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Cultural Critique 50 (2002) 135-174

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Space of Resistance
The Puerto Rican Cultural Center and Humboldt Park

Rachel Rinaldo


West of the lofts and rehabbed townhouses of Chicago's Wicker Park lies the country's second largest Puerto Rican community, Humboldt Park. Politics here are fierce, and at the core of several stormy controversies in the neighborhood is the Puerto Rican Cultural Center (PRCC). The twenty-five-year-old institution is a bastion of support for Puerto Rican independence and barrio autonomy. Nationalist ideology permeates the Center's practices of cultural resistance and community building.

In this ethnography of the PRCC, I examine its multifaceted forms of community activism and use its work as a way to probe the forms of power and domination impinging on Puerto Ricans in Humboldt Park. The PRCC's resistance alone is a worthy story, but it can also be used as an analytics of power, as Lila Abu-Lughod proposes. Resistance here is broadly defined, comprising both direct and more subtle responses to prevailing power structures. The PRCC has utilized various strategies of resistance, from demonstrations to performances in art galleries, and their efforts are vital to the fate of a Puerto Rican community in Humboldt Park. Despite the fragmentation and destruction of the left from which it emerged, the Center is a power to be reckoned with in the community.

The PRCC also provides a way to understand the broader connection between space and community in a global city such as Chicago. The digitalization and mobility of our global era have called into question any necessary link between community and a physical space. However, as many theorists have argued, globalization often heightens the significance of territory, most notably in the urban [End Page 135] space of global cities (Sassen 1994, 4-8; Harvey, 293-96). Battles over the gentrification of neighborhoods have become emblematic of urban redevelopment in the information age. Yet what is not clear is where, when, and why some contestations over urban space turn on associating a specific community with a precise territorial location. Is every struggle over gentrification one in which members of a community see their identity as tied to an exact geographical location in the city? Posed more simply, when do community and physical space become synonymous? In order to address the broader questions regarding community and space, we need to understand space as more than just a way to describe a physical location. It is also a means of circumscribing a zone of shared representations. This conceptual framework will help to clarify how a physical territory, in this case Humboldt Park, can be tied to a metaphorical space, here the Puerto Rican community of Chicago. I argue that the PRCC's success and significance emerges in large part from its incorporation of space and spatial strategies into its own tactics of resistance. The PRCC's diverse struggles often are about space as much as anything else, and they provide a way of understanding why space is of such fundamental importance in Humboldt Park.

Henri Lefebvre's work is valuable for developing a theoretical scaffold. For Lefebvre, space is a map not just to be read, but also to be produced and consumed by collective social practice and so a part of everyday experience. Lefebvre contends that space involves social relationships, and so is an arena of social struggle. Space may be dominated by technology and power or appropriated to serve the needs of a resistant group. Recognizing the quotidian dimensions of space allows us to understand that not only does power produce space, but also everyday acts of resistance contest the dominant mapping of space (165).

This theoretical conception of space helps to frame my central question, why have community and physical space become so intertwined in some urban spaces? More specifically, why has the PRCC structured much of its resistance around maintaining the physical location of the Puerto Rican community in Chicago? Why have the two become synonymous for the PRCC and what does that tell us about how power is structured in Humboldt...


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pp. 135-174
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