Guest editorial published: Marisol LeBrón & Javier Arbona. The Funambulist 16 (March-April 2018) – Proletarian Fortresses.
The American Studies Association, of which I am a member, had a statement on the situation in Puerto Rico, and for me, to be honest… It was not a good statement. I’ll paste here and edit something I posted previously on social media:
With some very good scholars on the Executive Committee, no one apparently thought about directly naming the problems. Furthermore, it was not clear, unfortunately, if they consulted Puerto Rican scholars about this, since I don’t think –although I could be mistaken– that anyone on the Exec Committee identifies as Puerto Rican.
In the statement, there is no mention of the unaccountable and un-payable debt or the Junta government; there are also euphemistic terms like “acquisition,” as opposed to military invasion or occupation. And then, this very baffling point: “nor have they [Puerto Ricans] ever had sufficient representation in Congress.” To be clear, Puerto Ricans have no vote in Congress. None; at all. So “sufficient” sounds like another euphemistic wording. The American Studies Association has a responsibility, given that the membership includes some high school teachers and mostly higher ed faculty, to be much more precise, since I assume this will set some direction of what is taught in classrooms. But furthermore, Puerto Rico’s problem is not one of simple political participation or representation. After all, just look at Hawai’i or Alaska, as fully incorporated non-contiguous U.S. “states” where colonization is very much an ongoing process left unaddressed and unresolved by Congressional representation (and this obviously can be seen within the territorial “mainland” too, no doubt). Why not, if you’re the ASA, shift the discussion to decolonization?
What’s worse, from my perspective, is the perpetuation of a problematic myth that the aftermath of the hurricanes is a symptom of, in their word, “abandonment” and not specific colonial policies of austerity and privatization. (Did the Whitefish scandal seem like a case of abandonment?) In fact, the statement is short and it does not even make clear at first what they are addressing (hurricanes? climate change? colonialism?), until the next-to-last sentence, that is — but it comes with the same mistaken point about abandonment: the “doubled effects of the hurricanes and insufficient federal governmental attention.”
The statement is a meager two paragraphs long and some loose change, calling for donations and this very lazy, chilly line: a call “to continue both to illuminate the histories underlying and the effects of the current U.S. government’s relationship to Puerto Rico, and to mobilize resources for relief efforts toward recovery.” Isn’t that what many in the ASA are trying to do anyway: teach and mobilize efforts? The problem here is that the ASA, with this “abandonment” thesis, among other issues in the short statement, is making that work, in fact, much harder.
Queer anthropology’s focus must turn attention to these understandings of the queer geopolitical if we are to understand how homosexuality gets attached to values whether or not they have anything to do with actual lived experiences of LGBT, homosexual, or non-heterosexual peoples.
In the colony, the “world” is often thought of as the U.S. After all, that is where you go if you want to be a citizen for real. But, in reality, the world in the colony is so tiny and beautiful and heartbreaking, it fits in a dance club.
The June 12, 2016 attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fl. will continue to reverberate for much time to come. While processing all of it, and continuing to mourn, I have wanted to mention what strikes me as a persistent exclusion, even in responses that are otherwise thoughtful and intelligent. The core of what I find missing has three parts that are combined in inseparable ways, as I see it (and I stress, coming from my own partial perspective as a Puerto Rican cis-male in a hetero partnership, and not a queer studies scholar per se).
First, by some counts, 23 or more of the 49 killed at Pulse were Puerto Ricans (born either on or off of the official territory marked as Puerto Rico), and more than 50 injured. While the queer latinidad of the space is sometimes mentioned—but not mentioned frequently enough—the Puerto Rican identity of so many patrons of Pulse, part of the significant Boricua diaspora in Orlando (living there more permanently or simply visiting) persistently gets swept aside. Again, this exclusion happens unfortunately even within radical queer responses that do have a critique of the opportunistic ways in which the “Latino” identity, or a reductive LGBT abstraction of those targeted, is selectively deployed to bolster militaristic and islamophobic goals. (Check out, for example, this program w/ Mattilda B. Sycamore and Yasmin Nair, and this piece by Jack Halberstam).
Yet the Puerto Rican presence at Pulse should be central to this story, as reflected briefly in this piece by Berkeley professor Juana María Rodríguez, just as queer and LGBT Boricuas in the United States and the Caribbean have long been integral to queer performance, rioting, visibility, HIV/AIDS struggles, and more. In Puerto Rican circles, a number of news and blog articles have been circulating with intensity.
This is acutely critical to understand in relation to what emerges as the second part of this absence in the narratives around the hate-driven massacre. The US Congress, with the boost of recent Supreme Court decisions, is in the process of passing legislation that, for all intents and purposes, throws away Puerto Rico’s already-fictitious Constitution, imposing unilaterally a “fiscal control board” to “help” Puerto Rico with “the tools” to resolve the sovereign debt crisis. Nota Bene: While the fiscal control board is presented as a humanitarian intervention, the ongoing (inhumane) crises in coordinates like Flint’s lead pipes, Detroit’s water shutdowns, or Chicago’s shuttered schools portray a different picture of where neoliberal austerity is going with this.
Another way to look at the second element—colonization—is to start with this question: Why are so many Puerto Ricans in Orlando, anyway? Few, except for Puerto Ricans themselves (see for example: Rebollo-Gil; La Fountain-Stokes), have stopped to ask what connects the colonization of Puerto Rico to Pulse. Furthermore, as La Fountain-Stokes points out, LGBT and queer Boricuas also migrate to Orlando precisely because they are sometimes escaping from violence and harassment in Puerto Rico (or some combination of several factors, of which anti-gay hate may be one component among many, and influential to a smaller or a larger extent in these territorial mobilities, depending on each case), of which I’ll say a bit more below.
To be perfectly clear, it is not only historical imperialism undergirding dispossession, poverty, and lack of political agency that has driven Puerto Rican migration. It is also the very present state of US bipartisan politics that treats queer Puerto Rican lives, like Omar Mateen apparently did, as disposable. One should also be aware here that when it comes to LGBT and queer rights in Puerto Rico, colonial governance and dispossession is important to note, but it’s not merely about a local driver, as the US media is often quick to conclude, although figures like statehooders Ricky Rosselló, Tata Charbonier, and Tomás Rivera-Schatz deserve a ton of scorn (as do many independentistas, soberanistas, and estado-libristas—that is, all the political stripes—who’ve also propagated hate). The local interacts with the federal and the global. By the way, another clarification: I don’t presume that everyone who identifies as an LGBT Puerto Rican sympathizes with anti-imperial politics, although most who would identify as queer, aware of the radical politics bundled with the term, more than likely do oppose US occupation, as well as perhaps citizenship-based, borderized, exclusionary notions of settler-colonial rights.
But anti-LGBTQ hate in Puerto Rico functions in combination with myriad forms of metropolitan disinterest as well as US capital flows. One might examine, e.g., fundamentalist church finances, gay “conversion” therapies, and anti-LGBT resource networks that fund local politicians or anti-adoption legal cases. And not to mention, while also keeping in mind the importance of religious beliefs to many survivors, the hate reproduced—despite the diversity of practitioners and clergy—at the hands of the global Catholic church with deep roots in Puerto Rico, given that other European, pre-1898 occupying empire – Spain.
Third, the colonized Puerto Rican figure (see the two points above) targeted in the attack, along, certainly, with many more diverse identities, is also a queer geopolitical subject, as I take it from a smart short piece by Tamar Shirinian (albeit with no mention of Puerto Rico). As scholars, we are often able to connect the effects of hate across geographical space — and connect hate to a co-constitutive power, the increasingly global pinkwashing industry to justify liberal militarism. In this regard, it is no coincidence that the Friends of the IDF had a Puerto Rican gay man, Ricky Martin, play a benefit show. But Puerto Ricans and Latinxs, as well as a broader general public and thinkers, tend to (conveniently) forget that some Latinxs also identify as Arab, Palestinian, and/or Muslim, or are of Arab or Muslim ancestry — and some Arab Latinxs also happen to be part of the LGBT and/or Queer community.
Meanwhile, as many have explained, however much it is lost in the CNN/Fox News hysteria, the US security apparatus’ response to the bloodshed is to callously and cynically intensify islamophobia, calling for Muslim bans, racial profiling, and more aerial bombardment and special forces against an indefinite enemy. Persistent militarized readiness from the state is also co-existent with casual, everyday forms of insults, harassment, and militant attacks against mosques or persons’ bodies (inflamed more and more by the Trump campaign, although not unique to it by any means, as is also paralleled in Europe).
The third part of the composite absence I am describing matters because it is not simply the catch-all, popular term “Latinos” (or sometimes now the term Latinxs to encompass gender-queer and cis Latino/as) who are interpellated for the “war on terror,” pitting ‘us’ against ‘them,’ or against those Others reduced to a violent ethno-religious abstraction. Let’s recall that one of the most exemplary cases of the stripping of habeas corpus in the war on terror was against a Puerto Rican from New York converted to Islam, José Padilla. The figure of José Padilla reminds us how ethnically fluid lawfare can be.
It is precisely Puerto Ricans—historically, fighting grunts in US wars starting with World War I—who are once again being hailed to participate, including through affective mobilizations, in a global war, now without limits or borders, and in particular, specific ways. This is a war apparatus that, in fact, also has been deployed—from 1898’s invasion—against Puerto Ricans themselves, and has been / is being actively used to pacify insurgency against imperialism and colonialism.
In other words, Puerto Ricans are commonly coerced to endorse, vote, and accept this apparatus against, no doubt, themselves (that is, ourselves). Thus, it is at this specific moment when the intermittent visibility and invisibility of queer Puerto Ricans operates to justify security logics, especially versus populations and territories similarly racialized and occupied (though different in specific geopolitical ways).
For those of us who identify as Puerto Ricans in the United States, we have to ask ourselves when does our presence, or perhaps our memory, become important—visible—and when does our visibility, and our collective memory, not matter; why, how, and where, specifically, are we erased, and what are the geopolitics of that erasure, deliberately or not — even amongst radical allies?
Finally, let’s take for example the infamous Democrats’ Sit-In at the US Congress last week to promote war on terror measures that apply terror watchlists to gun background checks. This comical episode was, quite specifically and egregiously, an appropriation of queer geopolitical Boricua and Latinx lives to score political capital through the semiotics of gun control (and promote Dunkin Donuts), while the very same Congress, with the approval of the White House, is passing anti-Puerto Rican legislation — the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act, or PROMESA. Briefly, PROMESA (the fiscal control board legislation) will lower wages, privatize infrastructure, and prohibit public sector strikes, among more impositions. Needless to say, PROMESA is also endorsed by a diverse array of colonial elites, the governor, the Clintons, and Puerto Rican members of Congress …And, Lin-Manuel Miranda.
However, it is legitimized US military weaponry and expertise—immune from gun control—that has often been used against Puerto Ricans, Latinxs, and Latin American geographies. Congressional Democrats are not protesting the School of the Americas, for instance, or to end the War on Drugs that drags on and takes in so many Latinx and Puerto Ricans lives, queer and not queer (relatedly, see especially the work of Marisol LeBrón on neoliberal policing in Puerto Rico, and Zaire Dinzey-Flores on policed housing segregation). Or elsewhere, US politicians, to wit, are de facto in favor of an unfolding coup in Brasil (just as Hillary Clinton backed a coup in Honduras). By and large, the US political class, in spite of minor differences between GOP and Democrats, favors borderization and violent policing, while denying Latinx migrants their rights, running an immigrant detention gulag system. And this list could go on and on. I don’t mean to simply point out hypocrisy here; I mention these inconsistencies and contradictions because these are specifically structural ways in which Latinxs and Puerto Ricans, including queers, are expected to mobilize—including as, and sometimes especially as, selectively memorialized dead bodies—for US empire, all while they themselves—we ourselves—are expendable.
All of this is to say that while the queer latinidad of Pulse is unevenly recalled, let alone its Boricua queer latinidad, merely invoking Latinxs and Puerto Ricans, the living and the dead, can have ambiguous and even reverse effects that run counter to the life and survival of Latinxs and Puerto Ricans. But at the same time, we must not forget the multifaceted trajectories of queer Boricuas to Orlando, an amnesia that could be even deadlier.