- Errors in the ExchangeDebt, Self-Translation, and the Speculative Poesis of Raquel Salas Rivera
Following Hurricane María, a group of cryptocurrency investors looked to Puerto Rico to install their experiment in new technologies of exchange. It is perhaps sadly predictable that at a listening session they held for the local community as part of a May 14, 2018, blockchain conference, no translation services were provided for Spanish-speaking Puerto Ricans. The cryptocurrency proponents are only one of many venture capitalists who assume that, because it is a U.S. territory, English should function as the unilateral lingua franca in Puerto Rico, and that Puerto Rico is a blank slate for their economic experimentation. A century of U.S. exploitation of Puerto Rico as a site of tax havens, economic gain, and research experimentation supports that assumption. It moreover suggests that the twenty-first-century debt reconstruction era will amp up colonial displacement of local populations, cultural practices, and political aspirations. It is against such precedents and [End Page 75] possible futures that Puerto Rican poet Raquel Salas Rivera aims. Salas Rivera is a young queer Puerto Rican poet from Mayagüez who has been publishing self-translated bilingual poetry since 2013. Their work was recognized in 2018 when they were awarded Poet Laureate of Philadelphia and the National Book Awards long-listed their self-translated Spanish-English book lo terciario/the tertiary.1 Explicating how the debt works on individual persons and social organizations, as well as how to respond against it and construct a world without it, lo terciario/the tertiary powerfully intervenes in discussions of a twenty-first-century global political economy.
Although Puerto Rico's debt crisis parallels the power dynamics of national debt throughout the Global South, Puerto Rico's capacity to negotiate that debt is limited by its commonwealth status as a U.S. colonized territory. For example, when then-governor Alejandro García Padilla sponsored the Puerto Rican Recovery Act, which relied upon Puerto Rico filing for bankruptcy to restructure the debt, an investment group sued the island, and the Supreme Court struck down the Recovery Act. This 2016 decision reaffirmed that, unlike municipalities and the 50 states, Puerto Rico would not be able to avail itself of bankruptcy as a means of restructuring its debt burden.2 Instead, Congress passed the Puerto Rican Oversight Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) in June 2016, which established a Congress-appointed fiscal control board (la junta) to make all debt-related decisions. La junta is therefore empowered to override elected officials' processes to enforce payment to creditors until good credit has been reestablished—even though neither the debt's sum total nor the definition of good credit are ascribed to fixed amounts.
But even if the exact amount of the debt is unknown, what PROMESA makes clear is that Puerto Rico can be forcibly held to account for as long as it has resources to extract for the debt that is largely held by speculative investors. Per its traditional definition, speculative investment follows a "high-risk high-reward" model. Taking on a country's debt for pennies on the dollar would be a high-risk investment because of that country's likelihood to default on its debt to meet its obligations to its own citizens. However, given the colonial dynamic where la junta acts as a debt repayment enforcer, vulture capitalists who invested heavily in Puerto Rico's "junk bonds" can promote [End Page 76] these investments based on the lack of risk.3 Speculation in the financial markets now belies its connotations of uncertainty such that debt speculation has come to signal enrichment guaranteed by uneven relations of power.
lo terciario/the tertiary affectively and materially depicts the debt as a continuation of centuries of colonial assault through the citation of Pedro Scarón's translation of Marx's Capital. Capital is Salas Rivera's model for defining an economic system and exposing its workings. Salas Rivera remixes, recontextualizes, and riffs off of Marx to move Capital to the twenty-first-century Global South by specifying the system under inquiry as the empire of debt...