On July 24, 2020, the one-year anniversary of the resignation of Ricardo Rosselló Nevares as governor of Puerto Rico, a group of Puerto Ricanist scholars came together to reflect on the processes that led to one of the most significant developments in the archipelago’s recent history. This Plaza Pública Virtual: Diálogos sobre el Verano del 19 was the first event organized by the Critical Puerto Rican Studies/Estudios Críticos Puertorriqueños collective. The forum expanded existing conversations about Rosselló Nevares’ resignation via a semi-formal conference setting made up of four panels. The Plaza Pública Virtual facilitated an interdisciplinary discussion that included the Verano del 19’s background, the creativity of its protests, and contemplations on its various impacts on Puerto Ricans in the archipelago and abroad.
Critical Puerto Rican Studies was conceptualized by Luis J. Beltrán Álvarez, a graduate student in Political Science at the University of Connecticut. A University of Puerto Rico alum, Beltrán Álvarez sought to create an independent space to investigate and debate new perspectives about Puerto Rican affairs and what is considered puertorriqueño or Boricua more broadly. Estudios Críticos Puertorriqueños does not intend to replace existing academic collectives. Rather, gatherings like the Plaza Pública Virtual build alternative spaces that give wider exposure to voices of graduate students, contingent faculty and independent scholars as they discuss topics that are sometimes overlooked by existing intellectual circles.
Beltrán Álvarez also proposed the Plaza Pública Virtual format for the exchange of ideas about puertorriqueñidad. The Critical Puerto Rican Studies organizers, which included graduate students Luis J. Cintrón Gutiérrez (SUNY-Albany), Joseph A. Torres González (CUNY Graduate Center) and myself expanded the concept by acknowledging the historical development of public plazas as spaces of leisure and socialization in the archipelago and abroad. Estudios Criticos Puertorriqueños also recognized the various ways electoral politics occupied public plazas for their campaigns after the US invasion, specifically the Popular Democratic Party and the Victoria Ciudadana Movement. Rather than seeing the COVID-19 pandemic as an obstacle, organizers of the Plaza Pública Virtual took advantage of the normalization of online meetings to hold the event via Zoom. This facilitated the interaction of both archipelago and diaspora audiences and enabled the participation of the general public without travel or conference fees. Overall, the first Plaza Pública Virtual had around eighty people in attendance.
Senior scholars supported the Plaza Pública Virtual and the Critical Puerto Rican Studies initiative more broadly. Dr. Ismael García Colón (College of Staten Island and CUNY Graduate Center) mentored the graduate students that initially came together to organize the event and gave invaluable advice that helped make the Plaza Pública Virtual a success. As a moderator, he invited Dr. César Ayala (University of California-Los Angeles), who opened the event with a presentation about the recent demographic changes that Puerto Rico experienced as a result of the debt crisis and its various sociopolitical effects. Ayala also highlighted the impact of the Puerto Rican diaspora outside of New York and New England, calling for more research on Florida and Puerto Ricans in western United States.
Diversity and innovation characterized the Plaza Pública Virtual’s conversations about #RickyRenuncia. Notable instances were Latin American Studies’ doctoral student Luis Cintrón Gutiérrez’s (SUNY-Albany) analysis of memes created during Ricardo Rosselló’s administration and protests triggering his resignation. Parting from Sayak Valencia’s Live Regime theory, Cintrón Gutiérrez argued that memes serve to build a new, hybrid narrative on the Verano del 19 that merges digital and non-digital forms of expression. STEM students Christopher Torres Lugo (Indiana University-Bloomington) and Danilo T. Pérez Rivera (New York University) analyzed the phenomenon of fotuteo in global social media. They noted that the Puerto Rican government was particular in its knowledge of social media usage to manipulate public opinion, but that its actions fell short once popular indignation broke Twitter’s rules as Puerto Ricans exposed #RickyRenuncia to the world. Dr. Melody Fonseca Santos (University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras) represented the Colectiva Feminista en Construcción during the first Plaza Pública Virtual, asserting that capitalist and patriarchal violence are interconnected. Fonseca Santos pointed out that struggles to get rid of them take the form of resistance against public debt in Puerto Rico. This presentation began a rich debate on broad definitions of decolonization in Puerto Rico and the role women play in archipelago social activism more broadly.
But perhaps the most fruitful set of exchanges was that of the last panel, which sought to address the legacies of the Puerto Rican Verano 19. Clinical Psychology PhD candidate José Giovanni Luiggi Hernández (Duquesne University) reflected on how archipelago protests could serve as base for an innovative approach to his field, focusing on the ways colonized Puerto Ricans interact with hope amid crises and resistance. Luiggi Hernández emphasized how the Verano del 19 and archipelago experiences with disaster make visible the social character of wellbeing and suffering, encouraging psychologists to recognize the collective character of political change. Sociologist and independent scholar César Pérez Lizasuain began his presentation with a self-criticism of an article he penned for Puerto Rican online tabloid 80grados. Pérez Lizasuain called for a collective embrace of defeat in the aftermath of the Verano del 19 to consider the options for moving forward amid the absence of structural change after the resignation of former Governor Rosselló Nevárez. The concluding discussion delved into Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced’s administration and the ways she asserts power in a political system that consistently loses its relevance.
Estudios Críticos Puertorriqueños is coordinating more Plazas Públicas Virtuales. Organizers are already meeting to plan a second forum this September that will focus on manifestations of archipelago colonization related to twenty-first century socioeconomic hardships and the influence of the Financial Oversight and Management Board. A third Plaza Pública Virtual in November will take up issues related to puertorriqueñidades and their subjectivities, which define archipelago and diaspora experiences and the interplay between Puerto Rican geographies and societies. These events intend to foster concrete collaborations between archipelago and diaspora scholars via an explicit acknowledgement of their privilege and positionality within academic settings. Most importantly, future Plazas Públicas Virtuales will broaden the Critical Puerto Rican Studies project beyond universities and other formal educational spaces, incorporating organic scholars and the general public in reflections on Puerto Rican futures.
The attendance and rich discussions of the Plaza Pública Virtual: Diálogos sobre el Verano del 19 demonstrate that there is interest in having analytical conversations about Puerto Rico that go beyond mainstream academic discourses. Critical Puerto Rican Studies serve as an approach to fulfill the urgent need to foster exchanges between archipelago and diaspora minds not only to maintain a high standard in scholarship about Puerto Rican topics but to assess the impact of our work in the communities we study. As graduate students, contingent faculty and independent scholars embrace Puerto Rico’s complexity as a research site, their counterhegemonic approach will most likely transform the golden age of Puerto Rican Studies that we have seen blossom over the last few years.
Aura S. Jirau is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Pittsburgh. She is interested in the ways the Cold War and the Estado Libre Asociado triggered social mobilization and led to the construction new political identities in post-1952 Puerto Rico. Her doctoral dissertation traces the mid-20th-century student movement of her undergraduate alma mater and its relationships with both the island’s political struggles and its broader socioeconomic transformations.