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Poems Must Never be White

The University of Puerto Rico student strike is going on two months now. Nine of its most vocal leaders are currently facing criminal charges. The university president has resigned, as well as the main campus’ interim chancellor.

Before resigning, the president filed a petition for a writ of mandamus to order state police to intervene and forcefully drive student strikers out of the campus. Meanwhile, a group of professors opposed to the strike have been congregating in front of the campus’ main entrance to protest the protesters.

They all dress in white.

In calling for an end to the strike, a famed UPR professor and internationally renowned author stated that she wanted the university to be white. It’s unclear what she meant by this. I might have messed something up in the translation. The professor wrote “yo la quiero blanca.” It reads like something straight out of a poem.

Whiteness in Puerto Rico is not a particularly popular topic.

The governor is white, though. As are the members of the US-imposed Fiscal Control Board—some local, some foreign. As are most of the people who sit on the boards of corporations or who represent corporate interests in court or in front of the local and federal government. As is the majority of the state Supreme Court. And most of people who appear on local TV. As is 80% of the island population according to the US census.

Not enough poems have been written about this, though.

It’s possible that by ‘white’ the professor meant that the university be unburdened of direct political action, that everything university-related go back to normal, so that professors can go back to their classrooms and read poems to their students.

Poetry is rather popular amongst student strikers. Over the past two months, poets from within and without the student-occupied campus have participated in open mic nights at the gates. Plus, some graffitied walls in the area kind of read like poetry, as do many of the political slogans scribbled on poster boards and banners carried high over-head during pickets and marches and such.

I must admit though, that I’ve yet to see a graffiti calling for the university to be white.

Whiteness is not a particularly popular topic in Puerto Rico, though the history of colonization could very well be told as a history of whiteness. Same goes for the history of our local government and our local culture and our local value system, whereby most anything related to whiteness is privileged over anything black-identified. Hence, the census results.

These are the kinds of things poems should be occupied with. University campuses, for their part, should be occupied by students. Sometimes by force. Especially when said students inhabit debt-stricken Caribbean colonies where, as part of the government’s austerity plan, the public education system is to be dismantled.

It’s hard to anticipate the kinds of things people might do when faced with austerity in a colonial context. Some might turn to poems. Some might turn to write on a wall. Others might even turn toward each other and claim a space in which to resist and from which to fight back.

I like to think that turning to a poem might lead the reader to turn toward a wall to write a verse and then toward whomever stops to stare at the wall with her and then, together, they might turn to where others have claimed a space as their own, even as everything around them is being dismantled. This, I think, is what poems are capable of, within or without universities. And happily so.

Poems, then, must never be white.