Pearl Jam Plays Puerto Rico, Sort of: Notes on Fandom

I went to my first Pearl Jam concert on April 8th of this year in Fort Lauderdale. It opened with “Go” and closed with “Indifference.” The crowd was mostly white and male and in flip flops. I can more or less pass for white as long as I don’t open my mouth to speak, which was hard not to do, since I know most of their songs by heart.

Pearl Jam was big in Puerto Rico in the nineties. At least in Island suburbs. At least in the all-boys Jesuit school I attended. At least if you had cable and privilege and could pass for white on the Island and beyond.

I became Pro-Choice thanks to Eddie Vedder writing th0se words on his arm during their iconic MTV Unplugged performance in 1992. This is not a unique experience, but it is my most significant memory of the band. Abortion is legal in Puerto Rico. The procedure, however, still appears on the Island Penal Code and due to elected officials’ subservience to the Christian lobby and women are often led to believe that it is against the law. The consequences of this on the autonomy, freedom and on the physical and mental health of women on the Island cannot be understated. This is part of what I, over the years, have woven into that oh so significant memory of the band— Eddie scribbling those nine letters in black on his arm during “Porch.”

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“Porch” was the 25th song they played in the concert. A few seats from me there was a white guy in a confederate flag t-shirt. I wondered what his most significant memory of the band was. I wondered how he and I were supposed to sing along and ‘co-exist’ in that moment as if we were part of the same fandom when, it seemed to me, we connected to the band on very different levels. I also wondered if I was singing too loud. It was then that I noticed how white the crowd was.

According to the U.S. census, 80% of Puerto Ricans identify as white. This high number has been explained by the far-reaching, though unacknowledged effects of racism on the Island, where whiteness—like in the U.S.—is accorded a higher social status. A couple of weeks prior to my Florida trip, while at the mall looking for a Pearl Jam shirt, I saw a white guy wearing an “I LOVE Ferguson” shirt. Maybe he was a local. Maybe he was an American tourist from Florida (or Missouri). At times it’s hard to tell Island and mainland white people apart. Unless they open their mouth to speak.

This is not a very good concert review. It’s more an alternate take on the intricacies and intersectionality of fandom. At least where Pearl Jam is concerned. At least as it pertains to what the band may have meant to some of us—privileged white kids from the colony—at age 13 in 1992. For me, it meant an encounter with an urgent truth about bodies and gender and rights, even though I was not really conscious of all that at the time. Truths need not be fully understood for the encounter to be of consequence. It’s possible that understanding develops slowly over time. The important thing is to remember that one already has taken a position on an issue without having fully confronted or comprehended it yet. What matters is that when the time comes, one already knows.

I wonder if it’s the same for the guy in the confederate flag shirt. I wonder if there’s a truth about bodies and gender and color and rights that he’s chosen to actively remember by wearing that shirt to the concert. It’s not hard to imagine, I guess. What I’m having trouble with is reconciling how my truth and his truth are tied—however loosely—to the same rock group.

American rock music in Puerto Rico has historically functioned as a racial and class marker of privilege. There’s a socio-political premium in following and understanding American pop cultural producers. The running theory is that this is one of the ways in which the most powerful among the colonized mimic the colonizer in an attempt to successfully assimilate. This, perhaps, explains why municipal government offices, buildings and streets in the town where I grew up have English names. It also explains why the chances of getting stopped by the police for blasting Pearl Jam in your car are minimal, compared to playing rap or reggaeton. This is as true today as it was in the nineties. In this sense, one of those ever so popular I LOVE Puerto Rico shirts on the Island means more or less the same thing as that I LOVE Ferguson shirt.

I so wish Pearl Jam had a song about this. After all, that’s pretty much a quintessentially American experience, right? Well, at least it is as American as you can get in the colony.

Pearl Jam’s tour ends later on this month in Chicago. They’ve never performed in Puerto Rico. I wonder if they’re aware of how big they are here. Legend has it that Eddie’s customary ‘21’ shirt is a tribute to famed Afro-Puerto Rican baseball legend Roberto Clemente. Aside from baseball, Clemente’s famous for dying on behalf of others. I wonder how the guy in the confederate flag shirt feels about Eddie’s choice of attire. Maybe he doesn’t know and needs someone to spell it out for him. Wherever is that black marker?