We visited the Young Lords Presente exhibit in the Loisaida Center, in order to explore Puerto Rican activism. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico, and only moved to the United States eleven years ago. After attending an American school in my childhood, I felt that my language, my history, my personality was colonized from an early age, before I even knew what was happening. After a long process of decolonization, (interesting enough, a process undertaken while away from my country, (The imperialist doesn’t tell you of its contempt for you while it is colonizing you, only when you immigrate and assimilate)) I can now appreciate my culture, albeit even to this date, through a lens, thus never really a part of it, always from the outside, displaced. But an activist I am, engaged in fighting systems of oppression, and in fostering empathy and building community and raising a child that will take that fight further. And it seemed fitting to go to the Young Lords Presente exhibit and show my son how other people like him have also undertaken this fight.
I planned the trip to the exhibit thinking that we would reinforce geography, talk about history, colonization, imperialism, racism, and activism. We learn of these things together because context gives meaning. Artificially divided subjects, at best lead to memorization, at worst leads to thinking that things happen in a vacuum. These are not new topics for him, eventhough he is only five. This is our world, and we do not shy away from understanding the ugly truths, so that we may think of ways to make it better.
We keep our activism positive, partly because he is only 5 years old, but also because love is such a powerful emotion and I constantly strive towards living the world I wish existed. My newsfeed is bombarded with negative events, with horrible injustices, with legal atrocities, and although it is righteous anger, it is anger all the same. And while it is important to help destroy the old, we must also build the new. So I am constantly dancing between the beats of anger and the melody of love. And this exhibit of the Young Lords played this music for me so skillfully, that I did not have to divide in two.
As we entered through the doors, we saw a multi-media installation that really spoke to me about the Young Lords and the different ways of being an activist. I was expecting to see only their direct actions, a cliché of the rebel, which is still a very powerful image (one in fact that really drew Ollie in and impacted him enough to take several pictures) but a trite one nevertheless. And it made me question how many other people stick to the cliché as well when they hear of activists? Do people picture signs, marches and sit-ins and shutting it down? Do they also think of writers, and actors, and painters? Do they think of mothers, and teachers?
That first installation as you come in, blew me away for its inclusion of music, and poetry, and yes, a rifle, and a candle. Change is fought in all fronts, and art is such a powerful tool. Art makes you feel, and feeling is revolutionary. Feeling is change.
“There is an art to every practice, activism included. It’s what distinguishes the innovative from the routine, the elegant from the mundane. One thing that can help the “art of activism” is applying an artistic aesthetic tactically, strategically, and organizationally. Throughout history, the most effective political actors have married the arts with campaigns for social change. While Martin Luther King Jr is now largely remembered for his example of moral courage, social movement historian Doug McAdam’s estimation of King’s “genius for strategic dramaturgy,” likely better explains the success of his campaigns. From Jesus’ parables to the Tea Party’s protests, working artfully makes activism effective.” Center for Artistic Activism.
As we continued though the exhibit, we heard the powerful music created by the Young Lords, really clinging to the bomba y plena, and having it speak to their present reality. Our hair stood up on ends as the bongos drummed up our sleeping hearts. We learned about their Theater of Struggle, plays put together to highlight the injustices. (This made me think of the Theater of the Oppressed up in Washington Heights, and now we can’t wait to go) We read poems by Pedro Pietri, and saw how pain and struggle could be transformed in words. This was all very thrilling, especially for Ollie since he loves performing so much. He even went up on stage and spoke about making a new world where people’s hearts are full of love, where we fight the bad guys with guns but also songs.
Hearing him speak, moved me to tears. Seeing the passion in his eyes for justice, fueled my own. Sometimes the guns draw us in, but the songs, those are the ones that change us.