November 16, 2019
NWSA 2019 San Francisco, CA
Panel: “Boricua Resistance Strategies Aquí y Allá”
I’m sitting in a cavernous performance venue at Bard College in upstate New York. It’s a rainy Sunday afternoon in late October 2017—one month after Hurricane Maria. As I wait for the performance to begin, I worry about all the empty seats—this is a fundraiser after all. A few weeks earlier, the Dean of Inclusive Excellence at Bard—Ariana Stokas—reached out to me and a few other boricua academics in the area asking for our assistance in organizing a fundraiser for recovery and relief efforts in Borikén (named Puerto Rico by Spanish colonizers). Our Facebook page invited people to join us at Borikén Florece“ for an afternoon of music, dance, and poetry to stand in solidarity with the people of Puerto Rico.” The event featured Balún (a Puerto Rican quartet based in NYC), Angélica Negrón (composer, also a member of Balún), Shanti LaLiTa (Puerto Rican cellist), Isabel del Dia (flamenco dancer), and former Young Lord Denise Oliver-Velez. As the show proceeded, and the seats remained empty, I took a note on my phone: “No one is here at Bard. 75% of the seats are empty.” For me, each empty seat signaled another non-Puerto Rican US citizen dismissing the life-threatening conditions Puerto Ricans were enduring, as it had no bearing on their immediate lives.
I’m trying to enjoy the performances, but I am overcome by the death and destruction, the colonial condition of neglect, that has brought a few of us here, together in this space. I write another note: “The ambient noise Angélica Negrón offers is bringing tears to my eyes as the question keeps lingering: why is there no one here?” And then, a pause came. The ethereal and fantastical sounds coming from the stage called me away from that dark sad state. A petite femme with purple hair and a sleeveless black shift dress draws my attention stage left. Her name is Angélica Negrón; she is a composer and multi-instrumentalist born in San Juan, Puerto Rico (1981) and living in Brooklyn, New York.” Squinting from across the dark theatre, I note that her instruments are on a long buffet table. I see at least 3 microphones, a laptop, and a colorful world of audio wires connecting…vegetables? (I would later learn that she refers to this method as “veggie synth.”) I am struck by the contrast of the technological and the biological, the mass-produced and the grown from the earth. Alongside the artichoke, the turnip, the head of cauliflower, and produce I did not recognize, sat a candy dish and a glass basin full of water (later, she would use the water to soften the ring of a cowbell). None of her chosen instruments caught my attention quite like her calderó, her rice pot.
Though I can understand only some of her lyrics because they are sung in Spanish, I listen carefully. I am guided into a trance-like state by her acoustic, electronic, and found object soundscape. Hers is a delicate touch, her gestures reminiscent of a conga drummer, but with less aggression—sometimes cupping and other times tapping, she is coaxing the sounds from the vegetables. The ethereal music urges me to be present; to be affected by the sounds. Her songs make me feel vulnerable, open. They create space for breath in the midst of suffocating disappointment. Her soft voice demands close attention and creates intimacy. Her last song, she tells us, is called “Ancestors.” She explains the song is about “listening to the voices from the past and hopefully learning something from it.” I read her song choice as a call to action, a call to remember that Boricua existence is Boricua resistance, that there is a legacy of struggle and endurance to draw upon.
In February of this year, when we submitted this panel proposal, we did not know that we were about to witness a historic moment for Puerto Rico. I am referring of course to the Puerto Rican summer, or el Verano Boricua. In my abstract, I promised to theorize Negrón’s performance in the wake of Hurricane Maria through questions focused on sound, affect, healing, and transformation: How do we imagine the instruments of Puerto Rican protest? How do the sounds of justice traverse the borders—spatial, linguistic, and affective—manufactured by U.S. empire to divide and conquer boricuas? I did not know that her usage of the calderó at that benefit concert would become much more than a conceptual aid in understanding boricua resistance strategies. That instead, the calderó would figure quite prominently in the 12-day protests. In what follows, I will use Negrón’s performance at Bard to discuss another site where the calderó figured as a widely-used instrument of boricua resistance: the July 2019 #RickyRenuncia solidarity protest in NYC.
On July 20th 2019, spurred by 889 misogynistic, racist, classist, transphobic pages of a leaked group chat, Puerto Ricans made history as they took the streets of Old San Juan demanding that then-Governor Ricardo Roselló resign. The #RickyRenuncia protests emerged on protest ground largely laid by the grassroots organizing work of the queer feminist anti-racist socialist group La Colectiva Feminista en Construcciónor La Cole. In his August 2019 article for The Nation, under the subtitle of “A New Intersectional Nationalism,” Ed Morales writes that “undoubtedly the leading edge of Puerto Rico’s people-power mobilization is Colectiva Feminista en Construcción, which led some of the early actions, such as the confrontation with Rosselló at the airport when he returned from vacation in Europe to face the exploding chat scandal, and initiated the cacerolazos, or nightly pot-banging—used previously in various Latin American countries—that allowed people a simple way to protest in their own neighborhoods.”
Hundreds of thousands of boricuas protested on horse back, atvs, by skydiving, scuba diving, having coffee, making art, kayaking, doing yoga, on jet skis, paddle boards, through prayer, perreo, and with cooking pots. While each of these resistance strategies deserve analytical attention, the one I will be focusing on is of course: the cooking pots.
Every night at 8pm, boricuas participated in a cacerolazo. The cacerolazo is a cacophony of sounds made by different “drumsticks” (a spatula, a wooden spoon, a stick) and whatever pots and pans one has available. On July 23rd, a protestor deemed the #cacerolagirl emerged as a kind of heroine. Videos of her banging her pot at the police (and shouting at them to go to hell) went viral and sparked a kind of fan base on Twitter, out of which came this cartoon. The image of #cacerolagirl standing face to face with police in riot gear inspired many of us. Her resolute performance produced a sense of righteous revolution in all of us watching, and re-watching the videos. In his book After the Party, Joshua Chambers-Letson argues that
Though ephemeral, when the sense of freedom is generated across the body through performance, the body becomes aware that the rest of the time something’s missing, something better than this is possible, and that something must be done.”
Watching the protests from afar, I was awe struck, proud, and suffering from FOMO. So, when the call came for a solidarity rally in NYC, there was no question I would participate.
The flier for the “Paro Nacional” instructed us to “Bring Your Pots and Pans, Rain or Shine, Wear Black & White” and meet at 5pm at 59th Street and Columbus Circle on Monday July 22nd, 2019. The rally was organized by NY Boricua Resistance and the Ricky Renuncia Campaign. Rain or Shine wasn’t new to me, nor was the call to wear black and white (a common practice since the Obama-era imposition of la junta to denote a nation in protest), but…bring my pots and pans? I found the request odd for exactly one second and then grabbed the calderó my mother had given me when I moved out of the house—”you have to have a rice pot!”, she told me.
For me, the calderó is comfort: the comfort of arroz con habichuelas or gandules (and the pegao), the comfort of my abuelitas love, the comforting smell of the sancocho beckoning me to sneak a taste, the comfort of my whole family packed into the tiny public housing kitchens of my abuelitas—waiting to hear the final sound of the spoon gently banging on the side of the calderó, announcing la comida was ready. When I strike the pot, the sounds reverberate through time, transporting me to places and times I know and places and times I can only imagine. In Remedíos: Stories of Earth and Iron from the History of Puertorriquenas, Aurora Levins Moraleswrites that “Sometimes memory is a smooth river stone, a cooking pot, a rocking chair handed down through many years.” Recalling Negrón’s invitation to remember our ancestors in her performance, I can imagine and remember the lessons learned over generations of boricuas—mostly women undoubtedly—stirring the soup, making the rice: the sustenance for self, family, and community.
The rally was rain or shine, but it was mostly rain. But be we surrendered to the downpour, and we endured. We line danced. We sang the revolutionary version of La Borinqueña, the national anthem, penned in 1868 by Lola Rodríguez de Tío. We chanted: “somos mas! y no tenemos meido!,” “Ricky renunica y llevate la junta!” And when we grew in numbers so large that the corner where we gathered couldn’t hold us, we marched. As we got in formation to march, my compañera Ariana and I bumped into Angélica Negrón. Unmistakable with her purple hair and cute femme vibe, Negrón was holding a small sauce pot, diligently banging the bottom. I told her about this presentation, and we agreed to talk via email and out of the rain, which I will return to in a moment.
We marched from Columbus Circle down Broadway to Times Square, then down 42nd street to Grand Central Station. We were soaking wet. Marching in the street without a permit, with shoes filled with water that came from NYC filth as the streets overflowed. I had affixed my caldero with a rope around my shoulders and as we marched the pot filled with water, changing the sound of my protest. Every block it seemed the police were trying to trap us between their cars and the tour buses parked in Times Square, threatening to arrest us. I will never forget the women with their children in strollers defying and daring the police. What a feeling. A feeling of community, a feeling of hope and optimism, a visceral feeling of radical change released into my caldero and transformed into a sonic vibration; we felt our way through the pain and frustration. “In minoritarian performance,” Chambers-Letson argues, “we find a means for ‘taking flight along creative lines of escape’ in order to improvise new worlds and new, common or collective ways of being in and knowing the world.” When we arrived at Grand Central at the peak of commuter hour, our chants echoed throughout the building. We brought in a river of water beneath our feet keeping the rhythm of our chants. Our presence was undeniable, and the collective pride and pleasure in protest filled us with the resilience we need as Ricans engaged in what Ruiz in her new book Ricanness (2019) names “a continual performance of bodily endurance against US colonialism.”
The day after the march I emailed Negrón. I sent her the abstract for this paper and she replied “the presentation looks really interesting. I like the connection to protest sounds too which actually I didn’t make until this past few days.” I was struck by the way she understands a protest sound as occurring only within the space of that rally, and not her concert. As an instrument, the calderó becomes an aesthetic tool as much as it is a culinary one, and if we take seriously Ruiz’s notion that “Ricanness is animated by acts of political and aesthetic endurance, those moments of staying power in the face of cultural, personal, and national subjection,” then we must push against her (perhaps unintentional) separation of the aesthetics from the politics, for the stakes are too high.
I asked Negrón if she had a set list for the show at Bard. She responded, “I don’t have the specific setlist but I do know that I performed selections from “Pasajero.” She provided me with the program notes on that particular song:
Pasajero (Passenger/Fleeting) is a collection of ambient pop songs […] Inspired by themes of collective and individual identity as well as the search for home, these songs combine elements of magical realism with fragile electroacoustic soundscapes crafted mostly through micro samples and found sounds. […] these songs seek also to highlight the sometimes- overlooked magic in the ostensibly insignificant, the mundane and the quotidian.“Pasajero” is dedicated to all of those who’ve had to leave their place of origin in search of something else.
Bringing our pots and pans to the rally was an accessible aesthetic intervention that called us together, that allowed us to feel together, to quite literally transfer and transform the energy inside of us. “Performance reaches into a spectator through the senses,” argues Chambers-Letson, “and it also produces sense in and for the community of spectators. In so doing, it may produce a collective consciousness, or common sense.” The production of a collective consciousness is a critical process for a group of people routinely removed from their ancestral land and a culture constantly threatened by the might of US settler colonialism.
At the end of her email Negrón directed me to her Instagram page, Little Miss Echo, where she had posted “a short video using 3 calderos […] echoing some of the protest chants starting with ‘Ricky Renuncia’ and then ‘Somos más, y no tenemos miedo.’” I return to my original question: what makes a sound a protest sound? Is it where you are when you make it (the kitchen, the performance hall, or the rally)? Who you are when you make it (the abuela, the musician, the protestor)? Is it the intention of the sound made (to clean a spoon, create a sound world, or to register your resistance)? I want us to think of a sound as a protest sound because of its effects: How does the sound make us feel? And how is that feeling a practice of endurance and resistance?
There is a music note called “the fermata” that is called a calderon in Spanish. A fermata, or calderon, is “a prolongation at the discretion of the performer of a musical note, chord, or rest beyond its given time value”; it is also the “the sign denoting such a prolongation.” I don’t have the time to think through the relation of this denoted pause in music, and the “alternative ways of being and becoming in time: for the pause in tight spaces” that Ruiz argues is so important for conceptualizing Rican subjectivity—but there is certainly something there to explore and I plan to do so through the calderos. The calderó is no mere vessel, it is not just for cooking, it is for memory, it is for healing, it is for community making wherever and whenever we are. And for me, it is a gendered object that indicates a different nationalism, that intersectional nationalism that we hope for and witness emerging through the labors of queer feminist boricuas unafraid to tell the colonial government to go to hell.
 Ed Morales, “Feminists and LGBTQ Activists Are Leading the Insurrection in Puerto Rico,” The Nation, August 2, 2019, https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/puerto-rico-insurrection-feminists-lgbtq/.
 “#CacerolaGirl Has Gone Viral For Her One-Person Cacerolazo Protesting Puerto Rican Cops,” Remezcla, July 23, 2019, https://remezcla.com/lists/culture/cacerola-girl-puerto-rico-protests/.
 Chambers-Letson, 7
 Morales, Aurora Levins. Remedíos: Stories of Earth and Iron from the History of Puertorriquenas. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2001; 128.
 Chambers-Letson, After the Party, 18.
 Ruiz, Ricanness, 25.
 Ibid 10.
 Email with Negrón 7/26/19; emphasis mine.
 22, Joshua Chambers-Letson, After the Party: A Manifesto for Queer of Color Life, Sexual Cultures (New York: New York University Press, 2018), https://nyupress.org/9781479832774/after-the-party.
 Ruiz, Ricanness, 10.