“Queer(ing) Decolonial Politics: SoVerano Boricua and Cuir Sentipensar” for NWSA 2021

Picture by Willín Rodríguez, reproduced in TodasPR. Multitude of people watching a woman behind a man as they dance perreo.

Perhaps this will be commonplace for this virtual conference, but as a bit of a disclaimer, this presentation was originally proposed for the 2020 conference with the theme of “The Poetics, Politics, and Praxis of Transnational Feminisms.” And yet, I should note that the transnational approach that my co-panelists and I initially proposed is one that aligns with our feminist and generally political projects in, and outside of academia. Another disclaimer, however, is the fact that this presentation stems from a curiosity I developed when I participated in the 2019 Ricky Renuncia protests, and as I watched and followed the events on digital platforms in its aftermath. I look forward to your comments and questions as I continue to think through “Queer(ing) Decolonial Politics: SoVerano Boricua and Cuir Sentipensar.”

As stated in the abstract: In a Puerto Rican context of debt, death, and displacement, scandalous news regarding the mismanagement of crisis by colonial elites caused an uproar in the summer of 2019, and resulted in the resignation of then-governor, Ricardo Roselló. The mass movement was heralded by its coalitional politic, but unlike other mass protest movements, queer presence challenged the tenets of a white supremacist, patriarchal, and neocolonial capitalist state. This presentation elaborates how cuir sentipensar guided protests in Puerto Rico. I argue that an affective impetus like queer thinking-feeling extends beyond struggles for survival and into demands for sovereignty and justice.

There are really so many stories to tell regarding what many Puerto Ricans and scholars of Puerto Rico call the SoVerano Boricua. The word SoVerano signals a temporal location–verano, or summer, but adding the prefix “so” converts it into soverano or sovereign, resulting in sovereign summer. On the other hand, Boricua is a political designation of a pre-Colombian identity based on the Indigenous name for the big island, Boriké. In the moment, however, many of us called the protests after the loudest chant and political demand: to have the former governor Ricardo–Ricky for short–Roselló resign from his post. There were, of course, several other demands that, as philosopher Rocío Zambrana notes, were articulated in the form of checklists; including a checklist of the names of corrupt politicians besides Roselló who should resign.

Besides the backdrop of political catastrophe, heightened by Hurricane Maria’s impact in 2017, the now infamous TeleGram chat between Roselló Jr. and his closest bronnies revealed a slew of conversations that included misogynist, ableist, sexist, and homophobic statements. They also included several assertions about what the death of so many mainly lower class Puerto Ricans would represent for Puerto Rico’s position in the world’s economy. Naomi Klein and Yarimar Bonilla have previously noted how even in public statements, Roselló referred to Hurricane Maria as an opportunity for a “blank canvas” for foreign capitalist enterprise. Because the emotional scar of the disastrous recovery mismanagement and appalling disregard for Puerto Rican death evidenced in the chat, a large segment of the Puerto Rican populace responded with outrage. The disparate sectors that joined numerous calls for a National Strike on July 18th included labor unions, educators, feminist and queer collectives, among other entities that resulted in what Aurora Santiago-Ortiz and Jorell Meléndez-Badillo call “Puerto Rico’s Multiple Solidarities: Emergent Landscapes and Geographies of Protest.”

As a cultural rhetorics feminist scholar I was impressed by, and extremely proud of the creativity of the Puerto Rican people who congregated in front of the governor’s mansion in Old San Juan. Several signs indeed alluded to multiple solidarities, like this man holding a sign that reads, “I also march for the Deaf. They are unattended, forgotten, and marginalized! #RickyRenuncia.”

Puerto Rican man holding a cardboard sign that reads “I also march for the Deaf, who are unattended, forgotten, and marginalized! #RickyRenuncia.”

Others marched in the name of the 4,645 people who lost their lives and were then mocked by the governor. The following image showcases a sign that reads “4,645. You could have been a hero…you decided to be an ASSASSIN.”

Other prominent signs read “Puta, pero no corrupta” — “A whore, but not corrupt” — alluding to the sexist comments from the leaked chat. In other words, cultural production as protest took the shape of the multiple solidarities that convened to demand Roselló to resign.

This is not the first time that a Roselló spurred mass protests, as Pedro Roselló, Ricardo Roselló’s dad was governor in the 1990s and is renowned for instantiating a wave of privatizations that have impacted Puerto Rican life greatly still today. The protest over the privatization of the Puerto Rican Telephone Company, as a prominent example, ended in violent and bloody clashes between the protesters and riot police. Unlike that strictly economic orientation, though, the SoVerano Boricua was attending to a multitude of concerns that manifested in the leaked chat. It was also a manifestation of pent up anger by the precarious conditions residents of Puerto Rico have been living under for several decades now.

As Santiago-Ortiz and Meléndez-Badillo and others have noted, there has been an increase of political dissent, most clearly seen in mass (and cross-location) public university student strikes in 2005, 2010 and 2017, in addition to the labor unions and feminist organizations that have created “new cultures of protest and activism across different generations.” While it is clear that several of these groups were present in July of 2019, and even took prominent roles in rallying and organizing dissent, one group I want to focus on today is that of the queer community, or as we say in Puerto Rico, la comunidad cuir.

Specifically, I emphasize how the “perreo combativo” on the night that Roselló finally resigned illustrates a decolonial attitude of cuir sentipensar–and here I should note that I also draw from anthropologist Adriana Gárriga-López who has provided her thoughts on sentipensar in relation to queer agroecology in Puerto Rico as anticolonial practice. In what follows I aim to focus on the decolonial potential of a cuir sentipensar, or queer thinking-feeling as an affective and embodied transgression to the white supremacist and heteronornative colonial state.

Perreo Combativo and Cuir Sentipensar

In a Washington Post editorial, Verónica Dávila and Marisol LeBrón point out the role of perreo combativo in taking down Roselló. It was certainly timely, that he resigned on the night wherein queer collectives congregated in the steps of the second oldest cathedral in the Caribbean to dance reggaetón in what would most closely translate to doggie style in English. As Dávila and LeBrón point out, reggaetón has a history of political critique as it “resisted state censorship and criminalization, defied racism and misogyny–and now fueled collective action.” In relaying a short history of the genre, they make reference to the 1990s period in which reggaetón was taking shape from its original form, called underground, and traced a historical connection with Roselló senior’s anti-crime initiatives. The mano dura contra el crimen, or iron fist against crime targeted public housing residents and other marginalized communities, where many of the initial rappers are said to have been raised in. Petra Rivera-Rideau’s work on Remixing Reggatón also notes that the formation of the genre allows for a centering of Afro-Latinidad, blackness and diasporic belonging, which ostensibly were also under threat with the criminalization of the genre.

Growing up in Puerto Rico during this period, I remember listening to underground tapes, smuggled by an older neighbor and the then hearing songs sung by my elementary and middle school friends–beeping out all of the obscenities, of course. Most pertinent for my purpose here, I remember the kind of perreo dance that women engaged in as I watched videos of Don Chezina and other underground performers. As R. Sánchez-Rivera aptly points out, there are certainly misogynist elements to the songs, and even the dance, but reggaetón as popularized today demonstrates diverse social dynamics of masculinity. I read it as a kind of push and pull of empowerment and agency both in the part of the singers and the dancers. To quote Dávila and LeBrón:

The very open embrace of reggaetón’s often highly sexual dance itself has also emerged as an important act of defiance in a country where conservative, misogynistic, homophobic and transphobic sentiments are expressed even by its head of state. Perreo, unlike other Caribbean dances, allows women to lead and control, to determine the intensity of the dance and to select how much or little contact she wants with her partner. It also defies society’s respectability politics and breaks taboos toward sex by allowing people to revel in their sexuality and opening up conversations about consent.

Indeed, they identify feminist and queer collectives that strive for “the intersections between perreo as an anticolonial practice and queerness as a defiant activity.” Sánchez-Rivera also notes how people utilize reggaetón and trap as a tool of resistance. Writers across Latin America have also taken note of reggaetón as a radical potential for liberation: from someone in Costa Rica reading perreo combative through a marxist lens (González Piedra), to a woman from Bolivia practicing “Yoggatón” in Berlin (Alonso). This last one is interestingly alluding to how this practice of merging reggaetón with yoga can lead to “desculonización,” a play of words inserting “culo,” or ass, into the concept of decolonization.

In attempting to prioritize affect through sentipensar, a concept first developed by Arturo Escobar to theorize language and emotion as relational dynamics, I find that it’s of utmost importance to focus on performance. In Performing Queer Latinidad, Ramon Rivera-Servera proposes “theories in practice,” which for him provides “a model that privileges the body and its actions as conduits of knowledge about the world” (18). Further, he argues that “Latina/o queer performance imagines and practices new social formations and modes of being in the world.” Moreover, in challenging heteronormativity and white supremacy, perreo combativo gestures to the kind of decolonial feminism that Maria Lugones once imagined. However, instead of a return to a pre-Colombian gender system — one that cannot be generalized for all the Americas — dancing reggaetón is an active imagination of a subject that forms in spite of the multiple marginalizations of coloniality and the processes that lead to it. In queer(ing) sentipensar through cuir performance, we attend to agency in the way that Juana María Rodríguez proposes, as “remapping identity as something that is ‘in-process’ rather than knowable or definable through static categories” (34).

It was the moment of potential for transgression and liberation that most interested me in sentipensar perreo combativo, but I was most drawn to start studying it when a former Latina Feminisms student shared a column about it from the Puerto Rican feminist platform, TodasPR. Edrimael Delgado Reyes tells their story of dancing perreo combativo in front of the cathedral as a cuir perspective. Delgado Reyes explains how their mom was one of the many opponents of the event because of the kind of “depraved” actions it represented. It is to be expected, in a country/nation/territory/colony with such fundamentalist religious tendencies. As Delgado Reyes notes, it’s no coincidence that Fortaleza Street, where the governor’s mansion is located, intersects with Calle del Cristo, or Christ Street. That street was actually renamed by activists during the RickyRenuncia protests as Calle de la Resistencia, or Resistance Street, and was even geotagged as such. “Identity is about situatedness in motion: embodiment and spatiality,” as Rodriguez writes. We ought to learn more about how colonial locations can be decolonized through cuir sentipensar in embodying a liberated affect and re-imagining colonized space.

Thank you.

Works Cited (not hyperlinked)

Alonso, Maria. “Yoggatón, perreo espiritual y combativo contra el pesimismo por la pandemia: CORONAVIRUS YOGA (Crónica)” EFE News Service Madrid. 29 Jan. 2021.

Escobar, Arturo. “Sentipensar con la tierra: las luchas territoriales y la dimensión ontológica de las epistemologías del sur.” AIBR: Revista de Antropología Iberoamericana 11.1 (2016): 11-32.

Lugones, María. “Toward a decolonial feminism.” Hypatia 25.4 (2010): 742-759.

Piedra, Ignacio González. “Del Realismo Capitalista al Trap Socialismo: La Estética del Perreo Combativo.” Iberoamérica Social: Revista-red de estudios sociales 16 (2021): 109-127.

Rivera-Rideau, Petra R. Remixing reggaetón. Duke University Press, 2015.

Rivera-Servera, Ramón. Performing queer latinidad: Dance, sexuality, politics. University of Michigan Press, 2012.

Rodríguez, Juana María. Queer Latinidad: Identity practices, discursive spaces. Vol. 24. nyu Press, 2003.

Sánchez-Rivera, R. “Reggaetón, trap y masculinidades: dinámicas sociales al ritmo del perreo combativo en Puerto Rico.” (2021).

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