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Philadelphia Poet Laureate Raquel Salas Rivera's new book, "Lo terciario / The Tertiary," revisits Karl Marx's "Capital" to critique Puerto Rico's debt crisis from a queer decolonial lens. Photo: Raquel Salas Rivera

Understanding Puerto Rico’s debt crisis through Marx, monsters and a queer decolonial lens

Author Q&A

Originally published: ColorLines by Catherine Lizette Gonzalez (May 31, 2018)   | 

Philadelphia poet laureate Raquel Salas Rivera, who uses the pronouns “they” and “them,” distinctly remembers growing up in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, and visiting every corner of the island: its beaches, their grandmother’s house, their first gay club. PR is where Salas Rivera grew politically conscious and first conceptualized what it meant to be queer. In 2015, about a month after Puerto Rico’s bonds were devalued, Salas Rivera began to write about the fiscal crisis in their poetry. When Congress passed Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) legislation in June 2016, those poems took the form of a book—one that revisited the old haunts of violence and colonialism to critique the bill and the investors who have since profited off the island’s debt crisis.

This spring, Salas Rivera released that book of poems, “lo terciario/the tertiary,” pulling from Pedro Scarón’s Spanish translation of Karl Marx’s formative study of capitalism, “Capital.” As it employs both fact and fiction—including accounts of violence against queer loved ones and myths of ghosts and monsters—Salas Rivera’s work unveils the intergenerational horrors of colonialism while offering moments of queer resilience and futurity.

Colorlines recently spoke with Salas Rivera, who is currently in PR giving talks at public schools on literature and diasporic writing. In this interview, they talked about the importance of naming both the oppressed and the oppressor in poetry, critiquing colonialism and reconsidering Marx’s “Capital” through a queer boricua lens.

Why did you choose the title of your book, “lo terciario/the tertiary”?

In part, it’s a pun. I paraphrase a translation of Marx’s “Capital” throughout the book, and one part relates to how Marx maintains that when you’re going to exchange two commodities, they have to be equivalent to a third value. That third value cannot share anything in common with the two commodities. It has to have a value of its own that is a common denominator for these two things to be exchanged, like a triangle. Marx names labor as the third value, which it is not a commodity in of itself. It’s just a thing that gives everything value. Immediately, I thought of the Cold War and the notion of the Third World. The First World is the United States and the Second was the Soviet Union. But the battleground that they fought over was the Third World, all of these countries that were up for grabs. What was giving value to the first and second world was this impoverished third world. I thought of Puerto Rico and how often there is this rhetoric in the United States that it’s a burden, and the United States is generous and has to to take care of its people. Puerto Rico and the Caribbean have created [so much wealth] for the United States. In fact, capitalism would not have existed without the colonialism of the Caribbean and the accumulation of gold from Latin America.

I also thought about gender and sexuality and social movements and how, in my experience, a certain kind of left that was very sexist and privileged in many ways (not the whole left) would often ask of women, Black people, Browner people, queer people and trans people, to sacrifice for the left and would tell them that their interests were secondary. In these stories of what’s primary and secondary, who had to sacrifice and give up what? Trans people were not a part of that rhetoric or discussion of the working class, even though they were almost all working class. It made me think: if primary is a cis straight male White revolution, and secondary is women and “the others,” the tertiary is just trans and queer folks who did not exist in this narrative and were somehow not a part of the equation at all. On a more personal level, [the title is] also a little about my being nonbinary. My particular way of being nonbinary and Puerto Rican is at the margins and at the same time within two very different identities.

I noticed that when you refer to debt in the book, you speak about its corporeal consequences, like how it leads to contamination and death. Why did you decide to portray the fiscal crisis through the carnal?

The language of PROMESA and sometimes the language of Marx’s “Capital,” despite talking about the material, becomes very abstract. In that abstraction there’s a certain amount of violence. The more you distance yourself from others the easier it is to inflict pain. Part of my gesture in this book is these are people and this pain, this language, is already imbued in the flesh itself. I think of my poetry as very corporeal and very rooted in bodies, and by bodies I mean people. For me, the word “body” already implies personhood itself. I don’t see bodies as abstractions. I see bodies as people with names and histories and lives. I really wanted to make those connections. In making those connections, sometimes what came out was contrast, like a sort of shocking contrast between (I hope) this abstract language and the very realness of the experiences that the language is referring to.

In addition to friends and family whom you name in the book, you also name some of the White investors who have come to Puerto Rico to indulge in disaster capitalism. Why did you decide to name them, too?

When the debt crisis was declared, I named one of the early investors, Jason Bennick, because I had just heard him on an interview literally saying what I paraphrased: “This is a great moment to invest in Puerto Rico when the bonds are cheap.” I didn’t know that he was later going to become one of the crypto-capitalists that is now investing in bitcoin and doing the very thing that he said he was going to do. Of course, it shouldn’t be surprising, that person literally goes on and invests in this notion of profiting from death.

I have a poem that names some of the people from the [fiscal] control board. One of them is a [University of Pennsylvania] law professor [David Skeel]. As I was doing a PhD [program] at Penn, this professor was named one of the seven rulers of my country. It was a moment of deep trauma and shock for me to imagine that I could just be at a line in a coffee shop and in front of me could be the ruler of my country. How do I deal with that? I didn’t know how to talk about it. I felt like, if I saw him, I wouldn’t know what my reaction would be. Instead what I did was that I wrote. And I wrote as a way of denouncing. When you denounce you are in some ways putting yourself at risk. I knew that and I didn’t really care at the time and I still kind of don’t. Some things matter more. You don’t get to hide behind this language of objective or indifferent benefactor or paternalism. You don’t get to claim you’re doing this as a service to Puerto Ricans or a service to the U.S. government, or you’re serving a role because it needs to be done because we need to be taken out of the crisis. I’m going to name you and I’m going to imagine you as being in the world.

I read in Out Magazine that you co-launched the Emergency Relief Fund for LGBTQBoricuas that raised thousands of dollars for queer Puerto Ricans to relocate to the mainland, specifically Philadelphia, after Hurricane Maria. What were some of the issues that queer and trans Puerto Ricans faced after the hurricane?

There’s definitely a narrative that Puerto Ricans were temporarily displaced. But there are [also] many of that community that are losing their homes in Philadelphia and don’t have secure places to stay. They had to go from losing their homes in Puerto Rico to not having any state support. In Philly, some of the trans women who went to get IDs were asked to bring in original birth certificates, which was like a universal policy. And like any universal policy, universalism is a form of enacting certain violences, intentionally or not. To ask of a Puerto Rican—on an island where many of the places where they could be able to get original birth certificates and were shut down—to be able to provide an original birth certificate would mean that they would have to fly back to Puerto Rico in effect and get an original birth certificate and get that ID. It was a whole bureaucratic mess. [There were also] language difficulties. There was a lot of gesturing on the part of FEMA and different groups that said they were supporting evacuees. But at the end of the day, they kind of dropped the support very quickly and evacuees were left with a set of problems. That was amplified for trans people, specifically, who needed access to hormones pretty immediately, who needed support and community, and real basic things.

We would go with folks to Walgreens and buy them a bunch of stuff with the money that we raised, self-care stuff. It was a lot of daily aggressions, like losing everything, and then going to a totally different place that you don’t know how to navigate, and maybe not even speaking the language, and not knowing anyone there except these strangers that have decided that they want to help you, having to trust those people, and then feeling that the state does not care about you. It’s incredibly overwhelming. And on top of that, not having the emotional support where you can go and just talk about what that felt like. [The Emergency Relief Fund] did the best [it] could, being three people in a room and organizing. I think we did a pretty decent job of helping to stabilize folks. But those are things that the state should be providing and we were trying to compensate for. We were able to help like five people and there were over 2,000 people who moved to Philadelphia.

Can you talk about reading Marx through a queer, erotic lens?

I really believe that people from Puerto Rico, and queer oppressed folks, we often fall in love in a state of loss. It’s not like there’s a pause in our lives where we get to be like, “Oh, well let me take a minute to fall in love.” No, our lives continue and we’re constantly dealing with aggressions, microaggressions, racism, White supremacy, and also falling in love, especially queer people for whom our lives are constantly in many ways precarious.

One of the people I name [in the book] is my friend, Ivan Trinidad Cotto. He was killed in a hate crime a couple years ago in Puerto Rico. The police never investigated and he was one of the first people I felt comfortable being very queer with and hanging out with. A lot of us were very impacted by his death and still are. I mention him in the poem [“the conversion of a sum of money into a sum of commodities”]. I invoke him as a kind of candyman or monstrous figure that’s going to come and haunt those who are homophobic and transphobic. For a long time, I’ve been thinking through how I started transitioning into a nonbinary identity almost immediately after Ivan died. In part because his death really pushed me in terms of grief and to [be] like, fuck it. They’re going to kill us anyway. And if they’re going to kill us, I’m going to love and I’m going to live as the person I am in the fullest sense of that word. That feeling definitely has stayed with me.

There’s a poem about [the Pulse shooting] in the book, [“through the opposite act of circulation, or the inverse metamorphosis”], dedicated to my queerfolk. It’s about queer history and the history of blood and what it’s meant for gay men in the ’80s, and notions of us [queer people] being contaminated and impure and the internalized homophobia that led to that shooting. Puerto Ricans are also erased from this narrative because at least 26 of the people shot had recently migrated to Orlando from Ponce because of the debt crisis. It was invoking the duality of being queer and having to migrate, but also what it means to be a queer Puerto Rican in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Many of the people I name in that poem are still living in Puerto Rico and in Philadelphia, and they are my queer family. In that poem in particular, I describe getting ready to go to the club the night of that shooting because that’s what we did. We were like, we’re going to go have fun and dance and be queer and be open. We’re going to celebrate being queer. Most of my straight friends that reached out were like, “be careful.” And I was like, “No, I’m going to celebrate because every day is this for us. This is just a reminder of how little our lives are worth in this world. And I’m going to live despite that.”

How do you imagine queer futurity in the context of global capitalism and neocolonialism?

Queer futures are about solidarities, not just with the people in your country or those who share citizenship with you—if you are a citizen—or with the people who most resemble your experiences, but also with people who you may not recognize. Compañeros, or brothers and sisters and siblings, who are queer and live all over the world. If you’re a queer person in the United States and have grown up [here] and feel part of the United States, it’s very important to listen as well to other experiences and not believe that you have an idea of what it looks like to be free as a queer person that’s the only idea out there because each person experiences their queerness through the place they’re from and it can vary very greatly. Although we are oppressed in some ways, in other ways we have privileges and that’s okay. I really think it’s important to listen and be aware that things are real different in other places and we have to be aware of that. So basically, a decolonial queer futurity.

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