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  • Vivien Sweet

Frances Negrón-Muntaner

What do you value?

By Vivien Sweet

Illustration by Maca Hepp

It is perhaps a given that an English professor contains multitudes. But Frances Negrón-Muntaner, the Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities,, wears more hats than the average academic. Beyond the classroom, she is a documentarian, poet, author, curator, and sometimes actor. Yet her artistic practices indubitably permeate the classrooms she inhabits. During her seven year tenure as director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, she founded the Gallery at the Center, adorning the walls of Hamilton 420 with skateboards designed by Apache artist Douglas Miles and Ethan Hawke, and film photographs of New York in the ’70s. The posterity of Latino media is of paramount importance to her, and accordingly, she curates the Latino Art and Activism Archive at the Rare Book Manuscript Library. 

During our conversation, Negrón-Muntaner admitted that at times she worried that focusing on a single practice would have allowed her to “do more.” I suggested a quip from Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or that often brings me solace: “My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it—you will regret both.” We both laughed. Maybe, she mused, she would have produced 12 films if she were only a filmmaker, or she would have written seven books if she were solely an author—though it is worth noting that she has, so far, directed seven films and written and edited four books, as well as a litany of articles for outlets like the New Yorker and the Washington Post. The artistic and scholarly selves of her imagination are not entirely at odds with Negrón-Muntaner as she is.

It was the night before Thanksgiving, and there were pies to bake and turkeys to baste. But as the clock neared 10 p.m., Negrón-Muntaner was explaining to me how to turn a 400-pound ATM rightside up to wheel it around the streets of Puerto Rico and later New York. Over four successive 40-minute Zoom sessions, we spoke about the evolving legacy of West Side Story, decolonial joy in Puerto Rico, and the neverending plight to become legible. 

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

. . .

The Blue and White: You’re currently writing an intellectual biography on Arturo Schomburg, an Afro-Puerto Rican activist. You wrote an article in 2016 that was titled “Why Do Americans Find Cuba So Sexy—but not Puerto Rico?” in which you expressed frustration at an editor who refused to consider publishing a biography of Julia de Burgos because it wouldn’t sell. He said, “I’d publish a biography of Cuban poet José Martí because he comes from a sexy country.” Did you experience similar pushback when you were trying to pitch this intellectual biography of Schomburg to editors?

Frances Negrón-Muntaner: If I was going to write that now, it would be the reverse. I would say up to Trump’s presidency, U.S. culture—popular culture and even scholarly spaces—were much more interested in Cuba. Cuba was the largest island, the closest to the U.S., one that had always been an object of desire for American elites of different kinds, whereas Puerto Rico has always been considered small, backward, not containing as much wealth. Trump’s presidency really broke from that tradition of Cuba as an object of desire. Trump was totally uninterested in Latin America in general. I mean, he was also the one that called Haiti “a shit country,” right? 

When disaster struck Puerto Rico with Hurricane Maria, he also showed tremendous callousness towards the people of Puerto Rico. While Trump was disparaging Puerto Ricans during this time, the press was very interested in covering Puerto Rico. There is definitely a before and after this moment for perceptions of Puerto Ricans. Before this, there were still a majority of Americans who did not know that Puerto Ricans were born U.S. citizens. Interestingly, also, the popular culture scene exploded into the global sphere. For a couple of years now, Bad Bunny has been the most downloaded artist in the world. Whereas before, in 2016 … we were still in the era where Cuba was the “sexy” country object of desire and Puerto Rico was an afterthought: something that we have, but we don’t really care about. Now, I would say that Cuba has receded. There’s very little public debate about Cuba, there’s very little promotion about its artists. So the question then becomes, how did Puerto Rico become sexy? 

B&W: You’ve written extensively about the cultural phenomenon of Puerto Rico in the U.S. You’ve written about West Side Story and In The Heights. What would you consider more adequate or holistic representations of Puerto Rico in the U.S.? 

FNM: I wrote quite a lot about and spoke during the release of Spielberg’s version of West Side Story. Although I was born and raised in Puerto Rico, and I think in some ways, I see things from some of those perspectives, I’ve been living in the U.S. a lot longer. I contextualize West Side Story as not having that much to tell us about the present in its shape and in its structure and its logic. In the remake, the question of turf or neighborhood is central. Some of the changes that they made was to put more attention that the real enemy of both the white gang and the Puerto Rican gang was gentrification. What’s fascinating about that in this current context is how American millionaires and real estate corporations and other economic agents are moving to Puerto Rico and distorting the housing market to an extreme degree that is making it impossible for Puerto Ricans to live in Puerto Rico. So if I were going to make a movie about Puerto Ricans right now, I wouldn’t put this question of gentrification in the far past. 

In this period in the ’40s, and ’50s, most of the Puerto Rican migrants were of working class or peasant origin that had been displaced to the city. Some scholars have called that the exportation of a class of people, whereas one of the characteristics of the current migration is that it’s more or less proportional by class structure. That means that the current Puerto Rican experience will still have people that are working class, or people that are living in neighborhoods that are deprived of resources, or suffer gentrification, or have racial tensions with other groups. But that would be, now more than ever, one of multiple different experiences that Puerto Ricans are having as migrants. 

B&W: There’s a multiplicity of representations in media that are not solely, say, West Side Story that have expanded the image of the Puerto Rican diaspora and Puerto Rican culture in the current American popular imagination. I was wondering about your relationship to these so-called subcultures of Puerto Rican culture.

FNM: Like what?

B&W: The Nuyorican Poets Cafe, for instance.

FNM: I’m both too old and too young. Too young to have been part of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe or the Nuyorican movement—I migrated to the U.S. in the mid 1980s as a teenager, but in my late teens. And I’m also too old to be part of subcultures.

I want to back up with the notion of subculture because I wouldn’t call Nuyorican cultural institutions or productions subculture. I think they were part of a movement. Before that movement, Puerto Rican communities were not only impoverished, they were also considered politically and culturally dispensable. But the Nuyorican movement changed that by producing works: in literature, in arts and film, in everything. It did it by having very robust social movements that changed everything from how to treat drug addiction and other health issues to access to college and higher education for people of color in the city. You can see it by the legacies that they had in existing institutions and issues that affect all New Yorkers.

For instance, El Museo del Barrio is one institution produced by the Nuyorican movement. It’s an iconic museum, but one of the important things about it is that it was a museum that began by conversations between parents and teachers about the importance of having education in the arts. 

That the museum has a relationship to the people that live in the neighborhood—[those] were not ideas that were commonly held by museums in the U.S. Institutions like El Museo del Barrio not only serve the community but really represent another model of what's possible. And the same could be said in the Lower East Side about the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. The Nuyorican Poets Cafe began in the apartment of Miguel Algarín, according to him, because he wanted to get all these noisy poets out of his house so he could sleep, because he was the only one with a job—he was a professor of English at Rutgers. But whatever the origin story that we believe, they created an institution that provided a stage and a space for working class brown and Black and other poets to be able to share their work and cultivate an audience. 

B&W: One of your ongoing projects is “Art in Catastrophe.” Tell me more.

FNM: I started it as an essay, and what I was interested in understanding was the world of art in the disaster. In the case of Puerto Rico, the two big disasters I was talking about were the imposition of austerity as a policy and the effects of Hurricane Maria, not only as a “national phenomenon” but as a political phenomenon. Because what happened—nearly 5,000 people died—did not have to happen.

B&W: Could you elaborate on that?

FNM: I mean, there’s many reasons that I don’t think natural disasters are necessarily natural. Certainly a Category 4 hurricane is formidable anywhere. However, there are many circumstances that make that force be met with equal force or not. Puerto Rico infrastructure had deteriorated significantly because of its lack of investment, and that lack of investment is related to the U.S.’s extractive relationship to Puerto Rico. Look at the significant rates of poverty; almost half of the population lives under the poverty line. The U.S. administration failed to provide assistance in a timely manner and denied that there was anything serious happening for weeks. In fact, in this case, it was very striking and stunning that civilians, doctors, nurses, members of [the] community, even entertainers, organized to move supplies on personnel to Puerto Rico and arrived and were working weeks before the government did.

And people were without access to electricity [on] most of the island for nearly a year. These things are not natural. What is the infrastructure? What interest does it serve? Why is it in that state? I mean, these are all questions that we need to ask.

B&W: I know you wrote, nearly 25 years ago, “The Radical Statehood Manifesto.” How have perceptions of sovereignty in the Caribbean changed since you wrote that?

FNM: It was never a manifesto. People called it that, but it wasn’t really a manifesto. It was a document that a group of intellectuals and artists drafted as a way to call attention to what we saw at the time, which was that those countries in the Caribbean that were independent fared worse in many ways than those that were in more open relation—even of subordination—with their metropolitan states. In some ways, it was an anarchist document that was trying to suggest the ways that struggles of labor, of women, of Afro descendant, of LGBTQ+ communities that perhaps had more terrain to advance under a relationship that was more openly incorporated than covertly colonial. 

Puerto Rico today in some ways is worse off than in earlier periods. In “Emptying Island,” which is a piece about how to understand this mass migration politically and otherwise, one of the things that I argue there is that Puerto Rico has been subjected to three colonial projects. The first colonial project was agricultural, the second colonial project was industrial, and the third colonial project, which is the present, is neoliberal. 

I would say that the current colonial project might be the most dangerous to the future of Puerto Rico, because what they’re trying to create is a society where a lot of U.S. millionaires live, not paying most taxes. You have real estate interests coming in, luxury markets exploding. There was a house that was sold for $35 million years ago that broke a record—there had never been something so expensive for a private home. The entire logic of the economy is to sustain and serve these millionaires, which means that all goods and services are extraordinarily expensive. And that it serves very dangerous experiments like cryptocurrency. There were a number of people involved in the cryptocurrency industry that have moved to Puerto Rico to avoid taxes.

There’s a lot of groups in Puerto Rico addressing a range of things that are affecting the population. And I feel [that] people at this moment in time, given the neglect and abuse that the island has received, have more faith in some of those efforts. 

B&W: Speaking of alternative forms of government and local forms of knowledge, I wanted to talk about your project “Valor y Cambio,” which you started in 2019. I just think it’s absolutely ingenious. It’s this combination of art and digital storytelling, and enacts what you have called a “just economy.” Using an ATM, you circulated a community currency with bills featuring six prominent Puerto Ricans to be used directly at local businesses and organizations in Puerto Rico.

FNM: It struck me that Puerto Rico has never had a currency or any say over monetary policy because it’s been a colony for its entire modern history. I had learned about community currencies and how they tend to emerge during economic crises, and how artists almost always have a role in that process. In a debt crisis … you don’t have enough resources and you have to decide what’s most important. Well, in the Puerto Rico case, education was suffering, pensions, healthcare. The money was really going into hedge funds and banks. So I wanted to create an environment where people who had never been consulted about what you value and where you think resources should go would have the opportunity to think about it and share. The second [goal] was introducing this idea of community currency. In Puerto Rico that would be a useful idea because we have high levels of education and high levels of unemployment, which means that a good number of people have knowledge and skills that are not incorporated into the mainstream economy. The third thing I wanted people to experience [was] what it would feel like to be in an economy that was not colonial. So we came up with six bills. The bills told stories of people that met these values or that their lives and their work embody one of these values.

We got 42 vendors and organizations to accept this money. If you came a few times [to the ATM] you could have a hundred dollars in your hand. What happened was that yes, many people came—hundreds and hundreds of people. But next to no bills were used. And the other thing was that I started noticing that people sometimes cried when they got the bills—of joy. 

When I put those two things together, I first thought we had failed because I thought, “Okay, we were trying to change the economy a little bit. But if people are not entering into exchanges, if that’s not what was happening, we’re failing.” But then I started asking people, “Why are you crying? Why are you so happy? Why are you not using [the bills]?” That opened up this whole other level where I learned so much. We chose this old-fashioned way of money, which is bills. But having that object in their hands made them feel like another world was possible. Interacting with the machine, which asked you some questions and asked you to tell a story, clarified people. Many people told me, “I had never thought of that question.” The first question the machine asks you is, “What do you value?” And I was also surprised that people would say that is such an intimate question, such a personal question. I never thought about that as such a personal question.

Eventually at the end of the project, it became a repository of all these stories. Like a walking book and also an ethnographic bin, you know? 

B&W: I think it’s so interesting that in your attempts to make this decolonial project, you made an even more decolonial form of monetary exchange in which nothing is exchanged because people really valued the physicality of the currency—seeing, as you said, this other world that is not possible without having this bill. 

FNM: I didn’t know that then, but I learned that the ATM was actually invented in a way to break down labor in banks in England. The idea was that the banks wanted people to work more hours without paying them extra. The response was the ATM, which now would allow the bank to function for 24 hours. 

So one of the contradictions, or one of the complex genealogies, of the project is that this machine that we rescued was given to us, but it was old and it had nothing in it. We had to re-outfit it.

B&W: Oh, I thought you created an ATM from scratch.

FNM: We thought about it, but it was going to cost us $25,000. I mean, $25,000 is more than the per-capita income of Puerto Rico. So we were absolutely not going to do that. We started calling around and we found a donor to give us the ATM machine. It was very mysterious. He didn’t want to give us his name, and he told us to meet in an abandoned lot in an abandoned Walgreens in another town. And I thought we were going to die, but after a two-hour wait—and it was night—two guys in a van came and they gave it to us. 

We programmed the computer so after you answered the questions, you would get a bill dispensed. And that would begin this exchange chain, which was you gave us a story, we give you a story [through the bills].

Then I wrote a piece called “Decolonial Joy,” which tried to describe what I was witnessing, which is this happiness, right? Well, it’s not happiness. In the essay I do acknowledge that there’s a lot of work by Sara Ahmed, for instance, about the happiness industry and the problems with that. I gravitated more to the notion of joy, which is collective, which is political. When I asked people, “What are you so joyous about?” what they answered was decolonial. They said, “It makes us feel like a world without racism is possible, a world where we’re not a colony is possible.”

B&W: I was wondering if you would consider picking up this project again. I feel like one of the beautiful things about it is how tied it is to local communities, local folks. 

FNM: After this Puerto Rico run, we came to New York and we were here for several months. That was quite eye-opening. In Puerto Rico, when I described to someone what a just economy could be like and how a community currency could be part of that, people understood in seconds. But when I tried to have the same conversation with people in New York, it sometimes took me 45 minutes. It was hard for people to wrap their head around a currency that wasn’t the dollar. Why would you want to have money that you couldn’t accumulate or profit from? Our hardest day of this whole project was when we took the machine to Wall Street, and it was completely ignored. When we tried to recruit people to tell their stories, people got aggressive with us. It was not a pleasant experience.

The question of the future of this project has actually given me a lot to think about. Once you’ve planted these seeds, does it ever really end? This conversation itself is an example of how, in a way, it never ends. 

B&W: What would a community currency in New York look like?

FNM: The whole process of coming up with an idea for a community currency is a very clarifying process because you have to identify needs, you have to connect to each other, [and] you have to develop some joint policies. For some communities, if you have a lot of talents that are not being tapped, and there’s a way to recognize, identify, and organize them, and figure out how people can exchange what they can offer, you can save hundreds of dollars a month. In New York, it might mean the difference between your child getting guitar lessons or other needs that you might consider a luxury. 

B&W: Something I gathered from “Valor y Cambio” is that one of the reasons why it was so touching to people was because it presented a vision of a society that unfortunately—maybe I’m just a pessimist—is still decades away.

FNM: Well, it depends on the scale we think about it. If we think about people’s responses, then it’s already here. 

B&W: You’ve mentioned five or six projects that you seem to be working on concurrently, and you also teach Video as Inquiry and have taught other CSER courses in the past. I was wondering how you balance being both a professor and a documentarian, but also an artist. Maybe they’re all the same thing.

FNM: All my work really is asking similar questions in different forms. The reason that I find it important to ask these questions in different forms is that if my main interest is dismantling coloniality, that coloniality is manifested in media. It’s manifested in visual culture, in the knowledge in institutions, in what we teach, in how we teach. 

In each of these spaces that I inhabit, I never really bring all my selves to it. When I am more [in] the film world, I bring some of my selves there—similarly at Columbia, given my appointment. Maybe one of the things to create better conditions in the future is whether there’s a place where I can bring all of those together. Sometimes it can be exhausting, and sometimes you can feel that you don’t quite belong anywhere.

B&W: It’s a sacrifice, right?

FNM: It’s a sacrifice. You’re kind of illegible in some ways, and maybe you don’t get the same kinds of support sometimes that other people get—or recognition. For instance, you asked earlier about the future of “Valor y Cambio”; I accept that I never was able to raise any money for “Valor y Cambio.” The art sources would tell me it was “artivism,” not really art. And the activists would say it’s more art, it’s not activism, or it’s not scholarship. It really found no funder. 

At one point, the museum [in Puerto Rico] said, “Well, maybe we can expand the project,” and the one funder they proposed was a bank. 

B&W: Oh, no!

FNM: I said, I’m sorry to say, but I cannot accept that. It’s going to turn this into promotion for their bank—I know it. It would have been very complicated.

B&W: Do you think that putting together the “Valor y Cambio” film helped consolidate the emotional impetus behind why you were doing the project?

FNM: At some point about seven years ago, I tried to implement this decision that when I took a project like this one, that it would have different components. “Valor y Cambio,” when the film is out and the book is out, [is] going to become a multimedia project. In the book, there’s going to be almost a manual part of it, so if you want to do this, these are some things to consider. In that way, it can sprout other ones.

People sometimes ask, “How do you choose your project?” I don’t choose projects. I’ve had conversations with people and they say, “Oh, I don’t know what to do next. I want to think of ideas.” My problem is that I have ideas till I’m 105.


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