U.Va. Anthropologist Yarimar Bonilla Explores Caribbean Politics of Memory and Protest

March 11, 2009 — In 1868, during the Spanish colonial period in Puerto Rico, militants rose up and declared independence from Spanish rule. They were unsuccessful in their broader goals, but they managed to capture the small town of Lares, form a provisional government and declare a (short-lived) independent Puerto Rican Republic.

More than a century later, while attending a ritual of commemoration at this place of insurrection in her native Puerto Rico, Yarimar Bonilla was moved to tears as a young college student. Being in that place, she was flooded with emotion as she thought about "what it would take to rise up" and, against all odds, attempt to break the bonds of colonial oppression.

It was perhaps because of this experience that, as an undergraduate in Latin American and Caribbean studies at the University of Puerto Rico, Bonilla dreamed of becoming a journalist — a foreign correspondent — who would cover the revolutionary movements of the day across Latin America. She continued her Latin American studies at University of New Mexico, where she received her master's degree in 1998.

While Bonilla was at New Mexico, she became captivated by anthropology when she took a course on the Caribbean with anthropologist Les Field. It was Field who encouraged her to go on in anthropology. She eventually moved on to University of Chicago, where she received her Ph.D. in 2008.

Yet throughout this time, Bonilla worried that academia's remove from the quotidian challenges of the working classes would take her away from her interests in "real world problems" and political struggles. In order to stay connected to the "real world" during her time in graduate school, she worked for a non-profit — the Juan Antonio Corretjer Puerto Rican Cultural Center — in Chicago's mostly Puerto Rican Humboldt Park neighborhood, a far cry from the University of Chicago's southside enclave.

Her job in the center's bodega — selling food, cigarettes and lotto tickets — placed her at the hub of the Puerto Rican community and allowed her to forge strong relations in the community. She loved being able to interact with community members as a resident, rather than a researcher, she said. She particularly enjoyed selling lotto tickets, as she found that people's "numbers" provided a gateway into their lives and cosmologies.

"When you ask people why they bet specific numbers, they tell you about their whole lives," Bonilla said. "That's because people bet on numbers that are important dates and places in their lives, like the day they were married, or the day their son died or the street number of the house they grew up in. The stories just tumble out."

Ultimately, Bonilla's worries about academia's remove were resolved when she began her anthropological field research. Her adviser, noted Caribbeanist Michel-Rolph Trouillot, encouraged her not to return to Puerto Rico for fieldwork, but rather to establish a comparative perspective by working in the French Caribbean.

She set about learning French and Creole; from Chicago, she began following the online news from Guadeloupe.

At one point, she noted news of a peculiar labor union strike: the workers were striking on the anniversary — and in remembrance — of the abolition of slavery.

"I thought there was something interesting here in a labor union that was involved in the politics of the past," she said.

Her research in Guadeloupe focused on the labor movement in what she calls a "non-sovereign state" (Guadeloupe is an "Overseas Department" of France), its connections to the struggles of the slave past and its contemporary struggles in the neo-colonial present.

A yearlong strike at the "Sucré" factory (a pseudonym) became a real-world seminar, where she learned from the workers as they debated issues, articulated theories, remembered the past and recounted the challenges of political engagement during the long hours spent on the picket site.

"I felt so privileged to pursue questions that I felt passionate about," Bonilla said. "Sometimes, on my way home after a long day of research, as I struggled to remember all the conversations I'd had, I felt like my head was going to explode!"

In the process, she witnessed the audacity of everyday people who dare to mobilize, at great risk, and engage in political action. Indeed much was lost, including marriages and livelihood; but much was gained, too, in the close camaraderie and the rewards of political work.

The strike, she reflected, "embodied the bittersweetness of politics." It was in the strike that she saw firsthand "what it would take to rise up" in political action.

Now, as an assistant professor of anthropology, Bonilla shares her "real world" lessons with University of Virginia students in her classes, "Caribbean Perspectives," "Ritual and Remembrance" and "Anthropology of Dissent."

— By Susan McKinnon