Poéticas y
Placeres y
P fokin R

Poéticas y
Placeres y
P fokin R

Marcela Guerrero

The Whitney Museum curator and poet Roque Salas Rivera explore aesthetic and political resistance movements in Puerto Rico and the diaspora in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastation.

Large sculpture in various shades of blue forming hurricane-like shapes cascading down into a bowl filled with balls.

Daniel Lind-Ramos, Ambulancia (2020), 2022–23. Installation view at MoMA PS1.

Photo credit to Steven Paneccasio.

The Whitney Museum’s Marcela Guererro (she/her) and the poet Roque Salas Rivera’s (he/him) relationship began with an invitation to share a verse in Roque’s poetry as the title for the exhibition no existe un mundo poshuracán: Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria. “I chose this title because, in the context of the last five years since Hurricane Maria, the real disaster is the thought of its permanence, that Puerto Ricans are trapped in a perpetual “hurricane” and that it’s impossible for Puerto Ricans to see themselves outside of this period,” explains Guerrero. “But there’s also another way to see the verse. You can see it as a refusal and a rejection of the post-hurricane world entirely in favor of a new one crafted by poets and artists.”

Artists and cultural activists continue to engage and react to the catastrophe, which devastated the island and continues to fuel the inequality and structural collapse of today. Now they imagine new pathways in the long tradition of radical art and resistance on the ground throughout the diaspora–from The Young Lords to Bad Bunny. In dialogue with these movements, how can a poetics of disaster and solidarity inspire empowered decolonial actions and identities in the Caribbean and beyond? The curator and poet reflect on collaboration and dreaming in times of crisis.

Marcela: Roque, what I appreciate about our burgeoning friendship and relationship is that we work in adjacent fields (you, poetry; me, visual arts) and we are both admirers of each other’s craft. So, when I invited you to be one of the artists in no existe un mundo poshuracán and to borrow your verse for the title of the show, I knew I was an outsider humbly asking a poet to join a group of visual artists. Solidarity between different artistic fields has always existed but what do you find particularly exciting about this moment? Can we speak of a form of current poetic resistance expressed through the arts? If so, what are its strategies? 

Roque: Ay, gracias, Marcela. Yes, I think our collaboration speaks to a history of collaboration between poets and visual artists in Puerto Rico. I think of how often printmakers have been collaborators with poets or how visual artists have borrowed verses to frame their own work in Puerto Rico. I also think, in general, Puerto Rican artists of different mediums try to know what other artists are up to. It speaks to the notion that we have a shared cultural project. Whether or not that is true, I like it as something aspirational. It makes what we do less of a formalist craft and more of an embodied practice.

For almost all my books, I’ve tried to collaborate with visual artists including José Ortíz Pagán, Erica Mena, Xavier Valcárcel, Mariana Ramos Ortiz…so when you reached out to me, I was so excited! Few things are more generative and flattering (jaja) than multidisciplinary collaborations. 

A broken wooden pole with a poster advertising elections in Spanish.

Gabriella Torres-Ferrer, Untitled (Valora tu mentira americana) (detail), 2018. Hurricane ravaged wooden electric post with statehood propaganda, 116 × 118 × 122 in. (294.6 × 299.7 × 309.9 cm). Private collection.

Courtesy of the artist and Embajada, San Juan.

Marcela: I confess that I am guilty of falling into the trappings of “Puerto Rico’s exceptionalism.” One thing that I think we do particularly well is ignore the distinctions of what some may consider “lowbrow” and “highbrow.” And it feels like there’s an intentionality behind the merging of pop culture, political discourse, and intellectual thinking. The prime example of this is Bad Bunny but I think we all do it to different extents from our respective fields. Do you think the issues happening in Puerto Rico right now (blackouts, closing of schools, austerity measures, privatization of beaches, etc.) lend themselves to a kaleidoscopic approach that combines the pop and the intellectual? 

Roque: That is an interesting question. The poet and scholar Daniel Torres wrote an article about Manuel Ramos Otero where he mentioned Luis Rafael Sánchez and his use of the popular. I think for most writers on the archipelago Sánchez is the most obvious reference point for a shift that had already been happening towards a more open acceptance of those aspects considered “costumbrista”, “folkloric” or “popular” in our literature, but Torres makes the point that, for Sánchez, there is still a modernist hierarchy between “high” and “low” discourses. I agree. I think that part of the problem with how some writers address what they think of as extraliterary is that it still feels a bit top-down. 

There also seems to be a sense that other genres are lesser or don’t have their own formal constraints. I think of a recent debate I saw about whether Bad Bunny is worth being studied, which made me think immediately about the amount of skill, breath control, and style it takes to rap, and how often non-rappers feel entitled to comment on it. It reminds me of that scene in the movie The Menu, when the head chef asks one of his clients to cook a meal since he seems to think himself such an expert, and the client makes a horrible dish. It's incredibly hard to entertain thousands of people. I know because I fail at entertaining even a few hundred. Jajaja. 

An embroidered map showing a small community settlement. Also includes symbols like shaking hands and other patterns in small, embroidered boxes framing the map.

Lulu Varona, Mapa, 2020. Cotton thread embroidered on Aida cloth, 60 × 50 in. (152.4 × 127 cm). Collection of Yolanda Colón.

I like when BB makes puns like “soy tu Romeo, pero no santo” or when he taps into a zeitgeist. I think some of my favorite BB lyrics are just fun (“el yerno favorito de tu mai”) y es pícaro, es bien pícaro. I recently wrote a manifesto-like poem “en contra del arte bugarrón” about how we are so afraid of pleasure that we don’t think something has value if it is enjoyable, or we think rationality and pleasure should be segregated. It’s so strange because that isn’t really how we operate on a daily basis. No one would deny we often laugh crying or cry laughing or that we have complex emotions that don’t always correspond or act how they should. I think this — like the title of Awilda Sterling’s performance — lack of criticality is actually a kind of “fuck you” to systems of discipline, another way of knowing rooted in embodiment, enjoyment, a refusal to sublimate. But no one needs me to say this, even if it is fun. Pleasure shouldn’t be about need, it should be about life.

I will say I’m personally more engaged with the work Villana Antillana is doing right now. I admit I am old enough to feel out of touch with a lot, but it’s impossible not to note the presence of a trans superstar in our midst! Also, it’s almost like each of her lines was meant to be an anthem. Such talent! But I don’t think I have to choose one artist over another. I feel grateful there are so many talented musicians, artists, and writers right now.

But your question has a second part, which I feel is about how artists of many mediums engage with their lived realities in Puerto Rico. At least, when it comes to literature, I think that relationship has been almost obsessive for many. I have read and heard many declarations about what the relationship between Puerto Rico, la puertorriqueñidad, and artistic production should be. I think sometimes we forget there are many ways to engage with even just one event. That is why I love the no existe exhibition, because we are all engaging quite differently with often shared experiences. Form is not secondary; it is its own kind of content.

Marcela: You are also a translator and a skillful code switcher in the way you integrate Spanglish into your texts. I appreciate your assertive translations, the words you choose not to translate, the occlusions, and the slippages you allow. This approach to translation paired with who you are as a trans masculine person seems to reflect a radical philosophy of the word trans and its potential for worldmaking. Is this a close approximation to your thinking? How do these two identities inform who you are, what you do, and why you do it?

Roque: I think I made a joke once about putting the “trans” in translation. I don’t think translation is intrinsically a trans thing, but for me it is because most things in my life have become trans things, especially since I am trans as a verb right now. I’ve been on T inconsistently for a little over two years and consistently for about seven months. It is confusing, exciting, disorienting. Some days I feel so much more myself, but most days I feel the same: tired. If only being trans came without transphobia. If only translation came without linguistic colonialism. 

Last year was really hard. I lost two friends a few months after going back on T. One had been bullied a lot before leaving us. It hurt to see how people treated him. I’m still angry about it. I’ve often heard “protect trans kids,” but you know, some of us make it into adulthood and get the same treatment. I think trans people in general could use more support. We are still here, surviving. I don’t think being a translator will give a cis person insight into my experiences as a trans person, but I like to think there is a Venn diagram between being trans and translation in my life.

Rubén Ríos Ávila once told me that my poetry was anything but simple (I’m paraphrasing, of course), and I knew he meant it as a compliment. I hope that’s what my translations do: complicate transference. I do wish being trans were simpler, though. That already has enough complexity for me. Although on good days, I enjoy feeling young again, discovering things about myself I didn’t get to live as a teenager. It’s a shame I have to do that while managing all the responsibilities of a 37-year-old adult. 

As you can see, I’m not sure I answered or can answer that question, but I will say it is striking how often my transness is invisibilized in lieu of my poetry or my being Puerto Rican. This could be compared to the infamous translator’s invisibility. There is something to be said about how anything that complicates a given system of knowledge production or identity is erased.

Marcela: I think that is precisely what I was getting at with my question. When I read you, I want to hold those two truths (and many more) at the same time. It is a challenge in the name of care not to erase you and I think you ask that of readers in tender, playful, incisive, and assertive ways. This conversation is a testament to these ideas. Another remarkable quality of yours that I have gotten to know in these past months is your generosity of spirit and how bountiful it is. On that note, I want to end on a difficult question disguised as a simple one. When I think of the future of Puerto Rico and the Arts (with capital a), your work inspires me. Who or what inspires you?

Roque: Ayyy, your work inspires me as well. I am so grateful I’ve gotten to know you more recently. I hope artists become more militant with regards to their oppressors and more generous with other oppressed peoples. I seek a lot of fragmentation as well as a collective impulse. I don’t see how we can move forward without tenderness. It’s hard to know when to protect oneself and when to give freely sometimes. I try to strike a balance but have ended up often not taking care of myself. The result was that I no longer had enough to give others because I had not taken the time to make sure I, myself, had enough. We are living in a period in which so much incredible work is being made with few resources, but everyone I know who is making that work is struggling to find housing because we are being displaced. So, we have people coming to Puerto Rico who oooh and ahhh at our literature, art, and creative capacity, but what are they giving back? Are they here just to push us out or turn us into their entertainment? These are the questions we should be asking as we remain generous with each other.

Marcela Guerrero is currently an Assistant Curator at the Whitney. Guerrero has organized important exhibitions and worked to foreground the contributions of Latinx artists in the U.S. and increase the presence of their works in the Whitney’s collection. Most recently, she curated the landmark exhibition no existe un mundo poshuracán: Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria, the first survey of Puerto Rican art at a major U.S. art museum in fifty years, and organized a public art installation on the facade of 95 Horatio Street by Martine Gutierrez. Previously, she was part of the curatorial team that organized Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945, and curated Pacha, Llaqta, Wasichay: Indigenous Space, Modern Architecture, an exhibition featuring the work of seven emerging Latinx artists.

We welcome your questions, comments, and suggestions. Please share any thoughts to artsinstitute@brown.edu.

Further Reading