When the diaspora strikes back*, pero es el imperio de veras

So, do you— dear reader— remember that scene in Piñero where the poet performs in Puerto Rico and gets the third degree from these square (and scared) Island academics? It was a pretty cool clip to show in U.S. Puerto Rican lit classes in Island universities to really get that point across regarding the Diaspora/islander divide, so students could reflect on the exclusionary character of Puerto Rican identity constructs and the such. Plus, the poem Benjamin Bratt performs is pretty bad ass: “puertorriqueños is not just rafael hernández/ viet vet protest with rifle shots that dig into four pigs/ & sociable friday professional persons rush to the/ golf course & martini glasses work for the masses/…/this poem will receive a burning/ stomach turning scorn nullified classified racist/from this pan am eastern first national chase manhattan/ puerto rico.”

I was reminded of that scene when I saw that Lin-Manuel Miranda is going to be performing this month at a special Festival de la Palabra event in Puerto Rico. Mentira. I was reminded of the scene when we were walking out of the so called Asamblea de Pueblo held last June at the Coliseo Roberto Clemente in Hato Rey. Luis Gutierrez, the Congressman from Illinois and Melissa Mark Viverito, the Speaker of the New York City Council, had taken the stage to address some three thousand people in a supposed show of force against the Fiscal Oversight Board to be imposed under PROMESA. It just so happens, of course, that both Gutierrez and Viverito support Hillary Clinton, who happens to support PROMESA and the board. And yet, they both received standing ovations from the great majority of the anti-PROMESA crowd. Only a few of us booed, specially as Gutierrez exhausted the list of can’t miss keywords in his short address: Vieques, Oscar López Rivera, Betances, Albizu Campos, el gasoducto, UPR students.

Miranda, like the two politicians, is for Clinton. Unlike them, he’s been openly in favor of the board from the start. So, how convincing do you, dear reader, believe Lin-Manuel’s impression of Piñero would be? Here’s the clip from the John Oliver show and the one from Miranda’s White House visit to help inform your decision. And here’s a quote from another Piñero poem, just because: “he never gave his soul to his people/ because he was busy seekin’a Cause/ busy/ busy perfectin’ his voice to harmonize the national anthem/ with spiro t agnew/ busy perfectin’ his viva-la-policía speech.” Hell, even the Congressman from Illinois could do a better Piñero than Lin-Manuel. At the very least, he knows all the keywords. But, then again, what good does it do to have “the blood of Betances running through my veins” if you’re pro-Clinton?

As we were walking out of the Asamblea, one of us brought up how Diaspora-Island relations have now come full circle: the U.S. Puerto Rican has gone from scapegoat to spokesperson of the Island’s political crisis. At first thought, this seems (and feels) like justice—spiritual/symbolic compensation for a history of exclusion from the public affairs of the Island. Plus, you have to admit, few Island politicians speak like Gutierrez, and virtually no Island writer has as large and eager a following as Lin-Manuel. If only they weren’t both reciting viva-la-policía speeches. If only they weren’t so damn square. And scared. If only they were more like Piñero. Or like Perdomo. In the poem “Have it your way: combo,” Willie writes up what we could easily imagine Piñero was dreaming on his way to New York from Puerto Rico: “On the flight back home/ You dream of Isla Madre:/ She walks into the nearest/ Precinct, strapped head-to-/ Achilles in dynamite &/ Demands that the San/ Juan Ritz-Carlton casino/ Return all here SSI checks.”[2] Now there’s a cause to seek and get behind of.

By the time we made it back to our cars, we had decided that “Nuyorican writers just aren’t radical anymore.” This is when I remembered the scene from Piñero. As well as the criticism it received within certain Island circles—uppity intellectuals and self-appointed defenders of our national culture who threw a fit on account of the poet’s supposed moral depravity and thus, his inherent inability to represent Puertoricanhood or whatever. One would like to think that things have changed in that regard. After all, there’s Lin-Manuel’s name, in bright red letters, on the poster for the Festival de la Palabra event later on this month. It’s a poetry recital dedicated to Francisco Matos Paoli. Certainly no one would accuse him of penning viva-la-policía speeches. Y sin embargo, there’s Lin-Manuel’s name on the poster in his honor.

I want to say something radical has happened in regards to the Diaspora/Island divide but I’m having trouble coming up with a metaphor with which to name it. Metaphors, Samuel R. Delany reminds us, “are not radical in themselves.”[3] They depend on a reading. Here goes: Lin-Manuel is to Piñero (and to Matos Paoli, for that matter) what Gutierrez is to Betances (or Albizu Campos, or López Rivera)—nothing, really. Or, in the alternative, an easy fix for a new national anthem. Their welcomed “outside” interventions in contemporary public Island affairs signal not a radical reconfiguration of the cultural politics of Puerto Rican identity and the such (¡ojalá!), but rather how everything (seems like it) ceases to matter as long as matters are settled between the Puerto Rican government and its creditors. In other words, anyone can claim Betances’ blood just as anyone can sing praises to any of our dead nationalist poets—regardless of your politics or your political affiliation— as long as Puerto Rico pays. After all, it’s like Gutierrez proudly pronounced in the Asamblea—but media failed to mention: if any Puerto Rican here is called to become a member of the oversight board, that Puerto Rican has the duty to accept and to inform their countrymen and women of what goes on behind closed doors. Eso y ¡viva la policía! ¿Qué no?

* Flores, Juan.
[2] The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon, p. 43.
[3] Longer Views, p. 114.

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