Boricua Pride, and a New Currency, at Loisaida Fest

  • The Loisaida Festival, May 26, 2019 (All photos by Karen Pennar for Voices of NY)
On the first scorching day of the season, visitors flocked on Sunday to Avenue C in lower Manhattan for the 32nd Loisaida Festival, to enjoy music, dancing, special performances, food, artwork, books and – in a small garden off the avenue – to interact with a specially-designed, one-of-a-kind ATM that dispenses a new community currency, Puerto Rican pesos.

Originally offered on the island in February as an experiment in jumpstarting a conversation about value and the knowledge and resources of island residents, Valor y Cambio (Value and Change), as the currency project is known, was invited to bring its message to the Loisaida Festival this year. The objective: to spread word within the diaspora Puerto Rican community and to generate more interest and discussion in socially just solutions to the island’s economic challenges.

Frances Negrón-Muntaner (Photo by Karen Pennar for Voices of NY)

“In both Puerto Rico and New York, many assume that the talents of people without access to dollars have no economic, cultural, or social value. Our project questions that idea and suggests that crisis moments offer an opportunity to rethink an unjust economic system, and to explore creative and community-centered initiatives,” said Frances Negrón-Muntaner, a filmmaker and Columbia University professor of English and comparative literature who started the project a year ago with fellow artist Sarabel Santos Negrón.

There’s only one ATM, which was donated to the project and which had to be retrofitted and designed especially for the project. Negrón-Muntaner said she used research funds to develop the project.

Over a period of nine days in Puerto Rico, approximately 1,700 bills of all denominations circulated. A number of vendors in PR said they would accept the currency, indeed, the project lined up participating businesses located in several neighborhoods and cities, including San Juan, Caño Martín Peña, Bayamón, Rio Piedras, Cupey, Miramar and Humacao.

Still, said Negrón-Muntaner, it seems that for now adults value the currency more than whatever they could obtain for it at this time. They are hoarding the beautifully decorated bills, which come in six denominations and picture luminaries of historic importance in Puerto Rico, such as the siblings Gregoria, Celestina and Rafael Cordero; Ramón Emeterio Betances, Luisa Capetillo, Julia de Burgos, and Roberto Clemente.

On the other hand, Negrón-Muntaner said, “in Puerto Rico the only people using the bills were kids, they weren’t attached to the story [behind the personages on the bills]” – with the notable exception of the 21 peso bill, which pictures baseball great Roberto Clemente. That one, children and adults alike seem to want to hold onto.

A person obtains a bill from the ATM by answering three questions: what they value, how Puerto Rico can support what they value, and what people or groups are already sustaining these values. The co-founder of the project says that she has reviewed the transcripts from responses gathered in different locations across Puerto Rico and that they will shortly be gathered into a report. “I can tell you that there’s a huge gap between what people value and the ways that the Puerto Rican government is going about assuming or dealing with the debt crisis. The vast majority of the people say that the most important thing after family is education and health care and those are precisely the things that are being cut by the government in the austerity plans,” said Negrón-Muntaner.

She noted that different communities on the island have been inspired to think about whether community currency is a helpful tool, and she said she knows of two communities that are developing community currencies. Negrón-Muntaner notes in her writing on the topic that the bills would only circulate in Puerto Rico, so that “they can support local economies instead of enriching large corporations. This is the way they are used in places like Bristol in England and in Fortaleza, Brazil.”

Valor y Cambio grew out of discussions and questions that have occurred to Negrón-Muntaner as she has co-directed the Unpayable Debt project at Columbia University, which wrestles with questions about the burden of debt on communities, peoples and countries around the world. On the books, Puerto Rico is saddled with more than $120 billion in debt. For the filmmaker and researcher, it seemed that the sometimes abstract issues around the colonizing burden of that debt could be brought into sharper focus if the residents most deeply affected could talk about value, money, and what was truly important to them in their daily lives.

In the Carmen Pabón Garden between 7th and 8th streets on Avenue C, a long line of people waited in the 86º degree heat on Sunday afternoon for their turn to approach the VyC ATM, answer the questions posed, and get their Puerto Rican pesos. As they waited, Negrón-Muntaner fielded questions and talked about the project. The 300-lb. ATM was moved to nine different locations in Puerto Rico in February, including at schools, farmer’s markets, a food truck, and other spots.

Another 200 bills went into circulation on Sunday at the Loisaida Festival, and the ATM will be accessible again during the opening of the Pasado y Presente exhibit at Loisaida May 31. Plans are for the ATM to remain at the Loisaida Center until June 30. However, said Negrón-Muntaner, there have been a number of invitations to have the ATM travel to Brooklyn and Long Island, and if the resources are available to move it, then the project may visit other locations. The Nathan Cummings Foundation provided support to bring the ATM to the Loisaida Festival.

Eventually the ATM will head back to Puerto Rico for some outreach in rural areas. Said Negrón-Muntaner: “Our goal is to keep the conversation going, keep people thinking about their own capacity for transformation, that something like money could be in their hands, that community building will help Puerto Rico leverage what’s rich in Puerto Rico, that could be a very different form of riches, wealth and value.”

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