In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Marisol LeBrón. LeBrón is an Associate Professor in Feminist Studies and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her book is Against Muerto Rico: Lessons from the Verano Boricua/ Contra Muerto Rico: lecciones del Verano Boricua, translated by Beatriz Llenín Figueroa.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Marisol LeBrón: In Against Muerto Rico, I try to contextualize the massive protests that erupted in Puerto Rico during the summer of 2019 and resulted in Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s resignation known as the Verano Boricua. For nearly two weeks Puerto Ricans in the archipelago and in the diaspora took to the streets day after day and night after night to demand that the governor and other corrupt members of his cabinet resign. The protests started after a private chat between Rosselló and a number of high-ranking officials was leaked to the public. The chat revealed Rosselló and his inner circle exchanging homophobic, transphobic, racist, classist, and misogynist messages and even making jokes about dead bodies piling up at the state morgue after Hurricane María. In the book, I show that the chat was a spark needed for the widespread and long-simmering discontent felt by Puerto Ricans to explode. Rather than just protesting the vulgar and disrespectful language used by the governor and his cronies, the protests of the Verano Boricua encompassed a wide set of demands aimed at rejecting a governing logic structured by colonial capitalism that renders Puerto Rican life worthless beyond serving as fuel to generate profit.
One of the key arguments I make is that the Verano Boricua’s successes lay with its intersectional approach which was fostered by Black, feminist, queer, and anti-colonial activists who have been mobilizing in recent years to respond to the multiple crises confronting the archipelago. These organizers show how the crises created by colonialism, capitalism, sexism, queer antagonism, heteropatriarchy, and racism are fostering harm and death in the lives of Puerto Ricans. The work of these organizers to educate the public about how the current political economic system negatively impacts the lives of Puerto Ricans was instrumental to the incredible cross-section of people that we saw in the streets demanding a radical restructuring of Puerto Rican society through an end to austerity, extraction, and colonial violence. Ultimately, the massive rejection of efforts to transform the archipelago into Muerto Rico that took place during the Verano Boricua offers us a series of lessons to help us to think about what a Puerto Rico that is more just and life affirming might look like and how we might get there. And although the case of Puerto Rico might seem unique because of its colonial status, I think the events of the Verano Boricua have a lot of resonance with other movements that are working to upend relations of domination and extraction.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
The book is a short, accessibly written and fully bilingual text that I hope will be useful as a political education document. The arguments in the book are deeply influenced by and in conversation with social movements in Puerto Rico. The words in the book come from a place of deep admiration and appreciation for those who are on the frontlines struggling for a more liberated and life affirming future for Puerto Ricans. My conclusions in the book are inspired not only by what I saw during the Verano Boricua but also by what I’ve seen while researching struggles against the expansion of punitive governance, debt colonialism, and disaster capitalism in Puerto Rico for more than a decade. In that sense, it’s not necessarily what I want activists and organizers to take away from the book as much as I hope that I accurately captured their labor. I hope that they see their work – the hard and slow-going work of true political education – reflected in the book and that it can aid that work in some small way.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
One of the lessons from the Verano Boricua that I discuss in the book is that La policía ≠ el pueblo, or the police does not equal the people. During the Verano Boricua we saw example after example of protesters attempting to reason with the police in order to reduce antagonism and violence and instead being met with violence and harassment. During the demonstrations protesters repeatedly made appeals to the police present asking them to leave their posts and join them because they too were suffering under the austerity regime put in place by the colonial government and defended by local elites. The repressive actions of law enforcement during the summer protests, however, served as a reminder that the police are not ordinary members of the working class. Instead, they are “violence workers,” as Micol Seigel puts it, essential to the maintenance of colonial, racial, and capitalist structures in Puerto Rico.
The repression and brutality witnessed during the Verano Boricua cannot be explained away as police being overwhelmed and overreacting in response to the extraordinary public mobilizations that took place day after day for almost two weeks. Instead, this violence must be understood as intrinsic to police work and the function of law enforcement within unequal societies. The abuses seen during the Verano Boricua serve to highlight how the police in Puerto Rico have historically and consistently used force and intimidation in order to prop up the existing political order during moments of crisis.
If the protests of the Verano Boricua were about more than getting Rosselló to resign, if they were about a much larger set of demands aimed at demanding an end to policies that cause harm, then calls for an end to politicized and repressive policing was certainly an implicit demand of the protests. An end to the repressive policing that structures many aspects of life and death in Puerto Rico, particularly for the most vulnerable sectors of society, is part of the life-affirming and liberatory future that protesters were fighting for.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
I’ve always been in awe of scholars who have the ability to create work that speaks to the urgency generated by moments of crisis, and who do so in a way that is at once rigorous and accessible. I think the writing of Stuart Hall, Ruthie Gilmore, and Robin Kelley all have that quality – their work is electric in the way that it gets you thinking about social transformation. The activists that I discuss in Against Muerto Rico have all had a huge influence on my thinking, especially around how structural forces such as colonial capitalism are felt in people’s everyday lives in ways that are often dismissed by those in power. I’ve also been really invigorated by my colleagues working in Puerto Rican Studies right now. There’s a real energy of growth and transformation in Puerto Rican Studies and it’s been amazing to think alongside folks about how to keep pushing the field to be more meaningfully attendant to questions of race, gender, and sexuality.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
The conditions of colonial capitalism that Puerto Ricans are forced to endure have increased proximity to harm and death and sought to erase sustaining aspects of Puerto Rican culture and social relations. In other words, colonial capitalism’s vision for the archipelago is that of a Muerto Rico. The Verano Boricua is important not just because it resulted in the resignation of Ricardo Rosselló, the first time a democratically elected Puerto Rican governor has vacated their post. It is also important because it indexed a political praxis rooted in the idea of truly living in Puerto Rico –that is, living a life of dignity and respect that is free of degradation and violence. Conditions of colonial capitalism work to render abundant life unthinkable and works to foreclose alternative modes of relationality. Throughout the book I show how the Verano Boricua drew from a long radical tradition of feminist, queer, anti-racist, anti-capitalist and anti-colonial organizing in Puerto Rico and its diaspora in order to promote conditions that foster and affirm Puerto Rican life. One of the most exciting examples of how Puerto Ricans did this during the protests was by emphasizing pleasure as central to social transformation. During the protests we saw people riding motorcycles, dancing, singing, playing musical instruments, doing yoga, kayaking, running, riding horses, and making art in order to demand political change. The protests created spaces of solidarity and sociality that brought people together through a shared political goal while providing connections grounded in pleasure and joy. Challenging the necropolitical violence of colonial capitalism that structures life for vulnerable populations, the spaces of the Verano Boricua celebrated life and called into being a future where pleasure, joy, and togetherness structure social relations –a future of abundant life.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.