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Puerto Rico’s Flag Is Black and in ‘Mourning’ Over US-Imposed Oversight Board

The famous door in Old San Juan now has the Puerto Rican flag painted in black and white, as a sign of mourning and resistance. There is also a small altar. Photo by Marina I. Pineda Shokooh, used with permission.

The famous door in Old San Juan now has the Puerto Rican flag painted in black and white, as a sign of mourning and resistance. There is also a small altar. Photo by Marina I. Pineda Shokooh, used with permission.

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:

El arte es un vehículo de expresión que se ha utilizado a lo largo de la historia para transmitir ideas, provocar reflexiones, transformar y (re)crear la realidad. Los símbolos patrios ayudan a reforzar la identidad y valores del pueblo. Desde su origen la bandera de Puerto Rico ha sido símbolo de lucha ante la condición colonial y, durante años fue un delito izarla. Más tarde bajo la ley colonial de 1952 (ELA) se adopta la bandera oficialmente. En la actualidad el triángulo representa las tres ramas del Gobierno: ejecutivo, legislativo y judicial. Las tres franjas rojas simbolizan la sangre que da vida a estos poderes.

Las leyes, los gobernantes y los tribunales, hasta este momento, no han servido a los intereses del pueblo. Reemplazar con color negro (que es la ausencia de LUZ) crea nuevas lecturas. La nuestra es una propuesta de RESISTENCIA, no es pesimista, al contrario, habla sobre la muerte de estos poderes tal cual los conocemos, pero la esperanza sigue ahí representadas en las franjas blancas que simbolizan la libertad del individuo y su capacidad para reclamar y hacer valer sus derechos.

Sirva este acto como una invitación a reflexionar y tomar acción ante el colapso del sistema de educación y salud, la privatización y destrucción de nuestros recursos naturales, el status colonial, el atropello contra la futura fuerza laboral, el pago de una deuda impagable, la imposición de un gobierno anti democrático, el estrangulamiento de las gestiones culturales entre otras. Este acto es una muestra de que hay una comunidad artística que no está de brazos cruzados, que está dispuesta a luchar contra todos los atropellos, contra la imposición de un gobierno absolutista y sus políticas de austeridad, la más reciente: la Junta de Control Fiscal (PROMESA). Puerto Rico está en pie de lucha, fortalezcamos el amor entre nosotros y por el espacio que habitamos promoviendo el respeto, la solidaridad, la tolerancia, la unión, la comunicación y el trabajo en comunidad.

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:

Photo of mural artwork by local artists. From Campamento Contra la Junta's public Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/CampamentoContraLaJunta/posts/105741

Photo of mural artwork by local artist Jesús Delgado Burgos, from Campamento Contra la Junta's public Facebook page. Used with permission.

Completed mural by local artists. Picture from Campamento Contra la Junta's public Facebook page.

“Rise Up and Fight”. Photo of mural artwork by local artist Jesús Delgado Burgos, from Campamento Contra la Junta's public Facebook page. Used with permission.

Grito de Lares "black flag" in Santurce. Photo by Spear Torres. Used

Grito de Lares “black flag” in Santurce with the machete, a symbol of struggle and defiance. This is the flag of the town of Lares, Puerto Rico, and it is emblematic of the independence movement of the island. Photo by Spear Torres. Used with permission.

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.

10 comments

  • Ray Bentz

    You say “Its measures, which include a decrease of the hourly minimum wage to US $4.24 (about $3 less than the US federal minimum wage),” …. Actually, this decrease would only go into effect if enacted by the LOCAL PR GOVERNMENT. The Federal government is not decreasing the minimum wage. The Feds are giving Puerto Rico’s government that option. If the minimum wage is lowered, the smoking gun is in the hand of the PR Government.

    • After removing out 936 Federal Incentives ten years ago to punish us for oposing Military Target Practice in Vieques Island, causing most Foreign Investors to take their Indistral Activities away from Puerto Rico, the “Smoking Gun” for our Fiscal Crisis is in the Federal Government OVERLORDS and so is the need for lower minimum salaries to produce poverty level jobs on a manipulated Colonial economy !!!

    • pedroanimala

      nonsense, the imperial control board will have the power to override local administrators rules, thus, is the imoerial conrrol board who will ultimately dictate ALL the rules of this new shameful game.

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  • Defender StarGate

    So if I disagree with the black flag I may paint over it, is that what you are teaching us?
    Bunch of hypocrites, you blame the US for your problems but what about what you the Puerto Ricans did to the Taíno? When you give them back their land, then you can complain about others.
    I guess you want to live like the people in Haiti., a hurricane or earth quake kills thousands maybe hundreds of thousands, how many die in PR when hurricanes hit? Puerto Rico has more than they realize. The independent cannot see what they have. Is the US corrupt, yes, is the PR government corrupt yes. So you want to be in charge of the corruption, because if those that want independence get their way, then you can rest assured that human nature will take its course.

    • Gil Castro

      It’s clear to me that you are not from Puerto Rico or know much about it. We, the Puertoricans are a mixture of Spanish, Taino and Black. We didn’t take the land from the Tainos since we are their descendants. The Spanish were the ones who killed many of the Tainos when they invaded Borinquen, and brought in Black slaves from Africa. From there we get the mixture. The racist views that exist in the USA are not prevalent in PR as such, thou you can always find individuals here or there who carry such prejudice…

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