If we don’t dance
The history of Puerto Rico, or Borikén as the indigenous Taíno communities called the island, comprises a vast mosaic of joy, culture(s), grief, and hope. Some of our communities have only begun to unearth the pre-colonial world of Borikén and the cultural memories of the African communities coerced onto its shores. Tragically, however, as with many once or still colonized lands and peoples, colonization bleeds through how we recall our history, see ourselves, and hope for our future. Not all Puerto Rican familias are as mindful of the colonial part of our history though. My fam narrated a history, personal and national, which painted a different picture. It was a picture of “gratitude” for what opportunities had been afforded us through our relationship with the U.S. -- how it established the bridge for grandparents to immigrate and start afresh while also being able to visit home unimpeded by customs -- all dope things; don't get me worng. Without dismissing that piece of my family’s historical Mosaic, this gratitude never allowed us to hold the political suppression experienced by family on the island or make sense of the discrimination we/I felt in the U.S.
When I came to LA, I discovered a group of Boricuas Puerto Ricans in Action eager to explore the more painful sections of our people’s mosaic, and coño, we were ready to protest! TBH I was hurting a lot. I felt unfaithful to my community, guilty for my self loathing, and ashamed I had not been more quick to protest. The model of gratitude I had been given wouldn’t let me hold the pains, but what I didn’t realize is that the protest model I had been adopting wouldn’t let me experience the true joys of the mosaic.
Everything shifted for me, however, at a protest march on Hollywood Boulevard one hot, smogy day. We had organized in solidarity with thousands of Boricuas and allies around the world to commemorate the lives lost during/after Hurricane Maria and to protest the U.S.’s recovery-response to it as a microcosm of its larger unconcerned, systemic prejudice against the island and its people. We were livid: posters in hand, megaphones lifted and banderas puertoriqueñas as far as the eye could see. The goal was to march a few blocks from Hollywood and Vine up to Hollywood and Highland. Before we set off, one of the protest leaders grabbed a megaphone and shared words that still have me reassembling my paradigm for protest and gratitude: “Escucha mi gente! I know we are all fuming, that we are all grieving. Pero we aren’t the only ones who have been mad. Our ancestors felt the same feelings, but they didn’t survive and thrive through anger alone. They celebrated, they laughed, they created art, they played their dominos, they danced their way through in protest and joy. So vamos pero let’s sing and dance our way down the street, because if don’t dance, we won’t make it down the street.”
If you were at church this past Sunday or peeped the podcast, Brit and Alex Gervasi reminded us how God gave the Israelites a similar speech before they entered the promise land. They needed to be able to hold the painful memories of Egyptian oppression and the genuine joys of deliverance and freedom in order to be healthy and whole in the space God gave them. “Cheap gratitude,” as Alex taught us, doesn’t allow us to sit with our pains and be opened by them to new joys or movements toward freedom. If we cling to our pains in protest and refuse to acknowledge the blessings and opportunities around us, we remain paralyzed by anger likely to transmit that pain onto someone else.
I was again challenged by Brit and Alex to learn the hard habit of sitting with pain and joy, grief and hope. When we do both, “our wells become deeper” we become people more equipped to navigate the complexities of human life; people capable of appreciating the whole mosaic. And, mi gente, if we don’t learn to sit in this tension, “we will not make it down the street.”