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The Discipline of Hope: Reflections on Walking with Social Movements in Puerto Rico

February 2023


Walking with the social movements and community-based organizations of Puerto Rico is the flame that stokes my discipline of hope. Their radical imagination has made it possible to create, in a scenario riddled with the impossible, spaces of freedom and self-determination.

This hope is not a new feeling. It is born from a historical resistance that has faced multiple crises (economic, political, climatic) rooted in colonialism and its violent neoliberal, racist, and patriarchal forms. Frontline communities and social movements have been fighting against the colonial system and the corrupt government; demanding the release of political prisoners; defending vital ecosystems; and organizing against mining, militarization, the imposition of genetically modified organisms, and other corporate interests. More recently, they have organized against La Junta and PROMESA,1 austerity measures, and the privatization of public services, among others.

In this particular political, economic, and ecological moment with its multiple crises, those most impacted have had to assume the difficult task of being the first to respond to the violent and deadly negligence of the Puerto Rican and US governments. They have organized with great courage, taking these crises as opportunities to decolonize minds, bodies, and territories, and to deepen popular power. They are the ones who work day after day for a just recovery and a long-term sustainable reconstruction, rejecting the idea of ​​rebuilding old systems that reproduce oppression and that put people in such a vulnerable position in the first place.

Throughout this historical journey – with its ups and downs, like the troubled sea that is living in a colony – movements have built and strengthened their resistance. At the same, they have worked tirelessly in extremely precarious conditions to create regenerative alternative systems based on collective self-management.

Just transition is among the frameworks for alternative systems proposed by grassroots groups in the US, based on their context. There are different frameworks created by social movements of Latin America, the Caribbean, and other parts of the world, especially from Indigenous, Afro-descendant and peasant perspectives. In our colonial context in Puerto Rico, some social movements use the term just transformation as a way to emphasize the need to achieve decolonization, sovereignty and self -determination as part of any transition.

At present, the tools of struggle and construction from below for this transition/transformation have placed territorial, food, and energy sovereignty at the heart of deconstructing, rebuilding, recovering, and reimagining Puerto Rico. Within all of this, grassroots feminist frameworks are playing a central role in mobilizing and promoting holistic and explicitly anti-patriarchal, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and anti-imperialist agendas. These frameworks see recovery of the body as the first line of defense in struggles over territory and multiple forms of violence. A constant source of inspiration for grassroots feminisms is solidarity beyond identities and borders, and the joy of collective struggle. Such experiences demonstrate how the liberation of women, queer, trans, and non-binary people is intrinsically linked to the liberation of all oppressed peoples.

Grassroots feminisms also point us to visionary solidarity economies that center life. These regenerative economies seek to transform the dominant capitalist system, as well as other state-dominated authoritarian systems, into one that puts people and nature at the center. They also support movements in gaining autonomy and reducing dependence on external resources and agendas, in order to freely apply a transformative agenda in Puerto Rico.

We can clearly see how these alternatives are the opposite of the false solutions imposed by global capital based on accumulation through the dispossession of territory. Among these false solutions are market-based public policies; tax haven creation; energy systems dependent on imported fossil fuel sources and vulnerable transmission lines; privatization; forced debt repayment plans; and industrial agriculture, among others.

Another reflection learned in my walk with movements is that emancipation is necessary to determine our destiny as a people and that social movements and communities on the front lines are the backbone of that transformative process. Resistance, mobilization, self-management, and mutual support will continue to be essential for that transformation. In my learning with movements in Puerto Rico and elsewhere in our Latin America, I have been struck by how they put dignity as a commitment that transcends the risk of not existing. The Landless Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil and the Zapatista movement in Mexico have taught us that the struggle for the defense of land, territory, and food production generates autonomous collective power that creates different political strategies, produces revolutionary changes and begins to plow the path to self-determination.

However, this only happens when we organize and educate ourselves politically – a permanent task. As the MST reminds us, there is no struggle without formación2 and no formación without struggle. Parallel to this reflection, movements have taught me that hope, which is sometimes difficult to maintain in these times, translates into permanent solidarity and the search for our niche in the collective struggle so as not to give up on this long path of liberation.

This article is adapted from an essay from the recently released book Pactos Ecosociales en Puerto Rico.

[1] Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act

[2] Political education and training

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