The Women’s Empowerment Draft of the Art Force Five program of Alfred University’s Art Department is an initiative celebrating the centennial of the 19th Amendment and Women’s Right to Vote. It inserts (subverts actually) the necessary dialogue on women’s empowerment into the patriarchal, ubiquitously “American” forum of football and sports. It was even featured with a segment on the NFL network. The folks working with this project were adamant about including Julia de Burgos and reached out to to create a portrait of Julia to be printed as part of a series of jerseys. I was also invited to travel to Alfred to meet with their community and offer a presentation around my art and the impact that Julia de Burgos’ legacy has had on my work.
I was and was not surprised by this request coming from Alfred, New York. Julia’s reach and power, even in spirit, probably more so in spirit, never cease to amaze me. Not only would this bring her image and legacy to a space it probably hasn’t been before, but this opportunity to travel to upstate New York was going to ensure that I could follow this trip with a conference presentation at Cornell University where I was to speak on my Soldaderas Mural, Julia de Burgos, Frida Kahlo and Chicanx/ Boricua solidarity. Julia very much still presides over her legacy, her story and how it gets told.
But I had a concern. Julia de Burgos was a supporter of Puerto Rican Independence, a member of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party which traditionally does not participate in the electoral process. Though Puerto Ricans were made US citizens in 1917, as a colony, not all US constitutional rights are extended to Puerto Rico. Would Julia’s legacy conflict with a campaign celebrating women’s right to vote in the United States?
Always putting integrity before opportunity, I asked the question. It might have cost me the commission, especially considering Julia’s political views are my political views today, but I still asked, keeping truth at center. To think women’s suffrage had only happened within the last one-hundred years of US history was absurd. To think that young folks are bravely venturing into a very male world of football to bring the message of women’s empowerment today speaks to the great amount of work still needing to be done around these issues. I thought back to a flyer of Julia de Burgos reciting her poetry at a 1940s event with New York Congressman Vito Marcantonio, a supporter of Puerto Rico’s independence. I thought of all the strides being made by Puerto Rican congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortes. (Another scheduled trip was for a hill briefing in Washington DC on the theme of Communications Disparities in Puerto Rico, so I had been reflecting on my political views and voice in Washington). I thought of the many Puerto Ricans participating in that system. I thought of the recent strides of a Puerto Rican woman, a Native American woman, and Muslim women in congress, shifting the structure of that government from within. I thought of Julia de Burgos’ feminist poetry and her warriorhood championing women’s empowerment and justice for all humanity. Then I got the response I was waiting to hear. They were familiar with Julia’s history and supported it. They even outlined it on the project’s Julia de Burgos’ trading card:
Julia was a poet and a freedom fighter whose life began in Puerto Rico where she fought for her island’s independence and ended in NYC where her poetry depicted the struggles of the immigrant experience.
This Julia portrait is my one opportunity/ gig to have lived through Corona Virus. All else was canceled. The trip and several others I had lined up, including the DC hill briefing, were canceled. Around the time I was supposed to be in upstate New York, I received a package in Puerto Rico with the jersey and a deck of trading cards with the images of so many amazing mujeres, Julia de Burgos among them. I was inspired to see her among so many other powerful legacies like that of Nina Simone, Harriet Tubman, and to see the videos with so many young women across the United States speaking to their legacies. It was comforting within a quarantine where we have suffered so many losses, from lost hope, lost gigs, lost opportunities, lost plans, and heaviest of all possible losses: lost lives.
Thank you to the folks of Art Force Five at Alfred University for pulling this off during a pandemic. Thank you to Julia de Burgos for still writing and sharing Puerto Rico’s history and championing the rights of women and humans everywhere. Thank you to those who are supporting artists in their work at a time when we have most been affected.
Thank you to all bringing healing and hope across the planet in myriad forms.
For more information about the Women’s Empowerment Draft and to see the segment on the NFL network visit: https://www.artforce5.com/