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The Russia-Ukraine war should make us think Puerto Rico



Puerto Rican rapper Residente took a blowtorch to U.S. imperialism and its expropriation of the word “América” in a new song titled “This is Not America.” It is a bloody history lesson in U.S. intervention in Latin America and the Caribbean at a time when the Russian invasion of Ukraine has shed a harsh light on the long history of colonialism in what the U.S. considers its backyard.

The island has been fighting for self-determination for decades, but this has fallen on deaf ears in Washington.

The track features the French Cuban twins Ibeyi and a video directed by French director Gregory Ohrel. It is an anthem to what America is — two other continents, 35 other nations besides the U.S., from Tierra del Fuego to Canada, present long before the U.S. co-opted the name.

“América is not only USA, papá,” Residente raps. “Long before you arrived, the prints of our shoes were already there.” Saying America is only the U.S., he sings, “It’s like saying that Africa is only Morocco.”

The thread tying Residente’s words and images together — what he points to as the height of colonialism — is his evisceration of the U.S. for championing self-determination in other countries (Ukraine) while denying the same for its colony, the oldest in the hemisphere — Puerto Rico.

The images are searing, and they are layered one after another with a penetrating, staccato beat. Like the pages of a history book, they tell the story of U.S. imperialism, the extermination of Indigenous people, corruption, violence sponsored by the narcos and the state and corporate U.S. greed. All of which are the footprints of colonialism.

The Ibeyi chorus that intercuts Residente’s rage says it all: “Aqui estamos, siempre estamos, no nos fuimos, no nos vamos; aquí estamos pa’ que te recuerdes, si quieres mi machete te muerde.” (“Here we are, we have always been, we’re not leaving, we will not leave; here we are to remind you, my machete bites you.”)

“You don’t need to speak a word of Spanish, really, to get to the heart of this declaration of presence,” Amy Selwyn, a U.S. artist, told me after she watched the video. “It’s a day of reckoning, a brilliant witness to a multitude of crimes.”

The video starts with an ode to Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar’s “A Logo for America,” a gritty outline of the North, Central and South American map. Jaar’s work stems from the realization that the name “America” was used incorrectly by people in the U.S. to refer to their country and not to the entire continent.

From there the images and symbols, many of which people in the U.S. probably wouldn’t recognize, come at the viewer like bullets from an Uzi.

It is a brutal litany: the killing of Túpac Amaru, the last monarch of the Neo-Inca State, each limb being held by four police officers in the video (representing the four horses he was bound to); people, including a baby, in a cage at what appears to be a detention center; soldiers with their boots on a hill of corpses (reminiscent of the pictures of U.S. soldiers in the Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib); an Indigenous child sitting atop a pile of coffee cups; an Aztec temple — in what looks like Chichen Itza — in the middle of Manhattan skyscrapers.

The most powerful image is when Residente takes a figurative swinging machetazo to Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” video and the sequence of a hooded man being shot in the back of the head. In Residente’s take, it is Victor Jara, a Chilean poet, singer-songwriter and socialist political activist who was tortured and executed in 1973 in the national stadium during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. “Gambino, my brother, THIS is America,” Residente raps.

But Residente always brings the narrative back home. Puerto Ricans watch perplexed as the U.S. and the world demand Ukraine’s independence while ignoring U.S. history in Latin America and Puerto Rico’s colonial status.

Puerto Rico has been a colony of the U.S. since the latter invaded the archipelago in 1898. Today, boricuas suffer the consequences — an unpayable $70 billion debt; an imposed fiscal control board whose head is the U.S.-born Ukrainian Natalie Jaresko; cuts to education, pensions and health services; the aftermath of Hurricane Maria; earthquakes; corrupt governments; a pandemic; and now the gentrification of the island, which threatens to marginalize Puerto Ricans in their homeland.

The disregard for the island by the U.S. was front and center when, after Hurricane Maria, then-President Donald Trump visited. “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you threw our budget a little out of whack. But that’s fine,” he said. And let’s not forget that according to former Department of Homeland Security chief of staff Miles Taylor, Trump talked about trading Puerto Rico for Greenland because “Puerto Rico was dirty and the people were poor.”

The island has been fighting for self-determination for decades, but this has fallen on deaf ears in Washington.

“To plead for Ukrainian sovereignty and ignore Puerto Rico’s is like asking for virtuosity in your neighbor’s house when you are living with a mistress,” Puerto Rican geologist Oscar L. Fontan told me. “As my abuela used to say, daylight on the street and darkness at home.”

Residente more than spells this out with the video’s first image — an attractive and well-dressed woman with bright red lipstick holding a Luger pistol and taking deep breaths. She represents Puerto Rican nationalist Lolita Lebrón as she was getting ready to lead three men in an attack on the U.S. Capitol in 1954, protesting Washington’s colonial hold over Puerto Rico.

In the video, Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican flag are present throughout: draped on the back of a young protester blowing smoke in the face of a riot cop, waving in the background of clashes with riot police and in what appears to be a machete pendant on the chain around Residente’s neck — a symbol used by the Boricua Popular Army, also known as The Macheteros, a militant organization supporting independence for Puerto Rico.

“This is Not America”is also a love letter to women, especially to the young women all over Latin America and the Caribbean, who are spearheading the fight for structural change in work, education, marriage and religion. They are the feminists on the front line of social justice.

“The heart of revolution in Puerto Rico is women,” Residente said in a recent interview. “That is why I put Lolita Lebrón. She is one of them.”

As the video ends, the message to take away is that denying Puerto Rico its freedom while legitimizing the rights of other nations to be free is the height of colonialism, as is hijacking the word “America” to mean only the U.S.



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