Heriberto Ramirez, Helen Ceballos, and Celiany Rivera Velázquez: Oral Histories of Surveillance
[W]e were born with a surveillance camera of the Empire looking at this state… [W]hen one enters into processes of consciousness one says: “This is not right.” …I think that’s one of the great challenges in colonized spaces and how through individual empowerment of each unite, to look at ourselves in the group and say: No. Stop. This is not right. This is not us. It’s something bigger. It has to do with the systemic issue. So we are constantly responding, constantly vigilant to the violence that is exercised in our bodies, in our daily lives, in our communities.
Our Data Bodies (ODB) is excited to present a series of oral histories from organizers, writers, and cultural workers whose work has been steeped in resisting discriminatory surveillance technology and racialized surveillance capitalism, and has illuminated strategies for abolition and abolitionist reform. In this oral history, Mariella Saba speaks with Heriberto Ramirez, Helen Ceballos, and Celiany Rivera Velazquez—artist-activists, educators, healers, and organizers who are building liberatory spaces and platforms that contest surveillance and control of the body, Empire, police violence, and internalized violence in Puerto Rico. Together, they narrate their organizing, dreams, and visions for Puerto Rico and the Greater Antilles, while recounting their earliest memories of being surveilled at borders and through migration, their analysis of police monitoring, manipulation, and violence in trans and queer spaces. The transcript of this interview—slightly edited for clarity—follows below. Many thanks to Cooperativa Brújulas for their English translation and incredible language justice work. The Spanish transcript can be found here.
Mariella Saba: Okay, I’m going to start recording. Well, thank you very much. Today is Monday, it’s winter solstice, December 21st. Here we are Helen, Heribert and who else is here?
Celiany Rivera Velázquez: Celiany
Heriberto Ramírez: And Heriberto.
Mariella Saba: Heriberto. It cut the “o.” Heriberto and Blu are present. Let’s start from the beginning. To think, how did you get here? What is the work you do? I know you represent four different organizations and there is time to include everyone.
Celiany Rivera Velázquez: Helen, would you like to start?
Helen Ceballos: Yes.
Celiany Rivera Velázquez: Go for it. Okay.
Helen Ceballos: Give me a second to finish putting the…
Celiany Rivera Velázquez : Cool.
Mariella Saba: Take your time, Helen.
Helen Ceballos: There it is. All right, I’m trying. I apologize, I’m trying to turn on the camera and it says no, it doesn’t allow me access to…
Mariella Saba: To turn it on. Something that.
Heriberto Ramírez: In the meantime, you can start if you want.
Celiany Rivera Velázquez: Well, then, as we are resolving the issue with the camera, shall I start?
Mariella Saba: Sounds good, Celiany. Go ahead.
Celiany Rivera Velázquez: Okay. Well, my name is Celiany Rivera Velazquez. I’m a person from Puerto Rico. I am in charge of the organization called Circuito Cuir and this organization started in Puerto Rico in 2018, which has been in existence for two years. But for that to happen, some things had to happen before Circuito Cuir began. Cuir Circuit started as a response to the murders of the people in Pulse.
Hi Helen, looking really nice, holis.
That incident in Pulse generated many opportunities in Puerto Rico to talk about the experience of being an LGBTQIA+ person. And at that moment Helen was running a space called La Casa Ruth and that was the container for the precursor of Circuito Cuir which was called Con To’ y Plumas: LGBTT Education 101 for the Caribbean. So, Circuito Cuir came out of that process of Con To’ y Plumas. And it has continued evolving … And Con To’ y Plumas happened between 2016 and 2017.
That also coincides with my return to Puerto Rico after living 15 years in the United States, between the states of Georgia, Illinois and New York. So, in all those places, I did a lot of activism, I got very involved with the LGBTQ community. I worked hand in hand with many Latina women’s groups, queer latinx people too, and eventually I came back to… from that experience of learning so much of queer activism.
And so I bring some of that into my educational context, because I am a contract professor at the University of Puerto Rico and at the University of the Sacred Heart. That’s the day time job, that’s what pays the rent. So, as an educator and with that experience of activism and experience learning about the LGBTQ communities and with a lot of desire to creolize that material that is so U.S based, to the experience in rice and beans for the Hispanic Caribbean. That has been much of the impetus of what has formed Circuito Cuir. It is an organization that has been dedicated to making strategic alliances and connections between organizations led by feminists and queers that are giving it their all.
So, it’s some of who takes care of the caretaker? And since there are so many people doing so much work on the street, Circuito Cuir seeks to have LGBTQ leaders and activists as its largest audience. Therefore, events are generated that are only for queer feminist leaders and organizers, and sometimes other opportunities are open to the public. But they are all anchored in the need that exists in Puerto Rico for basic and advanced sexual education, from our body parts to cultures of non-monogamy, polyamory, and the “BDSM” of porn and post-porn.
So Circuito Cuir brings many of these topics to the forum, because they are topics that work, like the “101 of Queerness”. We have it down. We’re talking a little bit beyond those conversations of identities, a little bit of practices, of what we do, and a little bit of getting pleasure back into the movement and self-care, healing, that sort of thing. So, we are not an organization that does base work with movement. We don’t recruit people, we are here for the leaders and to create opportunities for them. We connect leaders to funding opportunities with the Open Society or the Intersex Fund, for example; we connect local organizations with those funds. So we do that, or accompaniment, proposals, how are you going to be the budget? How are you going to write it? So, we have these collaborations.
We also do media mentoring. Therefore, organizations such as the Directory of LGBTQIA+ Services in Puerto Rico have been given media mentoring to extend their networks and their management of this information. And we have given information to organizations like House of Grace to get a youth grant from the Open Society and they got a $20,000 grant. Círculo Violeta, got an Intersex scholarship. So we do a lot of work, from sitting down to write the proposal, from sitting down to edit the budget, from sitting down with the leaders to get more funding for those movements. That’s pretty much Circuito Cuir. But here’s Helen.
Mariella Saba: But where do I sign up? How powerful and fabulous. What beautiful. Thank you for existing and doing it. We’re going to have to talk more to connect physically. Heriberto, you want to share next? Or Helen?
Heriberto Ramírez: Helen, go for it, Helen.
Helen Ceballos: Yes, the truth is that the work that is done from Circuito Cuir is very plausible and as Celiany said, I have always categorized it as an advanced work and I am super proud that they exist. I love it, I always love to hear how the group presents itself. Well, my name is Helen Ceballos, I’m a Caribbean person, I like to define myself that way, but I’m actually crossed by three nationalities. I was born in the Dominican Republic, I have family that comes from Cuba, but I grew up in Puerto Rico, so I am very Caribbean. Because the Greater Antilles are inhabiting me, crossing what I am. And well, I am an artist, I am a cross-border artist. I work with borders and with the concept, with the physical and conceptual concept of the word border. I was born in the Caribbean of the 80s. I’m a self-taught photographer and video artist. I do visual work, installations, performative interventions.
In relation to the activism that runs through me, part of it is me having left my house at 14, very young, of having lived in eleven cities, five countries and 34 houses, which means that I have more moves in my body than lived years in the world. And it is precisely those transits and migrations that mark one of the most important thematic lines in my work, which is migration. And from that place, the instances and performative works that I embrace and extend are generated. And well, there are other themes that also appear within my work, which have to do with the political, the queer, the cathological, the ritual, the infraleve, the erotic.
Much presence of the body, and I speak from my body of African descent, queer, migrant, marginalized. Of being a racialized person, and from that place, the work as an artivist, then, is found as a series of contradictions and paradigms that oscillate between the plastic, the performative and the community. And from that amalgam I am, that is, from that amalgam, I raise my voice. And I extend myself from art. That on the one hand and on the other, well, the work that I have been doing. The work of the day is, is very much linked to community social service. From there, because I run an organization called Mezcolanza, which in principle was an artistic platform that was born in 2013 in Buenos Aires, while I was a graduate student at the National University of Art in Buenos Aires.
There, an event was generated that was called Mezcolanza and the name of the Mezcolanza is because it brought together many, many arts and we had theater, photography, dance and sound art interventions. First it was an event, then it became a festival, and today, it is a non-profit organization that continues to be artistic, but also opened up, expanded its framework of action, and reached out to communities. And it reached out to communities doing urgent work, which can be defined as supportive work, assisting communities that are also marginalized.
And I can mention, for example, an important event that catapulted Mezcolanza into being organized as a non-profit organization. To begin, doing the work with more ownership to be able to hire and have the administrative scaffolding that was necessary at that time, to be able to channel funds and do a job, let’s say, more, more organized. It was in 2017, after Hurricane Maria. There, the people were totally affected by the vestiges of the hurricane and a group of artists, we organized ourselves to instead of extending our art, which was what we used to do, we offered community work in elderly homes and facilities, and in communities where many people lived on the streets because they had lost their homes with the hurricane. People who had no other place to live, no clothes, no access to food, nor government support. The government was still looking for a way to organize this aid and I still don’t think it has found a clear answer to be able to give assistance to the people.
So, at that moment, many organizations, not just Mezcolanza, many organizations, raised their voices and put one foot forward. And we took to the streets from our different trenches and did important work around (I would say) the 78 municipalities of the island. We particularly were in fifty-six towns delivering supplies, offering workshops, generating activities that for a moment would lift the veil off the disaster, but us being in front of the eyes of our people and bringing other experiences. And well, before the interview began we had mentioned Bruje and Millo as part of our battalion team of love and work.
Part of these efforts to reach the community were accompanied beyond the delivery of water supplies, and food. Efforts were accompanied from a place of healing, we did massages, acupuncture and chiropractic clinics. We brought art workshops for children, drawing workshops and even workshops there on the spot. We brought resources and asked the community if they wanted to talk about what had happened and there was a space to air everything that had to do with what they were experiencing. And that started to happen when we realized that supplies in itself were not necessarily the only response, that going and taking a lot of canned food and bottled water and leaving was not an answer, and I think it was a good discovery to understand that because there we could channel an energy of our own as well, a desire for us to offer ourselves and give ourselves to the communities from another place, beyond the tangible help that can be the plate of food or the new and clean clothes. And well, that started to be Mezcolanza on one hand.
And on the other hand, as Celiany mentioned, we also represent other organizations and there, as part of Mezcolanza, another organization called Plataforma Eje was born. And Plataforma Eje is an umbrella organization, because within Plataforma Eje we shelter or support the doings and work of other organizations and there we are supporting communities that come from cognitive challenges, people with functional diversity. We are also linked to Circuito Cuir, supporting economically the projects that Circuito Cuir does, which Celiany already told us about. What is important and radical and key is that this kind of work that organizations like Circuito Cuir do, that at the same time, we connect with other organizations and at the same time Circuito Cuir connects with others.
So in reality, it is a network where perhaps one organization receives the funds, but inevitably those funds get there, are highly leveraged because in one way or another, ends up benefiting other organizations with which perhaps Plataforma Eje does not have a direct link, but through that support, they end up benefiting together.
Another organization that we also support is the university study program for incarcerated people, which I also think is very advanced because it is another look at the prison system. Well, as it is, as a final goal, the ideal would be that it did not exist, that we could find alternative ways for the person, for the people, so that each time, everything that has to do with the traditional prison system that is so oppressive begins to be deconstructed. But we also understand that education and information in these type of communities is vital and key. And this university study program includes as part of its curriculum: gender classes, history classes for people who have been aggressors, who have committed femicide, for example. In other words, they’ve been through situations, either because of patriarchy or because of the thousands of reasons that may be behind each of those stories.
In this way, they receive other types of information and Plataforma Eje provides financial support and also contains part of the production of what it means to develop these programs. So, confined communities, LGBT, functional diversity. And we also have another program that works with Racial Justice. And that program, like Circuito Cuir, is autonomous.
We didn’t create it ourselves, but what Plataforma Eje does is to visibilize and make it possible for an organization, for example, like the Colectivo Ilé, which works for the purposes of Racial Justice, to continue developing its program and agenda with the support of our organization. And, well, from all those hats, I will be speaking, let’s say, doing my interventions within this interview. There are many more, but I am trying to make a general selection of what we could mention this time.
Mariella Saba: Thank you. Whoa, whoa, whoa. Helen, thank you so much. For me it is an honor to first meet you and share from your history and your roots, your art, your purpose, everything and all these organizations that are doing a necessary and fabulous job and love is felt. I can feel all the love from here. And they’ve opened up a little window for me to a job that’s going on there, that I’m very happy about. And beyond the interview, to continue getting to know one another and supporting each other because we are very aligned, aligned in this work. All you shared with me are things that I share with you. Ah, there it is. If I’m there, if I would be there, I would be there with you.
Helen Ceballos: That’s how I felt when you were describing yourself, I felt that we were very close, within many of the experiences that you are having and that you shared. And well, another of the organizations that we are going to start supporting now in January is Tipos, and Heriberto is going to talk to us about Tipos, so let this be a very small introduction to what’s coming next, which is also advanced.
Mariella Saba: All right, thank you very much. Heriberto, go ahead.
Heriberto Ramírez: I want to begin by affirming my love for these two beings Helen and Celiany. Because of how wonderful they are, because of how inspiring they are, my God, I can hardly speak.
Mariella Saba: We are all going to cry.
Heriberto Ramírez: Yes, it is also a moment of recapitulation. The year is ending and one recapitulates the allies one has and above all what… Coherence in how we empower ourselves from a distance, but doing a job where I support yours, where you support mine and then that border disappears because the last thing is service. Work, service is the being.
Well, my name Heriberto Ramirez, I am originally from here from the Boriken Archipelago. I identify myself as an AfroTaino, my pronouns are he and they/them. I consider myself a social alchemist. My frontline, my workplaces, is art as my beloved partner Helen specifically with performance, transdisciplinary popular education and also working with gender. Specifically I am a specialist in masculinities. That’s the area I decided to work on in all this … Like the missing areas, they needed someone to work on them. I said good because I know that I consider myself an artist, let’s work from the stage. Mainly, I work with myself and from there, that reflection comes out later to become a shared reflection, which is the work of problematizing masculinities. And for that the performance was the first trigger that led me to the streets to explore this work as a more sociological or performative work that receives input from people on the street.
Then, as time goes by, they ask me to lead my group and I say: “I don’t have groups, this is a personal initiative.” And then, I begin to visit the feminist congress and I knew that I needed the vocabulary to be able to speak about the masculine experience but with a feminist vision. So, there I begin to organize groups of men, to work through theater, music, dance, to sensitize these bodies, to begin to create containers to rethink and create communities. I have a great background in what ecovillages and permaculture design are and I extrapolate this ecological idea to the social world. It is a social design then, from these masculinized bodies.
So there I begin to do more work on building transdisciplinary adolescent sexual assault prevention curricula with various feminist organizations. These include important coalitions in Puerto Rico such as Coordiadoras Paz Para la Mujer, Taller Salud, which works specifically with racialized populations. And then, I see myself in the responsibility of studying formally and that’s why I did a postgraduate course in gender equitiy and masculinities in Spain. And already with that training, I become a second generation of the people who work masculinities because it was quite focused on academia. It was necessary to find a way out of the academic world, to enter community spaces so that it would become accessible information and to contribute this information, especially to the feminist movement, in order to understand how to become allies. How to understand the cost of hegemonic masculinity, how to disarm it and how to build spaces that are more equitable through art, education and activism.
Then, little by little I converted… I did my master’s degree in cultural work.
I am the organizer of and founder of the colloquium. The first Colloquium for Masculinities in Puerto Rico. Since then… Ten years ago, I had an organization called Masculinos en Transición, now it is called Tipos, which specializes in working with masculinities. But here we push a little more, I work queer masculinities, trans masculinities. I do the community work. Right now I’m working as a consultant for an organization in Loíza, which is where there is the greatest representation of Afro identities and where there is the greatest social exclusion. There is a high rate of street violence. I am advising in terms of knowing the masculinities to be able to approach them from a more systemic space as well, and not to judge them, but rather why? Why do these violent acts arise? Why are the protagonists mostly men or people identified as men? And this has reduced street violence in Loíza by 80 percent in the last few years. So, many of the feminist movements have realized that if there is no conversation about masculinities, then the work will always fall to a few people and not to all. And the work is also strengthened, with the links I have with Eje, with Mezcolanza, with other organizations.
…I’m not only the coordinator with other masculinities of Tipos, i’m also part of Circuito Cuir. I am the Educational Coordinator and the Healing Coordinator. So, we worked all the curriculum that Celiany talked about earlier. So a little bit of my role is also to work the issues that I am addressing lately, and that Helen mentioned that have to do with trauma, trauma informed. I make many collaborations with all that cross of social work and since the hurricanes, we have been working on a curriculum for than two years now, a workshop where it creates a space to be able to ventilate, using art, to be able to re-tell the story, to get to know a little bit of the neurobiology of trauma.
And this is also somewhat of what we also bring to Circuito Cuir- how to have an entity that has experienced so much violence, how to create spaces to develop an assertive communication, non-violent, which are some of the workshops that we have worked on since the pandemic, and then also create an aesthetic and political language from the bodies through post porn, which as Celiany had also mentioned, as that appropriation of the diverse pleasures, from those intersectionalities of bodies, and from the masculinities and femininities and from the non-binary identities.
Lately, I identified that within the masculinities, there is much talk of violence in all countries. I began to look at “the violent man and violence, femicide,” which is something very true, but these surveillance systems also make invisible other masculinities that we are working on and it seems that there is no work being done. That’s why I created two social devices, one is called the male poetics of enclosure, they gave a virtual exhibition of more than forty men around the world, narrating their experience within the enclosure, the context and how they have handled it in an assertive way so that other people can see, be inspired (other masculinities) and say this is possible, I can model it, I have another option and then we are also working on others.
… A digital magazine called Dímelo Pá, where every week we are working on issues of masculinities, but where the people who speak are not necessarily from academia, but are the voices of experts, because they live masculinity, because they have experienced violence and because they have a political space, a community-artistic space in the program, to also be able to tell and retell their story. So, those are more or less the connections that we have here, from our diverse Caribbeans.
Mariella Saba: Heriberto, I’m very happy to hear all this. This is much needed work here, it is needed everywhere. I will also be knocking on the door to see if we can connect and collaborate. I am making many connections in my heart and in my mind. I am very glad you are doing this and if I would like to see after this interview, if it is okay with you to share some of the work that is being referenced and it is quite a lot. So it’s the end of the year and a good time to celebrate your work too. I want to congratulate you and here’s my mommy.
Celiany Rivera Velázquez: Hi, Mommy!
Mariella Saba: She’s a friend of Bruje, of Delia, so we’re going to see you all soon.
Mami: But for a long time. I brought you a little bit of Menudo.
Mariella Saba: Menudo, did you hear that?
Celiany Rivera Velázquez: Delicious!
Mariella Saba: My mom’s the one who’s all set to go to Puerto Rico. It is necessary. Everything you share, we are living in our family and in communities and movement. I am very happy, really. Well, let’s get into it… you’ve already painted a lot right now, you’ve painted, you’ve described quite a lot of work and we want to … we’re interviewing you because our work that Blu and I and many people are doing is also abolitionist work and studying this the State and how the State surveils us and everything you’re saying. The State is also interested in destroying the fruit. All this wonderful and necessary work. And we’re going to switch gears into this now. If you can talk about your first encounters with surveillance in your community, where were you? Where were you when you first decided to organize against police surveillance and all of what your work faces? Because it was very nice to hear from you who are organizing on the pro, as you are creating quite a lot. I didn’t hear much against, many times we are organizing against because we are under attack and under war. How does this question sound? and we can adjust it. But I’d like, we’d like to know about your first encounters with surveillance in your community. So, what prompted you to organize?
Heriberto Ramírez: Well, we were talking with Celiany, that because of the particularity of our political situation, we were born with a surveillance camera, of the Empire looking at this state. And that sometimes one internalizes and normalizes. Then when one enters into processes of consciousness one says: “This is not right.” So then, we not only internalize it but also begin to surveil ourselves or one begins to police and edit oneself. So I think that’s one of the great challenges in colonized spaces and how through individual empowerment of each unite, to look at ourselves in the group and say: No. Stop. This is not right. This is not us. It’s something bigger. It has to do with the systemic issue. So we are constantly responding, constantly vigilant to the violence that is exercised in our bodies, in our daily lives, in our communities. And we have to be there most of the time. Since so much time was spent on the streets protesting, because as you mentioned, there is a whole intention to attack and destroy. So we said, “Well, which country do we want?” We have to start building it too. We protest, but we have to propose. So I think that, the first notion of violence or surveillance, is when we are aware of our political situation and how the uncomfortable things that have happened to us as individuals, is not our fault, nor is it our immediate responsibility, but there is a system, a political-social situation that reinforces it.
Celiany Rivera Velázquez: And I would add to that, for example, that right now many of us who do activist work and work to organize our communities are also freelancers. And we also have short-term contracts, six months, one year. Then with the pandemic situation, everything is more precarious, including the opportunities that were already limited for us. So many of us, and this affects many actors in the social justice movement, have had to resort to having to report to the IRS or the local IRS, how we do our money. Before, we could do everything with each other, exchanges, agreements. But in this extremely precarious situation, we have resorted to preventing unemployment for people who are freelancers, which is known here as the “púa.” When you ask for the “púa,” you are giving all your information to the government and before you were a freelancer, you were more or less under the table, you would manage and figure it out.
Now all that information, in order to receive something, in order to be sustainable. We didn’t want to give all that information, especially from 2017 onwards that labor laws changed in Puerto Rico under the current administration. In which the rights of the workers are cut almost in half and that’s why people who are already aware of the labor rights were more reluctant to have to give this information. But the number of people in our communities who have suddenly had to answer: how much have you earned since March (to be able to receive something) and, where did you get it? They already have us on record.
So, from now on, this pandemic situation has put us in the system, it has put us in the spotlight, it has put us … And many of us may not have the level of poverty to receive (and this is something we were talking about with Helen just now) that many people have to give all that information and yet, because of their income they don’t qualify for the assistance. Then you gave all the information and nothing happened.
Mariella Saba: Very good. Thank you for sharing that, it is very important, to document and analyze this and beyond, how are we going to create more defense, protection based on this? Very similar to the stories of people I interviewed on the streets here or they share a lot of information and don’t qualify for several programs. But the information is already there, in a database, which can be used against them. Helen, I don’t know if you would like to share anything more on this issue of surveillance encounters in your community or communities.
Helen Ceballos: Yes! On that same line that the comrades were talking about… Can you hear it?
Mariella Saba: We can hear it, we can see it, we can feel it.
Helen Ceballos: I want to bring a voice that comes directly from my community. Even though it is a community that is crossed by all my intersections as a queer woman, afrodescendant and migrant, I want to talk about migrant communities. In Puerto Rico in particular there is a large population of Dominican community. And a community like the Dominican community, which is not documented, does not have Social Security. They’re, like, out of the panoptic eye that’s watching them. Well, they don’t have access to any kind of assistance either. And in a situation as precarious as it was, for example, Hurricane Maria in 2017 or like the earthquakes last year at the beginning of January. We experienced several earthquakes especially in the south and west of the island. These are people who are totally unprotected, who cannot even ask for any kind of support, nor aspire to any kind of government aid, precisely because they do not have the necessary documentation to be able to apply for this type of support.
I am sure that this is something that is also happening in the United States in many ways, and that is because it is still a power structure and of surveillance, because sometimes there is so much and so much need that the person or families come to these institutions to ask for support. And first they are rejected by the organizations because they do not have the necessary documentation. And secondly, they are put on record for having gone and can later become spaces of persecution for these families, where they are promised that if they give their information they will receive some kind of support later, and what they receive is precisely the persecution of the State, which transfers this information to the migratory organization that is the one that is persecuting. So, from that point of view I think there is a surveillance and control strategy. That is violent, that is rampant. Let’s say that in general terms and more openly.
I could talk about other control structures that I have experienced in my own flesh since my arrival in this country at a very young age. I made a clandestine trip when I was five years old and traveled by “yola.” A “yola” is a small boat. Not as nice as a sailboat. I would say something more like a fisherman’s boat. And we were sixty-five people, and we arrived fifteen. The rest of the people died in the open sea, and I was sedated most of the time. My mother gave me grape syrup used for cough because with that syrup she induced sleep in a more natural way, let’s say, without giving me a sleeping pill. I was induced to sleep with syrup, and on one of the few occasions when I had the opportunity to be awake. It was a trip that lasted five days because the “yola” was lost at sea, so it’s usually three days but in that case it was five, that’s why so many people died, because they weren’t prepared to make such a long trip. And this for me was my first experience of control and surveillance, because being a Caribbean person I was facing the crossing of a border, in this case maritime, in order to reach Puerto Rico, to improve living conditions. We were escaping. In the Dominican Republic my father was linked to a whole world of drug trafficking and our lives were in danger.
So it was not a journey for pleasure or behind the American dream, but behind the sustained idea of survival. And I remember that on that trip, as I was saying, of the few moments that I was awake, I saw a very restless woman inside the “yola” asking for support to be able to urinate. And in this structure, well there is no place to go to the bathroom or the only way to be able to relieve yourself is to take your butt out of the boat and have someone grab your arms and urinate or evacuate in front of the other 60 people who are there watching what’s happening. And this woman, she gave her arms to a man who I know offered her support to urinate, and when she pulled down her pants and began to urinate, what came down between her legs was urine mixed with blood because she was menstruating. So the man let her go and the woman fell into the sea.
And well, there was a silence in the “yola” when he did that and quickly two people grabbed the water, the gallon of water she had and the cloth she had, the sheet. Because at that moment money is worthless. What’s valuable are these objects I’m mentioning. A gallon of water can extend your life for another day. Don’t get cold too. Or cover you from the sun. And the man said, “Well, blood attracts sharks. It was either her or us.” And that was one of the most important moments for me. I was a girl, I was only five years old, but it’s an image that doesn’t go away, doesn’t get erased. But when I recapitulate it I realize that many of the lines of work from my artivism start from praising my female body. And speaking from that femininity. From a feminist and decolonial point of view. And also defending the rights of migrants, because they are stories that crossed me at a certain moment and that now form part of my artistic practice, but also of my practice as an artivist. And as there, in that vulnerable situation, once again the woman’s body continues to be at a disadvantage in relation to certain masculinities.
Now, fortunately and thanks to the crosses that life has allowed me to have, since I know beings like Heriberto, who work very hard on other types of masculinities. That’s why I think it’s key and important, because I think we should get rid of some feminism, maybe, old ones, more worn out because we’re not going to exterminate men. We would need to generate other slopes and other ways of rethinking: what is happening in relation to these bodies versus others? And to the whole range of masculinities that can exist. And especially speaking directly from the patriarchy, that on the one hand.
And well, to wrap up and summarize, my first experiences in relation to control and surveillance policies are anchored to personal experiences that later, from my practice as an artivist, as I extend them and work them from the cultural artistic expressions and from the cultural artistic expressions I have been able to see it and I have been able to live it too. Not anymore, maybe directly, but in other spheres, when we do community work, for example, that we did it in January. That there were people on the streets because of the earthquakes, we were seeing how all those communities that were there in tents after having lost their homes because of the earthquake situation, who was offering support, setting up the place, the force that the government determined was going to offer support to those communities was the National Guard, meaning people who were trained to be in the war. Those were the people with their long guns in their soldier’s clothes, bringing food to people who were in a state of trauma and incredible “shock” receiving support.
So, those kinds of crossroads, they still look violent to me. How does the government determine which population or which sphere of society will provide such an important service as first responders? People who are psychologically affected, who perhaps lost a family member in the collapse, who perhaps no longer have a home, who since they are older people, cannot necessarily enter the labour market and make their life and home again from scratch because they have a pension that does not increase, on the contrary, it decreases.
Or people (like the ones we mentioned) Celiany, cultural workers, leaders who suddenly have to provide this other information in order to receive support. And on the other hand, migrants who don’t even have access to support and all that set up and that amount of people united receiving support from the police, the militia, armed people giving food.
Mariella Saba: Yeah, it sucks.
Heriberto Ramírez: I wanted to add another experience. Not systemic but more personal, that is linked to pleasure, the search for pleasure and consent. The practice of “cruising” in Puerto Rico, which is, going to spaces that are… I call it heterotopic spaces that have their own rules and people with a look search for consent and have sexual practice. Given that many identities, with social pressure, it is super difficult or they do not want to show up in a space like a club because they have identified. So, they are spaces that have that type of anonymity to be able to exercise the right to pleasure.
I had several experiences with cops coming into space or undercover or you were walking around and they would say, “You were at the beach, give me your ID.” There was a lot of mockery, there was a lot of insult or if you did not get kicked out, then it was a very vulnerable space, because it was guarded. So, I have followed the narratives of friends, which is still a space to be able to have those practices and the modality is that police arrive undercover, dressed as civilians, in some cases they have sex with people and then my friends get arrested or tasered or beaten. So you’re not going to say, “Look, I got hit because I was in this space.” Then there is a whole stratagem where many times, which has happened, some time goes by and all of a sudden the police come out again to these places, make a raid and say that everyone was prostituting themselves, when prostitution does not happen in this spaces. Then it goes to the press. So it’s a kind of public humiliation, because it reveals the names of people, the jobs. It’s a way of publicly bullying certain identities as a threat. So it’s a pretty cruel way of the state, because at the end of the day all cases are closed because there’s no way to prove it.
But there is one… Staining the reputation of such a person is like a message to others. Don’t you dare, because we’ve got you watched everywhere. So, that’s a micro experience that happened to me. But that happens to many of my friends who continue the practices as a political act and as an act of meaning, pleasure and, but in what ways is the State continuing to perfect these tools to intervene.
Mariella Saba: Yes, thank you very much for sharing those personal stories and also collective ones and Helen the story you shared I take it inside also thinking about how through sharing we keep that woman’s spirit alive and her justice is still through your art and what you share. We’re fighting for her justice. Of all those who died at that time and it’s still happening right now, these days. I’m well aware of that, and if it seems good to you for us to breathe in honor of their lives. I would like to just offer a breath, because they are our truths. They are our people and here we still have life to do something. Yeah, thanks a lot. Thank you for sharing. How about following up on another question? We’re almost at the end of the line, a continuation. Let me see where the other questions are. Have you shared what an encounter is? Well, that’s another question, if anything else comes out of this you can share. It is similar to what we asked already, but it is a typical surveillance encounter that someone in your community lives or has lived. How is the day-to-day, everyday surveillance? It can be in the streets or in the movements. If you want to add anything else to this question.
Celiany Rivera Velázquez : I would like to make a transition between the last question with the space of the cruising that our comrade shared with us and the reason, will you repeat this last question to me again?
Mariella Saba: Yes, what is a typical surveillance encounter that someone in your community experiences or has lived? What is the typical day-to-day surveillance like?
Celiany Rivera Velázquez : Well, Marielal what wanted to ask you is that yes, I don’t know if this has happened to you in other interviews, but for example, it is through a moment of much euphoria and pleasure and through knowing something new that one suddenly realizes all the institutional violence that one didn’t even know one had experienced. All the institutional, interpersonal violence, that is, a moment, and I want to make it concrete because I have met a being, in my experience of migration that changed my world. A person who changed my world and who has been very formative in the process of creating Cirq. Someone who has been present since 2016 to the present and they are a being whose name is Ignacio Rivera.
Once I meet Ignacio Rivera, who is a sex educator, liberator, two spirit amazingness embodied invited me to a sex party at his house in Brooklyn and I- “What do you say? Let’s go! Of course I’m going!” And just the process of how one transitions from the street to that intimate space. The conversation that takes place between the people who are there. The mini-meeting to talk about consent, negotiation, barriers, what are my limits, how am I going to communicate, how in the first 15 minutes I realized all the things and all the violence that had happened to me in my whole life. And having relationships without consent, having a lot of doubts, having engaging in risky behaviors, engaging in risky behaviors for pregnancies, for sexually transmitted infections, engaging in risky behaviors without knowing, without education and it is not until an epiphanic moment occurs that one does: “Whooooaaaa! What is going on? Everything is upside down.” Then one begins to understand violence from one point of view, but from the solution. I am already in the future and I am already in the solution. And for me it is an important thing to honor, who are these magical beings that suddenly enter your life and change everything.
Mariella Saba: Yes, thank you for honoring. And if what you share with me is fabulous and sad, it’s also like, I don’t know, a shock or something in the body that happens, that so much violence is normalized and until you live it a little differently you realize it and yes, yes. I recognize that experience, and I see it a lot in the movements when one becomes aware and realizes all the lies, the oppression. I really like that you share that.
Celiany Rivera Velázquez : Yes, it’s a little bit like having a vision focused on health and pleasure. And no… it’s like where we’re going.
Mariella Saba: Yes, and one hears an opportunity to be reborn also in one’s own flesh, where it is worth dying and being reborn. Thanks for that. Ah, I don’t know if anyone else wants to share. You pretty much described what a typical surveillance experience/encounter is. I don’t know if you want to add to that or go with another question. We are almost landing. We’re still flying.
Celiany and Heriberto: (laugh)
Mariella Saba: I think it’s okay. And the next question I feel has also been answered. But yes, I will share it and if you want to share something else, that’s fine. With who have you organized or have organized against, could you tell us a story about all your organizing work? What was the result? Possibly the outcome part we haven’t talked about much.
Celiany Rivera Velázquez : The 80 percent.
Mariella Saba: Ah! Yes, yes. That’s what you shared is 80 percent, that the violence went down and that’s incredible and great, we have to keep sharing that story and duplicating it.
Heriberto Ramírez: Yes, this story is very interesting Mariella, because Taller Salud has been working for over 40 years in the communities in Loiza, where more representation of Afro-descendant identity visibly black and working for the health of women, feminized body. And works a lot with the aspects more like biological and physical health. So at some point they asked the women in the communities what they wanted to work on, what were the things they felt were their primary needs, and they all said, “Work with the men because our children are being killed. So that’s when the Peace Accord was created, that this is a program that works with intervention of violence and they go directly to the places, they go to the bars, they go to the cock fight places, which is where they are. So, it’s like a situation of mentoring, the people who are identified as possible risks, well then they mentor them, accompany them and mediate in many acts of… that in any other moment would unleash in murder today, tomorrow, the day after’ and added to the many cases, but already before that fire is lit, they are already turning it off. Therefore, being able to handle it in another way instead of just blaming but rather seeking prevention from an informed conscience has been the success of the community and of the need named by the women.
Mariella Saba: All right, thanks for sharing that. Well, there is one last question and after that, if you want to add anything or you have questions too. But this last one is if you had a song to describe the vision you are walking towards, what would it be? So, so, so. Let’s see.
Helen Ceballos: Well, very recently, last week, a group of women shared with me a song and a lyric who are meeting on Zoom on the issue of femicide and patriarchy, and for us to generate tools that we could generate among ourselves to somehow continue the struggle from different places. It’s almost like a group, I would say therapeutic, because there they share stories. They recommended a song that I think is very nice, I have the link, I don’t know if you want me to share it.
Mariella Saba: Yeah, I’d love it.
Helen Ceballos: I’ll get it. I already had it here, open on youtube so I could share it. Let’s see, copy the link and I’m doing this from the phone. So…
Mariella Saba: Okay, take your time.
Helen Ceballos: Did you get it?
Mariella Saba: I’m going to copy it.
Helen Ceballos: It’s a Portuguese song, but it has Spanish subtitles.
Mariella Saba: It’s nice. Okay. Ah, very good. If you want me to play it right now, so we can hear some of it…
Helen Ceballos: If it lasts three minutes, but visually it’s very nice. And also the bodies that appear in the video. It resonates with me a lot because they’re bodies that… of racialized women.
Mariella Saba: I want to take this commercial off here.
Helen Ceballos: Heriberto logged back in, he had left.
Mariella Saba: The song is downloaded. Welcome to the concert.
Helen Ceballos: Is there a way to see it?
Mariella Saba: I think they left.
Helen Ceballos: Let’s see.
Mariella Saba: Heriberto and Celiany, are you back?
Helen Ceballos: Heriberto, are you there?
Mariella Saba: They went to write a song, to compose. I see they’re there, but I don’t…
Helen Ceballos: Heriberto, are you there? You can’t hear it because you have the volume down, if you’re there.
Mariella Saba: I saved the song, Helen, I don’t know if they’ll reconnect. There they are, I don’t know if they lost connection again.
Helen Ceballos: …the connection. I think it must be, something with the signal. And well, another one that’s very beautiful that…
Mariella Saba: Helen’s sharing some songs.
Celiany Rivera Velázquez : Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, perfect. (laughter).
Helen Ceballos: I’m going to give you the link there too, although I was thinking that I don’t know if you want it, because it lasts three minutes. If you want I can either share your screen or pass you the link or someone else can put it up. Well, I don’t think I have screen sharing access from this call.
Celiany Rivera Velázquez : We can open it here. Is it on the chat?
Helen Ceballos: Yes. See if you can, it’s a song in Portuguese, but it has Spanish subtitles and I think the lyrics are powerful. And in addition, the inclusion of the bodies of racialized women in the video is also like something that complements the visual very much. Beyond the lyrics of the music, right? So, I thought about it because I certainly think it does respond to the …well, it contributes a little bit to the work we’re doing here.
Mariella Saba: How nice, I already copied it to listen to it. And we can also include a reference to the song in the interview.
Helen Ceballos: Yes.
Mariella Saba: You were going to share another one, you said Helen?
Helen Ceballos: There’s another wonderful one I heard about recently called: “Fear was sowed in us. We grew wings.” I don’t know if you’ve heard it.
Celiany Rivera Velázquez : No, I haven’t heard it.
Helen Ceballos: So, I’m looking for the quick link. It’s a song that I think is very nice…(missing) …was born in Mexico. Did you hear me?
Celiany Rivera Velázquez : Wow, how beautiful!
Mariella Saba: I’m going to copy it to have it.
Heriberto Ramírez: Where is it?
Celiany Rivera Velázquez : In the links of the description.
Helen Ceballos: Those two are there.
Mariella Saba: Thank you Helen. And Heriberto and Celiany if you had a song to describe the vision you are walking towards.
Celiany Rivera Velázquez : From Circuito Cuir, we identified a song called Miel, which is by Macha Colón and can be found on Spotify. I think that’s where it’s published and we like it a lot because it’s based on…the experience of who tells the story is a queer body, a fat body, a feminized body. Talking about the callousness of her skin. Talking about the fat inherited from our ancestors in our arms. And talking about how maybe we have a lot of rough parts that we have to handle, but the most important thing we need is to not forget about the honey, to put the honey in our movements. It’s a very sweet, very sexy song, sung by an icon, who people here call the queer Reverend. I think it would be a super good song. (laughs) To describe the work of Circuito Cuir.
Mariella Saba: Thank you. I’ll put it on later too.
Heriberto Ramírez: I was inspired too. I hadn’t thought of a song, but when I heard Helen and Celiany, the light bulb went off. I work with men and there’s a song by Aterciopelados that says, “Men are all the same. Men are all the same. All embroidered with the same scissors, all cut by the same scissors. Ah, but men are not all the same. Ah, but men are not all alike, each in his own way. The yarn ball unravels, each in its own way, and the yarn ball unravels.
Mariella Saba: You sang it just like Aterciopelados.
Celiany and Heriberto: (laughs)
Mariella Saba: Thank you, thank you very much. Before we close is there one more question you want to ask… Anything else you want to share or questions for Blu and me.
Heriberto Ramírez: I think that, we were talking to Celiany and we talked about it with Helen too, sometimes the same citizens perpetuate… how we internalize surveillance and watch each other, like the neighbors (especially in the pandemic) what you did or didn’t do. Here the phrase “te choteo” (rat you out) is used when you report something that you are doing, which for the state is not legal as it should be.
So, sometimes, social networks become like a surveillance space. Sometimes it happens even with the same organization. If you don’t do that, you don’t do something. “You didn’t post, I didn’t see you at the march or I saw you doing this.” Then you say, “WOW. It was enough with the State. So now I have people that I thought were supportive, friends, allies. So they play that surveillance.”
And so it is dangerous because at the moment, what space do we have to be free or for us to act from one’s own consciousness, without having to be as if with our eyes on someone else. Here’s what you should do. Or careful because I will tell on you. So us, for example, from our Circuito Cuir platform, we work some topics: the post porn, the BDSM, which can be issues that depending on how we navigate the language, we can be censored, (which we have already been censored) or we have to handle it in a way that these surveillance devices do not co-opt us and we are able to continue communicating with our audience. So the website now comes in to somewhat help protect those three years that we have been producing information, so that there is not a veto and then a silence of our work. I do not know if Celiany wanted to talk a little about it.
Mariella Saba: It’s a good thing you’re raising that point. That’s the success of the state. When we do its work on each other, I like to intervene a lot and educate the community as well. Because especially social media is throwing us under the bus. Giving material to the state to criminalize us, etc.
Celiany Rivera Velázquez : And in this same way, with a mixture of this material that we give to the State to criminalize us and lack of education, here in Puerto Rico there was an incident, which we would not want to go unnoticed because we have been touched by several incidents of violent deaths of trans people. One of them we would like to name is Alexa’s case, because we give full responsibility to social networks and their individual administrators. Also, to the media for having created fear and for having created all the disinformation that was circulated about the use of the bathroom of this non-binary trans person.
Heriberto Ramírez: Homeless.
Celiany and Heriberto: Homeless.
Heriberto Ramírez: Black.
Celiany and Heriberto: Black, from a public space in Toa Baja, interpreted this body. ..instead of saying a trans woman… There’s a man dressed as a woman. There is a man in a skirt in the bathroom, who is a pervert, who has a mirror (which was a mirror that Alexa used to protect herself from people to basically watch out. Watch their back”). And she put it on the floor to use the bathroom and the kids or the people in the booth next to her interpreted that as an attempt to pick up on the other person or to be trying to look at the other person. And they told this to the father who was outside of the bathroom. Then when this person comes out of the bathroom, she is violently told that she is a man dressed as a woman who is there to abuse children. Then that information spread very quickly and that same night, in less than I would say six hours, a group of people, mostly youngsters of sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years old, went out to look for Alexa and killed her. That night.
Heriberto Ramírez: They uploaded the video.
Celiany Rivera Velázquez : And they uploaded the video of them doing it. But the only source that posted the video was the police.
Mariella Saba: Wow!
Celiany Rivera Velázquez : Within the police news, that video was published as something that had happened and that reached that video, but they have never been able to find… The police are the only ones who have the video, and they’ve not been able to find those responsible for the murders. So, that is an extreme example of how violence is produced as “wildfire” through the disinformation of the queer bodies. And obviously we have the murder of an artist from the Trap genre named Kevin Fred, which also hasn’t been solved. A person who used urban music as a vehicle to talk about gender inequalities in Puerto Rico, which was also a case that hit us very hard because to this day, almost everyone knows who did it, but no one is doing anything to solve the death of this person who was non-binary. These are things that we did not want to leave this interview without mentioning, because they are cases that move us. It’s like we lose our ground when these things happen and we mobilize. And a friend who’s an activist was also attacked, so she survived the attack. And, so we honor the life also of this person who survived the attack, whose name is Nicole. So we honor lives and we honor deaths. We honor all these things. Thank you very much.
Mariella Saba: Thank you very much. I’m here to support you, get to know you and keep connecting. During the interview I looked at a spider here, a good sign of what we are doing. Of weaving and here we are weaving together. You’re loved for free, says another Puerto Rican friend.