A Polyrhythmic Ensemble: Fugitive Multitudes and Their Ways
by Sharmyn Cruz Rivera
volume 4

“They sound Puerto Rican,” I said to my boyfriend, referring to the two people walking about fifty feet behind us. It was a quiet winter night on an ominous street, the kind that gives you the chills, on the outskirts of Amsterdam. We were walking home from the train station and I couldn’t actually hear what they were saying, or if they were even speaking in Spanish for that matter, but they sounded Puerto Rican to me, a Boricua. That moment of recognition was accompanied by a spatial and cognitive dissonance that knocked me out of my temporality and made me unable to connect the sound vibrations coming from their direction with our current European landing. This uncanny feeling drove me to think about the network of relations in the Caribbean and how they manifest not only within the physical archipelago but far away from it. This dislocation unfurls from a maritime culture that came to be through a violent and cataclysmic amalgamation of civilizations, in a place exploited for its advantageous geographical position in the defence and support of la Encomienda, the plantation system, and the transatlantic trade. The Caribbean argues for connection because of and despite its colonial history, and its cultural cornucopia reaches far and wide through diasporic movement, not only of people but of its cultural imaginary. Its exuberance, inventiveness, and cacophonic ways are felt up against whiteness and it remains fugitive, unable to become transparent for the sake of the Western canon, its binaries, and categorizations. The proliferation of this Caribbeanness,1 cannot be oriented, unlike bodies, because it is boundless and centerless, a net that is continuously extending and retrieving.

In a recent talk at the University of Maryland’s Dresher Center for the Humanities, Puerto Rican writer Mayra Santos-Febres describes what she calls the fractal Caribbean2 as a place where history is not linear and neither is the construction of the Self. Interconnection is the arbor of Caribbean thought and expression. Santos-Febres, like many other Caribbean writers, is influenced by Antonio Benítez-Rojo’s book The Repeating Island, in which he uses fractal mathematics and chaos theory to talk about the Caribbean net, arguing that Caribbean reticularity is constitutive of the production of thought that positions itself outside of Western binaries in spite of its contestation with binarism. She goes on to explain that unlike binary thought, in Caribbean thought, “the relationship between opposites functions through a dynamic in which contradiction is not the only exclusive value that propels movement, social organization, and artistic expression.”3 Writers such as Antonio Benítez-Rojo and Édouard Glissant also argue that Caribbean thought falls outside of the rationality, dogmas, and methods that serve Western societies. For Santos-Febres, this is exemplified in el uno multiple in Santería, an arrangement of binary languages that behave in variation. The Self in Santería is considered a network of relations and a manifestation of natural forces that interact with life. In fact, the birth of Santería or Regla de Ocha is gestated through the forces of amalgamation that conjugate in the Caribbean as the practice is a “Yoruba-inspired, African-imagined, diasporic religion that emerged in Cuba through the transnational practices of slavery, imperialism, and colonialism since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and is a growing religion practiced throughout the world.”4 Santería is perhaps one of the most significant manifestations and examples of the potency of relations that take place within the Caribbean, informing a production of meaning that is reticular and perceptible in the dance, music, clothing, gestures, food, literature, and oral traditions of the archipelago.

The centering of a system of relations in Caribbean thought has been most significantly articulated by Édouard Glissant in his books Poetics of Relation and Caribbean Discourse which have shaped post-colonial discourses on the Caribbean. Glissant sought to position Caribbean identity outside of the scope of the colonizer and its historicity by asserting the right to opacity, that of being impenetrable to the domination of transparency that seeks to render everyone legible, and that encourages imitation in favor of cultural homogenization. Glissant’s opacity refers to the complex makeup of the Self, the interiority that constitutes identity which is exuded and felt in the world, and the essence that sparks connection and forges relation. In other words, he argues that we don’t need to understand each other fundamentally to embrace the complexity of the other. Admittedly, Glissant did not use the notion of whiteness or the white gaze, but he was clear about how, after colonization, “understanding cultures then became more gratifying than discovering new lands. Western ethnography was structured on this need. But we shall perhaps see that the verb to understand in the sense of “to grasp” [comprendre] has a fearsome repressive meaning here.”5 Glissant’s writing uprooted identity from the colonizer’s imaginary and allowed it to have a kaleidoscopic uniqueness that could take up space in the world without any obligation to be fixed, defined, or understood universally. The imperial pervasiveness of the “rational” voice, that of the West, was deemed unequipped to acknowledge the multiplicity of the Self and its expression. Hence, embracing our inscrutability is an expression of freedom which, ultimately, forges what he calls Relation. For Glissant, this Relation was undoubtedly pronounced in the Caribbean:

“The Caribbean, as far as I am concerned, maybe held up as one of the places in the world where Relation presents itself most visibly, one of the explosive regions where it seems to be gathering strength. This has always been a place of encounter and connivance and, at the same time, a passageway toward the American continent.”6

Glissant’s articulations make me think about the expression of multiplicity, its manifestation in Caribbean life, and how it is experienced and perceived. If opacity is the outcome of creolization which came to be throughimperial violence, then one can expect that the aesthetics of opacity are everywhere in the Caribbean. What I am most curious about is how do these aesthetics operate when confronted with violence, a force that, after all, is part of the genesis of the Caribbean.

There are echoes of Poetics of Relation in The Repeating Island. Benítez-Rojo’s meta-archipelago and what he refers to as “a certain kind of way” alludes to Glissant’s systems of relations and opacity, respectively. Benítez-Rojo deems the Caribbean a meta-archipelago, “a machine, whose flux, whose noise, whose presence covers the map of world history’s contingencies, through the great changes in economic discourse to the vast collisions of races and cultures that humankind has seen.”7 He starts a reading of the apocalyptic machine set in motion by colonizing forces as a way to arrive at a second reading that deals with a different kind of machine, the Caribbean that we see and feel nowadays. This constellation of islands is a place of performance, a rhythm made of percussion, a sea ritual enacted over and over again that confounds and pacifies. Benítez-Rojo calls this performance “a certain kind of way.” For him this “certain kind of way” defies description so he illustrates it through a childhood memory of a time where fear of nuclear destruction consumed the world. Sitting at home as the television news bellowed in the background, he saw beneath his balcony two old black women passing “in a certain kind of way”;

“a kind of ancient and golden powder between their gnarled legs, a scent of basil and mint in their dress, a symbolic, ritual wisdom in their gesture and their gay chatter. I knew then at once that there would be no apocalypse. The swords and the archangels and the beasts and the trumpets and the breaking of the last seal were not going to come, for the simple reason that the Caribbean is not an apocalyptic world…”8

In this cierta manera or “certain kind of way” there is a transference between the performer and the onlooker of a desire to neutralize violence by conjuring a poetic space that refers to “the transhistorical codes of Nature.”9 Meaning that performing a cierta manera is a way of claiming one’s obscurity and multiplicity to open a portal through which the performer and the observer can slip in to suspend violence. This phenomenon manifests through a system of improvisation and an ensemble of signs: dance, music, language, literature, gesture, etc. that invoke poetics and aesthetics of pleasure, liberation, and abundance. I must be clear here that by no means do I wish to consecrate the Caribbean, for it is also a place where the moral ailments of colonization are being reproduced in aggressive forms against women, LGBTQ+, and black people; a very real kind of violence that must be eradicated. What I want to point out is that this “certain kind of way” — a phrase that cannot begin to describe what it seeks to highlight— is not readily apparent because it is always improvised, of the moment, and always in movement in the social drama of the Caribbean basin. The Caribbean is deemed a “technological-poetic machine” by Antonio Benítez-Rojo as a way to claim the liquidity of this net that is always becoming and whose rhythm does not need a sonic representation in order to be heard because it is felt. This machine of opacity can not be mapped, captured, or anchored for it is embodied and meant to be swam in.

What I am working out here is how this “certain kind of way” manifests in the sociopolitical realm through performances that center poetics and aesthetics of desire and pleasure in the face of state violence. For weeks in July 2019, thousands of people gathered in protest in the capital streets of Puerto Rico after years of disillusionment and frustration with the government.10 After the economic crisis in 2015, heralded by a debt that proved unpayable caused by financial mismanagement, and two destructive hurricanes in the fall 2017, Irma and María, that decimated an aged, neglected power system that left most of the island without electricity and clean water for months, in some areas, for over a year,11 there was the certainty that government officials were not only incompetent but not working in the best interest of its citizens. The estimate is that 4,645 deaths were caused by hurricane María, and Puerto Ricans largely blamed the government because of its inability to provide the necessary aid for its citizens during these dire times.12 The tipping point was when two former top members of the Ricardo Rosselló government were arrested on federal corruption charges, and soon after, the controversy grew with the leaking of online chat conversations between governor Rosselló, ten government officials, and a publicist friend, all men.13 The exchanges were plagued with homophobic, ableist, and sexist comments that also detailed plans to control the media while creating a smear campaign against political opponents and, to add insult to injury, they made mocking remarks about hurricane victims. The country was grieving and people were fed up. Puerto Ricans from all demographics came out with an unequivocal force to the streets of San Juan to demand that Rosselló step down in increasingly inventive and creative ways. They demonstrated on horses, bicycles, motorcycles, jet skis, kayaks, and yoga mats, and while scuba diving, doing acrobatics, and banging pots.

“Yet it was the young people dancing provocatively on the steps of the oldest cathedral in the New World to the boom-ch-boom-chick-boom-ch-boom-chick of reggaeton beats that may have finally forced Rosselló out of office. This “perreo combativo,” as dubbed by queer, trans and non-binary youth, used perreo, reggaeton’s dance style, to create a sensuous and liberated communal space that generated political power.”14

The streets of San Juan were flooded with people ready to express their anger and indignity but their ways were exuberant performances that confronted and challenged the status quo. They took a private experience and brought it into the public sphere to forge unity that was not only fueled by frustration but also by joyous self-expression. Perreo, a sensuous, pelvic-centered and women-led dance that can be danced with a partner or in groups, became a resource of revolutionary action and an alluring mechanism where the buoyant self could challenge structures of power. In truth, perreo and reggaeton have always been part of the political sphere as they have a history of vilification. On the one hand, there is the criminalization of underground rap15 and the association the reggaeton with cafres, an insult with a racist history used against dark-skinned lower-class people, and on the other hand, perreo has been deemed a dance for loose women. As people twerked in the streets and plazas of Old San Juan, they generated an erotic space, publicly pushing against patriarchal structures of oppression that seek to disable the power found in our deepest selves. Audre Lorde, in Uses of the Erotic, let us know that the erotic has long been relegated to the bed because of the fear that emanates from the knowledge that the erotic brings about an internal satisfaction, and if allowed to permeate all aspects of life, we may be able to recognize that the power of the erotic “can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world.”16 This spirit of revelry galvanized a resistance movement that compelled Rosallo to resign from office soon after.

Puerto Ricans were empowered to embrace their idiosyncratic selves and to conjure a place where the aesthetics of desire and pleasure prevail in defiance of the political system and, ultimately, oust those in power that have enacted violence. About this, Benítez-Rojo tells us that Caribbean people’s “aesthetic experience occurs within the framework of rituals and representations of a collective, ahistorical, and improvisatory nature.”17 The Caribbean came to be through a turbulent movement, and it is still on the move, fugitive, here and there and constantly enduring the wake of colonization, but we also must consider that it has conditioned Caribbean people to exist within a polyrhythm where poetics shape the everyday. The Caribbean mystifies because it refuses definition and synthetization; it is an archipelago en despliege, reaching far from the limits of its sea. I wonder if what I felt when listening from a distance to those two Puerto Ricans talk in that cantadito way is that inscrutability, esa cierta manera, that can defuse even a lousy dimly-lit street on a cold winter night on the other side of the world.

  1. The notion of Caribbeanness here is not in total opposition to Glissant’s (which for him is synonymous with antillanité) in that it encapsulates the abundance of cultures and society of the Caribbean basin, but it asserts as real a potential that he thought was missing, a “transition from the shared experience to consciousness expression.” Glissant, Édouard “A Caribbean Future.” Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays. Translated by J. Michael Dash. University Press of Virginia, 1999, p. 222.[↩︎]
  2. Mayra Santos-Febres’ notion of fractal systems to describe Caribbeanness references Antonio Benítez-Rojo’s The Repeating Island in which he proposes chaos theory and fractal mathematics when describing the Caribbean as a meta-archipelago and its cultural production, and literature as a specific example of how fractality works in artistic expression.[↩︎]
  3. “Mayra Santos-Febres: The Fractal Caribbean.” YouTube, UMBCtube, 27 Sept. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=8tFlLkUSr84. (Minute 8:55)[↩︎]
  4. Beliso-De Jesús, Aisha M. Electric Santería: Racial and Sexual Assemblages of Transnational Religion. Columbia University Press, 2015, p. 2.[↩︎]
  5. Glissant, Édouard. Poetics of Relation. Translated by Betsy Wing. Univ. of Michigan Press, 2010, p. 26.[↩︎]
  6. Ibid., p. 33.[↩︎]
  7. Benítez-Rojo, Antonio. The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective. Translated by James E. Maraniss, 2nd ed., Duke Univ. Press, 1996, p. 5.[↩︎]
  8. Ibid, p. 10.[↩︎]
  9. Ibid, p. 17.[↩︎]
  10. These feelings of frustration towards PR government and its ineptitude in the face of natural disasters are especially revived since I am writing this in early January 2020, when the island is suffering from strong earthquakes on a daily basis which has left many, once again, without electricity and clean water.[↩︎]
  11. Mazzei, Patricia, et al. “With Earthquakes and Storms, Puerto Rico’s Power Grid Can’t Catch a Break.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 10 Jan. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/01/10/us/puerto-rico-electricity-power-earthquake.html.[↩︎]
  12. Kishore, Nishant, et al. “Mortality in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria: NEJM.” The New England Journal of Medicine, 25 Oct. 2018, www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa1803972?query=featured_home&.[↩︎]
  13. Romero, Simon, et al. “15 Days of Fury: How Puerto Rico’s Government Collapsed.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 July 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/07/27/us/puerto-rico-protests-timeline.html.[↩︎]
  14. Dávila, Verónica, and Marisol LeBrón. “How Music Took down Puerto Rico’s Governor.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 1 Aug. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/08/01/how-music-took-down-puerto-ricos-governor/.[↩︎]
  15. Ibid.[↩︎]
  16. Lorde, Audre. Uses of the Erotic: the Erotic as Power. Kore Press, 2000.[↩︎]
  17. Benítez-Rojo, Antonio. The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective. Translated by James E. Maraniss, 2nd ed., Duke Univ. Press, 1996, p. 22.[↩︎]
Sharmyn Cruz Rivera is a Puerto Rican independent curator and writer. Her research departs from meditations on human geography, radical manifestations of identity, and methodologies of collaboration. Most recently, Cruz Rivera served as Project Manager at Volume Gallery and as Associate Curator at The Green Lantern Press based at Sector 2337 in Chicago. During her time at Sector 2337, she assisted in exhibitions such as Lou Mallozzi’s site-specific sound installation 1:1 and Angelika Markul’s solo exhibition If the hours were already counted. Cruz Rivera holds an MA in Arts Administration and Policy from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a dual BA in Art History and Modern Languages from the University of Puerto Rico. Sharmyn has been a resident at Ox-Bow School of Art and Artists’ Residency (Saugatuck, MI), Summer Forum for Inquiry + Exchange (Kaneohe, HI), Roots and Culture (Chicago, IL), ACRE (Steuben, WI), and was the recipient of the Gaylord & Dorothy Donnelley Foundation Curatorial Fellowship. Recent projects include the group exhibition Corrosive Like Salt Water at the Glass Curtain Gallery at Columbia College Chicago, An Image for a Vessel at the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, La vista: mamihlapinatapai at The Franklin, Hinged Space at Terrain Exhibitions, and Fiction Within at Chicago Artists’ Coalition. She is a participant of the 2019-2020 Curatorial Programme at de Appel in Amsterdam.