Front Cover
 Half Title
 Title Page
 Table of Contents
 Special section: Derek Walcott
 Essays: Urban and community...
 List of contributors
 List of photos
 Back Cover


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Title: Sargasso
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Physical Description: v. : ; 28 cm.
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Subjects / Keywords: Caribbean literature -- Periodicals   ( lcsh )
Caribbean literature -- History and criticism -- Periodicals   ( lcsh )
Puerto Rican literature -- Periodicals   ( lcsh )
Puerto Rican literature -- History and criticism -- Periodicals   ( lcsh )
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Table of Contents
    Front Cover
        Front Cover 1
        Front Cover 2
    Half Title
        Page i
        Page ii
    Title Page
        Page iii
        Page iv
    Table of Contents
        Page v
        Page vi
        Page vii
        Page viii
    Special section: Derek Walcott
        Page 1
        Page 2
        Page 3
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        Page 5
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        Page 10
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        Page 12
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        Page 15
        Page 16
    Essays: Urban and community art
        Page 17
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    List of contributors
        Page 147
        Page 148
        Page 149
        Page 150
    List of photos
        Page 151
        Page 152
    Back Cover
        Back Cover 1
        Back Cover 2
Full Text

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2007-08, I1

c 2007-08, 11

SARGASSO 2007-08, II
Urban Art and Community Art In Puerto Rico and Beyond

Sargasso, a peer-reviewed journal of literature, language, and culture edited at the University of
Puerto Rico, publishes critical essays, interviews, book reviews, and some creative works. Sargasso
particularly welcomes material written by/about the people of the Caribbean region and its
multiple diasporas. Unless otherwise specified, essays and critical studies should conform to the
style of the MLA Handbook. Book reviews should be kept to no more than 1,500 words in length.
All correspondence should include one S.A.S.E. For electronic submission, write to: sargasso@

Postal Address:

P.O. Box 22831, UPR Station
San Juan, Puerto Rico 00931-2831

Lowell Fiet and Katherine Miranda, Issue Co-Editors
Don E. Walicek, Editor
Maria Cristina Rodriguez, Book Review Editor
Sally Everson, Contributing Editor
Katherine Miranda, Contributing Editor
Carmen Hayd6e Rivera, Book Reviews
Lowell Fiet, Founding Editor

Editorial Board
Jessica Adams, Independent Scholar
Mary Ann Gosser-Esquilin, Florida Atlantic University
Peter Roberts, University of the West Indies, Cave Hill
Ivette Romero, Marist College
Felipe Smith, Tulane University

Antonio Garcia Padilla, President of the University of Puerto Rico
Gladys Escalona de Motta, Chancellor, Rio Piedras Campus
Jose L. Ramos Escobar, Dean of Humanities

Layout: Marcos Pastrana
Visit: http://humanidades.uprrp.edu/ingles/pubs/sargasso.htm
Front and back cover art: Camilo Carri6n

Opinions and views expressed in Sargasso are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily
shared by Sargasso editors and Editorial Board members. All rights return to authors. This journal is
indexed by HAPI, Latindex, MLA, and the Periodicals Contents Index. Copies of Sargasso
2007-08, II, as well as previous issues, are on deposit in the Library of Congress. Filed March
2010. ISSN 1060-5533.

Table of Contents



Derek Walcott, interviewed by Chihoko Matsuda 3
The Gem of Theatre: Walcott in Conversation ...

Elena Lawton-Torruella 16
"As the Bamboo Fifes Grew Shriller"...


Mayra Montero 19
Tito Kayak: Days in the Sand...

Rafael Trelles, interviewed by Katherine Miranda 25
Intersections and Interventions:
The Urban Graphics of Rafael Trelles' En Concreto...

Rosa Luisa Mdrquez 43
Boal's Image in Puerto Rico: A Testimonial Tribute ...

Raquel Ortiz 55
Painted Walls: Urban, Public, and Community Art
in El Pueblo Cantor ...

Michael Reyes, interviewed by Lowell Fiet 69
Crime Against Humanity in Chicago:
An Interview with Michael Reyes

Review of Crime against Humanity by Lowell Fiet... 79

Maricelis Nogueras Col6n 85
Clandestine Borders of Performance Art:
A Look atJ6venes del 98 ...

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


PapelMachete, interviewed by Lowell Fiet and Deymirie Hernindez 99
Arming the Future with PapelMachete:
Interventions of a Theater Collective ...

Review of Papel Machete's "'No-one' for Governor" by Lowell Fiet... 13

Traci Currie 117
The Relevance of Poetry: Living in Raw Space ...

Elena Lawton-Torruella 121
"The Flower Vendor"...


Maritza Stanchich 125
Just Below South: Intercultural Performance in the Caribbean and
the U.S. South, by Jessica Adams, Michael P Bibler, and C6cile
Accilien, eds....

Raphael Dalleo 130
Love, Anger, Madness, by Marie Chauvet. Translated
by Rose-Myriam R6jouis and Val Vinokur...

Lillian L6pez Rivera 134
She's Gone by Kwame Dawes....

Linta Varghese 135
Callaloo Nation: Metaphors of Race and Religious Identity among
South Asians in Trinidad by Aisha Khan...

Alicia Pousada 138
Our Bastard Tongues by John McWhorter...

Edgardo Perez Montijo 142
The Lunatic and Dog War by Anthony C. Winkler...


SARGASSO 2007-08, 11


Urban Art? Cultural Agency? Community Creativity and Activism?

Three years ago, when the idea of an "urban art" issue began to be discussed,
we were thinking more in terms of plastic arts, dance, and music -the
subterranean youth cultures and creative expressions associated with spray-
paint graffiti, hip-hop music and cultural styles, and the explosion in the
Caribbean and its communities abroad of reggaetdn. But that idea began to
evolve and transform itself as the materials began to arrive. In one sense, the
focus "aged" because it fell increasingly on those artists -many still young,
such as poet Michael Reyes from Chicago or the Papel Machete collective in
San Juan- whose work assumes a position of activism -cultural, educational,
ecological, political- within urban communities. Furthermore, we discovered
that many of the activist artists -painter Rafael Trelles, creative theater
directors such as Rosa Luisa MArquez and Maritza Perez, and the eco-
political daredevil Alberto de Jesus ("Tito Kayak")- have dedicated decades
of their lives to urban and community creativity and remain at its forefront
by working with and training new generations of artists. Not unsurprisingly,
in the collecting and editing process the focus also increasingly fell on Puerto
Rican art and artists both on the Island and in the US. The Batey Urbano
on the El Paseo Boricua, Division Street, Chicago is one such focal point;
Maria Dominguez's murals in the Bronx and elsewhere in New York City
become another. Because part of what we were receiving was already known
or at least available in Spanish and in Puerto Rico, we also sensed a need
to cross language and cultural barriers and move beyond a Puerto Rican
"comfort zone" by breaking Sargasso's usual bilingual policy of publishing in
the original language of the submission. Thus everything that appears here
is printed in English. That more labor intensive process accounts, in part, for
the delays in getting the finished text to the press.
The issue is more a hybrid than originally anticipated in another way as
well. We received a new interview with Derek Walcott that we definitely

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


wanted to publish. Yet our other scheduled issues -Alternate Identities,
Linguistic Explorations of Language and Gender, Dominican Literature and
Culture- offered few points of contact with the great Anglophone Caribbean
poet and playwright. Thus we lead this issue with Chihoko Matsuda's "The
Gem of Theatre: Walcott in Conversation" as well as some poems of tribute
to Walcott. To that Anglophone poetic mix we have also included a brief
testimonial essay by Traci Evadne Currie about poetry, relevance, and "living
raw space," which takes us back to how creativity intervenes to transform
contemporary violence especially in urbanized spaces where community is
always a necessary if a precarious and imperiled notion.
Urban and Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond also imposes greater
visual content on Sargasso's text-based academic format. We hope to keep
moving further in that direction in subsequent issues.

Lowell Fiet
Founding Editor

SARGASSO 2007-08, 11


Derek Walcott. Courtesy
of Chihoko Matsuda.

Derek Walcott and Chihoko Matsuda. Courtesy of Chihoko Matsuda.

The Gem of Theatre: Walcott in Conversation

Interview by Chihoko Matsuda
Hitotsubashi University

Zor Nobel Prize-winning St. Lucian poet and playwright Derek Walcott,
IP poetry rather than theatre ensured academic fame. However, in quality
and quantity, Walcott's career as a man of theatre and theatrical works is no
less important than his poetry. The text below consists of excerpts from two
forty-minute interviews. These were conducted on 28 January 2008 at Wal-
cott's house in St. Lucia, and on 8 April 2008 at his apartment in New York.
They focus on Walcott's own views of his theory, practice, and experiences
from his long and continuous career as a man of theatre.
As an active playwright, Walcott has written approximately thirty plays
for Caribbean, British, and North American theatre companies, half of
which are published. As early as the age of nineteen, he published his first
play, Henri Christophe (1949). Then, in 1950, he founded a theatre company,
the Art Guild, in his home island, St. Lucia, with his college friends and
his twin brother, Roderick. In his late twenties, having won a Rockefeller
fellowship, he studied practical stage direction and dramatic theory, which
were in fashion in New York. Returning to the Caribbean in 1958, he joined
Roderick to establish the Little Carib Theatre Workshop, and presided as a
chief director until 1976. This company is still active, and it is now called the
Trinidad Theatre Workshop.
Walcott's theatrical works, more than his poetry, demonstrate how his writ-
ing reflects social, historical, ideological or cultural movements and discourses.
As a playwright, he utilizes a style which he calls "the verse in poetry," conscious
of the social and collective characteristics of theatre and drama.
Since the 1990s, critics in North America and Europe have regarded thea-
tre's immense value because of its role in social, political, and cultural develop-
ment. It has been said that "[t]he theatre, the most public of the arts, has always
been a sensitive gauge of social pressures and public issues."' The aesthetic values
read from dramatic texts can describe only the partial value of theatrical works
because theatre is not only a written script but a performance art and cultural
institution. It reflects real experience -the historical, social, cultural and po-

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


litical context of a developing and changing society. As a man of theatre,
Walcott is aware of this important function of the theatre, that is, the strong
connection with real society and human life that theatre and drama have.
Unique to these interviews, Walcott reveals the strong influence ofJapa-
nese films, theatre, and woodcuts on his theory and aesthetics of theatre. Jap-
anese film is especially vivid in his memory. He encountered these cultural
forms as a rising man of theatre in his late twenties. The young Walcott was
impressed by both the content and visual artistry of Japanese films, referenc-
ing the works ofAkira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu (1953).
The films that influenced Walcott in his late twenties came from post-
war Japan, between 1945 and the 1950s. The Japanese film industry changed
considerably because of the impact of World War II. The Allied Forces oc-
cupied Japan after the Potsdam Declaration and governed the country indi-
rectly from 1945 to 1952. As a result, the traditional foundations of social,
economic, cultural, and political values had been precipitously eroded with
the breakdown of pre-war systems. In such a context, Japanese film directors
attempted to portray a secular humanism --timeless and universal- with
scenes set either in post-war or feudal Japan.
Kurosawa (1910-1998) filmed his first work, Sanshiro Sugata, in 1943.
By the late 1950s, when Walcott encountered Japanese screenplays, Kuro-
sawa had directed several successful films on the theme of universal human
nature and post-war Japanese life such as: The Most Beautiful (1944), One
Wonderful Sunday (1946), Drunken Angel (1948), and Ikiru (1952). At the
same time, Kurosawa also directed popular period films, including Rashomon
(1950), Seven Samurai (1954), and Throne of'Blood(1957).
On the other hand, Ugetsu was directed by Mizoguchi (1898-1956), an-
other influential director in both the pre- and post-war film industry. Ugetsu's
plot is based on two narratives, "Asaji ga Yado" and "Jasei no In," originally
from Akinari Ueda's Ugetsu Monogatari, first published in 1776 in feudal
Japan. Ueda's Ugetsu, a collection of mysterious and sometimes hair-raising
ghost stories, is adapted from classic Japanese and Chinese tales. However,
Mizoguchi visualized the story with picturesque beauty, focusing on the
crude human nature that reveals itself in ordinary peasant life rather than
supernatural, ghostly narratives.

SWilmish, Don B. and Christopher Bigsby. The Cambridge History ofAmerican Theatre. Vol
1. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. xv.

SARGASSO 2007-08, II


Walcott was fascinated by these rustic subtleties of human nature de-
rived from omnipresent and timeless human life as presented in Japanese
films. He has noted that the typical scenery of Japan depicted in those films
reminded him of St, Lucia, especially its rainy and misty climates, but also
its steep mountains covered with luxuriant forests.
The cinematic visual beauty of these films also vividly impressed Wal-
cott. Like Mizoguchi, Kurosawa displayed striking originality and exquisite
beauty in his style and techniques, which resulted in him being described as
"Japan's poet laureate of film."2 These directors often employed themes and
techniques from traditional theatrical performances, including Kabuki and
Noh plays. For instance, Kurosawa applied Noh techniques and methods to
his films, including Throne of Blood (1957), an adaptation of Shakespeare's
Macbeth. In this work he experimented with how to represent the intrin-
sic and universal weaknesses of human beings, rather than just portraying
Macbeth's character in the Noh style.3 He observed that Noh actions and
techniques, which require concise and highly stylized forms, attain their es-
sence through the removal of embellishments. Given that these directors
employed such theatrical aspects, both visually and contextually, Walcott was
influenced by traditional Japanese theatre as well as Japanese cinema.
At the time of this writing, the geographical, cultural, and political con-
nections between the Caribbean and Japan have been scarcely pointed out
in academic work. In addition, while a number of books focus on Walcott's
poetry,4 the only detailed volume so far to concentrate on Walcott as a man
of theatre is Bruce King's Derek Walcott and WestIndian Drama (1995). Attention
to Walcott's own views on theatre and drama provides a fresh viewpoint for the
study of the writer and his works, as well as postcolonial Caribbean theatre and

2 "Japan's Poet Laureate of Film." 1962. Akira Kurosawa: Interviews. Jackson: UP of Mis-
sissippi, 2008. 20-23.
3 Horikawa, Hiromichi. Hyouden Kurosawa Akira. Tokyo: Mainichi, 2000. 227-230.
4 For instance, Patricia Ismond's Abandoning Dead Metaphors (1993) and Robert D. Ham-
ner's Epic of the Dispossessed (1997) concentrate only on Walcott's poetry. Also some critics
juxtapose Walcott as a poet with other poets. For example, in The Flight of the Vernacular
(2001), Maria Cristina Furnagalli compares Walcott to the Irish Nobel Prize winning Irish
poet Seamus Heaney, turning her attention to their postcolonial adaptations of the Classi-
cal poet Dante in their poems in verse. Also Charles W. Pollard categorized Walcott into a
modernist poet with T S. Elliot and Edward Kamau Brathwaite, in New WorldModernisms
(2004). Most recently, Line Henriksen published a book, Ambition andAnxiety (2007), in
which Ezra Pound's "Cantos" and Walcott's "Omeros" are discussed at the same time as
twentieth-century epics.

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


drama. Focusing on Walcott as a playwright remains vital with respect to the
history of contemporary Caribbean drama and theatre, of which little has been
studied, as he is one of the most active and significant playwrights in the latter
half of the twentieth century within the Caribbean region. The following inter-
views are also interesting in that through them, Walcott reveals and comments
on the influence ofJapanese art and culture on his work.

28 January 2008 at Walcott's home in St. Lucia

Chihoko Matsuda: Is there anything you can express only in plays, but not

Derek Walcott: I think that the thing one has to achieve in contemporary the-
atre, in verse ofpoetry, is to make sure the pitch, not the vocabulary -but the
pitch of the dialogue in conversation- has a real quality of speech without nec-
essarily growing into a dialect or any idiosyncrasies. It's not a matter of vocabu-
lary because you can have great rhetorical speeches or exchanges of argument
that will be based on metre: metrically steady. It mustn't sound literary, as having
been written as it is spoken. This is achieved, of course, in the greatest verse of
theatre in which [it does] no[t] matter who is speaking or how it is done. The
pitch of the voice is colloquial: it is based on exchange. So I think this is the
first difficult thing for someone writing verse to conquer, because [there is]
the temptation to achieve speeches as grandiose or big. I think it's the first
thing for the poet, who is writing in the theatre. There is no difference at all
for me between the two of them because I write plays in verse, almost in the
same metre with verse, metrically. Generally it's a loose kind of blank verse.
I believe that you could achieve a height of declaration in verse in the
theatre that can be as beautiful as poetry, but as valuable as a sound -as natu-
ral- sounding as verse should sound.

CM: Then, is there anything you can't express in the theatre? I mean, that the
play has some restraints that poems don't have. For example, that it shouldn't
be too long, or that you have to elaborate upon the structure and have to
think about the audience's response.

DW: The best poetry in theatre, that is, a product [of] theatre comes with al-
most no stage devices, [or] stage structure. I'm saying that in Macbeth, when
somebody describes a castle -and what we do is, that, in theatre of the

SARGASSO 2007-08, 11


Absurd, or the twenty-first century that is, contemporary theatre- we basi-
cally try to describe every word [by stage devices]. It means that it cuts short
the idea of bringing the audience into a presence, into a landscape or into
anywhere just by the words but not by the design.
My words create the atmosphere, and the audience have to use their
imaginations] as they are described. But Western audiences expect more to
be described. They deliberately confuse theatre with cinema. They think the
theatre should be more cinematic, [and that] the theatre should reproduce
things as cinema does. As a result, it limits language, because you don't need
to describe if you won't build it with stage devices.
In a way, poor countries are stronger in the theatre because of the verbal
necessity of describing. You know Grotowski advocated the poor theatre?5
The poor theatre doesn't have ornamental stuff because it is too poor to af-
ford it. For instance, in the Caribbean, which is a poor society, they have to
use the audience's imagination. I'm saying that the concepts of reality make
the Western theatre boring.
Thus, the value of Oriental theatre is still that of the classic theatre,
namely, [as] it describes not too much. The great thing about Oriental the-
atre or of the certain concept of the theatre is that it's absurd to try to build
reality inside the house of the theatre. I mean, the theatre is a house with a
ceiling, so it's stupid and comical to build a street inside the house, but it is
accepted as a convention in realistic theatre, which is mainly prose theatre.
Prose theatre deals with naturalism, which is recorded as naturalistic.

8 April 2008, Walcott's Apartment in New York

CM: The last time I interviewed you, you said that the written play finally
belongs to the interpretation of other actors, directors, and the audience.
Then, what is the role of a playwright in the whole process of creating theat-
rical arts? What can playwrights do and what can they not do?

DW: I don't know if it happens in Eastern countries, but the procedure in
Western commercial theatre is that somebody options a play. That is, they
buy the play for a limited time and produce it. Everything is very compli-
cated. It depends on the relationship of the playwright and his agent: namely,
the agent negotiates for the playwright. The playwright doesn't take part

5 See Jerzy Grotowski's Towards a Poor Theatre (1968).

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


in the creative part of production itself, but once the rehearsal is underway,
it depends on a director who may want the playwright around and can't
prevent him from attending rehearsals. However, a lot of directors prefer
to work by themselves for a while, before they bring in the playwright. As
the playwright's role is like this, he or she has to be extremely patient with
the process of interpretation, that is, a slow rehearsal and an examination of
what's been said in the text. Things may not work in the text, in the script,
at which point -if the playwright is around- the director may ask him to
assist in a rewriting of lines, or the actors may suggest it also. The playwright
is not the director, of course. So we're talking as if the playwright is simply
the principal element but not directing. The playwright has an enormous
amount of authority. In other words, even in America you can't change a text
without commission of the playwright.

CM: Is it part of a contract?

DW: Yes, the director can't change words or ideas; but it has to be an agree-
ment between the playwright and the director. But in the American theatre
very often the playwright can be left behind. I've been through that experi-
ence, too, when the director may be difficult or may not understand what is
happening in the text, or an actor may be difficult. The playwright can also
suffer when the director is a big name, and he or she emphasises his own au-
thority a lot. If the process is not working out comfortably -if, for instance,
the play is not published yet and they are developing the play and it may be
published- then the text that they are working on is going to be the one
that is ultimately published, maybe.
In the case that the playwright is the director- as I have been myself,
directing my work with my own company- my own theatre company in
different places or in Trinidad, then it is a terrific process because everybody
collaborates on the shaping of the play. If the playwright... I always let the
actors say their thoughts in order to make them contribute even to the shap-
ing of the play and heighten the collaborative quality of the work. I think
[that] the best theatre in the world, whether it's Shakespeare, Moliere or
Brecht, the playwright had always worked with his own company, because
he knew the actors. He knows when (what?) he wants to challenge them
with... and there is kind of a common voice in the shape of the play. In fact,
the process is the same because eventually -whether it is a professional or

SARGASSO 2007-08, 11


amateur company- you have to form an ensemble. The play has to have an
ensemble quality. It must have harmony. The performances must make sense
in terms of the direction of what is happening. So, it's the same process; and
that makes the production better because everybody is sharing the wish to
make the play work.
But that's not usually the case. Usually the case in the theatre is that
there is a lot of wrangling between some of the different elements, whether
it's an actor or actors, or something. The atmosphere of the theatre or of an
ensemble can be very quarrelsome. Generally the exchange that goes on is a
very personal and intimate one between the actors and the director.

CM1VWhat, then, is the difference between the genres of poetry and theatre
in terms of the different kinds of challenges they bring you?

DW: Because I write my plays in verse and because I write verse I think of
the play in a way as a very big poem, in a way, and eventually all plays become
that. They become like a varied poem because a lyric poem has harmony and
unity. And it's the same thing I am after in doing plays. There may be voices
in a play, but the final tone of the entire play is the same as that of a single
poem in a way.

CM: Is there anything you can convey to other people by writing plays rather
than poetry?

DW: I think the difference is just that a poem is by a single mind and a
single person usually, and the theatre is many voices, and different people
contribute to the theatre. I mean, a good [stage] designer can do a good
deal for a play; music can help a play, and so on. There are other artists who
enter the picture and certainly all the actors, the individuals. So it becomes a
kind of a family, in a way. It extends itself into something with many voices
and many temperaments. The greatest pleasure I think I've had is that the
actors have become like a family to me because they have different parts of
their play, but everybody has the same intention [for] the play. And there is
no singular ambition. The playwright's ambition is not important. In other
words, it is the work itself that becomes important and, of course, the leading
actor; and to be able to write parts for actors is a great joy for the playwright
in the ensemble.

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


Maybe I told you the story that in the Trinidad Theatre Workshop we
had just done a play of mine called The Sea at Dauphin. Then we realized
we were going to travel to Canada, and there was one actor called Albert
Laveau. A great actor; but I hadn't written a part for him. We were going to
Canada so I couldn't leave him behind; and I thought that I've got to write
something that brings him out at the end of the play. And I wrote for him
the part of Basil in Dream on Monkey Mountain because the play was being
evolved still. Finally, Basil became a very, very crucial part in the story, so this
is an example of having an ensemble and writingfor an actor, and I think
that that's the happiest experience that a playwright can have; and I've had it
nearly all my life. It's great.

CM: Then, is there any detriment or inconvenience in having 'a big family'
as you work in a production?

DW: No. When it doesn't work then you are to blame; but when it does
work it is a great joy. On Sunday night, I went to the concert of The Cape-
man.6 This was a live performance. And what I'm saying is that the people in
the performance were very, very happy working together, and so the feeling
of something working out together can be great, you know; and I've had that
several times with the workshop, and you know, working with the actors.

CM: Next, would you mind explaining the influence of Japanese films and
other art on your theatrical works?

DW: I sort of discovered Japanese cinema, I forget, when I was in New York
in the [19]50s, late [19]50s, I think.

CM: Was it at the time that you were studying stage direction, and when you
received a Rockefeller Fellowship?

DW: Yes. And I went to cinemas and saw Kurosawa ['s films] and Ugetsu.
Black.and white, mainly. I found something very similar in Caribbean life;

6 The Capeman is a Broadway musical, first performed in 1998. Walcott wrote its lyrics,
while Paul Simon composed music. Walcott is here referring to a revival performance of The
Capeman, held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in New York on 6 April 2008. Being a
concert-style, reduced choreography, this production was performed by seventeen singers
and the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, led by the pianist and arranger, Oscar Hernindez.

SARGASSO 2007-08, 11


and Caribbean scenery, even. For instance, rain is a big thing in a Japanese
film. Bamboo and wind and all that we have at home. When I saw Kuro-
sawa's works, or the works whoever directed, first of all, it was beautiful not
to understand the language; so it was a good thing not to hear the language,
because you know how Japanese sounds grandly. And it related very much
to gesture.
Also the design, the geography of Japanese film to me was very close
to [that of] St Lucia. Rain and mountains and the peasants, and the whole
thing. So we don't have the other thing. We don't have the emperors and the
generals and all that sort of stuff. We have the peasant life.

CM: Although the systems are different in St Lucia and Japan...

DW: Yes, the peasant life of Japan, I could understand that plus of course
Japanese woodcuts, Hokusai7 and other people. I found it very powerful be-
cause of the simplicity.
And so the idea of mist, bamboo leaves, and so on-there's something
very powerful for me in terms of the memory of St Lucia.
Out of that came, say, the influence of Rashomon, Kurosawa and Ugetsu.
Japanese action in Japanese films is very staccato, and it's very close to a
dance. It's just general gesture. The percussion of it, the staccato quality of it.
I found it very close to Caribbean music. And also some of the instruments,
the drums, and the flute and so on -instruments we have at home still, so
that still I am influenced by that presence that is there because all these films
have one attribute that is very strong, and that is they are magical, in a sense.
They have something beyond the ordinary Hollywood kind of feature film,
and that is, I think, something that has to do with the concept of magic in
their art. And that's what I think Caribbean art tries to get as well. You know
the 'Mie'?

7 Hokusai Katsushika (1760?-1849) is one of the most popular Ukiyoe woodblock print
painters of his time. Ukiyoe is a painting genre produced between the seventeenth and the
twentieth centuries, mainly in the urban centres of Edo, a former name for Tokyo. Ukiyoe
featured landscapes such as Mt. Fuji, waves, popular motifs of young, beautiful women,
including Geisha and theatrical motifs like Kabuki actors and theatregoers. Exported to
European countries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Hokusai's woodcuts influ-
enced the techniques of Van Gogh and other French impressionists.

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


CM: The 'Mie' is a name of the pose gesture that traditional Kabuki actors
employ, pausing with strong glares and hand gestures.

DW: When I wrote Dream of Monkey Mountain, a friend of mine said, 'Oh
that's very "Japanese" tite.' I said, 'Monkey? Right!' [DW points at the cam-
era man, squatting down by the video camera, and says],'There is a Japanese

CM: Monkey? [Chuckles] Yes, he's very quiet.
Mie. I read that you were very aware of Mie in your 1970 essay 'Meanings.'

DW: Because it relates to a dance. It's called the Bongo, an African dance.
The drumming is the Bongo and there is stuff in the Bongo that is very
much like the Mie.

CM: Like the Bongo dance, the Mie is regarded as masculine gestures. The
next question is related to the style of musicals. You wrote quite, a few the-
atrical works, which include both lines and lyrics, such as Ti-Jean and His
Brothers (1958) and The Joker of Seville (1974). Is there any difference be-
tween writing verses for music or melody, and writing for actors' lines?

DW: Well, working with Paul [Simon] was very, very helpful and very nice.
Also, I've worked with three or four very good composers. I've worked with
Galt McDermott, Andr6 Gregory, Paul Simon. The composers vary. With
Gait McDermott, I would write something which is -basically a song is very
much a poem, but whatever I wrote Gait would put music to. Sometimes if
I'm working with another composer- Paul is a very good poet. He is a very
excellent writer as well. He writes his own songs, his own lyrics, so when I
collaborated with him, we did it together and I can't remember nearly every-
thing that we shared together, but most of the work is his.

CM: Really?

DW: Paul Simon, yeah. A lot of things that I did in there, [was] part of the

CM: So, it was real collaboration.

DW: Yes. It was very good. So, some composers will work from the lyrics you
give them, and make it work in a sense [if] you drop in too many syllables. In

SARGASSO 2001-08,11


other words, I have never worked, very rarely worked from putting words to
the music. The music has existed or the music comes after I do the words. In
Paul's case he has written his own music and his own words, so I write some-
times within the frame of what he's done and then he would do the music. It
would be there anyway. With Gait, it's as [if] I write the lyrics. I don't write
the music. But he then takes the lyrics and no matter how complicated it
seems to me, it will work as music. So I can write very freely with Gait met-
rically. Then he does very little changing [of] the lyrics. Andr6 was also his
own composer. Gait doesn't write lyrics. But Paul and Andre did or do, and
if I come in, sometimes I write a song which Andr6 would put to music. And
the song would exist. I think the thing which you learn about music, [and]
writing lyrics with musicians or composers is first of all the clarity -that
you can't make it too compact. You can't make it, can't grasp too complicated
metres or complicated vocabulary. The words have got to be clear. They don't
have to be monosyllabic, but they have to be singable. You can't hear the ac-
tor, the singer with something too complicated to sing, because it will tire
them and it won't work. Everything should be as if somebody could say it;
and I think you can also orchestrate. All good poets have that quality, that
they sound as if somebody said it. No matter if it's [Shakespeare's] Troilus
and Cressida and [if] it has a complicated vocabulary. It is the human voice.
That's the main thing. The human voice can speak it. That's the first thing
you want. And then of course on the individual line I mean Paul was very
good on that. He'd be changing a stress here on that, but that's not a good
thing. It's too tiring for the actor trying to say that because it has too many
syllables or it has too many aspirates, or whatever. Then you work on the
individual line so that it breathes. And you learn from either one. I think as
a poet you learn to simplify -lyrically- vocabulary for working in songs, as
well as you do it from theatre.

CM: One more question about the musical form of The Capeman (1998).
The Capeman was meant to be performed in front of a Broadway audience. Is
there any difference between a Broadway audience, or an American one in a
very large sense, and a Caribbean audience as you write a play?

DW: Yeah, the Broadway thing has got a lot of stress in it, got a lot of ambi-
tion, reputation and critiques.

CM: It's business.

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


DW: Exactly. It's business. If you're on Broadway, you might as well have
a hit and a hit [that] can last. A hit must last two years or three years. It's
uncertain in the theatre to say if it's going to last three years. The audience
is there for it, but you can't write with that in mind. I don't think The Cape-
man is a Broadway play. I think it's a smaller production in a medium-sized
theatre. I just saw it on Sunday night without all the sets, just the singers and
the lyrics. And that's what it needs, that simplicity, I think.

CM: Have you ever noticed a difference between a Caribbean and Ameri-
can audiences' acceptance and reactions, as your works are performed in so
many places?

DW: Yes. There's no audience participation on Broadway or in the West End
theatre. The audience does not engage itself in the action. I think when you're
writing in St Lucia, you're writing directly to the audience and then they par-
ticipate virtually -even if it's not verbally- they are participating in the action.
And because of the rhythm, especially if you're doing a musical. It does happen
here [in New York], too. It happened on Saturday and Sunday nights] [at The
Capeman concerts]. People were shaking and dancing, and so on.
There's no difference in audiences anywhere in the world, I don't think,
because it's human; but I think that in the Western theatre maybe you go
into the theatre and a lot of people have fought this idea, that [by] going into
the theatre they're going into church. You have to keep quiet: you can't shout
at the actors. It's not like the old theatres in which you'd hiss [at] the villain,
or applaud, or take part in the action. I think a lot of actors, a lot of theatre
people, wanted to go back to that kind of sharing between the audience and
the play; but basically what you're expected to do in the theatre is to goin as
if it's a church -keep quiet, have that kind of awe, silence, as if it's a religion
-which it's not. So I prefer the vibrancy and openness of a theatre that can
shout back at the actors. I think that's the kind of theatre you had [with] the
best theatre. I think you had it in the Greek period. And I think you had it
in Shakespeare's time, too.

CM: I think so too. At that time audiences were clearly part of the play itself,
weren't they?

DW: Yes. You couldn't get the grandeur of the Elizabethan language if the
audience were not participating, because you had to write so well that you

SARGASSO 2007-08, 11


had to dominate the heckling or the talking that can happen. Because in
Shakespeare's Hamlet he [Hamlet] says the same thing that makes -don't
go for the easy laugh right, it says- it gives instruction to the actors of what
not to do, and it talks a lot about the participation of the audience in the
theatre. But then if you know that you've got to write so well that it turns
heckling into admiration, then you really have to write well. There's no such
challenge in the theatre now. And a lot of people want to go back to that pri-
mal relationship between the actor and the audience, which we still have in
the Caribbean. The theatre is a lot in the street. And in the Calypso you have
it. In the Western theatre we pretend that the audience isn't there. It's absurd
in the theatre, whereas I think in the Elizabethan theatre -in the Theitre
Franqais like Moliere- you know that the audience is there. And they play
to the audience, to the reaction of the audience.

CM: All the plays were written and performed only for audiences, and actu-
ally they were very much conscious about-

DW: The audience's presence.

CM: As I said before, your play, The Odyssey, will be published in May 2008
in Japan in Japanese.

DW: I would love to see it done in Japan very much, and I'd like to see it
done in the formal, classical Japanese style, in Kabuki.

CM: What do you want to do most in your life now?

DW: Raaaaaa, Kurosawa, Raaaaaaaa. See it [the production of The Odyssey]
in Japanese first. I want to direct The Odyssey, Kabuki-style, in Japan. I am
available next year. Do they know Homer in Japan?

CM: Of course. He's famous.

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond

"As the Bamboo Fifes Grew Shriller"
(Walcott, Omeros, Book Six, III, 25)

Early Morning will slip out the door
any moment now.
She's done her chores,
washed the sea grapes,
stabled the restless palms,
still tossing green-yellow manes.
She's shaken a day's coconuts from their nests.

Still her movements, once fluid
day after day,
month after month,
now grow sluggish.

When soon she's old
and understands solitude
to be a light rain,
when she's brittle boned
and stooped,
won't the salt beads and seaweed frill
of that translucent shawl look
as if she's straining to
snatch back youth?

One of these dawns,
when a Picasso moon, with a smile
straight on and wry to the side as well,
refuses to budge,
and when stars are starfish sucked into the sky,
she'll wander away barefoot,
and forget.

Elena Lawton-Torruella

SARGASSO 2007-08, 11


Alberto de Jesus (Tito Kayak). Courtesy of Claridad.

Tito Kayak: Days in the Sand

Mayra Montero

Alberto de Jesuis, or "Tito Kayak" as he is universally known in Puerto Rico,
is a cultural icon of environmentalism and political self-determination. For
two decades he has battled US warships in open seas in his tiny kayak,
camped out on the uranium-contaminated bombing fields of Vieques,
climbed out on a tine of the Statue of Liberty's crown to drape a Puerto
Rican flag, or shoulder dislocated, camped out for days on a construction
boom high above the technically illegal but government-supported Plaza
Caribe on the San Juan water front. In this last venture, his daring escape
from the Police by climber's rope and then kayak, only to surrender the
following day, underscored the multitude of high-risk and often acrobatic
engagements that mark his career as a virtuoso "performer" of Puerto Rican
cultural and political resistance to US colonial domination and neoliberal,
global capitalism. His actions place his body -his life- on the line as he
confronts oppression, expresses his credo of liberation, and ultimately, as-
sumes responsibility for his actions. Mayra Montero's article based on her
interview of Tito Kayak is taken, with her permission, from Conjunto: Re-
vista de teatro latinoamericano 145/146 (October 2007-March 2008): 122-
125, and translated by Vivian Otero.

On the phone, Tito Kayak gives me the directions to the place where he
lives. He says that I should make a U-turn on the first left after passing
the Marriott Hotel and take the side road that runs close to the fence. He
says I should continue on that road, on the one that will seem like I'm going
contrary to traffic, but in reality I'll be going the right way.
What strikes me, amazes me really, about this is that when I make the
turn he suggests, I indeed have the feeling that going contrary to the traf-
fic is not exactly the same as going against it. Then, as in the best comics,
there is a cut to another frame, and I enter a new script, a warrior's planet, a
film where everyone has an alias-Mantarraya (stingray), Caracol (seashell),
el Pulpo (the octopus).
There are four or five tents and a trailer. In the small, makeshift kitch-
en under a tarp, a young woman is frying eggs. A puppy named Cayuco is

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


watching her. A cat named Medusa is watching her. Also watching is a man
who everyone knows as Erizo (sea urchin) and at times goes by the name of
Perimetro. Perimetro shakes my hand and mutters, "Don't you remember
me? I was Duque's owner."
When most people greet each other, they usually offer other clues
-"Don't you remember... I'm so-and-so's brother, or so-and-so's husband, or
so-and-so's nephew." Between Perimetro and me, things are a little different.
Our point of reference is Duque, a renegade mutt that I used to feed outside
a supermarket. But Perimetro left the neighborhood and lost track of Duque.
I tell him that the dog died a few months ago, although not of old age he
was poisoned. Perimetro lowers his head. I'm saddened too. Cayuco, who
knows no fear, jumps on my lap. Such is life, a cycle, the same instinct with
a different snout.
Tito Kayak appears from God-knows-where, not from any of the tents,
or any trailer. He seems to come from no fixed place, appearing as in a video
game through an imaginary door that quickly fades. He shakes my hand and
introduces me to the Ceiba tree he planted two years ago. We are standing
close to the shore, steps away from the waves and the real medusas. It's hard
to imagine they tried to dump cement here to build a parking lot. We're all
going crazy parking lot and a condo hotel, or something of the sort, practi-
cally on the water.
We move to a tiny living room with no doors or windows. There's a dilapi-
dated couch, a table, a mountain of newspapers on top of a box, a gas lamp, a
humble straw mat. There's also another rug, a large fancy one stretched out on
the floor with the words Ritz Carlton on it. I imagine in bygone years, opulent
steps on that carpet, wealthy feet, stylish shoes. Today, it's dust returning to dust,
to days in the sand. Tito Kayak is drinking coffee from a plastic mug. To begin
at the beginning, I ask him his age, where he was born, the typical stuff. I don't
know whether he doesn't want to reveal the fact, or whether he finds it silly that
I ask his age point-blank, a throwback from the old days of journalism "Can
you tell me the year you were born?" I've asked this so many times, and I really
should stop. We're getting a little old for such trivialities. It turns out he was born
in the mountain town ofJayuya, raised in the Bl6gica neighborhood of Ponce,
went to school -all kids go to school- and then on to a vocational institute where
he studied to be an electrician. He has two associate degrees. I'm not sure if
he's an electrical engineer, but he's definitely an electrician. He spent six years
in the National Guard and eight in the Coast Guard. In January 1995, in

SARGASSO 2007-08, II


an act of protest against the Pacific Swan, a cargo ship that was transporting
plutonium, he used his body for the first time in an environmental political
performance. He climbed, Spiderman-like, to the top of a hotel. It happened
to be the Marriot. What a coincidence that everything began with the Mar-
riott. He was not yet Tito Kayak, no one had seen him kayaking to deter war
ships. He was Alberto de Jes6s Mercado, a man who everyone thought was
trying to commit suicide on that January day in 1995. They later learned he
was, in fact, a suicidal character but a very alive, angry, and rebellious one.
That is, a warrior.
"They took me to the mental hospital," he says, but not as I'm saying it
now, he says it while he's standing up, moving around, sitting down again,
rushing the words out in a way that is sometimes difficult to understand. He
is a restless guy and although he jumps to another topic, I drag him back to
the subject of the loony bin. I ask him to tell me about his experience that
first night at the hospital. He says there was a patient who mumbled insults,
another one who was totally drugged, another who tried to grab him by the
neck. Ten months after leaving the hospital, in November 1995, he founded
"Amigos de Mar" with his wife and his father.
The subject of his wife interests me. I stare at the Ritz carpet, a rug as
shipwrecked as the Titanic, but perhaps happily so. It was stepped on a lot
and seldom admired, and now it's here, on the war path so to speak. I ask
myself whether I'm in the wrong interview, whether I should have in fact
interviewed Sandra. Can anyone even imagine what it's like to be married
to Tito Kayak? To Tito Kayak and his circumstances, and thus in a constant
state of panic. I do my arithmetic and realize that during all the time he has
been climbing buildings and statues of liberty, diving into the sea in Vieques,
pitching tents inside firing ranges, bursting into the capitol building, going
in and out of jail, and now living in this camp under the shade of the flow-
ering Marriott, his children have grown. The girl is sixteen, the boy twelve.
The day before, a Sunday, he had spent the day at the beach with them, at
Mar Chiquita, to be exact. Even though he was on father duty that day, or
perhaps because he was, he couldn't avoid checking out another environ-
mental disaster, a new abuse that was going on in that area, as is the case in
most of our coastal areas. "This is a bastion," he says, "fiom here we go on to
support other struggles."
For this is little less than a guerrilla camp. A guerrilla camp adapted to its
time and place. The structure, the pace, the esthetics, and the form all evoke

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


a guerrilla culture. Even Cayuco is an underground dog. I'm not saying it's
bad. There's no need to fear concepts nor do we have to run from words. We
are adults, I think, and I can tell you that this phenomenon, this invention of
Tito's is quite interesting. And it's cloaked in silence because the State, and
the real powers that be, which are economic, don't like to air these things.
That's how we live, pretending that nothing is happening, but everything is.
We celebrate Christmas sales, Valentine's, then Mother's and Father's Day,
and finally Halloween and Thanksgiving. Not to mention hurricane season,
with its storm swells. If one of them came through here, it would sweep away
the little TV set, the dilapidated chairs, the deck chair they brought up from
the bottom of the sea that is covered in algae; the stereo, the camp beds, the
water bottles.
"The storm swells are going to reach the Capitol building," Tito Kayak
promises. "We're going to paralyze the country, and it won't be our fault,
they're forcing us to do it."
We talk for a while about what happened in Ecuador. A majority of par-
liament refused to approve a measure proposed by the President to authorize
the formation of a Constituent Assembly. Union, environmental, and finally
indigenous groups, thousands of protesters who -poor and, above all, fed up-
planted themselves in front of the Parliament building in Quito. Little by
little the crowd grew and the legislators, after having to flee under police es-
cort, had no option but to give in and open the way for a new constitution.
Tito Kayak asks me if it's okay to remove his shirt. The rest of the troops
are shirtless. I tell him to go ahead, what do I care. He has hair on his chest
and a normal belly button. I don't usually notice my interviewees' belly but-
tons, but I should. The great author Juan Goytisolo showed me his belly
button, or the lack of it, many years ago. There was nothing but closed skin,
and that infinite absence has stayed with me through the years. I look Tito
in the eye. I stare for a while to see if I can perceive some sign, some gap,
some possibility that he may fall apart, that he may sell his soul to the devil.
Someone must have thought about it, someone must have cultivated the idea
of buying him off; nurtured the thought of killing him. I was about to tell
Tito, but didn't. He must know it anyway.
At that point Caracol, also known as Mexicano, walks in. He asks some-
thing or other about some palm tree trunks for building a little path. Tito
Kayak explains, but I'm not too versed in decoration. The girl who was frying
eggs when I arrived, whom they call Gaia, comes by and reads me a quote

SARGASSO 2007-08, II


from Greenpeace that talks about Rainbow Warriors. Erizo, alias Perimetro,
interrupts us for a moment to say goodbye. He's going to work. They leave
for work and come back, taking turns so as not to leave the camp unattended.
There's a table with its legs driven into the sand right next to the water, and
several plastic chairs. They sit there at night to talk and, I suppose, to read.
Tito tells me that he really liked my book, "The Pilot of the Dead."' I point
out that it isn't a Pilot but a Captain, nor the dead but the Sleepers. But, I
add, his version sounds tenacious, he should keep it. I even promise him
another novel, on the condition that he change the title.
I've yet to meet some important members of his team. They arrive little
by little. "The dearest one," for example, is the oldest, and I refrain from
guessing his undefined age. "The dearest one" weeds, plants, prunes, and
secures the posts that hold up the tents. Three guys greet me from afar. One
of them, called Cangrejo (crab), is inside a tent either sawing or sanding
something that raises dust, and Tito suggests he do it outside.
Tito has a rare authority. His hair is short -a street-cut- with a little
lumpen lock falling on the nape of his neck. He puts on his sunglasses and
takes them off, and then tells me about the sick sea turtle he found adrift
while kayaking from Vieques. He tells me about a bird, a pelican, or so he
recalls, with a wound on its neck. He lifted it out of the water and put it in
the kayak. The sea can be cruel, don't anyone idealize it. Tito assures me that
the sharks don't open their mouths -the various sharks he's run into- because
his mother, a spiritual country woman from Jayuya, pacifies the animals from
afar with her prayers. I hear him say that and conclude that you also need
a lot of determination to fulfill the role of mother to such a son. His father
was a fisherman and diver, a sea dog and accomplice. You can tell they're ac-
complices. The old de Jests had the audacity to suffer a motorcycle accident
at eighty-nine. The genes, my dear Marriott, do not bode anything good
for you -you can count on Tito kayaking at eighty-five. That is, unless the
increase in global warming renders any protest purely academic. When the
sea rises, and it inevitably will, even the dignified Ritz Carlton carpet, now
graced by its proletariat environment, will perish underneath the waves.
"We're in for the long haul," Tito says in reference to the occupied area,
and he explains that there are appellate court processes and other procedures
going on.

1 Captain of the Sleepers (New York: Farrar, Straus, 2005).

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


A young woman from the United States who joined the camp a few
weeks ago and was dozing in one of the tents earlier today has gone out to
pick up the trash people leave behind in the sand. They throw cans, diapers,
paper, and everything imaginable. Some of them are indolent and big-bel-
lied, the most dangerous of species, deranged and satiated, the only type of
zombie that eats salt and never wakes up. True zombies wake up in a fury
with just a slight taste of something salty.
Tito Kayak teaches, I think, that protecting beaches goes beyond letting
bathers use them as they are using them now. Their cars don't have to be
parked so near the shore, they don't have to pour oil in the sand or fry pork
chops, nor flood the coast with the smell of motor fuel, the racket of cheap
music, the plastic cups. Summer beach festivals are around the corner. The
hordes leave condoms on the ground, bottles, paper plates, and shit in gen-
eral, a lot of it. I ask Kayak to assign me a sea animal name, since any day I
may come back and stay for a while.
"Aguaviva" (jellyfish), he says. "I can give you that name. We had a sting-
ing jellyfish here once, but it left."
"Aguaviva," jeez, what a lousy name. Why would anyone like to have a
name that stings? Now for sure, if I do come back, it will be with my books,
a computer for my writing, and of course with one of my dogs, a puppy, a
playmate for Cayuco. But Cayuco reads my thoughts and bares his teeth. I
respond by showing him my canines. This is the struggle, sweetheart. Don't
you dare surrender.

Traslated by Vivian Otero

SARGASSO 2007-08, 1

Intersections and Interventions:

The Urban Graphics of Rafael Trelles' En Concreto

Interview by Katherine Miranda
University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras

SafaelTrelles is a Puerto Rican artist who works with paint, multi-media,
.Land most recently, dirt. His oeuvre addresses myriad topics and themes:
the fantastic, urban poverty and drug addiction, magical realism, demilitar-
ization, the aesthetics of commonality. Trelles' project En Concreto:grafica ur-
bana, began in 2004 as an experimental urban art initiative in Santurce that
combines varied concepts and mediums. Using enormous plastic templates
and a water pressure hose to draw outlines, or a nail to etch, Trelles fashions
his works of art on "dirty" walls. These artistic interventions have been per-
formed in several parts of San Juan and Vieques, Puerto Rico, Buenos Aires,
Argentina and San Agustin, Cuba. The following interview was conducted
at the artist's studio in University Gardens on March 15, 2009. Earlier that
day he presented at the Inter-Acciones Creativas conference held at the Uni-
versity of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus, and discussed the Vieques phase
of the project. Our conversation details the totality of En Concreto's scope -
the inspiration behind its techniques, its urban aesthetics, and the practical,
legal and philosophical implications of its symbolism.

Katherine Miranda: To begin our conversation, I would like to ask you
how the project was conceived and how it began.

Rafael Trelles: It began with an idea before 2003, a year or two before. I
was cleaning the sidewalk in front of my house with a pressure hose, and I
noticed that when I ran the water over the hose that was lying on the side-
walk in front of my house, well, that when I lifted it, I found the sidewalk
was marked, that the drawing of the hose was left perfectly marked on the
sidewalk. From that I noticed that with this technique, I could do etchings,
something that was practically an etching. It's an idea that came to me in

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


Rafael Trelles at work. Courtesy of Rafael Trelles.

the moment but that I left hanging as an idea to test in the future. The first
Trienal Poli/Grafica of San Juan and the Caribbean proposed collecting and
exhibiting graphic art of an experimental nature. Because I was on the advi-
sory board and couldn't obviously participate directly, since I was part of the
organizing team, in tribute to the Trienal I decided to do an independent
exhibit. I did the exhibit in the area around Sagrado Corazdn University and
during the second half of 2004 -I don't know the exact date- I exhibited my
photographs and the documentary video of my artistic interventions in Rio
Piedras using this technique during the summer of 2004. So really it was
summer of 2004 that I started.
At first I worked in two modes, with two distinct, but complementary,
techniques. [The Puerto Rican artist] Antonio Martorell called one of these
"aguafuerte," a technique that is a type of engraving which is called "etching"
in English. Etching utilizes acid to eat through the metal plate. This acid in
Spanish is called aguafuerte, a liquid that corrodes. In allusion to my work,

SARGASSO 2007-08, 11


which uses water pressure to clean the cement, and because it's graphic, he
used the term in a figurative sense. And this was the same technique I used
to cut my design templates into strong plastic sheets, which I superimpose
on the fungus-blackened surface of the cement, the concrete, and then wash
with a pressure hose. When I remove the template the design is "etched" with
the dirt on the wall. So it is literally making art with dirt. The other tech-
nique, following Martorell's play on words, I called "punta seca" [dry point],
which is another etching technique that consists of scraping a metal sheet
with a sharpened instrument and it's dry, there is no acid used. So it's punta
seca because I use a regular old nail and with that nail I scratch the black-
ened cement and as I scratch I make very thin, white lines, and that's how I
construct the drawing. A delicate drawing that has shades of light and dark,
and it's like a type of graffiti scratching on the streets. The only difference is
that the quality of the drawing gives a very impressive character to the work.
But it's nevertheless a very common experience that everyone has had, you've
taken a stone at some point and scraped on a wall.
How did this idea occur to me? Well, with another experience very
similar to the first. I was watching my kids play on the street, my son and
the neighbor, and I took a bottle cap and started to scratch at a light post in
front of my house. You know those unconscious drawings one does? And I
made an eye, I remember, a very detailed eye, with light and dark areas, and
I thought, wow, how is it possible I can make art with this? And then I con-
nected it with the other thing and decided to develop the project.

KM: And all of those works were done in Rio Piedras?

RT: The first phase was all in Rio Piedras and some in Santurce.

KM: And then the project traveled, correct?

RT: After the exhibit of the graphics and the documentary at Sagrado Cora-
zdn I exhibited it in Galeria Botello... and then I moved it to the Fort Conde
de Mirasol in Vieques, and in the fort was where the other phase happened.
While we were putting together the exhibit I spent time with the people and
offered a workshop. It was a community workshop where a group of students
and elders from the community were integrated and learned the technique.
We cut plastic and I measured some walls, and the idea of doing the project

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


in Vieques came up. We did an expedition of Vieques and we found maga-
zines [US Navy bunkers used to store explosives] with the help of Robert
Rabin, who was our guide, and I measured the surfaces of this wall and we
also measured the helipad. Then I designed the templates for that project
and for those specific places. Now the designs took on greater complexity
and were much more difficult to cut by hand, because cutting this plastic by
hand requires a great deal of strength. I found a place in Humacao called
Model Offset, a printing press, which has the only computer-activated laser
cutter in Puerto Rico. A scaler cuts the template with a laser; you give the
orders to PATH, which is a design program and then the template is cut to
size. They can cut plastic, metal, wood, whatever you want they cut it as if it
was a piece of bread incredible. And so I was able to begin designing much
more complicated things, much more detailed.

KM: And those were the images that went to Vieques?

RT: When I went to.Vieques -and I want to add that all of this was financed
by "Rafi Trelles Productions," because if I had depended on economic aid
this never would have happened, so I did it from my budget- the idea was to
help the Comite Pro Defensay Rescate de Vieques [Committee for the Rescue
and Development of Vieques] in their campaign for the Navy to clean up
the land. This phase, which Vieques unfortunately is still in, struggles for the
official clean-up to be "clean." Redundant, no? But what happens is that
they're using the cheapest way to clean up, which is accumulating the bombs,
making. a mountain of them, and detonating them in the air. This generates
a dust cloud full of heavy metals and other contaminants that are carried
through the air and fall in whichever direction the wind takes them; mostly
on top of the population. This reaches as far as Fajardo. I lived in Humacao
and what's happening in Vieques is right next door, all of it is affected by
the wind. And although Vieques got rid of the Navy, it continues to feel the
effect of the bombings because bombs are still being detonated. It's ironic.
And for that reason the format, the screenplay of the documentary was made
to provoke an emotional reaction in the spectator to support this phase of
the Vieques residents. And it's not just in terms of the technique utilized,
but rather, a metaphor for how one can appeal to the clean-up of those lands
through an artistic act that also consists in a clean-up. Clean up the dirt and
clean up the explosives. There is a very coherent connection.

SARGASSO 2007-08,t1


KM: Yes, definitely.

RT: Actually, if you notice, something that really interests me is that I'm
cleaning off a fungus that has been accumulating since the time the Navy
worked there. I'm actually working with the detritus of a naval base, all of
that past I'm transforming into art. And going back to the spot, the place
where all of that occurred.

KM: The connection is very powerful. I understand that all of this is the
second part of the project and that the project's vision changed during this
phase. But I'd also like to talk a bit about the first phase of the project in the
context of its "urbanity," about the urbanity of the project before Vieques,
given that the images in Vieques are so different; although I believe there is a
connection as well. How does the type of art you're creating compare to other
types of urban art such as graffiti or murals? And the purpose of cleaning,
of removing dirt, how does this idea take on metaphoric symbolism in terms
of that urbanity?

RT: The difference between traditional graffiti is that usually the artist goes
to a wall in the city and leaves a design there, a picture... I try to do the op-
posite. I go to the wall, but instead of a clean wall or a painted wall, I go to
a wall that's dirty, that is usually in an abandoned space. And I observe the
surroundings, not only of the wall itself and the intricacies of the society
around it, which interest me, but of the wall's surroundings in terms of the
architectural levels of the city that surrounds it. It could be anything from
a stop light to an electric light post, an electric plant, everything that sur-
rounds that place. And I take all of that into consideration at the moment of
designing the art.

KM: So it's not just the wall, but also...

RT: [T]he city as well. In the way that when I put my design there, it's an
act of total economy; what I do is using the template I remove the dirt, a
way of taking away things, I take off the dirt. I understand that behind what
I'm doing there, there's an intelligence operating so that design can function
harmoniously with the elements that are there. I don't necessarily achieve
it from an artistic point of view, but I try. Someone may criticize and tell

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


me, "Look, you didn't do that," but at least the intention is there, to create
harmony with the surroundings. The fact that it's an abandoned wall means
that my art is not going to foment resistance in the inhabitants of that area.
In fact, the opposite is true, what's emerged so far so far has been a surprised,
agreeable, and celebratory reaction. Different from the graffiti artist who
goes and imposes his/her design, sometimes on private walls, and irritates
the owners of the wall or the neighbors who don't like it. Another thing is
that my work is not so connected to the kinds of urban art that are linked to
hip-hop culture, a strident style, a style that may invoke violence, and since I
work on drawings, a very different style, it could be that this also influences
the ways my work is accepted by the public. I've also worked from a socially
conscious angle, that's the other dimension. I've worked on images where
I try to denounce, in a way, the police, as well as urban violence and drug
addiction. With some designs, more than anything with punta seca, in Rio
Piedras and Santurce, I did some graffiti designs where I denounced this and
the reaction was very interesting.
There was one case in particular that is on the video where I'm working
here in Hato Rey on a design where I represent a drug addict with a crown
of needles. This is an area that's not residential, an urban area with many
homeless people, and there's an addict that's watching me while I do this,
and he's watching and asking for money and he starts feeling uncomfortable
when he starts to see the needles. When he sees that I'm doing the face and
I'm doing it with a certain level of skill, he says, "Wow, man, you're a genius,
look at how well you draw." And when he starts to see the needles, he gets
upset and says, "Hey, what's that, what does that mean?" And I tell him,
"This is a Christ." And he says to me, "What does Christ have to do with
the needles?" And then he tells me, "I'm an addict." And I say, "I know," and
he continues, "What does one thing have to do with the other?" And I say to
him that Christ was a person who was born into a society that later rejected
him. He was rejected by his community arid they condemned him.

KM: And they killed him.

RT: And they killed him. And the addict'is also a product of society. What
I believe is that drug addiction, aside from being your personal decision, is a
decision that is determined by other social factors. And after society creates
addicts in one way or the other, it then rejects them and marginalizes them.

SARGASSO 2007-08, 11


Images En Concreto. Courtesy of Rafael Trelles.

When I told him that he says, "Ah... now I understand." And he was very
happy with the image and he told me, "Don't worry because I'm going to
take care of it for you."
So what happens? Later I pass by and I see that someone has responded
to the image a few days later, someone took paint and a brush I give these
details because the person had to look for paint and a brush, it wasn't some-
thing improvised, not something scratched out with a stone and then made
some marks around my image and on the side he or she wrote a message with
some curses, saying that that character was so-and-so with a nickname and
that the person was a drug addict. And as I was looking at all this and tak-
ing pictures of the image, the same guy who was there before came over and
said to me, "I'm sorry, it's me, do you remember me? Look, I'm so sorry that
this happened, I couldn't stop it, it was this other guy, but I don't know why,
it's some fight between these two addicts and one used this image to insult
the other one." And I said to him, "No, no don't worry, I'm happy." And
he said, "How can you be happy?" And I tell him, "This was my intention,
I assumed the right to freedom of expression, because it's a public wall and

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond



I made my drawing and the other guy has the same right to use this public
wall and express his message." And he must have thought (laughing) this
guy is totally crazy, how is this possible?

KM: It's a very important theme you're bringing up in terms of that interac-
tion with the public, a primordial aspect of urban art.

RT: For me the fact that one of my works has been used by another art-
ist or person on the street, to express another message is important. He or
she transforms it, recycles it, uses it to convey a message. And this goes to
show how a work that isn't in a museum, that's not in an art gallery, that's
on the street, is at the dispensation of being acted on by the public. And
this interests me a lot because when you exhibit something in a museum or
a gallery the audience that goes to those spaces, well, it's an audience that is
predisposed to look at art and accept that social contract in terms of what it
means to be a spectator. They go with that commitment and make conces-
sions to the work. But in the street, no. In the street, the audience is moving
around, paying attention to other things, and suddenly they see an artistic
manifestation. If it has enough power to pull them out of their daily lives and
particular interests, well, you achieve their audience, that they see you. And
if the work goes above and beyond it will provoke the audience enough for
someone to respond to it. Whether that be censoring the work or changing
it into his/her own message, whatever. That is fabulous.

KM: It seems that this whole process you're describing now -the interaction
of a public audience with urban art expressions- has offered you a lot as an
artist. In terms of future works then, do you think you will continue doing
urban art? Does this type of artistic expression take on more value than, say,
works you have exhibited in a museum or a gallery?

RT: Yes, I'm very interested in continuing to do urban art. Actually, after
Vieques, I did works in the Museo de Arte de Ponce. That was more abstract
art, a very interesting work that was more for the audience. After that I was
invited by the Mayagiiez college campus to work on an image in the Parque
de los Pr6ceres. And after that I was invited to be an artist-in-residence
with Proyecto ACE [www.proyectoace.ar]. This project went a step farther.
I decided to do images related to the work of a very well-known Argentine

SARGASSO 2007-08, 11


author, Julio Cortizar. I relate to his work very much because my paintings also
explore magical realism; he fascinates me, I'm one of his fans. So I dared to do
a series of templates based on the work ofJulio Cortazar -- on his short stories
and the novel Rayuela. What happened was that Proyecto ACE did a tremen-
dous production job they contacted the press, and the most-listened-to radio
station in Buenos Aires called "Rock and Pop" sponsored the project, and they
interviewed me a week before I went to Buenos Aires. And then when I got
to Buenos Aires there was already a publicity campaign underway airing thirty
second commercials talking about the project, and explaining how the Puerto
Rican artist was here with his project En Concreto to work with dirt, about Ju-
lio Cortizar, and this was on the radio all the time. I was very impressed. The
campaign was to invite people who had walls full of verdin, a type of fungus, and
donate these walls, to call or e-mail, so that the Puerto Rican artist could go and
clean the wall of the house using a design, from Julio Cortizar. And there were a
considerable amount of calls and e-mails.

KM: What parts of the city did this involve, any certain areas in particular?

RT: Different parts of the city. There were so many that I couldn't get to all
of them because it was too much. We did answer everybody, though. And
then we got pictures through e-mail and I determined from photos if each
wall would work or not. So some of these designs I did on the walls of pri-
vate houses. It was a fascinating experience because the community was so
integrated. I could tell you a story: I was in my taxi with the documentary
filmmaker, Roberto Tito Otero, and the taxi driver hears is talking about the
project and he says, "Ah, you guys are the ones from 'Rock and Pop,' that are
working on the walls..." (laughing)

KM: (laughing) You were already known all over the city!

RT: People knew us because they heard about it on the radio all the time. So
there was a greater intervention in terms of community integration. People
were waiting for us. Then they interviewed us again on the radio, a second
interview when we finished the project. We had a good time.

KM: I would like to talk a bit more about the images themselves. You've
already spoken about the images you did in Rio Piedras and the interaction

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


you had with the public, that you chose the image of the Christ specifically
for that wall because of the surroundings and its potential impact, and also
about the magically real images ofJulio Cortizar and their links to different
surroundings in Buenos Aires. Could you speak more about the root of your
inspiration for these different images?

RT: Well, in Rio Piedras, the first thing I did was a design inspired by the
tiles of old Puerto Rican houses from the 1950s or earlier, influenced by Arab
and Andalucian styles, especially Moorish. So I made templates inspired by
that design and I put them on the sidewalks, because the sidewalks get dirty
so fast. The intention behind this was to beautify the sidewalk, put tiles on
the sidewalk. In a critical essay he wrote about my work, Antonio Martorel
very rightly pointed out that it's a way of taking the domestic space to the ex-
terior; converting public space into domestic space, or transforming it from
its intimate character to public space. Much of my work was inspired by that.
Another part of the work was inspired by my painting which is based on
mythology, mythical people....

KM: And fables ...

RT: Fables, fantasy.

KM: So the work you did in Vieques was totally different from these other
images in that way, not based on your painting. Vieques was a totally differ-
ent idea.

RT: Yes, in Vieques the images were against violence.

KM: So in each phase of the project, you've taken into consideration the
specific surrounding of each space to re-work your images.

RT: Yes, the physical and social aspect.

KM: You spoke a bit in the conference about the idea of the project in terms
of the works being non-permanent works. Since they're made through re-
moving dirt from a wall or .a sidewalk, well, the wall is going to get dirty
again and those images will eventually be covered up. You also spoke about

SARGASSO 2007-08, I


the symbolic process of cleaning and its symbolism. My question is how the
process is affected by the fact that these images won't remain there forever,
that they're not "protected" by a gallery? Does this affect the artistic process
of making them? You used the word ephemeral in the conference ...

RT: An ephemeral project, yes.

KM: Which is a very interesting idea in the context of what you were ex-
plaining earlier because, for example, although your images may be very dif-
ferent, graffiti and other types of urban art have that same aesthetic.

RT: My graphics are always ephemeral. Not like graffiti because graffiti is
left there, it lasts longer, more years, but little by little the paint deteriorates
because of the sun, the rain, the climate... But in this case it's ephemeral be-
cause it lasts very little. Depending on the amount of humidity in the place,
sometimes it could last six months, or it could last you a year or three, the
most it could last would be three or four years. In dry areas like Vieques it
lasts much longer. I think that in terms of doing this type of work it doesn't
go against any creative process because creative processes are autonomous,
where definitely what you do, whether its a drawing in the sand, which will
be erased by a wave in a matter of seconds, or an etching in a stone that could
last thousands of years, creative processes are yes, authentic, genuine, when
it's the artist working with the form and trying to achieve integration of
those primal elements, an organic integration, harmonic. So it doesn't matter
if it lasts long or not. It may affect the spirit of the artist, who knows that
this is ao non-permanent act. But in the end, I always try to look at life from a
wider angle, and we're so fleeting, you know? This planet, well, one day the
sun will expand and turn it to dust, right? Sometimes you think, "look, this
is going to last, many years, like a pyramid, a petroglyph that could last thou-
sands of years." But in the end, we're all going to be star dust, everything is
fleeting, everything ends.

KM: It seems that the process of interaction with the public is related to this
theme, because it's the act of creating the art that is symbolic as well as the
art itself whether ephemeral or not. I was very interested in the story you
told about your interaction with the drug addict when you were drawing the
Christ. This act of "cleaning" walls, of drawing in public, does it take on a

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


theatrical aspect, one of performance? Is that artistic process of creating your
work performative in itself?

RT: Well, yes. Apparently it does. I didn't do it intentionally but realized through
the process that people really enjoyed seeing the act of creation. I imagine be-
cause it's something quite magical in the sense that, aside from understanding
the technique clearly, which is very simple, the result is so visually appealing
and from an artistic point of view it has so much visual impact that people are
amazed. It's a matter of putting a template there and washing the wall and
all of a sudden this image appears there, as if it was a magic act. And so I've
discovered that aspect, en route, this performativity of the work. I haven't
denounced it, quite the opposite, I've assumed it as part of the project and
I've celebrated it. The last thing I did was put on coveralls with En Concreto
written on them, you know (pretending to hold the pressure hose forward).

KM: (laughing)

RT: You know, like the "Ghostbusters," like this with the machine, tan-tan...
(gesturing and laughing). But I didn't choreograph it or anything.

KM: (laughing) You weren't dancing or singing?

RT: No, no, no... (laughing)

KM: But yes, you saw that people were affected, it's impressive for people to
see that process of creating.

RT: It's always an experience for people to see an artist working. You know
the people who do the portraits in parks and people watch how they do it,
right? So this is related, a work that is done quickly and the results are seen
immediately, and it produces that effect.

KM: Which also links to the urban aspect of the work, because that wall has
been there collecting "dirt" for a long time, and in an instant you can remove
the dirt that has been accumulating for so long.

RT: Another related story about the work's effect on authorities, on the gov-
ernment. Once I was going to do a wall in Rio Piedras. I parked the van on
the sidewalk to be closer, but it was illegally parked. So a police officer came

SARGASSO 2007-08, 11


over. He said, "You can't park there," and I said, "could you just give me a
minute because this wall that you see here is dirty and I'm going to wash it
and make a design," and then he said, "well now definitely not you can't
work here, that's prohibited, that's graffiti, you can't do that."

KM: What building was this?

RT: That was on the concrete surface underneath a fence in the Rio Piedras
Plaza del Mercado. So I said, "But I'm not going to paint anything there."
And the guy says to me, "Didn't you just tell me you were going to make a
design?" And I said, "Yeah, but I'm not going to do it by painting, I'm go-
ing to wash the wall." And so the guy couldn't understand what it was all
about, and I showed him the van and the templates and the pressure hose
I was going to clean with. And he still couldn't understand and finally told
me, "Ok, go on, let's see." The cop let me do it. Simply because he wanted
to know. And so I discovered a fissure in the law, where, since I'm not paint-
ing, I'm not leaving any pigment and I haven't done the experiment yet,
they've never arrested me for doing this but if I was arrested, I'm sure it
would difficult for a judge to categorize my intervention as damage to public
property. Because I'm not damaging public property, I'm cleaning. Through
that I discovered another aspect of this work that's very interesting because
it enters legality and we see its inoffensive character.

KM: Exactly, because you're not leaving anything behind. What you're doing
is taking away, and taking away something that noone wants: dirt.

RT: And that's another thing that I also discussed in the conference, which
is related to how this kind of art teaches people to see in a different way. To
look at reality in another way. What we habitually consider dirt, abandon-
ment, one can find beauty in that. But it doesn't mean that I'm placing beauty
there, the beauty was there before, what happens is that we're incapable of
seeing it because of the prejudices that we have when looking at things. If we
have the prejudice that that wall is a dirty wall, abandoned, well, we miss the
opportunity to be able to appreciate the beauty in that dirt. But if we look
attentively we'll see that in that dirtiness there are streaks and degradations
of gray that are gorgeous. And if I tried to paint that I would spend a lot of
time as an artist trying to achieve that delicateness. And they're the product

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


of a fungus that's growing there. And so, when I enclose that dirt within an
artistic design, well, it's easier for the spectator to discover the beauty that
was previously there but that now since it's no longer a wall and that streak is
a painting and possibly that streak is perhaps a person's back, well, they say:
"How beautiful." But the beauty was there before. We simply discovered it.

KM: In another way, in another form.

RT: Another way of seeing, of looking at life. And so that has philosophical
and ethical implications regarding how we behave and how we confront all
of life's vicissitudes.

KM: This seems to me a theme -the idea of finding "hidden" beauty in the
most "common" things a fundamental part of the urban nature of this art,
since we're surrounded by this hidden beauty in a city. But it also applies
equally to the work you did in Vieques, which is a rural island. I'm inter-
ested in knowing, since the project began as urban graphics in the city, if in
Vieques this is still urban art, even though it's a rural island?

RT: Well, really, perhaps you should ask a sociologist (laughing) instead of

KM: (laughing)

RT: What happens is that even though it's rural, urban culture covers all of
Puerto Rico. Today, even the most rural country areas of Puerto Rico watch
TV, have Internet, media, the automobile that takes you quickly from one
place to another. So even though it's a rural surrounding, the culture that
predominates and the attitude of people towards things is every day more
urban. That urban culture permeates everything. From a cultural point of
view we are urban, even if we're in a rural or agrarian context. Unfortunate-
,y, becausee ] I would like for that rural past to be maintained because that
'kno ledge of the land has been lost in Puerto Rico.

KM: Interesting. Well then, one final question: what is the future of the

RT: Well, the day after tomorrow I leave for Cuba to work with the LASA

SARGASSO 2007-08, 11


-UaBT "' _* ; -' _ST ; ',

"Cristo de lajeringuillas" (Christ of the Syringes). Courtesy of Rafael Trelles.

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


collective, it's called the Artistic Laboratory of San Agustin. It's a group of
Cuban artists that lives in the neighborhood San Agustin, on the periphery
of Havana, a rather large neighborhood of about 35,000 inhabitants, consist-
ing of apartment buildings with very little architectural consciousness that
was built after the revolution. [It's] completely utilitarian without any artistic
esthetic; a neighborhood with very little consciousness about public space or
its value. Those public spaces are empty, arid. And so what I am going to do
is insert myself into this project called Ensayo Publico and work with other
artists using the five senses. I'm working with sight, because my work is fun-
damentally visual. We've discussed everything through e-mail and decided
that the images I will do will be connected to the realities of the neighbor-
hood, even though I've never visited the neighborhood myself. I proposed
taking up a bit of what I had done in Rio Piedras with the tiles... given that
the consciousness of public space there is so weak. So they sent me photos of the
interiors of the apartments, where the Cuban has his/her place. That place is well
taken care of and even though there is a lot of poverty, austerity, they have their
tables and their television and their flowers, their paintings on the wall... So I
made the templates based on the photos of those domestic spaces, to create those
images on the street. Basically, to take the domestic space

KM: To the exterior.

RT: To the exterior, exactly. With the message of, "even though this space is
outside, it's mine, too." It belongs to us, it's collective, it's ours, right?

KM: Which is an idea completely aligned with the Cuban Revolution.

RT: Exactly. But currently there's a problem, a contradiction, a paradox be-
tween the "I" and "we," a conflict that has always been present through-
out human history: this relationship between mine and the collective. And
in Cuba that's not resolved. There are many tensions there, because even
though the goal of socialism is there, in practice there are conflicts, because
many people feel that the individual has been sacrificed for the collective and
also that there are privileged people that have benefitted from the revolution,
tensions that are still working themselves out, and so that idea is inserted
very subtly because my work there is not clearly political, but it plays on
that dichotomy between the collective and the private. And we'll see what

SARGASSO 2007-08, 11


happens. I'm also working with some typical characters from the commu-
nity the guy that sells pldtanos on the corner, the woman going to school
with her kid, etc.-to support the self-esteem of the community, which is a
rarely-valued community yet very large, to work on the idea of belonging,
belonging to San Agustin, which has its own history even if it's short... and
that's what we're working on.

KM: Fascinating. Well, we hope to do another interview when you return,
after the project in Cuba. Until then, best of luck with the project and thank
you so much for speaking with Sargasso.

Translated by Katherine Miranda

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond

Augusto Boal in Cayey, 1989. Taken from video. Courtesy of Miguel Villafafie.

Boal's Image in Puerto Rico: A Testimonial Tribute

Rosa Luisa M6rquez
University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedros

Theater can happen everywhere, even in theaters.
Augusto Boal (1931-2009)

T he first edition of Teatro del Oprimido/Theater of the Oppressed was pub-
lished in Spanish in 1974. It was a fascinating book, in tune with the
theater we had been creating in Puerto Rico during the Vietnam War era,
during times when the power of imagination was scripted on the walls, dur-
ing the civil rights movement in the US, after the cultural impact of the Cu-
ban Revolution in Latin America. It questioned conventional theater prac-
tice, challenged Aristotle's concept of empathy and allied itself with Brecht's
alienation-effect while pushing the limits of the spectators, turning them
eventually into spect-actors. Bertolt Brecht had already been translated into
the Latin American reality. His epic theater and short didactical plays were
staged at political rallies and in university theaters. In that context, Boal's
language was so visual that it needed no translation. He spoke Latin Amer-
ican, for Latin America, about Latin America, and from Latin America.
He had developed his method in Brazil and through workshops in Peru
and Argentina. He had paid dearly for his practice through jail and torture.
He fled to Portugal and later settled in France. Boal became the first global
Latin American theater practitioner. He became a theatrical citizen of the
The 1970s were times of dramatic challenges, of questioning authoritar-
ian forms of theater, from the written text to rigid methods of staging, times
of protest parades and open-air happenings, times for engaging communities
and educational institutions in the creation of a theater that dealt with their
lives and dreams. The Theater of the Oppressed provided excellent tools for

1 Boal died on May 2,2009. This essay was originally presented as a lecture at the University
of Minnesota in 2008.

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


that kind of theatrical action, yet the written word was not enough. We were
intrigued by how words and directions could become live images.
I had experienced all of this in Puerto Rico before 1974, but by that time,
I had also become a member of The Lansing Team of Four, a small acting
company composed of graduate assistants from Michigan State University
that performed stories and poems in gyms for hundreds of elementary school
children. The Team would then visit classrooms after each performance to
engage in theater games and storytelling so that children could re-enact the
same pieces we had performed for them. The workshops were based on Cre-
ative Dramatics, which needed actors but no audience. They were intended to
stimulate creativity, enhance self-esteem, and facilitate learning through play.
Our mentors were Bryan Way and Viola Spolin. The techniques described
by Boal as knowing the body and using it to express ourselves were similar to
those we used in the classroom. There was a logical connection between both
theatrical strategies. Their aim was to empower, to help develop a healthy
awareness of self, and to navigate from reality to possibility, from fact to met-
aphor, through the arts. They required collaboration and creativity. Although
with different objectives, learning and socio-political action, they allowed
the arts to reverberate in a larger community, thus, defining every citizen as
an artist. They echoed Brecht's description of the man on the street corner in
his poem "On Everyday Theater":

But you, do not say: that man is not an artist. By setting up such a barrier be-
tween yourselves and the world, you simply expel yourselves from the world. If
you thought him no artist he might think you not human, and that would be a
worse reproach. Say rather: he is an artist because he is human.

Brecht's poems on theater, books on creative drama, and Boal's Theater
of the Oppressed formed an integral part of my library as I began to teach
theater at the University of Puerto Rico in 1978. The following year I took
a workshop with Boal at a Latin American Theater Conference (TOLA)
held at the O'Neill Theater Center in Connecticut. Boal had already settled
in Paris. Some of the questions raised by his book about how theater games
are practiced were answered during the workshop. But the more I played, the
more I wanted to know. In order to solve this conflict, I flew to Paris to be-
come his apprentice at the Center for Research of Theater of the Oppressed
Techniques during 1983-1984. Many of the book's enigmas were deciphered
by the immersion in its theory and practice. Then fresh challenges began.

SARGASSO 2007-08, 11


The Theater Forums created for the professional stage by Boal during
that year on job restructuring and women's rights, in which I participated
as facilitator and actress, provoked an intense sense of excitement because
we never knew what the final outcome would be. Each evening the audi-
ence presented new solutions and the endings proposed were complex and
varied; our characters were continuously re-defined by the solutions offered.
Audience members returned night after night to present collective alterna-
tives. After each show, we met to design new strategies. Thus, I discovered
the never-ending essence of Forum Theater, not only because it opens up a
rainbow of options for the audience, but because it provides an arena for im-
provisation in character for the actors involved. It trained both audience and
actors in content and form, in ways to speak and ways to act. Forum Theater
is incomplete, open to new possibilities, truly post-modern in form, although
not in content. Awareness of a lack of closure as a premise for art and life
defined future academic choices.
That vital confrontation with the Theater of the Oppressed, the real ex-
perience that illuminates the book, the cross between creative drama and
Boal's techniques, became the core of a course that I have been teaching and
transforming during the last thirty years at the University of Puerto Rico. It
is officially registered as Dramatic Activities but is better known as Brincosy
Saltos (Leaps and Bounds). The course is open to all university students but
has also been taken by several non-university affiliated parties. The spirit of
Boal drives the experience, although he has been assimilated, "puertorrican-
ized," adopted, adapted, and multiplied throughout the years. Boal himself
has been its conductor on many occasions, beginning with his first visit to
the Island in 1981, and since then offering lectures and workshops for Puerto
Rican students in Puerto Rico and Brazil.
A third element has been added to the equation: the presence of a strong
musical and visual component. Whereas the musical input comes from be-
ing born and raised in a culture that sings and dances to express itself, the
visual emanates from the brilliance of a tropical landscape and thrives on the
unique colors and contrasts that multidisciplinary artist Antonio Martorell
has created in his twenty-four-year collaboration with the project. Martorell
is a visual artist dissatisfied with the limits of the canvas and instead con-
structs installations. Frustrated by the constraints of stage scenery and action,
he has turned into a major player in the theatrics of Puerto Rican intel-
lectual as well as political life by making.any significant occasion an excuse

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


for artistic celebration. Lectures, book presentations, weddings, funerals, and
even tragic occasions such as the burning of his house become excuses for a
performance event with dozens of players and hundreds of spectators. This
is what Boal wrote for the performance that Martorell and I co-directed
around his burned-out house in January 2007:

Dear Tofio:
An artist creates his work, we see it and become happy by the act of seeing.
A great artist like you invents your work and it teaches us to see the world
as only you see it, we see what only you can see. You teach us to become art-
ists. Your work is inside each one of us and it is indestructible. Even though
everything was lost, nothing has been lost.

Martorell was already an established professional artist when he took
the Brincosy Saltos class as an interested party in 1985. With him, the class
created Foto-estdticas (Photo Stats), an "Image Theater" piece based on his
drawings that became a professional theater play about a Puerto Rican family
album. Foto-estdticas was performed in non-traditional spaces such as streets,
squares, a shopping center, and even in the lobby of the General Bank of
Brazil in 1993. In 2002 it was choreographed and staged at the Perform-
ing Arts Center of San Juan by the contemporary dance theater company
Andanza. It required the collaboration of the audience in the construction
of costumes and scenery, which were made out of newsprint, photographic
limbo paper, and masking tape, and then painted an hour before the show.
Audience members developed skills infrotage (paper rubbing), Mexican cut-
paper techniques and wood-block printing. Actors were lavishly costumed
in paper for a wedding ceremony. The actors and dancers enacted a series of
tableaux vivants as photographs of the wedding album: the bride facing the
mirror and exiting a limousine with her father, the wedding procession, the
kiss,.and the family portrait in front of the altar. Then, the groom turned to
the bride and tore her paper gown, after which a slow motion fight ensued
between the characters that ended in the destruction of all the costumes.
From the inert mound of paper a new version of the Puerto Rican family
emerged, devoid of party costumes and accessories. More still-images were
shown moving through emblematic social and political situations: unemploy-
ment, supermarket lines, traffic jams, compulsory military service, domestic
violence, births, and deaths; a full life cycle for the entire family/ensemble
who in the end composed a huge family portrait in constant and rhythmical

SARGASSO 2007-08,11


flow. The photographer of the wedding sequence, played by Martorell him-
self, took the last shot and traced the family's silhouette on the cyclorama. A
huge white sheet then covered the family portrait. At the sound of a cym-
bal crash, the family collapsed under the sheet, leaving the traced memory
of their bodies. An orchestra conductor seated down stage directed music,
movements, and freezes. I played the conductor.
The Sf-Dd (AIDS What?) was another Image Theater piece on the AIDS
epidemic created in collaboration with Martorell in 1988. Students sculpted
visual metaphors of their perceptions. A huge pinball machine described the
syndrome's random nature. A newsprint roll revealed statistics and the num-
bers of people contaminated until the machine tilted. Images of the three
wise monkeys, of stereotypical reactions, were transformed through narra-
tion into more humane texts. A row of actors fell like dominos portraying
the effects of contact. Then they would get up and fall again to each side,
representing the results of abstinence. From the floor, the actors blew bal-
loons out of condoms, tied knots and bounced them to the audience. This
was especially significant at a moment in which the word condom had not
been seen in print and after the Catholic Cardinal had stated that it was a sin
to use them. As years went by, and the piece was repeated, the actors ended
the play sculpting the word AIDS (SIDA in Spanish) with their bodies. A
girl would then crawl through the legs of the letter A and turn the letter S
into a V, therefore transforming SIDA into VIDA: AIDS into LIFE.
These are only two examples of performances that use Image Theater
techniques as a playwriting device. Image Theater has become an essential
tool in the search for concrete stage compositions and in the development
of visual metaphors for our plays both for the University of Puerto Rico
and for the professional stage. The Brincosy Saltos course, as well as the col-
laboration with Martorell, also generated an island-wide project on popular
theater. Thirty-five miles wide by one hundred miles long, Puerto Rico is
populated by 4 million US citizens whose principal language is Spanish. To
celebrate the turn of the century, the capital city of San Juan's "Commission
2000" had five million dollars to spend for the celebrations. The funds were
to be used for concerts and fireworks. Martorell, who was a member of the
Commission, convinced them to invest 1.5 million in Educ-Arte, a year-long
community arts-in-education event that would leave a lasting legacy. The
project hired thirty full-time facilitators who have had an impact on a to-
tal of fifty-three communities through theater, music, visual arts, and video

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


workshops. All facilitators were ex-students of the course and had trained in
Theater of the Oppressed techniques as well as in other forms of popular art.
Their role was to multiply the teaching of these techniques in low-income
communities. Image Theater and Forum Theater, as well as mural paintings
and original music recordings, were the artistic results of these workshops.
The project was video-documented for future reference.
The following year, funds were allocated to the Institute of Puerto Rican
Culture under the name Expresarte a todo rincdn (Express Your Art Every-
where) as well as to the Communications Project of the Corporationfor Pub-
lic Broadcasting to broaden the experience island-wide. This branch of the
project continues offering theater and video workshops that use many of the
techniques to produce original as well as documentary theater and videos
with and by community organizations. A side-effect of these experiences
has been the acceptance of cultural activism as a professional option for art
A case in point, and another example of the impact of Boal and popular
theater and dance in Puerto Rico, is evident in the work of Maritza P6rez.
Maritza was also formed in the theater movement of the 1970s and has
dedicated her life to alternative forms of teaching and learning. She also
participated in the Forum Theater workshop that Boal held in Puerto Rico in
1989. Her groups are composed of high-school students. She holds creative
summer workshops in Old San Juan using several of the colonial city's build-
ings and the sidewalks that connect them as performance structures. The fi-
nal projects are showcases for the young people's talents and demonstrate the
interest young people have in social and political issues. Maritza's troupes of
teenagers have performed in festivals in Mexico and Spain as a way of expos-
ing them to international cultural exchanges. She presently directs Jdvenes del
98 (The Youth of98) in theater projects performed all over the island and con-
ducts seminars on study strategies through the arts. One of her most recent
projects was to integrate Theater ofthe Oppressed techniques into a campaign
of ecological awareness for residents of the San Juan Bay Estuary. Jdvenes del
98 and Brincosy Saltos often share similar formative experiences.
Since its creation in 1979, more than a thousand students have taken
Brincosy Saltos. During the first semester, they participate in theater games,
concentration, and trust exercises, that include stilt walking as well as in col-
lective creative activities, in order to feel at ease with their bodies, in contact
with others, and to reduce inhibitions. Class sessions address sense aware-

SARGASSO 2007-08, 11


ness: sight, sound, taste, touch, smell, and imagination. Pantomime and Im-
age Theater lead to storytelling and the construction of installations. Object
manipulation turns into body morphing, rhythm, and movement. They find
ways to define and enter the performance space, create a theater piece, and
exit while at the same time being aware of the relationship of actor to audi-
ence in a shared space. In this way, they put into practice Grotowski's defi-
nition of theater as what happens between actors and audience. For their final
project, they have to create an original piece using Image Theater as a starting
point to depict the theme they have chosen.'Students also have to teach two
sessions at an elementary school, one based on theater games and storytell-
ing and another that applies creative drama techniques to traditional subject
matters. Students are usually shocked by the level of violence present at such
early age levels and at how these artistic experiences allow for the develop-
ment of beautiful, effective, and joyful collaborative projects. The volume is
toned down, the energy is softened, and concentration allows fbr a creative
environment. Homeroom teachers are often surprised by the active and posi-
tive participation of their traditionally undisciplined students. Another lan-
guage is put into practice, which allows for dialogue and understanding.
The second term of the course is dedicated to training students in teach-
ing these techniques and in developing an artistic experience with an out-
side/external community by committing to at least forty hours of work with
the chosen community. University students develop leadership as well as di-
rectorial skills and engage in the creation of Image as well as Forum Theater
plays inside their communities. Through contact with diverse groups such as
the elderly, inmates, recovering drug addicts, orphans, and unwed mothers,
they become more sensitive to the wide spectrum of the citizens that com-
pose our society. This intense and rich learning exchange marks them for life.
.The university.offers full tuition waivers to those who enroll in this course,
recognizing their artistic service to the community. Workshops have been
held in mental health institutions, where the level of anxiety, smoking, and
medication was significantly reduced during the process; in prisons, where
inmates created original pieces and performed scripted plays interacting with
members of rival groups; in drug rehabilitation centers, where intricate dance
and Image Theater sequences developed and in which physical contact was an
essential part of the creative experience. Men accustomed to violent interac-
tions support each other while enacting trees in bloom or blowing bubbles to
dramatize stories that are important to them.

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


During the last twenty-six years, Forum Theater pieces have been staged
on relevant issues such as racial discrimination, family violence, and sexual
harassment, with strong musical as well as visual components. These pieces
often tour throughout the University and in the communities where work-
shops are held. This year, students demanded a third semester of Brincos
y Saltos and held workshops in three distinct communities: La Perla, the
most famous slum on the island, beautifully crowded between the ancient
walls of Old San Juan and the Atlantic Ocean; Sabana Seca, a low-income
community plagued by violence and drugs; and for community leaders in a
housing project in Arecibo, an hour-and-a-half drive from San Juan, who
are interested in continuing the project. The group also developed a Forum
Theater based on their university experiences, Se vale to' (Everything Goes),
based on issues of family conflicts and sexual harassment on public buses and
between professors and students, which has toured in communities within
and outside of the University. The ten actors took Se vale td to the Center of
the Theater of the Oppressed (CTO) in Rio de Janeiro in July 2007, where
they were joined by twelve other Puerto Rican professors and students for a
week-long workshop with Boal. As part of its internationalization project,
the University of Puerto Rico funded the trip for the students registered
in the course. At the CTO they explored the complexity of the Joker as
facilitator and conductor of theatrical as well as social events. The Joker is
the mediator of a political and aesthetic experience composed as much of
Aristotelian elements such as character, plot, theme, language, music and
spectacle as those of Grotowskian practice, which values the relationship
between spect-actors in a common arena.
It is the concrete image of the Joker's liminal figure that organizes and
allows transit between traditionally separate spaces and roles, allowing Boal
to remain on stage as an orchestra conductor, directing the rhythm of the
forum each time an audience member becomes an actor. The trespassing of
this fourth wall with a guide makes Forum Theater interactive. In this fash-
ion, the role Boal created, played, and generously bestows to future jokers
performs in a similar manner to that of Peter Schumman as actor, director,
and stage manager in the Bread and Puppet Theater's monumental presenta-
tions. Schumann cannot function outside his work of art. He stands on the
sidelines during performances to protect his fragile paper mache structures
from falling and stilt-walks over both actors and audience at the show's end.
They also remind me of Polish director, Tadeus Kantor's relationship to his

SARGASSO 2007-08, II


Foto-estdticas in 2002. Courtesy ofMiguel Villafafte.

plays. He entered and walked through the scene, often stopping the live
action to modify its rhythm during the course of performance if it did not
conform to his directions; at times, rewinding the action and returning to
previous sound and light cues to restart it with the precision he deemed nec-
essary. I am additionally reminded of Martorell, who has become a character
in everyday life. The four --Boal, Schumann, Kantor, and Martorell-- need
to be connected to their creation, thus eliminating the frontier between life
and art. Their presence is the glue that binds actors and spectators to the
theatrical event they have designed and cannot completely abandon.
Boal's work is contagious... Several University of Puerto Rico graduates
who practice Theater of the Oppressed have completed PhD studies in Theater,
Educational Theater, and Performance Studies. Two others, after conducting
workshops with inmates, have finished Master's degrees in Prison Theater in
Manchester, England, and are back Puerto Rico and again creating theater
with inmates. Brincosy Saltos has also been taught by one of its former stu-
dents at a branch campus of the University, thus multiplying the impact of
Boal's work in Puerto Rico's academic world.

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond




Peter Schumann of Bread and Puppet Theater and Rosa Luisa Mkrquez at the UPR, Rio
Piedras in March 2009. Courtesy of Lowell Fiet.

It is the generosity of this Latin American Citizen of the World that has
made us become better artists. Paraphrasing his own words for Martorell, I
would say to him:

Boal: A great artist like you, invents his work and it teaches us to see the
world as only you see it, we see what only you can see. You teach us to be-
come artists. Your work is inside each one of us and it is indestructible.
The structure of the cabin you have built has taught us to draw rain-
bows to conquer the storm.

I end with two citations fror Boal's Games for Actors and Non-Actors
(London: Routledge, 1992 [2nd ed. 2002]):

We believe that everybody can do theater. Everybody can do what one
person can do. Everyone can do. But not the same way, not with the same
skills, but everyone can do it with the same.sincerity and the same means
of expression.

SARGASSO 2007-08,11



Wouldn't it be wonderful to see a dance piece where the dancers danced in
the first act and in the second showed the audience how to dance? Wouldn't
it be wonderful to see a musical where in the first act the actors sang and
in the second we all sang together?...This is...how artists should be-we
should be creators and also teach the public how to be creators, how to
make art, so that we may all use that art together.

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond

ElPueblo Cantor-close-up. Courtesy of Raquel M. Ortiz Rodriguez and Maria Dominguez.

Painted Walls: Urban, Public,

and Community Art in ElPueblo Cantor

Raquel M. Ortiz Rodriguez
University of Granada, Department of Social Anthropology

The community mural1 El Pueblo Cantor (A Singing Town, Bronx, 1994),
designed and directed by Nuyorican artist Maria Dominguez, is an urban
space ofredefined-puertorriqueiidad. For over twenty-five years, Dominguez
has dedicated a great part of her artistic work to public art. To date, she has
created twenty-two community murals, most in New York City. This work
of art, a showcase of numerous symbols of recognizable Puerto Rican imag-
ery, also functions as an instrument of popular education. El Pueblo Cantor
rescues and documents collective memory and action while at the same time
"dealing with" (bregando con) the Puerto Rican colonial reality.
Arguments made by James C. Scott in Domination and the Arts ofResis-
tance: Hidden Transcripts (1990) complement Arcadio Diaz Quifiones' theo-
ry of la brega. According to Scott, hidden transcripts are the social products
resulting from the power relations between the dominant elite and subordi-
nate working-class members of society. This discourse does not exist in pure
thought, but rather, in the ways it is practiced, articulated, manifested, and
disseminated in marginalized spaces. Scott defines hidden transcripts as "off-
stage" discourses that take place outside the public transcript, beyond direct
observation of powerholders: speeches, gestures, and practices that confirm,
contradict, or inflect what appears in the open interaction between subordi-
nates and those who dominate (4-5). According to Scott, "The meaning of
the text, in either case, is rarely straightforward; it is often meant to com-
municate one thing to those in the know and another to outsiders and au-
thorities. [...] we are obliged to search for noninnocent meanings using our
cultural knowledge much in the way an experienced censor might!" (184)
Hidden transcripts, then, do not voice direct opposition to the authorized

1 See E. Cockcroft, Weber, and J. Cockcroft for an insightful analysis on the community-
based mural movement.

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


public discourse, but they can and do win public spaces to express an au-
tonomous culture of dissension (Scott 157, 167). While their public mani-
festations respect the limits of what is permitted on the scene -and, because
of this, result in indirect or incomplete embodiments- they place constant
pressure on those limits (Scott 196).
In Elarte de bregar (2001), Diaz Quifiones argues that Puerto Ricans on
the island and in the diaspora have developed both an order of knowledge
of and a method to navigate through every day life. This is done within re-
stricted margins, through strategies that approach desired objects by using
local and astute tactics rather than employing a frontal attack.2 Diaz Quifio-
nes argues that those who "bregar" have developed hidden transcripts based
on local sensibilities:

Quien brega bien, no posee necesariamente un conjunto articulado de ideas,
pero si inteligencia y t6cnica, un saber practico o una gran capacidad de
relaci6n dial6gica. Es un sistema de decisions y de indecisiones -un com-
plejo de definiciones, interpretaciones y prohibiciones- que permit actuar
sin romper las reglas del juego, esquivar los golpes que propina la vida co-
tidiana, y, en algunos casos, extraer con astucia las posibilidades favorables
de los limitados espacios disponibles. (Diaz Quifiones 47-48, italics in the

ElPueblo Cantor can be interpreted as a public work of art that narrates an al-
ternative version of history through a visual voice. The twenty by ninety foot
artistic manifestation captures the celebration of a song. The mural questions
ideas about identity and offers alternative views of history as it sings a hidden
transcript to the rhythm ofplena.3

Location, Authorship, and Iconography

Location, authorship, and iconography are fundamental in the analysis of
this community mural. The location of artwork is significant because a cru-
cial aspect of the message transmitted by public art is the space it occupies

2 ,[...] la posibilidad de tomar la palabra, un combat verbal con sucesi6n de acercamientos
y distanciamientos. Exige el diilogo, la seducci6n del lenguaje, o saber callarse a tiempo, y, a
menudo, deslizarse hacia la ficci6n o el engafio" (Diaz Quifiones 24).
3 The music genre plena originated in Southern Puerto Rico, in the city of Ponce, during
World War I. Known for the ease with which it narrates history, it is described as an "anec-
dotal song" (Leymarie 103).

SARGASSO 2007-08, II


(de Valle 222, 232). Often, murals are created in spaces where forces of con-
trol, vigilance, or repression cannot reach the communities that intimately
know their abuses. These are spaces where one can speak, scream, or paint
On many occasions, the location of a mural facilitates the understanding
of the aesthetic substance of the work of art; at times, its location may even
be the most important factor in defining it. Therefore, it is plausible that the
space where a mural is painted may provide a catalyst and the energy to unite
diverse elements that create exceptional meaning (Pocock 8). El Pueblo Can-
tor is located in the South Bronx on the corner of Prospect and East Tremont
streets. It was financed by Banco Popular of Puerto Rico and is painted on the
wall of one of their branch offices. To a certain extent, the style of the mural
coincides with the Christmas videos that Banco Popular produces and sells
annually, celebrating popular notions ofpuertorriqueriidad on the island with
music and dance.4 In El Pueblo Cantor, Banco Popular's use of popular cul-
ture as a marketing strategy facilitates the creation of a mural that empowers
Puerto Ricans in the Bronx through hidden transcripts. This public work of
art pushes the limits ofpuertorriquezidad to embrace the diasporic reality of
New York City Puerto Ricans as part of Puerto Rican culture.
Authorship must also be considered if one wishes to understand the
meaning of a community mural. Scott explains the dynamics of hidden tran-
scripts in spaces such as murals:

The elaboration of hidden transcripts depends not only on the creation of
relatively unmonitored physical locations and free time but also on active
human agents who create and disseminate them. The carriers are likely to
be as socially marginal as the places where they gather. (123)

4 In 1993, for its One Hundredth Anniversary celebration, Banco Popular gathered a group
of famous Latin American musicians and created a televised musical show. After the huge
success of this venture, the company began to produce annual live Christmas concerts and
television specials with various Puerto Rican and international singers and artists. The con-
certs and specials, which promote popular notions of a unified Puerto Rican identity, are
aired on local television stations and then released on CDs and DVDs. The titles of the mu-
sicals are: Un Pueblo que Canta (1993); ElEspiritu de un Pueblo (1994); Somos un Solo Pueblo
(1995); Al Compds de un Sentimiento (1996); Siempre Piel Canela (1997); Romance del Cum-
banchero (1998); Con la Masicapor Dentro (1999); Guitarra Mia, Un Tributo a Jose Feliciano
(2000); Ramces (2001); Encuentro (2002); Ocho Puertas (2003); En Mi Pa(s (2004); Queridos
Reyes Magos (2005); Viva Navidad (2006); and Lo Mejor de Nuestra Mzsica (2007).

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


Neighborhood participation in the process of mural creation is fundamental
when the goal is to create artwork of and for the community. Maria Dominguez
defines herself as a visual narrator, a "documenter." She is a member of and par-
ticipant in the Puerto Rican community in New York City.5 The community
murals she helps to create are collective works of art. She creates a space where
community members produce a mural in their own environment. Dominguez
utilizes techniques that embolden people who do not consider themselves
artists to imagine, create, and communicate in a visual language. This process
results in the collective ownership of the artwork.
The objective of the mural El Pueblo Cantor was to create an anti-grafitti
wall with students from Intermediate School 193 (I.S. 193).6 The students,
who were studying Puerto Rican culture, drew images that they wanted to
include in the mural. Dominguez created her design for the mural based on
those drawings and on the numerous conversations that she held with the
students, who actively participated in the creation process of the mural. They
created a work of art for a local audience based on themes that they were
interested in, using art as a medium to express their voice, the voice of the
community (E. Crockcroft, Weber, and J. Cockcroft 30-31). After the mural
was designed, the seventh and eighth graders helped paint the base and cre-
ate the grid. The I.S. 193 middle school students participated minimally in
painting the mural due to lack of funds to pay them during summer vacation
when school was closed. Dominguez and her art assistant, Renee Piechocki,
painted the mural.
Lastly, the iconography in community art is fundamental to understand
what a mural wishes to say. In each mural that Dominguez helps to create,
her goal is for the art to make an impact, that it be a work of art for the
members of the community where it is created and that it engage and main-

5 Dominguez moved from Catafio, Puerto Rico to the Lower East Side at the age of 5 and
spent 30 years of her life residing in the Lower East Side. She began her artistic career
as a muralist with the organization Cityarts in 1982, as assistant for the mural Avenue C
Mural (Lower East Side, 1982). This first experience with public art showed her the true
philosophy of creating art with the community: "[...] community art is conceived as a col-
lective thought, created through a collective process and concludes with collective owner-
ship" (Dominguez 1).
6 An important part of the artwork is a long list of the names of artists and participants
of the mural that highlights the following students: Sammy Gil, Gabriel Sarmiento, Tito
Robles, Lizbeth L6pez, Esther Marques, Esmeralda Pagan, Maurios Allen, Jerry Figueroa,
Javette McCoy, Damian Thompson, Kedwin Diaz, Cathy Alberti, Ruby Rivadeneira, Amy
Smith, Nicole Garsen, Creighton Isaac, Orlando Franco, Melinda Pagan and Thelma.

SARGASSO 2007-08, 11


tain a dialogue with that community. There are multiple strategies that can
be used to introduce hidden transcripts, or (disguised) resistance into public
discourse. The iconography used in El Pueblo Cantor directly expresses dig-
nity and indirectly facilitates self-affirmation in the environment of public
discourse. It is a work of art filled with symbols that encourages interpreta-
tion by the spectator7; its iconography facilitates ideological discussion on
issues of justice and dignity for the Puerto Rican community of the Bronx.

Analysis of El Pueblo Cantor

The mural El Pueblo Cantor transports the spectator from a gritty, gray New
York City street to a colorful voyage through the Caribbean Sea, the tropical
rain forest El Yunque, a rural mountain town, and the colonial city of Old
San Juan. The mural, filled withjoie de vivre, draws the viewer in as he or
she becomes a participant in sentiments of pride and celebration of Puerto
Rican culture.8
The incredibly realistic image of a vejigante -a carnival personality descend-
ed from the devil figure of medieval religious dramas, and a combination of tra-
ditional theater and the interpretations of Muslims and Christians (Ramirez
56)- dominates the mural. This figure is part of the patron saint celebration
of Saint James in Loiza, on the northeast coast of Puerto Rico. Its mask,
made from a coconut shell, is painted in the traditional colors, yellow and red:

El vejigante estdpintad
de amarillo y colorad 9

The vejigante's clothing, though, breaks with traditions. Instead of a tu-
nic in two contrasting colors that divides the body in half, the vejigante in El

7 The word spectator is used in relationship to the work of art because "[...] la relaci6n nunca
es colectiva -salvo en un cierto grado de abstracci6n- sino individual, hasta el punto de que,
en algin sentido, la obra de arte es el resultado de la creaci6n por parte del artist y su con-
templaci6n por cada uno de los espectadores, ya que es en ese encuentro individualizado en
el que la obra de arte se complete cada vez; incluso podria decirse que cabria individualizar
no s61o al espectador sino el acto mismo de la contemplaci6n" (Alcina Franch, 74).
8 "La emoci6n que el goce desencadena es un claro indice de esa vivencia de los valores.
Las emociones irrumpen al interpreter hechos y experiencias complejos cuya significaci6n
deriva de la especial relaci6n que tiene con los objetivos y planes de la vida, no solo con lo
inmediato, sino con la trayectoria vital" (Sanmartin, 103).
9 The medieval devils, like the buffoons, used the colors red and yellow (Ramirez 57).

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


Pueblo Cantor wears a black patterned tunic, which clearly reflects the figure's
movement. This vejigante is ready to leap off the wall and dance through
the streets, playing pranks and hitting people with a vejiga10 full of water,
celebrating life.
Nevertheless, the vejigante painted by Dominguez is more than a jeu
d'esprit. A simplistic analysis of the carnival figure it represents may explain
it as a security valve that allows potentially dangerous tensions in the colonial
societies of masters and slaves to be blown off inoffensively during carnival
celebrations. Yet carnival is the ritual site of numerous forms of social con-
flict and symbolic manipulation that vary among cultural and historical cir-
cumstances, serving many functions for its participants (Scott 178). During
carnival, due to its ritual structure and anonymity, there is a privileged space
for speech and aggression that is usually repressed: an inversion of the world.
According to Scott:

It is why actual rebels mimic carnival -they dress as women or mask them-
selves when breaking machinery or making political demands; their threats
use the figures and symbolism of carnival; they exhort cash and employ-
ment concessions in the manner of crowds expecting gifts during carnival;
they use the ritual planning and assembly of the carnival or fair to conceal
their intentions. Are they playing or are they in earnest? It is in their inter-
est to exploit this opportune ambiguity to the fullest. (181-182)

Embodied in a mask, the vejigante in this mural represents the vibrant
Nuyorican community. He or she has the freedom to question social, politi-
cal, and religious order to the rhythm ofplena, a musical genre often referred
to as the sung "newspaper" of the people. This shared construction comes
to life in El Pueblo Cantor, articulating communication as the base for their
cultural community.
In the center of the artwork, blacks, whites, mulattos, and mestizos sing
and dance. Dominguez brings into play a wide spectrum of race and racial
mixtures to show that a Puerto Rican can be many things, deconstructing

10 The name vejigante comes from the word vejiga (bladder) because traditionally he or she
would carry an inflated cow or pig bladder filled with water and hit people on the head with
it. The bladder can also be taken as a phallic symbol, similar to the scepter used by buffoons
(Ramirez 57). There is also scholarship by the anthropologists Ricardo Alegria, Fernando
Ortiz, and Melville K. Herskovits, among others, that supports the Fiestas of Santiago
Ap6stol as a syncretic representation of the Yoruba god Shango.

SARGASSO 2007-08, 11


pre-conceived notions of a "fixed" Puerto Rican identity based on certain
physical characteristics, skin color, or hair texture. She also mixes contempo-
rary and traditional clothing, blurring the lines that define a specific time.
The group celebrates in the middle of a colonial street in Old San Juan.
Perhaps they are going up Calle de Cristo to celebrate a bombazoll in the
Plaza San Jos6, only a short distance from the Institute of Culture (ICP).
There are two "typical" dancers: ajibarita12 in a blue skirt with Puerto Rico's
national flower, an amapola, in her hair, and a black woman in the traditional
clothes of a bomba dancer. Both are typical symbols in that they reinforce
the ICP vision of two of the three races of the Puerto Rican people: Spanish
and African. The official seal of the ICP (created by Lorenzo Homar, 1956
and 1961) portrays a Spaniard in the center with a Taino to his right and
an African to his left. But the third female dancer in the mural, a mulatta in
traditional dress, does not conform to ICP's image of the third, indigenous
race. Instead of a Taina, Dominguez incorporates a contemporary Nuyorican
into the mural, who celebrates her African heritage by participating in an
Afro-Puerto Rican dance.
The images of the musicians also question the iconographic "three races"
of the ICP. In the background, ajibaro, formally dressed in a guayabera and
white hat, plays the cuatro, the national instrument of Puerto Rico. To the
right of the mulatta, a mestizo scratches the giiiro, his head covered with a
pava,13 his long sleeves rolled up, giving him the casual look of a day laborer.
To his right, a mulatto dressed in contemporary clothing plays the bongos. In
the front, a black man, dressed in stylish urban youth fashion of the 90s, plays

" A bombazo or baile de bomba is a communal celebration that requires the participation
of all who assist; they become dancers, musicians and singers. For a detailed explication of
baile de bomba and a description of the different types of bomba dances, see Alvarez Nazario,
12 The termjibaro is used to describe a "white" farmer, of Spanish decent, from the moun-
tains. Isabelo Zen6n Cruz, Jos6 Luis Gonzalez, and Peter Roberts, among others, have
developed arguments that at the beginning of the twentieth century, thejibaro was recreated
to function as a link between Puerto Rico and a white, Spanish peon. "In terms of race, the
chibArali midway in the 17th century was half-Indian and half-Black; a hundred years later
the givero had become a little less Indian, a little less black and a little white; and thejibaro at
the beginning of the 20th century had become white and virtually Spanish" (Roberts 56).
13 A pava is a straw, wide brimmed hat typically used by cane cutters on the coast and ag-
ricultural workers in the mountains of Puerto Rico. The pava was adopted by the Partido
Popular DemocrAtico (PPD) as its symbol in 1940. Regarding the political connotation of
the pava, see C6rdova 170-191.

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


Grid and number the wall

' I

Draw design on the wall


El Pueblo Cantor -stages 4 and 5. Courtesy of Raquel M. Ortiz Rodriguez and Maria

the pandereta. Together, the musicians compose a new rhythm for a new so-
cial and cultural reality: the mountains, the coast, and the diaspora united in
the capital city of San Juan playing and singing a plena.14
Two figures, in the center of the mural, observe but do not participate
in either the song or the dance: a snow cone vendor orpiragiiero and a cock
fight rooster or gallo depelea. The piragiiero, painted gray and white, standing

14 To read a study onplena music and its relationship with migration in general and migra-
tion to New York City in particular, see Flores 16-25.

SARGASSO 2007-08, 11


Paint the Wall


El Pueblo Cantor --stages 6 and 8. Courtesy of Raquel M. Ortiz Rodriguez and Maria

behind the street party, is either a ghost or a memory, but not a living being.
It is possible that he symbolizes the rural emigration to the city and the loss
of oneself due to the process of integration or assimilation: one becomes a
part of the urban reality and begins to disappear.15 Another interpretation is
that the figure is a witness of the celebration of a new (un-official) concept
of the "three races": the mountains, the coast, and the diaspora. The other
figure, the gallo depelea, looks down upon the festivities. Painted the colors of
the Puerto Rican flag, he is a symbol of Puerto Rican pride. Although only a
wooden carving, the gallo depelea is ready to defend his right to cultural af-
firmation and above all, to fight if this right is questioned or threatened.

15 Icken Safa studies the migration from rural Puerto Rico to San Juan in the 1940s
and explains that the migration to the city began during the Great Depression and has
continued to the present due to the stagnation of the agriculture and the growth of the
urban center.

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


El Pueblo Cantor -full view. Courtesy of Raquel M. Ortiz Rodriguez and Maria Dominguez.

The piragiiero, the gallo depelea, the Nuyorican mulatta dancer, the pan-
dereta musician, and the vejigante are elements of El Pueblo Cantor's social
critique. They urge one not only to sing with the community, but also to
remember the past and prepare oneself for an insecure future that will most
likely involve a fight for space and identity.16 It is a work of art that urges the
spectator to question his or her relationship with the mural and share memo-
ries regarding music and traditions that affirm pertinent values (Sanmartin
102). Ricardo Sanmartin explains such activity and its results:

El desconcierto inicial ante la opacidad del significant es la condici6n es-
trat6gica para impedir que el usuario se apoye en un modo de llevarle ante

16 This article comes from a larger work that studies El Pueblo Cantor and two other
community murals directed by Dominguez: Baile Bomba (Lower East Side, 1983) and Nue-
stro Barrio (El Barrio, 1998). Baile Bomba was created in conjunction with the Clinton
Street Revitalization Project as part of a community based movement against gentrifica-
tion. The mural stood for two years: one day the two buildings that the mural was painted
on fell, supposedly due to the violations of structural regulations during their rehabilitation.
Where the murals once stood, there are now luxury condominiums. Nuestro Barrio was
painted on the front of the building that original housed El Museo del Barrio's Education
Department in the heart of El Barrio (Lexington Avenue and 104th Street). Currently El
Museo del Barrio, including the Education Department, is located on Fifth Avenue.

SARGASSO 2007-08,11


la experiencia de la obra como una primicia, forzando el uso de todas sus
energias tras percibir mAs hondamente la plenitud de una pregunta. Asi
tambien, su respuesta, intentando un cierre y acabamiento de la obra, tendri
que implicar todo su ser personal, su memorial y sus convicciones. (103)

El Pueblo Cantor incorporates a piece of New York City into the island
reality it presents. It reaffirms puertorriquenidad while sharing hidden tran-
scripts that question both the political order and the mythologized defini-
tions of Puerto Rican culture.17 The mural captures the celebration of a song
where Puerto Ricans of the diaspora are active participants in its creation,
instead of just listeners. Like the vejigante, the Puerto Ricans in the diaspora
are ready to jump off the wall and play actively, vibrantly, and proudly in
their community, carrying on traditions of oral history, regional festivals, and
shared spaces with every symbolic step forward.

17 "Bregar quizAs sea el agent secret, o el agent double, de la cultural political puertor-
riquefia" (Diaz Quifiones 26).

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


Works Cited

Alcina Franch, Jose. Artey antropologia. Madrid: Alianza Forma, 1982.
Alvarez Nazario, Manuel. Elelemento afronegroide en elespanolde Puerto Rico.
San Juan: Instituto de Cultura Puertorriquefia, 1974.
C6rdova, Nathaniel I. "In his image and likeness: The Puerto Ricanjibaro as
political icon." CENTROJournal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies
17.2 (2005): 170-191.
Cockcroft, Eva, John Weber y James Cockcroft. Towards a People's Art: The
Contemporary Mural Movement. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1977.
Diaz Quifiones, Arcadio. Elarte de bregar: ensayos. San Juan: Ediciones Calle-
j6n, 2000.
Dominguez, Maria. "Community Art: Catalyst for Change." Race and Con-
struction of the Puerto Rican Identity. New York: Baruch College, 1999.
--. Personal Interview. 7 July. 2002.
---. Telephone Interview. 11 March. 2005.
.Telephone Interview. 27 March. 2005.
--. Personal Interview. 6 August. 2006.
--. Personal Interview. 4 March. 2007.
SPersonal Interview. 10 July. 2007.
Flores, Juan. "Bumbun and the Beginnings of La Plena", CENTROJournal
of the Centerfor Puerto Rican Studies 3 (1988): 16-25.
Geertz, Clifford. Conocimiento local:Ensayos sobre la interpretacidn de las cultu-
ras. Trans. Alberto L6pez Bargados. Barcelona: Paid6s, 2001.
Icken Safa, Helen. Families del arrabal. San Juan: Editorial Universitaria,
Leymarie, Isabelle. Mzsica del caribe. Trans. Pablo Garcia Miranda. Madrid:
Ediciones Akal, 1998.
Mufioz, Maria Luisa. La mzsica en Puerto Rico: panorama histdrico-cultural.
Sharon, Conn: Troutman Press, 1966.
Ramirez, Guillermo. El arte popular en Puerto Rico (En busca de las races de
nuestra cultural New York: Colecci6n Montafia, 1977.
Roberts, Peter. "The (Re)Construction of the Concept of'Indio' in the Na-
tional Identities of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico."

SARGASSO 2007-08,11


Caribe 2000: Definiciones, identidades y cultures regionales y/o nacionales.
Eds. Lowell Fiet and Janette Becerra. San Juan: UPR, 1997. 99-120.
Sanmartin, R. Meninas, Espejos e hilanderas: Ensayos en antropologia del arte.
Madrid: Editorial Trotta, 2004.
Scott, James C. Domination and the Arts of Resistance. Hidden Transcripts.
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.
Valle, Teresa del. Andamios para una nueva ciudad: Lecturas desde la an-
tropologia. Valencia: Ediciones CAtedra, 1997.

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond

Michael Reyes. Courtesy of Lowell Fiet.


Crime Against Humanity in Chicago:

An Interview with Michael Reyes

Interview by Lowell Fiet
University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras

L well Fiet We are here in the Batey, awaiting the presentation of your
play Crime Against Humanity, and I think we'll start from that very point
and see if it leads to a series of other issues we can talk about. Tell me more
about Crime Against Humanity: its history as a play, its development, just
exactly how it came about, and perhaps particularly about the Puerto Rican
political prisoners. They seem to receive even more support here in Chicago
than in Puerto Rico. People are more aware. How does that come about?
What's the nature of all that? Because from everything I've read about the
play, what emerges is the fact that this is an act of solidarity within the
Puerto Rican community.

Michael Reyes: The production Crime Against Humanity actually started
and really was born in the discussion of an installation that we did at Batey
Urbano. It was the twenty-fifth anniversary of Oscar L6pez Rivera's capture
and incarceration. And the year before we did the twenty-fifth anniversary
of Carlos Alberto Torres' capture, and for that we actually did the art exhibit
"The Gallery: Not Enough Space", which is all of Carlos's and Oscar's paint-
ings, work and sculpture. So that was what we did for Carlos and the next
year we wanted to do something for Oscar. What we did, I helped design an
installation piece called "Twenty-four hours for Twenty-five Years". [In it]
people stayed twenty-five days in a cell for twenty-four hours straight, for
shifts of twenty-four hours. We ended up having a group of volunteers spend
twenty-four hours in a cell which we made in front of the window of Batey
Urbano, and they would stay a twenty-four hour shift overnight, in the cell,
to get a feel of what it feels like to be in prison. People could walk by during
the night and look in and see what's happening.
From that discussion I envisioned, as one of the artists, having people
participate, actually reading monologues from the prisoners actual reflec-

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


tions and their letters. It didn't work out that way because we just didn't
have enough resources but we did end up having people stay in that cell for
an extended period of time for twenty-five days straight. And from that, I
thought these monologues would be good to do as a play. From that idea,
when I went to Puerto Rico, Luis Rosa had discussed something very simi-
lar. He said, "Well, I had this idea that we would show a week in prison,"
and I said, "Well, I had this idea of maybe doing a scene per year and we
interview all the prisoners and they do monologues about their experiences."
So we combined those ideas and right away I started doing interviews. I
interviewed a number of the prisoners about their experiences and recorded
them over a month while I was in Puerto Rico and had them transcribed.
Then from the transcriptions we took actual reflections [.. .] and created this
production, Crime Against Humanity, which takes us from the capture of the
prisoners to their release.
With the play, we hope to raise a lot of awareness and consciousness
around the prisoners because there's a whole generation of young people that
may know that there are prisoners, but who really not understand what the
situation is and what the conditions were. And really, we want to deal with
their humanity while in prison. I think what happens in our movements is
that we create superheroes out of our national figures. What I mean is that
you create these perfections that aren't really true and aren't really true to
their humanity. And so what I wanted to do in the production as one of the
writers and as the director was to show the times in prison when they laugh,
when they tell jokes, when they experience pain, when they cry, when they
overcome some of the hardships; I really wanted to show that story. And so
as we started to reflect and talk to the prisoners it really became apparent that
humanity was a theme this was before we even named the play. I noticed
in every prisoner's reflection that humanity was really important. Seeing how
Puerto Rico is a colony -and how the UN says a colony is a "crime against
humanity" and colonialism is a "crime against humanity"- it made it fitting
to name [the play] Crime Against Humanity; to think about the systematic
crimes against humanity within colonialism but also thinking about the in-
dividual crime against your humanity as a prisoner, and as a political prisoner
in the United States.
From those discussions, I started sorting out which kind of scenes would
make sense and giving it some order and touching up whatever in the lan-
guage. needed to be touched up and changing it to make sure that it fit in

SARGASSO 2007-08, II


with the flow of the production. It's really important that the whole play
takes place in the cell, a six by nine space. Because it gives you what it is to be
in prison because you're looking into this very small space, it's a really small
set. It really gives you the opportunity to visualize what it is like to be in
prison. In particular, purposely, there's scenes that are done with no dialogue,
because in prison you may not always be speaking. If you're in isolation, there
are times when you won't speak to anyone. So what do you do during that
time? It was really important for us to put you into the cell psychologically,
as well as to see and observe, but also to participate. In theater, we're used to
people talking to us and giving us something, some type of direction, and at
some times in the production that doesn't happen, you're just there and that's
it, you're observing. So for us it's really important to express that.
A lot of the prisoners actually came out of the struggles here in Chicago.
So there's always been a direct connection to answer some of the questions
about that consciousness about the prisoners, and we hear a lot of times from
other people that visit you know, it's not like Chicago, we don't have so
many people doing that type of work around the prisoners. It's a lot of work
to engage a community in a generic theme about the prisoners. And there's
a lot of history here, obviously Oscar, Carlos, many of the other prisoners
were founders of our high school, so there's a direct connection there. A lot
of the family members still are active. But in particular around those issues of
colonialism and the conditions in Puerto Rico and the connection to things
like gentrification, we try to make those direct connections in our commu-
nity because it is important to understand [the fact of] political prisoners
and how that relates to today and a police state. And living inside the United
States? And the way that the police are used, the way that COINTELPRO
has been historically used, the way that those observations, and even the
way that something about the grand jury recently and those groups of young
people that have been rounded up by the grand jury as well as Avelino's
capture [Avelino Gonzalez Claudio, arrested early in 2008], show us, and as
well as Filiberto's assassination [Filiberto Ojeda Rios, murdered by the FBI
on September 23, 2005] show us that those kinds of things are still present.
So it's important that those discussions and those dialogues keep happening.
That way we don't forget and we also are still aware and have a heightened
sense that these things are still very relevant.
I'm twenty-eight, and Carlos spent twenty-five years of his life in prison
- that's my whole lifetime. The youngest person who was involved with the

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


play was seventeen when he first came on, and he's the one who does a lot of
Oscar's scenes. They're not really characters per se; each character's prisoner
number is 10035 the dimensions of Puerto Rico, a hundred by thirty-five
[miles]. But to think about that -they spent ten more years than one of our
actor's entire life in prison- is pretty powerful. As a part of that, a lot of our
cast members and the people that participated in the production have come,
like Jay, from our high school. He's our stage manager and runs the lights
and tech stuff; Enrique's worked at the Batey. So these are all young people
involved in the production. I'm the oldest person involved, so everybody's
under twenty-eight, and usually about three or four years younger than me.
So in that way, I think it's kind of a tradition that we have in this commu-
nity being able to keep those memories alive and it's done very purposefully.
Things don't just happen, obviously there are conditions in Chicago that led
to so many Puerto Ricans being radicalized; but there's a long tradition of
not only struggling for Puerto Rican independence and thinking about com-
munity building and institution building but also ideas oflatinidad and how
latinos are able to unite and work around certain issues, in particular around
So there's a lot of political activity. I think for us it's really keeping that
history, that historical memory moving, and it's fluid, and it's constantly be-
ing redefined. Because it wasn't an older generation that told us to write the
play -obviously they're very supportive and provided a lot of spaces for us-
but it was really a generation of young people that said, this is important for
us to understand and to produce. We also have very high standards in how
we produce, we feel like we've carried it out as if it's a professional produc-
tion. Obviously it's a youth center for after-school programs, but for a lot of
the people that are involved in the play, this is a time for them to really learn
and understand the skill, not only of acting, but more importantly of how
to engage our community and campaign to free the prisoners. That discus-
sion then takes us into deeper conversations about the status of Puerto Rico,
about colonialism, about the racist conditions in our own neighborhood. So
we're able to engage people with a production that's a lot different than just
writing a speech, or coming in and talking to young people it's actually
engaging people. It's also multigenerational, because theater speaks to every
generation. There's kind of a thought that theater's only for old people but
really what we've learned in our own neighborhood is that families love to
come out to it, the young people love to see it because of the way that it's

SARGASSO 2007-08, I1


written, older people really love it, so we're able to engage differently. We do
a lot of hip-hop events and poetry events in the Batey, and so we focus on
young people and we're really successful with that, but with the play we're
able to expand into other generations. For us it's been really important be-
cause everyone that's been involved in the play has been involved somehow
in the political work in one way or another, so it gives it much more meaning
than if it was just professional actors, let's say downtown at the Goodman
Theater or one of the highly established theaters. For us it's been really a
success because it's young people that are from this neighborhood, that grew
up here, some people moved here but wanted to learn, were able to find
themselves within this space, and so it's really important that we keep it
attached to the campaign to free the prisoners. If we're doing the play, how
is it contributing to the freedom of the remaining political prisoners and to
raising consciousness?

LF: The readers of this are going to want to know if there's a connec-
tion between this play, how you're doing it, and what you're doing as a poet.
In artistic and cultural terms are there any connections, any links between
what you're doing here and what's happening in the Puerto Rican theater,
for example?

MR: We have a lot more contacts right now with hip-hop artists. Si-
eteNueve, who's an artist from Puerto Rico, Luis Diaz from Intifada, and so
we're in constant dialogue with those groups. And also Latin American hip-
hop artists, like we'll have BocaFloja, who's a major hip-hop artist in Mexico.
That was our first forte, that was our entrance into doing performance hip-
hop and poetry.
As far as hip-hop is concerned, I would say there's definitely a relation-
ship that's a little more genuine because we actually have discussions, people
stay with us, do performances. We're still building the theater part. But I
think in relationship to what's happening to the rest of Latin America, and
Puerto Rico being part of that, I think people forget that we're on par with
that use of theater as a way to engage people actively. We're very up-front
with what we're doing with the play. It's not something that we're saying
"Oh, we're just doing a play," no, we're saying that this is a part of the cam-
paign to free the prisoners, we're up front about it, people know about it,
people know that's what the play is about. And we want it to be like that.

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


But on the other hand, people are more willing to come to a play about the
prisoners than, let's say, an event [protest] because there is still some level of
fear, I think. But the production allows for us to engage in that.

LF: Another follow-up question, I heard on the internet the poem "One
Bullet." So obviously what's happening here, what you're working on in terms
of this play and what's happening at the cultural center here has great im-
portance but it also has a national/international extension. From what you're
saying in "One Bullet" you're taking a look at the local, at the national, and
at world or global situations which are affected. Is there a sense of continuity
in your progression from poet/performer and poems such as "One Bullet" to
playwright/director of Crime Against Humanity?

MR: I feel that theater and poetry are very similar in the sense that
you're performing and you're obviously engaging an audience. Poetry allows
you to tell stories in a different way than theater. I think theater is a little
more engaging in the sense that there's so much more happening -you're us-
ing all of the visual stimulus, the sounds- where as in poetry it's more you're
performing but really it's focusing on the words as opposed to the perfor-
mance. But for me I think it was a pretty easy transition because as a writer
you write, if you can, a poem [...] I mean that's why I tell students that if you
can speak, and tell a story about something that happened earlier in the day,
then you can write a poem, because you're already recounting what's happen-
ing. Really that's what poets do, we tell stories, we create, we put in order all
this stuff that is in chaos, and try to present it. Theater does that in a more
purposeful way. As in a poem, you can tell a story but you can also make it
very broad and include a lot of things. If you're really broad in theater, then it
doesn't necessarily work because you're really trying to focus on a particular
story. But it hasn't been that difficult. I think one of the things being involved
with Batey and the work of the culture center is that I've had a chance to
work with Tato Laviera for about three years before I even went on to write
my own production. And so I got an education that was different I think
than I would have gotten out of school. Working with Tato, who's a master in
his own right, the famed Nuyorican poet and playwright, allowed me to kind
of transition slowly, so little by little we would do, let's say one play that was
half an hour long. Then we'd do another play that was maybe an hour long.
So we did about four productions with him. By the time of that last produc-

SARGASSO 2007-08, I


Street view of the Batey Urbano, Division Street (el Paseo Boricua) in Chicago. Courtesy of
Lowell Fiet.

tion, I was already directing those plays. So it was a transition that came kind
of naturally for us because we had already started the discussion about doing
plays and those plays were about the community, about the neighborhood.
And so I got a really, really good education working with Tato because I was
basically in charge, especially with him slowly losing his sight now, I was in
charge of almost every aspect that you have as a director. So I learned very
quickly. And then, as an artist it helped me because as an artist I was always
really good at promoting and marketing, particularly about our events here,
Batey gave me a good education on learning how to promote an event. So
all that stuff kind of came together and it was a natural fit, it wasn't very
hard, it wasn't very difficult because in Batey for about four years we were
throwing close to 144 youth events a year for almost four years straight we
were doing three events a week. So it was pretty easy. As far as a poet, poetry
is the thing I think I'm the best at, that's my forte, but this [Crime Against
Humanity] is one of those special kinds of production that comes along that
we know, as the actors, writers, and people that are involved in it, that we're
not going to have many opportunities to do something this important that's
beyond just the acting. And that's what we try to focus on, more so than just
on us [. .] we really just want to discuss these prisoners in real situations.

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


When you're able to tell stories like that, that are that important, then we
know as actors and people involved in theater that this is a rare opportunity,
it's a rare window for us. We cherish it, we've run the play for close to 5,000
people now. We've done it in New York already and we're going back out in

LF: Where did you perform in New York?

MR: Clemente Soto Vl6ez Cultural Center. We sold that out within a
day. We went and it was packed, we had to bring in chairs. You may not see a
story like Crime Against Humanity on TV. You may not see a movie about it,
unless we make it. That's what producing culture is about. We feel like Batey
has been a part of that for the last seven years; the cultural center has been
a part of that for the last thirty-six years, and we want to contribute. And
that's the way we can contribute, by producing our own plays. We've been
able to raise our own money, and when we tour we usually have enough to
get where we need to get without having to worry much about it. It's been
important that we have our own funds as well to make sure that we can get
the stories out. So that's really the important thing to take from it: the idea
that we can produce our own CDs, our own music, our own poems, our own
plays, our own films, whatever it is we want to be able to tell our stories from
our perspective and have the ability to do that with technology, with talent,
ability, all of those things fuse together.

LF: You, personally, ten years from now, where is Michael Reyes going
to be? What do you envision? Is this the future? Or is there another step?

MR: You know, this is kind of like a whirlwind, really. This year has
been really crazy for me, it's the first time I did a feature film, it was a few
lines, but I was able to be in a feature film, which will be out in December
(2008), called Nothing Like the Holidays with John Leguizamo and Freddie
Rodriguez, who's from this area. So it's a pretty good film, it'll be out in the-
aters, so that and the play running at the same time. I'm pretty happy with
what I do. I really love doing these kinds of things. As much as I like to act
and do features I like the stuff that takes you beyond just the art and craft of
acting. I like the stuff that can really challenge people to think differently. So
in that, I would hope that I would still be doing some very similar work and

SARGASSO 2007-08, 11


contribute in the way that I can. And hope that the work that we're doing
and that I'm creating and helping create and being a part of is something that
will go beyond our experience and beyond our lifetimes. We really hope that
we can make a dent in some way and contribute to transforming the reality
of Puerto Rico, but also transforming our community and just hope that we
can inspire people. That's what I would hope that I'm doing in ten years, is
still inspiring people. I would hope that I could still have the ability to touch
base with the people that are in my community. I would hate to really see
anything different. So whether that's more plays or more poems or more
CDs, that's what I would love to be doing, just being relevant and creating
things that are challenging people's thoughts. And hopefully inspiring them
to do their own projects because that's really for me what it's about, it's that
other people can see it's possible to do things.

LF: In other Latino theater from the community, from the area have
groups come from Puerto Rico to perform here recently?

MR: There's a lot of musical exchange and there's a lot of exchange with
other people that are doing similar work around political prisoners. Like I
said, we're getting into theater, [and] I think that there's been a lot of sup--
port from other theater groups. The Urban Theater Company [of Chicago],
which started out as a Puerto Rican focused theater group is now more mul-
ticultural but still has a very good Puerto Rican foundation, has been really
supportive of our group and helps in any way that they can. Like Tato, com-
ing here, that has been something that we really appreciated. And now we're
looking into ... every year we have these celebrations, the Fiesta Boricua that
brings about 2,000 people, musical acts, shows, so a lot of that exchange hap-
pens in that cultural production of music and hip-hop. I think this play will
offer us that in the next year. Seeing that 2009 will be the 10th anniversary of
the prisoners' release, the group that was released in 1999, I think that we'll
have more opportunities to have those discussions and exchanges. One thing
I do know is that we do end up with a lot of artists. Anytime people come
from Puerto Rico, they seek out the Cultural Center and Batey. So we have
had a lot of artists come out, poets, writers, journalists, students. So that ex-
change happens and it's a little more organic in some ways. But I think now
that we have the production, and particularly once we get the play translated
and we get it to Puerto Rico, I think that will open up a more doors for us.

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


The stage setting for Crime Against Humanity. Batey Urbano, November 2008. Courtesy of
Lowell Fiet.

. \

Chicago, Shakespeare, el Batey Urbano and Crime

Against Humanity *

Lowell Fiet
University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras

This review proposes a basic question: why write or create and stage works
of theater if there is no need to explore and question social relationships?
Theater is the most traditional art but it is also, by nature, the most tactile,
social and community oriented. If the audience of a performance does not
become a community of interests -diverse, opposing, congruent, but finally
shared- then the work loses not only its social but also its aesthetic purpose.
Crime Against Humanity, a play about the lives of Puerto Rican political
prisoners written by poet Michael Reyes and ex-political prisoner Luis Rosa
and staged at the Batey Urbano of the Paseo Boricua in Chicago is just this
kind of necessary work.
But can a work like this be art? Let's compare: While in Chicago, in the
luxurious Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, after paying $75 a ticket, I left the
theatre during intermission to return to my hotel through hail and snow and
prepare for my return to Puerto Rico early the next morning. This staging of
A Midsummer Night's Dream, probably the most popular Shakespeare com-
edy, came from India with various Indian and Sri Lankan actors that spoke
in English -the most well-known lines to communicate the plot- and seven
other Asian languages, all mixed together. The stage became a splendid arena
of acrobatics, with ropes for the actors to climb up and hang on, fabrics
suspended like hammocks, a back wall of cut bamboo poles for the actors to
scale, climb down, slip through and disappear behind, live Indian music and
a rainbow of elaborate costumes.
On paper all of this seems enormously attractive, but the result was an
absolutely conventional work -spoken, static and without any dramatic or
social interest. It finally became a great frenzy, boring because it never found

'Adapted from "En Rojo," Claridad (25-31 December 2008): 14-15.

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


its social link, a sense of community and a shared space to tell the tale of
free love against forced marriage. Can this work -luxuriously mounted in a
magnificent professional theater- be art?

El Batey Urbano

Chicago has many theaters -professional, semi-professional, community and
cultural- but I went to visit a specific one: the caf6-theater Batey Urbano, an
extension of the Juan Antonio Corretjer Puerto Rican Cultural Center in
the Paseo Boricua on Division Street. This traditionally Puerto Rican com-
munity around Humboldt Park with its huge fifty-six foot long steel Puerto
Rican flags marking the entrance and exit, wears its Puerto Ricanness as psy-
chological and cultural/community armor to confront the precariousness of
US urban life. Faced with ethnic, racial and linguistic prejudices, economic
inequality, gang wars, inadequate schools, unemployment, criminality, drugs
and generalized violence, the validity of the notion of "nation making" (hacer
patria) is still going strong within this community in the ways in which,
in many cases, they seem to almost have disappeared in Puerto Rico. The
Cultural Center is named for Juan Antonio Corretjer, the daycare is called
Consuelo Lee Tapia, the Pedro Albizu Campos "charter" high school oper-
ates within the Center, and la casita Don Pedro is directly in front of the
Batey Urbano on the opposite end of Division.
The Batey Urbano is also a learning space -it holds a web radio station, a
classroom and tutoring space, a computer center, and the caf6-theater- only
a block and half from the Cultural Center. There among bodegas, restau-
rants, bakeries, cafeterias, and other Puerto Rican-Latino businesses, the red
and yellow awning of the Batey invites a principally youth-based audience
to participate in music and hip-hop poetry projects, creative editing, graphic
arts, photography, journalism, community activism, and theater.
The director-founder is Michael Anthony Reyes Benavides, a young
Chicano-Rican (Mexican-American with strong roots in the Puerto Rican
culture and community) poet-playwright. The tone of his spoken word po-
etry is immediately evident when you hear poems like "Would One Bullet..
" and "W\Vho that .. ." and his available collections include Would One Bullet
End Hundreds of Years of White Supremacy: The Documented Assassination of
President George W Bush, Blood Dries Black: A poem about the life and death
ofFiliberto Ojeda Rios, Rebirth: Murals Etched in Poetry and My Voice. These

SARGASSO 2007-08, 11


poems establish, along with pulsing rhythm and energy, an agile and pen-
etrating use of language that re-creates US English as a language with keys
and reflections both localized in Chicago and other communities as well glo-
balized to open to the Caribbean, Latin America, Iraq and the Middle East
and to the political racism behind current African genocides. Reyes' poetic
and theatrical work demonstrates the influence of his teacher, Tato Laviera
(who worked for several years in the Batey) and other New York poets such
as Pedro Pietri. But his political vision and domination of electronic technol-
ogy and media production -the techniques seen in dub poetry, spoken word,
rap and hip-hop performance- creates a style that tends to be more incisive,
subversive, and accessible outside of its immediate context.

Crime against Humanity

Reyes co-wrote Crime Against Humanity with the ex-political prisoner Luis
Rosa. It is based on interviews with the ex-prisoners taped in the US and
Puerto Rico and letter interviews with those still in prison, Oscar L6pez
Rivera and Carlos Alberto Torres. The authors have edited and polished
the narrative of each segment or character, eliminating names and assigning
the same number (#10035), focusing as much as possible on the daily social
conditions, survival strategies, the feeling of time on the inside and life pass-
ing outside of prison, and the treatment that prisoners receive at the hand of
guards and administrative prison personnel. Everything is graphic, detailed,
precise and personal: time in solitary confinement, moving from jail to jail,
the absence of contact with their growing children, losing family and friends
to distance, the different treatment given "political" prisoners, and finally be-
ing released but leaving behind other prisoners. The small joys that are real
and imagined are also included: of cooking, communicating with friends,
writing and plastic arts, being able to help other prisoners, resisting and
surviving. Although those who speak can be identified -that's Dilcia, that's
Elizam, that's Luis, that's Lucy, that's Ricardo- the greater picture seems to
be creating a collectivity of voices and experiences for audiences who don't
necessarily know the prisoners. Each actor acts two or three characters and
the cast also plays the roles of the guards.
There is always caution with "political" plays that, too often, depend on
inflated rhetoric to "preach to the choir" instead of representing real condi-
tions and situations within a complex context. In this case, the uni-personal

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rio and Beyond


narratives and acting do not turn into pamphleteeringg" -a word frequently
misused to describe limited thematic rather limited aesthetic form- and in-
stead provide the interiority of prison experience as the personal histories of
a national political, anti-colonial resistance.
With precision and admirable dramatic-emotional balance, the structure
of the play juxtaposes abuses and acts of solidarity, pain and happiness; the
loss of time contrasts with artistic creativity, and some narratives are longer,
halting, calm and almost speechless, while others are short and laden with
shouts, the desire to be free, and the sadness of knowing that not all will be
released. In this way, the work communicates human specificities ard the
complexities of individual and collective survival in ways that never sound
like lines from Wikipedia.
The stage represents a single cell. Each character -sometimes with
guards- enters this space to relate part of their imprisoned life over the years.
It represents abuse, body searches -there is a nude as a natural part of this
dehumanizing process- and "inspections" and the careful reestablishment of
order for the prisoner within this limited space. The guards are depersonal-
ized through the use of masks.
About thirty audience members attended this special unannounced per-
formance, and the work made us a part of shared interests, allowed a social
relationship of exchange and conversation, and engaged in "nation-making"
through involving us in specific and local Puerto Rican processes and, at the
same time, in general and global processes -from Nelson Mandela's years
in prison to the Puerto Rican and Cuban prisoners still imprisoned, to Abu
Ghraib, GuantAnamo, and the Congo.
The life of the play depends on the commitment, talent, and discipline
of the actors. Here, the luxury is the richness of this young-group -the writer/
director Reyes.is the oldest and is twenty-eight. Samuel Vega, Melissa Cin-
tr6n, Jos6 I. P&rez, Guadalis del Carmen and Michael Reyes give mature,
controlled, thought out, and always convincing performances. It is because
of this, in part, why they don't try to represent or imitate one or another pris-
oner specifically, but instead, transmit their experience in the most authentic
way possible. They are university students, poets, performers, and commu-
nity activists committed to not leaving their identity as Puerto Ricans behind
in their professional development. Their power to articulate thoughts and
feelings on stage also transfers to social exchange with the audience after the
play. They act with the necessity of making links and creating communities

SARGASSO 2007-08, II


of shared interests -the necessity of making theater "with a purpose," as they
would say.
With such a unified group it is difficult to highlight one or another of
the actors. Nevertheless, the acting of Samuel Vega jumps out on stage with-
out taking the spotlight from the other members of the cast. Vega dominates
both English and Spanish and, more importantly, demonstrates a corporal
discipline that communicates through a language of stage presence, move-
ment and gesture without a need for words. CrimeAgainst Humanity opened
in Chicago's Batey Urbano in March of 2009. It also played at Hostos Com-
munity College in New York on December 12, 2009, and from there contin-
ued on tour to latino communities in the United States.

Translated by Katherine Miranda

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond

Jdvenes del '98 in "When they came .. ." (February 2006). Taken from video. Courtesy of

Clandestine Borders of Performance Art:

A Look at Jdvenes del 98

Maricelis Nogueras Col6n
University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras

From the Definitively Undefined

" ecret, occult, and especially done or said secretly out of fear of the law or
to elude it." This is how "clandestine" is defined by the Royal Spanish
Academy, but how is it conjugated if accompanied by "art," which has never
assumed an absolute definition? How then to define "clandestine art"? I
appropriate this concept to propose an analysis of the artistic manifestations
that develop on the periphery of institutional or traditional spaces in cultural
affairs. Within these expressions I will concentrate on local performance as
a creative language that has been developed and re-generated during the last
few decades and I will focus on the trajectory of the theatre collective Jdvenes
del 98 (Youth of 98) as an example.
Defining clandestine art has conceptual implications. It recognizes that
creative expression, as a structured action conceived in a time and space im-
pregnated with ideologies, has its own limits and exhibits practical conflicts.
The potential for art's transformative role lies in the natural spirit of tran-
scending such tensions. This dynamic suggests an essential paradox: while
art's liberating impulse admits no intrinsic borders, it must daily face tangible
and intangible barriers that test the ways it is carried out on the social scene.
As well as this kind of ineludible contradiction, the artistic exercise cannot
evade an historical context plagued by controls. For this reason, the debate
between action and reaction, construction and reconstruction, traditionalism
and experimentation, between dictated memory and tenacious imagination,
continues unabated.
The artist can take various routes on the road to achieving transgressive
fullness. One opts for prudent denouncement while using validated esthetic
codes, another transgresses the paradigms of art in diverse ways in which
borders, limits, boundaries, walls are not absolute or static ends. It is from

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


here that "artistic clandestine-ness" exists in the come-and-go of socio-his-
torical imperatives. It is from here that the borders of art themselves become
clandestine by revealing themselves as diffuse.
As the Puerto Rican dramatist Nelson Rivera says, "celebrating margin-
ality may sound nice, but it's a near impossibility [no es pellizco 'e fioco]"
(157). It is a complex phenomenon situated in obvious reference to what is
"not marginal," and for that reason, compels a more or less concise definition.
This is why I propose identifying clandestine art according to five mean-
ings: anonymous, itinerant, controversial, counter-cultural, and contestatory.
These dimensions can be understood as overlapping, but listing them indi-
vidually facilities their validation as basic features of the marginal-clandes-
tine in the context of the arts.
Anonymous art manifests itself from urban alley graffiti to anonymous
poetry written in the hallways of the Humanities Department of the "IUPI."1
Itinerant art makes itself noticed in the nomadism of alternative music bands
that swarm from town to town or improvise in driveways and/or cyberspace
to test their lyrics without depending on commercial distribution much the
same occurs with film aficionados. Controversial art generally distinguishes
itself by the taboo character of the themes) it encompasses and assumes
transversality in its multiple signifying references. Much the same occurs
with counter-cultural art, in the sense that it positions itself antagonisti-
cally to hegemonic discourses of culture and art. By definition, the counter-
cultural defies the credentials of the autochthonous-traditional and even of
the alternative; in essence it transcends the normative impulse. Music, for
example, has been perhaps the most suitable artistic language in the articula-
tion of counter-cultures. In the past few decades, "cocolos (salsa lovers) versus
rockers," "cacos (rappers) versus surfers," "reggaeton lovers versus... every-
thing else?"2 echo youth tendencies that continue to test the definitions of
tradition and culture. The apparently dual character of these encounters,

1 Between the months of March and April 2008, clips of poetry appeared taped to the
hallways and entrances of the Humanities Department at the University of Puerto Rico in
Rio Piedras. Among them was found, for example, the poem "Cartas a una desconocida" by
Chilean Nicanor Parra, and other apparently anonymous verses that remained on display
for only for a few weeks. I elude here to this example of poetry because of the anonymity of
the persons) who posted it.
2 For a more in-depth analysis of the opposition to salsa and rock music in a Caribbean
context, see Quintero Rivera.

SARGASSO 2007-08, 11


although it seems simplistic and illusory, responds to the purpose of affirm-
ing complex identities. These dynamics are what carry through the trans-
formative action of culture as a verb. Other manifestations that have been
debated as controversial or counter-cultural are transvestitism as histrionic
expression and so-called "body art" or tattoo design. Can such transforma-
tion be an artistic resource? Can the use of the body as a live canvas be called
art? Debates regarding these questions testify to the marginality of these
types of expressions.
While the manifestations described above are not necessarily ideological,
contestatory art does adopt a political or philosophical position. Generally,
its substance privileges content over form and it is used as a medium for pro-
test in marches, picket lines, and events where convictions carry more weight
than any "artistic" attribute. In the ritual-didactic nature of these civil prac-
tices, sometimes more, sometimes less visible performative features stand out
that require closer study.3 Another expression derived from the contestatory
function is caricature as a means of socio-political critique. Since its historic
beginnings in the eighteenth century,4 caricature has been distinguished as
an alternative means of communication that corresponds naturally to censor-
ship. By defining these forms and examples of clandestine art (anonymous,
itinerant or nomadic, controversial, counter-discursive, and contestation or
ideological dissent), it is necessary to emphasize their similar but autono-
mous characteristics. The focus here falls on the fact that they often unite in
artistic expression and especially in performance art.

Light and Shadow in the Clandestine and Performative

As one of the most marginalized spaces in the so-called experimental
theater of Puerto Rico, Performance strengthens alternate proposals of rep-
resentation (Rivera 157). By definition, it contrasts with institutional forms
of art and directs itself frequently towards so-called "popular and people's
theater," in the words ofAugusto Boal. For the researcher Beatriz Rizk, the
meaning of performance can be as varied as definitions of postmodernism, a
term still confusing to define and translate (206). Most generally, it is un-
derstood as "the transformation characterized by movement, improvisation,

3 See Taylor for examples.
4 See Y6pez for further details.

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


and ludic processes rather than of determined actions, linear sequences and
rational discourses of traditional dramatic theater" (Fiet, El Teatro: 374). Al-
though it was highlighted as an innovative concept in the 1960s, derived
from the conceptual plastic arts, the idea of performance emerged from fu-
turism, dada, and surrealism at the beginning of the twentieth century. In
essence, these movements opposed the conception of the theater as a fixed
structure alienated from daily "life." The use of all types of objects and multi-
disciplinary elements was thus validated in artistic creation as a way of mak-
ing dramatic art more dynamic and giving it a new sense of the "spectacular."
In this spirit, the "Happenings" of the 1950s and 60s emerged, framed by the
genius of figures like Allan Kaprow, John Cage, Robert Whitman, and other
artists. In later decades, the use of "performance" was formalized as an artistic
medium principally in the context of the feminist movement and the boom
of its social activism (Rizk 212).
Throughout its development, the inherent avant-gardism of art of per-
formance stands out throughout its development. However, although some
theorists affirm that this tendency is situated in its "quasi natural" other-
ness, others reject this as an essentializing notion. The emergence of so-
called "mass culture" has put forth a new relationship between performative
space, earlier valued as an exclusively contestatory platform, and institutional
and official spaces. In the words of Lowell Fiet, institutional and alterna-
tive forms of art are different cultural entities, but exist as parallels that may
be inter-related (Re-imdgenes 160). This could be a way of explaining the
gradual legitimization of "alternative theater" in the past few years, referred
to by Nelson Rivera in his essay "Experimentaci6n, marginalidad y canon en
el teatro puertorriquefio contemporAneo." The "otherness" of performative
proposals today does not depend, as much as it did previously, on its associa-
tion with an underground logic of the marginal. Thus it is not unreasonable
to conceive of experimental theater and dance groups that utilizeperformance
in the streets and communities, conceptualizing a clandestine aesthetic, while
at the same time, present their work in more traditional spaces with insti-
tutional backing. The contexts of media diffusion have changed and every
day there are more liminal spaces -real and virtual- whose functionality is
re-signified for cultural interaction. That makes it imperative to ask if the so-
cioeconomic logic ofglobalization has significantly impacted the pragmatic
definition of "performance" and even challenges conventional notions of its
inherent clandestine-ness.

SARGASSO 2007-08,11


Beyond theoretical debates, the performative act continues to be an in-
tervention that challenges the routine character of intercultural relationships.
As an exercise of representation, it implies not only the gathering together
and transformation of creative elements, but also defies conventional notions
of time and space to renew their meaning. Its political potential should thus
be valued (Canto Rubio 20; Boal 15). In her article "DNA of performance:
Political Hauntology", Diane Taylor alludes, for example, to the performa-
tive protests that are still on-going in Argentina, more than twenty years
after the "Dirty War" under the military dictatorship of 1976-1983. The pro-
test movements headed by groups of grandmothers, mothers and children of
the disappeared, exiled, and political prisoners are now rituals and "escraches"5
held in the Plaza de Mayo and other spaces to denounce institutionalized in-
justice. In this way, a mechanism of resistance has been adopted that refuses
to be surrogate to the past and uses memory as an intangible resource to re-
vindicate the present and assume a new sense of historical continuity. With
this consciousness, photographs and IDs of the disappeared are used in the
struggle to reconstruct documentary evidence of a traumatic national past.
In the words of Taylor, this protest performance ritual works toward the re-
activation of collective memory (52-53). The performance of grandmothers,
mothers and children of the disappeared establishes a mnemonic-political
function that highlights a generational transition as an important axis that,
in part, determines the cultural action of younger generations.

Paradigms of Being Young

According to researcher Jos6 Fernando Serrano, "there is no one Youth, in
capital letters, as a result of chronology, but rather, many youths as a result
of cultures." The most exhaustive studies on young populations agree that
youth is a cultural construct. To circumscribe youth to age range according
to the definition of biological age therefore leaves out important aspects.
Factors such as gender, ethnicity, and social class determine the adoption or
adaptation of diverse codes of "youth behavior." The ways signs of youthful-
ness and vigor are felt, sold, and bought coalesce daily in the definition of

5 "Escraches" have been utilized mainly by the members of the Argentine collective H.I.J.O.S.,
which unites the children of the disappeared, exiled and political prisoners of the "Dirty
War" (1976-1983). This protest publicly denounces -through singing, music, painting and
theater representations- those people accused of violating human rights or corruption.

Urban & Community Art in Puerto Rico and Beyond


Jdvenes del '98 in "When they came ." (February 2006). Taken from video. Courtesy of
Miguel Villafafie.

being young (Reguillo 30; Serrano 275). So although a dynamic character is
attributed to youth, its development as a concept is discontinuous. Before the
industrial age, for example, a transition phase between childhood and adult-
hood was not even conceived of. In effect, notions of what young people are
or should be respond to very particular historical contexts. The anthropolo-
gist Rossana Reguillo puts the following in perspective:

Youth today as we know it is really a post-war "invention" in the sense
that the emergence of a new world order shaped a political geography in
which the victors acceded to unedited standards of living and imposed
their styles and values. Society re-vindicated the existence of children
and young people as the subjects with rights and, especially in the case
of youth, as consumer subjects [...] It can be said then that there are
three processes that make young people "visible again" in the last half of
the 20th century: economic reorganization through lines of industrial,
scientific and technical acceleration that implicated adjustments in the
productive organization of society; cultural offering and consumption;
and juridical discourse. (23, 25-26)

SARGASSO 2007-08,11