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The San Juan ASA Conference represented an important moment to continue thinking deeply about the conceptual and methodological demands of a truly transnational American Studies. The location of the conference was itself a powerful call for reflection—reflection on indigeneity and dispossession; reflection on the course of US empire; reflection on rich histories of resistance; reflection on American Studies as a set of interpretive and pedagogical practices in that zone where Indigenous Studies, Atlantic World, Caribbean Studies, Diaspora Studies, and Pacific Rim all come together. From the outset the Program Committee felt an awesome responsibility to organize sessions and events that would do justice to the significance of this Caribbean locale and its (anti-) colonial history.
The ASA membership responded to the call and the challenges of the conference with terrific energy, innovation, insight, commitment, and with a spirit of true collaboration and intellectual generosity. This was one of the best-attended and most vibrant ASA meetings in recent memory. The program was expanded in order to accommodate as many of the very fine submissions as possible; the final program comprised over 400 panels, round tables, caucus meetings, screenings, readings, lightening rounds, and installations, involving the participation of over 1500 scholars, writers, artists, and activists from 25 countries in North and Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific, the Middle East, and Europe. Sessions represented a vast and ingenious array of methods, approaches, and orientations, as well as scholarly and politically committed conversations that ambitiously crossed disciplines, geographic regions, and historical periods. A brief sampling of the interpretive modalities and the intellectual concerns running through the program includes comparative empires, US regions/cities in the context of empire, the Puerto Rican diaspora, empire and migration, political economy, activism and public scholarship, liberalism (in both its broad and narrower meanings), legal structures and juridical discourses, public pedagogy, transnational activism, the carceral state, neoliberalism, militarism and state violence, biopolitics, hegemonic and alternative archives, tourism, commodity chains, settler colonialism, borderlands, cartography, indigeneity and anti-imperialist strategies, digital humanities, consumption and the commercial cultures of empire, religion as oppression and as resistance, oral history, missionaries and explorers, feminist internationalism, environmental justice, sexuality and imperial power, global health, hemispheric solidarities, the politics of water, the global South and the “resource curse,” radical poetics, human rights discourse, photography as a technology of empire, modernities and modernisms, museums and curation, sonic landscapes, narco-empire, graphic novels and animation, race and real estate, and trauma.
This was a tremendously rich, varied, and productive program. Among the most meaningful of the many conversations enabled at the meeting were those between colleagues from different parts of the world, between Puerto Rican scholars and activists and their colleagues from the US, between scholars in the humanities and in the social sciences, and between early Americanists and their colleagues who work on later periods. The program committee worked especially hard to raise the profile of early America in the conference and to invigorate the conversations across the temporal spectrum from the seventeenth century to the twenty-first.
The committee likewise assembled a slate of extracurricular exhibits, screenings, and events meant to augment and anchor the anti-imperialist spirit of the conference agenda and to provide routes into San Juan and its history quite distinct from those laid out by the normal circuitry of tourism. These included tours of the Hacienda La Esperanza Nature Reserve, one of the largest sugar plantations in Puerto Rico in the latter half of the nineteenth century; historical tours of Viejo San Juan, led by Edwin Quiles Rodríguez, author of San Juan Tras la Fachada: Una Mirada Desde Sus Espacios Ocultos (1580-1900); and a tour of the ENLACE Caño Martín Peña Project, whose residents seek to overcome poverty and attain social and environmental justice. Special events also included a reading by Puerto Rican poet and writer Giannina Braschi, whose work explores themes of US-Caribbean relations, the politics of empire and independence, and the migrant’s experience of marginality and liberation; and installations by two artists-in-residence: Nao Bustamante presented her multimedia project, Personal Protection, which activates the tactile and tactical histories of women in wa; and Adál Maldonado presented his multi-media project, Blueprints for a Nation: Construction of an Imaginary State, weaving diverse perspectives on the Puerto Rican Diaspora, the significance of creative expression in fostering new political imaginations, and the subversive tropicalization of new environments. All of these events were heavily attended and enthusiastically received.
Finally, an in-house Anti-Imperialist Film Festival provided continuous screenings of important documentary films. These included Roberto Clemente, followed by a discussion with director Bernardo Ruiz; Aquel Rebaño Azul [The Blue Herd], a historical account of police brutality in Puerto Rico, sponsored by Puerto Rico’s Civil Rights Commission; Más de 800 Razones, on the 2010-2011 University of Puerto Rico student strikes; and a number of films provided by the feminist collective, Women Make Movies. The festival culminated in a screening and director’s discussion of John Sayle’s Amigo, on a Philippine baryo in the crossfire of empire and resistance, and a ragtag but lethal detachment of U.S. soldiers who find themselves halfway around the world walking point for their country’s new imperialist policy in 1899.
The strength, vitality, and rich programming regarding Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans, the Caribbean, and the Americas created a larger space from which to theorize, reflect upon, and produce knowledge that advances our understanding of the consequences of empire. The inclusion of local scholars from the Island, the participation of former Puerto Rican political prisoners, and the performances of Bustamante and Maldonado were particularly important. ASA members came away from San Juan having taken serious stock of the voluminous and electrifying interdisciplinary work that has recently been produced on empire, but also with a new, deeper charge to expand on conversations that cross disciplines, national boundaries, and period-specific specializations. Most agreed that this was an energizing and important set of meetings.
Published in News on March 15, 2013 by ASASTAFF.
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