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Chicago’s Puerto Rican Activists Turned The Horrors Of Colonialism Into A Haunted House

Chicago Boricua Resistance made a haunted house out of imperialism in “Colonialism Undead” at the Segundo Ruis Belviz Cultural Center this Halloween. The creators hoped the installation would highlight the horrors of Spanish and U.S. colonial rule in Puerto Rico. 

While there is nothing more terrifying than intimate details of colonialism — like the fact that Conquistadors rode the backs of Taínos instead of walking sometimes out of laziness — the haunted house isn’t solely fixated on the darkest aspects of history. 

The event describes itself as “a haunted house showcasing the horrors of colonialism in Puerto Rico with a reggaeton-resistance get down against oppression.” All proceeds of the event will support arts and culture initiatives, apprenticeships, and programs with local guest curators. 

The haunted house is made of four rooms that will highlight different historical horrors.

While there are no ghouls or demons in the house, its four rooms will trace a different period in Puerto Rican history. The 16th-century Spanish colonization, the United States annexation in 1898 and Hurricane Maria will each be showcased. 

Puerto Rican history is no stranger to horrors: genocide, slavery, pillaging, plundering, natural disasters, and economic exploitation have riddled the country for centuries. 

“Colonialism is scary as hell,” Miguel Alvelo, a member of Chicago Boricua Resistance, told PRI. “When you look at it — when you really look at it — it is terrifying. But the thing is, as colonized people, we’ve normalized it so much, we don’t really think about it.”

“Colonialism Undead” makes imperialism more tangible to understand.

The house hopes to defamiliarize abstract notions of colonialism into something in the tangible world that visitors can engage with. 

“Turning this supposedly abstract idea of colonialism into a haunted house is a way of bringing back the reality of what’s happening,” Alvelo said. 

The venue is meant to be dark and moody, but it is more like a chilling art installation than a place where actors in costumes will pop up to scare you. Using archival footage and audio and original works of art, the space will bring history back to life. 

According to PRI, the structure of the roof is made of blue FEMA tarp as an illusion to Hurricane Maria. The tarp belonged to Ephram Ramirez Jr., a member of the collective’s father who survived the disaster with his 93-year-old grandfather in San Sebastián. Today, Ramirez says the road by his father’s home is impassable because it has not been repaired to the extent a banana tree has grown in the middle of it. 

Yes, there will be ghosts, actually. 

While all of the details of the haunted house are kept hush-hush, Chicago Boricua Resistance said there would be ghosts. One of them is Dr. Cornelius Rhoads, an American oncologist who conducted experiments on Puerto Ricans. In 1931, the doctor injected research subjects with cancer cells. 

In a letter made infamous by its scathing racism, Rhodes proudly admitted to murdering eight Puerto Ricans. The letter which will be featured in the exhibit says Puerto Ricans are, “the dirtiest, laziest, most degenerate and thievish race of men ever inhabiting this sphere.”

Other historical ghosts will be featured and judging by Rhoads’ inclusion, they’re sure to be pretty scary too. 

The 1937 Ponce Massacre will be centered among other atrocities. 

“Some of the older aspects of colonialism seem like the most raw and outrageous things, but there’s a lot of present-day things that are just as outrageous,” Omar Torres Kortright, executive director of the cultural center, told PRI. 

The event will have a nod to the 1937 Ponce Massacre, where peaceful protestors organized to oppose the imprisonment of Nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos were shot at by police who killed 17 unarmed civilians and injured 200. Among the massacre, the forced sterilization of a third of Puerto Rico’s women which began in 1936 and ended in the 1970s, the 3000 who died during Hurricane Maria, and an influx of wealthy white investors will be addressed at the show. 

“It’s like a second invasion,” Kortright said of the investors. “They’re buying our land. And they’re taking out our young people that have been trying to keep that land. I think that we’re in that process where we’re going to lose our land, and we’re going to lose our home, basically. And that’s the huge risk of this normalization.”

The exhibit ends with a reggaeton resistance because the intention is to activate Puerto Ricans and allies against the looming and current oppressive forces. 

“In a world that is telling you over and over again that you’re not worth anything, that you should stay quiet and you should follow the rules, taking time to be loud, have fun, have pleasure — is a form of resistance,” Alvelo said. 

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