It Feels Surreal Being a Puerto Rican in the United States These Days


Javier Morillo (The Nation) writes that the disaster has revealed our ambiguous status as citizen-strangers. Read the full version of this excellent article at The Nation:

It feels surreal, being a Puerto Rican in the United States these days. No, not because of that poll that showed that almost 50 percent of Americans are unaware that Puerto Ricans are US citizens. Most of us are not surprised by that data point, and I myself am not offended by it. We are citizen-strangers. Our movement is not restricted, but we are unable to vote on the island for the president who sends us to war. Come to the states and, voilà, you can vote for president! [. . .]

It feels surreal, being a Puerto Rican in the United States these days, seeing images of the devastation of an island I grew up on and that—despite not having lived there for three decades—I still call home. Like so many of the diaspora, even those born here and who never lived on the island, we feel our fates deeply intertwined with it. [. . .]

[. . .] It feels surreal, being an “American” in the United States these days, having as a leader of the country an abuser in chief, one who not only eschews the role of “healer” during a moment of crisis but also seems to revel in shaming Puerto Ricans, in humiliating us in our hour of deep pain. Yes, he threw paper towels to a handpicked crowd at a conservative church for expat white Americans living in an expensive suburb. Yes, he downplayed the tragedy by comparing Hurricane Maria to the “real catastrophe” of Hurricane Katrina, answering affirmatively that favorite pundit question: Is this Trump’s Katrina? Sí, coño, it is, and Americans are noticing. But the spectacle of the island’s representative in Washington, DC, who refers to herself as the “Congresswoman for Puerto Rico”—Puerto Rico has no congresswoman, only a “resident commissioner,” who can’t vote in Congress—genuflecting in front of the Dear Leader as he insulted our people, added the necessary yet unbearable colonial collaborationist tinge to the President’s visit.

[. . .] What Hurricane Maria has done for us boricuas, here or there, acá o allá, is to make our reality, our surreality, a self-evident truth: We are not created equal. Many non–Puerto Ricans may not know our citizenship status, but we, the products of the US colonial venture that began with the “Spanish-American War,” cannot hide from it. The name of that war may erase us, but our bodies, our stories, cannot. This past March was the 100th Anniversary of the Jones Act of 1917, the federal law that made us into US citizens from that moment forward. Within months, Puerto Rican men were drafted to serve in World War I—but, don’t worry, we’ve been assured this was just a coincidence. [. . .]

A brief moment of lucidity: Trump slipped on his trip to the territory when he acknowledged that the calamity facing the island before Hurricane Maria—its crushing public debt—had to be “wiped out.” Puerto Rico bonds plunged as US investors, who bet big on my people’s misery, panicked. Of course, the White House quickly walked back Trump’s rare and inconvenient truth. Many of us rushed to say, Hey, wait a minute, we agree with the president! No take-backsies! But, alas, our island is governed not by brief moments of lucidity but by long-term insanity: a colonial board, established in bipartisan fashion by the comically named PROMESA bill (it promised little and has delivered less). Since its passage, the governor elected by the people is but a puppet, submitting budgets for approval to an appointed junta that includes bankers whose institutions helped create the island’s financial mess. For those unfamiliar with the not-yet-on-Broadway Wall Street Story of Puerto Rico, a synopsis of the musical Lin-Manuel Miranda has yet to write:

Act I. Wall Street banks and bond salesmen lure the Puerto Rican government into taking on $74 billion in debt, much of it likely illegally incurred (but we can’t know for sure because the junta and the conservative governor have refused to audit the debt). Municipal bonds on the island are triple-tax free so extremely attractive. Also, federal law forbids island municipalities (unlike US cities) from declaring bankruptcy. So the stage is set for a completely captive audience: the Puerto Rican masses who will have to pay up.

Act II. Vulture hedge-fund managers started speculating on this debt, buying it for pennies on the dollar and demanding repayment in full. They did the same thing in Argentina and Greece. In Wall Street alchemy, you can always squeeze blood from a stone.

Act III. Then politicians on the island and in Congress used government to create an undemocratic austerity crusade intent on destroying public assets and driving down wages, causing widespread suffering—all to pay back the banks and hedge funds. Blood from a stone.

Trump not only walked back that moment of lucidity; now he is back to playing the abusive father, threatening to abandon the island, so full of ingrates, personified by the mayor of San Juan, that very Nasty Woman. [. . .]

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