The recent case of a 15-year-old Boricua from Maryland refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance at school reminded me of the tenacity and profundity of youth. It also made me ponder the significance of peaceful acts of resistance, especially for migrant populations who “choose” to be here. While this student received support from the American Civil Liberties Union and significant news coverage in the U.S. and in Puerto Rico, there are many such events of which we never hear of. And when we do, the resistors are immediately marked as ungrateful and “un-American,” or worse. As someone who also refuses to stand for “the Pledge,” I offer a defense of her actions in the narrative of a similar incident last year in Chicago.
“Levantad la mano en alto todos que se crean libres.”
-Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos, 1935
On the third day of kindergarten in a big school nestled between the borderlands, a five-year-old boy refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance. An act of anti-colonial defiance.
This border does not exist between two nations, but it might as well. The facility, named after a Puerto Rican, sits between an existent Boricua enclave and one lost to memory. Most of the student body and the little boy’s teacher are also Puerto Rican. Despite all this, the Children of Lares must sing allegiance – with hand on heart – to a flag whose true meaning is obscured. They sing without knowing why – why are they in this community, in this country so far from the cane fields? For whose purpose did this serve and to what ends?
The little boy probably couldn’t answer all these questions, but he knew where his heart and allegiance belonged. It wasn’t to the flag whose stars each represented the plunder of someone else’s homeland, but to its colony that his mother taught him would one day be free. And in response, with a child’s dignity and intelligence, he sang the anthem that he knew: “La Borinqueña Revolucionaria.” Those words, echoed into the womb, he knew with assurance stood for freedom accompanied by a flag not stained with blood. But he sung it alone. His peers, plunged into an ethnocentric and uncritical curriculum, will probably never know about their heroes and symbols of greatness.
“And why should they,?” goes the chorus of traditionalists. This, after all, is the United States. Yes, a nation built by millions of slaves from Africa, whose two-hundred-year, cost-free, tear-drenched labor set the stage for the industrial revolution. A country that went from thirteen colonies to thousands of miles of land – from sea to shining sea – all stolen from indigenous peoples. Slaughtered, they were, in a Holocaust on par with the Hitlerian genocide. In boarding schools, the survivors’ languages were ripped from their tongues and their traditions were smashed against the wall. “We must beat the Indian out of you,” their teachers screamed.
Yes, this is the United States, whose “American Century” was ushered in by a Caribbean imperial excursion; Puerto Rico as the permanent gem in the Emperor’s crown, the experiment station of global white hegemony. “This is not a war of devastation, but one to give… the advantage and blessings of enlightened civilization,” said General Miles as his warships landed on Guánica in 1898. These “blessings” included appropriating most of the island’s land from the “natives” for agribusinesses and military bases, leaving thousands homeless, unemployed, and hungry. The Spanish language was illegal in schools for fifty years. Flying the Puerto Rican flag or singing the national anthem welcomed prison sentences or secret police surveillance nearly ten decades after the invasion.
Many will say, in a scripted response, that these historical truths are mere “wrinkles” in the history of a country founded on freedom and justice. Such folks live in a tragic fantasy more appropriate for Dante’s Inferno than any serious conversation. It is like kissing the hand and building an altar of worship to a parent that from birth to adulthood beat you, destroyed your imagination, broke your hope, and burned all the things you loved.
Martiniquan psychiatrist Frantz Fanon once wrote, “the final aim of colonization was to convince the indigenous population it would save them from darkness.” This explains why many traditionalists have brown faces and gladly throw rose petals onto the walking paths of their despotic oppressors, while millions of their compatriots rot in prison, learn to hate themselves, and lose their communities to gentrification. Those historical “wrinkles” have modern day consequences that offer us few choices. Either death or the struggle to reclaim/ rebuild our homelands here (since it is our blood that fertilized the soil). As the Boricua writer Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá wrote, “to be immortal is not so much to go on living as to be sure of resurrection.”
Yes, this is the United States, a nation built on a mass grave, but with the possibility of redemption. But, that takes responsibility and rectifying courses of action. This is not easy for any one person, let alone entire systems of power. Nonetheless, it is a process already set into motion and with that five-year-old boy a part of it.
As a society, we believe that youth and children cannot think insightfully, let alone teach us adults a thing or two. While their minds are indeed fields under cultivation, the work done so far could surprise us, even remind us of a world we once believed could’ve been. It’s in the ways in which we treat our youth and children that we can see the future we are building. And it’s their early actions that foreshadows a world of possibilities, of collective paths of hope. That Boricua boy challenged the norm and resuscitated a vanishing hymn. He reclaimed his humanity, without hate or violence, but with love and pride. That, truly, is a prophetic vision of liberation we all could take heed of.