Transforming Solidarity: Connecting a Diaspora of Puerto Ricans in Detroit and beyond
Words by Nina Ignaczak
When Puerto Rican Sofía Gallisá Muriente met Teresa Basilio, a Nuyorican from New York, at the 2016 Allied Media Conference in Detroit, they were both struck by the parallels between the island of their heritage and the city they were both visiting for the first time.
At the time, Detroit was emerging from bankruptcy and emergency management. Meanwhile, Puerto Rico was coming under control of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), in which an unelected Fiscal Control Board was installed to oversee debt restructuring on the island. In both cases, austerity measures would cut deep into public services while wresting control away from the people by administrators whose first priority was to pay creditors.
Inspired by the creative movement-building at the AMC, the pair partnered with Detroiter and Puerto Rican diasporan Adela Nieves to raise nearly $17,000 to bring a delegation of nearly 80 organizers and workers from the island, the diaspora and Detroit to the AMC in 2017. The group came together to learn from one another about self-determination and crafting new narratives under the oppression of unelected oversight.
Melissa Rosario, a Nuyorican anthropologist now living in Puerto Rico, attended the delegation.
“One of the things that kept coming up out of those conversations was communications and how little visibility Puerto Rico has in the United States, even though it is considered part of the United States,” says Rosario. “The Allied Media Conference became important to our ability to learn and develop tools for doing communications in a way that builds networks and relationships, and goes beyond just television and radio.”
While several key outcomes emerged from that 2017 delegation, perhaps the most important was a sense of solidarity that emerged between Detroiters and Puerto Ricans.
“In Puerto Rico, we’re so used to seeing ourselves and understanding our problems in isolation, whether it is because we’re an island or because we’re a colony,” says Gallisá Muriente. “We’re always harboring this sense of the weight of our problems, as if they’re unique to us to some degree. Going to Detroit was really important, just in terms of feeling like someone knew what we were going through and had been through it.”
“At the delegation, the conversation resurfaced about how important it is to build relationships and also to talk about the parallels that are going on around the country; how emergency management and oversight boards span everything from water to housing to gentrification to land and on and on and on,” says Rosario. “Detroit was an example for that and Puerto Rico’s PROMESA was going to be even worse.”
After Hurricane Maria hit the island on September 16, 2017, relationships fostered at the delegation became focused on combining relief aid with an ethos of self-determination.
One such example was the Queer Kitchen Brigade, a collective of queer and trans food activists in Brooklyn who had met at the AMC delegation and were inspired to organize the donation, processing and delivery of fresh produce and seeds and gardening supplies to the island. Another was the work of CEPA, a nonprofit organized by Rosario and Nieves to foster wellness and self-determination among islanders, to deliver packages of healing medicinal herbs and information on self-healing to the island.
Another key outcome was the recognition that similar narratives, actors and forces for privatization were at play in Detroit and in Puerto Rico, and that a counter-narrative was needed to fight back.
“I would say prior to Maria, the only place you could really even find any news about this was in the business media, so Bloomberg News, Business Weekly, Caribbean Business, who were the main purveyors of information, and clearly from a very business-oriented bias,” says Basilio. “Part of our conversation with Detroit was about recurring narratives around dependency and that somehow people could go there and start from nothing, with the idea that Puerto Rico was a ‘paradise’ and Detroit a ‘blank slate’.”
The delegation was inspired to build counter-narratives to promote self-determination around topics such as water rights and food sovereignty.
“We were interested in how we shape and promote our own narratives that are based on our values, as opposed to ones imposed by biased corporate media, and by these ultra-capitalists who are clearly trying to benefit off of poverty and the debt that was created,” says Basilio.
Rosario says the group is hoping to continue the work at this year’s AMC conference, albeit on a less ambitious basis, with 7-10 delegates from the island. So far, they have confirmed about $5,000 in funding and are looking for another $5,000. Rosario hopes a smaller focus will enable participants to benefit from the wider conference.
“The idea is to go as a delegation where we can get filled up with this inspiration, and then to return and to continue to develop practices that we can use to really transform solidarity,” she says, “We really would like to give people an opportunity to attend the conference and to build relationships between these people who already share a desire to do healing justice in Puerto Rico.”
For Gallisá Muriente, the most important outcome of the delegation has been the relationships fostered, some of which continue in informal ways, such as in a WhatsApp group, and continue to lend her emotional and spiritual strength in the face of the island’s slow recovery.
“What was really important for me about going to Detroit was to hear Monica Lewis Patrick talk about her beloved community, and the beloved community as her framework for struggle and understanding that we are each other’s beloveds. I think that really rung really true to me,” says Gallisá Muriente. “It had a lot to do with the spirit of the group and the spirit with which we’ve carried forward, once we were back here, where the scale of the crisis is so huge that it’s really disheartening.”
“There is something really fundamental in just understanding ourselves as bound to each other and to really honor those effective ties that keeps us all going.” she says. “I have a sticker on my wallet I bought at AMC when we went for the gathering that just says, ‘I have people in Detroit’.”