header photo

The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics

ISSN: 2472-7318


To download a free dyslexia-friendly font, please visit OpenDyslexia (not associated with JOMR).

To download a free ADD/ADHD-friendly font, please visit BeeLine Reader (not associated with JOMR).

Sounding Out a Rhetoric of Resilience: Curating Plena in DiaspoRican Activism


Plena & Diasporican Activism

Climate Chaos and the Need for Resilience


The first video in the series “Sounding Out a Rhetoric of Resilience” aims to explain the motivation for this curation. Noticing that Puerto Rico was consistently described as resilient, given their ability to survive the catastrophic results of hurricane María, and the (mis)management of both local and federal governments, the artist started collecting texts that make reference to such resilience. In the process, plena was referenced as a musical genre that embodied resilience, and which was used to create community, but also to sound out resistance to the people responsible for the well-being of the territory and its peoples.


Narratives about Puerto Rico’s destruction as a prime example of the impending doom of climate chaos have been used in political efforts to shift energy consumption to a green new deal. New York Congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined efforts with Naomi Klein, The Intercept, and illustrator Molly Crabapple, to explain the impetus and future-oriented vision of the Green New Deal, and awareness about environmental (in)justice. In relation to the use of sound as part of activism regarding climate change, Mary Hocks and Michelle Comstock write, sound “is rarely considered a rhetorical resource for communicating the ongoing effects of climate change on human and nonhuman animals and ecosystems” (165). So, besides illustrations, and video, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez narrates the way in which the destruction of Puerto Rico, “the place where [her] family’s from.” She goes on to say that it was “like a climate bomb, that took as many American lives as 9/11” and connects it with all the lives that will eventually get lost if we don’t change the way we live.


Besides political figures’ use of sound to counter climate change, plena has been used by musicians and activists who survived the impact of hurricane María in Puerto Rico. In a story by Mandalit del Barco for NPR, she interviews a few of those musicians who were heard in the streets of Santurce, specifically Calle Loíza. Juxtaposing screenshots of the NPR piece with images of the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo from Ponce--the town attributed as the birthplace of plena, a small coquí referenced as the only sounds heard in the dark night after the passing of hurricane María, and an image of a graffiti from Old San Juan, which illustrates the figure of the obese government officials feeding off money made from Puerto Ricans. The audio from the piece showcases how plena represents singing newspapers, telling the story of Puerto Rican resilience. The singers are featured saying how it is important to educate the people of Puerto Rico, especially the youth, about the impact of climate change, and the importance to take care of “Mother Earth,” as well as the importance of uplifting the people to continue fighting to live, “with or without f*cking Trump.” Their plena songs aim to continue telling the stories of the might of Puerto Rican survival.


Historicizing La Plena



The second video in this series opens with the sound of the coquí, once again as emblematic of the sounds heard in Puerto Rico. It shifts to an image [taken by the artist in an exhibition at Chicago’s National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture] featuring the poster for La Plena, a documentary made in 1957 by the then-recently established División de Educación Comunitaria. DIVEDCO was part of the Luis Muñoz Marín administration’s efforts to preserve Puerto Rican culture. Five years prior to the release of this movie, Muñoz Marín had won a vote to establish the Free Associated State political status for Puerto Rico. A big part of his platform was based on addressing and advocating for the jíbaro, a racial, gendered, and social class that seemed to encompass the mass of Puerto Rican voters. The jíbaro works the sugar cane fields owned by US American corporate interests. These sounds and people meet in the southwestern coastal town of Ponce.


After the opening credits, and the emphasis on the hands playing the pandero, the classic documentary film opens with aerial images of Ponce, and images of the city, with people walking about. As the viewer follows a horse and buggy ride through the streets, the narrator explains how it was there where the Afro-Antillian musical expression of Plena was popularized. The narrator goes on to describe plena:


Satírica, juguetona, irónica en su contenido, aprovechándose, como el romance español, lo circunstancial del momento para comentar… como esa cosa tremenda como que esa vengadora tintorera se tragase al abogado americano de la Guánica central.”


“Satirical, playful, ironic in its content, taking advantage, like the Spanish romance, of the circumstantial of the moment to comment… like that great thing like when a vengeful female shark swallowed an American lawyer in central Guánica.”


The visuals feature people sharing the newspapers with the headline about the shark that ate the US American lawyer in the nearby town of Guánica. It is worth mentioning that Guánica shores wherein General Nelson Miles and his US troops occupied Puerto Rico in 1898. The film goes on to show images of a train, symbolizing how the news traveled all over Puerto Rico, and like newspapers, plenas telling the story would travel all around Puerto Rico as well. The depiction of the composition process of the plena song “Tintorera del mar” demonstrates how the call and response genre was led by one singer--the same man featured in the poster--who would write down verses based on the newspaper report, and how the rest of the musicians would sing the chorus whenever prompted. Closing the video with an image of the lyrics of that song in another graffiti panel in that Old San Juan set of walls--images taken in December of 2018--demonstrates that the song traveled geographically, and temporally. It remains that the “tintorera del mar que se ha comido un Americano” is a celebration of nonhuman animals combating US imperialism. 


Cruzando el charco: Plena crossing the pond


Continuing the pedagogical approach in documenting historical developments of plena, the third video of the series highlights how plena cruzó el charco--how it crossed the pond into the contiguous US, just like most of its population engaged in mass migrations throughout the twentieth century. “Cruzando el charco” is a popular expression meant to signal the move from the Caribbean sea, over the Atlantic ocean, into another set of islands, mainly New York City. The opening clip is from Raíces, a 2001 documentary film sponsored by Banco Popular in Puerto Rico. Focusing on the roots that bomba and plena signify for Puerto Ricans, the producers made sure to include the impact of these genres for DiaspoRicans--or Ricans in the diaspora: “Water appears thus as a political relational space, not as a form of hegemonic insularity. In turn, Raíces alters the meaning of the tree and its thick foliage to open itself to other imaginaries, the ones related to errantry, exile and Afro-diasporas” (Arroyo 214). 


Los Instantáneos, a group of plena musicians breaks out in song about the nostalgia they feel for Puerto Rico. The setting is Rincón Criollo, which translates to Creole Corner. Commentators interrupt the song to explain that the place was started by José “Chema” Soto, which he characterizes as a place that was a hole of approximately fifteen feet, which he turned into a little house that resembles the place where he was born, “la casita de [su] abuela”-- his grandmother’s little house. Other commentators, like the late theorist Juan Flores, explain how this was a place that they occupied and cultivated, with symbolic instruments resembling historic and geographic Puerto Rican nostalgia. Before breaking into song again, Chema is featured saying, “tan cerca, como estar tan lejos,” or so close yet so far. The next song makes reference, once again, to being a jibarito, like the coquí, who sings at night and sleeps during the day. The scene closes with Chema playing the güiro and whistling sounds of the coquí. Miguel “Mickey” Sierra then says that this is the link between Puerto Rico and New York.


The next clip means to signify how plena sounds all over the US, with an example from Houston, Texas. The dance group of women who call themselves Hijas de Borikén have danced in functions throughout Texas since 2016. In their Vimeo profile they characterize themselves as 9 women from the Puerto Rican diaspora, “con grandes deseos de fomentar nuestra música y cultura en la ciudad de Houston,” and based on their social media content, it’s safe to say that they have fomented Puerto Rican music and culture beyond Houston. This particular video showcases an ensemble of Puerto Rican musicians playing plena in the form of parranda--music typically heard during the Christmas holiday time, where a group of people go house to house and play music with the understanding that they will be fed and provided drinks. In other words, this is Puerto Rican party music. In the context of Houston, this song similarly asserts that there are Puerto Rican traditions that are taken with our bodies wherever we go. One of the lines is “Te cantamos desde aquí, te cantamos donde quiera. Represento a Puerto Rico, y te traigo mi bandera” or “We sing from here, we sing from anywhere. I represent Puerto Rico, and I bring forth my flag.” 


Besides cultural nationalism, plena is used in advocacy. The last clip in this set is a video from a protest the artist participated in as part of a Unity for Puerto Rico rally in Washington, DC. 


Plena is Protest



The crux of the argument of this piece is that plena facilitates moments of activism. This argument could be conceived in relation to the pandero as an agent of Puerto Rican activism--a new materialist perspective, to be sure. However, the human bodies entangled with the pandero to make percussion sounds rhythmically cannot be ignored in this assemblage. More importantly, I hope it’s evident that the histories that bring together these human and nonhuman agents is of utmost importance, if the full potential for plena music as activism is to be considered as effective.


Beyond a rhetorical form that aims to recover traditional cultural identity, as Greg Clark argues was the case for Hawaiian music, plena has, from the start, been a genre signifying resistance. To emphasize the significance of plena’s roots, and its racialized foundation, the video starts with a clip from the documentary film Raíces. Even in the shifts of this rhetorical form/genre from the streets to ballrooms [and back to the streets again, as illustrated later in the video] performers contend with the racist histories that led to its formation, as well as the ways in which the form is used to signal and counter such racism. Ruth Fernández, a renowned Afro-Puerto Rican singer, tells the story of her performance at the San Juan Normandie hotel in the 1950s, where there was an understanding that Black performers should not come in from the front entrance. Being told this, she responded with “por negra? Negra y qué?” -- “because I’m black? Black, and so what?” She then goes on to tell the viewers about the ways in which she prepared to make her way into the hotel using the front entrance. The scene then shifts to a ballroom performance of “Y Tu Abuela, donde esta?” a well-known song based on a poem that references how some creole subjects in the hispanophone Caribbean would hide their Black grandmothers in the attic, or hide blackness in order to rise to what has been called white ascendancy (Arvin, Tuck and Morrill). The lyrics of the song, and her picaresque performance demonstrate the contention of resisting exclusion based on a supposed denial of race/racism that is still pervasive in Puerto Rico.


Against state violence, patriarchal abuse of women, trans, and immigrants is how Plena Combativa open their performance at the Claridad Festival in 2018. This group of women are openly queer, feminist, and pro-independence for Puerto Rico. They have performed “Libre y Peligrosa” in different settings, and the video aims to show this, ending with their smaller performance at one of the many rallies called by the Colectiva Feminista en Construcción--a feminist organization that has been pushing the government to address gendered violence since 2016. The last clip showcases the setting for the protest: the steps in front of the governor’s mansion. This has also been the context of many other protests, such as those by the Federación de Maestros, or the Teachers Union of Puerto Rico, who have been highly affected by austerity measures imposed in the last decade. Tired of the corruption from the Puerto Rican government, there were massive protests calling for then-governor Ricardo “Ricky” Roselló to resign in the summer of 2019. The last few clips showcase videos taken by the artist in these protests. 




Curatorial Statement


Notes on Positionality


On "Reading"