By: Por: The Editors, Alicia Díaz and Patricia Herrera
Between Puerto Rico and Richmond: Women in Resistance Shall not be Moved Video Full Credits
Dancer and choreographer Alicia Díaz evokes both history and ritual in her work for Commonwealth, which centers on a performance filmed in Richmond at the former site of The American Tobacco Company (ATC) factory. Díaz was interested in the relationship between the tobacco industry in Virginia and Puerto Rico and the ways that both were tied to power and resistance. For centuries, Virginia’s economy was rooted in both tobacco and the labor of enslaved people that supported it. In the late 19th century, even though slavery had been abolished, Jim Crow laws were in effect and as a result the ATC factory segregated Black and White women workers. In 1898, as a result of the Spanish American War, the US occupied Puerto Rico, making it possible for the ATC to take over its tobacco industry. Thus narratives of the African Diaspora, capitalism, and colonialism become intertwined. The characters portrayed in the film are inspired by labor organizers: the Puerto Rican feminist Luisa Capetillo (1879–1922) and the Afro-Puerto Rican nationalist leader Dominga de la Cruz (1909–1981). At the ICA, the video was presented within an installation that interwove these histories of resistance with contemporary activism. Both the installation and the film’s mise en scène reference Puerto Rico’s strong tradition of ritual, which can be found throughout the Caribbean.
– The Editors
Entre Puerto Rico y Richmond: Bridging Stories of Resistance
Alicia Díaz and Patricia Herrera, with Bio Poems by Patricia Herrera
In the aftermath of the Spanish American War of 1898, Puerto Rico became a “possession of the United States.” Established in 1952, the current name—the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico—is an attempt to conceal the United States as a colonial power over Puerto Rico. Although geographically distant, Puerto Rico and Richmond, Virginia, share interrelated histories of racism and exploitation, especially through the tobacco industry.
The American Tobacco Company (ATC) was founded in 1890 by J. B. Duke (for whom Duke University was named) in a merger with several other cigarette manufacturers, including the company belonging to Lewis Ginter (for whom the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden was named). ATC operated a factory in Richmond where both Black and white women worked in segregated facilities. When the US occupied Puerto Rico in 1898, the ATC took over the tobacco industry and leaf market on the island, pushing the transition from artisanal shops to capitalist factory production. This transition led to a rising working-class consciousness, mass migrations to the US, and recurrent confrontations between organized labor and factory owners.
The dance film on view in this online publication, Entre Puerto Rico y Richmond: Women in Resistance Shall Not Be Moved, brings forward these deeply connected stories. Evoking history and ritual, the film honors a lineage of resistance against US colonial capitalism through the activism of Afro-Puerto Rican radical nationalist leader Dominga de la Cruz Becerril (1909–1981) and white Puerto Rican anarchist, labor organizer, and feminist writer Luisa Capetillo (1879–1922). Both were hired as lectoras, readers in tobacco factories where they read classic literature and union newspapers out loud to the workers. This tradition of tobacco factory readers in the Caribbean and parts of the United States played a role in raising political consciousness amongst workers and informed protests demanding better working conditions. Luisa became an important labor organizer in Puerto Rico, New York, and Tampa, FL.. Dominga joined Puerto Rico’s Nationalist Party and played a significant role in the struggle for Puerto Rico’s independence.
Dominga de la Cruz Becerril
Dominga de la Cruz Becerril (1909–1981)
Dominga de la Cruz Becerril
An Afro-Puerto Rican woman
Lectora de tabaquería
Rebelde, atrevida, luchadora
Daughter of manual workers Domingo Clarillo de la Cruz y Catalina Becerril
Amo mi patria
I love poetry
La batalla de resistencia vive en mi
My body is tired
Pero me gusta moverme con fuerza y alegría, como en los bailes de bomba en Mayagüez
Trabajaba hasta la medianoche a la luz de una lámpara de aceite y aún así no ganaba lo suficiente para cubrir nuestras necesidades básicas.
My daughters starved to death.
En la tabaquería
I learned about el Asalto al Capitolio
The US legislation was co-opting our Puerto Rican flag for the official colonial symbol
Entonces el pueblo se metió en el Capitolio
And 18-year old nationalist Manuel Rafael Suárez Díaz was killed
defending the dignity of our flag.
Al aprender ésto yo tenía que hacer lo mismo
I became líder del Partido Nacionalista junto a Pedro Albizu Campos
I protect the freedom of my people
Lucho por la igualdad de la mujer en el Partido
La Masacre de Ponce
Tendidos a mis pies a todos mis compañeros
Con sus vientres abiertos
March 21, 1937
I dodged bullets to rescue the Puerto Rican flag splattered in blood
Era terrible, luchar contra un imperio que tenía toda la fuerza en su favor.
Thank you to the twelve-year-old boy who gave me flowers many years later.
“¡Toma estas flores, Dominga, porque a tus hijos te los mataron en Ponce!”
And I was reawakened!
Dominga reimagined the role of women in the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. She survived the 1937 Ponce Massacre, in which a peaceful march commemorating the end of slavery in Puerto Rico and protesting the imprisonment of Nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos by the US government was attacked by the police. After being politically persecuted, Dominga relocated first to Mexico and later to Cuba, where she continued to fight for the independence of Puerto Rico.
Luisa Capetillo (1879–1922)
Luisa Capetillo was arrested for wearing pants in public.
Labor union activist
Lectora de tabaquería
Creyente del anarco-comunismo
Daughter of labor workers Luisa Margarita Perone, a Corsican domestic worker, and Luis Capetillo Echevarría, from the Basque country of Spain.
Amo la madre tierra y la naturaleza eterna
Defiendo la autonomía e igualdad de las mujeres
Creo en el amor libre
The US invades Puerto Rico
July 25th, 1898
I was twenty years old
A witness of colonial power
Tengo en mi corazón a mis hijos y lo que significa ser madre
Lucho por la emancipación de las mujeres
Lucho por los derechos de los trabajadores
Lucho por la educación for all people regardless of sex.
Vivo mi visión
Desafío las tradiciones sociales
Me arrestaron por usar pantalones en público
Eso fue 1912 y otra vez en 1915
No temo nada
He logrado mucho
I was amongst the leaders who organized the Sugar Strike of 1916, one of the largest strikes in Puerto Rico’s history.
More than 40,000 sugar industrial workers protested for five months.
I opened a vegetarian restaurant, a place for anarchists and socialists to convene and dialogue
Viajo a New York, Ybor City, Tampa, La Habana, and the Dominican Republic donde participé en political rallies and strikes.
“This planet belongs to all of us and is not the privilege of only a few. Why are there so many injustices?”
I organized workers until my death from tuberculosis on October 10, 1922.
Luisa was a prolific writer and a playwright. She denounced the exploitation of workers and women in the capitalist system and envisioned a more just and equitable world. She is recognized as the author of one of the earliest feminist treatises in Puerto Rico, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
Workers at the American Tobacco Company, Richmond, Virginia. Photo: Courtesy The Valentine
Black Female Tobacco Stemmers at the American Tobacco Company
Underlining interrelated histories of Puerto Rico and Richmond, the film Entre Puerto Rico y Richmond was shot on location at the American Tobacco Company in the Southside of Richmond in one of the company’s last remaining warehouses before it was torn down to build a mixed-income housing complex. As the physical space disappears, we honor the spirit of resistance and liberation of Black women who worked in tobacco factories in Richmond and who organized to denounce the injustices they faced.
We are Black female tobacco stemmers
Posing in front of the American Tobacco Company Richmond Stemmery
Sat right there at that table
De-stemming tobacco leaves by hand
We grabbed and untied a handful of tobacco leaves
Spread them flat
Pull the stem away
White female workers had cleaner jobs
They inspected and packed the tobacco
While we sorted, cleaned, and stemmed
That pungent smell of tobacco leaves
Clouds of tobacco dust coated the air
And our lungs
Made us cough
Difficult to breathe
We wore kerchiefs over our mouths and noses
And placed orange in our mouth to keep us from throwing up
Our bosses ruled with an iron fist
“If you don’t catch up, you will be fired”
Without any increase in our meager pay of 15–25 cents an hour
Over at Richmond’s I.N. Vaughan Export
A stemmer herself
Organizes sixty Black female fellow workers
Over the noise of the factory she defiantly shouts
White women also walked the picket lines in support of striking tobacco workers
After 17 days on strike
factory owner conceded
They won a wage increase, an eight-hour workday and the right to unionize
We don’t back down
We fight back!
*Louise “Mamma” Harris was born in 1891 in Richmond, Virginia. She was a fierce labor organizer and tobacco worker who joined the Congress of Industrial Organization and led strikes against the terrible working conditions of tobacco factories in the late 1930s.
Entre Puerto Rico y Richmond: Women in Resistance Shall Not Be Moved is part of a larger mixed-media installation at the Institute for Contemporary Art. This installation, Entre Puerto Rico y Richmond: Bridging Histories of Resistance, includes Altares of Resistance, honoring this lineage of activism in both Puerto Rico and Richmond, and commonwealth colony, an image board that offers a broad historical context of the colonial relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. Re-membering and interweaving these local and global histories through these acts of commemoration, we aim to problematize the term “commonwealth” in the context of massive protests in 2020 in Richmond as well as in Puerto Rico and its diaspora.
– Alicia Díaz and Patricia Herrera
Video credits: Alicia Díaz, Entre Puerto Rico y Richmond: Women in
Resistance Shall not be Moved, 2020
Conceptual and Creative Project Collaborator, Dramaturg, Script Writer:
Movement Researcher/Choreographer, Costume Arranger, Creative &
Cultural Organizer/ Facilitator, Performer: Christine Wyatt and Christina
Set Designer, Research Assistant: Luis Vasquez La Roche
Music: Héctor “Coco” Barez
Voice: Yaraní del Valle
Producer and Editor: David Riley
Videography: Tyler Kirby, Janelle Proulx, and Dana Ollestad with
Departure Point Films
Color correction and sound mixing: Metta Bastet for Digital Fruit Snax
Project Consultant: Matthew Thornton and Esther “Ñequi” González
Special thanks to Port City Apartments, the former American Tobacco Complex, for allowing us to film on location.