Sara Awartani is a 2022 Collegiate Fellow in the American culture department. Her research into the connections between global freedom movements, specifically solidarities between Puerto Rican resistance and Palestinian liberation movements, is in part inspired by her own family’s history. As an instructor, Awartani says she hopes to impart a deep love of the humanities, and that her students leave her class feeling not only reflected, but empowered.
LSA: How would you describe your field of study in American culture? What kind of research are you conducting and what are some of the questions that guide your work?
Sara Awartani: I consider myself to be an interdisciplinary U.S. social movement historian and a Latinx studies scholar, though I also research and teach in Arab American studies. The most eloquent version of my research agenda is that I write to reveal a largely forgotten, yet richly important, bottom-up and progressive past of the Latinx revolutionary left. So far, I’ve largely addressed these questions by studying the subtle but provocative ways Puerto Rican decolonization has been imagined alongside Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation. In other words, my research explores Puerto Rican solidarities with Palestine.
LSA: Can you share with readers how your current book project, Solidarities of Liberation, Visions of Empire: Puerto Rico, Palestine, and American Global Power, addresses the relationship among the three?
SA: Solidarities of Liberation documents how, beginning in the 1970s, an array of Puerto Rican radicals in Chicago, many of whom would become entangled with the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional’s armed clandestine movement, wedded their rejection of U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico to the Palestinian struggle. Like their Palestinian “comrades,” these Puerto Ricans committed themselves to achieving decolonization through armed struggle and peoples’ war. They also found themselves in solidarity with Palestine because of what were, to them, very real—and very analogous—experiences of surveillance and political repression. These shared experiences of repression spanned the local to the international—from Puerto Rican and Palestinian coalition building against the policing of student movements at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle in the late 1970s, to federal surveillance in response to accusations of “terrorism.”
At the same time, my book also tells a story of how other powerful actors—most notably the Reagan administration and the New Right—exploited those very solidarities to combat the rising problem of international terrorism. From the perspective of certain politicians, a group of ragtag Puerto Ricans from Chicago could not be allowed to make a mockery of the United States’ reputation as the global leader of democracy. And so, the story in defense of reviving American intelligence in the late Cold War era also quickly became: if the United States was struggling to contain Puerto Rican terrorism, then how could it ever prepare against Palestinian and other Middle Eastern terrorist threats?
LSA: What inspired you to devote your research and scholarship to exploring American global power and Palestinian and Puerto Rican movements of liberation?
SA: This is a deeply personal project, both to me and to the Puerto Rican community in Chicago I write about. Though my mother is Puerto Rican and my father is Palestinian, I grew up highly assimilated in the South and divorced from both communities. As an undergraduate, I wondered if there was a way to compare Puerto Rico and Palestine, so that I may learn something more of myself and my histories—especially since I speak neither Spanish nor Arabic.
More specifically, my research began while collecting archival research for my undergraduate thesis. It was while completing two weeks of intensive archival research at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies in New York City that I first encountered letters authored by militant Puerto Rican activists imagining Puerto Rican decolonization alongside the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was also while completing my undergraduate thesis that I found a cartoon by Herbert Block linking the Puerto Rican and Palestinian struggles through accusations of terrorism. I wondered: why was Palestine such a capacious space to make claims against the U.S. colonial project in Puerto Rico, and what were its limits?
Over the last 10 years, that comparison became the history of solidarity I excavate in my forthcoming book, as well as in my previous publications on the subject. I take great responsibility in narrating this history with care, and remain honored that the Puerto Rican community in Chicago entrusted me to this story of their solidarities with Palestine—a story that continues to shape how they envision and fight for liberation today. I hope someday that I will do it the justice it deserves.
LSA: What are you currently teaching? And what do you hope students gain or learn in your classroom?
SA: I just finished teaching the course “Race, Solidarity, and the Carceral State,” which explores how social and racial justice movements have encountered and interacted with the rise of the carceral state. I’ve taught the class twice previously as a lecturer in Harvard’s Committee on Ethnicity, Migration, Rights, and it was a delight to do so here at Michigan. Both here and at Harvard, many credited our course’s community-building praxis for inspiring them to move forward in the world differently, including thinking critically about both institutional and systemic structures of inequality and oppression, as well as the capacity to build creatively against ongoing struggles for justice and liberation. Mostly, though, I hope I impart on my students a sincere and deep love for the humanities, and especially for a vision of the humanities that centers marginalized voices, communities, and concerns.
And I hope, especially, that I create a community where my students of color see themselves not simply reflected but empowered; where they can connect classroom conversations to interpersonal relations, family histories, community organizing, or their political activism. *
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sara Awartani is a 2022 LSA Collegiate Fellow. This story is part of a series highlighting the research of LSA Collegiate Fellows, a program of the National Center for Institutional Diversity (NCID) at the University of Michigan. The LSA Collegiate Fellows is one of the most innovative programs in higher education, recruiting and retaining faculty who are experts in their fields and have demonstrated commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion through their scholarship, teaching, and/or engagement.