Puerto Rican artists Sofia Gallisá and las Nietas de Nonó discuss their approach to the prison system in Puerto Rico and the cycle of poverty and racial and class discrimination that feeds it.
Sofía Gallisá: We met about two years ago when I went to see your piece, Manual del bestiario doméstico, at Patio Taller, which is your house as well as a space for community and artistic encounters. I never knew which came first, the Nietas de Nonó, Patio Taller or Manual del bestiario doméstico (MBD). How did it happen that you two began to think and work on these themes in relation to your family history?
Lydela: Everything came together at the same time. We had this need to connect to different versions of the family history. I began writing and publishing some of my reactions to the disdainful expressions that news on people living in working-class barrios and public housing developments was generating. By that point Michelle and I were talking about creating an artwork in which we could express our experiences and disquiets regarding life in “the projects,” prison visits, school, hardship and family. The family photo album helped us recall our weekly visits to the prison at Guayama to see uncles, cousins and a couple of neighbors and those were the images we used as reference materials for the theatre piece, MBD, we staged at our paternal grandparents’ house.
Michelle Nonó: We didn’t have any real second thoughts about the decision to use our grandparents’ house to stage the piece. We refused to turn to traditional production methods that implied presenting in commercial theatrical spaces. Patio Taller was coming together but almost completely informally. The neighbor kids on our street asked permission to play basketball in our patio area and at the same time we started offering them workshops in Augusto Boal’s Theatre of Oppression practices. Our grandparents’ house and patio become a neighborhood meeting place and little by little, collaborations with other people started coming up, alongside summer workshops, artistic residencies, fruit-tree harvest exchanges and raising hens. This sort of thing had started to some degree back in the 1940s. At the time, neighbors were pitching in to build casas de barrio and they would share what they harvested from the fruit trees. For us, the point is to carry on with these collaborations and see in what other ways we can continue nurturing those relationships.
SG: My project Buscando La Sombra also has to do with family memories, but in my case, Carlos “La Sombra” Torres Meléndez was the most memorable character in the stories my father would tell me when I was a little girl. My father met him one day at the State Penitentiary and began to take books to him, at the jail, when he would visit his activist colleagues, who at that point had been arrested for civil disobedience against militarization. “La Sombra” devoured Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and began to organize a prisoners’ association from inside the jail. He called the group “Los Ñetas.” They went so far as to stage riots to protest living conditions inside the prison. In the 1970s, he was in and out of jail several times and he ended up being an irreverent, combative public figure during a hardline, far-left era in Puerto Rico. I loved he was a mix of street, poetry and political rhetoric. He deeply understood his place in the system and how prisons exert obvious economic and racial-oppression dynamics. For years I insisted my father write a book on him because it seemed terrible to me that so few people remembered him, but my father never followed up on it. So I began to gather people that had also been in the stories, to record them speaking about La Sombra and the period. Then when I was in La Práctica de Beta-Local I organized a public encounter with people who had known La Sombra and I asked them to bring along any documents they had about him. A ton of people showed up with letters, poems and even sound recordings that had been in the back of closets, gathering dust, for decades. Everyone remembered him as an exceptional figure. Then these efforts to recuperate his memory became a long-term project. It also became my excuse for reflecting on archives and on how to research and recount a story based on my relationships and encounters with people that had different pieces and versions. I love the scale of Puerto Rico—when you start talking about a project new leads and connections constantly come up—everyone knows everyone. My project isn’t threaded through with everything that a direct connection to the prison system implies; it also has to do with how complicated it is to work between the emotional and intimate and the political.
L: I’m so glad you’re bringing up the issue of the intimate and the political because I think the deeper I got into my family’s memories, the more the story stopped being mine and it wasn’t just talking about imprisonment, or the men in our family’s absence and how it wounded our family’s women. We were telling a shared history of poor, black men in jail and men murdered in the streets in gang conflicts along different points on drug routes. That approach to family memories let us put together a history that did more than just start with what we had lived. For example, life circumstances in “El Fanguito” (a San Juan slum) in the 1950s were the lived experiences of my grandmother, mother and aunts; the mass imprisonments of the 60s were something my uncles and aunts went through and the hardline anti-crime roundups of the 90s, with military tanks and the National Guard, were something Michelle and I lived from the balcony of the apartment we inhabited in the Manuel A. Pérez public housing projects.
MN: These stories’ common denominator is linked to a politics of “hygiene-ization” the State proposes for poor neighborhoods. These oppressions come out of different institutions that are looking to discipline us: schools, families, the medical industry, food laboratories, prisons. In Manual del bestiario doméstico we were trying to outline a story from a place of our own voices that would reference how institutions have limited the possibilities of those Puerto Ricans who live at the margins of society.
SG: At the risk of sounding naïve, I’m still surprised by those realities’ invisibility, despite the fact they’re so ubiquitous. I believe that in Puerto Rico we consume so much imported audiovisual content that we end up isolated from our own stories and it could even seem exotic that someone decided to talk about jail, or housing projects, based on personal experience. I wonder if part of what goes into a piece like yours is creating the conditions where the conversation can happen, or where things can be shared.
MN: My perception is the work’s staging in part provoked some conversations among people who identified with the experiences MBD evokes. On the other hand, I note a refusal to speak about circumstances that men and women on the wrong end of social inequality generate, and there were even situations that revealed those prejudices. From the moment they came, some people expressed their fear of being in a working-class neighborhood. We would get calls from people who’d say, “I think I must be lost because I ended up in a slum and this can’t be the place.” “Yes, the performance is in our house, in a rough neighborhood,” we’d have to clarify.
L: Yes, I think there have been some sentiments that reach us from a place of personal anecdote, along the lines of “Bless their hearts, it’s what happened to their cousins,” but I ask myself if it’s possible to approach issues of incarceration, social inequality or drug trafficking where the attention our art attracts isn’t focused on us but on the content and the problematics we’re portraying.
SG: It’s easier just to talk about you…
L: And aesthetics… But our priority is content, not aesthetics.
SG: Generally speaking, I believe we’re responding more to individual histories than to any collective critique that involves us, but it’s also a big challenge for the audience to know what to do in response to all the thematic lines of violence when they come out of the performance.
MN: It’s true. Spectators may or may not respond to the information based on their own experiences, judgments and circumstances. How did you handle the information you were getting on Carlos “La Sombra” Torres Meléndez?
SG: I’m very clear on the fact that my starting place is the memories of a generation of Partido Socialista Puertorriqueño party members for whom La Sombra, up to a certain point, confirmed the viability of a proletarian revolution they hoped to see on the island. For me it’s also important to question that memory and that’s why I include other perspectives on his story, everyone from journalists who labeled him a crazy, to work by you two, cousins and nieces of prisoners from the Los Ñetas’ rival group, Los 27, the who had to cross from one side of the island to another to see them since they’d been separated.
I’m producing a book-object that will put the material I’ve gathered in the first part of the investigation into circulation. The editorial work consists of guiding the reading subtly, through the design, which is disguised as a standard prison file to be inserted in places ranging from institutional libraries, to the the library at Patio Taller or Beta-Local, and open it up to new readings. I’ve also got some other materials, like La Sombra’s criminal record, that I’m holding on to for future project phases since I understand it deserves a whole other treatment. I don’t want to present the State’s version of him without directly intervening and that will take other kinds of formal strategies.
MN: In Manual del bestiario doméstico we also questioned ourselves a great deal about how to use the State’s accusations and we decided to at some point present the artwork entitled Dos versiones, by Fernando Salgado Osorio, currently confined to a prison in the United States. One of the versions was taken from a web platform that contains a registry of prisoners and a description of the charges they responded to. The other version is by the person, using photos from their childhoods and adolescent years. Any possible reading is left to viewers; we wanted to see what kind of reflections it might provoke. I remember in one of the interventions, one woman decided to look for her husband’s name on that web platform instead of looking up the name we suggested. She found her husband’s file; he was there with her and had been released from prison not long before. We compared the photo from the online file with the man’s real-life face and they seemed like two different people. They even called up different emotions.
SG: For me, another important reason to talk about La Sombra these days is that it provokes a very necessary conversation about the prison system. I’m interested in inserting it into the “Free Óscar López Rivera” campaign, for example. The narrative that says López Rivera is the last Puerto Rican political prisoner and that “his only crime is loving his country” strikes me as quite problematic. First, because long ago someone told me all prisoners are political and I’ve never been able to forget it; but as well because Óscar López Rivera was the leader of an armed, clandestine revolutionary group and you don’t have to wipe that away to support him. Why insist on separating the figure of the “political prisoner” from that of the common inmate? How can we expand the political discourse and take on the complex nature of generating empathy beyond what we consider justifiable illegality? How can we deconstruct the logic of “a hard line against crime” that we carry so deep inside? I’m convinced that Óscar himself would prefer, as you two prefer, to kick off a conversation on the systems that have had him locked up for 34 years, rather than focus on one individual.
L: It’s complicated. When I reflect on the struggle to get Óscar López Rivera freed from prison and the solidarity with that demand that occurs in the name of Puerto Rico and its people, there’s this rumbling inside me that’s the rest of the population of men and women who are serving long sentences for drug trafficking and for whom the same empathy doesn’t exist. And all this while still considering there are stereotypes that tell us who is and who is not a criminal, by means of realities such as race, gender and social condition. To expand the discourse, you have to humanize imprisoned people, show their faces and reveal their stories. That’s what I see in your La Sombra project, as well as with what we did in Manual del bestiario doméstico, and in an intervention Mickey Negrón from Asuntos Efímeros (a monthly performance event) asked us to participate in, to react to the old adage la sangre pesa más que el agua (roughly, “blood is thicker than water”). At the intervention we were able to leverage the massiveness of the “Free Óscar López Rivera” campaign. We replaced Óscar’s head with those of the two jailed brothers Joel and Fernando Salgado Osorio, in an attempt to make them visible and provoke reflections on the differences you so well point out between “political prisoner” and “common inmate.”
SG: It’s interesting how all three of us are concerned with giving rise to a process that goes beyond the work per se; the product is not enough. I’ve done two videos during the research process that begin with that search for La Sombra and then go off in other directions, partly because I’m not finding what I’m looking for. I went to the University of Puerto Rico archive and the association he founded in favor of the rights of the incarcerated is not in the card catalogue. I went to the dungeons at La Princesa Prison where the riots happened and I saw tourist groups being talked to there about ghosts and pirates, but never about the recent history of the place. So those pieces are my contribution to the archive, expressed in another visual language. But they’re digressions from the issue at hand. We’re always bumping up against the limits of the conversation we’re trying to posit, isn’t that right?