Category Archives: Caribbean

Focus on Dr. Daisy Cocco De Filippis

Dominican Blue Book

President Daisy Cocco De Filippis was born in Santo Domingo. Her parents moved to the United States when she was 13 years old. She served for many years as professor of Spanish and Latin-American Literature at The City University of New York (York College). De Filippis is currently president of Naugatuck Valley Community College—the first Dominican president of a community college in the United States.

President De Filippis holds a Ph.D. in Spanish Language and a M. Phil. in Spanish Literature from the Graduate School and University Center of CUNY, as well as an M.A. in Spanish Literature and a B.A. in Spanish and English Literatures summa cum laude from Queens College, CUNY. A published author and literary critic, her scholarly work is recognized internationally as pioneering the field of Dominican women studies and Dominican authors in the U.S.

Prior to coming to NVCC, Dr. De Filippis served as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Eugenio Maria de Hostos Community College of the City University of New York (CUNY). Dr. De Filippis began her career at York College as an adjunct lecturer in 1978, advancing to become a professor of Spanish and ultimately being appointed associate dean for academic affairs.

As president of NVCC, Dr. De Filippis has been honored by the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission, Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund, the Boys and Girls Club, Habitat for Humanity and the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission. She was also invited to speak at the Waterbury mayoral inauguration in 2012 and named Dominican Mayor of the Day in 2013. She has previously been the recipient of, among many other honors and awards, the Woman of the Year Award from the Association of Dominican-American Supervisors (2006), the Order of Merit, Duarte, Sanchez and Mella in the Rank of Commander, presented by Dr. Leonel Fernandez, President of the Dominican Republic (2005), the Hija Distinguida of Santo Domingo (Distinguished Daughter) Award, presented by the Mayor of Santo Domingo (2005), the Educator of the Year Award from Dominican Times Magazine (2004), the Order of Merit Cristóbal Colón, in the Rank of Commander, presented by Hipólito Mejía, President of the Dominican Republic (2003), the Myers Outstanding Book Award, presented by the Gustavus Meyer Center for the Study of Bigotry in North America, to authors of Telling To Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios (Duke University Press, 2001), Simmons College (2002), the Influential Latina Award, El Diario/La Prensa (1998), a Citation for Outstanding Contribution to the Community and Academe, Ruth Messinger, President, Borough of Manhattan, New York (1996), and a Citation for Outstanding Contribution to Academe, Claire Shulman, President, Borough of Queens, New York (1994).

Like the best professors, De Filippis begins our interview by directing me to the definitive written resource on the subject at hand, in this case her remarkable essay “The House that Mamá Biela Built,” published in Telling to Live. She then proceeds to speak spontaneously, with flowing ease and often poignant honesty, about her early life and intellectual formation.

“My grandmother was a teacher. Born in 1898, she had very emancipated ideas for a woman of her time. She believed that girls could do anything boys could do, and she also believed in me with a passion that nobody else has yet believed in me. My parents were divorced when I was very young, and she taught me to love one of my fundamental loves, the place where I go to find a sense of order and beauty in the world and that is poetry. Poetry defines the manner in which I communicate. I’m not really a poet, although I do write poetry for my granddaughters, because I would like them to remember me in a similar fashion; but I have written many books promoting, translating, and analyzing the poetry of Dominican writers. I learned from her a sense of who I was and what it meant to be Dominican. We used to walk the street to visit women who had been friends of her mother. I was a little girl who actually liked to sit with old people and listen to them tell me stories about how the city was formed, who our family was and what they contributed to that. I would sit in the park and read and make sense of things, I was going through a difficult time since it’s not easy to have your mother remarry when you are four years old. She was my anchor, and through her, I learned to love my island and love my half-island; and through her I learned that there are many traits in my character, resilience and creativity and endurance, that come precisely from what it means to grow up with palm trees that never bend, though they certainly sway, and are not broken by the storm. All of that shaped my view of the world.”

At the Graduate School and University Center of CUNY, De Filippis wrote her doctoral thesis on Dominican poetry: the first dissertation to deal with Dominican literature, it thus became the first of numerous historic milestones she has chiselled out for the community in her career. Due to the boldness of her endeavour, she was advised to present the subject in a European theoretical framework. “I used the theories of Michel Riffaterre. The semiotic study of poetry really looks at the way words relate to one another so that they make meaning. The words need to have a reason to be there, to belong. Semiotics is about organizing. That was the framework, but I got into texts that dealt with a Dominican reality, that brought in the voices of the Dominican countryside. It created a controversy in the Dominican Republic.” De Filippis acquired the reputation of being “a Dominican critic who promotes Dominican works.” In fact, however, her guiding principle was much broader: “I just promised myself I wouldn’t write about anything I didn’t like. That I would just take the time to bring justice to good works.”

With President De Filippis, the conversation flows naturally and easily back and forth between life, literature and language. “My dreams and aspirations have always been very, very high,” she recalls, “because I grew up with a grandmother who introduced me to books as the best way to find meaning in life. In a difficult situation, the best getaway is to enter a book and find yourself in it and find comfort in it and through reading, you understand that there are multiple ways to make meaning in this world and there are different ways of organizing and creating stability, beauty, and knowledge that are not dictated by one culture or by one gender or one people. So I learned very early on, I was bilingual in the Dominican Republic, by the time I was eight or nine I was fluent in Italian, and I learned a lot. My stepfather’s mother came to live with us, and since I gravitated towards old people, I had two grandmothers, one Italian, one Dominican. It shaped my understanding that you could say things in different ways and it would still mean the same thing. You could look at the world, organize the world with different grammatical order, with different words, and the meaning at the heart would still be the same.”

Stories that tug the heartstrings featured prominently in the adolescent De Filippis’s development of her keen eye for patterns of meaning. She likes to say that Charles Dickens picked up where her grandmother left off: “in the sense that Great Expectations was the first complete novel that I read in English, in 9th grade. You know Dickens talks about children who are abandoned and disenfranchised but in the end, somehow justice prevails. There’s a sense of comfort that things are going to work out. And so I think that first year, being in this country and being away from my grandmother, and the way she taught me, reading took over that role.” Later in life, visiting the Dominican Republic for the summer with children of her own, De Filippis had the chance to watch her grandmother giving the same lessons to them. “She would draw a leaf, and she would begin to show me the different parts of the leaf in her drawing, and then we would go to the park– el Parque de Ramfis, now called el Parque de Hostos. What we try to teach our college students in General Studies, which is how connected things are—I learned that from her, as a kid: that a leaf can nurture a life, can feed it, but also can nurture the spirit if you paint it or if you write a poem about it, if you write a story about a tree. Those lessons I learned from her early on and I brought them here, and then Dickens gave me the sense that I could survive, because junior high school is a really tough environment.” De Filippis has since written articles on the subject of the trials and tribulations of junior high students. She notes that she still mourns her grandmother, who died at the age of 86.

Summarizing her revelatory essay, De Filippis tells me that “the conclusion of ‘The House that Mamá Biela Built’ is that I am that house. I am that house that she built, and my survival or my strength and the fact that I can go to New York and now be in Connecticut and have a way to make home and I use the tools to make this home: being who I am, a Dominican mother who is now a grandmother, who is also an administrator and educator but who has also written many books and reads poetry. This campus reads poetry all the time.” She mentions that acclaimed Dominican writers Chiqui Vicioso and Marianela Medrano (a close personal friend of long standing) will be visiting soon. Medrano hosts a poetry reading called Confluencia four times a year at Naugatuck Valley Community College, a tradition now in its sixth year. The fifth-anniversary milestone was marked by the publication of a book: Confluencia in the Valley: Five Years of Converging with Words, with a Foreword by President De Filippis herself.

De Filippis recently stepped down as president of the Dominican Studies Association, a position she had held since the 1990s. “We would get together every couple of years: it was about me disseminating Dominican Studies but also about having the young people that were coming up get to know one another and hear what they have to say and create our own sense of space and history.”

What challenges she has faced as the first Dominican community college president? “I think the challenges that I have are about the same as I would have, whether I were Dominican or not. You’re really trying to open the doors, to bring people in. This past May, our graduating class was aged 17-71. We have a group of students who are finishing high school and for two years they take some college-level courses and get a certificate in manufacturing, so I had a bunch of 17 year-olds who were graduating from high school who already had a certificate from a community college so that they could begin to look for work.” Though the school is predominantly white (60%), De Filippis is proud to say that the current freshman class is 25% Latino (the figure for the entire student body was 14% when she arrived), and that the school is applying Hispanic-Serving status.

As De Filippis tells it, the story of her becoming president of NVCC hinged on a basic, undeniable chemistry, a sense of mutual trust and serendipitous synergy that became apparent in her immediate encounter with the school, with the people who work and study there. “There was an incredible meeting of minds when I came here. I really wasn’t planning to come. Somebody nominated me. They wrote to me asking if I would like to be considered and my husband said, ‘You can’t say no to what hasn’t been offered, or to what you have not seen.’ He and I drove over here and I saw Waterbury, which has one of the highest poverty rates in Connecticut. And I saw a lot of young men, especially black and Latino men, on the corners. And I thought, ‘So, I have a reason for coming to this place.’ I came here and the search committee had set up interviews with all the different constituencies in the school from 9:00 in the morning until 5:00 PM, when I finally met the search committee. The students, faculty senate, student senate, different administrators, you name it. And the message I got at the end of the interviews was: We really want you to come. So by the time I talked to the search committee, I also wanted to come. The challenge I had was this: I came to an environment that was ready for change. I always say, I’m very grateful to those who came before me, because they did some work that I don’t have to do.”

Although the college sits in a landscape of sweeping storybook grandeur, there were some changes to the space and its use that immediately cried out to be made. De Filippis followed her intuition and common sense. “Having been at CUNY, where it was very difficult to see any green, and having come from an island, here, I’m surrounded by a glacial ridge of trees. What I didn’t see, however, what was lacking, was the pulse, the vibrancy, the life, that we had at Hostos Community College, where I had been the Provost for six and a half years and which I loved very much. Here, I had all this beautiful space, but there wasn’t a single garden. I walked through the fifth floor that connects all the buildings on campus, but with these beautiful corridors with glass so you see all this wonderful vegetation outside, there wasn’t a chair for the students to sit in. Everything was beige. There was a sense that, as Aida Cartagena Portalatin (about whom De Filippis has published a book) would say, a woman was needed here, and I am that woman.

“What it was lacking was a kind of nesting, creating a space and organizing the space. I looked around and I didn’t see too many services being offered. I also noticed that the graduation numbers were not high. There were many things like that. So I started by defining the space as a place where student success is our expectation.” De Filippis also notes with approval that how to make a good flan has become widespread knowledge at NVCC– thanks to the many flans that she herself has made for her constituents (it is, she says, part of the essence of governing as a Hispanic woman).

Far from imposing an autocratic vision, the dynamic transformation De Filippis has wrought consists in empowering her various constituencies in multiple ways. “I have taken the fifth floor and given people permission to paint the walls.” De Filippis found painters and encouraged them to get started changing the look of the place, adding more warmth and color. “We reconfigured one space on the fifth floor and created the Academic Center for Excellence. I envision it as a New York loft with movable pieces, so the students have free tutoring and mentoring that they can go to seven days a week, including at night.” The library was reorganized to make it more accessible, more integrated with the heart of the campus.

“We took all the furniture from the core of the building and sent it to the prisons to be reupholstered. We got the students in the arts program to take ownership of the walls and paint them, so we began to create this learning commons, with multiple seating areas for the students.” These initiatives inspired the workers in the Admissions, Registrar, and Cashier’s Office to come forward with ideas for reorganizing their working spaces “in an orderly way that would make sense for the students,” De Filippis tells me. Services were streamlined and consolidated. The staff of the Center for Academic Planning and Student Success also spoke up in turn with ideas for optimal use of their space.

President De Filippis has also worked with local and elected leadership to bring evening bus service to Waterbury, secure funding for an Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center, receive two Fulbright Scholar-In-Residence guests and bring the federal GEAR UP program to Waterbury. NVCC also established a Bridge to College office, which administers $12 million in grants aimed at preparing students to enter and succeed in college.

With striking clarity of vision, De Filippis repeatedly returns to the connection between these enormous practical and logistical advances made at NVCC under her administration and her lifelong passion for literature. “You see, my writing a doctoral dissertation on the semiotics of Dominican poetry was great because it brought me into the world of Dominican letters. I studied poetry as a tribute to my grandmother. But then I came here and I said, wait a second! Semiotics is also lean management. Everything is where it’s supposed to be, for the purpose that it’s supposed to have.

“I arrived here on Bastille Day, July 14, and I remind them of that. The number of graduating students this year was 1,353. So we’ve more than doubled the number of completions.” Under her guidance, student retention has steadily risen, enrollment has increased from 6,128 students (fall 2008) to 7,293 students (fall 2013), and graduation awards have grown from 521 (2007–08) to 1,353 (2013–14) total awards.

“We are the only community college in Connecticut that has had the honor of having more than 1,000 completions in a year. This is the third year in a row. The first year the number was 1,008, then it went up to 1,252, and now it’s 1,353. But for the black and Hispanic students, the numbers have more than doubled. It’s a 200% improvement in completion. So I’m here for everybody. But because I am here and because I’ve created an environment where the students all know me as ‘President Daisy,’ and I spend time and I listen to them, and they all feel that if this sixty-something woman, who’s a grandmother, who has an accent, who’s an immigrant, can be one of the most effective presidents for a community college—and I’m not bragging, it’s a fact, my supervisor tells me that—then they can do anything. So my being a woman, my being Dominican, my being Latina—and I embrace all of my students, I don’t care what color they are, because anybody who comes here is mine, I’m their mother, guide and mentor, I’m their defender, but to have the black and Latino kids rise the way they have risen gives me tremendous satisfaction. I am doing what I have done my entire life, which is: I am an educator for everybody; I try to help my people as much as I can.”

I ask what her proudest accomplishment as president so far is. “Having created an environment where students believe in themselves and having given the support for them to jump high, to aim high, and achieve, and I’m going by the number of completions, which is spectacular here.” In her scholarly work? “Giving voice to the Dominican literature written in the United States in Spanish.” Here, again, De Filippis’s sense of literature as a dynamic social force is crucial. “I have received as much recognition from the community as I have from the academy. Helping as much as I can to create space, not only at the institutions where I am but in the institutions where I have friends who are academics, for Dominican writers in particular, but not limited to those. You want to maintain the flow of the community. I think I contributed to that.” She is also a prolific translator, but mentions that only in passing, as she moves on toward more vital concerns. “As much as time would permit, I have done a lot of work to promote that. I (and many others) have become a vehicle for the country to open itself to its racial makeup, to the role of women, to the need to embrace the Haitian as your brother or sister, because after all, we are Haitians here. Who cares whether I was born on the west or east side of the island? I’m very proud that the women in particular have embraced a very open and inclusive approach. We, from here, have become examples; have become a constant mirror to some of the lesser angels of the island.”

The unity of art, scholarship, and life is a truth De Filippis affirms once more as I ask for her advice to young aspiring scholars or administrators. “I never took a course in administration, education, or accounting. I have managed more budgets than I could tell you. The humanities and the arts teach you to think on your feet, teach you to read, teach you to communicate, teach you to be serious, and give you the tools to do anything. The best administrators, in my experience, are those who begin as faculty, who learn what it’s like to get through one semester, which bring the experience and can then guide others and become the chair and ultimately, if they have the patience for many meetings, continue to advance. I always tell the women’s groups I get invited to speak to that I didn’t have a road map; what I kept on with was my spirit open to possibilities. And then, when you go there, whatever it is that you do, the important thing is to believe in it. If you love it, you will do your best. When I began teaching at York College, everybody thought that being an accountant was the way to go. But in the end, you’ve got to be able to get up in the morning. I love my job. I love what I do. It has meaning for me. I want to do more of it. And I could tell you honestly that since the day I began working in 1975 when I graduated from Queens College with a bachelor’s degree and they made me an adjunct—I taught two courses. And I went to pick up my first check. I laughed all the way home, because I would have paid to stand in front of a classroom and teach.”

As we conclude our conversation, President De Filippis stresses the continuity between her past, whether as a child in the Dominican Republic or as a young teacher at CUNY, her present at Naugatuck Valley, and her future legacy. “Wherever I came, I carry all those people with me. Wherever I am, I’m Dominican. Wherever I am, I will honor that. And wherever I am, I want people to understand that it is a good and beautiful and honorable thing to be Dominican. I have three sons and two beautiful granddaughters, one of whom is nine years old, and she writes poetry. She sent me a poem last week: ‘I am from / burnt caramel flan / and the soft fabric / of my abuela’s shawl.’ My work is done.”

This is one of several profiles featured in the newly launched Dominican Blue Book by the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute, which this year is celebrating its 20th Anniversary with a grand event, The Dominican Intellectual Legacy Gala, on Saturday, December 6, 2014, at 6:30 p.m. Congratulations to the Dominican Studies Institute on this important anniversary!

“Adam’s Rib: Island Taboo Unveiled”


by Iris Lafé

I had long forgiven my father. For the sake of my battered mother’s dignity safely folded the skeletons in the family closet as good little Puerto Rican girls and boys so often do. Five decades later and our homecoming to their native Puerto Rico (1999), the dreadful specter of domestic violence returns to haunt me again—this time, in high definition. In this essay, I explore a silent tragedy ravaging La Familia Puertorriqueña of the 21st Century: Femicide.

My story begins with a visit from The Muse. While languishing in the remote, rural quiet solitude of my aging parents’ Barrio down south, my heart cries out for the battered mujeres of Puerto Rico. I was expecting her.

“There’s a reason you came back to the troubled homeland when you did,” she prompts. “Family violence, child abuse and benign neglect, the traumatic ripple effects on victims and to society is a subject you know all too well. Remember your experience. Don’t be afraid. You lived it and carry your mother’s memories deep inside the well of your anguished soul. You both survived, as a single mother you broke that cycle of abuse and your only daughter remains virtually unscathed. But look at the future, getting bleaker by the day for the next generation of women and girls, if they survive at all. Be the light, tell your story and break the silence.” The Muse emboldened me and possessed my disenchanted body right on the spot.

Day after day I was riveted to the Spanish local TV news. During breaks from my 24/7 caregiver duties, I began to chronicle my life on the island, to document what I was witnessing—it became a feverish compulsion—a reflex and residue from my California days in broadcasting and the media: Where’s the story? Get the story and get the scoop. Switching channels, clearly, from the missing coverage on mainstream networks beaming down by satellite, I had the scoop.

On the U.S. Caribbean colony—population 3.7 million “Forgotten Americans”—violence against women had reached unbridled, unconscionable proportions. From January to June 2011, in only six months, an unprecedented nineteen (19) mujeressuffered brutal, gruesome deaths, mortal mutilations and slayings reminiscent of a Stephen King novel—an abomination to our noble society.[i]

Despite La Ley 54 (domestic violence protection and prevention act of 1989) Puerto Rico had the highest per capita rate in the world of women over 14 murdered at the hands of a spouse or partner and the numbers kept climbing, ending 2011 with 30 femicides, scrutinized in an ACLU report.2 These are terrorizedwomenthe police failed to protect (whether by omission or commission) among the total of 1136 men, women, and children violently murdered that year.[ii]

The vivid scenarios of families trapped in violence, condemned to unmitigated poverty, beamed me back to my childhood household in 1960s New York.

The sweltering Lower East Side tenement, exuding the aroma of festering refuse from the back alleys, made me gag each time I scurried past the dingy hallways into our fire escape window apartment #1. The humble hearth Mami, the dutiful domestic—Boricua clean freak—whitewashed using her penetrating Pine Sol cleaner and irresistible sautéing sofrito vapors rising from the stove. Her story I’d begun to write:

Everything I am, ever was or ever shall be I owe to mi santa madre. Mami was a saint— “Saint Tolerance.” She put up with my father´s “casca rabia” irascible, grumpy temperament, early years of matrimonial hell, always on her knees, praying without cease at her overworked altar of Catholic Christian faith. Holding high hopes for a miracle, that one day, Papi would stop getting drunk, using her as his punching bag; while she still loved “el macho de la casa” (her sole provider) unconditionally. To the day he passed away, she justified, “tu Papá es bueno.” Your father is a good man, her misty eyes imploring me to forgive him, her final dying wish.  

It hadn’t looked that way to me. I’d seen “The Hulk” crush her face into one bloody pulp. From the age of five in Loisaida, I witnessed the “War of the Lópezes” time and time again. The silent and sullen type, under the influence Papi was “a bad drunk,” your standard Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. Generous shots of rum fueled a strange combustion unleashing the beast, a cruel monster of a two-legged kind. No civility whatsoever, he fumed and roared, the foul-mannered brute he became, ¿Pendeja, cómo dejastes que’se nene se queme? Idiot, how could you let the child get burned? he charged. No questions asked of Mami, as if she were chattel, less than human to boot, and beat!—reared on erroneous illusions of greater male entitlement.  

Earlier, my curious brother reached up to the hot stove toppling the simmering pot of yummy habichuelas (beans) onto his 3-year-old frame. An ossified Papi arrived from his midtown-Manhattan garment district job pushing clothes racks (earning a paltry $35 a week) to find little Junior badly burned.    

A sewing machine operator (he forbade to keep her factory job) Mami was busy too; in the living room sewing piecemeal to earn some cash to feed her hungry brood. The roach-overrun cupboards were bare again. Accidents were common with my hyperactive brother. Impatient for dinner on the table, he wiled into the kitchen to silence the grumbling in his belly. Mami feared Papi squandered his meager earnings again—drinking.

“Yo no tengo la culpa.” It´s not my fault, Mami pleads Papi to hear her out. “You don’t help me raise these children. You’re their father.” It never failed, on pay day, Papi took a detour to the liquor store for his panacea and was plastered by the time he got home, swearing ¡hijo eh putas!, those sons of bitches, without a care our little hearts were pumping fear. An in-your-face Mami dares to “sass” her Lord and master! “¿Pa´ qué fué eso?” She went there? Not again!

Papi clenches his teeth, huffs and puffs arrogance. His sledgehammer fist craters the walls, crashing into Mami’s lovely cinnamon-colored face, rapid fire licks meant to show her who´s boss. The heavyweight punches dislodging her front teeth vanished her cheerful alabaster smile. “Why don’t you leave that man, he will kill you the next time,” I begged my inconsolable mother, afraid I could be next, to suffer the wrath of a drunken, domineering father. A future feminist was burning inside the “Mini-me.”  

“I can’t. I will not raise my children without a father,” she despaired; Adam’s Rib beaten but not broken. Down her swelling face cascaded red rivulets of tears.

Loving, as it were, Papi was a tormented man from the time he learned he was a “castaway”—a love-child kicked to the curb. “Yo no tengo familia,” I have no family, he bemoaned to me on his death bed. “Ello sí.” Of course you do. “You have us, Daddy,” I retorted consolingly, switching from Spanish to English, like we always did since the time I was a little girl, feeling the sting of his rejection all over again. And yet, I empathized with his frail human condition.

Hijo de crianza (adopted by next of kin) Papi never knew his biological parents. Emotional baggage he was not up to the task of handling in marriage; Mami captured his heart at the tender age of 17—she was 27. He piled his arrested development issues on her, inflicted bodily and emotional injuries no child should grow up seeing as my three siblings and I did during the formative years. Early childhood traumas leave an enduring emotional scab that can harden one’s heart.  

On July 14 2011, reported our daily Primera Hora, outraged women advocates, representing the organization Coordinadora Paz Para La Mujer, a women’s collective of emergency shelter and service providers; and the civil rights coalition Movimiento Amplio de Mujeres, MAMPR, (General Mobilization of Women of Puerto Rico) denounced the government for not doing more to confront this issue and declared Un Estado de Emergencia Nacional (National State of Emergency) to stop the killings, demanding government action.[iii] Decrying the failures of La Ley 54 for lacking the muscle (and greater goodwill) of a male-dominated police and judiciary on the island; for not observing the tactical plans and protocols implemented, since 2005, by La Oficina de la Procuradora de Las Mujeres (Women’s Legal Advocate Office); for sanctioning the consequential violation of victim’s rights: bottom line, for being part of the problem, not the solution.

Puerto Rico suffragettes earned the right to vote in 1935. Eighty years later, women victims of gender violence fall victim to another crime, the cavalier machismo attitude judging that “the woman asked for it” including my own Papi until the thrashings stopped.

I pondered Mami’s fate, had not the NYC police handcuffed him and placed him behind bars, shielding her from her abuser. Not so in the case of la colonia:

  • 20,000 domestic violence incidents, on average, are officially reported each year
  • 130,000 women and girls subjected to family violence each year eschew the unresponsive system.[iv]

According to the ACLU, 107 femicides over the five years 2007–2011highlight the new normal today.[v]

My Mami’s action in defending herself scared my Papi straight. The thrashings stopped. To my parents’ credit, true love killed the beast.

[i] González, Leysa Caro. “Emergencia nacional por muertes de mujeres víctimas de violencia doméstica.” Primera Hora. 14 de julio de 2011.

[ii] Alvarez, Lizette. “Economy and Crime Spur New Puerto Rican Exodus.” New York Times. Feb. 9, 2014. [iii] González, Leysa Caro. “Emergencia nacional por muertes de mujeres víctimas de violencia doméstica.” Primera Hora. 14 de julio de 2011.

[iv] Mollmann, Marianne. A Step Backward for Puerto Rican Women.Women’s Rights Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch. Puerto Rico Daily Sun. August 4, 2011.

[v] ACLU. “Failure to Police Crimes of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault in Puerto Rico.” June 19, 2012.

Iris Lafé is the pen name for an emerging Afro-Latina writer who reports on 21st Century “Colonial” Puerto Rico from her perspective as a Diasporican returnee to the homeland in stylized personal vignettes. A Writer’s Well Literary Competition winner (2012), contributor to Global Woman, and former writer KCBS News Radio (SF), Lafé is a Bronx Science alumna, holds a BA in Black and Puerto Rican Studies from Hunter College, and works and lives in the San Juan Metropolitan Zone with her daughter. Currently editing her back-to-roots memoir, Lafé can be reached at:

Separatismo in the Age of Global Coloniality

by Marie Cruz Soto

Last June 23rd, I participated for the first time in the U.N. Decolonization Hearings on Puerto Rico. My statement addressed the detrimental effects the U.S. Navy has had on Vieques and how these did not magically disappear with its official parting from the island eleven years ago. The horrors of the past cannot be done away with so easily, especially when the conditions that facilitate them persist. I thus emphasized how the colonial status of the Puerto Rican archipelago has facilitated the abuses committed in the island-municipality. Petitioner after petitioner, from their different perspectives, similarly stressed the detrimental effects of colonialism. And at the end of the day the Special Committee unanimously approved a call on the U.S. to, “allow the people of Puerto Rico to fully exercise their inalienable right to self-determination and independence, as well as take decisions, in a sovereign manner, to address their economic and social needs.”[1] The statement is in accord with the view shared by, arguably, the majority of Puerto Ricans who hold that the present relationship to the U.S. is unacceptable and that islanders have the right to self-determination.[2] Yet, self-determination is commonly understood as choosing between independence, statehood, and (an enhanced version of) commonwealth. Puerto Ricans are not dreaming of independence. Or at least not of the independence offered by traditional party politics. The option received 5% of the votes in the latest referendum, which coincides with the numbers of the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño in general elections.[3] The question is: Why? With the centrality of nation-states to modern liberal democracies and global world order, why is the political imagination of islanders captive to a triad in which independence seems to fulfill the role of scaring people to vote for the other two options? A look at two recent initiatives may throw some light on the issue.

Anyone following the news these days will know that things in Puerto Rico are heated. And not just because of the summer temperatures. The Puerto Rican government is currently confronting a fiscal crisis, credit rating agencies, and unions. The talk about austerity measures and strikes may have opened up some space for stories to circulate about unorthodox political thinking. And, indeed, it may appear as counterintuitive for separatistas in a colonial setting to be against nation-state and for empire. But this is the case with two initiatives that have caught the attention of the media. On the one hand, a group called Movimiento de Reunificación con España (MRE) has declared null the 1898 Treaty of Paris and expressed desire to be annexed to Spain.[4] According to its founder José Nieves Seise, the Iberian metropole granted political autonomy to Puerto Ricans with the 1897 Carta Autonómica. Puerto Rico stopped then being a colony and thus could not be ceded to the U.S as booty of war the following year. Islanders had to be consulted for the Treaty of Paris to be valid. And since they were not, the transfer of sovereignty to the U.S. was illegitimate and so have been the last 116 years of U.S. rule. He further states that Puerto Ricans have supported options other than annexation “because in school we were taught a distorted version of history, one that demonized Spain and that hid the fact that we were Spanish citizens and that we are the descendants of the conquistadores.”[5] For him, Puerto Rico is (in a good and inalienable way) a product of Spanish colonialism, and annexation a matter of putting things right. Not only does annexation corrects a historical wrong, but it also opens up a brighter future with a more benevolent empire. Spain, for the MRE, stands in stark contrast to a U.S. Empire that has long neglected Puerto Ricans and denied them of political representation and economic opportunities. In this sense, U.S. rule is, more than illegitimate, highly undesirable. But so is a Puerto Rican nation-state.

On the other hand, there are the Viequense separatistas. These seek independence from Puerto Rico in order to establish a more direct relationship with the U.S. The initiative steers clear of identity politics and nostalgic looks at the long colonial past of the Puerto Rican archipelago. There is no counter-slogan to the MRE’s “Somos puertorriqueños Somos españoles No gringos.”[6] It assumes instead a rather pragmatic stance that has surprised, if not disturbed, many Puerto Rican main islanders. Indeed, the initiative cannot but make main islanders uncomfortable given that it is built on a searing critique of Puerto Rican politics. According to the spokespersons Yashei Rosario and Julián García, the Viequense island-community suffers from underdevelopment and from the neglect of San Juan-based politicians who take detrimental decisions from far away.[7] Not knowing or caring about the people on the other side of the Vieques Sound. Water is here a divide that separates Viequenses from constituents actually benefited by the actions of their elected officials. In this regard, Rosario further states that Vieques is doubly colonized: by Puerto Rico and by the U.S. The agenda of these separatistas is thus not built on a romanticized vision of the U.S. It is not even built on the typical colonial mentality of the incapacity of the colonized. Rosario, on the contrary, identifies the U.S. as an oppressive power and Viequenses as individuals who can develop themselves successfully. If only allowed to. The goal then is to sever ties to Puerto Rico and work with the remaining metropole in the securing of economic well-being.

The MRE and the Viequense separatistas while embracing different empires concur on their rejection of a Puerto Rican nation-state. In order to do so, the MRE opens up the past to the demands of the present. It depends on historical reinterpretations that elide the fact that the Carta Autonómica was only granted after four centuries of imperialism and anti-colonial resistance. Rather than a gift, the Charter was a modest opening that came late and at a high price. For it was not in the nature of the Spanish Empire to be any kinder than the U.S. Both endeavored to discipline the local population and ensure that independence was neither viable nor desired by islanders. Eradicating dissent, by any means necessary, has been fundamental to the fashioning of a profitable colony. And Puerto Rico has been a profitable colony. One historically dependent on the work of enslaved and immigrant peoples. Their central role in the making of modern day Puerto Ricans renders any unqualified claim to Spanish ancestry problematic. The Viequense separatistas accordingly overlook that, while the Puerto Rican government has many times enacted unfavorable policies for Vieques (and the rest of the archipelago), it has also with limited power of negotiation deterred the actions of the U.S. For if San Juan-based politicians backed the onset of the 1940s expropriations, they later avoided the complete takeover of the island by the U.S. Navy. Puerto Rican main islanders and the diaspora, in addition, were instrumental in driving out the Navy. Without their support, it is quite likely that Viequenses would still be living between an ammunition depot and a live fire target range. In these post-Navy days the U.S. federal government has repeatedly invoked sovereign immunity in order to evade responsibility over the welfare of Viequenses. It is thus unclear what sort of support the Viequense separatistas could expect. Yet, they wish to cast their lot with the U.S., and the MRE with Spain.

It would be easy to reduce the actions of these two groups to opportunism, to historical amnesia, or to the otherwise ills of a colonial mentality. It would be more productive, however, to contextualize their actions diachronically and synchronically. All Puerto Ricans are the product of a long colonial history throughout which dissent has been persecuted and the capacity of islanders has been questioned. Over the years the violence of colonialism has been normalized and made part of the invisible workings of the everyday. It is then not surprising that Puerto Ricans have trouble imagining a future without a metropole. And this daring feat only becomes more difficult when the metropole shuns the term empire and claims to be the defender of liberal principles, human rights, and economic development. Anti-imperial critiques are thus rendered nonsensical. Yet, Puerto Ricans are also of this world characterized by Arturo Escobar as ruled by imperial globality and global coloniality. The terms highlight the U.S.-led, “economic-military-ideological order that subordinates regions, peoples and economies world-wide.”[8] Nation-states, in this context, take back seat to global dynamics that “heightened marginalisation and suppression of the knowledge and culture of subaltern groups.”[9] This is not to say that nation-states are irrelevant in the potential offsetting of such global dynamics, or that the search for independence is not a worthy endeavor, but rather that the optimism which once permeated mid-20th century decolonization movements is lost. Nation-states can no longer be considered the panacea to the problems faced by historically marginalized groups. Neither can nationalism be understood as inherently anti-colonial or empowering discourse. New political imaginings are needed to envision a more just world.








[8] Escobar, Arturo.  “Beyond the Third World: Imperial Globality, Global Coloniality and Anti-globalisation Social Movements.” Third World Quarterly 25:1 (2004): 207.

[9] Escobar, “Beyond the Third World.”

Marie Cruz Soto teaches at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, New York University. She has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her research interests and publications focus on the island community of Vieques, militarized colonialism, reproductive rights, knowledge production, and coloniality. She is currently working on a book manuscript that delves into the five-century struggle of peoples to inhabit the island of Vieques and of empires to control it.

Of Puerto Rico, Perfumes and Colonies

by Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo

It was circa 1983, when I was a junior high student in the public school system in Puerto Rico, that I experienced one of my first deep contemplations about Puerto Rico’s political status by way of an exchange between a teacher and a classmate. The exchange was in Spanish, of course, so before I actually delve into the tale, I need to explain the “punch line” (in my opinion, the biggest disadvantage of translation). Mainly, in Spanish, the word for colony, “colonia,” is also the word for cologne. Understanding the nuances of this story, and why I found it so meaningful, is contingent upon understanding this homophone.

The Story

My eighth grade Social Studies teacher, I will call her here Miss Vilas, was a young woman fresh out of college, who came to work every morning on the back of a black Harley Davidson driven by her boyfriend, at a time when young women did not have “boyfriends,” did not ride in motorcycles, and definitely did not ride in their boyfriend’s motorcycle.  But she didn’t seem to care about societal expectations, and that translated to her work in the classroom. Always eager to teach us a few things about Puerto Rican society beyond what was stipulated in our curriculum, Miss Vilas was a good teacher, and her willingness to step out of boundaries appealed to my inquisitive mind. One day, out of the blue she began a discussion about the political status of the island, an event completely out of the ordinary, for up to that moment, the political status of Puerto Rico had been presented to us, not discussed in class. The Estado Libre Asociado or ELA (that is the Commonwealth status) was always taken for granted in the curriculum, and if anything, up to that particular day, I was under the impression that the ELA would always be an immutable and permanent fixture in the island’s government.

Our extraordinary discussion soon generated what seemed an extraordinary reaction. Upon hearing the name “Estado Libre Asociado,” “Bill,” one of my most articulate classmates, scoffed loudly and rolled his eyes, while playing air drums with his pencils to a tune only he could hear. Bill’s reaction made Miss Vilas stop dead in her tracks and look at him, intently, with a mysterious, undecipherable smile. Bill, still playing air drums, had closed his eyes, completely unaware of our teacher’s penetrating gaze until she finally asked: “why such a strong reaction, Bill?” Bill responded (without missing a beat with the pencils and with a mysterious smile of his own) that the ELA was nothing but a colony (“el ELA no es nada más que una colonia, Missis,” he quipped). The rest of us gasped in collective unison, but Miss Vilas quickly but firmly shot back: “colonia no, perfume” (which roughly translates as “not cologne, but perfume”). Her smile was intact.

The Lesson

The majority of us understood her point: perfumes are supposed to be of better quality than colognes, which are generally less expensive. Many of us laughed at her response, while Bill seemed to be taken aback by it—his air drumming stopped altogether, his smile turned into a frown. I laughed with the majority of my classmates, but I had to process what that really meant. Was she defending the political status of the island? I may have looked at it as a permanent fixture, but even I knew that the ELA was nothing if not flawed. This exchange between my teacher and my classmate stayed with me long after I graduated from junior high, from high school, and from college, and through my years as a graduate student and now as an academic. After all, Miss Vilas was not the only one on the island who thought that the Commonwealth was indeed not a form of cheap cologne but a fine bottled-up perfume.

The Take Away

Thirty years later, I now see Miss Vilas’ witty response to Bill not necessarily as a defense of the Commonwealth status, but as a tactic for dealing with a taxing situation (i.e., an unresolved political status that has lasted for half a millenium) by exerting some agency against its overwhelming weight. She was, in a perhaps awkward way, redefining her subject position (and by extension the subject position of all of us in her classroom, for we were all Puerto Ricans) vis-à-vis the US: in the end she did not want to be seen as (nor did she want to be) the subject of a cheap colonial configuration, to be sure. Miss Vilas’ way of engaging with the Commonwealth taught me an enduring lesson: regardless of the position from which they may advocate a particular political view, Puerto Ricans are painfully aware of the Commonwealth and its impacts, and do what they can to negotiate their location within it. It was also telling that even though we had never been formally taught about colonies as such, we still knew, as thirteen-year-olds, that the word (especially as it was being used by our classmate Bill) was meant as an insult, and a clear indictment of the island’s government. Our collective gasp reflected how much we knew, at such a young age, about colonies and about insults.  That the status of the island could be articulated as an insult, and thus something to be wielded in order to put people (us!) down, was a major insight to me that day.

In retrospect, the fact that I remember this particular exchange so vividly is indicative of how ingrained and even traumatic notions of Puerto Rico’s status can be. My recollection of the exchange often returns in my musings about the island, as it was around that time that I began to consciously process and sift through ideologies about its political status.  The exchange between my teacher and my classmate ultimately taught me that, as a Puerto Rican, I should learn to simultaneously deal with sensibilities that metaphorically articulate Puerto Rico’s status as a “cologne,” and those that articulate it as a “perfume.” The biggest insight for me now, however, after years of studying, thinking and writing about Puerto Rico’s political status, is that, although the island may actually be a little more than cologne, in the end, it is all colony. From the government to the educational system. From the economy to its daily diversions and entertainments. From the unemployment rate to the ever-expanding Diaspora (of which I have been a member for 20 years now). From every institution to every minute aspect of life. All colony. Then (when I was in school learning about the ELA), and now (as I continue the struggle to envision a future for Puerto Rico beyond the ELA).

Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo is an Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies at Washington State University. Her current research is on Latinos in the US, “the War on Terror,” and popular culture. She is a member of the Mujeres Talk Editorial Group.