Public Thinker: Frances Negrón-Muntaner on Puerto Rico, Art, and Decolonial Joy

Thinking in public demands knowledge, eloquence, and courage. In this interview series, we hear from public scholars about how they found their path and how they communicate to a wide audience.
Frances Negrón-Muntaner is an innovative and multimodal thinker and artist, and a professor ...

Frances Negrón-Muntaner is an innovative and multimodal thinker and artist, and a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, with interests in Latinx, Caribbean, and decolonial art and media studies. Over the course of her career, Negrón-Muntaner has produced influential work in many forms: films, essays, stories, monographs, reports, and the founding of organizations. Her latest project, Valor y Cambio (Value and Change), puts into action affective art against neoliberal policies in Puerto Rico, legally a territory of the United States, and beyond. Although many understand art as a form of revolt, Negrón-Muntaner demonstrates that political change also requires intersecting critical and artistic praxes to create “joyful” spaces that nurture demands for just economies, value community resources, and provide people with trusted platforms for dissent. “I do think that there is a certain joy that we could call ‘decolonial,’” Negrón-Muntaner notes. “This joy is necessarily collective and emerges from the particular suffering and pain of coloniality.” More generally, all of Negrón-Muntaner’s work facilitates routes of institutional escape, post-disciplinarity, and poetic acts of political disruption.

Art and the Revolutionary Protests of July 2019

Wendy Muñiz (WM): Last August, you wrote in Dissent on the recent mass protests against austerity, post-hurricane neglect, and rampant misogyny in Puerto Rico, and on the central role of art in the protests.


Frances Negrón-Muntaner (FNM): Yes, as I elaborated in Dissent, I believe art, broadly conceived, was fundamental in both familiar and novel ways. As with past mobilizations, the July protests incorporated a range of arts and carnival practices that turned them into spaces of community renewal. The notable presence of artists and other cultural producers is linked to their historically central role in the reproduction of collective identity—one that often grants them a higher status and more legitimacy than politicians.

But I think the July protests went further: they mobilized art as a form of protest and fashioned protest into an art form. For instance, numerous demonstrators became moving canvasses, painting tears, blood, and numbers memorializing Hurricane Maria’s dead on their bodies. Defining themselves as la patería combativa (combative queers), LGBTQ people genderfucked with their clothes, organized a voguing ball in Old San Juan, and led the by now famous perreo combativo, a mass reggaeton dance session in front of the the old city’s cathedral.

WM: Was it art alone that drove the protests?


FNM: No. But artistic and other cultural practices contributed to reconstituting bodies, social relations, and political vocabularies. Through acts such as writing on almost every surface, including walls, traffic signs, skin, fabric, umbrellas, and paper, the protests became what I would call “poetic laboratories,” in which the meaning of homophobic, misogynist, and other demeaning speech was transformed.

One of the most impressive examples is what happened to the word puta (whore). Throughout the nearly two weeks of protests, thousands of women (and some men) called themselves putas, rhetorically defying those in power who first hurled the term. Among the many consignas (slogans) were “Puta antes que corrupto” (a whore before being corrupt) and “Que gobiernen lxs putxs, lxs patxs” (may the whores and queers govern), which made use of gender-neutral articles and nouns. By the end, puta was no longer considered an insult, but, instead, a synonym of revolt and justice. And the protesters made clear that the problem wasn’t that the governor and his manada (herd) had used “dirty” words. The issue was how and why they were using them.

I also found the fact that the majority of these artistic practices emphasized the body to be significant. The protests were acts of self-creation at a time when bodies are on the line. They are threatened by multiple forces: climate change, gender violence, state brutality, austerity policies, and finance capital, which is increasingly removing people from their homes and expelling them to the United States.

It is likewise not a coincidence that the largest demonstrations after the trauma of Hurricane Maria, which brought such mourning and silence, focused so centrally on voice. Not only were many of the most visible demonstrators singers and radio personalities, it was reggaeton—a music born in the island’s housing projects and once openly persecuted by the state and rejected by the middle class—that served as the protests’ soundtrack.


WM: In the intersecting mass protests in Puerto Rico, how do you see your role?


FNM: That is a good question. I thought a lot about how I and my work should interact with the protests. In the end, I was present at the two largest demonstrations, wrote about them, and shared my ideas on a number of platforms, in the US, Europe, and Latin America. Immediately after the protests, I also joined in the telephone assemblies organized from New York.

But I did not seek a formal role. While I considered it to be important to participate and reflect on the protests, I found it as vital to listen to and sustain independent spaces in order to think a fuego lento (on a slow fire).

Equally important, I did not feel it was needed or required. Perhaps one of the most hopeful signs of the last decade in Puerto Rico has been the proliferation, diversity, and creativity of political praxes—all of which was evident in the protests. In the past, a handful of intellectuals and politicians would have dominated the conversation by asserting themselves as leaders, spokespersons, and analysts who could explain the situation and orient the public.

At this point, while there were figures in media, government, and the academy that tried to fill these roles, it was also evident that they—or, perhaps, we—were only a few in 8 million. Fittingly, what followed the protests were not new leaders in the traditional mold but people’s assemblies—community gatherings across the island and the diaspora to discuss next steps, identify priorities, and reconstitute politics itself as autonomous, nonhierarchical, and participatory.


Post-disciplinary in the Academy

WM: Your work in the field of Latinx media and cultural studies has long been recognized for being inter- or post-disciplinary. Actually, just recently the Latin American Studies Association’s Latino Section awarded you the Frank Bonilla Public Intellectual Award for your contributions as an artist, scholar, filmmaker, curator, and activist. Tell us the story behind how you came to work at the intersection of all these different practices.


FNM: I don’t think I chose this mode of working. But I believe it emerged for at least three reasons.

I am basically a question-oriented researcher. I have many questions about how and to what effects various relationships of power—including colonial, imperial, racial, gender, and sexual—produce human subjectivities, as well as create a sense of the possible or the impossible. In my view, engaging with these questions requires multiple perspectives and conceptual frameworks, created in, outside, and besides academia.

Also, I made recordings and films before I ever wrote a scholarly book. As a child and young adult, I was mostly interested in film for its capacity to engage diverse publics and build community. But, eventually, I realized that communication is not the only reason to think with and through art and filmmaking. Rather, art practices bring forth knowledge in themselves, which allow us to inquire in a different and necessary way.

Lastly, my concerns, questions, and method have developed in relation to Puerto Rico’s colonial experience and my trajectory as a colonial migrant. Growing up in one of the world’s remaining formal colonies—a territory that legally “belongs to but is not part of” a country that self-describes as the world’s greatest democracy—and, later, living in that country for most of my life could not but activate all circuits of questioning. This confluence ultimately generated a multimodal and post-disciplinary practice whose aim is not to advance disciplines but to bring about epistemological and political insurrection.

WM: Would you say that this multimodal practice was also shaped by the fact that you have constantly moved in and out of institutional contexts?


FNM: Or perhaps that I resist institutionalization. Early on, I became highly skeptical of institutions, including the state, the academy, and the mass media.

A formative experience was serving as my father’s research assistant, starting at age 14, while he was working on a book on urban enslavement in 19th-century San Juan. One of my tasks was to make notes from slave registries, where you could read about each person’s history as “property,” including injuries such as missing ears and arms and countless scars. After that, I began to see everything and everyone around me differently; it marked me.

Another foundational experience took place during my last year as an undergraduate student at the University of Puerto Rico, from 1985 to 1986, when I became part of social movements. In those years, I participated in various feminist and queer groups, at a time when publicly identifying as a lesbian or articulating a feminist queer perspective was nearly impossible, including on campus. These groups really were “underground”; we mostly organized within the LGTBQ community, for fear of attacks and to avoid bringing shame to our families. In order to persist in such a climate, we created our own study groups and passed along the archives of prior organizations: that is, the complex and fragmented story of how some before us survived, and how they addressed internal and external conflicts.

So, since I was young, extra-disciplinary thinking appeared to me as being key to survival.

WM: Why is sharing information and stories about survival so important to you?


FNM: Humans live—and die—by stories. And some, as Audre Lorde once put it, “were never meant to survive.” Telling these stories is fundamental both to people’s lives and to bringing about new ways to live.

There is also an intricate relationship between the producing of knowledge and the resisting or evading of power. If you survived, that means that you have generated a certain kind of knowledge or understanding. When you share that knowledge, it links to and with other forms of knowledge. And if you multiply those connections, you might be contributing to an epistemological shift and a new beginning.

WM: So, in the case of underrepresented communities, or in more submerged stories, refusing to be categorized not only produces unconventional knowledge, but, more importantly, demonstrates how we circulate these forms of knowledge.


FNM: Absolutely. For example, all through my childhood, the University of Puerto Rico had a strike every few years. It could be an employee, student, or faculty strike. Those strikes created a visual culture of protest that resonated beyond the immediate events. There is one poster, in particular, that my father had at home during the 1970s that made a big impression on me. It showed the iconic tower of the University of Puerto Rico; and outside of the tower, there was a circle of people talking.

To me what that suggested was that you did not need the institution or the buildings to produce and circulate knowledge. The important thing was exchange—in the plural—with others.

When I stepped into the academy as a professor, I became even more convinced of this. Scholarship should not stay within the walls of academia or the pages of specialized journals; it needs to be broadly accessible, not only for use but also for critique. It is increasingly necessary to recognize that academia is not the sole site of knowledge making, that its organization and production remain steeped in coloniality, and that there are multiple forms of knowledge. Ultimately, I believe we have an urgent need to both unsettle academia and to found spaces to learn otherwise.


The Caribbean: Through a Lens Brightly

By Matthew J. Smith

WM: Yet you stayed in academia. Was that inevitable?


FNM: I tried for most of my young adult life to not become part of academia, which I saw as the “family business,” since the majority of people in my immediate family were, or are, academics. So, just after I finished my PhD, I received a Rockefeller Fellowship for filmmaking and I moved to Miami Beach. I worked as a freelance journalist and independent filmmaker and wrote my first single-authored scholarly book there, Boricua Pop.

But, even at that moment, I had a relationship to academia. I was reading scholarly texts, and many of my readers were academics. And yet, at the same time, I was not entirely of the academy. That suited me, because I didn’t feel that I had to create, behave, or defend within the parameters of that institution.

In this regard, no, I do not believe it was inevitable. Theoretically, I could have maintained a different type of relationship to the academy, which did not require institutionalization. Eventually, I came into the academy by invitation, which is also an unusual path. Regardless, I remember at the beginning how difficult it was for me to get into the disciplined rhythms of what being an academic meant: classes, exams, semesters.

WM: And yet you kept creating routes of escape, so necessary in the current higher education crisis.


FNM: In a nutshell, yes. Social life is constituted by institutions, and power is not simply or always repressive. Yet it is crucial to generate, preserve, and share routes of escape, so that we do not internalize the power fields and the scripts of institutions. These attempt to govern everything, from how we see ourselves to what we desire and how we feel our lives should be lived and why. In my view, having knowledge of fugitive road maps is critical. They keep alive the possibility of being, and not being.


WM: Your documentary work on the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, and what has been called the Puerto Rican LGBTQ “sexile,” highlights the idea of “itineraries of the possible,” which is a staple of your work. Can you expand on what this notion of possibility, in relation to identity, means to you now?


FNM: If you consider my early work, there is a hopeful investment in LGBTQ identification, affects, and practices, deploying them almost as weapons to challenge colonialism and nationalism, as well as the racial, gender, and sexuality hierarchies that sustain these logics and discourses. Over time, I have retained an interest in queer praxis but have become less invested in identities.

For instance, I have a complex relationship with the notion of Latino. In my public-facing scholarship on Latino racialization and Hollywood (such as “The Latino Media Gap” and “The Latino Disconnect”), I do use the category, because it is the most accessible, including for filmmakers and activists, and its use can have important political and institutional effects.

At the same time, I mobilize the category more as a heuristic: defining it not in the sense of a culture or a social fact, but as a method to investigate European and US colonialisms and their constitutive hierarchies. This is one of the reasons that it is relevant to think about Latino identification in relation to representation, as media plays an important role in the production and reproduction of racial and other identity categories.


On “Valor y Cambio”

WM: Now you’ve moved more to public engagement projects. There’s your work on debt, as well as your more recent storytelling and just-economy project, Valor y Cambio, which has traveled from Puerto Rico to New York City. It has also recently won a 2019 Borimix Award and soon will be part of the Anarquía y Dialéctica en el Deseo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Juan. Can you tell us a little bit more about those two projects and how they connect?


FNM: Valor y Cambio is an interactive installation that combines art, storytelling, and a community currency. A community currency is a type of money that is created and adopted by groups to value community skills, knowledge, and talents and to facilitate their exchange. The project emerged from Unpayable Debt, a working group I co-led at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Social Difference, from 2016 to 2019. The group’s goal was to develop a more capacious understanding of Puerto Rico’s austerity crisis in a comparative and global context.

One of the core conclusions from the working group was that, although much scholarship views the crisis as “caused” by US colonialism, formal colonialism is not the sole driver of the crisis, which centrally includes the island’s subjection to transnational finance capital. In “The Emptying Island,” I call the particular articulation of both forces “colonial-capitalism,” a logic of expropriation, extraction, and subordination that serves the interests of global capital through colonial practices and epistemologies. So, while Puerto Rico’s juncture has specific characteristics, it is also part of a broader process that will only become more generalized as finance capital continues to consolidate its hegemony in the global economy.

In conducting this work, I likewise learned about community currencies, the role of art in austerity crises, and how crisis can be a moment of “overturning” that may lead to participatory forms of governance across national boundaries. I also asked myself entirely new questions. Some of the most generative included deceptively simple ones: What is money? How does it acquire value? Can a different use of money enable different social relations? All of these queries and insights laid the groundwork for Valor y Cambio.

WM: When and how did the project begin?


FNM: Valor y Cambio began in Puerto Rico, last February 8. To a great extent, the project was a response to the intensification of suffering in Puerto Rico, particularly over the last five years. In 2015, after years of borrowing to offset capital flight and economic decline, the governor declared that the archipelago’s $120 billion public debt and pension obligations had become “unpayable.” A year later, Congress responded with the Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA). This federal law returned Puerto Rico to a direct form of colonial-capitalist rule. It created a fiscal control board composed of people with deep ties to the banking and finance industry—including entities directly involved in producing the debt—and granted them broad powers to extract payment through privatization and budget cuts to health, education, infrastructure, and pensions. Consequently, approximately 300,000 Puerto Ricans left the island for US cities and poverty rates soared to near 50 percent.

The suffering deepened following September 20, 2017, when Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 storm, made landfall in Puerto Rico. It demolished the archipelago’s deteriorated electric and other infrastructure, leaving half a million residents with damaged or destroyed homes and an electricity blackout that lasted a year. The political aftermath was no less devastating; the storm ushered in disaster capitalism and a necropolitical response by the state that resulted in hunger, homelessness, the deaths of at least 4,645 people, and the migration of another 100,000 residents—4 percent of the population.

In a more immediate sense, the project began in 2018, after a listening tour, during which three of us interviewed community activists in Puerto Rico who were working on food security, participatory governance, and related issues. We heard that they were exhausted and that many did not trust political groups, or even others doing similar work. I similarly noticed that it was not only people that were drained; the very vocabularies that we were using were also depleted. That led me to think that one of the biggest challenges in the current moment was not what is narrowly called “economic”—a lack of jobs or capital—but, rather, that there were too few trusted and participatory platforms, which could enable the creation of different narratives and social relations.

Given the situation, I thought that public art could contribute to breaking the impasse. Instead of having conferences or meetings, the idea was to design a platform that invited people to set in motion a series of exchanges. Ultimately, the project has three goals: One, to provide a space for participants to tell stories about what they valued and how their communities can support these values. Two, to introduce the concept of a community currency. Three, to provide a practice of a noncapitalist exchange economy grounded in the project’s four core values: solidarity, creativity, equity, and justice.


Pop Justice

By Frances Negrón-Muntaner

WM: And what does the project look like on the ground?


FNM: That may depend on the date and location. But on most days, what you would first see is a line to use a reconfigured ATM bank machine—which we named “VyC,” the acronym of Valor y Cambio. Once participants reach the VyC, each person has up to three minutes to record their stories about what they value, how their communities can support what they value, and which people or groups are already sustaining these values. The VyC then randomly dispenses the project’s community currency, which we called Personas de Peso Puerto Rico (People of Weight Puerto Rico), or “pesos,” for short. Designed by visual artist Sarabel Santos Negrón and I, the currency consists of a series of six “banknotes” that ranged from 1 to 25 pesos and feature images of Puerto Rican historical figures and iconic communities.

Participants can then exchange the bills for items or services at partner businesses and organizations. In this way, Valor y Cambio materialized an economy where the main unit of value was storytelling: in exchange for the story that participants told the VyC about value, they received a bill with a QR code that they could use to access the currency’s stories through their cell phones. The establishments, in exchange for accepting pesos, had their stories promoted by the project on social media.

In Puerto Rico, the project collected over 1,000 stories and circulated 1,600 bills. Once the project arrived in New York last May (at the invitation of the Loisaida Center, which organized an exhibit called Past and Present: Art After the Young Lords), we collected more than 2,000 recordings and circulated approximately 2,500 bills at two locations: the Lower East Side and El Barrio, in East Harlem.

The project also hosted a range of groups, including several in which the visitors ranged in age from 4 to 12. One of the highlights of Valor y Cambio in New York was precisely the opportunity to discuss questions of value and money with children. I noticed from the start that children enjoyed participating in the project, and I finally got a chance to sit down with them and ask why. What they said was revealing: we love it because we children are not given money, and this project allows us to obtain money and decide what to do with it.

WM: Are there any reasons other than economic ones to focus on the notion of worth and value?


FNM: Apart from the general context of Puerto Rico’s austerity crisis and the study of money, I read that in Ireland after the 2008 economic crash the government facilitated a conversation about what people valued, as a way to rethink the nation’s educational curricula.

I realized that such a conversation had not occurred in Puerto Rico. Yet it seemed urgent to address the question of value, since it invites people to reflect on many levels. There is, of course, the association of value with economic activity. But there is likewise the notion of value as what is essential for well-being. In a debt crisis, this question is particularly important as a community needs to reckon with not only the fact of fewer resources but also the questions of what to do with the existing resources, and how to move forward. Our project attempted to detach the question of what is valued from the current economic logic of extraction and profit, and to redefine value, wealth, and other associated concepts.

WM: I’m going to reframe the question: why focus on the notion of worth and value within a context of anti-sovereign unrest from below?


FNM: At one level, the question of “What do you value?” went to the core of what is at stake in the current austerity crisis. I have read the VyC transcriptions from Puerto Rico, and what the majority of people said they valued is completely at odds with how the island and federal government are managing the debt. It is revealing that most participants did not say that they valued money or even jobs. They said they valued education, health, community: precisely all that the state is targeting for budget cuts to pay bondholders and hedge funds.

At another level, I believe there is a deep-seated (and accurate) sense that, in the eyes of the federal government and of global capital, Puerto Ricans have minimum, if any, intrinsic value. As evidenced by the leaked chat messages that triggered Puerto Rico’s summer revolution, the island’s governing elites similarly do not value most other Puerto Ricans, in part because they are women, blacks, LGBTQ, or simply in the way. Which is why some people responded very emotionally to receiving the VyC bills, because they felt that the stories validated them and their communities.

A case in point was a compelling moment we shared with a young participant, Eduardo Paz, who waited in line for several days because he wanted to receive one specific bill: the 1, featuring Rafael, Celestina, and Gregoria Cordero, black pioneers of public education. When he finally did, on February 18, I asked Paz why this bill brought him so much joy: “Let’s say that if I talk, I will cry. Rafael Cordero was an educator. Basically, it represents what I am: an Afro-descendant man, fighting, educating, and showing his roots through the different situations that life can present.”

WM: What did Valor y Cambio mean to you?


FNM: For me, this project was life-changing and among the most exciting I have ever been a part of. I began researching the austerity crisis as a scholar in a university working group and ended as an artist and as an active member of various communities. Working in (and with) a different form challenged my thinking and opened many possibilities, both personally and for my work.

For instance, as a filmmaker, I tended to view the transformative impact of art as something that occurred “inside”—a theater or a body. But with Valor y Cambio, I was able to see what happens when you bring your imagination outside through physical objects. I always remember our test day in San Juan. We put up the first poster on an establishment’s window that said: “We accept pesos.” Immediately, the space, and what was possible to do and think, changed. People stopped to look at the poster, asked questions, went inside the restaurant, told their story, met others, had beers.

WM: And what was the impact of VyC more generally?


FNM: While Valor y Cambio faced some challenges, I feel it was fruitful from the first conversation. Nearly everyone wanted to participate, and in a short period of time, the project broadened the conversation about solidarity economies, while presenting the idea of a community currency and its possible uses in Puerto Rico and the diaspora. And, almost right after Valor y Cambio went live, at least four communities began to explore adopting their own currency and developing networked exchange economies on the island and the United States.

The first one launched on October 2 and is named the Pasos (Steps) of the Caño Martín Peña. This currency was created by the eight communities that comprise El Caño Martín Peña, whose extraordinary story of struggle for a more just society is told through our 25 peso bill. The second is currently in progress in New York City and will be formally announced over the next few months. So, the project caught people’s imagination from the beginning. Which bore out the hypothesis that the issue was less that people didn’t know what they wanted politically, but that there are few platforms that people trust in order to have collective conversations and organize.

Valor y Cambio also produced a concept: decolonial joy. Many view the role of public intellectuals as simply communicating or “moving” academic knowledge from the university into the public sphere. What I experienced is that creating a space for multiple forms of knowledge to meet through artistic practice may be conceptually generative in itself. If I had not created this project, I may have never arrived at this concept or moved in these directions.


Why the Lights Went Out in Puerto Rico

By Canay Özden-Schilling

WM: And what do you mean by “decolonial joy”?


FNM: Throughout Valor y Cambio, I witnessed an emotion that was not entirely new to the project: joy. Many times, months before the machine first touched the ground, I, too, experienced joy working on this project. This feeling was one that seemed to be communicated to participants as I talked to them. Day after day, I spoke to people who thanked me for the initiative. Revealingly, they did not thank me for my “work,” as people normally do, but por tu alegría (for your joy).

At times I distrusted this joy, mine included. All joy is not “good,” nor does it necessarily intend something good. Some may rejoice at another’s misfortune or take pleasure in it. Collective enjoyment may also obscure a logic of marginalization and exclusion. Yet, during Valor y Cambio, joy appeared at the precise moment when many of us felt the possibility of a different future: one where neither colonialism nor coloniality ruled over our lives.

That this widely shared response prevailed during Valor y Cambio’s inquiry into value in the so-called “oldest colony in the world” made me wonder. Could this joy be described as not only joy, but a specific kind: decolonial joy?

In an upcoming essay I flesh this out more. For now, I would say: yes, I do think that there is a certain joy that we could call “decolonial.” This joy is necessarily collective and emerges in relation to the pain and suffering of colonialism and coloniality. In this, there is a “moment of joy” and a “time of joy”—both of which I hope to continuously pass on.

This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus. icon

Featured image: Frances Negrón-Muntaner at East Harlem’s Salsa Sabado, inviting visitors to participate in Valor y Cambio at La Marqueta. Photograph by Gary Garcia