The Hardest Politics to Catch: Lin-Manuel Comes to Puerto Rico

On the night of July 27th Hamilton star Lin-Manuel Miranda came home. In front of a capacity crowd at the Center for Performing Arts, he read three poems as part of a cultural event in Puerto Rico. The first poem, by José Manuel Torres Santiago, reads in part: “You are a red baby, Lin Manuel, and though I don’t know what you’ll be when you grow up, I trust that you’ll scream with me: The just war against the Yankee assassins.”[1] These militant, anti-American verses stand in stark contrast to Miranda’s own recent riffs on U.S.- Puerto Rico “relations,” especially as it pertains to the American colony’s 72 billion dollar debt and the Federal government’s recently enacted PROMESA legislation, which imposes a seven member Fiscal Oversight Board, to be appointed by the President. This legislation, among other things, establishes a new minimum wage of $4.25 for Island workers under 25 years of age. Miranda, in lobbying for PROMESA, has written: “In spite of its many shortcomings, the legislation proposed is the only option that Congress is currently willing to pass.‎ That is the sad reality.”

In Spanish, there is an expression: “haciendo de tripas corazones.”  It literally means “making hearts out of tripe”.  Its nearest English equivalent is “making lemonade from lemons.”  The idiom speaks to a resolute conviction to make the best of a less-than-ideal lot.

It seems that there are certain words you shout out to play to the crowd in Puerto Rico and others—carefully chosen for a well-articulated and heartfelt plea to a national audience—when speaking (on behalf) of the people of Puerto Rico. One could, in good conscience, explain it away by making a distinction between a performance for the sake of culture and a stand taken by a performer on an specific issue for the sake of politics. But, I fear—to paraphrase James Baldwin—that such a distinction would only operate to hide the real distinction, which is about the things you can say against colonialism in the colony and the things you can say about the colony on the mainland and still get to play at building empire on Broadway.

During his 24-hour visit, Miranda offered a morning press conference at a co-op in his hometown of Vega Alta, where he also visited a school. Before his performance that night he was awarded a star in the Island’s own Walk of Fame. It was, I think, the first star awarded in the history of the Walk of Fame, which I fear is not very long at all. On a side note, we do have a sort of President’s Walk on the south side of our Capital Building, with statues of the few Commanders in Chief ever to set foot on the Island. Even fewer, I think, stayed longer than 24 hours. Presidents are kind of hard to catch around these parts. Plus, Islanders can’t vote for them. Curiously enough, Miranda opened the press conference stating the he was “the hardest Pokemon to catch in Puerto Rico,”[2] where its far easier to catch the Zika virus and/or get surprised sprayed with highly toxic insecticides by the CDC. Pokemon Go is indeed very popular here, though.

Lin-Manuel did not go on the President’s walk nor did he visit the civil disobedience camp in front of the Federal Court Building, set up last June in opposition to PROMESA and the Fiscal Oversight Board. This is unfortunate as it occurs to me that protestors would have very much enjoyed a reading of Torres Santiago’s poem during their scheduled open mic nights. Especially since that quip about “Yankee assassins” might have garnered a level of specificity and urgency in the illegally occupied grounds of the Federal Court Building that it probably lacked when Miranda read it at the Center for Performing Arts. Culture, I think, can very well be performed for the sake of politics, it just depends on the context the performer either finds or puts herself in. In Lin-Manuel’s case, I think his politics are the hardest Pokemon to catch in Puerto Rico, insomuch as you can’t really go on offering free Hamilton tickets to Yankee assassins. And still get to call them Yankee assassins.

I’m being unfair. These are not really Lin-Manuel’s politics. They’re colonial politics in post-colonial times, which require not the silent acquiescence of the colonized—hacer de tripas corazones— but rather that the colonized recognize the possibilities of enunciation inherent to every space (or stage) they enter. And it just so happens that the Island, as a physical and social platform for individual and collective enunciation, can tolerate and accommodate just about the worst that could be said about the U.S. today. Y no pasa nada. As long as you know enough not to say it in front (or inside) of the Federal Court Building. Or, as long as you already pledged your allegiance on John Oliver. Yankee assassins are cool like that.

This much was made clear during Lin-Manuel’s visit. Although, in truth, fellow mainland Puerto Ricans Luis Gutierrez and Melisa Mark Viverito had already beat him to the punch. On June 25th the Congressman from Illinois and the Speaker of the New York City Council took the stage at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum in what was billed as the People’s Assembly in opposition to the Fiscal Oversight Board. Both Gutierrez and Viverito railed against PROMESA and denounced colonialism all the while pledging themselves to the just cause of the Island people. Gutierrez even went so far as to admit that he was profoundly disappointed and disillusioned with his colleagues on the Democratic party for supporting the legislation. It just so happens that both politicians support Hilary Clinton, who happens to support the Board. And yet, they both received standing ovations from the great majority of the crowd.

Interestingly enough, not a single talking point from Gutierrez’s address to the crowd in Puerto Rico found its way to the speech he delivered a month later to the crowd at the Democratic National Convention. The disappointment he felt while on the Island was translated into exuberance and hope in Philadelphia. There is a distinction to be made here but it escapes me. I only know that Gutierrez’s Philadelphia speech operates to hide his Puerto Rico address in the same way that Lin-Manuel’s performance on John Oliver made his militant poetry reading on the Island possible. By possible, I mean invisible. It simply does not count. For what’s an anti-colonial poem delivered in Spanish by a Pulitzer prize winner at a cultural event in the colony when there are no politics at stake? And what’s a shot taken at the Democratic party by a Democratic Congressman at an anti-colonial rally in the colony as long as he pays his dues to the party come convention time? Nada, de que cero.

If there is a single truth that we hold to be self-evident in Puerto Rico is that the colony holds, even when some of our most visible and influential spokespersons come to visit and declare a ‘just war’ on our Yankee assassins. They are visible and influential to the extent that they can let loose while still being held in check. We, in turn, rise to applaud them freely and generously out of cultural habit, which is the only type of habit we are allowed to have. Oops. Maybe I should translate that last bit into Spanish, just to be safe.

Pokemon Go is indeed very popular here, though.


[1] My translation

[2] My translation