MECA International Art Fair
June 1 - June 4, 2017
Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico, 951 Ave. Ponce de Léon, San Juan, Puerto Rico 00907
Organized by Servane Mary
Booth M08, Room 206
Elizabeth Karp-Evans, Untitled, 2014
The Color of Money
Tell me, what was the first commodity? My father says it is agriculture. The land came first, and then our ownership of it. Agriculture before ownership, before commerce, before money, before art.
There is no single origin of agriculture. Rather, it began as a simultaneous dependence amongst civilizations, the beginning of a slow power struggle between man and nature.
Evidence of the earliest farming—the cultivation of plants and herding animals—dates back 10,000 to 12,000 years in the Fertile Crescent. Multiple groups are identified as manipulating the land, using different tools to yield different crops. These early farmers traded in obsidian.1
Before white meant power, before green denoted value, black was the color of money.
A simple cycle has taken up arms in the modern era: the shift from agricultural societies to industrial ones. You farm the land. Then, you are forced off the land, or forced to farm the land until it yields no more. Sugarcane factories are built. When the land is no longer of value to them, you are reinstated. The land is returned to you. You return to it—beaten, broken, sterile, but not defeated. This cycle continues and sustains civilizations.
Meanwhile, the sugarcane factories close.
My father worked as a National Resource Conservationist for the United States Department of Agriculture from 1974 until he retired, in 2008. His great grandparents were sharecroppers in southeastern Texas—forced, in one way or another to work the land. 19 cents a day. Zero benefits.
In three generations, what was once a means of survival is now a labor of love.
Sugarcane is a crop of the United Sates just as much as it is a crop of the Caribbean. Did you know that? It is grown not far from where my great great-grandparents farmed their small share of land at the end of the nineteenth century.
During this time, fifteen years after the end of the Civil War, Louisiana was one of the largest suppliers of sugar to the continental United States. Thibodaux, Louisiana, in particular, had a high percentage of black labor working in the cane fields. In 1886 the first black union of sugarcane workers was formed in Schriever, Louisiana. In November of 1887, thousands of workers went on a three-week strike in Thibodaux for better treatment and higher wages before white paramilitaries deployed by the state begun to round up and murder union members. Over a three-day period, fifty black residents were murdered. Most were unarmed. Most were left in shallow graves.
I didn’t learn about the Thibodaux Massacre in school. Did you?
At nearly the same time of the Thibodaux murders, Puerto Rican sugar was allowed to enter the United States mainland tariff free. The sugar industry grew dramatically because of this policy, far outstripping Louisiana’s production. But by the 1960s, “Production collapsed. Manufacturing sugar in Puerto Rico was no longer profitable. Louisiana, in contrast, continued to produce and grow sugar.”2
Remember the Thibodaux Massacre?
On one landmass the government murdered workers asking for better wages, on another policies were enacted to slow the growth of large cane farms.
Because farm sizes remained smaller in Puerto Rico, the industrialization of farms essentially stopped in the 1940s and for the next thirty years the industry ground to a halt. It is argued that economic policy was responsible for the demise of the sugar cane industry in Puerto Rico, just as it was responsible for its boon.
This is the cycle of three generations.
1973 – Puerto Rico’s government creates the Corporacion Azucarera de Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico Sugar Corporation) in an attempt to save the sugarcane industry. Thirteen sugarcane mills remain on the island, including Central Mercedita, and those of the Snow White Sugar Refinery, the only sugar refinery left.
1983 – The price of Mercedita's Snow White brand sugar is frozen by the government in an attempt at voter approval.
1994 – Milling operations are stopped at Mercedita but refining operations continue, in order to support other sugarcane mills in Puerto Rico. Refining halts shortly after and the remaining sugarcane farms are forced to close.
1998 – The Puerto Rican Government gives title to the homes and associated land to the remaining residents of the Mercedita plantation.
2016 – Governor Alejandro García Padilla announces the return of the sugarcane industry to Central Mercedita marking a 24% growth in the island’s agricultural gross income.3
The color of money. Of the land sprouted from the middle of the Caribbean. Of the pink and green flowers left to rot on your breakfast table. Who made all those women suffer through avocado-green refrigerators? Who sits in the room and determines the colors for a generation? And what does it say that, now, we are all wearing something called Millennial pink?
In developing countries, women, on average, comprise 43% of the agricultural labor force. Women account for nearly two-thirds of the world's 600 million poor livestock keepers. Women, in rural areas—on farms, plantations, mountains and in valleys—work longer than men when one looks at paid agricultural labor and the unpaid reproductive and domestic responsibilities. When all work performed in developing agricultural communities is accounted for, “Women's total work hours are longer than men's in all regions.”3 Women are the pillars of agriculture.
In developed counties, a labor dispute is a class dispute. In developed counties, a labor dispute is a racial dispute. It is rarely a gender dispute. In developed countries, money is paper and not precious stone.
In developing countries you are shit outta luck. That saying comes from my father’s side of the family.
I did not think of Millennial pink as a symbol of repression. But in the same way that governments devalue land in order to profit form its yield, corporations have devalued symbology in order to sell a color.
Think back. What does pink really mean to you? Who first told you what that color was for? A boy told me it was for girls. He’s a man now, and he is telling a new generation who pink is for.
“Millennial pink isn't so much a color as it is an idea—hence the great difficulty in pinning it down to a single shade. Millennial pink, whether pale or desaturated or salmony, is a kind of non-pink pink, an aesthetic distillation of the ideals of contemporary feminism… removed from the constraining associations of the past.”4
Why do we still try and redeem the past. Remember the Thibodaux Massacre? I didn’t learn about it in school, did you?
You want something new, but not wholly unfamiliar. You do not believe in the three generation cycle anymore. You are tired of it. You do not believe in the land, in agriculture, in conservation, in limited resources. You just want things, and more things and if they come in light pink you love them, but only if they look familiar. New means better, new means faster, new means progress. New means a future.
Millennial pink is the color of money. But green was the color of money. Green is the color of sugarcane. A failed crop. A past that, if we are to believe Governor García Padilla, will soon be present again.
4 https://unstats.un.org/unsd/demographic/products/Worldswomen/WW2010pub.htm and ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/011/i0765e/i0765e10.pdf via https://farmingfirst.org
5 Nancy Mitchell TKTKT