Culture, from the latin cultura, is to inhabit a place long enough to cultivate it; to bring into being a commonality; in Puerto Rico, to grow a single crop, cane, in the service of vulture capitalists; to raze the land in order to labor together in the fields; to have periods of the year when we didn’t grow anything except hunger, standing in lines to buy rice sold by the same company that owned the land, the life, the history books, the writing we couldn’t read.
Culture: the word invoked by a displaced class of ex-masters who sought to tell us how to be better Boricuas, how to behave, dance, what to eat, how to act civilized; the word taken up by the populist governor Luis Muñoz Marín, who once believed in freedom, and now believed in U.S. aid, opening the way for neoliberalism under the guise of unity, founding cultural institutions that his very measures would eventually demolish; a word use to differentiate those who belong from those of us who are too queer, too feminist, too trans, too illegible, even to the illegible.
To call-out; to call-out your name from mountain to mountain, grandfather who still resides somewhere in the barrio Humatas, like you once called to an imagined self, unwounded by the Korean War, by racism and all the white names you had to learn in order to one day return to your home, a poet.
To call-out Romero Barceló, that assassin that governed Puerto Rico; to call him out in a paper organized by a clandestine organization, whose members had to meet wearing masks in order to confuse undercover cops; too many years later, to call-out fascist Donald Trump; to name him, not to give him power, but to name him so we remember his crimes, so he cannot escape some future justice, like Mussolini in a town square; to call him out and risk prison, risk being flown out over the ocean and dropped, as if he were Pinochet and this were Chile, as if this were history, as if history were necessary for us to examine these words we use, as if we knew them too well.
To name Communists before the House Un-American Activities Committee; to say: This was once my comrade and now I am afraid. I will bind myself to you through hatRED; to give lies and truths to the state, which is indifferent to both; to feed that fastidious machine, the penultimate archive, the secret vaults of intelligence agencies; to answer HUAC, like Paul Robeson; to say: It is you who should feel me under your belt, like a sword buried deep in the roots of a tree. I will not fear your naming, because you too have a name; to have your passport taken away, stones thrown at you when you try to sing. Paul Robeson, I bring an offering to your mural on 45th and Chestnut. You loom over an empty lot that will one day be a condominium. I cry because you are beautiful and giant, and because you hurt when I speak.
To call-out from the porch. My grandmother in a sheer bata talks to the neighbor and gossips. Her voice is low, but she is naming. Her words spread slowly, like travel by foot with a machete in hand. She is calling out quietly, but she knows what she is saying. She is in the other church, the shadow institution that is rumor, sometimes more powerful than the confessions the priest swears to keep forever sealed by repeated prayer. She promises herself she will open the confessional booth and let the pigeons fly out and shit all over the plaza. What secret can withstand this bittersweet circulation?
What then is a call-out culture? Is it not all of these things and more? When did we first learn to show anger, to hurt and be hurt, to move through and against power? Surely, it wasn’t on Facebook that we first understood race, even if its images circulate and flood us with new velocities. Does it matter more that these new forms are different from the old ones, or that they are so similar? My anger can destroy and edify. Does it matter if I use paper, or social media?
These questions are not rhetorical.
A young non-binary person won’t leave their house. They cry and cry and somehow believe they will never step outside. This lasts a year. The first time they leave, they are surprised that the rain is still slanted by the sun; surprised it stills overwhelms them to walk down a street and get 5 or 6 catcalls in less than 5 or 6 minutes. They still haven’t learned the word dysphoria. A few years later they are learning about being non-binary, looking up words, reaching out to others. Their body is sitting in their grandmother’s living room drinking coffee, while she watches 12 Corazones. Their body was always in their grandmother’s living room, while they were elsewhere: in a book, in a tree, staring out across an expanse, dreaming themselves formless, or bound to another form. Now they can say this to strangers who seem closer in these travels than el café fuerte, que el árbol de mangó y la familia. Now they can be angry and perhaps say in some public way, what they could never say in private. And perhaps say in some private way, what they could never say in public.
A poet calls out another poet. Less than a year later, they publish together. What secret struggles gave way to these decisions, these seemingly contradictory acts? There are bridges built over rivers that look like water in the night. Another poet calls out a poet, and refuses to publish with them less than a year later, or ever. There are bridges built over rivers that look like bridges in the night. Both call-out the same violence, which is not watered down by time. It grips the earth like the boulders that forge the river’s course. Its traces may one day disappear from amongst so many other violences, in some culture’s memory, but not in ours. The bonds of that culture are gone. What is left is the pain around which we banded. The difference between these two decisions matters, but it is never the same as that which bifurcates us, the moment when it becomes too much.
The first call-out I fell in love with took place in 2005. I was 18 and entering my first year at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras. It was my first student assembly. The University administration had proposed a series of tuition hikes and budget cuts, which is why the assembly was packed full of students, some of whom were sure of their political positions, others who were curious and would only participate with a vote.
After we collectively decided on a series of preliminary issues, we were ready to hear the final proposal: an indefinitely held student strike, which would only end if the administration met our demands. The first point in favor of the strike was a call-out. A group of students marched up to the microphone, one of them holding a cardboard box high above his head. Once positioned in front of the mic, he opened the box and took out two empty wine bottles. Last night, he said, while we were obsessing about how we were going to pay the new tuition fees and survive all of these new measures, the administrators threw a party, wasting thousands of dollars on expensive wine. This is where the University’s money goes. It is their crisis, their wine, and they can pay it. ¡Qué la paguen los ricos! He was screaming these words and they were perfect.
WE, the colonized, ask that you release us from the contractual obligation of justifying our anger.
WE ask that you cease blaming us for our inability to free ourselves from your oppression. Put an end to the seemly impossible task the most vulnerable are expected to enact: the task of freedom.
WE stop asking and begin failing in a refusal to be read within the confines of call-out culture or culture or civilization. We are breaking and breaking others in a trauma density that spins out. Our words are the trail of a shot-down plane that dips into an unknown land.
WHEN we are wrong and lash out at each other, it is not for your consumption. When we are right and lash out at you, it is not for your penance. You are not free of our pain as long as we are not free of your structures.
WE acknowledge, despite you, that we have hurt each other. We learn to mark differences, to know who among us is to be trusted and not, but we never forget that this is not your land. You have no place in our quarrels. We learn to unmark differences, to know who among us will receive our renewed embrace, to forgive ourselves and each other, to continue fighting, but we never forget that you had nothing to do with this love. You have no place in our communions.
WE assemble online and on land. Beneath houses and above trees, haunting like spirits, named and nameless. We resemble each other and look nothing alike. We as I, and I as we that never fully exceeds or joins, call-out, cultureless and uncultured, broken and breaking, remembering to shoot at stars and confront tyrants. We refuse this definition. We give it back with the same name and new barnacles. Let us call this call-out culture, this collective memory, as old as Fuenteovejuna, loss and the ancient future we call change.