Colonia or Colony?

Perfume_BottlesMujeres Talk is a project of Ohio State Universities, with an all-volunteer editorial board devoted to creating a space for Chicana, Native American, and Latina women to share their experience of the world. A recent blog post, “Of Puerto Rico, Perfumes, and Colonies”, Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo, one of the editors and an associate professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, recounted a childhood experience with Puerto Rico’s status, in the classroom of a beloved teacher:

One day, out of the blue she began a discussion about the political status of the island, an event completely out of the ordinary, for up to that moment, the political status of Puerto Rico had been presented to us, not discussed in class. The Estado Libre Asociado or ELA (that is the Commonwealth status) was always taken for granted in the curriculum, and if anything, up to that particular day, I was under the impression that the ELA would always be an immutable and permanent fixture in the island’s government.

In the midst of the discussion, a classmate claimed that Puerto Rico was a colony:

El ELA no es nada más que una colonia, Missis,” he quipped. The rest of us gasped in collective unison, but Miss Vilas quickly but firmly shot back: “colonia no, perfume” (which roughly translates as “not cologne, but perfume”).

The combined recognition of the shortcomings of Puerto Rico’s status and of the inherent value of Puerto Rico impressed the author:

The majority of us understood her point: perfumes are supposed to be of better quality than colognes, which are generally less expensive… I laughed with the majority of my classmates, but I had to process what that really meant. Was she defending the political status of the island? I may have looked at it as a permanent fixture, but even I knew that the ELA was nothing if not flawed. This exchange between my teacher and my classmate stayed with me long after I graduated from junior high, from high school, and from college, and through my years as a graduate student and now as an academic. After all, Miss Vilas was not the only one on the island who thought that the Commonwealth was indeed not a form of cheap cologne but a fine bottled-up perfume.

The author summed up her adult reflections on this exchange in a section she calls “The Take Away”:

Thirty years later, I now see Miss Vilas’ witty response to [my classmate] not necessarily as a defense of the Commonwealth status, but as a tactic for dealing with a taxing situation (i.e., an unresolved political status that has lasted for half a millennium) by exerting some agency against its overwhelming weight. She was, in a perhaps awkward way, redefining her subject position (and by extension the subject position of all of us in her classroom, for we were all Puerto Ricans) vis-à-vis the US: in the end she did not want to be seen as (nor did she want to be) the subject of a cheap colonial configuration, to be sure. Miss Vilas’ way of engaging with the Commonwealth taught me an enduring lesson: regardless of the position from which they may advocate a particular political view, Puerto Ricans are painfully aware of the Commonwealth and its impacts, and do what they can to negotiate their location within it. It was also telling that even though we had never been formally taught about colonies as such, we still knew, as thirteen-year-olds, that the word (especially as it was being used by our classmate Bill) was meant as an insult, and a clear indictment of the island’s government. Our collective gasp reflected how much we knew, at such a young age, about colonies and about insults.  That the status of the island could be articulated as an insult, and thus something to be wielded in order to put people (us!) down, was a major insight to me that day.

In retrospect, the fact that I remember this particular exchange so vividly is indicative of how ingrained and even traumatic notions of Puerto Rico’s status can be. My recollection of the exchange often returns in my musings about the island, as it was around that time that I began to consciously process and sift through ideologies about its political status.  The exchange between my teacher and my classmate ultimately taught me that, as a Puerto Rican, I should learn to simultaneously deal with sensibilities that metaphorically articulate Puerto Rico’s status as a “cologne,” and those that articulate it as a “perfume.” The biggest insight for me now, however, after years of studying, thinking and writing about Puerto Rico’s political status, is that, although the island may actually be a little more than cologne, in the end, it is all colony. From the government to the educational system. From the economy to its daily diversions and entertainments. From the unemployment rate to the ever-expanding Diaspora (of which I have been a member for 20 years now). From every institution to every minute aspect of life. All colony. Then (when I was in school learning about the ELA), and now (as I continue the struggle to envision a future for Puerto Rico beyond the ELA).

The majority of Puerto Ricans voted more than a year ago to end the territorial — and some would say colonial — relationship with the United States, and the U.S. government has repeatedly said that Puerto Rico’s desire to leave that relationship should be respected. As Puerto Rico continues in an unsettled status, it sinks deeper into financial crisis and continues to cope with problems caused and exacerbated by that unsettled status. Lugo-Lugo has expressed the effects of this on a movingly personal level.

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