Ana Livia Cordero’s Proud Vision for the People of Puerto Rico

A group of people sit at a long, homey table for a press conference
Ana Livia Cordero (center) at the press conference with other Proyecto members after an arrest in 1968.
Black power and anti-colonial struggles combine in a poem of popular political education

By Sandy Plácido

The woman in the comic Manela stands with her hands on her hips. She wears a tight ruffled dress, big hoops, and styles her hair in an Afro. Written around 1968, Manela tells the story of a woman’s self-realization: After her husband is drafted into the U.S. Army and dies in Vietnam, Manela returns home to the barrio to fight for its people, gaining pride in her Blackness and her identity as a working-class Puerto Rican.

Manela was one of many creative ways that the Proyecto Piloto de Trabajo con el Pueblo (Pilot Project for Work With the People) organized within communities, teaching Puerto Ricans about the island’s unique position in the struggle against capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism, and connecting those fights to gender, race, and self-image. The Proyecto’s founder, Dr. Ana Livia Cordero, was a Puerto Rican anti-imperialist activist, philosopher, and physician born in 1931 in San Juan. A champion of Puerto Rican independence, Black Power, and Third World liberation, Cordero lived in New York City in the 1950s and Ghana in the 1960s before returning to her birthplace in 1966, where she developed the Proyecto, which combined ideas and practices from Marxism, the social sciences, and the arts, until her death in 1992. Working in a similar vein to decolonial and revolutionary nationalist groups such as the Young Lords and the Black Panthers, and to movements that involved popular education, like those led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Paulo Freire, Cordero made connections between global left movements and Puerto Rico’s specific history.

Cordero wrote a poem that appears in Manela, entitled “Soy Yo,” or “I Am Me.” In the first few stanzas, she uses words that describe various shades of Blackness in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean: negra, morena, mulata, trigueña. Though she was not a dark-skinned woman herself, Cordero’s understanding of the African diaspora was enhanced by her travels across it, and she equated these terms with pride and beauty in an anti-racist gesture that was unusual in Puerto Rican organizing circles at the time. The poem also provides a brief history lesson, explaining how the island was shaped by the exploitation of enslaved Africans on sugar cane plantations, and connected to other “peoples forged in blood / beneath the Antillean sun” in the Caribbean. 

Cordero pushed the exploited and marginalized Puerto Ricans who she worked with to see Black Power in themselves as much as in the streets of Harlem. For Cordero, dismantling the psychological effects of capitalism and colonialism was a first step toward transforming society. “This conditioning of the population into patterns of dependency and self-defeat is the usual colonial control,” she wrote in an early funding proposal. Cordero was aware of how a disempowered self-image had a particularly deleterious effect on Black Puerto Rican women: She saw it in the “scorching combs” and “blond hair dyes” in “imposed imitations / By those who have been the owners.” The Proyecto focused on developing people’s belief in themselves and their ability to act, independent of outside authority. 

In the funding proposal, Cordero explained that Puerto Rico’s “dependent economic ties with the U.S.” led its people to believe they could not solve their own problems — a perceived weakness exacerbated by machismo, Catholicism, and the colonial education system. Today, Puerto Ricans still live within the vicious grip of U.S. capital as they struggle to emerge from a debt crisis and the devastation of Hurricane Maria and future, worsening storms. Cordero’s words are just as relevant to these new symptoms of the same colonialism that she decried in the 1960s.

Soy Yo

Poem by Ana Livia Cordero
Translated by Emmanuel González Roa

Mujer negra,
Mujer morena,
Mujer mulata,
Mujer trigueña,
Mujer que gritas con orgullo.
¡Soy bella!

Bello es mi cuerpo de hembra,
Bella es mi piel canela,
Bello es mi pelo africano,
Corona de mi belleza.

Pelo fuerte, pelo duro,
Marco de mi hermosura,
Pelo que expresa mi orgullo.
Orgullo de borinqueña.
Borinquen del mar Caribe,
Pueblo de caña y de esclavos,
De costa y de arrabal.

Pueblo hermano
De Jamaica y de Quizquella,
De Cuba y de Barbados,
De Santomas y de Haití,
De Trinidad y Tobago,
Pueblos fraguados en sangre
Bajo del sol antillano.

Fuente Africana, fuente negra.
Fuente que ahora en Harlem
Al verlos pasar frente en alto,
Gritando ¡Black Power! Poder Negro!
Saludo en mi propio espejo.

Ya no queremos peinillas quemantes,
Ni lociones exclusivas
Que maltratan mi cabello,
Ni tintes de pelo rubio,
Imitaciones baratas
De pelo que no es el nuestro,
Imitaciones impuestas
Por los que han sido los dueños.

Soy yo,
Yo soy.
Este es mi pelo,
Este es mi pueblo
Con la cabeza en alto
Y construyendo el futuro.

Black woman,
Morena woman,
Mulata woman,
Trigueña woman,
Woman that shouts with pride.
I am beautiful!

Beautiful is my female body,
Beautiful is my cinnamon skin,
Beautiful is my African hair,
Crown of my beauty.

Strong hair, tough hair,
Frame of my gorgeousness,
Hair that expresses my pride.
My Borinqueña pride.

Borinquen from the Caribbean Sea,
A People of sugarcane and slaves,
Of the coast and the slum.

A sibling nation
Of Jamaica and Quizquella,
Of Cuba and of Barbados,
Of St. Thomas and of Haiti,
Of Trinidad and Tobago,
Peoples forged in blood
Beneath the Antillean sun.

African source, Black source.
Source that now in Harlem
Seeing them stride, head held high,
Shouting Black Power! Poder Negro!
I salute in my own mirror.

We don’t want scorching combs anymore,
Nor exclusive lotions
That abuse my hair,
Nor blond hair dyes,
Cheap imitations
Of hair that is not ours,
Imposed imitations
By those who have been the owners.

I am me,
I am.
This is my hair,
This is my People
With our head held high
And building the future.

Sandy Plácido is an assistant professor of history at Queens College of the City University of New York, as well as the inaugural Dominican Studies Scholar at the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute. Plácido, the leading expert on Cordero and the Proyecto, found Cordero’s archive and led the initiative to preserve it at Harvard, where these and other documents are stored. A finding aid and some digitized resources can be found here.