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La nación imaginaria

Foto por Frank Espada.Washington D.C.,1974.

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.

  • Dabejar

    Hi Ed,
    My name is Daniel Bejar. My colleague Charles Beronio and I are two of the artists from the exhibition at Taller Boricua you mention in your article. We appreciate you illustrating our images to include in your article, but we would appreciate if you would credited the artworks and artists. Gracias.


  • Dabejar

    Hi Ed,
    My name is Daniel Bejar. My colleague Charles Beronio and I are two of the artists from the exhibition at Taller Boricua you mention in your article. We appreciate you illustrating our images to include in your article, but we would appreciate if you would credited the artworks and artists. Gracias.


  • jibaro del centro

    While searching for the best spot to watch the 2009 Puerto Rican Parade I asked a young woman wrapped in a Puerto Rican flag with a coqui frog covering the star, if she knew which streets were not blocked by police barriers. I asked in Spanish. Her facial reaction led me to realize that she did not know Spanish, prompting me to switch to English. According to politicians and newspapers reports there are four million Puerto Ricans living in the continental USA and close to four million living in the island. These reports should lead one to believe that this an easy task to carry out: if you claim to be Puerto Rican then you must be Puerto Rican. But given several factors affecting the history and development of Puerto Rico it is not as simple as it seems to be; and it becomes more complicated as the inhabitants of the island push for a solution to the political status of the island.

    Defining what constitutes a Puerto Rican is not determined by claiming a certain kind of lineage. In between the criollos and mestizos, currently there are several other groups claiming to be Puerto Rican: the neo Tainos, peoples that originally lived there when the Spaniards invaded the island, the descendants of African slaves, and finally the children of several other immigrant groups who have migrated to the island. If you live in Indieras, a mountain region near the west coast of the island the probabilities of you having Arawak heritage are much greater than if you are a child of the bourgeoisie in San Juan, Ponce or Mayaguez. If you come from the mountain region in the middle of the island, your ancestry might be traced to the large numbers of immigrants from the Canary Islands, Corsica or Catalonia that settled in Puerto Rico during the nineteenth century. And certainly, if you come from Loiza Aldea, the African influence is undeniable. In between these historical parameters there is the majority of the population: mestizos and criollos whom in different degrees have an ancestor from one of these three groups. To make the situation more complicated, a Puerto Rican might even be a descendant from a lesser known group: from Chinese laborers brought during the nineteenth century to Lebanese, Palestinian, Jewish merchants that have moved during the twentieth century. More recently Cubans, Dominicans continue to shape the definition of what is a Puerto Rican.

    Since obviously it is not the DNA, then, what is it? Is it a cultural identity? Not so fast. Simply because you carry a flag or know how to dance salsa (musical genre closer to Cuban guaguanco than to Puerto Rican seis) does not make you knowledgeable of Puerto Rican culture. Is it an identity formed in opposition to other groups and not based on common characteristics? As the USA moves closer to decide if Puerto Rico remains in the current political status, becomes a state of the union or completely independent these four million Puerto Ricans in the USA might have a saying in such important decision. But should they participate, particularly when so many of them know very little as to what constitutes a Puerto Rican. For the people living in the island, such decision cannot be based on artificial identities that are constructed in opposition to other groups, romantic notions of culture or lack of information as to the history of these people. It is certainly not an easy task but a necessary one if the status of the island is going to be finally resolved.

    • Maybe to be Puerto Rican also is also something more than to know “the culture”, the “history”, and the “heritage” of the island. Considering that Puerto Ricans have migrated to mainland US since late 19th Century, what they have done there is part of Puerto Rican history, culture, and identity. So the knowledge of “seis” and spanish language is not all about it.

  • Rafael

    Ese sentir/pensar de Ser y No Ser, sea ello estando en Puerto Rico o fuera de la 100 X 35, tiene sus causas y consecuencias. Cuando perdemos la poco o mucha Identidad en lo que somos o no; en lo que nos hace ser lo que debemos ser; en las comidas tradicionales de la puertorriqueñidad de la gente pobre que hemos sido; en percibir los olores de la tierra húmeda y pródiga; en dejar de ver la gama de verdes en nuestros paisajes y el claro azul de nuestro cielo tropical. Comenzamos a ser extranjeros en nuestro propio suelo, al igual que en los suelos de los extraños a nuestra idiosincracia. Nos transformamos en seres enajenados que nos llamamos Niuyoricans, Caparra Kids, AmeRican, Fortuñeños, Guaynabitos o Americans … Y entonces, no somos nada de nada … y como perfectos colonizados nos integramos a todo tipo de fusiones que corrompen nuestros espíritus puertorriqueños(as).

  • J. Vega

    La misma nacion con algunos mirando hacia fuera y los otros mirando hacia dentro desde afuera…no ven lo mismo.

  • Hace un par de días leí las reflexiones de Felipe Luciano. Como Boricua nacido en Puerto Rico, casado con una Boricua criada en el Sur del Bronx, comparto las inquietudes y algunos de los señalamientos del paisano. Y noten que digo paisano, porque a pesar de los esfuerzos de la torre de marfil de “throw de baby with the bathwater” al criticar el nacionalismo, estigmatizarlo, demonizarlo, es ese nacionalismo el que moviliza a cientos de miles de Boricuas a organizarse en sus comunidades, desde Chicago, California, Nueva York y Orlando. Es ese sentido de pertenencia e identidad parejero “Yo soy Boricua pa’ que tu lo sepas” que le sirve de escudo contra el racismo y la supremacía blanca en los Estados Unidos. Lo que sucede es que muchos en la torre de marfil se desligaron de las luchas comunales y de forma abstracta, con fachada anti-empiricista, crearon un muñeco de paja al que intentaron destruir como los niños rompen una piñata. La piñata, para que los niños le puedan dar tiene que estar atada a algo que le de acceso a los trancazos de los niños. Eso fue exactamente lo que hicieron muchos intelectuales (en la diáspora y en la isla) inspirado por teorías mal digeridas de teóricos franceses y norteamericanos. Hoy día vemos algunos de los resultados en la implosión de la lucha universitaria donde algunos de los teóricos clavaron las ultimas cuñas (y ya sabemos que no hay peor cuña que la del mismo palo) en el ataúd de la lucha universitaria. Pero hay otros responsables, en la isla, la negación del rol del racismo en la vida social puertorriqueña por algunos sectores ha contribuido a convertir la idea de la nación dividida en la nación fragmentada. La nación dividida era un concepto geográfico, la nación fragmentada es una descripción de un proceso de escisión donde se están creando dos realidades sociales distintas y posiblemente opuestas. Como se identifican los Boricuas racialmente en el censo nos prevé cambios fundamentales en las dos alas de la nación puertorriqueña. En el censo del 2010, es cierto que se disminuyo el por ciento de los que se identifican como blancos y aumento el porciento de los que se identifican como negros. Por otro lado, lo contrario ocurre en los Estados Unidos en las comunidades Boricuas. Y aunque no ha divulgado aun las estadísticas por estado, las del 2000 ya señalan la dirección de este proceso. En Florida, el 67.1 por ciento de los Boricuas se identifican como blancos, en California el 45.1 por ciento y en Nueva York el 44.8 por ciento. La nueva inmigración Boricua a los Estados Unidos trae consigo la negación de nuestra herencia cultural Africana y al igual que en México, la negación de los negro. La nación puertorriqueña se va fragmentado con sectores que van en sentido contrario hacia . . .?

  • Iván


    Gracias por esta exquisita columna. Tus planteamientos sobre la nación trans-territorial son sumamente provocadores. Habría que cuestionarnos, quizá, aunque me caigan chinches, hasta qué punto podemos seguir hablando de “nación” en el sentido decimonónico.


  • Iván


    Gracias por esta exquisita columna. Tus planteamientos sobre la nación trans-territorial son sumamente provocadores. Habría que cuestionarnos, quizá, aunque me caigan chinches, hasta qué punto podemos seguir hablando de “nación” en el sentido decimonónico.


  • Oterogarabis

    Recuerdo una tarde en Brown University, durante la visita de Juan Flores por motivo de la samena de orgullo puertorriqueño. La organizadora, una boricua de la isla del sur, había preparado un ‘slide show’ con imágenes de Puerto Rico. Entonces le comenté que faltaban imágenes del Barrio, de los barrios: una imagen de Puerto Rico es un paseo por la 110, por el Bronx, Loizaida, o la gigantesca bandera de Puerto Rico, ondeando perenne y metálicamente sobre las calles de Chicago.
    Let refresh our imaginary!


      Nationhood for Puerto Rican intellectuals is a grand gesture, a performative act subject to many interpretations and so the endless clamor in search of an answer, some explanation or truth. But what is the question?

      A footnote: Puerto Rican Association of Community Affairs used to offer school age Nuyorican students summer trips to Puerto Rico to learn about their history and culture. There were also political and ecological tours by different New York-based groups such as the Puerto Rican Solidarity Committee.