You’re right. In my first blog about the Machetero Air Force Ones, I didn’t comment on my reaction to the sneakers beyond saying it was painful to see Filiberto’s face on them. I didn’t elaborate because I didn’t want to rant.
But then you wrote that email clearly stating your position and wanting to know mine. You asked: “Why was it so painful to look at those sneakers?” I’ll answer by allowing myself to go into the rant I initially thought I should avoid. So here goes. Take it with a grain of salt: Like everyone else, I’m a walking tangle of contradictions.
When I first saw Filiberto on those sneakers, I had to pause for a few seconds. My skin prickled and I felt a mix of anxiety and pain at the mouth of my stomach.
Looking at the sneakers: I was faced with the image of that awe-inspiring man known as Filiberto, with all his flaws and his merits, who died a tragic death in the midst of tragic circumstances. He was a man I only saw from a distance, most often on TV and newspapers. I saw him in person only once, during his 1989 trial at the Old San Juan Federal Court. He irradiated dignity, composure and eloquence as he presented his own legal defense (he refused a layer). Later that same night, I saw his shadow flashing a light from his prison cell window—a greeting to the crowd of his supporters gathered on the street below. Filiberto was a myth of our times, a man whose death I cried over not knowing exactly why. It was not precisely that I was a Filiberto devotee, though I certainly admired his strength and his standing by his principles. When he died, I felt as if my uncle or a close friend of my family had passed.
Still looking at the sneakers: I was shocked at seeing Filiberto’s face emblazoned on those ridiculously expensive sneakers made by folks who get paid dirt. Those Nikes, among many other consumer items, represent "cool" in our society. Those sneakers are even tied into people's identities and sense of worth. Nikes are one of the many items for sale that inspire folks to trample others on the way to the store shelves, one of those items that people are willing to stand in line overnight for. Frankly, I despise those sneakers and what they represent.
I intend no disrespect to fashion buffs and sneaker connoisseurs. This is certainly not a judgment of Nike fans. The artist himself says he chose the Air Force Ones to grapple with his own attraction to the shoe. But it just so happens that I do not find sneakers appealing at all. It also just so happens that I’m fashion illiterate.
My visceral reaction to the Machetero Air Force Ones is partly related to politics, partly related to personal history and partly just a matter of taste.
Once upon a time, I was a teenager in Puerto Rico. Like most other teenagers around me, I was obsessed with designer labels and being cool. I was ashamed of my struggling single mom and what she couldn't get for me.
I never got into sneakers. I don't get "sneaker culture." But I understand a reasonable facsimile in the designer labels (Esprit, Jordache, Benetton) I lusted after in my teens.
My reaction to the Machetero AF1s has much to do with the anger I feel over all the time and energy I spent on a useless attempt to make myself happy by buying items that I thought would make me cool. Now I'm a grown woman who is in a different place but remembers wasting so much effort on looking for happiness where happiness is impossible to find. And, sometimes, I feel like screaming... PLEASE LETS JUST STOP WASTING OUR TIME BUYING ALL THIS USELESS SHIT.
At the most basic level, the pain I felt over Luciano’s Nikes has to do with my shock over seeing Filiberto's face on what I consider to be one of the ultimate examples of overpriced, overrated, ugly merchandise.
But, then again, my sense of style matters little in the larger picture. The fact is many people in the know revere Nikes, not only for their beauty, but also for practical reasons. AF1s fans say they are amazingly comfortable. And, after all, most of us wear something on our feet most of the time. So, since we do have to buy footwear, and since many will buy AF1s as their footwear of choice, then why not wear AF1s that have symbols of social-consciousness or national pride, like the Filiberto Uptowns?
I’m not saying yes or no, wrong or right. I’m just venting on my initial reaction to them.
The implications of the Machetero AF1s go way beyond the specific evils of the Nike empire or the peculiarities of Filiberto Ojeda Rios as a man and as a symbol of Puerto Rican nationalism. For me, these Nikes represent the crossroads where our consumerist obsessions, politics and fashion meet.
Fashion and politics. Social justice and consumption. We all walk (and stumble over) the line.
As Bryan Vargas wrote in a blog comment, Miguel Luciano has long been exploring these issues in his work. For example, take the image below titled Exterminio de Nuestros Indios (Extermination of Our Indians), acrylic on paper, 2005.
Though I have been a fan of Luciano’s work for a while, it was his Pure Plantainum project that blew my mind since it connected so closely with the issues that I write about in terms of youth culture and popular music.
But neither plantains nor bling can evoke for me the violent gut reaction that Filiberto’s face on the AF1s does. Except, that is, for this photo from the Pure Plantainum series:
Once the plátano bling is on the boy, Pure Plantainum stops stimulating my brain; it just stops my heart. There, for me, is the human face of the tragedy. Just like Filiberto’s face on the Machetero AF1s.
I’m grateful to Miguel Luciano for jabbing his finger into our open wounds—like a good artist should.
And I’m grateful to you, Danny, and to all the other folks who have emailed me or posted comments on this blog for making me question and fine-tune my ideas and strategies for action.