Since January 16th, a team of AgitArte artists and collaborators have been hard at work in Casa-Taller creating the scroll project, a participatory art object and cultural response to Hurricane Maria that tells the story of U.S. imperialism through the lens of the current economic and environmental state of Puerto Rico and its diaspora.
Artwork by/Arte por Emily Simons for AgitArte, 2017
“I took a call from Dey and Jorge shortly after the storm. I had been worrying about them and was relieved to hear their voices, though heartbroken to hear the stress and exhaustion and overwhelm in between their words, which were encouraging me to create a map to show and clarify the political moment of post-Maria reality.
From media coverage of the storm and its aftermath, I pieced together several core truths revealed by Hurricane Maria and the supporting realities that uphold them, focusing mostly on disaster capitalism, the context of US imperialism in the Caribbean, and the US-imposed economic austerity that has wreaked havoc in Puerto Rico in recent years.
After several rounds of candlelit feedback from folks in Santurce, and many days of conversation with the team that would be taking a much deeper dive by making a decolonial scroll in the months to come, I set down some quick illustrations to those truths. Mapped radially, these truths require the viewer to flip the image (or themselves!) upside down to grasp the full picture.”
-Reflection by Emily Simons
“Recibí una llamada de Jorge y Dey poco después de la tormenta. Estaba preocupada por ellas, y me tranquilizó escuchar sus voces, aunque con el corazón roto al oír la tensión, el agotamiento y el agobio en ellas. Esto me motivó a crear un mapa para mostrar y clarificar la situación política de la realidad post-María.
Tomando de la cobertura mediática de la tormenta y sus consecuencias, reconstruí varias verdades fundamentales reveladas por el huracán María y las realidades que las sostienen, centrándome principalmente en el capitalismo del desastre, el contexto del imperialismo estadounidense en el Caribe y la austeridad económica impuesta por Estados Unidos, que ha causado estragos en Puerto Rico en los últimos años.
Después de varias rondas de comentarios a la luz de las velas por parte de la gente en Santurce, y de muchos días de conversación con el equipo que se zabulliría mucho más profundamente en los próximos meses cuando hicieran un “scroll” decolonial, hice algunas ilustraciones rápidas de esas verdades. Dibujadas del centro hacia afuera, estas verdades requieren que el espectador gire la imagen (¡o a ellos mismos!) al revés para captarla completamente.”
-Reflexión de Emily Simons
AgitArte’s Artistic Director, Jorge Díaz talks to Lewis Wallace for Scalawag about the links between the current crisis and the island’s colonial history—and how art and cultural work are a part of combating white supremacy.
Southerners Combating White Supremacy Profile #1
Jorge Diaz is the Artistic Director of AgitArte, Inc., an arts and cultural organization in Puerto Rico that does what it calls “cultural solidarity with grassroots struggles against oppression.”
Scalawag initially reached Jorge for another story when he was scrambling to get resources into Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria in September. As of the time of publication, many parts of the U.S. territory had gone without water and electricity for six or more weeks following the storm’s catastrophic strike on the island. In early November a Puerto Rican oversight board told Congress that the island needed “unprecedented help” from the federal government in order to recover. The crises include lack of food, clean water, health care and housing.
“I’m just trying to figure out how to move more resources,” Jorge said by phone. “It’s a difficult time because there’s a lot of opportunism around Puerto Rico, and trying to figure out how to make sure that all the resources get out to folks.”
Jorge talked to Scalawag about the links between the current crisis and the island’s colonial history—and how art and cultural work are a part of combating white supremacy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Lewis Wallace, Scalawag: You have talked about how Puerto Rico is part of the U.S. South, geographically but also in terms of the politics and culture. Can you explain what you mean?
Jorge Diaz: Puerto Rico is the southernmost border of the United States. That’s something that’s not usually talked about. If you look at the level of income and poverty in Puerto Rico, it’s very similar to many states in the South. Puerto Rico shares the kind of poverty and neglect by the federal government characterized by conservative states, and the same neoliberal policies and practices have been applied to Puerto Rico, the difference being that we are a straight-up colony, which is not the same situation. We’ve been an invaded country since 1898. Legislation policies, military presence, and underdevelopment have all played a part in making Puerto Rico dependent.
LW: Tell me about the work you are doing right now in Puerto Rico and how it relates to the overall struggle against white supremacy in the U.S.
JD: We’re a cultural solidarity organization that does work in Puerto Rico and the U.S. to increase other organizations’ capacity in cultural organizing, specifically around arts. But right now, the work we have been doing is relief work. Because we’re a non-profit, we’ve been approached by a lot of other people to be a fiscal conduit to get resources to folks on the ground. We’ve been doing a fiscal campaign and direct relief work, through the support centers, or what we might call centers of mutual support. These include collective kitchens, brigades to clean and clear up paths and start rebuilding in the mountains. We’ve also done cultural programming workshops, and other cultural activities in mutual support centers. In Spanish it’s Centros de Apoyo Muto, which translates as mutual support or solidarity. And we’ve been doing visual work around the catastrophe.
How does this relate to white supremacy? We have to look at it in the context of colonization, and how the practice and policies that are happening in Puerto Rico right now with FEMA and the U.S. military are because we are seen as second-class citizens. Puerto Ricans belong to this colony and have a citizenship that’s not the same as others born in the U.S. Our incapacity to run our government, and our treatment by the US, through the Monroe Doctrine and the idea that Puerto Ricans cannot govern ourselves, that’s based on white supremacy.
The treatment that we’ve gotten on the island is the same as [what] Black folks have seen after Katrina. The idea that we are an inferior race allows the U.S. government to do whatever they want. This white supremacist ideology is what allows them to continue to impose colonial power over us.
LW: What’s the importance of the cultural work you are doing, and why focus on that cultural work right now in Puerto Rico?
JD: All work is cultural work. But when we talk about cultural work in the context of art and media, we’re talking about trying to shift hegemony. People talk about shifting narratives but I think it’s more than narratives. If we’re talking about how the construction of race happens through cultural work and arts, whether it’s books, media, textbooks—all these different ways in which we learn how we look at the world, in which we shape how we think of our identities in terms of race and class—we have to have a counterproposal to that hegemony.
In our work it looks like public art, it looks like puppetry, it looks like popular education and street theater, because that’s what we have access to. If we’re going to look at a liberatory process, we have to open up those narratives. The way this society is established culturally is through access to power and the capacity to construct what the U.S. is. If we are talking about transforming it, we have to talk about cultural work that’s going to go hand in hand with the political and economic work to transform the society.
LW: How do you define white supremacy? This is something we’re asking various people as part of this series.
JD: We tend to forget about the structural white supremacy, that creates the conditions for racism in this country. White supremacy plays out in different ways, but ideologically it’s this construct of whiteness that is also tied to place, and tied to the U.S. being this superior country in the world. Being white is the construction of not only skin color, but of a whole nationality and imperial construct, which then folks can buy into at different levels. That’s why we see a lot of working class white folk buying into whiteness, because they don’t have any other access to the American dream. So they hang onto this concept of whiteness and the American Dream.
White supremacy looks like patriotism, patriarchy, and racism in the U.S. And then beyond U.S. borders, and in the Caribbean, it also has the sense of “we are the ones who are going to implement democracy as we see fit all over the world.”
It starts with the hatred of Black folks, and anti-Blackness. Being Black is seen as the worst thing in this country. But it also plays out internationally, looking at Black nations as inferior. White supremacy in the U.S. is tied to these structures of power, and militarization is the way in which it plays out, whether it be police or actual military.
LW: How is white supremacy showing up now, in the Puerto Rican recovery effort?
JD: I am careful to separate white supremacy from other practices related to economic extraction. What’s happening in Puerto Rico is a continuation of what’s happened forever here. There’s a very imperialist attitude of not understanding the needs of folks on the ground. White supremacy facilitates that process of being like, ‘oh those lazy Puerto Ricans, oh, those immigrants.’ White supremacy allows the discourse to not happen, for Puerto Rico to not matter.
A friend of mine who’s a bartender heard a military guy at the bar called Puerto Rico the bastard son of the United States. The idea of the bastard is also tied to race. The bastards are the Black or mulatto or indigenous folks who had a kid with Europeans. If you look at all the images, cartoons of U.S. invading Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans are picaninnies, they are caricatures. This is part of a larger structure in which we belong to a caste of inferior folks that don’t have access as a people to that supposed American dream, and that construction of whiteness that’s a promise of this country.
LW: What is most important for people not on the island to know about what you are up to?
JD: We’re not a relief organization. For us, being a cultural solidarity organization means that food and water is at the basis of cultural work, of our survival. We’re doing this work to support the basic needs of folks, but the intention is to build a kind of popular power that can contest the neoliberal practices and colonial practices of disaster capitalism on the island. Puerto Rico needs to be decolonized, and that means that Puerto Rico needs to develop capacity and get the hands off from the U.S., so we can be free.
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Faced with the collapse of the State and the abuses of FEMA in post-Maria Puerto Rico, we have organized ourselves in self-managed spaces around the Island known as Centros de Apoyo Mutuo (Mutual Support Centers + CAM). In addition to providing support to overcome urgent needs in the communities, we promote their empowerment and create discussion spaces to generate critical thinking and the understanding that we are facing a political disaster that is even more dangerous than the natural disaster.
In CAM, the following 3 main functions are organized:
* Social dining rooms where we serve food prepared for free.
* Collection centers where we collect local and diaspora aid to distribute in the communities according to need.
* Permanent Solidarity Brigades to open roads by force of ax and machete; and support in agriculture and housing reconstruction.
Some CAMs also offer the services of popular health clinics, cultural activities, community garden workshops and education for children. We are located in Caguas, Río Piedras, Mayagüez, Humacao, Utuado, Lares, Naranjito and Old San Juan.
We are not in a Shock State. We are organizing to combat the onslaught of disaster capitalism and its henchmen. Help us with your donation!!!
Support + Donate to Our Extended Family & Networks:
AgitArte Build-Solidarity-map-pr.pdf https://goo.gl/eYG6X9
Last night, we exchanged with local organizers and movement builders (Karla Rosas from Congreso and Angela Kinlaw from Take ‘Em Down NOLA) in New Orleans for a When We Fight, We Win! book event and update on the status of Puerto Rico post-Hurricane Maria, now under US military occupation.
Hosted by the Community Book Center and emceed by the amazing Paulina Helm-Hernandez, AgitArte Board Member and Special Projects Director of Southerners On New Ground (SONG), the event included a call-in from AgitArte Founder and Artistic Director Jorge Díaz Ortiz who is organizing on the ground in Puerto Rico with many others, feeding hundreds per day and providing space and leadership for ground-up mutual aid in Puerto Rico. Dey Hernandez, AgitArte Project Coordinator / Designer and Art Director of When We Fight, We Win! shared ways folks can join and support AgitArte’s work, and read a moving piece about her experience since the storm hit her country two weeks ago.
In the next few days, AgitArte will be meeting with folks who experienced and organized in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to build solidarity and gather resources and knowledge to share with our people in Puerto Rico.
Thank you to all who joined us in New Orleans!
Nunca hemos estado bajo ilusión sobre este momento político. Desde el día de la elección en el 2016, hemos estado preparándonos y desarrollando una estrategia para el incremento en la violencia racial descarada que se ha manifestado, la cual está perpetuada por individuos y el estado. La semana pasada, la seguridad de miles de personas que se escapaban de las aguas crecientes en Texas se puso en peligro debido a la ejecución insensible e innecesaria de retenes de inmigración. El día de ayer, Trump enfatizó su agenda racista al desencadenar otra tormenta de devastación en inmigrantes jóvenes al rescindir DACA y reemplazarla con la incertidumbre y el injusto estado de derecho. Estamos solidarixs con millones de sureñxs y gente de alrededor del país demandando una vía justa para la residencia legal y ciudadanía, y acabar con este régimen supremacista blanco que no es sólo anti-inmigrante, sino también explícitamente anti-negrx, anti-pobre, anti-queer, y anti-trans.
A nuestra membresía, nuestra familia, política y nuestra base: luchamos por DACA porque creemos en la plena inclusión de todas las personas en la gestión pública y la auto-determinación para millones de personas de nuestra familia indocumentada. Entendimos que DACA era una oportunidad – práctica y política – para amortiguar contra la cultura del miedo impuesta en nuestra existencia diaria por el estado. Pero nunca hemos olvidado que esta lucha es para la liberación de TODXS nosotrxs, y que nuestro mandato es acabar con la criminalización racial, supremacía blanca, y violencia de género. Hemos luchado por la auto-determinación en cada esfera de nuestra vidas públicas y privadas; sabemos lo que se necesita para organizarnos por nuestra seguridad y dignidad cada día.
Hacemos un llamado a las instituciones privadas y públicas, así como al liderazgo local, estatal y nacional de solidarizarse con nuestras comunidades en resistencia y luchar a nuestro lado para anular esta cínica maniobra política. Hace mucho tiempo que finalizó el tiempo para la timidez y la política de respetabilidad. Ahora es el tiempo de renovar el compromiso para luchar para y defendernos a nosotrxs, nuestras familias, y a nuestrxs camaradas.
We have never been confused about this political moment. Since Election Day 2016, we have been preparing and strategizing for the increase in unapologetic race-based violence – perpetuated by individuals and the state – that has come to pass. Last week, the safety of the thousands fleeing the rising waters in Texas was jeopardized by the callous and unnecessary enforcement of immigration checkpoints. Yesterday, Trump doubled down on his racist agenda in unleashing another storm of devastation on young immigrants by rescinding DACA and replacing it with uncertainty and the rule of unjust law. We stand with the millions of Southerners and people across this country demanding a fair path to legal residency and citizenship, and an end to this white supremacist political regime that is not only anti-immigrant, but also explicitly anti-Black, anti-poor, anti-queer, and anti-trans.
To our membership, political family, and base: we fought for DACA because we believe in the full inclusion of all peoples in governance and in self-determination for millions of our undocumented kinfolk. We understood DACA as an opportunity – practical and political – to buffer against the culture of fear imposed upon our daily existence by the state. But we have never forgotten that this struggle is about liberation for ALL of us, that our mandate is to end racialized criminalization, white supremacy, and gender based violence. We have fought for self-determination in every sphere of our public and private lives; we know what is required to organize for our safety and dignity every day.
We call on private and public institutions, along with local, state and national political leadership to stand with our communities in resistance and to fight alongside us to overturn this cynical political maneuver. The time for timidity and respectability politics has long been over. Now is the time to renew commitment to fight for and defend ourselves, our families, our neighbors, and our comrades.
#HereToStay #DefendDACA #EndMoneyBail #Endpolimigra
Building off the success of the book When We Fight, Twenty-First-Century Social Movements and the Activists That Are Transforming Our World, AgitArte presents the book’s Arts & Culture Tour highlighting the artwork featured in the book, as well as new cultural projects and artistic productions of struggle and solidarity. The tour launches next week with the inauguration of a mural in Chicago dedicated to Oscar López Rivera, freedom for political prisoners and dismantling the Prison Industrial Complex.
The mural, ‘Oscar, somos la marejada de la liberación’, ‘Oscar, we are the groundswell of liberation’ is a collaboration between The Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Chicago and AgitArte, and it is sponsored by When We Fight We Win and El Puente in Brooklyn.
The metaphor of the sea in the title to the mural refers to a letter Oscar wrote to his granddaughter while he was in prison, in which he makes reference to missing the smell of the sea and being able to feel it on his lips. He concludes by stating that he probably will have to wait years to be able to finally be in it again.
Now Oscar is free and we are making a mural to celebrate his freedom. The title is directed for Oscar, and inspired by his resilience and faith in freedom. But we also use the metaphor to answer the calling he made to us in AgitArte’s workshop in Santurce PR weeks ago, to fight for the freedom of political prisoners who are still behind bars. We, a sea of people are essential for the tidal wave of freedom to tear down the oppressive systems which exploit and colonize us.
The mural was designed by Osvaldo Budet Melendez and illustrated by José ‘Primo’ Hernández for AgitArte. The painting of the mural is being led by Osvaldo Budet with community members and artists including Jose “Primo Hernández” Estefania Rivera and Xavier Arzola.
‘Oscar, we are the groundswell of liberation’ will be inaugurated on Friday, September 1st to kick off the annual Fiesta Boricua, in the historical Paseo Boricua, heart of the Puerto Rican community in Chicago.
Join us for a press conference at 11am on 2729-2731 Division St., and shortly after, the When We Fight We Win Arts and Culture Tour kick-off. A storytelling presentation based on the mural will be performed by Puerto Rico based theater group Papel Machete.
We will also be joined by community leaders and organizers speaking to the importance of freeing political prisoners and our educational, organizing and visionary efforts to end the prison industrial complex.
Oscar will join us for the celebration of this commemoratory mural and the Festival throughout the weekend. Come celebrate with us this special moment and join us in the chant of victory and title to our book: ¡Cuando luchamos, ganamos!
JOIN US IN CHICAGO!
WHAT: Mural unveiling & performance by AgitArte | Papel Machete
WHEN: Friday, August 25, 11am
WHERE: Outside of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center – 2739 W. Division St. • Chicago, IL 60622
AgitArte artists Jorge Díaz Ortiz and José “Primo” Hernández designed “Climate Denier” signs used during the People’s Climate March in Washington DC on April 29th. This project was developed as part of AgitArte’s series of cultural projects presented alongside When We Fight, We Win!
See our work featured in The Washington Post!
*Photo by Brady Dennis / The Washington Post