According to Miguel Luciano, modern American protest movements could learn a thing or two from Puerto Rico.
“Last summer was the summer of resistance in Puerto Rico,” said Luciano, a Puerto Rican-born, New York City-based artist, “(in) what became an island-wide movement to remove the corrupt governor who had offended everybody.”
The Ricky Renuncia movement started in July 2019, when 889 pages of private messages from Puerto Rican governor Ricardo Rosselló were leaked, revealing misogynistic and homophobic messages between Rosselló and members of his administration, smearing political rivals and even mocking victims of Hurricane Maria. After 12 straight days of protesting, he resigned.
“It’s never happened in any U.S. state where a people-powered movement created enough momentum and resistance to force the resignation of a sitting governor,” Luciano said.
“In the largest protest we had half a million people or more that came out to march and demand (his) resignation. We’re an island of 3.5 million, so that’s a huge percentage of the population mobilizing. If we had a fraction of that happening (in the U.S.) it would be unprecedented.”
Through sculpture, paintings and public art projects, he explores topics like history, social justice and migration, with a particular focus on the relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S.
“Puerto Rico is part of the United States, but we’re a colony,” he said. “We belong to it, but we’re not totally part of the United States.”
Luciano just returned from the island, where he finished up a project he had been working on pre-pandemic that highlights protests against the PROMESA, the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act. The act, passed in 2016, has been responsible for reducing a number of social services in Puerto Rico, such as closing 25 percent of Puerto Rico’s public schools.
“It’s part of a restructuring of Puerto Rico’s debt that’s being restructured by a U.S.-appointed financial (board),” he said. “It’s a huge mess. It’s also part of a plan to liquidate public resources and institutions in Puerto Rico.”
Using sheet metal from decommissioned school buses, Luciano has made riot shields for the PROMESA protesters to use. Some of these shields will be on display starting July 24 at Art Space New Haven for the show “Revolution on Trial: May Day and The People’s Art, New Haven’s Black Panthers @ 50.”
As a resident of East Harlem, he feels extremely connected to the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent protests across America. Luciano is a member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Civic Practice Project, a residency program that focuses on public and social justice focused work in New York City communities, like East Harlem, that have been historically marginalized by the Met.
“It’s not so much about artists working at the (Met); it’s a really different model,” he said. “We’re thinking about how to leverage the resources of the institution in service of the work we’re doing in our own communities.”
Last year, for the program, Luciano created “Mapping Resistance: The Young Lords in El Barrio” a public art project in East Harlem commemorating the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican activism group modeled after the Black Panthers that was founded in the community.
“I’m making a connection between protest movements by the people,” he said. “I hope to be showing work that connects the history of our movements, so that we can look more deeply at solidarity in our struggles; from the protests in Puerto Rico to Black Lives Matter, the uprising on the island and the uprising here in the U.S.”