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Loisaida as Urban Laboratory: Puerto Rican Community Activism in New York

University of Georgia Press (Geographies of Justice series), forthcoming 2020

This book offers the first in-depth analysis of the network of Puerto Rican community activism in the Lower East Side from 1964 to 2001. The community of Loisaida organized itself to fight against postwar urban deindustrialization, housing disinvestment, and gentrification, which threatened to displace an entire generation of Puerto Ricans who migrated to this New York neighborhood and tried to make it their home. Using an amalgam of unprocessed organizational archives, oral histories, ephemera, and neighborhood publications, this book is recreating the history of community action in Loisaida. Focusing on key institutions and community groups that mobilized residents and built a lasting activist network, Loisaida as Urban Laboratory demonstrates how community groups pioneered a methodology for more sustainable community activism. These activists turned Loisaida into their laboratory, constantly experimenting with and adapting new strategies to put up a solid defense against absentee landlords, greedy developers, opportunist politicians, and an era of increased policing of urban space.

Analyzing the interplay of community activism, urban politics, and Puerto Rican history in this urban laboratory of Loisaida provides three crucial insights: (1) the necessity for grassroots organizations to adapt their activism to the changing needs of the community, (2) the creativity of urban communities to transform and design their immediate environment, and (3) the root causes that keep activist campaigns from reaching their full potential. This book raises new and challenging questions about the nature of sustained neighborhood activism at a major transitional phase in United States urban history: the shift from the 1960s antipoverty programs to the 1980s neoliberal policies. More importantly, it shows the ingenuity and strength of activists to handle this shift in the socio-political urban landscape by devising a set of critical strategies to continue their service to the residents of Loisaida. In 2017, the same community leaders who mobilized residents in the early 1960s are still marching on City Hall to demand the return of their former headquarters. This proves that scholars and activists alike have a great deal to learn from half a century worth of sustained grassroots action.


Black Lives Matter: The Past, Present, and Future of an International Movement for Rights and Justice

Oxford University Press (edited volume), forthcoming 2020

The rallying calls of a new movement are reaching across the globe. Started by three African American women in 2013, Black Lives Matter (BLM) has chapters in every region of the US and is spreading internationally. The movement has received wide-reaching attention for protesting racial bias and abuse in policing, but in fact responds to all forms of oppression, violence and exclusion shaping black lives: issues from education, poverty, and punishment to mental health. Scholars are now turning to BLM to understand what the fight for black rights looks like today, and where it is going. This edited volume seeks to lead the academic inquiry, exploring the origins and dynamics of #BlackLivesMatter. It offers a cross-disciplinary perspective of BLM’s rhetoric, revealing how a movement founded on social media is rooted in past struggles, how its structure and form departs from previous protest, and what it might yet achieve.


The Colors of Loisaida: Embedding Murals in Community Activism

Journal of Urban History 44, no. 3 (May 2018)

This article delves into an overlooked ingredient in community activism between the period of the Great Society and Reaganomics. In the midst of the shift from housing disinvestment to gentrification, communities across the United States sought out any means necessary to fight forced displacement. The community mural was one of the most creative tools activists employed to claim their stake in a neighborhood. This article demonstrates how these community murals were deeply embedded within activist projects, not simply as an afterthought but as a crucial catalyst to provoke action among the residents of a neighborhood, especially its young people. Loisaida (Spanglish for Lower East Side) was a pioneering neighborhood where activists democratized art as a means to politicize neighborhood space and organize an entire community. As murals play important roles for struggling communities across the world now, this article traces their role in community activism back to the U.S. mural movement.


Education as a Human Right: The Real Great Society and a Pedagogy of Activism

Journal for the Study of Radicalism 12, no. 1  (Spring 2018)

This article argues that the work of the Puerto Rican organization Real Great Society (RGS) established a “pedagogy of activism”—a grassroots educational effort to educate poor and at-risk children and teenagers through concrete work and community activism. It examines the efforts of two alternative, community-based educational projects to provide a more relevant pedagogical model in New York City’s Lower East Side in the 1960s, in the context of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, the growing demand for human rights education and the idea of education as a human right, and urban trends of deindustrialization and displacement. This provides a new framework for understanding how members of community groups such as RGS attempted to counteract growing gang violence and youth apathy in their neighborhoods. More broadly, the article argues that RGS’s educational philosophy became the pillar for future community activism in the Lower East Side and reveals new insights into the role of radical neighborhood groups in transforming their communities.


That Special, Inevitable Mess: El Spirit Republic de Puerto Rico and the Decolonization of the Imaginary

Anglisica/AION 20, no. 1 (November 2017)

Recent scholars such as Yasmin Ramírez, Urayoán Noel, and Wilson Valentín-Escobar have argued for the importance of art in subverting U.S. narratives of citizenship and national identity with regards to the status of Puerto Rico—at times occupied land, a colony, or a U.S. state stripped of its democratic power. This article traces how Puerto Rican artists in New York created an imaginary nation whose members hold an imaginary citizenship that protects how Puerto Ricans identify their nationality beyond the century-old political battle over Puerto Rico’s status as a commonwealth territory. I argue that through the lens of the multi-media, performance project El Embassy, artists and supporters actively promoted a claim to cultural citizenship through a process of decolonizing the imaginary. This surrealist project existed both in the shared, and individual, imaginaries of people and in the physical world they inhabited. This altogether messy approach to activism, the quest to decolonize the imaginary and claim cultural citizenship, deserves attention not only for its unique re-imagining of Puerto Rican citizenship, but also for its broader ideas about citizenship, identity, and nationhood.