Since 2006, Puerto Rico has been enduring a debt crisis that reached $127 billion and resulted in increased poverty rates, mass migration, and cuts to essential public services.
To investigate what Puerto Ricans and other residents of the island and the diaspora value, and how the current economy can respond to most people’s needs, artist Frances Negrón-Muntaner collaborated with Sarabel Santos Negrón to launch a community currency project Valor y Cambio (Value and Change).
Negrón-Muntaner, who is also a curator, filmmaker, and professor at Columbia University, explains the initiative’s first phase that ran from February 8-17 in Puerto Rico. (The project is now on tour in New York City through the fall). An earlier, Spanish-version of the interview can be read in 80grados.net.
What is “Value and Change”?
FNM: Value and Change (valorycambio.org) is an interactive storytelling and community currency project that seeks to challenge neoliberal policies in Puerto Rico, the United States, and beyond through investigating what participants value, and introducing a community currency, “Personas de Pesos Puerto Rico” or “pesos” for short, as a way to share valuable stories and practice exchange-base economies.
To set the project in motion, we designed an initial series of six “banknotes” that ranged from one to 25 pesos and featured images of Puerto Rican historical figures and an iconic community. We also reconfigured an ATM bank machine that we named VyC (acronym of Value and Change) to record people’s stories and dispense the project’s bills. To obtain a bill, the VyC asked participants to tell us about what they valued, how their communities can support what they value, and what people or groups are already sustaining these values. Participants could then exchange the bill for items at businesses and organizations located in several neighborhoods and cities, including San Juan, Caño Martín Peña, Bayamón, Rio Piedras, Cupey, Miramar, Humacao, and later, New York.
What is a community currency?
FNM: A community or complementary currency is one that communities, industries, or groups create to meet their particular exchange needs. Community currencies vary greatly: they can be organized as time banks where the unit of value and exchange is time, or supported by national currencies. In general, they do not replace the national or main currency, but offer ways to strengthen local activity and build solidarity economies that are not based on profit and accumulation. There are numerous community currencies circulating around the world; just in Spain there are hundreds.
Our initiative also views the use of community currencies as a challenge to the idea that communities, groups, or people with little access to the formal or dominant economy are inherently poor. While not having employment in that economy may mean less access to basic products and services, many communities called “poor” can be rich in how they build relationships, in addition to having resources and competencies in multiple areas such as engineering, healthcare, agriculture, and the arts. In this way, community currencies can value and facilitate the exchange of these talents and knowledge to support communities and regions.
Moreover, in a captive market like Puerto Rico, where US and transnational for profit companies dominate and extract enormous wealth, community currencies can have an additional impact. As the bills would only circulate in Puerto Rico and the diaspora, they can support local economies instead of enriching large corporations. This is the way they are used in places like Bristol in England and in Fortaleza, Brazil. In addition, community currencies open the possibility for residents to develop their own monetary policies and thus collectively recognize and validate what they value.
How did Value and Change begin?
FNM: For me, it was a combination of revelations, questions, and discoveries. One happened last year when Vanessa Pérez-Rosario, editor of Small Axe interviewed me about the work I was doing as part of Unpayable Debt, a research group on global debt that I co-direct at Columbia University (New York). For two years, several members devoted themselves to studying the economic crisis of the Puerto Rico in a global and comparative context. The process made me think of a concept I had not dedicated much time to before: money. What is money? How does it acquire value? How can money be a strategy to reconfigure the prevailing economy? I realized that while money in itself is “nothing,” it can also tell stories, configure relationships, and be part of political change.
A second revelation emerged when reading about how, in 2013, while Ireland continued to deal with the economic crisis of 2008, the government promoted a conversation about what people value in order to develop new curricula and inform policy. I realized that this public conversation had not occurred in Puerto Rico, but it seemed very urgent to have it there.
The third had to do with art. From the beginning, our working group identified the arts as one of the key practices to imagine and share other ways of thinking and acting in the face of austerity crises, and I also noticed that solidarity economy projects are frequently initiated by artists. With this in mind, last year I organized an exhibition called Puerto Rico Under Water: Artistic Perspectives on the Debt Crisis in the Gallery of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University. The curatorial process confirmed to me that artists were performing important work in investigating the affects of debt, producing different subjectivities, and challenging state and corporate discourses. Equally significant, the process made me more familiar with the work of Sarabel Santos Negrón, one of the exhibition’s artists, who produced a series of photographs documenting what I would call the “debris” of the debt crisis. After the exhibition, I approached Sarabel and told her about the idea of the currency. She immediately agreed to collaborate and we began to work on the design of the bills.
The bills are beautiful. How did the design come about?
FNM: Sarabel and I studied national, social, and artistic currencies from around the world. In this process we saw the great potential of currency to tell different stories and circulate other values and ways to think about what is valuable. We also conducted an informal survey of people living in Puerto Rico and in the diaspora. We asked what figures, communities or places embody the values we had identified as fundamental to the project – equity, justice, solidarity and creativity – and likewise allowed us to discuss current critical issues such as public education and access to healthcare, clean environment, self-government, food security, just distribution of wealth, and racial and gender equity.
It was difficult to select only six stories from the resulting list. In the end we chose figures from the past and communities of the present, who have acted according to shared values that have enriched the lives of others. They are (generally in order of birth): the siblings Gregoria, Celestina and Rafael Cordero; Ramón Emeterio Betances, Luisa Capetillo, Julia de Burgos, Roberto Clemente and the eight communities of the Caño Martín Peña, an urban neighborhood of 25,000 people adjacent to San Juan’s banking district. Another part of the design was that we inserted a QR code on the back of the bills. This element is an integral part of the exchanges that the project sets in motion: In exchange for telling us what they value, the code directs the participants to our website to get more information about the stories, figures and communities that we value.
Why not design a virtual currency?
FNM: Despite being in the era of digital and speculative currency, like BitCoin, we chose a paper currency that can be passed from hand to hand. We thought that this could be used to start conversations and facilitate the creation of new collective visions. And that’s what happened. Project participants sometimes exchanged or compared notes while waiting in line, and shared ideas and aspirations. This does not mean that I consider that community currencies “must” be in paper. There are virtual one such as the Ossetana of Andalucia. As everything that has to do with community currencies, its design and mode of circulation must be related to the needs of users.
How many bills circulated?
FNM: In the nine days of the project in Puerto Rico, approximately 1600 bills of all denominations circulated. To avoid overwhelming the participating small businesses we limited the circulation of the 21 and 25 bills. But eventually we saw that this precaution was not necessary. We found that most people wanted to keep the bills instead of exchanging them for products or services. We immediately started to inquire about this practice and learned that for many participants, what the bill represented far exceeded its exchange value.
Why do you think this happened?
We will be reflecting more on this in the months to come but my sense so far is that people kept the bills as a way to value themselves and their communities. And we can contextualize that response in multiple ways. One is that the currency used in Puerto Rico is not simply that of another country, but of a colonizing nation-state that also only includes figures of men who identify themselves as white, representatives of the state, and / or holders of racist genocidal, or heterosexist policies. The idea of a currency that circulates images and stories of women, blacks, Puerto Ricans; migrants and children of immigrants; writers, doctors, educators, athletes, thinkers, feminists, union organizers; individuals as well as families and communities; affirmed that there are other ways to count and to value. And the project did it using one of the most powerful signifiers of US colonialism in Puerto Rico: money.
I also think that for some people, the bills meant the possibility of a more just, inclusive and equitable Puerto Rico in the present. Therefore, to the extent that this stage of the project lasted only a few days and there was doubt that it would be extended, most people chose to keep the bills as a symbol. If money is a “promise” of payment and the body that imposes austerity in Puerto Rico was created by a law called PROMESA, the bills represented a very different kind of promise.
What is the next step of Value and Change?
The next phase is to share what we learned from the process and from over one thousand recorded responses. We will mainly do this in three ways: with a report about the content of the recordings, with a documentary video about the project’s trajectory, and with other public activities, such as conversations or talks in different forums. We are also very aware that many people on the island have not been able to participate and want to take part, especially outside the San Juan metro area. We are currently thinking on how to achieve this goal.
How have you measured the success of the project?
FNM: Talking about success is difficult because the effects may take a long time to manifest and may not be what we imagine or assume. But, measured by the values and immediate objectives of the project, one could say that Valor y Cambio was fruitful from the first conversation as nearly everyone wanted to participate, even if it entailed the possibility of “losing” money and “wasting” time. And though the project’s first phase did not last long and was not extensively promoted, thousands of people participated directly and online. As a result, in a short period of time, we managed to broaden the conversation about solidarity economies and present the idea of a community currency and its possible uses in Puerto Rico.
Moreover, by May, only three months later, Valor y Cambio moved to New York City to engage Puerto Rican and other communities there. At the moment, we are working with at least four communities that are considering adopting their own currency and developing networked exchange economies on (and perhaps across) the island and the diaspora.
The project similarly circulated a certain joy or what I’m calling in an upcoming essay “decolonial joy,” which I define as an emotion of varying duration that results when people can glimpse and feel the possibility of a different future where neither colonialism nor coloniality dominate their lives. This suggests that, contrary to the impression among many that Puerto Ricans and others are apathetic or lack a collective vision, there is in many a deep hunger for a different society, and ways for people to relate otherwise. In this way, Valor y Cambio showed that not only other worlds are possible, but that we can live them every day, including through relatively small gestures such as imagining a currency, sharing a story, and valuing each other.
Frances Negrón-Muntaner is a filmmaker, writer, curator, scholar and professor at Columbia University, where she is also the founding curator of the Latino Arts and Activism Archive. Among her books and publications are: Boricua Pop: Puerto Ricans and the Latinization of American Culture (CHOICE Award, 2004), The Latino Media Gap (2014), and Sovereign Acts: Contesting Colonialism in Native Nations and Latinx America (2017). Her most recent films include Small City, Big Change (2013), War for Guam (2015) and Life Outside (2016). For her work as a scholar and filmmaker, Negrón-Muntaner has received Ford, Truman, Rockefeller, and Pew fellowships. She is currently the director of Unpayable Debt, a working group at Columbia University that studies debt regimes in the world and lead collaborator in two of its main projects NoMoreDebt: Caribbean Syllabus(first and second edition), and Valor y Cambio (Value and Change), a storytelling and community currency project in Puerto Rico.