Yarimar Bonilla and Andrew Padilla are two Boricuas from New-York whom I highly respect. Bonilla is a scholar and Padilla an independent filmmaker who focus on the many issues which evolve around Puerto-Rico and its diaspora. Though I never had the opportunity to meet them in person, and I wish I could, I was, growing up, more familiar with Cuban culture than the Boricua one which I only got closer to around the time I was sixteen. Cuban culture was in my home as my parents, now in their 70s, were huge fans of 1950s Congolese musicians. For those who don’t know, Cuban music was birthed by the enslaved Kongolese (Angola and DR Congo) and by the early 1920s, when the Congo was under Belgian colonial rule, the son came back to the country and became the base of Congolese pop music, known as rumba. For this reason, and also due to politics (the link between Fidel Castro and Patrice Lumumba) Cuba was also a part of my culture growing up. It is also true that I have a link to the returnees from West Africa through my father’s Ghanaian heritage but I also grew up culturally Cuban too.
Puerto-Rico, to my eyes, was never a land of resistance as I was mostly exposed to festivities, horrible “singer” Jennifer Lopez and exoticism. It is true that Fidel Castro was a particular figure, almost controversial. An anti-colonial icon, yes, but also a dictator whose people suffers greatly until today. Cuban culture helped me shape my own blackness in Europe and the Cuban Revolution of 1959 had a strong impact on my mind because it was not always easy to be a third generation black girl in Europe, at the time. By the time I was 14, I launched by very first blogs through which I wrote mostly about the relations between Cuba and Congo. Actually, Cuban culture is Congolese and Congolese culture is also partially Cuban culture (especially in the Lingala-speaking part of the nation, the far East being way more East African). And I was raised in Afro-Cuban culture as well. I was always interested in Latin America as a whole and I wrongly thought all my life that Puerto-Rico never had the same history of resistance. In my mind, the Boricuas were always okay with colonialism. I was wrong.
It’s been five years now that I have been reading a lot about themes written by Boricuas from Puerto-Rico and the diaspora in New-York as well. And I never thought that they had been through so much over the years. I never knew that Puerto-Rico was a REAL American colony and that the corruption was so high. And it is through the discovery of Yarimar Bonilla, Rosa Clemente and Andrew Padilla that I learned the truth in many ways.
This eventually encouraged me to ask myself: why have I been so wrong in my perception of Puerto-Rico?
This had to do with the modern cultural colonial image projected by not only the media but most Puerto-Rican artists today. Puerto-Rico is this island where the Boricuas are this people deprived of speech and expression and only exist through the vision of the outsider. If the foreigners claim that Puerto-Rico is that “wonderful, exotic” island, well it has to be so. If others, Black or White, express their attraction towards Puerto-Rican women and their beauty, then Puerto-Rico has to be presented as this exotic island inhabited by sexual beings. And these characteristics, not only tarnish the reality of this culture but it diminishes the testimony of those who live there.
In this postcolonial or colonised society, the Boricuas were made to exist and represent their heritage through the colonial demise they were shaped into. Boricua women can not exist differently than through sexuality. Public figures such as Jennifer Lopez and others are responsible for the expansion of this silly “I am a feisty Latina” stereotype to justify the exploitation of their sexuality.
Twenty years ago, Lopez managed to cash in on greatly by letting White people exploit her body shape and behind. She is a horrible vocalist and has been reduced to the “bomba latina” status for years in her younger days. These acclamations were nothing less than racist colonial imageries projected onto her and she accepted it. For most foreigners, Boricua, Dominican, Cuban, Venezuelan or in Africa, Cape-Verdean women are never treated with respect but are mostly seen through the sexual lens. And many Latinas still accept this insulting label as a honor. For this reason, the real resistant figures are carefully placed in the back and silenced.
Recently, reality TV star Dominican-American Cynthia Santana was attacked by Black American women for having boasted about black men being more attracted to Latin women. Without knowing it, she accepted colonial labels and fetishism from foreign black men and white men as well. In this dysfunctional sense, it is interesting to see that the Spaniards and Portuguese did leave a horrific impact upon them but worst, now living in our common era, other black people who were born and raised in English speaking nations, such as the Black Americans or the Black Brits, have a status of elevation and also perpetuate the disgusting colonial heritage left by the Spaniards through sexual fetishism.
The fetishism of Puerto-Rico also relies on the tale of its history and beginning. Indeed, wordplays are extremely important when writing about the origins of a people. For instance, Eurocentric historians would write about the “invasion” of Greece by the Turks. Yet, when evoking the same colonial tactics used by the Greeks they would write “the Greeks expanded their culture as far as Afghanistan” in order to lessen the horrific colonial actions perpetuated by a people they deem pure, for white and exemplary. The same manipulation has been used since 1492 to justify the invasion of Latin America and the Caribbean by Colombus. Indeed, history books mention that the latter “discovered” and thus these words convey a huge power to the criminal side. If he “discovered” than this automatically means, in the mind of the readers, that Colombus had automatic control of the narrative, being a genius, and this contributes, therefore, to the silencing of the indigenous population. Indeed, who would want to hear the side of people who have been “discovered”?
This same form of Eurocentric and anti-black/anti-Native Indigenous narrative of history re-writing has been falsely applied to Puerto-Rico. The beauty of the Boricuas always equals to their race mixing and most of them are proud of this racial, exotic fantasy they embody for traumatized by centuries of isolation and mistreatment. Yet, this mix has been explained as “three different races which came together and formed the modern day Boricua”. It is not true for such narrative erases the horror behind the creation of the state. The admixture came out, out of rape. The three races did not come together at all. The Spaniards raped the Native Tainos on purpose to dilute them and then enslaved West Africans and Kongo people who were also raped and diluted over the years. Puerto-Rico can not be seen otherwise than throug the brutality of colonial history. And plus, not all Boricuas are racially the same at all. Some are racially more mixed between the Natives and the Spaniards, others between the Africans and the Whites, others are truly biracial and some are either only African, European and or directly other, such as the descendants of Palestinians, Syrians, Turkish Jews and a few different groups. This fantasy thus contributes to a criminal re-adaptation of a genocide which took place in 1492.
For this reason, Puerto-Rico is always exploited for the festive moments. Yet, when a storm rocks the island, or when the people are plagued by corruption, the social protests which can happen no longer interest the foreigners. When the Boricua wants to speak out and refuses to play the role of the exotic subject, no one is interested anymore. And when this resistance becomes way too loud, the resistant is either killed or sent to jail. Well, reduced to silence.
The diaspora of Puerto-Rico is also extremely threatened by the many racist policies applied in the Bronx. Andrew Padilla has been filming and contributing to a work of preservation of the memory as he has not ceased documenting and telling the stories of the victims of gentrification in the Bronx, more specifically in East Harlem. Where are the Boricua celebrities to expose this issue, give a part of their money to buy back from the big corporations which want to take advantage of their community? What is the point of shouting out “Boricua!” with pride in your songs if the despair of the diaspora remains the same?
For this reason, the Boricua academics such Yarimar, Rosa and Andrew, among many others, are more than important for the preservation of the history, the culture and the heritage. Globalization makes some people more visible yet behind the surface, there is a generation dying which needs attention and preservation. For this reason, all the works written of filmed by the members of this diaspora allow us to change our minds and understand the real issues the media do not want to talk about.
Puerto-Rico is not just an island where everyone parties and where all the girls are exotic to your eyes. Puerto-Rico is a real nation where people have been colonised for years and disrespected, relocated, sent to jail, attacked and rejected.
Here are the links of Yarimar’s website and Andrew’s documentaries.
Yarimar Bonilla’s Website: Yarimar is one of my favorite scholars and teachers. She not only contributes to the memory preservation of her nation but I also love her work even more as she also writes about conflicts in the French Caribbean, especially in the island of Martinique she knows very well. I invite you to read and share her work
Here is her website: Click
Andrew Padilla: Andrew Padilla’s short documentary about the gentrification of East Harlem and its impact on the Boricuas of New-York.
Here is his website: Click
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