The black and white flag is a symbol of resistance and colonialism. The artists released a letter which said, in part, “To replace these colors with black (the absence of light) creates new readings. Ours is a proposal of RESISTANCE, not to be thought of as pessimist. On the contrary, it speaks about the death of these powers just as we know them, but hope is still present in the white stripes that symbolize individual liberty and its capacity to claim and defend their rights.”
The letter, written in Spanish, continued, “May this act serve as an invitation to reflect and to take action upon the collapse of the educational and health systems, the privatization and destruction of our natural resources, our colonial status, the outrage against our future workforce, the payment of an illegitimate debt, the imposition of a non-democratic government, the strangulation of cultural efforts among other things. This act is the evidence that there’s an artistic community that is not willing to give up, that will stand up and fight against the impositions of an absolutist government and its policies of austerity; their most recent example: the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA).”
The repainting was an immediate response to PROMESA, coming four days after its establishment. However, the design has continued to be shared as a statement of resistance. It is in fact known as the resistance flag. The artists listed some of the things they were resisting, but it has also been used as a symbol of grief after the destruction of Hurricane Maria.
Does the black and white flag symbolize independence?
The black and white flag has been said to represent a push for independence, but that was not its original intention. The people of Puerto Rico overwhelmingly support statehood. In addition, support for independence, as low as it is, may also be inflated because Puerto Rican independentistas are often under the mistaken impression that their US citizenship would be secure if Puerto Rico were to become a foreign country.
Independentistas are somewhat ironically more prevalent stateside than in Puerto Rico: polls show that Puerto Ricans living in a state are more likely to favor independence than those born in Puerto Rico. A 2016 poll in Florida, for example, had support for Puerto Rican independence at 8%. In the 2017 referendum in Puerto Rico, just 1.5% chose independence, and the highest number ever was only 5%, in the 2012 referendum.
When they talk about aspirations of independence, stateside Puerto Ricans typically begin with the preservation of Puerto Rico culture as their foundation. It is, however, unclear that independence would actually preserve Puerto Rican culture as Puerto Ricans move en masse to the states and naturally assimilate with the broader culture. Statehood does not require jettisoning Puerto Rico culture any more than the current U.S. territory status does. Statehood would not require Puerto Rico to meld with Florida or another state; rather, it would retain its own history and culture as a 51st state, keeping its dignity intact. The statehood process would recognize Puerto Rico’s uniqueness and complete the work of democracy begun in 1917 with the grant of U.S. citizenship without forcing Puerto Ricans to relinquish any rights relative to the U.S.
At its essence, the black and white flag is a symbol of resistance and grief. It is not inherently a call for independence, but it is a call for change. Attempts to interpret the black and white flag as a symbol of independence appear to be a continuation of the romanticization of independence for Puerto Rico which can be sometimes be seen among stateside separatists, who would not face the hardships that would inevitably come with independence for the Island.