Tiphanie Yanique in the NYT: Americans in a Battered Paradise


An Op-Ed piece by Tiphanie Yanique for the New York Times.

I lived through two hurricanes as a child and I remember all the good stuff that eventually came in the mail — M&Ms, bug spray, playing cards. So when I heard that Hurricane Irma had made landfall on American soil last Wednesday, I began gathering those kinds of things to mail to my friends and family. I put the packages together and watched the news. There was nothing in what I saw about the hurricane hitting the United States.

When I finally received a text from my Aunt Cecile on Thursday, she wrote, “The post office is gone.” “What do you mean ‘gone’?” I texted back. She responded with a list: “Grocery stores gone. Schools gone. Hospital gone.” “What do you mean ‘gone’?” I asked again. “Gone,” she texted again. “Demolished. No roof. No walls.”

That Sunday the news media made a big deal out of Irma’s landfall on the Florida Keys as a Category 4 hurricane, and then on Florida itself. But in truth Irma had struck United States land days before as a disastrous Category 5 hurricane. That was when it hit the United States Virgin Islands, devastating my home island, St. Thomas. That was when my aunt texted, “Gone.”

Maybe you’ve heard of the Virgin Islands, of St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John. It’s a good place to go on vacation, to fall in love, to have a wedding. One hundred years ago, the islands were called the Danish West Indies. Denmark sold the islands in 1917 to the United States for $25 million. The people who lived there, including my ancestors, were no longer Danish West Indians. As my cousin Norma remembers learning from older relatives, on the day of the transfer the Danish flag went down slowly on the flagpole. The American flag went zoom-zoom up. And then we were as American as Coca-Cola.

It took 10 more years for Virgin Islanders to actually be granted American citizenship. Before the transfer, the Danes and the Americans argued about trading us, with one Danish lawmaker said to have risen from his death bed to vote against the sale. Either way, the conversation about our future hadn’t included us.

Today Virgin Islanders are led by a president who makes clear delineations between “real” Americans and all the rest. True, the people of the Virgin Islands didn’t vote for this current president. The people of the Virgin Islands didn’t vote for any president of our United States of America, because voting in the general election is not a privilege of citizenship that the federal government extends to us. Like the citizens of Puerto Rico, Guam and the other United States territories, we are not yet realAmericans. No wonder TV networks and even the president’s homeland security adviser, Tom Bossert, can’t seem to get it right.

In a press briefing last Friday, Mr. Bossert appeared to chastise the news media for not covering the government response to Hurricane Irma’s assault on the Virgin Islands. Watching him, I held my breath, wondering if now someone would claim us. But he mentioned the evacuation of American citizens from the Virgin Islands in the same way he talked about the evacuation of American citizens from St. Maarten and St. Martin. I took him to mean: We are evacuating the real Americans from these foreign Caribbean islands.

Nowhere did he note that we should be concerned about this American land, because it isAmerican land. Has been for 100 years.

In the continental United States there has been little coverage of this centennial of Virgin Islands Americanness. In Transfer Day ceremonies in March, the Danish flag again went slowly down in the Virgin Islands and the American flag went soaring up. All this year Virgin Islanders have been marking our Americanness with such exercises of memory, but it is a bitter celebration. When we Virgin Islanders leave the Virgin Islands for the mainland, we find that we are immigrants in our own country.

As we have over the last 100 years, we ask again, with this storm: What kind of Americans are we? Are we part of a multitiered system of Americanness? Do the real Americans know about this? Are you, real Americans, O.K. with this? It doesn’t seem particularly American to me.

My son, Nazareth, was born in New York City, but baptized in the Virgin Islands. He turned 1 year old on the same day that the Virgin Islands turned 100. I want for him what I want for any American — self-actualization, his rights granted and upheld, finding the love of his life and maybe marrying that person on a beach on St. Thomas.

He is an American and a Virgin Islander, which are the same thing. The history of the Virgin Islands is part of American history. And now, what happens in the Virgin Islands is happening in America. Before Hurricane Irma hit the continental United States, it had already affected at least 100,000 Americans. Not tourists visiting islands. Just 100,000 Americans, living in America’s paradise, the United States Virgin Islands.

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