Academic journal article Centro Journal

Puerto Rican Nationalism in Chicago

Academic journal article Centro Journal

Puerto Rican Nationalism in Chicago

Article excerpt

On June 14, 2014, thousands of people lined Paseo Boricua (Division Street), the main street that runs through the traditional heart of the Puerto Rican community in Chicago, to cheer the thirty-fifth annual Puerto Rican Day Parade.1 The parade halted at the intersection of Division and California Streets at Humboldt Park.2 As the lyrics iDespierta, borinqueño, que han dado la señal, idespierta de ese sueño, es hora de luchar! filled the air, the noise of the crowd dimmed and those who knew the words of the revolutionary song joined in. When the song reached its defiant and haunting climax, Vámonos, borinqueños, vámonos ya, que nos espera ansiosa, ansiosa la libertad. iLa libertad, la libertad!, people thrust their fists triumphantly into the air and the surrounding throng of people burst into enthusiastic applause.3

What does this expression of nationalism in the Puerto Rican community of Chicago mean? Does it translate into support for Puerto Rican independence or is it primarily the assertion of a shared cultural, historical, and linguistic identity? Jorge Duany points out, "the vast majority of Puerto Ricans-on and off the Island-imagine themselves as part of a broader community that meets all the standard criteria of nationality, such as territory, language, or culture, except sovereignty (Duany 2002: 4). Yet, he asks, "how can most Puerto Ricans imagine themselves as a nation even though few of them support the constitution of a separate nation-state?" (Duany 2002: 5).

In this article I hope to contribute to the ongoing debate about what Puerto Rican nationalism means by exploring how, why, and through what means a group of activists who work with the Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Chicago understand and project themselves as members of the Puerto Rican nation. Born and raised in the diasporic mainland, they nonetheless imagine and define themselves part of a larger national community. These activists are engaged in asserting or in some cases awakening their and others' Puerto Rican identity, one that embraces their reality in Chicago and rediscovers or reinforces their familial, socio-economic, cultural, historical, and political ties to Puerto Rico. They simultaneously root themselves in the Puerto Rican community of Chicago, define themselves as part of a broader "translocal" Puerto Rican community, and advocate "the constitution of a separate nation-state."4 In the process they redefine for themselves, their families, and the Puerto Rican nation on the island and in the diaspora what they believe it means to be Puerto Rican. Their experiences, identities, choices, and realities expand and update the possibilities and definition of Puerto Rican nationhood in the twenty-first century as one that is territorially rooted on the island but simultaneously includes the now-majority Puerto Rican population living in the diaspora.

Puerto Rican nationalism is thriving in Chicago, where it provides people an ideological framework to pursue their political agendas and address the needs of the community. As Ana Ramos-Zayas pointed out, "Puerto Rican nationalism in Chicago has followed a considerably different route from that of nationalism in Puerto Rico. In Chicago, Puerto Rican nationalism has become the instrumental political and cultural ideology formulated in community-building efforts among barrio activists and residents" (2002: 4).5

In this article I argue that nationalism plays a progressive and liberating role in the lives of the activists involved with the Puerto Rican Cultural Center as well in those of the surrounding community. This assertion runs counter to the thinking of some scholars who have concluded that, far from being a force for liberation, Puerto Rican nationalism has served to oppress Puerto Ricans. Negrón-Mutaner and Grosfoguel suggest that one reason Puerto Ricans reject the emergence of an independent nation-state is because nationalist discourse (and practice?) rejects "heterogeneity," and, perhaps, seeks to define the nation along a limited and repressive axis (1997: 13). …

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