Let’s keep the sacred sacred. Sacrilege goes down where people trample lands oblivious to the sacred things that happened there, the sacrifices and struggles fought there, the traumas suffered there and the valiant spirit that triumphed there. This day, on this land, is sacred. Scan this island however and it is business as usual for most. Most except the town of Jayuya, framed in mountain peaks awaiting the rising sun, carved by the wild cane-lined Río Saliente, in which sits the famed piedra-escrita, carved with
centuries-old indigenous images of divinity, our ancestors, and creatures native to this land. In this place, on this day in 1950, Blanca Canales led the revolution. They departed from the portones of her family’s property. They set out to proclaim a free republic, to liberate the colony from the yoke of US colonialism. They raised our flag which had been illegal under US rule. They were our Nationalists.
Lately, there has been much negative talk about nationalists and nationalism thanks to a particular contemporary figure that gives everything a bad name. Not to mention a grim history of crimes against humanity under the “nationalism” banner. But ours were a different breed of nationalists. They came not to impose a perceive superiority over others or to oppress, subjugate others. They simply were claiming their right to have, to affirm their nation, our nation, and to have international presence and voice like other nations. Ramón Emeterio Betances, in the 19th century, had tried with the Grito de Lares revolution. The republic was proclaimed, but unsecured. A little under a century later, the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party tried again. Though it is known as the Jayuya Revolution, revolts took place in various towns across the main island. The US government responded by arresting thousands and bombing the towns of Jayuya and Utuado.
Another town involved in the revolution was Peñuelas, where my maternal grandfather was from. He and my grandmother had just left a few days before the revolution and boarded a plane to New York City with my aunts and uncles and my mom who was just one-year old. Others can speak to the heroic story of their relatives as combatants, as revolutionaries. My grandfather was a different revolutionary, an espiritista who
worked to heal the sick and help the afflicted in Ponce and later in Brooklyn. He charged no money for his services, which people could not understand so they insisted on bringing him gifts in gratitude for the help they received from him. What might have been his fate if he hadn’t left? Might I have been born?
But on that day of revolution my father was a lil chamaquito in Ponce. His oldest brother remembered having seen the horrors of the 1937 colonial massacre near the plaza on the corner of calles Marina y Aurora. My father grew up as a boy during the time of the Nationalists. By the time he too left to Brooklyn, where his brothers and sisters had already traveled to, already a working man at the age of 16, he brought with him all the pride and fighting spirit taught to him by the Nationalists. When I too was 16, in drives to and from my high school, in those West Side Highway drives, he passed their stories on to me. I have been painting and writing them ever since.
We suffer a slow spirit death when our histories are omitted from our classrooms, our textbooks, our oral histories, our hearts, our minds. Enter the likes of Lin Manuel Miranda who descended on this sacred earth of Jayuya, land of caciques, behiques and revolutionaries, a few days before this sacred anniversary, escorting a nice slice of corporate America. Claiming to be saving the local coffee industry, disaster capitalism set foot on this sacred earth in colonial desecration. Not knowing, not honoring our history is hella dangerous territory. It leaves us celebrating the heroes and tenets of our colonizers, while stomping on the graves of our own. It is not dollars we are needing, but dignity.
There are sacred days on which nothing should happen if it doesn’t start with honoring what took place here. By the end of that revolution launched on October 30th, 1950, two thousand people had been arrested. Several towns had been bombed. The 1948 Ley 53, the gag law that banned any support of Puerto Rican independence, banned the waving of our flag, the singing of our anthem, was used to round up the revolutionaries and anyone else for that matter.
We still call our Nationalists criminals. What do we speak? Do we speak from our hearts with the inherent wisdom of our ancestors, or do we speak as the marionettes of our ventriloquist colonizers who criminalized our freedom fighters, rounded them up like cattle at gun point and arrested them? Or what of the death march of half-naked men paraded at dawn through the cold mountain roads of Utuado, lined-up, shot/ executed, their bloody corpses left in the street to be consumed by stray dogs. This happened here. This is what happened to our freedom fighters. We call our Nationalists criminals, our freedom fighters criminals and then celebrate those Puerto Ricans who we deem as successful in the US economy. Are they really successful or are they merely demonstrating the success of a self-perpetual colonial system that smothers our desire for liberation, throwing us bones to pacify us, conform us and put us to work for the colonizer. Hence the only solution offered by those publicly proclaiming to be helping is the corporate production/ packaging/ selling of our coffee, with creepy Monsanto “climate resistant” seeds nonetheless.
Once upon another colonial time, our coffee was of the highest quality. Our coffee was prized among the European elites that many vendepatrias seek to impress. Our coffee was the preferred coffee of the Vatican prior to the US invasion. The US came in and destroyed our agricultural economy, imposing instead the mono-crop of sugar for American corporations. All else fell to the wayside. How else does a rich, tropical, fertile land arrive at importing over 80% of its food?
I wonder what economic and historical context Lin Manuel, his dad and the folks at Hispanic Federation used to negotiate the terms of this multimillion-dollar coffee contract on our land of heroes. I wonder what local agricultores will be petitioned for this project. I wonder how many of their native seeds, inherited from the seeds sown by their great grandfathers’ hands will be trashed and replaced with laboratory seeds. I wonder if this is less than a charitable effort to rebuild a supposedly devastated crop or a corporate capitalist experiment of more bang for your buck, using, yet again, our people and our lands as labs. I wonder if they care that the real success of agriculture is a diversity of crops growing in harmony on the same soils, each nurturing, protecting, co-habiting, co-existing, exchanging resources as we people should be doing. I wonder if Lin Manuel, in between his investigations and research on Hamilton, has read on the economic history of these lands, the damage caused by US colonialism, more crippling than the hurricanes. I wonder if an epic hip-[h]opera on Blanca Canales, Pedro Albizu Campos or Ramón Emeterio Betances would be equally celebrated by the people of the US, or like so many of our artists, might just land Lin Manuel a government surveillance file and jail time or no attention at all.
We must choose carefully. Many of us are still choosing to distrust our own people. Many of us are still calling on the colonizer to come in and police the puppet government they’ve put in place. Many of us are still heralding the colonizer, celebrating their already celebrated stories. Are we choosing as colonial subjects or are we choosing as liberated spirits? When does choice become an act of free thinking and intelligence, an expression of liberation? When do we collectively make the shift?
As Albizu asked, ¿O yanqui, o puertorriqueño?