For many Puerto Ricans, the national flag is a symbol of cultural pride and identity, especially in light of the island’s colonial status under the United States’ government. Now, with an artistic tweak, the flag also represents the state of mourning that the island has been experiencing since the US government imposed a federal control board with power over the commonwealth’s jurisdiction.
A group of artists have altered a famous door painted with the Puerto Rican flag by changing its original colors from blue, red, and white to black and white to mark the approval of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, also known as PROMESA. Passed by the US Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama, the act was promoted as a way to manage Puerto Rico’s more than $70 billion of debt.
But PROMESA severely undermines the island’s political autonomy. Its measures, which include a decrease of the hourly minimum wage to US $4.24 (about $3 less than the US federal minimum wage), have galvanized people to organize daily civil disobedience events and camps.
The flag mural is located on the facade of an abandoned building on San José Street in Old San Juan, and before its makeover locals and tourists alike often took photos of it as a memory of their visit. The door is surrounded by litographs of famous Puerto Rican artists made by the collective Grabadores por Grabadores.
Some people online quickly expressed their disappointment at the color change and described it as an act of vandalism. One comment stated, “They painted the flag on San Jose Street. Any volunteers? To paint the flag back to its original colors.”
Soon, the “flag in mourning” inspired the sarcastic hashtag “Pero que no me pinten la bandera” (“But don’t paint the flag”) among Puerto Ricans who reflected on the triviality of lamenting the altered colors. Many social media users proclaimed their support for the new mural, and the flag in mourning has become a symbol of resistance and civil disobedience.
Artistas Solidarixs y en Resistencia (Artists in Solidarity and Resistance), the art group responsible for re-painting the flag, released an open letter on online magazine 80grados explaining their motives:
Translation Original Quote
Art as a form of expression has been used throughout history to transmit ideas, provoke reflection, and transform and recreate reality. National symbols help reinforce a country’s identity and values. Since its origins, the Puerto Rican flag has been a symbol of struggle against our colonial status, and during several years, hoisting it was considered a felony. Under the colonial act that created the 1952 ELA [Associated Free State of Puerto Rico/Commonwealth], the flag becomes an official symbol. Today, the triangle represents the three branches of government: executive, legislative, and judicial. The three red stripes symbolize the blood that gives these branches power.
Our laws, our politicians, and courts have not represented the interests of the Puerto Rican people. Replacing the colors with black (which is the result of the absence of LIGHT) creates a new discussion. Ours is a proposal for RESISTANCE; it is not pessimistic, it discusses the death of these powers, but hope is still present in the three white stripes that symbolize the individual’s rights and their capacity to reclaim and create their rights.
This act is an invitation to reflect and take action against the collapse of our education and health system, privatization and destruction of our natural resources, the colonial status, abuses committed against our working force, the payment of an exorbitant debt, the imposition of an anti-democratic government, cuts made to cultural affairs, among other conflicts. This act demonstrates that there exists an artistic community that will not remain with arms crossed, that is willing to fight against any exploitation, against the imposition of an absolutist government and its austerity policies, the most recent: Federal Control Board (PROMESA). Puerto Rico is fighting, lets strengthen the love between us and the space we inhabit by promoting respect, solidarity, tolerance, union, communication, and community cooperation.
The “black flag” has been reproduced by many other artists and activists as a form of protest against the imposed federal control board. Campamento Contra la Junta (Camp Against the Board), a grassroots movement of students and activists, has utilized social media to promote their permanent camp outside the US Federal Courthouse in San Juan. A group of people have established a camp outside the federal courthouse as an act of defiance and civil disobedience.
Street art has become one of the most common forms of dissent for the movement and other political activists, with several new murals produced every week since Obama signed the PROMESA bill.
Currently, the Campamento Contra la Junta is also organizing several demonstrations against the spraying of Naled, an insecticide with adverse health effects used to combat Zika. The movement has also inspired diaspora communities to join the struggle, with organizations like the Comité Boricua en la Diáspora holding a public meeting to discuss Puerto Rico’s struggle for independence in East Harlem, New York. While it is still uncertain when the control board will be established, activists are finding creative and artistic forms of expressions to convey their opposition and resistance.