A worker's house in Aguirre
The second half of PR3 Aguirre is called “las islas”, the islands, in reference to the Puerto Rican archipelago, because as most island nations in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico is not a single island. The company town left a trail of documents that are mainly stored at the Archive of the School of Architecture of the University of Puerto Rico: photographs, blueprints, letters, reports, maps. The company town of Aguirre was built as a self-sufficient enclave segregated both from its surroundings and segregated within. The housing sectors were rigidly segregated by race and function in the sugar planting harvesting, and manufacturing process. The large cottages with their separate little houses for servants were reserved for American managers; an intermediate sector with elegant houses and dwellings for servants was reserved for the Puerto Rican middle management; a third sector of small cottages built along a rectilinear grid was destined for skilled workers. Single men laborers were housed in barracones, or large collective bunkhouses.
Most workers, specially day laborers, did not live within the closed company town, but in the surrounding barrios. The localities of Jobos and El Coquí are older than the company town, and have a rich cultural presence as locations of vibrant communities. But memory, as opposed to written history, relies on word of mouth legacies. Fortunately research into their significance is being undertaken both in Puerto Rico and by scholars from the Puerto Rican diaspora and from other nationalities. A good part from that research is associated with musical expression.
Aguirre company town, map of segregated sectors, c. 1930s
I will describe my own tentative and fragile search for a sense of place related to persons who grew under the influence of the company town, A main question was: how is it that a space associated with segregation and exploitation generates a sense of belonging, a sense of place? The question is not easily answered. It poses a dilemma that goes to the relationship between sense of place and identities, in an island that has been perpetually a colony, where the modes of resistance have ranged from direct confrontation to the struggle for everyday survival and ways of challenging, transforming and interpreting traditions. Another important factor is the early appearance of the local intermediary, a man born in the island who assumed managerial and repressive functions while representing the interests of the white American owners and protecting them from direct, everyday contacts with the miserable populace.
Going back to a sense of place, and to embodied archives, evidently the form of memories is related to popular artistic expression and invention. El Coquí, a community of workers, has been the home of artists and social activists. The story of their militant struggles dates back to the 1970s, when they succeeded in removing plans to construct a nuclear power plant, denounced the local petrochemical industry, and more recently, are involved in the fight against Monsanto, a company that controls fertile lands to create their seeds and is subsidized by the government. Most important is the struggle against the deposit of toxic ashes by a private power production company: Applied Energy Services. In Aguirre itself, a community based organization is planning to organize a housing trust to develop and preserve the sector. We interviewed doña Rosita Ramos, who is known as the local historian, and whose house was badly damaged by the storm.
Another thriving field is the study of the many expressions of the bomba. In the last decade, “escuelas de bomba” have formed. They are popular initiatives for the study and transmission of traditions. In Guayama, a group of bomba musicians, dancers and singers called Umoja (a Swahili word for unity) have undertaken a study of musical traditions and popular artists. Members of Umoja have conducted a series of interviews with older persons in Jobos and its surroundings. These persons spoke about the memories of their ancestors.
Another researcher who does field work and presentations both in the island and in the States is Melanie Maldonado Díaz. I attended several of her conferences. The one mentioned in PR3 Aguirre centered on the tradition of women bomberas. They are dancers and singers who were celebrated in the island and in diasporic communities; matriarchs who kept a memory and created memories, women artists who decorated their dancing clothes, were singers, and claimed a dominant role in the dancing ritual.
The bomba is a cultural archive of sorts an obscure book of notes in short hand, that researchers seek to decipher. It has also been the subject of academic works by scholars such as Emanuel Dufrasne, Angel Quintero, and recently the composer Javier Peña Aguayo.
The living archive is proof of the strength and continuous evolution of this musical form. Information needs to be compiled, collected and made available as part of a larger archive on Puerto Rican Afro descendant culture. A culture that is not fully recognized in its richness and span, which transcends both narrow ethnic enclaves and the efforts directed at making it invisible. This knowledge should form part of a wider network of archives, but material objects should stay close to the sites where they were created. An emerging project is the Casa Comunitaria de Medios, a community-based initiative in Aguirre.
My work is only a stitch in a large carpet of collective, scattered efforts. It would seem that the fitting together of diverse fragments of a recovered and refurbished cultural history is almost inevitable in these times when the very fragmentation of information and its wide ranging dispersion leads to inevitable connections. I intend to follow another trail in a next volume of PR 3, extending to the neighboring Caribbean islands, close to the Eastern Coast of Puerto Rico. Islands that served as a refuge for political revolutionaries, such as the Haitian Antenor Firmin and the Puerto Rican Ramón Emeterio Betances, who collaborated to develop the concept of a Confederación Antillana or Caribbean Federation comprising Cuba, Haiti, Santo Domingo and Puerto Rico while exiled in St. Thomas. Stepping stones for migrants from more remote islands, into the cane fields and in the economies of towns and cities, where they settled and formed families. Islands with ancient ties to the islands of Vieques and Culebra, islands such as St. Croix and Tortola and St. Kitts, and Anguilla.
In short it will be a book locating Puerto Rico in the Caribbean as PR 3 Aguirre sought to establish the Bostonian connections. By the way, writing the Bostonian connection was not a case of appropriating or daring to represent the voice of the victim, but rather the opposite. The driving force was based on the impossibility of being fairly imagined by the imperial gaze and the fact that we, the colonial subjects, are capable of seeing them. We are not invisible, mind you. We are, rather, like a misplaced book in an unknown language. We can be seen but not read, we are unreadable, and somehow impure and obscene. But we rely on our curiosity and our right to engage in more than one language. In any case, the new book should be a modest example of a tireless collective curiosity. An archipelago of letters, emerging where material islands are losing terrain. A lettered and remembered and tense and living Caribbean.
As a footnote let me add that I have also been thinking about a vast collective project: a literary Atlas containing stories and chronicles proceeding from each one of the 78 island municipalities, written by residents or exiles, but in any case by persons closely linked to specific places. The Atlas of Puerto Rican places should be visible and forceful. The work of a people who are not victims to be pitied or scorned.