Dimensions of Empire and Resistance: Past, Present, and Future

American Studies Association Conference 2012

Dimensions of Empire and Resistance: Past, Present, and Future
November 15-18, 2012, San Juan, Puerto Rico

President’s Overview

Matthew Frye Jacobson, Yale University

The very location of this year’s conference is a powerful call for reflection—for reflection—reflection on indigeneity and dispossession; reflection on the course of U.S. empire; reflection on rich histories of resistance; reflection on American Studies as a set of interpretive and pedagogical practices in that zone where Indigenous Studies, Atlantic World, Caribbean Studies, Diaspora Studies, and Pacific Rim all come together. Claimed by Columbus on his second voyage in 1493, these Taino lands were the site of colonization, slavery, and near extinction before becoming collateral damage to U.S. imperial designs in 1898. In the eyes of policymakers like Theodore Roosevelt, the point of colonizing Puerto Rico was never for the sake of holding Puerto Rico itself, but for a system of U.S. ports, bases, and coaling stations that had mostly to do with Euro-American rivalries and “the China market.” The colonizing structures articulated by the Foraker and the Jones Acts—made famous in Downes v. Bidwell’s tortured judgment that Puerto Rico is “foreign in a domestic sense”—marked the islands as the site of the United States’ most unabashed imperialist manipulations, but also as a field of rich and varied resistance, democratic yearning, and anti-imperialist thought.

From the outset the Program Committee of the American Studies Association (ASA) has felt an awesome responsibility to organize sessions and events that would do justice to the significance of these histories in collision. The ASA’s membership made the task a good deal easier by stepping up to propose several hundred passionate and intellectually committed panels, roundtables, and papers. So, thank you. But even so, we were concerned that North American habits of travel and San Juan’s own infrastructure of tourism might exert an inexorable pull on the conference that could ironically replicate many features of empire itself.

With these concerns in mind, the committee has assembled a slate of extracurricular exhibits, screenings, and events meant to augment and anchor the anti-imperialist spirit of the conference agenda and to provide routes into San Juan and its history quite distinct from those laid out by the normal circuitry of tourism. Please consult the day-by-day schedule in this book for all details, but highlights include:

Tours. For those arriving in San Juan in advance of the conference, we have arranged for a Wednesday tour of the Hacienda La Esperanza Nature Reserve, one of the largest sugar plantations in Puerto Rico in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Located in the municipality of Manatí, on the northern coast of Puerto Rico, the Hacienda La Esperanza Nature Reserve offers visitors the opportunity to explore several distinct ecosystems, as well as some of the island’s history. On Saturday conference participants are invited on a walking historical tour of Viejo San Juan, led by Edwin Quiles Rodríguez, author of San Juan Tras la Fachada: Una Mirada Desde Sus Espacios Ocultos (1580–1900). This tour traces the historiography of the underprivileged and hidden sector of San Juan, which greatly contributes to this culturally rich and constantly changing city. Saturday we have also arranged for an environmental justice tour of the ENLACE Caño Martín Peña Project. Building upon the capacities of the 25,000 residents in eight densely populated communities initially developed as squatters along the Caño Martin Peña, ENLACE seeks to overcome poverty, and attain social and environmental justice. By addressing major environmental degradation issues, it promotes safer and healthier communities and a restored San Juan Bay Estuary System. Tours of El Yunque (Rainforest) and Cuevas de Camuy (Camuy Cave Park) are also available for those interested in Puerto Rico’s natural environment.

Artists-in-Residence. Nao Bustamante will present and discuss her current multimedia project, Personal Protection, which activates the tactile and tactical histories of women in war, specifically of women who fought in the Mexican Revolution. In “Tierra y Libertad” Bustamante fabricates period Edwardian dresses, constructed with contemporary ballistic protection materials and engages period weaponry in a series of reenactments and tests. Bustamante creates performances, films, and installations that explore themes of vulnerability and protection.  Adál Maldonado and Mariposa María Teresa Fernández will present their multi-media project, Blueprints for a Nation: Construction of an Imaginary State, weaving diverse perspectives on the Puerto Rican Diaspora, the significance of creative expression in fostering new political imaginations, the various cultures and expressions of resistance, and the subversive tropicalization of new environments. The project centers on the creation of an imaginary space called El Puerto Rican Embassy, represented here as an art installation where Nuyorican/New Rican artists define and create a new hybrid identity through their personal creative intentions.

Poetry Reading. Celebrated Puerto Rican poet and writer Giannina Braschi reads from her recent work, including The United States of Banana and Empire of Dreams. Fantastical, philosophical, and epic, Braschi’s work explores themes of U.S.-Caribbean relations, the politics of empire and independence, the post-9/11 psyche, and the migrant’s experience of marginality and liberation. Written in a mood of “ire and irony,” as one critic has put it, Braschi’s work disrupts the smooth surfaces of conventional wisdom, at once evoking and inviting revolutions of thought.

Anti-Imperialist Film Festival. The conference features nearly continuous screenings of important recent films on empire and related subjects. (The full schedule is available at Registration.) The featured event will be a Saturday screening of Amigo followed by a discussion with director John Sayles and filmmaker-critic-scholar Frances Negron-Muntaner. Amigo is an understated, poignant, deeply human canvas of one baryo in the crossfire of empire and resistance, and of a ragtag but lethal detachment of U.S. soldiers who find themselves halfway around the world walking point for their country’s new imperialist policy. Americans’ first land war in Asia in 1899 crucially links the Plains Wars of the nineteenth century with Vietnam in the twentieth and Iraq in the twenty-first. By insisting upon its remembrance, Amigo asks us to ponder and to weigh all that national arrogance has authorized, and all that democracy has failed to mean. Thursday evening features a screening of Roberto Clemente, followed by a discussion with director Bernardo Ruiz and historian Rob Ruck. This brilliant and nuanced film situates the Puerto Rican superstar as both transnational athlete and humanitarian activist, bringing to light the ballplayer’s inner geography, his confrontation with the U.S. color line, his staunch antiracist politics, and his devotion to the oppressed everywhere. Friday features Aquel Rebaño Azul [The Blue Herd], written and directed by Guillermo Gómez Álvarez and sponsored by Puerto Rico’s Civil Rights Commission. This documentary offers a historical account of police brutality in Puerto Rico by means of vivid videos intertwined with eyewitness accounts. A commission member will be on hand for a post-screening discussion. Más de 800 Razones [More than 800 Reasons] also screens on Friday, a documentary on the 2010–2011 University of Puerto Rico student strikes. The imposition of an $800 dollar fee and the threat of privatization has created an atmosphere of confrontation and militarization in the University of Puerto Rico. Other screenings throughout the weekend include eight documentary films provided by the feminist non-profit Women Make Movies. Visit the screening room most any day and time for ongoing showings of Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words, on the Chinese-American actress and Hollywood’s image of Asian Americans; Apache 8, on the all-female firefighting unit of the White Mountain Apache reservation; Atomic Mom, about one woman’s journey from being a Cold War era researcher for the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project to being a whistleblower and peace activist; The Learning, the story of four Filipina teachers who venture to Baltimore in the hopes that their increased wages might transform the conditions for their impoverished families in the Philippines—an immensely powerful portrait of the legacies of empire and of the current plight of urban education; No Job for a Woman: The Women Who Fought to Report WWII, on trailblazing war correspondents Martha Gellhorn, Ruth Cowan, and Dickie Chappelle; Skydancer, on the Mohawk construction workers who for six generations have split their lives between their rural reservation and their weekday jobs building skyscrapers in Manhattan; and A Place Called Home, the story of Persheng Sadegh-Vaziri, who having grown up in pre-Revolution Tehran and then immigrated to the United States, now (1998) decides to return to Iran after nearly twenty years as an expatriate. We will also provide screenings of selected titles (to be announced) from the Puerto Rico Queer Film Festival.

Deepest thanks are due our three co-chairs, Frances Aparicio, Elizabeth Dillon, and Natalia Molina; our Site Resources Committee, co-chairs Wilson Valentin-Escobar and Jade Power Sotomayor, along with Jorge Duany, José Fusté, Jorge Giovanetti, Carmen Haydée Rivera, and Maritza Stanchich; and our full program committee, Ernie Chávez, Mona Damosh, Matthew Guterl, Pablo Mitchell, Tavia Nyong’o, Mérida Rua, Sandhya Shukla, Stephanie Smallwood, and Thuy Lin Tu.

 

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