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Community and Memory in Post-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico

Katrina Martinez, New York University

The July 2019 protests coupled with the continued aftershocks from both hurricanes ultimately reignited a number of questions surrounding the status of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans globally. While such questions never completely faded from existence, the complexities of island Puerto Ricans as US citizens has reemerged in response to the inaction of the US federal government post-Hurricane Maria. Where the US government failed in the recovery process, artist collectives utilized their talents as a means to raise funds for the island in the aftermath of the hurricanes. Released a few months after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico Strong: A Comics Anthology Supporting Puerto Rico Disaster Relief and Recovery (2018) focuses on the lived experiences of island and diasporic Puerto Ricans before, during, and after the hurricanes. In their introductory letters, US-based editors Marco Lopez, Desiree Rodriguez, Hazel Newlevant, Derek Ruiz, and Neil Schwartz, all express a need to contribute to the recovery efforts on the island which served as the catalyst for creating the anthology. Of particular interest within the anthology, Vita Ayala’s short comic “Areytos” reimagines the legacy of the murder of Diego Salcedo in 1511 Boríken, the indigenous name of “Puerto Rico.” Ayala positions the event as a catalyst for the ensuing genocide enacted by the Spanish, but from the vantage point of the Taíno people during the period of Spanish invasion. Departing from traditional narratives centering Salcedo and the “trickery” of the Taínos, they present a mythification of the Taíno cacique (chief/leader) Agüeybaná II who disappeared during a battle with the Spanish in the early 1500s. Ayala effectively connects the cacique’s disappearance to the Spanish genocide.

Moving from the specific theories of retelling history through an indigenous lens, I focus on different conceptions of sovereignty in an Indigenous future. Ultimately, the questions guiding the piece include: how does Vita Ayala’s short comic “Areytos” reflect a decolonial mode of narration? Furthermore, how does the graphic novel’s physical form more effectively contextualize the short comic both temporally and culturally? The short story stands out temporally compared to the other pieces of the anthology. Whereas many of the other comics offer contemporary memoiristic points of view about the aftermath of the hurricanes, Ayala reconstructs an historical event for which considerably fewer Indigenous archives exist. Their practice ultimately reflects what Saidiya Hartman understands as “critical fabulation” through an alternative mode of reading an archive. Although Hartman focuses on the afterlife of slavery, the genocide enacted against Indigenous Caribbean populations similarly requires the practice of critical fabulation as a means to reimagine and recontextualize the narrative. What previously existed as a story about the murder of a Spaniard in Diego Salcedo becomes the heroic tale of Agüeybaná II’s desire to protect his people. Both enslavement of African peoples and Indigenous genocide and dispossession should be critically analyzed in tandem. Through presenting the legend of Diego Salcedo as actually the legend of Agüeybaná II, Ayala raises similar questions posed by Hartman such as:

[y]et how does one recuperate lives entangled with and impossible to differentiate from the terrible utterances that condemned them to death, the account books that identified them as units of value, the invoices that claimed them as property, and the banal chronicles that stripped them of human features? (Hartman 2008)

Spanish occupation of the Caribbean not only physically decimated the Taíno and Carib indigenous populations, but also relegated their lived experiences to a silenced and erased past. The recuperation of their lives and modes of resistance represents a daunting, yet critically necessary project. In reconstructing Agüeybaná II’s legacy through a short comic story, Ayala ultimately engages in a fictionalized documentation of an historical event.

Indigenous futurity as constructed in “Areytos” relies on a remembrance of the past told from the perspective of a Taíno cacique. Manu Karuka emphasizes the abject silences in a settler colonial archive, which continuously erases the presence of indigenous people both in the past and in the contemporary. Through processes of what Karuka understands as “rumors,” he maintains that “[h]istorians often seek access to the voice of the colonized, the voice of the people, through rumors. Dim echoes sounding through the caverns of colonial archives, these rumors appear at a remove from their community of meaning and interpretation” (Karuka 2020). The disappearance of Agüeybaná II in the Battle of Yagüecas subsequently serves as an archival “rumor” which Ayala deftly incorporates into the narrative.

However, the preceding murder of Diego Salcedo as reconstructed in the panels plays on the “rumor” of Spanish immortality that the Taínos test. The top panel shows the outlines of two Spaniards, one with a blood red sash around his frame, foreshadowing the death and disease they have brought with them. On the right presumably stands Agüeybaná II and Karaya, both dotted with gold highlights. The dialogue box sets the panel as the “first encounter” in 1508 with Agüeybaná, the elder brother of Agüeybaná II. The second panel shows a fallen Taíno with their blood spilling out of the panel, a close resemblance to the shade of red worn by the Spaniard in the above panel. The information reveals that the tributary system started by the Spanish where the punishment for failing to produce the tribute was death. Other forms of torture included cutting off a person’s hands and leaving them to bleed out.

In the wake of his brother’s death at the hands of the Spanish, Agüeybaná II assumed the title of cacique. The third panel in Figure 6 shows a close up image of Agüeybaná II, baring his teeth as a sign of frustration and anger. The nameless Spanish conquistador in the background stands with his back to the cacique. While never confirmed to reader-viewer audiences, the lifeless body could be Diego Salcedo. The fourth panel on the page reveals that Agüeybaná II and another cacique named Urayoán decide to test the immortality of the Spanish by drowning Salcedo and leaving his body for a few days. The background reveals a gray colored hand amidst a blend of red, yellow, pink, and green. The last box on the panel reads: “[t]he man did not rise, proving the humanity of the invaders.” Ayala utilizes “rumor” to uncover pieces of what Karuka calls “dim echoes” from the traditional archive. The invocation of Spanish “humanity” also refers to how human beings enacted such intense and long-standing violence in pursuit of land and resource extraction. Ultimately, in reframing the event as “disappearance” rather than a death, reader-viewer audiences can believe in a tangible indigenous future through a reflection on resistance at the moment of invasion.

The island’s continued existence as a colonial holding first of the Spanish and currently of the US further reifies such a statement. The “invasion” of Boríken/Puerto Rico did not end with the disappearance of Agüeybaná II, nor with the defeat of the Spanish, nor with the imposition of US citizenship. The ongoing invasion of the island continues. Such a structure informs how to recognize radical repositionings of Indigenous history as crucial to a sovereign futurity. Whether the future of Boríken/Puerto Rico holds ties to the island or to the various diasporic communities dotted throughout the landscape of the US metropole, the resistance of Karaya, Agüeybaná II, and the other Indigenous communities of the Caribbean continuously remains at the forefront. While Ayala does not offer a concrete roadmap for the future of Boríken/Puerto Rico that includes reparations and a reclamation of lands, their narrative nonetheless calls upon the past in the contemporary to reflect on the future. Such a multi-temporal approach necessarily creates the space for an Indigenous futurity, a futurity which begins with the legend of Agüeybaná II.

Returning to the contemporary post-Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and post-Ricardo Roselló moments in Puerto Rico, “Areytos” serves as a reminder of the necessity of non-traditional historical storytelling. As the upcoming political elections loom and Puerto Ricans on the island face another US presidential term for someone they cannot legally vote into office, a retelling of an Indigenous history serves to remind audiences of other futurisms. Ultimately, “Areytos” and the broader Puerto Rico Strong anthology imbricate the power of creatives in the wake of an actively erasing government. Such a narrative recognizes that the collective “people” who make up a community have always questioned and actively resisted unfair structures of power. A radical reconstruction of said history through the format of a graphic narrative represents a powerful mode of necessary historical storytelling.

As the story moves from his conversation with Karaya to the murder of Diego Salcedo, Ayala brings audiences to the 1511 Battle of Yagüecas. The panel appears to cover the entirety of the page, with slight yet undefined spaces in between the images. At this moment, the Taínos, Caribs, and other Arawak people have realized that the Spanish are not gods. The image of a black bat foregrounding blurred warriors in the background sets up the impending doom of the following panels. The second panel focuses on the Arawak warriors, armed with spears and other fighting instruments. Much like Agüeybaná II and Karaya throughout the story, they appear literally stone-faced, human-like but with an unattainability to them. They remain out of the purview of reader-viewer audiences, because of their erasure from dominant modes of archival knowledge. Since the illustrator can never truly know their appearance, the reader-viewer similarly can never know their appearance. As such, the graphic form allows for a visually constructed narrative alongside the verbal.

 

References

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