Hold Your Breath

February 2023

Sandra Ruiz, Ricanness: Enduring Time in Anticolonial Performance (New York: New York University Press, 2019); 229 pages; ISBN 978-1479825684 (paperback)

Waiting for the subway late one evening, I overheard a tourist ask someone if the C train would be coming in twelve minutes, as the glitching arrivals screen claimed. Accustomed to the empty promises of New York transit, the person laughed and said, “Don’t hold your breath.” On the platform, there’s always the possibility that the train will never come.

In Ricanness: Enduring Time in Anticolonial Performance, Sandra Ruiz locates Ricanness on many versions of the subway platform: mental and physical sites in which the future is neither promised nor under a person’s control. Yet for the artists and thinkers that Ruiz takes up, this limbo is far from inert. She explains that her subjects—the photographer ADÁL, the revolutionary Lolita Lebrón, the poet Pedro Pietri, the artists Papo Colo and Ryan Rivera—model for us “bearable ways of ‘doing time’ with our bodies under subjugation,” of collectively holding our breath even when we don’t trust that the train will arrive (10). And her interlocutors—including Frantz Fanon, Roland Barthes, Henri Bergson, Martin Heidegger, José Esteban Muñoz, Achille Mbembe, Ramón Rivera-Servera, Lewis R. Gordon, Antonio Viego, and Frances Negrón-Muntaner—provide a network through which to consider what “doing time” means for the problem and pursuit of being for Puerto Ricans in the archipelago and in the diaspora.

Ruiz uses what she calls “aesthetic sites” of anticolonial performance to tell the stories of Ricans who demand to be seen but to be seen as something else, seeking control over their lives “beyond a looping colonial obligation” (173). One of her first examples is ADÁL’s Puerto Ricans Underwater / Los ahogados­­ (2016), a series of 100 overhead shots of friends or strangers who each pose in a full bathtub submerged with props that range from musical instruments and books to pill bottles, plátanos, and a machete.1While some stare, wide-eyed, at the viewer, others close their eyes or calmly gaze forward. Some mouths are shut, cheeks relaxed or bulging with air, and others are open, slowly releasing bubbles of breath, or, in one instance, letting out a muffled scream, which causes tiny waves to ripple at the water’s surface. For Ruiz these are portraits of Ricans’ endurance as they struggle to “stay afloat under imperial rule.” And, she writes, “in seeing [each] breathless subject, we, too, are left without breath” (5).

Endurance accrues power when it is observed. Think of the hunger strike. The enduring time of Ruiz’s title is thus also a means of implicating the spectators of Ricanness, as she shows us her subjects’ self-assertion and self-denying strategies through tempos and actions that are impossible to observe without compassion, revulsion, fear, or longing—affects that depend on a recognition of shared humanity and interdependence. Illustrating this alliance between spectacle and recognition, Ruiz’s first chapter reintroduces us to Lolita Lebrón, famous for infiltrating US Congress in 1954. The attack, in the media narratives, is described as unsuccessful, since Lebrón and her co-conspirators shot at but did not kill any members of Congress. Ruiz, however, brings Lebrón’s own words to the fore and shows that the attack was unsuccessful for an entirely different reason—its goal was not murder but suicide. Lebrón, who purposefully fired at the ceiling, said it herself: “I did not come here to kill, I came here to die!” Her suicide note, written in anticipation of a counterattack from armed guards, is therefore, Ruiz asserts, “a public declaration of independence” (46). The body—and the femme, Rican, revolutionary body in particular—is put on the line, publicly sacrificed in order to force into the American consciousness the existence and autonomy of Puerto Rico. Death proves that there was life to begin with.

But Lebrón did not die that day. Instead, her red lips and piercing gaze appeared in newspapers and magazines, her body incarcerated but her image transformed into “femme fatale.” Appearing under the headline “When Terror Wore Lipstick,” Lebrón’s reproduced face transfixed the people, forced them to confront her existence, but her path to independence—in death—remained blocked. She was forced, again, to wait.

What do we do when our waiting—our enduring of time—is caused by factors beyond our control? Ruiz takes up this question in chapter 2 through the work of Papo Colo, who, in the face of imposed colonial duration, sets his own clocks. In his 1977 performance Superman 51, for example, Colo plays the hero. With fifty-one planks of wood dragging behind him, he runs full speed down Manhattan’s West Side Highway until he collapses. Is his action a stand-in for what might happen if Puerto Rico were to become the fifty-first state, adding to the weight of US Empire? Or is Colo’s Superman a strong, benevolent US Empire personified, but then exposed as a fraud? Either way, pushed beyond his limits, the hero becomes tragic. But Ruiz, following Fanon and Rivera-Servera, sees the power in collapsing, meandering, improvising, or stumbling in the public sphere.2 She insists that Colo’s is “an act of temporal insurgency in the space of Empire” (83). In using his body to accelerate and decelerate time, Colo allows his Ricanness to interrupt.

In chapter 3, centered on Pedro Pietri’s 1974 play The Masses Are Asses, Ruiz presents the insurgent potential not only of taking public time and space into one’s own hands, as Colo does, but also of using fantasy to do the same with private space. Taking place in an apartment in the South Bronx, Pietri’s satirical work presents us with a couple, Lady and Gentleman, who act out nobility—drinking champagne, musing about how terrible it would be to have to work for a living—as their actual circumstances worsen around them. Gentleman refuses to let Lady flush the toilet, choosing to live in the stench of their own waste over the potential of revealing to the neighbors, through the sound of the flush, that they are home. Ruiz focuses especially on the role in the play of a tape recorder, which Gentleman has used to record his and Lady’s entire conversation so they may listen to it later. Dreaming in the space of an oppressive life, Lady and Gentleman create aural records: evidence that they exist. But while Ruiz argues that the characters’ endurance allows them “to dream in the space of despair,” she also wonders about the dangers of this dreaming (115). As Gentleman becomes increasingly violent toward Lady, and as the phone rings incessantly and gunshots are heard in the distance, Lady shows signs of wanting to leave the fantasy behind. Ruiz wonders if they are dreaming their way through an “eviction notice just slid under their door” (117). Their fantasy is not safe from the harsh realities of the everyday.

Ruiz’s protagonists prove that it is not easy to distinguish between life’s pleasures and pains, especially when the assertion of Rican existence seems to always—and perhaps necessarily—involve the display of both at once. In Rivera’s work—which in the fourth chapter Ruiz seeks to place in conversation with artists such as Ana Mendieta, Félix González-Torres, and Nao Bustamante, among others—we are presented with what Ruiz calls “an existentialist archive” that is Brown, Rican, and queer (137). Its queerness, for Ruiz, seems to lie in its commitment to an anticlimactic endurance that examines “the torment and the pleasure of existence” beyond the cis-heteronormative impulse toward completion (142). Ruiz focuses on several performances for video from 2002 in which Rivera exaggerates both violent and quotidian practices—bashing his face, crying, gagging, breathing—to the point of obsession. There is no winding down, as in Colo’s Superman 51, no misogynist fantasy as with Pietri’s Gentleman, and no suicide note, Lebrón’s indication of an end in sight. Instead, Rivera keeps tempo, “holding himself and the viewer captive” (180).3 We find ourselves holding our breath, getting nauseous, or shedding a tear, mirroring Rivera’s sensations without guaranteed relief.

Echoing her subjects’ evasion of fixed categories, Ruiz does not seek a stable definition of Ricanness. Instead, she presents us with “holes in the construction of a Rican completion” (170)—holes that are not meant to be mended but instead to proliferate, proving that what humanity shares is not stability but the tendency to overindulge, to overdo it. There is a reason why the New Yorker laughs at the tourist’s faith in the glitching arrivals screen. To wait on the platform is to enter a state of instability where we can laugh just as easily as we can cry, and where a lack of external control might somehow intensify internal control. Ricanness suggests that this uncertain state—a collectively held breath—is where anticolonial being can be found and fostered.


Angela H. Brown (she/they) is a PhD candidate in the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University. Her writing has appeared in the Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy and e-flux architecture, among other platforms. 

[1] Ruiz notes that in ADÁL’s photographs, the bathwater stands in for the ocean itself, connecting and separating islands and peoples, but that it also prefigures the floods of Hurricane Maria and the rising sea levels that threaten to swallow Puerto Rico altogether. ADÁL’s series is thus an effective way for Ruiz to introduce how her subsequent chapters grapple with (and sometimes collapse) short and long temporal durations, seeking a political velocity that lies between what she describes as the speed of emergency time and the slowness of historical time.

[2] Ruiz’s analyses here expand on those of José Esteban Muñoz in Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

[3] See Douglas Crimp on Andy Warhol’s 1964 short film Blow Job, which shows the face of a man being fellated, his expressions indicating pleasure but never climax or “completion.” Douglas Crimp, Our Kind of Movie”: The Films of Andy Warhol (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014), chap. 1 and addendum.