Luis Nieves Falcón, Humanist of the Year 2007
First of all, I want to state my deepest gratitude to the Puerto Rican Endowment for the Humanities and its Board of Directors for the honor granted to me tonight; to my friends and colleagues who have set aside their commitments to accompany me and to show me, once more, their kindness and support; to my dear brother Luis López Nieves, who has shared happy moments of my life; and finally, to the rest of the public present. To all, a warm embrace and my affection.
Today, I want to share with you some of the ideas that make up a personal part of my academic and professional work, my actions in day-to-day life, and which have led me to design university courses and research projects revealing the hidden history of our Island. The real situation with human rights in our nation which, on occasion, has been called “the showcase of democracy.” This work unavoidably leads to an analysis of the colonial situation and its most dehumanizing branches, such as racism and political repression.
There are three concepts that help shape my words tonight, so I will describe them briefly. Then I will try to explain, also in a brief fashion, the impact of colonialism on a person’s sense of humanity. Then I will go on to refer to the important role that political repression has played in the scheme of colonial domination. Finally, I will point out the essential conflict between colonial repression and resistance to it.
The basic concepts I wish to make clear at the beginning are humanity, colony, political repression and harassment. The concept of humanity is affirmed in the principle that people, solely for being humans, are born with a series of rights that are independent of social phenomenon and their past. Put another way, the individual has certain innate rights. We come into the world with them. They predate political society and it is through their recognition and guarantee that this society is formed. This idea of natural rights is emphasized in the Declaration of Independence of the United States, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in France, inspired the Latin American revolutionary movements and is the main philosophical foundation of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). It affirms that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. The United States Declaration of Independence asserts that these are “inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The term colony refers to a territory dominated by an external State. The colony lacks two elements to be a State: sovereignty, or the capacity of self-determination and self-enforcement, and its own government. In the colony, the colonizing country and the authorities imposed by it rule. Therefore, the colony has two of the four elements of a State: people and a territory, but not sovereignty or political power. These are the elements it lacks to be a State. When the colony claims the right to self-determination, it becomes a State.
Political repression can be described as the violent or subtle coercion of a person’s conduct by the government through its police apparatuses. Its forms cover a wide spectrum that can range from personal disgrace to death. Harassment refers to public or private conduct that unceasingly tries to prevent the full development of the inherent value of a person in Puerto Rico.
The formal structural context in which the persistent assault on the humanity of the people in Puerto Rico takes place is colonialism; and, its principal justification, racism. Racism is part of the colonial situation throughout the world. The case of Puerto Rico is no exception. Racism, in fact, “allows justification of the situation of exploitation and the privileges that the colonizer enjoys in the colony, whether a sales manager or a technical advisor of the Governor’s working group. Colonial racism in Puerto Rico is the sum of the prejudicial attitudes that Americans developed about Puerto Ricans to devalue them and disregard them as social and cultural beings.” No colonized person is exempt from this judgment, whether middle class or indigent, white, black, or mixed race.
Undoubtedly, all forms of discrimination represent an attack on the natural humanity that endows each person with the fundamental and irrevocable rights that cannot be taken by the State. The United Nations followed this line of thinking when it said that “the right of peoples and nations to free determination is a prerequisite to the full enjoyment of fundamental human rights.” Colonialism is categorized as a crime against humanity and affirms the rights of any people or nation subject to a regime of colonial domination to use all available means, including revolution, to throw off the colonial yoke. The United Nations bluntly stated: “A crime against humanity is one that crosses national borders because it offends all people or impedes good relations between nation states. Therefore, all states are obligated to help ensure its eradication.”
The Impact of Colonialism on a Person’s Sense of Humanity
Colonization must be justified through some emphatic means and it is racism that allows the imperialist, in our case the United States, to assume it is superior and the Puerto Ricans are inferior. As a result, their country and way of life are superior and Puerto Rico and its way of life are inferior. In assuming this position, the U.S. imperialist who dominates Puerto Rico, from here or from abroad, justifies any action with respect to the supposed inferior Puerto Rican beings. He assumes he is not doing damage to a people, but rather, on the contrary, is showering them with the “glorious” blessings of the U.S. civilization.
To affirm this position of domination, the dominator must, as much as possible, degrade the personal condition of the Puerto Rican and the fruits of his culture and convert him into a physical object or a being of limited mentality that needs the protection, advice and guidance of the Americans who oppress him and hold power. In the end, it is necessary to destroy the sense of humanity in the Puerto Rican to ensure his ongoing use as a commercial object and source of wealth.
In this world of degradation of the other, the colonizer “Will never fail to publicly praise his own virtues, will tenaciously present himself as heroic, great, and fully deserving of his good fortune. At the same time, owing his privileges both to his own greatness as well as the degradation of the colonized, he mercilessly degrades the colonized. He uses the darkest colors to paint the colonial subject, to devalue and destroy him. But he never leaves this circle: …to justify himself, he is led to constantly increase the distance, to put the two figures irremediably in opposition, the righteous and glorious, and the colonized, so despised.” (Albert Memmi, The Portrait of the Colonized)
Due to the continual need to carry out this degradation, it is no surprise that throughout our history the Americans have made considerable efforts to deny the cultural contributions of our people or to reduce their humanity to a mere biological condition, frequently bestialized. That is why, for example, it has been said that “the Puerto Ricans are, without doubt, like children” (Eugene P. Lyle) and the most important thing for the inhabitants of the Island is “to survive and be happy” (James Wooten). Our culture is denied or dismissed. In fact, in 1905 it was said that “… their language is a patois… It has no literature and has little value as an intellectual instrument” (Victor S. Clark). In 1961, it was stated that “Puerto Rico is a culture without form, a society without structure, a nation without important traditions” (John W. Bennett).
In 1966, a U.S. anthropologist said that “…the study of Puerto Rico leaves one with the idea that if there are certain characteristics or values that can genuinely be cataloged as Puerto Rican they are very difficult to list and much more difficult to confirm using social science methods.” (Sidney W. Mintz)
The object is clear: to show the inferiority of the culture of the colonized, the Puerto Ricans, and to emphasize the superiority of the colonizers, the United States. The racist superiority attributed to the American and the natural inferiority of the Boricua were shown in the colonialist mentality of the following phrase: “…the American is realistic, concise, exact, competent, punctual and reliable, the Puerto Rican tends to be romantic, vague, superstitious, inefficient, slow and unworthy of trust. While the American is modern, the Puerto Rican is medieval, the American scientific, the Puerto Rican rhetorical.”
Within this entire process of degradation of the Puerto Rican by the American, language becomes the object of the greatest attacks. In 1899, it was said that “…there does not appear to exist among the mass of people the same devotion toward the mother tongue or to any national ideal…” and it was added that “… there is the possibility that it would be as easy to educate them in English and make them forget their patois as it would be to educate them in the elegant language of Castille.” Later, other Americans noted that the narrow mentality of the Puerto Rican is what prevents him from abandoning Spanish, which is called an obsolete language that keeps the Puerto Rican at the margins of the business and technical world. (Reuters)
Senator Jackson expressed his opinion that the Puerto Rican should abandon Spanish as a prerequisite to enjoying greater equality with the Americans. Later, a businessman with Young and Rubicam, who lived comfortably based on the exploitation of Puerto Rico, considered it irrational that they chose their primary language over that of the conquerors. Obviously, he believed English is superior to Spanish because it is the language of the United States, the oppressors in Puerto Rico. In other words, the language became the object of vicious attacks because it is the element that allows the Puerto Rican to defend his social and cultural integrity in the face of the brutal control that the Americans and their foreign collaborators exercised over all of the nation’s institutions in their desire to avoid national recovery.
The attack on the language runs parallel with the devaluation of creative activity. Creativity can create an emancipating space by conflicting with the absolutist construction of the world the oppressors have created. “In the social arrangement of domination, the images that shape interpersonal relationships are based on a positive depiction of the oppressor and the oppression, and a devalued depiction of the oppressed and any social or cultural element that contributes to raise up his esteem as a person.” Any deviation from this scheme that tended to lift the oppressed from the position of inferiority to which he had been ascribed is perceived as a threat within this inflexible scheme of social position. Any transgression is perceived as an attack on the existing balance. Therefore, the elimination of any opposition must be ensured to prevent it from spreading in society among the oppressed and to ensure the stability of the existing order. This way, the privileges and benefits that work in favor of the dominators are maintained.
The fear of the creative dimension is based on additional considerations. The inherent value of the creative process stands in opposition to the official version of the world. There is a realization, both by the oppressor and the oppressed, that the imagination allows the subordinate person to overcome the restrictions imposed by his material situation. By breaking down this wall, the person can create alternative ways to see and act with respect to things that, in turn, can become concrete goals for self-realization in the face of the status quo.
Finally, the creative process is seen as a threat because it clearly and plainly reveals the essential humanity of the oppressed. Only human beings have the capacity to create imaginatively. This discovery results in human equality with the oppressor. The oppressor creates. The oppressed creates. The creator is a human being. The oppressor and the oppressed are humans. This essential equality breaks the prevailing system of inequality-animalization and leads to questioning of the order that keeps the oppressed in a position of subordination and inferiority. Thus begins the downfall of the colonial official world and its absolutist schemes.
The coercion of creative displays takes on different forms, though all are aimed at preventing the revelation of the creativity. The most common is to deny the object access to the field of communications and dissemination. The official world buries it to avoid its generalized exposure or, lacking that, reduces it to minimal levels of individuals. If this limitation is successfully overcome, the destruction of the created object is another alternative that is turned to frequently in the official world.
Also common, along with the strategy of silence, is the reproduction and circulation in society of anti-creativity production, the purpose of which is to establish the aesthetic vision of the oppressor as the norm and the predominant vision. This official vision changes, erases and eliminates the facts and events that in some way threaten the colonial situation. In this way, collective memory ceases to exist and disappears. At the same time, things that do not really exist in the colony are emphasized as things that do exist, such as the image of a democratic colony.
The relationship between official versions of creation and the power structure of the state has other considerations that impact the creative vision. If seen by the official world as a persistent danger, the price paid by the creator is prolonged imprisonment or physical elimination.
To the clash between the colonial condition and language and creative activity, add the official persecution of those who believe in and argue for Puerto Rico’s right to free determination and independence. These people are currently known as independentistas and believe, mainly, in the creation of a sovereign republic.
Since the first days of the conquest of Puerto Rico by the United States, the conquering nation’s attitude toward independence has been clear. In 1921, the American governor of the island affirmed: “…nor is there any sympathy or possible hope in the United States for the independence of Puerto Rico from any individual or political party…” In 1945, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff affirmed in a secret report: “…the Department concludes that it is impossible to accept the premise that it is possible to grant a sovereign status to Puerto Rico, and therefore vehemently recommends that no effort should be made toward such ends. In 1985, another U.S. commander said: “Puerto Rico is the best training ground in the world for the United States Navy… The Navy truly wants this piece of real estate” and to enjoy being here under the Puerto Rican people. This opposition to independence runs parallel with the attitude toward independentistas: political persecution. An analysis of that persecution reflects a clear and generalized pattern that includes personal and family abuse, the fabrication of cases, the torture to which imprisoned pro-independence individuals were subjected (naked examinations and total sensory deprivation) and death. The specific details of this abuse are detailed in my latest publication: “A Century of Political Repression in Puerto Rico.” The United States has not wavered in using any means, however degrading it may appear, to keep those who favor independence from becoming a political force that is dangerous to the prevailing regime of domination on the island. The current policy is to consider pro-independence militants who fight against colonialism as terrorists. This policy, which was established in 1970 and has not been changed, states that it is necessary “to deny terrorists the morality of their actions” and asserts that: “Only one side can really survive. If the terrorist cannot be neutralized, the only thing that can stop him from repeating his actions is death. A terrorist cannot be rehabilitated.” This policy guided the assassination of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos in 2005.
Repression and Resistance
Within this situation of generalized political repression against a significant sector of the population, a parallel resistance struggle has developed that has ensured, so far, the preservation of the Puerto Rican nationality. Artists make revisions to the myths learned in the colony and show their desire to insert themselves in a world rewritten through the difficult disciplines of the arts. In the end, the arts show an undeniable cultural affirmation of their own, the national, even at the risk of being exclusivist and chauvinist. But, above all, they show that which was revealed by writer Carlos Fuentes:
Art gives life to that which history kills. Art gives voice to those who history denies, silences and harasses. Art speaks truth to the lies of history.
Political resistance is ever more threatened by the incremental repression of the regime led by the local intermediaries who foment strategies of fear aimed mainly at undermining the economic and social rights of the majority of the people. As a result, the characteristics of this systematic repression still persist. It has touched all aspects of Puerto Rican life, has normalized repression in Puerto Rico, reveals the internalization of the fear of fighting the oppressor and the tendency to avoid public commitment in order to ensure the preservation of the social and economic achievements obtained at an individual level.
Despite the horrific image we face at the moment, there are signs of hope, particularly among the public, that appear to point toward a clear destiny: the need to develop a strategy for integrated recovery and greater awareness that the traumatic experience of colonialism, racism and the repression that come with it, demands a traumatic solution that confronts, with courage and dignity, the colonial myths that attack the essential humanity of each Puerto Rican woman and man. I invite you to work toward the expansion of this minority that will lead the land of the hopeful pitirre on the dangerous road to liberation.
Author: Luis Nieves Falcón
Published: April 28, 2015.
This post is also available in: Español