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  • Colonial Debts: The Case of Puerto Rico by Rocío Zambrana
  • Joaquín Villanueva
Rocío Zambrana
Colonial Debts: The Case of Puerto Rico.
Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 2021. Pp. i-xii; 1-264. $24.95 paperback (ISBN: 9781478011835); $94.95 hardcover (ISBN: 978148010722); $00.00 ebook (ISBN: 9781478013198).

In the social sciences, puerto rico has traditionally been treated as a case study, a place for data extraction, not theory-making. Researchers come with ready-made theoretical frameworks, often drawn from European and North American intellectual traditions, to collect data on people, institutions, and sites across Puerto Rico in order to prove what they already knew. Puerto Rico is often thought about, yet researchers seldom think with Puerto Rico and its people. Rocío Zambrana breaks with that academic colonial tradition, embracing instead the motto of the Caribbean Philosophical Association: “shifting the geography of reason”. In Colonial Debts, Zambrana theorizes with Puerto Rico and the diaspora to account for the ways in which debt actualizes colonial violences and to help us locate the sites of resistances to the coloniality of debt.

Zambrana engages with Puerto Rican thought to argue that “[d]ebt functions as a form of coloniality” (p. 10). In Puerto Rico, the actualization of coloniality through debt “posits the colony anew” (p. 14). In other words, the case of Puerto Rico demonstrates how coloniality operates in post-colonial and colonial contexts through the re-inscription of race/gender/class hierarchies “posited by the history of colonial violence that produced the modern capitalist world” (p. 11). The verb actualize does a lot of work for the author throughout the book, as Zambrana takes recourse on it to suggest how the original colonial violence that inaugurated modernity in the Caribbean is still present today, working through debt to reproduce the colony and its economy, one based on the extraction of wealth through life. That colonial violence, however, adapts to changing conditions and circumstances, responding to “capital’s changing needs” (p. 24). The violence of conquest and colonization remains operational across time and space, working its way through a system of race/gender/class hierarchies that is “ongoingly” updated and actualized to serve the needs of capital and its agents (p. 37–38). Coloniality is the reproduction (i.e. actualization) of that classifica-tory system that enables the re-articulation of colonial violence. Debt is therefore a form of colonial violence that works through and updates race/gender/class hierarchies, seeping through colonial life in order to “capture” [End Page 222] the last bit of wealth left even after centuries of continual squeezing (p. 22). To me, this section is the book’s main contribution to the now vast literature on debt.

This book is organized thematically around key debates on debt. In the first chapter, Zambrana reads Maurizio Lazzarato’s theorizations on the “making of the indebted man” and puts it to the test against Puerto Rican legal scholar and activist, Ariadna Godreau-Aubert’s “pedagogy of the indebted woman”, setting the tone for the rest of the book which seeks to theorize from/with Puerto Rico. The second chapter revolves around a critique of Puerto Rican sociologist José Atiles’ important theorizations on the state of exception. In contrast to Atiles, Zambrana argues that a focus on sovereign decisions and declarations of emergency, a defining feature of present-day Puerto Rico, occludes the far longer temporality upon which those decisions are based. A declaration of emergency, Zambrana argues, is “already too late” (p. 81). The temporal critique segues into the third chapter, where Zambrana sketches the most consequential argument of the book, that “financial debt indexes historical debts” (p. 84). Indebtedness, Zambrana argues, “opens up a space and time of reckoning” (p. 97), by allowing those in debt to question and interrupt the historical geographies of violence, dispossession, and abjection that make debt (an apparatus of capture) possible. The fourth chapter engages with the various forms of “subversive interruption” – such as vagancia queer (queer laziness) and perreo intenso (intense dance)– that have been given life in Puerto Rico by indebted subjects intent on halting the cycle of violence that debt seeks to actualize.

The conclusion of...