In memoriam Matilde Rodríguez Pérez (1934-2020)
Qe los cuentos de la abuela
de “en aqeyos tiempos de ante”
son los tiempos de aqí alante
disfrasaos con ropa nueba.
Marcelino and the Never-ending Work Shift
In 1918, tobacco represented the second most important export of Puerto Rico after sugar cane. Its production continued expanding until imported cigarettes took over during the 1930s, causing a devastating decline in the Island’s tobacco production2. By the mid 1940s, my great-grandfather, Marcelino Rodríguez, was a living fossil of the colonial Puerto Rican economy. Due to his birthplace and social upbringing, Marcelino had learned every single step of the tobacco economy, from the agricultural phase to its production and the curation of the crop. By default, his children learned the trade from an early age, as well. Marcelino was not a land or farm owner. His family belonged to the socioeconomic class of the agregados – that is, the bottom echelon in the workforce hierarchy who lived on a plantation as part of the remnants of the nineteenth century Spanish economy of African slavery, followed by notebook labor and wage labor3. It did not matter that the government’s land reforms of the time granted Marcelino a parcela, or land plot4, to build a small home for his children. This was not an indicator of significant progress, nor did it bring financial stability. Success was far away for any member of the working class.
Regularly, Marcelino boarded the now disappeared train from Barceloneta to San Juan during a time in which both locations were so distant, Borikén seemed to be three times its size. As a middleman in the tobacco economy, he spent the week in Barrio Obrero selling his product. There was no romance in Marcelino’s travels. The melody of Lamento Borincano5 did not occupy his mind. Marcelino’s reality kept him far from entertaining a popular song of the time. There was neither past in his memory nor future on the horizon, only a constant present. Marcelino’s wife, Masimina Pérez, died young, leaving seven children behind to care for. Thus, Marcelino’s most productive week at Barrio Obrero was not enough to meet the needs of his children. Neither was it enough to undo the family disruption that resulted from Masimina’s death. From early on, the children had to join the workforce. My grandmother Matilde became a domestic servant at age eleven. She had to bring a younger sibling to live in the house that became both her work and domicile. The older siblings had to migrate to the tomato fields in Utah, the factories in Chicago, and Nuevayol.
The circumstances of Marcelino’s life were parallel to the entire rural workforce in Puerto Rico. The 1940s are known to be a time of stark contradictions. The Island had hardly recovered from the social, political, and economic troubles of the 1930s6, 7, 8, which brought the Island economy close to collapse9. With the beginning of World War II, all imports and exports of the Island were affected to such a degree that the danger of starvation was a possibility for the Boricua working class10. During this time, most programs funded by Roosevelt’s New Deal, which were developed under the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration (PRRA) were on their way to failure. The Puerto Rico Glass Corporation and the Pulp and Paper Corporation, two of the most relevant industrial projects of the PRRA, are clear examples of how the oppressive dynamics of the colonialist policies of the United States, the hostility from capitalist private enterprises, and the colonial political opposition collided to sabotage government-run programs that could have brought some economic relief to a colonized country in crisis.11 It is not surprising that the demise of the economic relief programs of the time came from the same colonizing government body that funded it in the first place. Later work by economic historians reveal that the great majority of the funds spent in all of PRRA programs were funneled back into the United States economy12.
The 1940s ended, and with them, the hopes of generations of workers who were impacted by the power of colonialism and all its forms of oppression. The first fifty years of United States rule proved to be a continuation of the interventionist practices that plagued the Puerto Rican people for 400 years under Spanish rule until 1898. The absentee white-collar brutality of the United States colonialism13, the predatory power of capitalist corporations in the agricultural fields14, the servitude of colonial political parties15, and their mafia-like enterprises formed a maraña16 of power dynamics that stymied Puerto Ricans in their ability to express and exercise their own will as a people.
The journey of struggle and suffering that Puerto Ricans endured for the first fifty-two years of United States occupation went on as if it never happened. All the abuses in the sugar cane fields, the political repression against pro-independence ideology, the sterilizing campaigns on women, these events that scarred Puerto Ricans for generations until present, were subjects that rarely made the headlines in the United States press. The American colonization brought an additional layer of isolation. Beyond the automatic isolation Puerto Rico is subject to due to its condition as an island in the eastern-most corner of the Caribbean, the island is also politically marginalized through its removal from the discourse that took place in the media from the beginning of the occupation. This isolation, perpetrated by the power of media and the ways in which history is documented, persists today in many forms, including language, the sanitization of historical facts, and other invisible barriers that result in acts of usurpation.
The acts of resistance against the power of United States colonialism of the 1950s through violence were a testament to the suffering that persisted for decades before. The promises of self-government of the time were not a reason for relief, but a reason for uprising in 195017. For Marcelino, and so many rural workers, life had continued without a day of rest, without time to reflect about the political turmoil around them.
The Real Taste of Piña Colada
One typical morning in the 1960s, my uncle Saturnino, a pineapple-field worker in Barceloneta, Puerto Rico, got up to go to work without knowing that he would never return home. Saturnino was not a pineapple-field worker by choice; his fate was predetermined by his place of birth, his parents’ socioeconomic upbringing, their race. The relentless rain the night before had left the fields almost entirely flooded. Saturnino and his coworkers needed to work. The misfortune of their lives couldn’t afford a day off. They insisted on working because the behaviors of the plantation owners were known to be voyeuristically inconsistent. They were laid off frequently for no real reason, and despite the unsafe circumstances of the field due to exposure to wet powerlines, it would not be the first time the crew worked under these unsafe conditions.
Saturnino was the first worker to enter the field in defiance of the capataz. Shortly after, his body lay dead by electrocution. Work resumed once the waters receded. Others took Saturnino’s place in the field. His name was unimportant to the pineapple company. Then the pineapple economy that once scarred my family and the people of my barrio became insignificant in the capitalist agenda of the United States. When the pineapple economy collapsed, its demise was invisible to the colonizer. The fields were replaced with pharmaceutical companies, roads, funeral homes, and cemeteries.
The land reform projects that began during the New Deal era and that dragged on with the beginning of the new colonial government of the Commonwealth continued to bring more disappointments for years to come. The initial idea of the land reform consisted of la tierra para el que la trabaje18, 19. This political platform was radical in nature. In essence, it represented the Zapatista principles. The new colonial leadership of the Commonwealth, while instrumental in persecuting and imprisoning people of pro-independence ideology, also understood the reasons why Pedro Albizu Campos was successful in gaining the trust of sugar cane workers to lead the strike of 193420. As the leader of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, Albizu Campos dedicated his life to anti-colonialist pro-independence struggle through armed resistance. His success in leading the sugar cane strike, his incendiary rhetoric, and relentless political strategy made him the most dangerous figure against US imperialism in the Caribbean, for which he faced persecution, imprisonment and torture until his death in 196521, 22. Colonial politicians knew Albizu Campos was right in defining both colonialism and the working conditions of la zafra, slavery23, 24. The colonial government could see the abuses of the sugar cane corporations through their monopolies that dominated the Island. The land reform legislation attempted to break the sugar cane monopolies by redistributing and limiting the amount of land a corporation could possess25. The colonial government knew that if they could not improve the conditions of agricultural workers, squashing the political opposition would be meaningless, an uprising could happen again, regardless.
The colonial government’s land reform initiative failed in its attempts at redistributing the land to make communities more self- sufficient. Nevertheless, it was partially successful in providing small land grants for working families to obtain property. This is how a lot of political loyalties were forged for generations to come. The sugar cane monopolies receded with the shift of the economy from agriculture to manufacturing. Corporations followed one key rule; if they were not controlling and exploiting the land, Puerto Ricans certainly could not either. The effects of this approach can still be felt in the present as Puerto Rico imports up to 85 percent of the food it consumes. With time, colonial governments hid their failure to include a sustainable agricultural plan in their economy by arguing that entertaining such a strategy represented a return to the past. Maintaining a negative perception towards agriculture on the Island was also effectively used for decades later as an axe against the independence movement. Today, Puerto Rico continues to feel the negative effects of capitalism perpetrated by the sugar cane monopolies that dominated the Island during the first fifty years after the United States invasion. United States Congress legislation from the distance has paved the way for the dysfunction of colonialism to continue pushing the Island into a dead end. Presently, the deaths of workers like Saturnino repeat themselves in nurses dying in car accidents while commuting to three jobs that are not enough to sustain a family. The death of Saturnino occurs again in entire communities poisoned by toxic coal ash from highly polluted waste landfills. The death of Saturnino repeats again in generations of people who throughout their lives, worked, retired, and died in poverty because their pensions were taken by vulture hedge funds and the politicians that benefited from these corrupt schemes. Throughout time, the power of capitalism and colonialism under United States rule have proved to be toxic to Puerto Ricans. Those who have obtained power through colonial privilege have become another piece in the game of abuse and corruption. Much of what we thought we gained as people had been lost by the means of a power that insists in controlling our way forward. Solidarity among ourselves is all we have.
Hurricanes and Solidarity
The word hurricane comes from the Taíno word, juracán. To the Taínos, juracán was a god capable of manifesting nature’s deadliest rage. For them, juracán was not specific to a powerful storm with intense winds. Juracán could have displayed its power through a severe drought, or perhaps an earthquake. This word became part of universal language the moment Europeans set foot in the Caribbean due to the high frequency of the storms. Hurricanes influenced the lives of the Taínos, and obviously, still influence the lives of Puerto Ricans and people of the Caribbean today. Hurricanes have the capacity to disrupt the normal routines of life. The destruction that comes with the rage of a hurricane is a rapid introduction to trauma. Psychologically, hurricanes make people aware of the realities they do not want to see or accept, including the deception of colonialism. Nothing can bring the people of the Caribbean to the remarkable collective awareness of endurance, resistance, survival, and solidarity like a hurricane. In fact, a hurricane in 1514 resulted in the first African uprising of the Americas26. Taínos and Africans came together in solidarity to form a new Puerto Rican identity fighting against slavery. A hurricane also initiated the collapse of the government in the summer of 2019.
The Manatí river cuts through my hometown, Barceloneta. The river flows about half a mile from my old family home, where I was un chamaquito27. When I first heard the high-pitch-screeching sound of the river like nails scraping metal, when I heard the snapping of trees being dragged by the stream in the middle of the night, I understood why the Taínos considered a hurricane like a god. After a big storm or a hurricane, my neighborhood and many others would always end up surrounded by water. Many others, under it.
I was about eight years old the first time I walked with my mother, my brother, and my grandmother into town after a storm to shovel mud out of my aunt’s house, followed by her neighbor’s. As I grew up, I repeated this same trip with my family carrying a shovel into town a number of times. After a hurricane or a big storm, actions like this one were very common in my community. One had to help with whatever was needed. Whether the work consisted in cutting tree branches, moving debris to open a road or a neighborhood street, or finding out where water, propane gas canisters, or other basic need items were available, mutual aid work becomes essential for community functioning and survival after a hurricane.
During the last several years, hurricanes and natural disasters alike have become notorious in exposing the corruption of colonialism, debunking false truths about dependency and the inability of communities to provide care for each other through mutual aid. During the aftermath of hurricane María, there were many narratives attempting to dominate the political discourse through the media. The narrative from the government of the United States attempted to minimize the impact of the storm by insisting that the aid provided by federal agencies was excellent. The colonial government tried to articulate that it had the situation under control. Both failed miserably. To this day, the two governments are unable to deal with the truth about the many deaths for which their neglect is responsible.
A narrative of powerlessness, of victimhood towards Puerto Ricans persisted for some time in the media after hurricane María. There is no denying that there was a humanitarian crisis on the Island. Hospitals were shut down. People were dying in them due to absence of treatment and care. Morgues were overflowing. Containers had to be brought in to store the bodies. The public paid for that. In many communities throughout the Island, there was no access to prescription medications, potable water, electricity, food, and other basic necessities. Despite these obstacles, it is undeniable that communities were doing the work of opening roads and making themselves accessible to receive and share aid when available. Both the colonial and federal governments failed in acknowledging the work communities facilitated for them. They continued to present a narrative of isolation and lack of access to justify their idle state.
Through the middle of the aftermath of the hurricane, several mutual aid initiatives emerged in different regions of the Island. These mutual aid efforts, sometimes known as autogestión28, were ignited by many communities that were not in any way connected to the colonial government. All of them emerged organically without following specific political ideologies or theories. Still, their functioning based on collective solidarity while refusing hierarchical power schemes makes these organizations a model for how to decolonize from the root. The undeniable leadership of women, especially mothers and grandmothers, in these movements as agents of cultural change is essential in breaking old paradigms of oppression that mimic colonialist systems dominated by men.
Food and Crisis: The Great Unifiers
Not all mutual aid initiatives emerged as a function of a hurricane. For obvious reasons, however, hurricanes can produce the conditions of a crisis that would push communities to initiate sustainable mutual aid efforts. Food insecurity is probably the first sign of social stress that set communities in motion to provide care for each other in solidarity. The great majority of the mutual aid initiatives that emerged during the aftermath of hurricane María started providing food in impacted and isolated communities. This was the case of the Centro de Apoyo Mutuo in Caguas, Mariana in Humacao, Bucamaronesin Las Marías, and La Olla Común in Río Piedras, among many others. Presently, all these organizations have evolved to diversify the services they provide to their communities. In the case of Caguas, the one project I had the opportunity to visit and support shortly after the hurricane, they started with serving food but moved on to rescue (occupy) a building, and today the project provides with limited shelter: a food bank; a health and wellness center that includes acupuncture; an urban garden; workshops on earthquake preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation; and periodic people’s assemblies, among other services. All other organizations have taken similar approaches involving art, theater, and other forms of progressive education strategies for children. All of the organizations have collaborated with each other in various community events and have embraced all Puerto Rican forms of cultures such as Bomba and Plena as a way of defining a new decolonized identity.
A different kind of crisis birthed a mutual aid-like organization that has become one of the most trusted community agencies in Puerto Rico. Casa Pueblo started in 1980 in the town of Adjuntas as a self-sustaining environmentalist organization. Casa Pueblo was formed to combat an open-sky mining proposal that would have destroyed the entire town of Adjuntas, and parts of Jayuya, Utuado, and other adjacent municipalities. The initiatives of Casa Pueblo brought a sense of unity and community leadership against environmental destruction. Later on, the organization took on the management of the Bosque del Pueblo, the forested area that would have been destroyed by the mining project. Bosque del Pueblo contains one of the remaining ceremonial sites of the Taínos. Casa Pueblo was never known as a mutual aid anarchistic organization, but as an autogestión project, one that evolved to serve the people. Its success provided a blueprint for many of the mutual aid efforts that surfaced after hurricane María.
The practice of mutual aid in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean is an ancient tradition. Due to our place in the world as an island with subtropical weather conditions, by default, we are set to live in open communities. Our windows are always open. Everyone can hear what is going on in the neighborhood. There is a constant entra y sale29 of people in communities. There is a constant exchange of goods among neighbors and nearby friends in communities. There is a constant flow of information about what is needed and where it is available in communities. You just put the word out there, and it makes it to where it needs to go.
I see my grandmother Matilde, at 86 years of age, putting mutual aid into practice. She turns the stove on, cooks some guiso30, shares it with who needs it, and whatever she needs, whether it is a ride to a doctor’s appointment, grocery store, or church, will be provided by someone eager to return the favor. It occurs organically, without political ideology or theory – just out of love and solidarity.
I return to the importance of mutual aid being initiated organically, with no political ideology or definition, because Puerto Rico is still finding the path towards its decolonization while it continues to be severely divided by political beliefs. Mutual aid initiatives on the Island have opened the doors of solidarity for communities outside of political ideology. Therefore, there are people of all political spectra, from leftist pro-independence ideology to right wing pro-United States annexationists, to apolitical disenfranchised people actively engaged in mutual aid efforts, or at the very least, receiving and relying on their services. At first glance, these mutual aid efforts do not appear to be direct catalysts of decolonization, but they bring people with opposite ideas together to share a common purpose, to see a reality, one outside of the divisions and falsehoods that colonialism has imposed upon us for more than 500 years.
Coming together as people to initiate efforts that reinforce the sense of dignity and self-determination is an important step towards destroying colonialism. For those who are engaging in mutual aid but still believing in the colonial solutions imposed by our colonizers, they are one step closer to breaking with that illusion. Nevertheless, we are running out of time. The colonialist schemes of the United States government and their colonial politicians on the Island have led us into a dead end where time has been wasted into failure. Mutual aid efforts are strategies that can bring solutions to both short and long-term problems. They can help us to dismantle a dysfunctional government that operates by stealing money from the people and throwing change from the distance without focusing on problem-solving or long-term progress. History demonstrates that the main goal of colonial projects is to benefit the colonizer’s economy. Mutual aid can be effective in helping us to finally walk away from colonial political party loyalties, which have caused the destruction of the Island. Mutual aid can help us finally understand that there will never be a better advocate for the Puerto Rican people than Boricuas themselves. This is what it means to decolonize.
Born in 1976 in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico, Pedro Anglada Cordero is a writer and member of the resistance community in Portland, OR. His writing can be found at Latino Rebels and in A Flash of Dark: An Afro-futurism Anthology.
This essay appears in the current issue of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, available from the Institute for Anarchist Studies by clicking here.
I dedicate this work to my grandmother, Matilde Rodríguez Pérez who passed away on July 10th, 2020. I would like to express my gratitude and love to her, and my mother, Madeline Cordero, for their lifetime support and family stories that are featured in this article. Thanks to my daughter Simone for all the love and laughter. Lastly, thanks to my wife Susan Anglada Bartley for all the love and camaraderie, the support with childcare and food, and for her criticism and editorial assistance before the submission of this piece. I love you!
- Joserramón Melendes, Desimos Désimas(Río Piedras, P.R.: QeAse, 1994), 29–31.That the stories of the grandma / of “those times of the past”/ are the times here in present / disguised in new clothing. The author developed a writing style based on Puerto Rican phonetics where words are spelled to mimic the Puerto Rican collective voice. The poetry is meant to be sung or read aloud.
- James L Dietz, Economic History of Puerto Rico: Institutional Change and Capitalist Development(Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986), 116–19.
- Ibid., 40-52.
- Ibid., 200-201.
- “Lamento Borincano,” Wikipedia, July 6, 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lamento_Borincano.
- Nelson A Denis, War against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony(New York: Bold Typed Books, 2015), 63–64, 116–20.
- Pedro Aponte Vázquez, Albizu: Su Persecución Por El FBI(San Juan De P.R.: Publicaciones René, 2010), 5–60.
- Dietz, Economic History of Puerto Rico: Institutional Change and Capitalist Development,160–177.
- Ibid., 201-206.
- 10. , 201.
- 1 Ibid., 191-193.
- 1 Thomas G Mathews, Puerto Rican Politics and the New Deal(New York: Da Capo Press, 1976), 323.
- 1 Denis, War against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony, 44-52.
- 1 Dietz, Economic History of Puerto Rico: Institutional Change and Capitalist Development, 103-134.
- 1 Raymond Carr, Puerto Rico: A Colonial Experiment(New York: Random House, 1984), 107–36.
- 1 A tangled mess.
- 1 Pedro Aponte Vázquez, Albizu: Su Persecución Por El FBI(San Juan De P.R.: Publicaciones René, 2010), 89–183.
- 1 The land for those who work it.
- 1 James L Dietz, Economic History of Puerto Rico: Institutional Change and Capitalist Development(Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986), 193-201.
- 2 Nelson A Denis, War against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony(New York: Bold Typed Books, 2015), 109-131.
- 2 Ibid., 157-261.
- 2 Pedro Aponte Vázquez, Albizu: Su Persecución Por El FBI(San Juan De P.R.: Publicaciones René, 2010), 5-302.
- Denis, War against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony, 109-131.
- 2 Ivonne Acosta, La Palabra Como Delito: Los discursos por los que condenaron a Pedro Albizu Campos 1948-1950, Editorial Cultural, 2000, 9-180. Albizu Campos was sentenced to nearly 54 years in prison for delivering twelve speeches between 1948-1950. The speeches were documented by the police and used as evidence against Albizu. They were maintained sealed for 40 years until their release in 1991 as part of a Lawsuit filed by Pedro Aponte Vázquez. Acosta published the speeches that same year.
- 2 Dietz, Economic History of Puerto Rico: Institutional Change and Capitalist Development, 193-201.
- 2 J. Sued Badillo and Angel López Canto, “Puerto Rico Negro,” Editorial Cultural, 1986, 175–185.
- 2 Youngster.
- 2 Self-initiative.
- 2 In and out.
- 3 Stew.