz superstructure breathing through the flugel horn like someone at the midpoint between eternal life and slow death, like Miles at Birdland, only Birdland was in Spanish Harlem, and when he cradles the congas it’s because the rumba guaguancó needed to be imported from La Habana by way of New Orleans and all the way up the Mississippi to 106th Street, and the express train was not running –it never does on weekends.
Hasta acá llegó la nación imaginaria de Puerto Rico.
Typical Nuyorican, is what my friends from la isla sometimes say when they don’t understand why so much of our nation, speaking English and fighting with the marginalization of exile into El Barrio and El Bronx, wave those flags en la parada puertorriqueña –which should be el desfile puertorriqueño– gritando yes I’m proud y qué?Felipe Luciano. Central Park, NYC. 1972
Just last week Felipe Luciano –once a leader of the Young Lords, who (without Felipe’s approval) made that naive attempt in 1971 to bring independence to the island while trying to be Marxist-Leninist Maoist bugaloo salseros bilingues and redefining hybrid Latino identity in the middle of a “revolution”– had sent out an open letter asking for new ways to restore solidarity in nuestra nación imaginaria:
PUERTO RICO! Let’s be perfectly frank with each other. We’re not getting along. Most of the time we live in myopic isolation regardless of how many times we visit each other.
For the most part, the message reads like a letter to an estranged family member. He touches on the misunderstandings over language, the brain drain, the elitism of the professional classes. He employs the term AmeRican (probably first used by Nuyorican poet Tato Laviera) to acknowledge that the diaspora has spread far beyond Nueva York. Finally, he sounds this alarm:We’re at a crossroads now. AmeRican children are not identifying with the island as much, and, we, here, are fighting a last ditch battle to keep them from falling into the abyss of white, corporate American values or the opposite, the lack of purpose or committment to family and community associated with a permanent, marginalized underclass.
It would be wonderful if we could do this together. But, we see ourselves as distant cousins, friendly, but, hardly close or intimate. And it’s time, we let you, on the island, know that.
I called Angelo Falcón, the head of an organization called the National Institute for Latino Policy (formerly the National Institute for Puerto Rican Policy), to ask him about this. He said that when he started publishing findings from the census that the majority of Puerto Ricans lived outside the island, he got the same kind of resistance from academics as when he published figures that whites were no longer the majority population in New York. He felt that institutional relationships between mainland Puerto Ricans and island Puerto Ricans took a turn for the worse when Rafael Hernández Colón’s Department of Puerto Rican Affairs was abandoned for Pedro Roselló’s “lobbying operation” the Puerto Rican Federal Affairs Administration.
Falcón thinks that what is lacking is an institutional commitment to encourage different aspects of political, cultural, and economic interaction to happen.
In his message, Luciano proposes a “Puerto Rican Fresh Air Fund, that plucks kids from the streets of New York, every summer, and plants them in the campos of the island,” as well as bringing children from Puerto Rico to live with families who are ”politically, culturally and spiritually active in their communities.” He also proposes the development of a museum that celebrates the diaspora, as well as la herencia africana, and a yearly conference that brings thinkers and activists from the island and the mainland together.
An art show called “Sorta Rican” at Taller Boricua, a few blocks down from La Fonda Boricua, reminded me of the last time there was a sustained feeling of interaction between the diaspora y la isla. Vieques was the kind of issue that got everybody together–it created a dialog between la poeta Mariposa (“Yo no nací en Puerto Rico; Puerto Rico nació en mi”) y el poeta Gallego (“Yo no nací en Nueva York; Nueva York nació en mi”). The Nuyorican Café thrived in Nueva York y San Juan, reggaetón linked Tego and 50 (Cent), and the Yankees were no longer Yanquis. Many would agree that Viento de Agua did their best playing in the Bronx and Miguel Zenón his best thinking in Washington Heights.
Adál Maldonado, a visual artist who recently moved back to la isla after living in New York or California for most of his life, and who has an exhibition that just opened at Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, is still trying to figure out why there is even una discusión:
“We are so multi-dimensional as a group that many sources haven’t even begun to be explored and people are hung up on a Puerto Rican Canon. I personally don’t get it, the Canon should be based on the multiplicity of cultural, gender, social and political experiences available to us within our own culture.”
Que hacer? Luciano has a problem with the most popular phrase in Puerto Rico: Eso es así. “It is not that way,” he insists “If we accept a secular pragmatism we will lose the magic and essence of who we are. We were under attack. We saw the blood on the street. We fought back.”
Recently, NYU and the Julia de Burgos cultural center in El Barrio showed support for the striking UPR students. They sure fought back. Falcón expressed surprise about Nueva York’s fascination with issues outside of the immediate challenges we face here. But while there is every bit of solidarity with the strike’s basic issues, the inflammatory nature of the Fortuño/NPP repression of the strikers may have struck a chord with those of us who remember names like Diallo and Giuliani. With those of us who see the unfettered violence in word and deed that characterizes the hard Republican right. The kind of politics that makes us wonder why anyone on the island would want to become a part of what the increasingly undemocratic United States calls “America.”
Luis Gutiérrez wondered aloud on the floor of the U.S. Congress if the statehood party in Puerto Rico had any conception of American democracy. The NPP questioned how un extranjero would dare to say this. Gutiérrez insisted he wouldn’t be silenced. It seems clear that most people en la isla agree with the Representative from Illinois.
But, in the end, as Luciano admits (and we all know) Spanish is the only way to a Puerto Rican heart.
Yo casi ni pienso en español. Yo lo busco en mi alma, y a veces lo encuentro. Está lleno de pena y nostalgia, música y alegría. A veces de repente me salen disparates que se interpretan como gestiones. No se puede reducir la naturaleza de la isla a algunas palabras, a algunos sentimientos. Pero no sé si alborotar en el malecón ni encontrar el corazón en una placita donde se compra viandas y velas es la esencia de esta nación. Pero cuando oigo el canto de Andy y Jerry, el ritmo me cuenta que cultura es textura y la vida es fricción. Que siga el diálogo.Jerry Gonzalez & La Fort Apache Band La Fonda Boricua Lounge,4/2/11.