Charco-crossers like myself arrive at a space where we feel divided: our bodies on one side, hearts and spirits in another. Our home on one side, work on the other. Many of us have either lived on each side or travel and work extensively on both sides. Others adhere to one side only, adopting and projecting prejudices toward the other side they may know little to nothing about. We are often told which side we belong on depending on where we were born and are often expected to choose a side. I am a Brooklyn born and raised Boricua. My parents are from Ponce, Puerto Rico. I grew up with a gaping hole in my heart and soul, yearning to connect to my ancestral homeland. After two decades of dedicating my art practice and activism to Puerto Rican history, culture and liberation, in 2014 I moved to Puerto Rico. Against the odds of exodus, I have survived and thrived this reverse migration by heeding the lessons of transcendence as taught by el charco.
Colonial survival and resistance reference the realities that we must navigate, resist, heal from and move beyond as colonized people. The trauma of colonization and the myriad ways it manifests (physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually) requires that we constantly develop more creative and innovative forms of survival. This process becomes especially complicated when we leave our comfort zones and venture out cross-charco, no matter which direction we cross. In doing so we run the risk of being denied our identities, having our authenticity questioned by others and, much worse, ourselves. Oftentimes we find that the survival rules and tools we collected along the way no longer apply. We are forced to learn new ones. In resisting the displacement I felt in NYC, feeling perpetually incomplete; in resisting the sometimes rejection I felt for not having been born and raised here in Puerto Rico, I discovered a new nation. Si no soy de acá, ni tampoco soy de allá, pues coño, ¡yo soy del charco!
El charco or the pond is the term used for a body of water that separates two lands. Used by the British and the US and then the US and Puerto Rico, it seems to mostly speak of the separation between a colonizer and its colony. But what are the implications of said separation for a Diaspora of conquered people? In our case of Borikén and its various Diasporas (indigenous, West African, etc.) there are many charcos between our many ancestral homes. Beyond claiming relatives and communities in the US and ancestors in Europe and Africa, many of our ancestors moved around the Caribbean or were brought to Borikén from other islands in the Caribbean. My mother’s maiden, Quirindongo, arrived in Puerto Rico from Curacao. Her mother’s french maiden name, Balestier, has me wondering if my maternal great grandfather arrive from Haiti, Guadeloupe or Martinique. Also hailing from my grandmother’s community of la Playa de Ponce, Puerto Rican artist who shares her last name (though with a more Castilian spelling) Diogenes Ballester speaks of how he grew up hearing his mother and tía saying “bon soir” versus “buenas noches”. But we’ve been socialized to believe that the Spanish speaking Caribbean holds a unique, separate place among the Antilles, a different demographic make-up than the other islands, right?
That concept, along with this idea of water “separating” us, is part of the myth of conquest. Such intricate webs of myths and lies keep a people colonized. All of our ancestors know well that water is healing and connectivity. The revelation comes in recognizing our ability to transcend the adversities of conquest and colonialism by heeding the lessons of the water herself, by channeling or being of the water. This healing is what opens the flow towards liberation. As taught to me by Borikén, I can’t just be from el charco. I can’t just dunk myself in water, travel on water, cross bodies of water, I must straight be water.
Our bodies, like this earth are 70% water. Before birthing my two sons, I carried them and nurtured them, protected within a safe salt water bubble in my womb. When I am sad, like all of you, I cry salt water. When I sweat, when we all sweat, it is salt water that seeps from our pores. We are all already water.
Water is connectivity. Water is the lessons of our ancestral water mother Atabey. Our indigenous ancestors of these Greater Antilles were navigators. For thousands of years they navigated from the continental shores of South America, of el Yucatan, of Bimini (up by Florida), along island chains of lucaya/ Bahamas and the smaller Antilles. Packing their canoas 100 deep, they navigated those waters and traded, exchanged, interconnected with other people, other waters, other lands. Indigenous remains on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques reveal a 4,000 year presence of our ancestors on these lands, but most history books start with another navigator named Columbus just a few centuries ago.
Water is the highway upon which our West African ancestors were forced to travel. Water is the refuge, the sanctuary they sought when they jumped, choosing to join their ancestors versus submit to the slavers. Water is the lessons of Yemaya and all the West African matriarchs who nurture us back whole. Water is the portal through which they safely transported all their traditions secular and sacred, protected and intact to pass on to us afro-descendants. Water is fluidity. Water is flowing when something has you contained so you seep out the seams and escape anyway. Water is practically being beaten to submission but you still rise like a tsunami to found the first free black republic of the Americas as did the land of indigenous warrior chief Anacaona: Ayití. Water is expansive.
One day while feeling sorry for myself, being made to feel by a certain some on this island as though I was not as intelligent, not as authentic for not having been born here, for not speaking a seamless Spanish, I came to a realization. All of my heroes who have fought for Borikén were, like me, charco crossers. Revolutionary/ physician/ abolitionist/ writer Ramon Emeterio Betances was sent from Puerto Rico to France at the age of 10. As a young adult he fought in the French Revolution. Having Dominican heritage he designed Puerto Rico’s first flag in solidarity with the flag of the Dominican Republic. He dreamed of an Antillean union that not only included the Spanish Speaking Caribbean but Haiti too. He traveled from New York to Spain to Paris to Haiti, Cuba, St Thomas. His pen name, el Antillano, highlighted his island-hopping, charcos-crossing self. Mayaguezano/ independence supporter/ sociologist/ and educator Eugenio Maria de Hostos spent a good portion of his time in the Dominican Republic with his remains still resting en la zona colonial de Santo Domingo. The Dominican government holds true to its promise that he will only return to Puerto Rico once it is liberated from US rule. With a German/ Puerto Rican father and St. Croix-born mother, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg was born black in Puerto Rico, where he challenged his teachers to affirm and celebrate the contributions of black people globally. Upon crossing el charco to NYC, he was immortalized as a hero of the Harlem Renaissance and the father of global black studies.
As a member of the Cuban Revolutionary Party he was in the room that day in New York in 1895 when the current Puerto Rican flag was designed in solidarity with the Cuban bandera. A little later Luisa Capetillo a boricua arrested in Cuba for wearing pants and “men’s” clothing arrived from Puerto Rico to Ybor City in Tampa Florida, a writer, an anarchist, a labor organizer to read literary classics, and messages on workers’ rights to the Spanish-speaking cigar rollers in the local factories. A little after that, Julia de Burgos traveled from Borikén to Cuba and to New York, which she hated but still used the opportunity to forward the message of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party and to document the plight of oppressed people globally through her poetry. Lolita Lebrón, born in Lares, altar de la patria, on el día de la puertorriqueñidad, before leading an armed protest in Washington in 1954, traveled to New York where she worked in the garment industry. Vieques activist Carmelo Felix Matta worked as a cop in St. Croix where he met his Boricua wife Maria, born on the other side of another charco. They got married, returned to Vieques and started taking back lands stolen by the US Navy to build their home and a community in the area now called Monte Carmelo, named after him.
None of these folks had frequent flyer miles, cell phones, tablets or social media around. Schomburg’s research did not happen on Google. Lacking the amenities and technological advances that we celebrate today, or that we are too dependent on today, they sought the highest of resources as charco-crossers, embodying the connectivity, fluidity and expansiveness to be found when we flow like water. Their effectiveness, their reach, their selflessness and sacrifice was and is an embodiment of what happens when we transcend and make like water to simultaneously touch all lands, all peoples, all coasts, all the isles of our own selves. They are the greatness from which we come. They are the greatness we all carry within and are all capable of manifesting.
As a continued colony of the US, Puerto Ricans stand in solidarity with colonized people globally. Within the US itself we continue to be, as are First Nation/ Indigenous people and African Americas, a colonized nation within a nation. We are all fighting for liberation on one front or another. We see the seizing of Detroit and similar cities for corporate control of Great Lakes’ fresh water. We see the poisoning of water in Flint. We see the injustices and human rights violations against water protectors in Standing Rock. They continue to commodify, bottle and sell back to us the most available resource on this earth. They arrest our youth for selling it because the dollars are supposed to be theirs alone. We saw a natural disaster manipulated to flood, then seize, New Orleans. They continue to use water as a weapon of war and they say that World War III will be fought over water. How then, can we the conquered, the colonized, who learned the sanctity of water through our ancestors, not embrace water as a resource, but also as a tool for liberation?
Lets tap into this inner resource of water, tap into its wells of infinite wisdom to consider possibilities for fluidity, connectivity, expansion and transcendence in our lives and work. If water is the source and the mother, how do we mother ourselves and each other? Individual and collective healing from the continued traumas of colonialism and conquest are fundamental to our survival, our ability to thrive, our effectiveness in our work. What is fundamental is an affirmation to claim, receive and give decolonial love. What is fundamental, prior to decolonizing Puerto Rico or any place is the decolonization of our own selves. Lets identify those inner and outer spaces where fear has come to replace love. Lets wash these colonially contaminated areas out with salt water, allowing healing and love to flow in. What greater tool is there in a liberation struggle if love, like water, is fluid, expansive, ungovernable and impossible to contain? By embodying these very elements we too can flow free like water.
The above is an adaptation and expanding on my presentation for the June 2017 Puerto Rico panel during the Puerto Rico/ Detroit Solidarity Exchange at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit.