Before the Gates: Puerto Rico’s First Bankruptcy Trial

I stood before the gates of the Federal Court of the United States[1] in Hato Rey, Puerto Rico. The railing was black, polished and unwelcoming; even the 8 o’clock Caribbean sunlight steered clear of the grimness emanating from the ebony rails. I feared leaning against the mineral rigidity reaching towards the sky, accidently touching my fingers to its cold guise, partly because I was hung up on its inhospitality, and partly because I was surrounded by armed and irritable police officers.

In an hour and a half, Puerto Rico (or rather, lawyers, debtors/creditors and members of the press) was to witness its first bankruptcy (or Title III, as it’s known under PROMESA) court trial. The session was open to the general public, and I was privileged enough to be able to attend[2]. Interestingly enough, however, despite the proceedings that took place that morning and afternoon, despite the conclusions and agreements arrived at, despite the future of Puerto Rico having been (and still being) at the mercy of suits and ties and the fall of a gavel, I was unshakably entranced by the gates enclosing this decisive moment in the history of the Archipelago (and also by the fact that it’s the first time Puerto Rico is basically governed by a black woman, judge Laura Taylor Swain, which, in that sense, is a major step in the right direction, although she was imposed on us and not elected democratically).

And I believe my absorption with this federally-sanctioned boundary was triggered by the fact that for the past month and a half, my life, both physically and mentally, has been consumed by gates, and not just any gates, but the closed gates of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR).

Throughout history, we’ve invested gates with a great deal of importance[3], and depending on the socio-political context of the period, we’ve either praised them or condemned them. Such is the case with both the gates of the University of Puerto Rico and the gates of the Federal Court of the US in PR. And UPR’s case is so acute, so intense, that the university itself has been reduced to the gates surrounding it. Members of the press and public are consumed by an unwavering obsession with the closed gates themselves, and cannot see the struggles and endeavors under construction taking place because of them, behind them, and for them. And if the university gates have been the victims of any other destructive fixation, it’s been a toxic fixation with violence.

Violence has been a word, a concept, that has forcefully coated, covered and seeped through the railings of UPR. Conservative, right-wing and reactionary tongues and media have reproduced and perpetuated discourses on violence surrounding and about the university and its closed gates: how they violate students’ rights to an education; how they incite confrontation and extremism; how they savagely radicalize and politicize the actions of those on the “other side” of the gates (important to note the problematics and ambiguity of this “other” statement); how vandalism, mischief, destruction, wrecking, riots, brutality, bloodshed, terrorism, anarchy, communism, the apocalypse and the seven plagues are born and reared there. But what we continually fail to realize is that the true violence is in the perpetuation of this fiction-laden narrative, in the fueling of this rhetorical fire, in the neoliberal mass production of misrepresentations; we have failed to recognize the violence of myth-making, the violence of the verbal perpetuation of falsities, the violence of the misrecognition of violence; we have failed to see that true-to-the-core violence lies in the discourse of violence itself.

The gates of UPR are de-legitimized, devalued and depreciated, whereas the gates of the Federal Court of the US in PR are exalted, glorified and formally validated. Are we mistaken, however, in engaging with and entertaining these laudatory impulses, while degrading the struggles and endeavors taking place on the “other side” of the only public higher education institution in Puerto Rico? Are we wrong in not reformulating and reimagining this discourse on violence, in not redirecting this violence-ridden gaze? Do the gates of the Federal Court of the US in Puerto Rico, and the space which they enclose, not represent (and enforce) violence? One-hundred and nineteen years of colonial history trickle down and rust its railings. They encircle the epitome, the essence, the sardonic, sick humor of colonialism. They embody a justice system too often rigged and engineered to serve and benefit the privileged and the powerful, discriminating against the vulnerable and the (made) defenseless. They symbolize a gaping divide between what’s legal and lawful and what’s morally right and just. They exemplify, both physically and metaphorically, the lack of accessibility of the law, so much so that they might as well be an ocean’s distance away. They block the path towards a future aiming to humanize the law, or even abandon it fully[4]. Is this, all of this, not violence?

If anything, the closed gates of the University of Puerto Rico are attempting to overthrow and dismantle the actual and impending closed gates of the university: the proposed budget cuts, the corrupt and bureaucratic partisan ruling of the university, the leftover lack of socio-economic accessibility and socio-academic inclusivity, the list goes on. The Federal Court of the US in PR, and the justice system as a whole, have many gates left to demolish.

Whether or not Puerto Rico’s debt is properly and rightfully restructured, the Archipelago’s essential services protected and guaranteed, the university recognized as vital to the survival of Puerto Rico, the future and the people of Puerto Rico prioritized in the process[5], let us recognize and legitimize, just as we have done with the judicial process underway, the socio-political process and movement the university is currently undergoing.

I left the trial during the midday recess, my mind stuffy from all the idle lawyer and debtor/creditor chatter, legal jargon and high airs; the struggles en la calle[6] calling me back, calling me home[7]. As I exited through the gate, over to the “other side,” I was careful not to touch the railings, to not get caught in the force of law (which got me thinking of Kafka). I walked away slowly, the Caribbean sunlight eternally faithful to me, crossing an ocean as I made my way from one gate to an-other.

Ana Portnoy is a writer and Master’s student in Literature at the University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras, in Puerto Rico.


[1] United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico

[2] It’s important to acknowledge that access is limited to these court trials, because it’s mainly those in and under privileged positions and circumstances that can take off from work, school, everyday life, etc. on a Wednesday morning to make an appearance at a juncture such as this one. Also, access is limited due to language-related issues: heavy legal jargon and the language used/spoken is English, not Spanish.

[3] And borders, barriers, boundaries, walls, margins, etc. for that matter. President Trump’s fixation with walls requires a written piece to itself.

[4] Apuntes para abandonar el derecho: estado de excepción colonial en Puerto Rico, by José Atiles-Osoria.

[5] This Title III court trial, and the ones to come, just might be Puerto Rico’s one chance to overcome this detrimental moment of its history, or might be its utter downfall.

[6] On the street.

[7]My University of Puerto Rico, My Home

This article was originally published in La Puplia.