By Ronda Kaysen
The anarchists can’t keep a schedule. It was a sweltering Sunday in July and not an anarchist was in sight at Tompkins Square Park. The Puerto Rican anarchist punk band Ricanstruction had circulated e-mail blasts for weeks, promising a free afternoon show as part of a rally to save St. Brigid’s, an East Village church facing demolition. But a forecast of rain — which materialized late in the day as a 20-minute reprieve from the ungodly heat — canceled the East Village performance.
“The revolution has been postponed due to rain,” explained Vagabond, a filmmaker in the Ricanstruction artist network, at a Spanish Harlem screening of his film “Machetero” a few days later. The screening, at Julia de Burgos Cultural Center on Lexington Ave., began after 8 p.m., despite the flier I had received that said it started at 7. “The time must have changed,” shrugged a security guard posted outside the building.
Ricanstruction, a network of about 20 artists and activists, began as an assortment of young Puerto Rican squatters writing graffiti and living on the Lower East Side. Soon, the group began making punk rock. The squatters have long since scattered — the result of a concerted effort by the Giuliani administration to purge the neighborhood of nonpaying residents — but the artist network has grown, playing punk shows, making radical leftist films and producing a political ’zine, Salvo.
They have also published the writings of Robert “Roblos Ricos” Thaxton, a Puerto Rican anarchist serving an eight-year prison sentence in Portland, Ore.
Ricanstruction hopes to see the world revolt — beginning with Puerto Rico — in an anarchist revolution, although some members would settle for a Cuban-socialist model as a first step to anarchy.
“A lot of the cats coming up were graffiti writers or homeless people who were graffiti writers,” said Not4prophet, the 27-year-old bandleader and singer/songwriter, as he sat at Bubby’s in Tribeca. “We started out just writing graffiti. Moving around, jumping around, moving out of one place, jumping over here, jumping over there.”
The group quickly morphed into a punk band and during the seven years they lived on the Lower East Side in the 1990s, they produced a kind of distinctive sound that blends full-throttle hardcore with hip-hop and merengue and salsa and reggae.
“How could you live in New York City and not be inspired by all these other sounds?” said Not4prophet, whose given name is Alano Baez, although he says he hasn’t used it since he was 9 when his brother first bequeathed him the pseudonym.
Not4prophet, a vegetarian, has an unruly mass of curly black hair and a round, babyish face. Born in Puerto Rico, he grew up in Spanish Harlem, the youngest child of two Puerto Rican nationalists. By the time he was 16, his father had died and he found himself homeless and squatting on the Lower East Side. “My mother was having a hard time taking care of six kids.”
As a boy, he watched his sisters get dressed up for the salsa and merengue clubs. “I was like, ‘f—k that making their hair perfect and f—k that choreographed dance moves.’” At 12, he began sneaking into C.B.G.B., the iconic punk club of the East Village. Although most of the performers and audience members were white, a black or Puerto Rican band occasionally took the stage. “You would be like, ‘Yeah, they exist!’” Not4prophet was hooked.
Eventually his five-member band was performing at C.B.G.B. “They’re a good band, a very good band, excellent bass and drums and everything,” said Hilly Kristal, the club’s owner.
Their lyrics, which talk about the “fascist machine” and “korporate kapitalist alibis,” are not for everyone, Kristal said, noting that for the most part the band has its own following. “It’s tough for a group like that,” he said. “A lot of the Latino people are more into pop; many of them throughout the country are very conservative. I think Ricanstruction appeals to people of a more radical nature. A lot of the music is very good, but what can I say? Revolt! Revolution!”
Ricanstruction is not for the faint of heart. In fact, they’ve been banned from Miami because of the large anti-Castro Cuban contingent there. Shows at Arlene’s Grocery on the Lower East Side have often ended with the audience getting up and walking out. And the president of Tower Records Japan made a point of telling the band they were not welcome in his country. “We’re just this little indie, anti-corporate band. But when the politics are real and the potential for really changing things within the system are real, then that’s a problem,” Not4prophet said.
“They’re hard-driving punk rockers, but they’re also very disciplined, very responsible guys,” said Father Frank Morales, assistant minister at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, and a longtime community activist who has known the Ricanstruction band members since the group’s inception. “They don’t shirk from making statements about the things that are important to them…. They shoot straight, plus they have the musical chops to back it up. They’re a really tight band. They can stop on a dime.”
Last Thursday night, close to 300 people gathered in East Harlem, filling the bleachers, spilling down the steps and into the aisles, to see a free screening of Vagabond’s “Machetero,” starring Not4prophet, a film about a Puerto Rican political prisoner and a young homeless kid who discovers the “anti-manifesto,” a manifesto for the anarchist. The film’s name is a nod to the Macheteros, Puerto Rican clandestine revolutionaries who attacked United States military facilities and robbed a Wells Fargo Bank in the late 1970s and early 1980s, possibly with financing from Fidel Castro.
“The Macheteros have a saying that every Puerto Rican is a Machetero,” said Vagabond, 36, born Richard Alexander Magnus Beaumont. He has been squatting for years — both on the Lower East Side and now in Spanish Harlem. With bleached blond hair and a broad build, he speaks about revolution with a cheerful, enthusiastic demeanor. “Puerto Ricans never get any credit. We were the first terrorists, not 9/11,” he said. “That wasn’t the first time the United States was attacked on its own soil.” Vagabond’s mother is from Puerto Rico and his father is from Jamaica.
He studied film briefly at the School of Visual Arts, but dropped out after his first year. “Me and school never got along,” he said. He spent a summer as an intern on the set of “Do the Right Thing,” Spike Lee’s 1989 breakout film. Mostly, he kept the actors and film crew hydrated while Sal’s pizzeria burned. Since then, he has continued to work on films and television shows to finance his personal projects. “We’re only limited by time and energy,” he said of Ricanstruction. “If we ever win the Lotto, the whole world will have to look out.”
Before the film started, Yasmin Hernandez, an artist who has been part of the Ricanstruction network since 2000, dashed up and down the bleacher steps, handing out $10 raffle tickets for a print by Juan Sanchez, a former Guggenheim fellow and longtime Village and Lower East Side artist who teaches art at Hunter College.
The crowd was a cross section of El Barrio: older Puerto Ricans and blacks, Puerto Rican mothers with toddlers, young white and Latino people. The response to the 63-minute film — with poetry and lyrics scrolling across the screen and Ricanstruction’s music narrating it — was heated and mixed. Preachy at times, the film felt a bit like an agitprop music video.
“The images that are portrayed in this film I believe are politically problematic,” said Fred Ho, a musician in the audience. “The only female character in the film is a gold digger.”
Not4prophet, leaning against a wall at the side of the room, jumped to Vagabond’s defense. “We grew up in these slums, we can only speak for ourselves. The sisters will and the sisters always have spoken for themselves.”
Hernandez, 29, was not surprised by the strong response the film received. “By nature the Puerto Rican liberation movement has to be a very painful and very conflicted struggle and there’s no other way to make it. There’s no other way to go around it,” she said. Many of the older Puerto Ricans are “jaded,” she said, by years of unsuccessful struggle.
The film’s chief problem at the moment, however, has less to do with its content and more to do with its length. It is too long to be a short film and too short to be a feature, blocking it from enjoying a wider audience in a film festival.
“It’s too long to be a short and too short to be a feature, and we’re like ‘Yeah!’ And now all our films are going to be too long to be shorts and too short to be features,” said Not4prophet.
Vagabond, however, is less inclined to spend his time creating unmarketable movies. “We’re going to extend it and make it longer,” he said, so it will have a better chance of making it into the film festival circuit.
Ricanstruction does have some strong allies in the ’60s generation of the Puerto Rican liberation movement. Juan Sanchez, a politically active visual artist for the past 30 years, has developed a tight relationship with the group. His artwork adorned the sleeve of their 2004 album, “love + revolution.” And at a performance in Ponce, P.R., where Not4prophet was born, the band found themselves performing with five of the 11 Puerto Rican revolutionaries who were granted clemency by President Bill Clinton in 1999.
“These cats, they’ve been in prison for 25 years and it was so cool to see them like just jamming and dancing and playing the percussions,” Not4prophet mused. Since the five are not allowed to see one another as part of their release agreement, no photographs or films could be taken of them together.
Many of the freed nationalists have settled in Puerto Rico. Although Not4prophet has no plans to return permanently to Puerto Rico until it achieves independence, he identifies with the nationalists and with the warm reception they receive on the island.
“They’re looked at as heroes over there,” he said. “Here, everywhere you go, you’re going to be looked at as a terrorist. In Puerto Rico, even people who don’t agree with you look at you as someone who realized something needed to be done, and they’re proud of you as a Puerto Rican who took charge of something.”