On Puerto Rican Literature and “Abyssal Exclusion”
Claudia Acevedo-Quiñones on Mental Health, Colonization, and Invisibility
Saying that there is an invisibility issue that comes with being a colony is not a new, hot take. The model requires what Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls the “abyssal exclusion,” a social boundary between the colonizer and the colonized. That boundary keeps the latter silenced and hidden. In the case of Puerto Rico, where I’m from, this boundary is upheld by both the colonizer and, most tragically, those among the colonized who support the status quo. There is an invisibility problem—even though we’re talking about an island with an established reputation as a vacation spot, even though everyone here knows PR is a place where US Americans buy second or third houses, a place from which popular performers “cross-over.” But the colonial experience, even if we don’t call it that, is endless and far reaching. Our history, collective and personal, has been largely overlooked and generalized by people in the US, and some of those people are Puerto Rican, like me.
One thing I was clear on before I started to write The Hurricane Book (a lyric essay about hurricanes, my family, US imperialism, and its relationship to Puerto Rican history) was that if I wanted to write for a living, I’d have to sit in my primordial discomfort: the fact that I had pretty much buried where I came from, and that I was afraid to show people why and how I did it. The thing that propelled me wasn’t catharsis, but this sense of inevitability bordering on obligation. I just wasn’t clear on where that sense of obligation came from.
After writing the first draft, I dug into archives, academic journals, and census documents, and read books such as Ordinary Girls by Jaquira Díaz, and The Taste of Sugar by Marisel Vera. These were stories about people fighting—literally, in some cases—to escape legacies of mental illness and drug abuse, about hungry people leaving Puerto Rico with the promise of food, only to stay hungry.
I was surprised to find that Vera’s book and mine both open with a map and a cast of characters, as if we were lost and needed to look at a compass to start. We both write about 1898, the Devil, hurricanes, people pulling corpses out of rivers. Díaz’s grandmother had children at 15. So did mine. Our mothers were both on powerful drugs and trying to manage severe mental illness. They were both hoarders. Suicide, via drugs or otherwise, was an option. We bring up the Cerro Maravilla murders, Lolita Lebrón in the House of Representatives, the La Princesa Prison. We ran away from ourselves and others, looking for a place to feel safe. What we were told was not always what we believed (or what we saw). Stories and secrets were sacred. There is beauty and damage in both.
We often stop ourselves from telling stories, keeping ourselves and each other in the dark. Because this denial furthers patriarchy, it makes some people money, and it can just…be easier. In a chapter aptly named “Secrets,” Díaz recounts how one of her childhood friends begs her not to tell anyone about the horrific sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her father. The writer admits, “[…] I didn’t do it for her. The truth is I did it for me. I kept [the secret] because I didn’t want to get involved, because the thought of putting the words together to recreate what Yvonne said had seemed like too much to bear. It had been easier not to tell.” She sees Yvonne’s likeness in a waitress decades later. It wasn’t Yvonne, but it might as well have been. Secrets stick to us all our lives.
In an article published by the Journal of Visual Political Communication in 2020, a group of mainly Puerto Rican scholars interviewed 67 healthcare workers who were directly involved in the recovery efforts during and after the passing of Hurricane Maria. The scholars’ main focus was seeing how imagery was used to challenge the colonial narrative that keeps people in the dark about what goes on in their own country, and how the use of that imagery could impact public health positively. One of the main themes participants brought up during interviews was that in the aftermath, the needs of locals had been “rendered invisible and therefore unimportant,” affecting the population’s access to aid. The scholars deemed “marginal geographies, local cultures, unresponsive leaders and vulnerable communities” as the four main expressions of invisibility in this case. They also referenced the social boundary between the colonizer and the colonized Boaventura de Sousa Santos talked about, as it pertained to Puerto Ricans who’ve adopted it. A perfect example of the latter is the grossly inaccurate death toll released by the Puerto Rican government shortly after the hurricane.Silence perpetuates sickness.
In one of the most moving images shared by the study’s participants, we see almost a million unopened water bottles abandoned in a field. In another, we see a brightly lit Christmas tree in a fancy convention center. The participant who took the latter said:
After a meeting to discuss the best strategies to provide sustainable safe water to the communities, I left to go home. Before leaving the enormous modern building, I saw these Christmas trees. It felt so contradictory to me. Having those Christmas decorations and using electricity that people in PR had no access to at the time. The lack of electricity that exacerbated an excess in mortality among the most vulnerable seemed an afterthought there. It was the only picture I took that day. The Centro de Convenciones felt like a parallel world. A totally different one from that outside that social bubble. It just echoed the lack of empathy by the authorities.
Displacement, lack, silencing, and psychological turmoil look different depending on what our race and socio-economical backgrounds are, but they will continue to be main themes and driving narrative forces in so much of diasporic Puerto Rican literature, so much of the colonial experience.
As long as we keep finding throughlines in our stories of abuse and neglect, we have to keep finding new ways of making them visible. Silence perpetuates sickness. It helps violent systems, self-imposed and not, dictate how we live, die, and are remembered.
Near the end of Ordinary Girls, Díaz writes:
“I never want to forget how the world sees us. How Lolita Lebrón, a controversial figure, a hero to some, a terrorist to others, a woman who led a revolt on Capitol Hill, was written about in the Washington Post, a publication that in 2004 has thirty-one Pulitzer Prizes. How even all these years later, the headline doesn’t mention her life, or her death, or her pistol, or the shooting, or the planning, or the wounded victims, or Puerto Rico, or the flag, or colonialism, or freedom, or liberation, or racism, or torture, or motherhood, or the loss of her children, or the years she spent in prison, or the voices she heard or the visions she saw while incarcerated, or what she yelled when she pulled out her gun in the visitor’s gallery of the US Capitol, ¡Viva Puerto Rico Libre!, or what she said when she was arrested, or what she said in any of her dozens of interviews, or what she said when she was protesting the occupation of Puerto Rican land and the oppression of Puerto Rican people, or anything related to who she was or what she did. Instead, the headline mentions her fucking red lipstick.”
The sense of obligation that fueled my book is tied to this issue of mis/representation. There is a loud, ancestral voice in us asking us to write our stories. They know that if we don’t, they will be corrupted and co-opted at the hands of others. Holding the details of our experience up toward the light is an integral part of being a writer and a person dedicated to decolonizing art and space. It’s our life’s work.
The Hurricane Book: A Lyric History by Claudia Acevedo-Quiñones, is available from Rose Metal Press.