dLOC as Practice: Decolonial Approaches to Listening and Remembering


“dLOC as Practice: Decolonial Approaches to Listening” situates the Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC) as a model for decolonial practices in archiving that extends its value as digital repository to include recognition of the library’s methodological blueprint for equitable and just modes of disseminating recorded materials from marginalized communities. The coauthors of this essay have been independently and collaboratively impacted by the decolonial practices of archiving developed and promoted by dLOC and therefore employ a self-reflexive approach to project design as a means of asserting that this digital repository is as influential for its methodological practices as it is for its collections. Analyzing the development of three mass-listening projects related to climatological disaster in the Puerto Rican archipelago that were shaped by the decolonial practices of dLOC, this essay includes multimodal examples of digital texts emergent from the projects, each of which employ sound theory to present more nuanced and complex understandings of disaster narratives. The coauthors argue that this multimodal project design was made possible in part through their engagement with dLOC.

Archives reveal silences or gaps in the cultural record. As Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot observes, “Silences enter the process of historical production at four crucial moments: the moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narrative); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history).”1 King Ferdinand’s letter to the Taíno and Arawak peoples is an example of one text that is present in all four sites of meaning-making: sources, archives, narrative, and history.

When, in 1493, Christopher Columbus set foot on the island that would come to be known as Puerto Rico and claimed all he could see for the Spanish monarchy—kidnapping Indigenous peoples and collecting raw materials everywhere he went—he set the stage for the extractive practices that have undermined this contested space for generations, setting up the intergenerational silencing ingrained in systemic racism and the marginalization bred of colonial practices. Ferdinand’s infamous letter (c. 1500) that followed these journeys of contact and exploitation articulated the Euro-colonizing belief that the king had divine rights over the peoples and places described in Columbus’s letters and journals. The monarch explained that he believed this divine right—credited to Pope Alexander VI and the Catholic Church—gave him privilege to do what he willed with them. The letter concludes with Ferdinand threatening that “should you fail to comply [with his decree] . . . we shall use force against you, declaring war upon you from all sides . . . enslave your persons . . . sell you . . . seize your possessions and harm you as much as we can.”2 These documents, intertwined in the advent of European colonization in the Americas—and in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean more specifically—remind us that, foundationally, colonialism is about the violence of extraction, the taking of people, resources, goods, and ideas from the colonized in order to serve the needs (real or imagined) of the colonizing power. Moreover, their privileged spaces in archives work to uphold the ideals of these documents and the colonial entitlement they proclaim.

In contrast, the response(s) of the Taíno and Arawak are not present in any historical sources. By shaping the narrative about Puerto Rico through Ferdinand and the Spaniard’s perspective, the archive was developed and still functions as a colonial tool: it praises those who gain power through the extraction of labor and resources from other peoples and erases those who are exploited by these systems. Erasure and extraction are inextricably linked; institutions and governments extract resources and, once they do, not only claim ownership over them but also shape the narrative around them through the archive. Those narratives—told from the perspective of the colonizer—erase the knowledge, experiences, and culture of communities who have had their resources extracted and leave gaps, or silences, in the cultural record.

As J. J. Ghaddar and Michelle Caswell note, “The story of a nation’s origin, its history and myths, serve as a vital script for citizenship and guide citizens in understanding who does and does not belong to the nation, and their place in the world. They help people to come to know and experience themselves as part of a nation with a particular population, territory and history.” These scripts are often developed through the archives—places where powerful institutions can develop and promote narratives about national identity by selecting and sharing artifacts with their publics. One such artifact is Ferdinand’s letter to the Taíno and Arawak; a letter that attempts to justify Spanish conquest of Puerto Rico and other places in the Caribbean. This letter—widely available from multiple sources—has been deemed so important to the cultural history of the Americas that it has been preserved for hundreds of years. But what about the Taíno and Arawak response to this letter? What about the responses of Indigenous peoples in the Americas at large? Where is their story? Why is it much harder to find?

As Christina highlights in her sonic essay, “One way to combat silence is through resonance. In music, resonance occurs when a sound is amplified due to a sympathetic vibration.” In archives, resonance—and sound—can take a variety of forms, including music, oral history, soundscapes, and more. As with other artifacts, sound pieces can and often do benefit the colonizer; take, for example, songs like UB40’s “Red, Red Wine” and the Piglets’ “Johnny Reggae.” Decolonial archival praxis requires us to “rethink assumptions and taken-for-granted ideas and approaches in archival studies. And they call on us to consider alternative approaches that engage and incorporate ideas, insights and critiques from the literature and bodies of knowledge outside our field.”3 Oral histories offer one powerful example, emphasizing lived experience as a site and source of knowledge. When focused on the experiences of those who are often marginalized and silenced, their “resonance is dangerous. . . . It threatens many of the constructs that give us comfort and that influence our view of the world.”4 This discomfort is exactly what is needed to engage in decolonial praxis that resists extractive notions of knowledge production and circulation.

The relationship between colonialism and storytelling has long been a site of scholarly exploration. For example, the archival turn of the 1990s—a shift in scholarly perceptions that acknowledged the archive’s role in promoting and sustaining dominant narratives—resulted in these practices being critiqued at length. More recently, scholars such as Michelle Caswell, Ricardo Punzalan, T-Kay Sangawand, and Marika Cifor have argued for practices such as postcustodial archiving, which push back against colonial practices by giving content creators “control of their archival records while archivists provide management support.”5 This model is particularly suitable in Puerto Rico, where “colonialism renders such capitalist-based . . . stories the most interesting and worthwhile, and therefore tellable. Puerto Rico’s long history of being colonized lends itself to these predatory kinds of stories.”6

By applying postcustodial methods to sound-based artifacts, archival projects can share the stories of people and communities in their own voice and under their own terms. Sound is particularly important in the Caribbean context because it challenges notions of coloniality. Tao Leigh Goffe terms this “sonic un/mapping”—a way of “challenging the fixity of Columbus’s colonial map through a sonic and lyrical reordering of time and space.”7 Sonic engagement with the Caribbean makes it possible to engage with knowledges and experiences beyond those promoted in colonial artifacts, whether they be Ferdinand’s letter or the failed US response to Hurricanes Irma and María in Puerto Rico. As Ricia observes in her sonic essay, “While we can easily recognize the very necessary role of sound in gathering oral history recordings, perhaps less apparent is the function of sound in narrative transactions. The invitation to speak and be listened to in the aftermaths of natural disasters—and the very human-made disasters of failed governmental relief efforts—has the potential to resituate narrators from a disempowered, silenced mass to individuals who are heard and, in this case, the listener becomes witness to testimonio, a functionality that is amplified through different forms of dissemination, including archiving, public exhibition, and other forms of digital and traditional publication.”

Recognizing that the history and present of Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, and the Americas are built on aggressions in which a colonizing power evaluates and interacts with places and spaces based on what it can take from them—and that this practice succeeds in part through the erasure of dissenting voices—the coauthors of this essay work together to think through contemporary decolonial methodologies for engaging with, studying, and amplifying life stories about the stratified disasters that have impacted the Puerto Rican archipelago in recent memory—including hurricanes, earthquakes, COVID-19, the ongoing economic depression, and austerity measures put in place by an externally appointed fiscal control board, the Junta de Supervisión Fiscal. As we strive to develop research practices to counter models of extraction and erasure that position communities as sources rather than partners, we turn to the Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC) as an example of developing structural systems for institutional-community partnerships that follow feminist collaborative models of equity and inclusion for all participants.

At the core of our reflection and analysis in this essay, then, is the assertion that dLOC functions both as an important repository that preserves and disseminates cultural memory and an invaluable model of decolonial practices. Postcustodial agreements that share both ownership and control over archival materials, support for multilingual archives, in-community workshops that teach preservation strategies to nonspecialists, and support of multimodal textuality that surpasses antiquated ideations of what materials are worthy of preservation are just a few examples of the ways dLOC models decolonial practices through its project design and related activities. We argue that the concept of equitable archival and dissemination practices developed by dLOC shapes external projects not only as a resource for important and otherwise difficult to locate materials but also as an example of liberatory methodologies that fight against systemic modes of extraction and erasure. In other words, dLOC as a structure and system models socially just research and scholarship in the Caribbean and beyond. Each of us has completed individually a project in which dLOC has been influential to our models of engagement, analysis, and dissemination. Ricia is the director of the mass-listening project, “Mi María: Puerto Rico after the Hurricane,” which is evolving to consider stratified disasters, including COVID-19. Her attendance at the 2019 NEH Summer Seminar, “Migration, Mobility, and Sustainability: Caribbean Studies and Digital Humanities,” led by dLOC and a team from the George A. Smathers Libraries at the University of Florida, has been influential in her project conceptualization and practice. Christina’s work has had a number of names, including “Hurricane Memorial” (2015–17), the “María Memory Bank” (2017–18), and the Archivo de Respuestas Emergencias de Puerto Rico (AREPR) (2018–present). Each project highlights oral histories of Puerto Ricans’ lived experiences during and after disaster.

In this essay we will self-reflexively discuss our individual project designs as impacted by our experiences with dLOC with specific attention to decolonial practice in collection and dissemination. In support of this analysis, we each offer a sonic essay that exemplifies how sound influences both our digital projects and our approaches to decolonial archival praxis. In conclusion, we will reflect upon how the work of these individual projects has impacted our current research methodologies as collaborators on the AREPR project, a digital repository of Puerto Rican emergency response artifacts pertaining to Hurricanes Irma and María (2017), the earthquakes (2019–present), and COVID-19 (2020–present). AREPR is actively working with dLOC to share materials via its website, ensuring materials are available to audiences across the Caribbean.

While our conversation in this essay centers on the twice-colonized Puerto Rican archipelago and the work of decolonial practice to undermine systems of extraction that position marginalized communities as existing for the betterment of the colonizer, it is important to recognize that these observations and arguments are not limited to a singular location within the places and spaces of Western colonization and the contemporary economic colonization that the United States enacts upon innumerable peoples both within and outside of the geography of the nation. Rather, modes of extractive scholarship exist in multiple contested spaces and it is our intent that the concepts discussed in this essay will be pertinent to other communities struggling under the weight of colonial practice, systemic racism, and the ongoing assault on frontline communities that unequally and unjustly bear the burden of the contemporary climate emergency.

Hurricanes of History (Christina)

My own experience with archival silences began in 2015 when I was researching the San Felipe II or Lake Okeechobee hurricane of 1928. This hurricane was devastating for both the Caribbean and the mainland United States, with its most severe effects occurring in Puerto Rico and central Florida. According to El Nuevo Día, the most widely circulated newspaper in Puerto Rico, “El huracán María no superó a San Felipe II según un informe preliminar” (“Hurricane María did not surpass [the strength of] the San Felipe II Hurricane”).8 Although San Felipe is the one of the deadliest events to occur on US soil, the legacy of the storm has largely been lost to history. One reason is that the individuals most affected—Puerto Ricans in the Caribbean and Bahamian migrant workers in Florida—are colonial subjects whose needs and interests are continually subjugated for the benefit of those in power.

For example, in the wake of San Felipe II the United States intervened in the disaster recovery process by replacing Governor Horace Mann Towner with Theodore Roosevelt Jr. Although Roosevelt has received much praise for his leadership of Puerto Rico—particularly because he was the first governor to make a concentrated effort to learn Spanish—his decisions were grounded in a mentality of colonialism. As such, his request for and use of federal aid after the hurricane was austere at best. Notably, in his first annual report to Congress, he disparaged the island for its storm-related debts and enacted a financial plan that focused entirely on eradicating them, even if it came at a cost to Puerto Rican citizens. For example, Roosevelt closed a number of schools across the island and encouraged the others to focus largely on vocational trades, particularly farming. He believed Puerto Ricans were best suited to labor-intensive jobs and pushed this view heavily, particularly as he believed it would result in a boost to the island’s economy.9

Roosevelt’s response mirrored that of the federal government. While Calvin Coolidge initially sent ships with food and supplies to the island, “by the end of the week, officials were saying the best way to rebuild Porto Rico was to put people to work, not hand them charity.”10 This response, which bears an uncanny resemblance to that of Donald Trump and Governor Ricky Rosselló after Hurricane María, had significant consequences for the island. Federal money provided limited aid to Puerto Rico, even though the storm left “medio millón de puertorriqueños sin hogar y pérdidas ascendentes a $85 millones” (“a half million Puerto Ricans without homes and with losses in excess of $85 million”).11 As such, many local industries—coffee, sugarcane, and tobacco—collapsed and government services—schools, water treatment, road maintenance—halted.12

During my first visit to Puerto Rico in March 2017, I interviewed four individuals who had lived through San Felipe. Their stories illustrated the many ways disaster recovery hurt Puerto Rican citizens—by prioritizing businesses over people and by prioritizing recent arrivals from the mainland United States over Puerto Rican citizens.13 As I transcribed these interviews during the summer and early fall of 2017, I watched with horror as Hurricanes Irma and María made landfall in Puerto Rico. As in 1928, disparities in the federal government’s response to the hurricane in Puerto Rico and Florida made evident the ways colonialism was and is embedded into the disaster recovery process. Aid resources and financial support were distributed efficiently in Florida, while policies like the Jones Act of 1920 prevented Puerto Rico from receiving aid at its moment of greatest need. Other federal government actions, including the delay of $20 billion in aid14 and the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017,15 increased the vulnerability of Puerto Ricans and made it easier for outside entities to capitalize on Puerto Rico’s trauma.

When I saw how similar the responses to San Felipe and María were, I knew I needed to shift my attention to the failed disaster response occurring in front of me. I reached out to colleagues and spoke at conferences about my research, hoping to connect with others interested in examining issues pertaining to disaster and disaster response. During this time, I met Laurie Taylor, dLOC’s digital scholarship director. Laurie not only introduced me to many of my current collaborators but also provided insight and expertise on building relationships with researchers and community groups across the Caribbean. These conversations mark the early days of the Archivo de Respuestas Emergencias de Puerto Rico, though I didn’t know that yet. Before the project could begin in earnest, I needed to build a community with scholars and activists doing the crucial work of documenting, acting, and organizing in response to María and the crises that followed. One of these conversations—focused on decolonial approaches to oral history—was with Ricia. Her work with the “Mi María” project was and is crucial to developing a vision for AREPR.

You can listen to the audio essay below, and read the transcription on dLOC. 16

Sound In and As Disaster Narrative

After the Hurricane (Ricia)

Hurricane María made landfall in the Puerto Rican archipelago on 20 September 2017. It destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes, businesses, and farms; was responsible for massive deforestation; led to shortages of food and potable water; knocked out electricity, running water, telecommunications, and internet; caused the largest blackout in US history; led to mass migration; and ultimately caused thousands of deaths, as well as other humanitarian crises. Courses at the University of Puerto Rico–Mayagüez (UPRM), where I teach, resumed a scant six weeks after the climatological disaster. The campus reopened in large part because it was one of the only locations on the west coast that had somewhat stable electricity and running water, and even intermittent internet service. All of these resources served the material needs of students who had experienced massive losses, physical and mental. Many of the students were thrown into precarity due to sustained lack of access to food, potable water, shelter, and medical and mental health care. In short, the university provided sanctuary and sustenance to its on-campus community as well as aid to surrounding neighborhoods. Many faculty members, including me, worked to address students’ material needs following the hurricane. My initial response was to organize informal meals for students with whatever resources I could locate at our often-barren grocery stores and cook on my one-burner camp stove. For the first meal, I made such treats as a calabaza pie with a crust made from stale saltines and a black bean salad featuring Spam and canned mandarin oranges. One student, Joan, wept when she saw the food laid out in front of her and later explained that she had lost her home in the hurricane and was sleeping on a friend’s couch so that she could continue studying.17 Feeling lucky to have shelter, Joan neglected to tell anyone that she did not have enough money for food. She had been buying one box of Ritz crackers per week and making it last for seven days. My messy buffet was the most food she had seen in over a month. Numerous similar stories of disaster were left unheard in the aftermath. News media and government offices often could not conceptualize who was in need, or they deemed experiences like Joan’s inconsequential.

I began “Mi María'' as a pedagogical project in response to this interchange with Joan and others like it in which boundaries between the classroom and lived experiences necessarily collapsed as we attempted to survive together in the hurricane’s long aftermath. In recognition of our shared roles as coparticipants in large-scale cultural trauma, I hastily remade classroom lessons within the contexts of our new postdisaster landscape to be more relevant to these ongoing experiences of disaster. In the academic year following María, I offered a sequence of oral history courses related to processing this communal trauma. Narrative transactions such as those conducted through oral history have the ability to resituate those disempowered by tragedy through the act of storytelling, in which the narrator is positioned as the agential protagonist, an act relevant to both the narrator who tells their story and the oral historian—in this case student collaborators—who record and disseminate life narratives. This course sequence offered pedagogical opportunities for students to engage in active learning that stemmed from classroom-community partnerships connected to their home communities while investing them in bilingual oral, written, and digital aspects of a public humanities project that has clear and relevant purposes related to lived experiences.

In the first semester of “Mi María,” a colleague and I offered courses in the ethical collection, transcription, translation, and editing of oral histories of disaster. Over one hundred undergraduate students—from all majors and disciplines across campus—participated in these courses by returning to their home communities to collect narratives of survival and strength in the face of natural and human-made catastrophe. In this course, we learned, for example, about Nilda, a seventy-eight-year-old who was the primary caregiver for her bedridden niece, Nereida. Nilda shared her story with oral historian Daniela, her grandniece who was enrolled in my course. In the oral history, Nilda recounts that on the day after the hurricane a storm surge flooded her neighborhood, cresting over the first floor of her home. It is only through the fortitude of her neighbor, Tito, she explains, that she and Nereida were able to survive. She heard Tito shouting her name from outside her window, “Nilda!” he cried. “Look at the water. It’s already over my ankles! Open up! I’m here to save la nena, Nereida!” Nilda describes how Tito “rushed past me into the house with his stepdaughter, Amaría, behind him and they picked up Nereida. They grabbed my girl and put her on Tito’s shoulders, and he carried her up the stairs. . . . In about half an hour the first floor of the house was flooded. The water reached my waist. My feet could barely touch the floor and then I was floating. I said to myself, ‘Let everything go. It’s not worth it. Get upstairs.’ When I climbed to the top of the stairs, I sat down and watched the sofa floating around the house.”18

The second course in this sequence used life narratives such as Nilda’s as primary texts for students to explore public-facing aspects of oral histories such as exhibition, archiving, events, and utilizing oral histories as community-based research methodologies for discipline-specific investigation. An additional fifty students enrolled in this semester of the project. One example of the types of group projects completed by students in this course comes from a team focusing on the lack of potable water after the hurricane. They selected an oral history told by Vivienne as one of their primary texts. In the narrative, Vivienne describes drinking from a nearby stream when her family could find no other freshwater after the hurricane, and how her two sons—Inti, age ten, and Anuk, age eight—were later diagnosed with severe dysentery from drinking unclean water with fecal matter in it.19 The potable water team spent days doing field research with the Blue Water Task Force of Fundación Surfrider de Rincón to study how Surfrider adapted their seawater testing program to freshwater sources in the mountainous interior of Puerto Rico, often times hiking and backpacking into communities in which access roads were washed out during the hurricane. The team created a short film about this process, emphasizing the role that citizen scientists can play in the aftermath of disaster, and about other sites whose access to clean drinking water they studied. The completion of the second semester of this project happily coincided with the 2019 NEH Summer Seminar, “Migration, Mobility, and Sustainability: Caribbean Studies and Digital Humanities,” collaboratively led by dLOC and the University of Florida. In many ways, I was so focused on creating a pedagogical experience for my students (to provide opportunities for active learning and offer them a sense of empowerment) that it was challenging to grapple with the large-scale, mass-listening project into which “Mi María” had grown. Having overseen the collection of almost 150 oral histories and several community-based projects that utilized these oral histories as primary texts, I needed to archive and share the collected texts in ways that served two purposes: first, providing direct access for the multiple internal communities that had contributed life stories to the project and, second, disseminating them to wider audiences. I have since learned that this quandary is pervasive among oral historians. My pedagogical undertaking blossomed into a public humanities project that uses oral history and other biographical methodologies—contextualized in critical disaster studies, climate justice, and environmental humanities—to collect and disseminate life stories, and I needed support to re-vision it as such. I received this support from the NEH workshop. This is not to say that I had not considered both public-facing aspects of the project as necessary to testimonial transactions and multimodality as essential to understanding the ways people narrate the stories of their lives. I had developed collaborations with Voice of Witness (VOW), a nonprofit organization dedicated to using literary oral histories to amplify issues related to social justice, as well as the Humanities Action Lab at Rutgers University, which crafted an exhibition on climate justice, “Climates of Inequality.” The UPRM team contributed to this exhibition by curating a section of it dedicated to Hurricane María. The team prepared a local exhibition to travel across the archipelago, an effort that was derailed by the limitations on physical gatherings required by COVID-19. In the second section of the course, student teams focused on ethnomusicology, comix, microdocumentaries, photography, and children’s literature, among other fields, with a clear understanding that people tell their stories in multiple textual genres.

Walter Mignolo has suggested that the colonial model succeeds through propagandized ideations of salvation: “salvation by conversion to Christianity, salvation by progress and civilization, salvation by development and modernization, salvation by global market democracy (e.g. neoliberalism).”20 My reading of this assertion interprets salvation as a mode of assimilation, a means of fitting into the colonial model so as to win favor (real or imagined) and thereby eschewing difference that may bring ostracization or other forms of punishment. These colonial models for attaining salvation—or the version of success that equals professional salvation in academic and research communities—are systemically interwoven into so many aspects of our lives as scholars that adhering to professional and disciplinary norms can present monumental challenges to conceptualizing how to work differently or, in this case, how to work outside of the colonial models and modes established for research dissemination within academic communities that reify individually authored print publications.

When I attended the summer seminar in 2019, I was afforded the opportunity to reflect on a project borne in the long aftermaths of disaster and—for the first time since the hurricane made landfall in 2017—to look critically at what I had built in the urgency of a shared cultural trauma that was still ongoing. While I was wrestling with several issues at the time—including resisting extractive modes of oral history collection, developing collaborative methods for students and community partners to share project governance, and working purposefully across disciplines—what I wanted to focus on during the seminar was digital dissemination platforms that could meet the needs of multiple audiences both in- and outside of Puerto Rico. In my own academic training—and perhaps in the larger scope of academia—success (or salvation) largely depended on peer-reviewed print publications and presentations at academic conferences. While I have pursued feminist collaborative project design and multimodal research outputs that transgress disciplinary divides throughout my career, the audience was almost always the same: other scholars. I was wrestling with means for privileging community needs over academic ones through public-facing outputs. In other words, I was struggling to redefine in what ways, for what purposes, and for what audiences I was undertaking research projects and crafting outputs for dissemination. In this instance, my primary intended audiences were people who were surviving communal trauma, those in the diaspora, those who might be in a position to organize aid, and those who might face similar impacts of extreme climatological events. I wanted to move beyond academic publications and presentations so as to develop ways to serve the people whose lives were directly impacted by the issues I was studying, and this meant audiences of primarily nonacademics.

While the summer seminar introduced attendees to several platforms for data visualization and integrative organization of texts of varying modalities, I was most captivated by the potential of digital geospatial mapping using Google My Maps. Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster had previously helped me conceptualize a polyphonic project that integrated multiple voices and perspectives to tell a more nuanced, multifaceted story with individual voices made louder through speaking together, a model that I adhered to when developing my own oral history collection about Hurricane María for the VOW book series.21 However, it was the integration of many voices with multiple genres of self-narration that would most help me engage with internal communities impacted by this disaster.

Under the umbrella of a map of the Puerto Rican archipelago, we could include narrator photos, documents, bilingual excerpts from the collected oral histories, clips from audio and/or video recordings, descriptive metadata, and music or other artwork. In addition to integrating multiple modes of self-expression tied to a geographic location, the map enabled data to be searched by numerous demographic points of reference, as well as by subcategory of disaster-related elements. For example, our collected oral histories demonstrated the commonality of community responses to climate disaster, focusing on the ways individuals grouped together in formal and informal mutual aid networks when government relief efforts were insufficient or not forthcoming. Within this theme, we found four main areas of concern among the narrators: scarcity of potable water, food insecurity, homelessness and houselessness, and the lack of medical and mental health care. Through the Google My Maps platform, we can further organize the oral histories around these four themes as searchable data sets for myriad purposes, including routing aid and planning for future disasters. The collected narratives organized in this way can also support research projects related to serving communities in need and mitigating the effects of future disasters by providing community-based data in support of projects from multiple disciplines, among them those related to sustainable planning and construction, public health, education, and agriculture.

While it will be quite some time until the Google My Maps for the “Mi María” project is ready to share with the public, I have included in this publication a sonic essay that I crafted in the autumn of 2019 as a means of thinking through sound theory in relation to disaster studies, “Sound in and as Disaster.” I developed this audio essay after the NEH seminar as a means of thinking through sound theory in relation to critical disaster studies and, as an exercise, it was particularly helpful to me as I contemplated integration of words and sounds, something that I hope to emulate in the interactive geospatial mapping for the “Mi María” project. While several points in the audio essay are new (and extremely exciting) for me, I call attention to a couple that are particularly pertinent to ideas of access to outputs as a means of undermining colonial constructions that advance division.

While we can understand trauma on one level as an event so horrifying and all-encompassing that it cannot be conveyed to or understood by someone who did not experience it, the integration of sound into disaster-related documentation can relate some of the event’s intensity. In my piece, I have included the alarm bell of an app that tracks seismic activity in the southwestern portion of the main island of Puerto Rico, a recording of the screaming winds of Hurricane María, the roar of generators powering up at sunset during the hurricane’s long aftermath, and the banging pots of the cacerolazo protests from the Ricky Renuncia (Resign Ricky [Rosselló]) movement. While these sounds cannot recreate fully the experience of any of these occurrences, they can provide insights into them and simulate some of the emotional impact, both of which can foster connectivity between speakers and listeners invested in narrative transactions, especially important for witnessing and responding to the life stories of disaster. The audio essay further includes excerpts from oral history interviews conducted as part of the project, shared with the interviewees’ permission. Hearing the voices of survivors—listening to their actual words, some in Spanish, others in English—is powerful, fraught with emotion and interwoven with sounds of Puerto Rico, including salsa and reggaeton music and the song of the coqui, which situates listeners within the geographic and cultural spaces of the narrative. This audio experience opens doors to the possibilities of integrating generic texts purposefully as a means of connecting beyond the traditional modes of scholarly discourse.

Sound theorists such as R. Murray Schafer, Candice Hopkins, and Pablo José Ramírez, however, suggest that listening is a culturally specific practice and that transgressing cultural boundaries can limit our ability to listen actively and engage with what we are hearing.22 Decolonial listening practices, then, often ask us to learn to hear in new ways. As a coparticipant in the communal trauma of Hurricane María and its long aftermaths, I have concerns about my own abilities to remember what I heard in the urgency of aftermath and to recreate and disseminate those sounds in a way that is ethical, noninvasive, and cross-culturally engaging, especially for other coparticipants in cultural trauma and the listening witness in the cycle of narrative transactions who may be moved to act as a result of what they have heard. As a participant observer who is a long-term resident of Puerto Rico but who is not culturally affiliated through familial or historic lineage, I also realize that the decisions I make in regards to these projects are filtered through the experiences, training, and knowledges that I inescapably bring to my work. Schafer asks us to consider both what we hear and what we do not (or are unable to) hear when we listen.23 My work on the “Mi María” project and AREPR suggests that trauma as well as experience (or lack thereof) impacts our ability to listen.

Decolonial listening, then, asks us to step outside of our ingrained auditory patterns of recognition to hear—and think—in new ways. The earthquake alarm bell that I mention in my audio essay, for example, filtered through my sensory perception as a text message alert, initially making a meaning that was dependent on my own entrenched experiential knowledges rather than the given context of the earthquake swarm. One way to begin to surpass these deep-seated practices is modeled by the dLOC approach of partnering with community sites for collection and archiving, adapted in our own postcustodial practice in AREPR. The methods that the “Mi María” project similarly developed—as a shared governance model executed through a nonhierarchical collective formed between me, students, community partners, mutual aid organizations, other faculty members and scholars, and external stakeholders—constitute another way to be mindful of just who is listening and for what purposes. Imperfect as a model wrought in the urgency of aftermath must be, it is one we are continually working to refine as the project develops into an ongoing program. Only with decolonial, antiracist, and trauma-informed practices at its core can it seek to address equitably the ongoing stratified disasters facing Puerto Rico as a frontline community in the worldwide climate crisis.

You can listen to the audio essay below, or visit Resonance, Resilience and Resistance.

Ricia Chansky

The Archivo de Respuestas Emergencias de Puerto Rico (Ricia and Christina)

Many of the questions that Ricia asks—How can we engage in oral history practices ethically? How can we develop nonextractive scholarly practices? How can we collaborate with our team and community members in ways that are mutually beneficial?—are the same questions with which AREPR grapples. Working with dLOC both explicitly (direct conversations with Laurie Taylor and Perry Collins, attendance at the NEH seminar by project collaborators, partnership with dLOC to house a copycat collection of AREPR’s materials) and implicitly (hearing from colleagues and peers about their experience working with dLOC and learning about the organization’s mission and values via its website, presentations, and collections) has helped inform our answers to these questions.

Like dLOC and “Mi María,” AREPR rejects extractive scholarly methodologies by serving as a steward, rather than owner, of the materials it hosts in its collection. Each participant signs a consent form licensing their content and/or interview to AREPR with the option to make their content and/or interview fully available, to make it available only on-site at Michigan State University (MSU), or to embargo their record. Project participants also have the option to sublicense their content to future collections using a Creative Commons BY-NC license, which allows noncommercial entities to share content as long as credit is attributed to the originator. Additionally, participants have the option to review interview content and/or revoke consent at any time. These choices align with both the postcustodial archival model and the Oral History Association’s recommendations for best practices.

Postcustodial archiving also reenvisions the relationships between institutions, organizations, and communities by ensuring that project processes are mutually beneficial and nonhierarchical. Developing AREPR with mutuality means that each of the participants brings a particular expertise to the collaboration: our community partners and individual participants share innovative knowledge systems pertaining to disaster response and emergency management; our project leads—Mirerza González Vélez and Nadjah Ríos at the University of Puerto Rico–Río Piedras and Ricia Chansky at the University of Puerto Rico–Mayagüez—bring their expertise in community partnerships and oral history, respectively; and our technical team brings its proficiency with archiving, preservation, and metadata to ensure that these knowledge systems can be shared accessibly. In this model, MSU—the home of the principal investigator and the tech team—is positioned as the primary support structure for the project rather than as a gatekeeper or decision maker. While we acknowledge that this structure is imperfect—it risks reinforcing colonial constructs by trusting MSU to uphold its commitments to Puerto Ricans—it also leverages MSU’s resources and infrastructure for the benefit of Puerto Rico. When done delicately—when relationships with and commitments to Puerto Rican collaborators take precedence over scholarly output—this model can result in positive and transformative coalition building.

dLOC’s operations inspired AREPR’s structure. While dLOC’s founding partners include the Archives Nationales d’Haïti; the Caribbean Community Secretariat; the National Library of Jamaica; the Fundación Global Democracia y Desarrollo, Universidad de Oriente, Venezuela; and the University of the Virgin Islands, the project’s technical infrastructure is housed at and administered by the University of Florida. Through this model, dLOC similarly leverages its technical resources for communities across the Caribbean. One of the key components of this collaboration is shared governance—a system by which the varied interests of project partners are addressed through shared decision-making. Although AREPR’s model is less formal, team leads reach project decisions as a group. This model adheres to the values of postcustodialism by encouraging collaboration that is mutually beneficial and nonhierarchical, ensuring that one institution or individual cannot exert undue influence or authority over the others. By building on the decolonial practices of dLOC, AREPR highlights the value of innovative disaster-response strategies, particularly those that can provide inspiration, insight, and information to other organizations seeking to implement effective disaster-response protocols. Not only do these materials have the potential to save lives, but they also are imperative for developing future emergency protocols based on local knowledge and community action. In essence, AREPR compiles a set of best practices for disaster-stricken communities, especially those experiencing low bandwidth, limited digital infrastructure, and climate vulnerability. Although we are still in the early stages of this project, we look forward to continued partnership with Puerto Rican individuals and community organizations whose cutting-edge work in disaster response serves as an example to all of us facing the impending climate crisis.


While the Digital Library of the Caribbean is rightly recognized as a trusted holder of shared cultural memory and knowledges from across the Caribbean, we posit in this multimodal essay that dLOC is also a necessary model for decolonial practice and process in academic systems that have too long followed a colonial model that separates both scholars and scholarship from the communities in which they are rooted.

For Christina, dLOC has served both as a site of community-building and as a model for innovative, collaborative scholarship. Laurie Taylor introduced Christina to Mirerza González Vélez and Nadjah Ríos, the project’s primary collaborators at the University of Puerto Rico–Río Piedras, and dLOC offered Christina a model for developing “Hurricane Memorial,” “The María Memory Bank,” and the “Archivo de Respuestas Emergencias de Puerto Rico” through its thoughtful collecting and sharing of cultural artifacts about and across the Caribbean.

While Ricia had been working with feminist collaborative models and transdisciplinary approaches to scholarship throughout her career, the shared disaster and cultural trauma of surviving Hurricane María became an opportunity to tear down some of the walls constructed between faculty and students and the university and the community, in part through the modeling of different modes for digital dissemination that dLOC shares both in its archival practices and in the seminar taught at the University of Florida.

Moreover, dLOC was and is integral to our shared collaboration through the Archivo de Respuestas Emergencias de Puerto Rico by providing community, conversation, and models of decolonial praxis in the Caribbean. According to Linda Tuhiwai Smith, decolonizing projects require “revolutionary thinking about the roles that knowledge, knowledge production, knowledge hierarchies and knowledge institutions play in decolonization and social transformation.”24 dLOC models these values by freely sharing multilingual materials without claiming ownership of Caribbean artifacts or knowledges and by sharing sound-based artifacts with and from across the Caribbean. AREPR emulates these values in a myriad of ways: (1) by embracing postcustodial archiving practices in which participants retain the rights to their contributions; (2) by acknowledging the expertise of Puerto Ricans in the areas of disaster and disaster response and highlighting their experiences through oral histories; (3) by partnering with community members and community organizations to determine who, what, where, when, and how stories will be shared; (4) by making all materials available in both Spanish and English; and (5) by building a collaborative framework that allows participating community organizations to collect, develop, and share archival materials during and beyond the scope of the project. Each of these strategies embodies decolonial practice by rejecting extractive notions of knowledge production and by combatting erasure through the celebration of Puerto Rican ingenuity. Decolonial models such as these are increasingly necessary in this moment of cultural reckoning and climate crisis. While many activists and institutions are calling for change, this moment also is being seized by entities profiting from crisis—like Crypto Rico, an enclave of tech bros seeking tax loopholes or LUMA, an energy company privatizing Puerto Rico’s power grid. Swooping into communities made vulnerable by weather events and government (inaction), these organizations operate through the extraction and erasure characteristic of disaster capitalism. Decolonial projects, including “Mi María” and the Archivo de Respuestas Emergencias de Puerto Rico refuse extraction and erasure. While these projects focus on Puerto Rico, they also bring attention to how disasters are weaponized and leveraged by those in power and how similar crises will continue to affect the Caribbean as the effects of climate change worsen. We already are seeing these issues at play in the US and Puerto Rican governments’ early responses to COVID-19—centering corporate interests to the detriment of public health and safety. dLOC pushes back against these moments of exploitation and erasure by amplifying the voices of marginalized communities through the ethical and responsible circulation of life stories and multimodal texts.


Ricia would like to thank Aleyshka Estévez Quintana for her assistance with the production of the audio essay. Christina would like to thank Andy Boyles Petersen for his assistance with the production of the audio essay.

General Editors Note: This essay was impossible to anonymize and therefore went through single blind review instead of the usual double blind review.

  1. Michel-Rolph Trouillot. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon, 2015), 26. ↩︎

  2. King Ferdinand, “Letter to the Taino-Arawak Indians” (1500), [[].] ↩︎

  3. J. J. Ghaddar and Michelle Caswell, “‘To Go Beyond’: Towards a Decolonial Archival Praxis,” Archival Science 19 (2019): 80, [[]]. ↩︎

  4. Christina Boyles, sonic essay. ↩︎

  5. Society of American Archivists, “postcustodial,” SAA Dictionary of Archives Terminology, [[].] ↩︎

  6. Christina Boyles, “Resilience, Recovery, and Refusal: The (Un)tellable Narratives of Post-María Puerto Rico,” enculturation 32 (2020): [[]]. ↩︎

  7. Tao Leigh Goffe, “Unmapping the Caribbean: Toward a Digital Praxis of Archipelagic Sounding,” archipelagos 5 (December 2020): [[]]. ↩︎

  8. Melisa Ortega Marrero, “El huracán María no superó a San Felipe II según un informe preliminar,” El Nuevo Dia, 29 September 2017, [] ↩︎

  9. Annual Report of the Governor of Porto Rico for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1930 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1930),[.] ↩︎

  10. Eliot Kleinberg, Black Cloud: The Deadly Hurricane of 1928 (Cocoa: Florida Historical Society Press, 2016), 53. ↩︎

  11. Luis R. Negrón Hernández, “Teodoro Roosevelt, Jr.,” Puerto Rico en Breve, 1990, [] ↩︎

  12. Annual Report of the Governor of Porto Rico for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1929 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1929),[.] ↩︎

  13. The Annual Report of the Governor of Puerto Rico of 1929 documents many of the problematic decisions made by the federal government in the wake of San Felipe. ↩︎

  14. US Department of Housing and Urban Development, “Review of HUD’s Disbursement of Grant Funds Appropriated for Disaster Recovery and Mitigation Activities in Puerto Rico,” 21 April 2021, [[].] ↩︎

  15. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 established opportunity zones, or low-resourced areas in need of improved infrastructure. This act provides tax write-offs for private entities that invest, or take over, these areas. Over 98 percent of Puerto Rico was designated as an opportunity zone when this act passed in December 2017, only three months after Hurricane María made landfall in Puerto Rico. ↩︎

  16. In this sonic essay, you may hear reference to the Puerto Rico Disaster Archive, which was an early name for the Archivo de Respuestas Emergencias de Puerto Rico (AREPR). The name was changed based on input received from the project’s collaborators and community partners. ↩︎

  17. I am sharing the narrators’ first names and parts of their stories with permission. ↩︎

  18. Nilda’s story is featured in Ricia Anne Chansky and Marci Denesiuk, eds., Mi María: Surviving the Storm, Voices from Puerto Rico (Chicago: Haymarket, 2021). ↩︎

  19. Vivienne’s story is featured in Mi María↩︎

  20. Walter Mignolo, “Interview—Walter Mignolo / Part 2: Key Concepts,” interview by Alvina Hoffmann, E-International Relations, 21 January 2017, [[].] ↩︎

  21. Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, trans. Keith Gessen (Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2019). ↩︎

  22. See, for example, Murray Schafer, “Open Ears”; Candice Hopkins and Pablo José Ramírez, “On Indigeneity, Curatorial Methodology, and Sound”; and Candice Hopkins, “Towards a Practice of Decolonial Listening: Sounding the Margins.” ↩︎

  23. Schafer, “Open Ears.” ↩︎

  24. Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies, 2nd ed. (London: Zed, 2012). ↩︎

Ricia Anne Chansky

Ricia Anne Chansky is Professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez (UPRM). She is the editor of the journal, a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, and of the Routledge Auto/Biography Studies book series. She is the director of the award-winning mass-listening project, “Mi María: Puerto Rico after the Hurricane,” and currently serves as a Research Fellow on two Mellon Foundation funded projects: “Climates of Inequality and the COVID Crisis: Building Leadership at Minority Serving Institutions,” an initiative at the Humanities Action Lab, and the “Archivo de Respuestas Emergencias de Puerto Rico.” Her recent and forthcoming books include Mi María: Surviving the Storm, Voices from Puerto Rico (Haymarket Books, 2021), The Divided States: Untangling National Identity in the Twenty-First Century (U Wisconsin P, forthcoming), and the bilingual children’s book Maxy Survives the Hurricane/Maxy sobrevive el huracán (Arte Público Press, 2021). She has recently won awards from the Modern Language Association, the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Oral History Association and was recognized by the Simon Wiesenthal Center/Museum of Tolerance as a global human rights leader for her work in environmental justice. She is directing a new oral history action lab at UPRM and is building a certificate program in oral history for social justice.

Christina Boyles

Christina Boyles is an Assistant Professor of Culturally Engaged Digital Humanities at Michigan State University. Her research explores the relationship between disaster, social justice, and the environment. She is the director of the Archivo de Respuestas Emergencias de Puerto Rico, a project that works with community organizations to collect and preserve oral histories and disaster-related artifacts about Hurricanes Irma and María (2017), Puerto Rican earthquake swarm (2019-2022) and COVID-19 (2020-present). She also is the co-founder of SurvDH, a community that explores the intersections between surveillance and the humanities. A selection of her published work appears in enculturation, Digital Humanities Quarterly, Bodies of Information: Feminist Debates in the Digital Humanities, American Quarterly, and Studies in American Indian Literatures.