Boricua's Revolutionary Inspiration

— Antonio Camona Báez

Black Flag Boricuas:
Anarchism, Antiauthoritarianism, and the Left in Puerto Rico 1897-1921
By Kirwin R. Shaffer
University of Illinois Press, 2013, 240 pages, $65 cloth.

AS PUERTO RICO falls deeper into economic crisis and political decomposition, radical activists are looking for well-documented historical references to feed their strategies and foster inspiration.

University students, independent union activists, striking public school teachers and environmentalists insist: There must be an authentic Puerto Rican tradition of struggle from which to learn — it must be anti-colonial, not tied to ruling political parties, internationalist and free of authoritarian leftism.

Kirwin R. Shaffer’s Black Flag Boricuas is an outstanding product of years of research in archives from Amsterdam to San Juan, and from Havana to New York. Black Flag offers a groundbreaking study of the brief but significant heyday of anarchism in Puerto Rico.

This publication coincides with a related read in the Spanish language: Voces Libertarias: Orígenes del Anarquismo en Puerto Rico (Libertarian Voices: Origins of Anarchism in Puerto Rico, AK Press, 2013) by historian and social activist Jorell A. Meléndez Badillo.

The timeliness of both publications, and their concurrence with popular uprisings on the island, require deep political reflection. Meléndez Badillo notes in his epilogue that after decades of invisibility it was just now, in the first decade of the 21st century, that we could appreciate a resurgence of anarchist ideas.

In response to former governor Luis Fortuño’s (2009) Law 7 on Fiscal Emergency, a sweeping package of deeper neoliberal reforms and cuts, enormous demonstrations took place in the San Juan metropolitan area, where black flags waved on trucks from where water was distributed while the Internationale was sung.

Students of varying anarchist leanings started reading circles, which served as a catalyst for anarchist participation in the great student strike of 2010 at the University of Puerto Rico. This was followed by the arrival of varying organized groups like Acción Libertaria, and subsequently the third annual conference of the North American Anarchist Studies Network, where 200 local and international anarchists met in Puerto Rico.

Out of this conference the autonomous collective C.C.C. was born. And the story goes on, “it is to be created, imagined and documented,” says Meléndez Badillo.(1)

A Distinctive Radicalism

Of course, these present day anarchists who participate in recent popular mobilizations do not march alone. Like their late 19th and early 20th ancestors, they were accompanied in the struggle by a larger crowd of leftists hailing from many different tendencies, bearing the red flag. What then distinguishes the anarchists in Puerto Rico’s long history of radicalism?

The story presented by Shaffer is about transnational anarchism interpreted into Puerto Rican reality, more than recounting the history of Puerto Rican working-class struggle — which has been done a hundred times before.

In accordance with its European origins, anarchism in Puerto Rico coincided with the rise of a conscious working class, and at some points shares the same history as Marxist socialism. In Europe and the United States anarchism is first and foremost anti-state, but in Puerto Rico it had to take on an anti-colonial character, which makes things complicated.

The “unholy trinity of State, Church and Capital” took on different forms. For this and other reasons, much of Shaffer’s narrative exalts the history of transnational anarchism that moved among Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, Cuba, New York and Florida, evolving at a moment when colonial powers wrestled to possess the Spanish-speaking Caribbean.

The book highlights such major players as the Spanish-born Santiago Iglesias Pantín who eventually sold out, becoming the pro-annexation Commissioner Resident for Puerto Rico in Washington; playwright Romero Rosa of the Free Labor Federation (FLT), who according to scholar Ileana Rodriguez Silva (2012) “placed blackness at the centre of the [Puerto Rican] nation;”(2) and — of course — Luisa Capetillo, the young mother of two who launched her literary career by collaborating on workers’ newspapers in Arecibo.

This last figure played an essential role in the island’s anarcho-feminist movement. Capetillo was most famous for getting arrested while wearing men’s clothes publicly, writing plays and novels, and practicing Spiritism.

Shaffer also highlights the Bayamón Bloc, which is arguably the most successful anarchist organization of the country’s history, equipped with a newspaper (El Comunista), schools and community programs. Today, few residents of working-class Bayamón have knowledge about the existence of such a group.

Deficiencies

It is true that anarchism in Puerto Rico was crushed by early U.S. colonial power. But it is simply too tempting to look at the defects of anarchism of European origin in its application to the Caribbean context.

Anarchism, like much of the authoritarian left which also had its roots in industrializing capitalist Europe, combined many modernizing, Eurocentric and missionary-like features.

There is no mention of Afro-boricua ontologies and spiritualities deeply rooted into Puerto Rican culture. The religion vs. atheism dichotomy did not fit well in Puerto Rico, so anarchists had to make alliances with the so-called free thinkers and spiritists. Spiritism and Afro-Caribbean roots continue to play an important role in Puerto Rican culture, and no political project based on anti-religious/anti-spiritual grounds could ever be considered successful.

Shaffer details the impact of cultural activities sponsored by anarchist groups in grassroots community educational projects, like the Social Studies Centre (CES): plays, leftist dramas, reading circles and music.

It’s great that the CES organized music bands for cultural activities….but what type of music were they playing? Bomba and Plena reserved for the racialized Black and poorest sectors of the working class? Or white creole Danza, U.S.-imported (early) Jazz?

That these essential issues are not dealt with sufficiently can perhaps be seen as a defect, not of Shaffer’s work, but of anarchism and anarchist cultural roots (in the Caribbean) in general.

Perhaps the most valuable contribution that Black Flag Boricuas makes to the study of resistance and the anti-authoritarian left is precisely its exposure of the fluidity with which anarchism has moved in the past and the possibilities for its revival today.

Indeed, the recent appearance of new publications like “Compartir es Vivir,” the launching of food cooperatives among Puerto Rican youth and political projects like the Colectivo LGBT, which calls for the decolonization of sexuality as an essential element in the country’s struggle for self-determination, all receive inspiration from the period which Shaffer documents.

No other work in the English language to date brings back the legacy of the Puerto Rican anarchist experience as does Black Flag Boricuas.

Notes

  1. Meléndez Badillo, J. (2013), Voces Liberatarias: Orígenes del anarquismo en Puerto Rico, AK/Collectivo Autónomo C.C.C.: Santurce; 156.
    back to text
  2. Rodriguez-Silva, I.M. (2012), Silencing Race: Disentangling Blackness, Colonialism and National Identities in Puerto Rico, Palgrave MacMillan, New York:  151.
    back to text

July-August 2015, ATC 177

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