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Making livable worlds: Afro-Puerto Rican women building environmental justice

  • Journal List
  • Nature Public Health Emergency Collection
  • PMC9676906

Lat Stud. 2022 Nov 18 : 1–4.

doi: 10.1057/s41276-022-00403-1 [Epub ahead of print]

PMCID: PMC9676906

Hilda Lloréns, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2021, 224pp., $30.00, ISBN: 978-0295749402 (paperback)

Reviewed by

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I was tasked with reviewing Hilda Lloréns’s book, Making Livable Worlds: Afro-Puerto Rican Women Building Environmental Justice. Reading this auto-ethnography was like looking at a mirror and having a homologous reflection of myself staring back in awe. Homologous because, while her work and life were different to mine, we also shared so much in common. Not only are we both Afro-Puerto Rican anthropologists, trained in the United States, who also conducted fieldwork at home, but our area of specialization is environmental injustice. Like Lloréns, I too had to wrestle with the methodological and existential conundrums of doing research in one’s homeland, in a place close to the heart, where sometimes one must take a stand. The homologous poetics and politics of mirror images staring back from the depths of memory do not end here. We both survived, not unscathed, the deadly grip of poverty, homelessness and racism that our provenance imposed on us. We both continue to struggle with being racialized colonial subjects, hailing from the oldest colony in the world.

Lloréns’ ambitious book skillfully weaves her personal and her family history with the histories of other Black Puerto Rican women in the coastal southeast part of Puerto Rico. Lloréns engages in an “autobiographical example” (p. 13) to illustrate how her intergenerational family life is representative of the larger condition of blackness as experienced by Afro-Puerto Rican women in the Puerto Rican archipelago and in the United States. What allows her to bridge her auto-ethnography with the ethnographic counterpart is the theoretical notion of “matriarchal dispossession” (p. 15). This provocative concept excavates deeply into the pervasive and long-lasting historical and structural conditions that explain the systemic dispossession of Black Puerto Rican women in the archipelago of Puerto Rico. The roots of such dispossession are found in settler colonialism and the patriarchal and racist cultural and economic structures that remained in the “afterlives of slavery” (p. 21) But Lloréns is bridging much more here. She is bridging the Afro-Puerto Rican woman’s experience of dispossession in Puerto Rico with its diaspora and with the dispossession experienced by Black and Indigenous people in the United States, making this book relevant to Latino studies, anthropology, Puerto Rican studies and Black feminist studies.

However, Lloréns more radical contribution is in the exercise of “epistemic and political disobedience,” (p. 14) through her writing, research and narrative. By exposing her own gendered, class and racial injuries and traumas, along with the injuries and traumas experienced by the rest of the Afro-Puerto Rican women in her account, Lloréns aims to “move a step closer towards decolonizing and undisciplining” herself and her ethnography (p. 14). This “decolonizing” is as much about calling into question gender and racial normative discourses within Puerto Rican society as it is about calling into question Eurocentric and patriarchal academic discourses within academia. Key within this “undisciplining” is moving beyond trauma by documenting the “life affirming practices,” that historically, and in post-Irma and Maria hurricane aftermaths, continue to characterize Afro-Puerto Rican women.

The author documents Black women’s busyness “creating restorative alternatives to dispossession” (p. 14). Lloréns explores the different modalities of interactions needed to reproduce and sustain vital reciprocity exchanges, among Puerto Rican women, that create strong community bonds amid often hostile social environments (within Puerto Rico or the diaspora). The author also effectively illustrates how important such reciprocity exchanges are for providing a sense of security to these communities. What becomes evident from Lloréns’s account is the effectiveness of a use-value affective economy, which depends on real and fictive kinship reciprocity exchanges, in building and sustaining livable worlds. As Lloréns incisively points out, these types of affective economies do not operate within the possessive individual rational subject of exchange-value economies.

But more than building or making (two verbs used in the book’s title) Afro- Puerto Rican women are engaged in the act of rebuilding. And there is so much to rebuild after being “left to die” in the midst of Puerto Rico’s ecological catastrophe. For the economic, social and environmental maladies currently affecting Puerto Ricans are truly catastrophic. As Lloréns explains, Puerto Rico’s deepening crisis was aggravated by the 2008 global economic crisis and the dramatic shrinking of governmental safety net programs. In 2016 Congress imposed a federal oversight board over the fiscal expenditures of the Puerto Rican government, then $72 billion in debt, known as PROMESA or Junta, which further deteriorated the Puerto Rican social fabric with despicable austerity measures. As if it was not bad enough, in 2017 Hurricanes Irma and Maria (Maria being the third deadliest in history) hit the archipelago. In what has been deemed one of the largest climate-induced displacements in Puerto Rican history, more than 300,000 Puerto Ricans ended up leaving the island. Then, in 2019, enraged by the draconian neoliberal austerity reforms the Puerto Rican government was forced into by the Junta, wide protests led to the resignation of PR Governor Roselló. In 2020, Puerto Rica was hit not only by a series of earthquakes, ranging from 4 to 7 in magnitude, but also by the COVID-19 virus, along with the rest of the world. These and other ills, deepening the ecological ruination, are what Puerto Ricans in general and Afro-Puerto Rican women, in particular, are currently confronting. A core argument of Lloréns is that we might learn a great deal from Afro-Puerto Rican women, since their historically long-lasting relative position of marginality within society has prepared them to successfully confront the incredible crises affecting Puerto Rico.

Lloréns ends the book with a puzzling epilogue, “A Word about Black Puerto Rican Ecological Knowledge”—puzzling because, in the singular, the usefulness of the notion “Black Puerto Rican Ecological Knowledge” is rather limited. The ethnographic evidence provided in the book pertains to Afro-Puerto Rican women living in the southeast coastal region. Regional differences, in terms of ecology and of how people embody blackness, need to be accounted for. Thus this “Black Puerto Rican Ecological Knowledge,” sounds more encompassing than it might really be. Ecological knowledge is contingent to both temporality and place, as well as to the embodied predispositions passed down intergenerationally through praxis. “Contingent” here is the key word: changes in the socio-ecological milieu inevitably impact that which is socially reproduced. While a feedback loop process of fine-tuning to such changes might lead to successful socio-ecological adaptations intergenerationally, sometimes the fine-tuning fails, and maladaptations emerge. In other words, just because I am Afro-descendant does not mean that I will have access to an exclusive domain of ecological knowledge, especially if the environmental context that I am inhabiting is suffering dramatic and catastrophic changes. It does mean, however, that my particular positioning might attune me to better see and understand certain relationships (ecological or otherwise) that are not readily available to people lacking my experiences as a subject differentially located.

Clearly, Lloréns is aware of the pitfalls of presenting a too-coherent group identity as her notion of turbulent ongoingness, and as the totality of the book illustrates. This brings me to Spiller’s notion of the monstrous as a liminal space of unintelligibility (monstrous and unintelligible to the socially prescribed norm), where alternate forms of living can be enacted precisely because they operate from the tabula rasa that bare life implies (2003, p. 229). Without doubt, Afro-Puerto Rican women are the embodiment of this abject state of being Black in a racist system, women in a patriarchal order, and colonial subjects in the oldest colony to date. But it is precisely because of their formidable capacity of clinging so fiercely to life and the joys of living, despite enduring such unimaginable suffering and trauma, that their ongoing attempts of rebuilding livable worlds are so important. Lloréns work is clearly onto something profound here. The attempts are ongoing. Imperfect. And yet, these attempts contain precious seeds of hope, perhaps showing us a path from what it is to what it could be. They are also prophetic for prefiguring that what could be already implies the imminent demise of what it is.

Lloréns’s book inescapably also brings me to Fanon’s Black Skin White Mask (2008). Growing up in Barrio Obrero, like el negrito Melodía (in José Luis Gonzáles’s short story, “En el fondo de caño hay un negrito”), I too saw my reflection staring back at me in the waters of el caño Martín Peña. Unbeknownst to me at that time, this reflection brought me too dangerously close to oblivion (Marqués 1981). Unlike el negrito Melodía, I survived this close encounter. But, as I said before, not unscathed. From the depths of memory this image stayed with me to this day. It was a distorted image. Like when you look at yourself in the million pieces of a broken mirror. A fractured image of a fractured colonial self. An image that countless times confronted me and my colonized brothers and sisters, in another mirror—in the eyes of the powerful who stared at us with hate. But their hate stares back at them, and they tremble at the sight of their own egregiousness. And so there is something powerful in our racialized monstrous metamorphosis, for our existence is a testament of the indomitable will to live. Books such as this one are rare. They are needed—urgent—for they pull you into the ferocious winds of introspection where accountability is inescapable.

Publisher’s Note

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  • Fanon F. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press; 2008. [Google Scholar]
  • Marqués, R. 1981. Cuentos puertorriqueños de hoy. In Cuentos puertorriqueños de hoy. Río Piedras, PR: Editorial Cultural.
  • Spillers HJ. Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 2003. [Google Scholar]

Sylvia del Villard

From Wikipedia, Free Encyclopedia







Sylvia Dellard (February 28, 1928 — February 28, 1990), Actress, dance, choregrac Puerto Rican activist.


  • 1 Early life
  • 2 Acting career
  • 3 Director of the Office of Afro-Puerto Rican Affairs
  • 4 Years later
  • 5 Legacy
  • 6 See also
  • 7 References
  • 8 external link

Early years

As a child, Del Villard entertained her parents, Agustín and Marcolin Del Villar with her dancing. The family considered her very talented, besides, she studied well at school. She received her primary and secondary education at Santurce, and when she graduated from high school, the Puerto Rican government gave her a college scholarship. [1]

Del Villard studied Sociology and Anthropology at Fisk University in Tennessee. However, Del Villard had to deal with the anti-black discrimination that was rampant in the southern regions of the United States at the time. She returned to Puerto Rico and enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico where she completed her degree. [2]

After graduation, Del Villard went to New York and enrolled at the City College of New York. It was during this period that she developed a passion and love for Africa. She joined the Song and Ballet Ensemble «House of Africa». She was also able to trace her African roots to the Yoruba people of Nigeria. Del Villard took dance and voice lessons from Leo Brown at the Metropolitan Opera. [3]

Acting career

Among the theatrical productions in which Del Villar has participated in Puerto Rico and abroad: La Muerte (Death), La Tempestad (The Storm) and Let My People Go . Danced like a ballerina in the following American productions: The Valley without Echoes , The Witches of Salem , The Lad , The Crucible and Kwamina . In Puerto Rico, she joined the Afro-Boricua Ballet. With ballet, she has appeared in the following Afro-Puerto Rican productions: Palesiana y Aquelarre and Palesiana y Aquelarre . [1] [2]

In 1968, she founded the Afro-Boricua El Coqui Theatre, which was recognized by the Pan-American Association of the New World Festival as the most important authority on black Puerto Rican culture. The theater group received a contract that allowed them to perform in other countries and at various universities in the United States. [4]

Del Villard’s favorite poet was Luis Pales Matos. At 1970 she founded a theater/school in San Juan and named it after him. However, she soon closed the theater due to constant complaints from neighbors. Though many, including herself, believed the complaints were politically motivated and set off a self-imposed exile that eventually landed her in Hollywood, California. [2] [3]

Director of the Office of Afro-Puerto Rican Affairs

She returned to New York, where she founded a new theater group she named Sininke. She has made many presentations to the Natural History Museum in this city. At 19In 1981, she became the first and only director of the Office of Afro-Puerto Rican Affairs of the Puerto Rican Cultural Institute. She was known as an active activist who fought for the equal rights of black Puerto Rican artists. [1]

Years later

Del Villard was diagnosed with lung cancer in California in 1989 and returned to the island to treat her condition. Sylvia del Villard died on February 28, 1990 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. [2]


In 1993, Banco Popular de Puerto Rico produced a musical with many famous artists called Ocho Puertas: Special for History (Eight Doors: A Historical Special), which included, among other artists, a tribute to Del Williard.

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