By Cynthia Tong
In preparation for the Idea Lab series, free “teach-ins” on current issues about the setting of Recent Alien Abductions, by Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas, PlayCo will be speaking with each of the Idea Lab leaders about their work. Marisol LeBrón, Assistant Professor in Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies at the University of Texas, Austin, is leading our first installment, (Deep) Roots of the Debt Crisis – The Colonial Context on Saturday, March 2 at 4:30PM at New York Law School, 185 West Broadway, Tribeca.
If you are interested in attending, please sign up here to guarantee your reservation. Seating will be on a first come, first served basis according to availability.
Your work focuses on social inequality, policing, violence, and protest, particularly in relation to Puerto Rico. How and why did you end up specializing in these areas?
As someone trained in American Studies and Latina/o/x Studies, for me these are issues that are central to understanding the power relations that structure our society and shape everyday life for marginalized people. Additionally, I’ve always been incredibly interested in the colonial relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. When getting my PhD at NYU, I became really interested in the idea of policing as something that we can treat like a lens to examine racial inequality, economic exploitation, and colonialization in the U.S. The history of policing is necessarily a story of capitalist development and racial domination. This is clear when we think about the fact that in the U.S. the first professional police forces were created to control labor – enslaved labor in the South and immigrant labor in the industrial North. This history had a big impact on me and I became really interested in what policing could tell us about shifts in the colonial relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S. over the last two to three decades.
How did you get involved in the creation of the Puerto Rico Syllabus?
My colleague Yarimar Bonilla approached me about the possibility of creating Puerto Rico Syllabus dedicated to compiling information about the debt crisis. We were frustrated by the coverage of the debt crisis in terms of its limited scope that ignored the roots of the crisis in the colonial relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S. We also were sick of the purely economistic approaches to the debt crisis that ignored the cultural and everyday practices of Puerto Ricans as they negotiated this new austerity regime. When Yarimar reached out to me, Sarah Molinari had also agreed to help create the syllabus, which was important because of the work she has been doing with activist groups in Puerto Rico who are fighting for an audit of the debt. I knew that we each brought particular expertise and strengths to the project and we envisioned this as a truly intersectional and feminist project in terms of our ethos and the kinds of archive of the debt crisis that we wanted to create. I’m really proud of my work with the Puerto Rico Syllabus because I think it has become a really important source for a whole range of folks looking to learn more about what is happening in Puerto Rico.
As a professor, you’ve taught both introductory and advanced courses across the fields of American Studies, Latina/o Studies, and Gender and Women’s Studies. What do you enjoy most and find most challenging about teaching such a wide (yet intersectional) range of fields?
I absolutely love teaching and have been lucky enough to meet some truly incredible young people in the classroom. Race, gender, sexuality, violence, colonialism, and economic inequality are obviously topics that can elicit a range of opinions and very strong emotions, which is why some professors will shy away from addressing these topics head on in the classroom – they don’t want to get bad student evaluations or have to facilitate uncomfortable or heated discussions. To me, that’s the most important thing I do in the classroom, particularly as someone who believes in the importance of education in social justice struggles. It’s really important to me introduce students to history and ways of thinking that force us to confront uncomfortable truths about ourselves and our society because that’s the only hope we have for building something better moving forward. I interact with a lot of young people in the classroom who are hungry to make a difference and I try to equip them the critical thinking and analytic tools that will help them do that.
Your next project explores the role of Puerto Rican activists in international radical politics and freedom struggles over the course of the twentieth century. Can you tell us a little bit more about the project and how it links to today’s social and political activism?
My next book examines the history of Puerto Rican support for international radical movements and freedom struggles. Puerto Rican activists forged what I am calling “shared geographies of resistance” in order to situate themselves within global anti-fascist, anti-racist, and anti-colonial movements over the course of the twentieth century. The book will tell the stories of Puerto Ricans organizing in support of Irish independence, fighting on the frontlines against fascism in Spain, calling for an end to the war in Vietnam, joining the fight to end apartheid in South Africa, and protesting military bombing campaigns in Gaza. Working shoulder-to-shoulder with activists in the U.S. and around the globe, Puerto Ricans put their bodies on the line and experienced military and police violence in order to secure human rights and freedom for themselves and others. I suggest that Puerto Rican activists have engaged in this solidarity work not only to combat oppression in distant locales but also, through a politics of comparison, to illuminate Puerto Rico’s own ongoing colonial condition in an increasingly “decolonial” world. I think this history has a lot of significance in this political moment because it helps us to imagine ways of being in community that are based in the struggle to “win our freedoms together.” Especially in this political moment where the attacks on the rights and humanity of one group have serious implications for all of us, we need reminders of what radical solidarity and political commitment can look like and what they can achieve.
You’re leading the first installment of our Idea Lab series, ‘(Deep) Roots of the Debt Crisis: the Colonial Context’. For people who are less familiar with the history and current issues facing Puerto Rico, how do you think your installment will enhance their understanding of the current situation?
I think it’s easy to hear about the situation in Puerto Rico and think that it’s the result of a lot of local mismanagement. While corruption and ineptitude are certainly a part of the story, it’s really important for us to examine how Puerto Rico’s unresolved colonial status laid the groundwork for the contemporary debt crisis and the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria last fall. In our Idea Lab session, I want to show people that Puerto Rico’s current crisis did not start in 2008 or 2005, instead we can trace its roots to back more than a century to when the U.S. takes Puerto Rico as a war prize from Spain. U.S. political and economic interests created the terrain for the contemporary debt crisis in Puerto Rico and I want to use the space provided by Idea Lab to work through that history and talk about how this history should inform solutions to the situation in Puerto Rico.