Positive Futures in Puerto Rico

As befits a conference entitled Positive Futures, the 2019 SUNTA/SANA meeting was unlike any of the last several AAA conferences I’ve attended. For one, the bulk of the meeting did not take place at a Hilton or Marriott. The storied Hilton Caribe San Juan, where Positive Futures was supposed to be held, cancelled due to renovations not completed on time. Sarah Molinari, one of the conference organizers, a CUNY doctoral student, and University of Puerto Rico visiting researcher, helped Yarimar Bonilla and Jeff Maskovsky rescue the event (check out Molinari’s pre-conference interview with Bonilla, the keynote speaker at Positive Futures). They saw the Hilton cancellation as a chance to deepen Positive Futures’ engagement with people and ideas rooted in San Juan, something the two sections had been working on before the cancellation. Positive Futures was going to happen, and it did.

SUNTA/SANA’s conference in Puerto Rico connected and inspired many who attended, partly by offering what Molinari described as a “truly public conference.”
Molinari and  Bonilla contacted friends and colleagues in Puerto Rico, telling them about the cancellation and asking them what an alternative conference might look like. Their answer: the indoor-outdoor atrium of San Juan’s Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Puerto Rico. There, JunteGente, an umbrella group for numerous Puerto Rican organizations fighting for justice, solidarity, and sustainability, organized a multilingual roundtable conversation to kickoff the four-day SUNTA/SANA gathering. The roundtable featured David Harvey wearing a red guayabera that he may or may not have been saving for just the proper occasion. After JunteGente’s panel, Liliana Cotto Morales and others spoke about Desalambrando, a documentary based on a book she wrote on Puerto Rico’s rescate movement. In the twentieth century, rescate struggled to secure Puerto Ricans’ rights to land and housing.

Seeing the film helped attendees contextualize Hurricane Maria and its aftermath, which included the deaths of thousands, mass devastations on the islands, and a deepening of the debt crisis. Several panelists recognized the aftermath of the hurricane as a continuation of Puerto Rico’s long colonization by government and capital. Though the twin crises of hurricane and debt shape many people’s imaginations of life in Puerto Rico, framing Puerto Rico’s agony as “crisis” can also make suffering into spectacle, as Cristiana Giordano has written of Europe’s refugee “crisis.” Desalambrando helped counteract this, contextualizing Puerto Rico’s current struggles within a longer history of Puerto Ricans working to make space for themselves on an island not considered to be theirs.

After its opening day, Positive Futures moved to the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) campus at Río Piedras, a working-class neighborhood that is away from the touristy Condado where the conference was originally slated to be held. In Río Piedras, nearly every panel featured UPR faculty, students, and others speaking from experience about loss and ruination in Puerto Rico, making space for language and ideas not wholly circumscribed by mainland academic discourses. The conference also made room to share stories and plan collaborations. During one discussion on the themes of austerity and uncertain futurity at UPR, attendees from Puerto Rico and the mainland United States both spoke of trying to counter academic administrators and industry partners who aim to use their campuses to create private wealth and private education. Participants told stories of students forced into debt and workers forced into poverty. Molinari noted discussions like this on solidarity work occurred on the panelists’ terms; they were not driven by outside academics.

The same sense of shared struggle permeated many Positive Futures panels. As Juli Grigsby described in another post-conference interview, the “ongoing afterlife of colonialism” in Puerto Rico was “not a different space” for many conference attendees. Grigsby, who organized the roundtable “Somos Magicxs: Art, Politics, Black-Brown Futurity and Ethnographic Methods,” spoke of how Somos Magicxs participants created a space to speak about loss, trauma, and what to do with grief and devastation. She used the example of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art and the collection of more than 275 pieces by the late African American sculptor John Rhoden curated by Brittney Webb to talk about how Rhoden’s work was a process of producing sculpture in a community he cultivated, rather than create a finished set of works that might garner more attention.

Such regard for process, praxis, and production permeated Positive Futures, which Grigsby described as “not business as usual” for an anthropology conference. From a roundtable on how anthropologists can engage with street commerce in Puerto Rico and elsewhere as practitioners of a certain kind of street labor themselves, to roundtables and panel discussions on communities trying to situate themselves amid violent displacements, Positive Futures centered process. Praxis in Puerto Rican life also shaped “El Estado es Culpable: Policing, Criminalization, and Resistance in Puerto Rico,” a roundtable organized by Marisol Lebron. Lebron has written about the persistence of putative state violence in Puerto Rico’s ongoing colonization.

Even the food provided an alternate to standard corporate conference fare. The anti-capitalist community collective Comedores Sociales de Puerto Rico provided much of it, to the delight of many attendees. This food collective cooks for members and others, aiming to replace grocery bills and hunger with their shared labor.

SUNTA/SANA’s conference in Puerto Rico connected and inspired many who attended, partly by offering what Molinari described as a “truly public conference.” Puerto Rican faculty, community members, and students all registered for free; underemployed faculty registered at a reduced rate. UPR students who found themselves on campus that weekend, and San Juan residents who heard about the conference, also participated without having to formally register or pay. The conference offered an alternative model for professional academic conferencing that prioritized access and engagement and reduced organizers’ reliance on large corporate hotels. Positive Futures has ended only formally; conversations from the conference continue. To join in these conversations, follow SUNTA or check out its homepage.

Matthew Nesvet is a journalist and doctoral candidate in anthropology. He attended the conference in Puerto Rico and presented his work on a panel on Africa and urban anthropology co-organized by Deborah Pellow and Suzanne Scheld. Find him on Twitter @MattNesvet or online at MattNesvet.com.

Interested in submitting news, announcements, contributions, and comments? Please contact SUNTA section news contributing editor Faedah M. Totah ([email protected]).

Cite as: Nesvet, Matthew. 2019. “Positive Futures in Puerto Rico.” Anthropology News website, August 23, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1253

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