"Yo misma fui mi ruta"

A Decolonial Feminist Analysis of Art from the Hispanic Caribbean
Marcela Guerrero

Yo quise ser como los hombres quisieron que yo fuese: / un intento de vida; / un juego al escondite con mi ser. / Pero yo estaba hecha de presentes, / y mis pies planos sobre la tierra promisora / no resistían caminar hacia atrás, / y seguían adelante, adelante, / burlando las cenizas para alcanzar el beso / de los senderos nuevos.#
—Julia de Burgos

Unlike colonization, the coloniality of gender is still with us; it is what lies at the intersection of gender and class and race as central constructs of the capitalist world system of power.#
—María Lugones

Forging Pathways

A gulf of differences separates Julia de Burgos and María Lugones. The former, born in Puerto Rico in the second decade of the twentieth century, was a poet whose short but accomplished life ended abruptly when she was thirty-nine years of age. The latter, a feminist philosopher born in Argentina, has had a long, prolific career as an academic and thinker of decolonial feminism. Situating them next to each other illustrates the seemingly insurmountable distance that separates women artists from the Caribbean from one another. Considering them together, however, may help provide the poetic and intellectual scaffolding necessary to understand the radical importance of women's visual practice in the post-1960 period. The works examined in this essay represent the tensions within and disruptions to a visual field constructed as a consequence of what Lugones calls the "coloniality of gender."# These expressions interrupt, undermine, and confront expectations of how women—particularly their bodies—should be visually articulated. More importantly, one must recognize that with each brushstroke, sculptural assemblage, and push of the camera shutter, women artists were reacting against a system designed to keep women in a secondary role, vanishing in the background of the region's cultural scene. The attempt here is to put an end to what Burgos calls the "game of hide and seek" and move "forward, forward" along the pathways that she and other women artists from the Caribbean forged.

The artists whose works are discussed in this essay come from the island nations of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. Despite sharing a common heritage rooted in Spanish colonialism, the decimation of their indigenous populations and subsequent enslavement of Africans, an entrenched Catholic tradition, and a history of US invasions following the Spanish-American War in 1898, the three countries and their policies toward women varied significantly in the latter half of the twentieth century. After toppling the dictatorial regime of Fulgencio Batista in 1959, the socialist government installed by the Cuban Revolution folded women into its program with the foundation of the Federación de Mujeres Cubanas in 1960.# In contradistinction, a heavily industrialist and neoliberal project had taken place in Puerto Rico since the late 1940s with the economic plan known as Operation Bootstrap. Historians, sociologists, and anthropologists agree that this plan brought an unprecedented number of women into the workforce, particularly the needlework industry.# A similar process of rapid industrialization took place in the Dominican Republic long after the assassination of the dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo in 1961 and following the dictatorship of Joaquín Balaguer, a period known simply as the Twelve Years (1966–78). After this time, women's participation in the labor force also increased.#

Fig. 1. La operación (The operation), 1982
Fig. 1. La operación (The operation), 1982.
Directed by Ana María García. Produced by Latin American Film Project. Documentary film, color, sound. 40 min. Still image courtesy of the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Women's advancement in the economic sector, however, did not signify an end to patriarchy. In fact, in the capitalist systems of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, exploitation of the female workforce and women's bodies was common. The 1982 documentary La operación (The operation; fig. 1) by the Cuban Puerto Rican filmmaker Ana María García (b. 1953) provides poignant evidence of the campaign of coerced sterilization that began in Puerto Rico in 1937 and that by 1982 had impacted 39 percent of women of reproductive age.# While conditions were significantly different for Cuban women, the beginning of the turbulent Special Period in 1990 saw a reemergence of prostitution and sexual tourism.# It should also be noted that violence toward women has served as a unifying issue across the Caribbean, where women began to mobilize against it in the 1980s.

Today, despite the differences in political, economic, and social status between these three countries, women still face a system of oppression and injustice that is a consequence of the "coloniality of gender." As Lugones argues, the insidiousness of coloniality drives us to understand women partially—not as resistors enmeshed in a polyvalent matrix of power and a historic system of inequalities but simply as oppressed. Rather than taking the limiting approach of interpreting the works by these artists as the product of oppression, I have instead chosen to analyze their groundbreaking contributions to photography, filmmaking, installation, performance art, and other mediums as critiques of the racialized, colonial, capitalist, and heteronormative systems in which they live or lived. This study articulates the ways in which Caribbean women artists disavowed the logic of coloniality by assertively punctuating the field of art with their artistic labor.

Excerpted from Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985. Copyright © 2017 by the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, Inc. Published by DelMonico Books, an imprint of Prestel. The full essay can be found in the exhibition catalogue, available here.

Epigraph: "I wanted to be like men wanted me to be: / an attempt at life; / a game of hide and seek with my being. / But I was made of nows, / and my feet level upon the promissory earth / would not accept walking backwards / and went forward, forward, / mocking the ashes to reach the kiss / of new paths." Julia de Burgos's poem "Yo misma fui mi ruta" (I was my own route), referenced in the title and quoted in part here, was first published in Poema en veinte surcos (San Juan: Imprenta Venezuela, 1938); English translation with slight variation for emphasis from Jack Agüeros, trans., Song of the Simple Truth: Obra completa poética / The Complete Poems (Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 1997), unpaged.

Epigraph: María Lugones, "Methodological Notes toward Decolonial Feminism," in Decolonizing Epistemologies: Latina/o Theology and Philosophy, ed. Ada María Isasi-Díaz and Eduardo Mendieta (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012), 75.

It is nearly impossible to think, talk, or write about the Caribbean without invoking the still very palpable specters of colonialism. All three countries in the Hispanic Caribbean share a particular characteristic, namely, that after four centuries of Spanish rule, they were subjected to a period of US occupation—Puerto Rico being the most acute example of the three, first as a territory and since 1952 as a commonwealth of the United States. In the case of Cuba and the Dominican Republic, after gaining full independence, their economic development (or lack thereof in the case of the embargo against Cuba) continues to be affected by the United States. The term coloniality, referenced in this text, points to a colonial matrix that has obstinately shaped the social fabric of the Caribbean. Its inverse terms, decoloniality and more specifically decolonial feminism, function as tools for disavowing all forms of colonial violence, particularly when those are targeted specifically toward women.

In 1995 the Human Development Report released by the United Nations Development Program recognized that Cuba leads the developing world in gender equality. The term gender equality is, however, somewhat of a misnomer. Prior to 1979, when sodomy laws were repealed, the revolutionary party had viciously persecuted the LGBT community, especially male homosexuals. The last decade or so has seen favorable changes toward the LGBT community thanks to the advocacy of Mariela Castro, daughter of the current president, Raúl Castro.

See, among others, Helen Safa, The Myth of the Breadwinner Women and Industrialization in the Caribbean (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1995); Alice Colón and Rhoda Reddock, "The Changing Status of Women in the Contemporary Caribbean," in General History of the Caribbean, vol. 5, The Caribbean in the Twentieth Century, ed. Bridget Brereton (London: Macmillan; Paris: UNESCO, 2004), 465–505; and Félix Matos-Rodriguez and Linda Delgado, Puerto Rican Women's History: New Perspectives (Florence: Taylor & Francis, 2015).

Safa, Myth of the Breadwinner, 99–124.

Iris Ofelia López, Matters of Choice: Puerto Rican Women's Struggle for Reproductive Freedom (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008), xiv.

Marguerite Rose Jiménez, "The Political Economy of Leisure," in A Contemporary Cuban Reader: Reinventing the Revolution, ed. Philip Brenner et al. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), 149.