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.