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Summer Research Report: Yairamaren Roman Maldonado on Digital Stories and Popular Voices in Puerto Rico

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Yairamaren Roman Maldonado received a summer research award from the BCNM to support her dissertation research on reclaiming Puerto Rico’s origin story through digital storytelling! Here’s what she discovered with the grant:

Right after my arrival to Puerto Rico I went to an art installation by Marisol Plard Nárvaez titled 12 vecinas (12 female neighbors) inside a reclaimed building of the community La Perla. This community is located behind the old Spanish fort “El Morro” (a popular tourist trap in Old San Juan). The installation consisted of twelve neighbors intermittently appearing in screens telling their stories as if they were engaging in conversation with each other, and us. The twelve screens were mounted on walls or set on top of furniture. We were all standing in the middle of the conversation between the twelve neighbors as they spoke about marginalization, school drop outs, and federal government abuses in their community. They were telling us their personal stories and how each social issue impacts them directly. This installation was a fusion between a kind of politically charged and compelling video art (the screening and montage), story telling (their voices) and performance (what was required of us as viewers). Most importantly, through the means of new media manipulation, 12 vecinas gathers stories that would otherwise remain confined within the community of La Perla and recreates a conversation that very few of us could possibly experience otherwise.

I edited a video clip that included fragments of the stories told by the twelve neighbors. This was one of the first cultural objects I showed the youth participating in the pilot study I was conducting about literature and digital story-telling. Since the young participants were mostly from barrios in Río Piedras that live and face similar conditions to those of La Perla, it seemed not only productive but also necessary to share this work with them. Following the screening of the 12 vecinas fragments, they were introduced to contemporary writer Guillermo Rebollo-Gil. At first, most of them resisted words like “poetry” or “literature”. However, there was an image we used to simplify the process of writing for them.

“Imagine you grab a white poster and you start writing all the things that piss you off about the government so that you can later stand up at a protest, is that poetry?” asked Rebollo-Gil early in the session. Some participants said this was not poetry; others were hesitant to a speedy judgment. Towards the end of our first session, however, the room was filled with silence while they all focused in filling up their pieces of paper with words, lists and original verses. Some of them spoke about how the recent events in Orlando’s mass shooting at Pulse upset them and criticized homophobia. Others expressed concerns about the racism they experience daily. Towards the end of the session they were taught how the open-source software Audacity works and they completed a recording of their texts. In the following session they were introduced to the application iMovie in order to produce their full digital stories.

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Around our third session, we delved into the specific topic of colonialism. Some of them pointed out its illegality while others did not fully understand it. Towards the end of the discussion, the young participants had arrived to somewhat of a consensus in between them regarding the definition of colonialism in Puerto Rico’s context. Following this, we read a fragment of a poem by Puerto Rican writer Eduardo Lalo and I asked them to remake this poem after its first line “país” (country). After working on the remake, they went out with some of the tablets to gather pictures of their community that could be representative of these verses. They ended up producing a collective digital-story that questions the misuse of government funds, the prolonged historical colonization of the island and ends with allusions to memory and history.

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In order to continue working with the data collected. I will be attending the Qualitative Data Analysis course at the Digital Humanities at Berkeley Summer Institute. I plan to use the software MaxQDA to code and analyze the group discussions audio and 6 digital stories collected in the field. Using this data analysis, I will explore the relevance of popular voices in studying colonialism in Puerto Rico vis-à-vis contemporary literature. I will also consider the scope/challenges of using technology in under-served communities of the global south and how literature along with technology can stimulate spaces of critical thought, empowerment and cultural agency for younger populations.

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