Another Future for Puerto Rico (A Book Review for “The Battle for Paradise”)

Book Reviews, Call to Action

Tú sabes, another future is possible.

I finished reading Naomi Klein’s book The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists (Shop your local indie store) in a day, a slim volume of just 96 pages brimming with hope and resilience.

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The book and the Puerto Rican flag

In September 2017, Hurricane Maria ravaged the island killing many, wrecking homes and property, leaving thousands in the dark for weeks. The official death toll is at 64, although a Harvard University study estimates that about 4,645 died.

Amidst the destruction, Klein finds pockets of hope throughout the many communities she visited in January 2018. After being invited by a PARes–a group of university professors defending public education–to talk about her work on disaster capitalism, she writes about the ways Puerto Ricans have self-organized to help each other out after Maria.

In the small mountain city of Adjuntas lies Casa Pueblo, the community and ecology center that shone a light in the city for days. Literally and metaphorically. It became the community’s only source of power, its solar panels in tact after the storm. Its community-managed plantation also survived, and it was able to sustain its radio station which became the only source of information down power lines and knocked out cell towers.

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A photo from San Francisco’s Parada 22

Klein writes that her visiting Casa Pueblo was like “stepping through a portal into another world, a parallel Puerto Rico where everything worked and the mood brimmed with optimism.” The founder, Alexis Massol-González and his son, Arturo Massol-Deyá, president of Casa Pueblo’s board of directors think of Maria as a teacher.

Massol-González shares his son’s belief that Maria has opened up a window of possibility, one that could yield a fundamental shift to a healthier and more democratic economy–not just for electricity, but also for food, water and other necessities of life.

“We are looking to transform the energy system. Our goal is to adopt a solar energy system and leave behind oil, natural gas, and carbon which are highly polluting.”

A Lifetime of Resistance: Bienvenído Oscar!

Book Reviews

Update (9/26/2017):
Click here to support frontline Puerto Rican communities in the
recovery from Hurricane Maria! 

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i was born Boricua,
i will keep being Boricua,
and will die a Boricua.

–Oscar Lopez Rivera, Puerto Rican Independentista
(Oscar does not capitalize the “i” when referring to himself, in order to deemphasis the individual with respect to the collective)

I picked up Oscar López Rivera: Between Torture and Resistance (Amazon | Indiebound) at a local event in Berkeley where I signed up as a security volunteer. Even though I didn’t know who OLR was, I was excited to be part of an event celebrating the release of a political prisoner. Apart from Angela Davis whose book inspired me, I don’t hear many stories of political prisoners being released.

Maybe it was the timing, but I wanted to learn more about Oscar and his own struggle as a Puerto Rican independentista. As I write this, ten political prisoners were just released in the Philippines as part of ongoing peace talks between the NDF and the government. But more still languish behind bars. Many of the political prisoners released by the Philippine government are out of jail on certain conditions — as consultants for the peace talks.

The event was rapidly filling up, as people walked in with  the widest smiles. On the stage was a big “Bievenído Oscar!” banner. The reception hall was lined with artwork calling for Puerto Rican independence. The air had an electric feel to it and I’ve never seen so many activists in one space so joyous.


Oscar was born in San Sebastián, Puerto Rico in 1943. At age 14, he moved to Chicago with his family and soon enough, he was drafted into the U.S. Armed Forces where he was awarded the Bronze Star for his service. But what came out of his time in Vietnam was not an increase in patriotic fervor, but a realization of who he was — Puerto Rican.

As soon as he came back from the service, he started to organize his communities and push for an end to U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico. From 1969 to 1976, Oscar helped found several programs and initiatives: the Pedro Albizu Campos High School, an alternative school for Puerto Ricans celebrating innovator Paulo Freire (who wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed); the Puerto Rican Cultural Center; campaigns for bilingual education support; Project 500 at the University of Illinois, an educational initiative to ensure the annual admission of five hundred Latino and African American students; the Latin American and Latino studies, as well Proyecto Pa’lante; the Latin American Recruitment Education Services; the first Latino Cultural Center in the state of Illinois; the Spanish Coalition for Housing and many others.

His civil activism between 1969 and 1976 clearly evidenced his genuine and significant effort to use every possible route of change within Chicago’s existing official structures. The question, however, remained: was it really possible to develop lasting (and not merely cosmetic) change within the prevailing dominant structures of U.S. society?

To Libraries, With Love

Sunday Spotlight

From time to time [Abdel Kader Haidara] consulted books about Islamic jurisprudence, the fikh, in his own collection when confronted with thorny problems in his marriage and his work. But religion did not play a major role in his life. What drove him most was a belief in the power of the written word — the rich variety of human experience and ideas contained between the covers of a book.
The Bad-Ass Librarians of TimbuktuJoshua Hammer

I still have a literary hangover from Haidara and Touré, bad-ass librarians from Timbuktu who saved and preserved manuscripts amidst a civil war in Mali. The term librarian these days brings to mind an image of a stern, bookish woman, complete with glasses and a cardigan — just like Jane (Marcia Gay Harden) in the movie After Words (2015). Sure, it casts Harden as the most stereotypical librarian ever (she lives with her cat) but there was a rhythm of hers that I enjoyed: the quiet stack of books next to bed, the solitude, the worlds that lay after each page. But she was lonely. She was alone. She flies to Costa Rica on a one-way ticket after being laid off and in typical Eat, Pray, Love fashion she finds herself (along with adventure and romance).

Sure, we can roll our eyes in unison with the antiquated portrayal of our most beloved librarians in this movie. What’s important to me though was her losing her job. In this time and age, do we still need librarians? And what’s the future of libraries?

For centuries, the librarian’s job was providing scarce information to dependent patrons. Now, the job is helping patrons navigate superabundant information of wildly varying quality and uncertain provenance.

For better or worse, the digital age forces experts to make the case that a Google search doesn’t replace the librarian, and WebMD doesn’t replace the doctor.

–Robert Graboyes, PBS

I came across a discussion about libraries and its influence on a group of writers: Tessa Hadley, C.E. Morgan and Jerry Pinto with John Donatich. The discussion had so many points I resonated with: libraries as sacred temples, a place for initiation, the toss-up between borrowing books vs. owning them, books as work spaces, access and mobility…

I was thinking how when I used to—and I still go to the library—take a book out. At first, you’re a little shy and a little squeamish, but then as you get into the book, the presence of previous readers in that book, with the way the spine cracks, and the way that’s something sticky on page 147 that you’re not going to question too carefully, and the way the pages wrinkle, and the smells of other people’s homes . . . you realize that the book is such an intimate thing. It’s something you befriend. It’s something you live with.

–John Donatich, Lithub

When I was in Puerto Rico over the summer, I passed by Libros Libres on Calle Loiza. It was a free library complete on what seemed to be an abandoned building smack dab on a busy street. I browsed through its makeshift shelves: there were encyclopedias, old textbooks, a few American paperbacks and a particular title by Mitch Albom that my partner found. I was absolutely elated.

A little research revealed that the following bad-ass folks were behind the project: Edward Benson, Nina Coll and Zevio Schnitzer.

I think exchanging books and reading is another way to make [a] country, another way of relating and disconnect some of the Internet to connect to the walls of this wall and interact with books.

–Nina Coll, El Nuevo Dia

Back from the Borinquen 

Sunday Spotlight

I spent a few good days in Puerto Rico last week, where I got a chance to slow down, soak up the sun, wade in warm waters. The trip was nourishing on many levels. Being (and wanting to be) a stranger in a different place does something to the self: it temporarily frees you up from several ties, as you suspend your “normal” judgments on how the world works. But only for a brief moment, you remind yourself.

I came across The Poet’s Passage in Old San Juan owned by the poet Lady Lee Andrews and her husband, who’s also an artist. There were books and poems on the wall, different works of art, a section for an open mic and “statement tiles” as I’d like to call them. Here’s one I found that’s perfect for this blog:

I’m back in the Bay now, so the usual literary pieces and book reviews are well on their way (apologies for pieces that were published by mistake!). Until then, happy reading!

Architectonic Feelings in Old San Juan 

Art + Creativity, Book Reviews

Back in November 2015, a friend and I went on a brief trip to Puerto Rico. I had made plans to fly back to the Philippines a year before for three weeks, to attend a women’s conference and to spend time with friends and family. Around July, I discovered that the conference has been moved to an earlier date and I also needed to stay in the Bay as some pretty special folks were visiting.

I just finished Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness and my trip to Puerto Rico came into full view right away. After sleeping at the airport in Orlando, Florida to catch the earliest flight the next day, we rushed to our hotel to shower, change, acclimate to the city.

Our first stop (and the only one I was able to go to): Old San Juan.

In silent awe. Old San Juan, Puerto Rico (November 2015)