On “Colonial Memory and the Crime of Rhetoric”

I just read an article titled “Colonial Memory and the Crime of Rhetoric: Pedro Albizu Campos” recently published in College English. It was written by one of my high esteemed advisors back in graduate school at Washington State University. The author is Victor Villanueva, an English professor in pursuit of a lost memory, a man recovering his culture, his past. He wrote it while facing the feelings that arise from exile, estrangement from one’s culture and history due to racism and racialization in the United States. But what is perhaps more interesting is that Villanueva tries to understand something about himself through the figure of Pedro Albizu Campos, the radical leader of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party in the thirties.

The article is great. Villanueva is undeniably a very good writer. The article was inspiring.  Yet, reading the essay was also disquieting. It forced me to confront my own memories and the alienation that comes with being a colonial subject, a very difficult thing to do. After reading it I too wanted to understand more about myself. But before going into that, I also want to share a memory, the story of an encounter with Albizu, or rather with his photographic image.

You should know that Albizu is not only a martyr of the Puerto Rican nationalist movement but he is also a powerful icon for many Puerto Ricans, and not only to adepts of the Puerto Rican independence movement. Other Puerto Ricans honor him as well. There are many schools and streets named after him all over the island. You can also find all sorts of merchandise with Albizu’s words, most coming from his subversive speeches. Many songs and poems have been written to honor him.  And, you can find his picture everywhere. And I mean everywhere; even in places when you least expect it. Don’t believe me? Well, believe it. Here’s the story. The other day while visiting Fort Buchanan I came across a stand located outside one of the main stores in the fort. The owner was selling old pictures of Puerto Rican towns and landmarks, some dating back to early 20th century. And there, among hundreds of old pictures, there were various copies of an old black and white picture of Albizu.  I was definitively stunned. I hold a copy and even considered buying it.  Imagine that, a picture of Albizu in Fort Buchanan, a sign of American colonial power over the island, a very real sign of American imperialism. The event confirms that, as Villanueva noted, here remains, even in our photographed memories, this man, a “man who had a revolutionary force and no revolution,” a force present even in a U.S. military base.

Memories are one of Villanuevas’ main concerns. And remembering my past was the product of reading his essay. I couldn’t avoid recollecting memories of my past in the United States. I spent eight years in the metropolis, a time when, like Villanueva, I often felt alienated from my culture and from the people around me. Besides being racialized I also faced the separation from my people and culture, the product of circular migration. Trust me; it is very difficult for a Puerto Rican in the Wheatland not to feel alienated. Keep in mind that there only a few Boricuas there. I also recall that returning home meant recovering memories, recovering a past, remembering who I was. It even meant rediscovering what was once familiar. And what is disquieting is that I’m still recovering and rediscovering.  Even in Puerto Rico I often feel estranged from my own culture, history and people. Thus like Villanueva I am also recovering my culture but also my sense of belonging, my identity.

My attempts to recover the past, to recover from amnesia, are driven, first, by a desire to define and assert a national identity, one tied to a profound sense of belonging to the Puerto Rican community.  But it is also driven by what José Juan Rodríguez Vázquez calls “eI sueño que no cesa” (the dream that won’t die away): the assertion of an independent Puerto Rico as a historical possibility.  But the dream often feels unfeasible. Moreover, that sense of belonging is not always there. Often, I repeat, I feel estranged from my culture, history and people. And sometimes I don’t even want to recover the past. And what is worse, I don’t always love Puerto Rico. Sometimes, I simply want to forget my nationality, my culture, my history.  And the sense of belonging is lost in space. And sometimes I simply hate this island. Consequently, it is at times difficult to hold on to the dream.  And it is when I fell like that that I found myself longing exile. I want to leave the island and go far, far away from this place. Why? There are very personal and professional reasons for leaving the island. I won’t bore you with those. But there are other more important reasons, some of which have a lot to do with alienation.

Today, Puerto Rico is hardly the “shinning star of the Caribbean” or an enchanting place. Actually, it never was. The island is still a U.S. colony, one severely and intensely exploited by capital.  And the economy is not doing well at all. In addition, the island is run by corrupted and incompetent politicians who have done their part to ruin the country.  A mass radical movement with the potential of bringing about needed changes is simply nonexistent. To hope for a resurfacing of a nationalist movement is way too optimistic. What’s left of the movement is not longer inspiring or capable of successfully mobilizing the masses beyond some small protests here and there.  The independence and/or anti-colonial movement is too fragmented and weak. The socialist movement does not move at all. And the working class is too committed to and dependent on the system. Confronted with that picture I find myself disappointed, disenchanted, disillusioned, unmotivated.  Needless to say, I am deeply pessimistic about the future of Puerto Rico.

For the common folk, and that includes me, life in the island is hard. It’s exhausting and tense. The violent, aggressive, chaotic, and mad urban life one deals with daily is taking a toll on most Puerto Ricans, including me.  The quality of life is continuously deteriorating and services, including basic water and energy services, are simply mediocre. And not to mention that every fucking day one is either harassed by insane and careless drivers or surrounded by zombie-like consumers at shopping malls. And everywhere you go you are bombarded with ads inviting you to buy something. Poverty, unemployment and inequality continue to increase while the environment is ruined and public access to nature, including beaches, limited. Violence against women is as rampant as ever and the “ola criminal” is now as big as a tsunami wave. Meanwhile, politicians simply ignore the public, aligned, of course, with neo-liberal capital. Democracy is nothing but a memory.  And religious fundamentalists, increasingly popular, are moving against everything they consider “evil,” with gays and lesbians as their preferred targets. Hence and when one really thinks about Puerto Rico today one finally grasps why Eduardo Seda Bonilla once described the island as a jueyera. For him, Puerto Rico was a place filled with a bunch of alienated, aggressive, and disorganized crabs. Therefore, it is not at all shocking that some of us, deeply estranged, simply want to go away.  That’s why every now and then I simply want to forget all about Puerto Rico. I want to wipe out my memories and enjoy amnesia. I want to be in exile, somewhere far from all this nonsense.

I want to leave but I’m still here. What stops me? I still have some little hope left. It’s not much but it is still there, feeding a “concrete utopia.” A part of me won’t let me go nor quit. That part still holds on to the very dream that won’t cease to exist. It also holds on to another dream, the possibility of a post-capitalist Puerto Rico, a more just Puerto Rico.  And that little hope forces me to stay and somehow struggle for a better Puerto Rico. Maybe, like Albizu, I can use words to confront the status quo. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll become an insurgent crab.

And the crab is troubled. Like I said, reading Villanueva’s article was disquieting. But I am thankful to Victor. Reading his essay gave me the opportunity to consider and reconsider my own experiences with exile, alienation and memories, and more importantly, to consider their intricate connections to my troubling present. And here I am a neo-colonial subject, an alienated crab, a sociology professor, no revolutionary, needing to understand something of my past and something of my present, while hoping to build a better future, a free Puerto Rico.

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3 Responses to “On “Colonial Memory and the Crime of Rhetoric””

  1. Melissa Hussain Says:

    Wow, Jose, I just read your blog piece. Thanks for these powerful words. I am sure you are making a difference where it is sorely needed, despite the feeling of being an “alienated crab” (love this expression!). Having lived in Bangladesh for two years, I can tell you that the conditions there are much the same as Puerto Rico. If you’re interested in fleshing out this post a bit, I know that we would love to publish this in the “Our Globe” section of _Meghbarta: An Online Forum for Activism_: http://www.meghbarta.org/nws/nw_main_p01a.php?issueId=6&sectionId=26
    What do you think?
    –Melissa

  2. jose anazagasty Says:

    Hola Melissa. Thanks for your words and for the invitation. I”ll give it a try and send you something as soon as I can. Right now, I’m working on two articles but as soon as I’m done with those I”ll start working on the post again.

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