Frances Negrón-Muntaner: “Our Fellow Americans”

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In “Our Fellow Americans,” Frances Negrón-Muntaner unpacks the rhetoric surrounding aid to Puerto Rico (or the lack thereof) in the framework of citizenship and belonging (to be Americans, or not to be; that is the question):

[. . .] MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow was at times still more emphatic. Discussing the infamous “spa day” story where a U.S. doctor quit after seeing medical personnel turn a hospital triage into a manicure station, Maddow remarked in an alarmed tone: “You have people starting to die, Americans starting to die, in Puerto Rico because of treatable bacterial infections . . . This storm is no longer killing Americans—the federal government’s response to the storm is now killing Americans.”

For U.S. journalists, this was a way to keep people watching and maintain pressure on the federal government to step up support. Yet it often went further. In the New York Times, two writers made the case that what Puerto Ricans were called was a question not just of semantics but also of survival. Commenting on a Morning Consult poll about U.S. perceptions of Puerto Ricans shortly after the hurricane struck, they noted that Americans in general—including Trump supporters—were more comfortable with the idea of providing aid to Puerto Ricans if aware that they were U.S. citizens. [. . .]

Nor were journalists alone in adopting this strategy: corporate America also got in on the act. Perhaps the most striking example was a public service announcement by the megastore Walmart, which began running on primetime television on October 9. Called “United,” the PSA was not Walmart’s first on a hurricane-related theme. The company had released another one a month earlier to raise funds for victims of Hurricane Harvey in Texas. [. . .] The Puerto Rico version was of similar length and style, suggesting that in the eyes of Walmart, the island was equal to any state. It opened with images of the hurricane’s impact under an instrumental arrangement of Ben King’s classic “Stand By Me.” While the lyrics are not part of the PSA, the song was likely chosen to allude to the destruction of the power grid and ensuing darkness: “When the night has come/And the land is dark/And the moon is the only light we’ll see/No, I won’t be afraid/Oh, I won’t be afraid/Just as long as you stand, stand by me.” In the English rendition, the PSA’s male voiceover, heard during most of the spot’s duration, declares: “To our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico, we may be separated by an ocean, but we are united.” [. . .]

[. . .] The rhetorical explosion of “our fellow Americans” raises the question of why the sudden adoption of this phrase, and why now. Part of the answer lies in the shifting meaning of the term “American,” as a product of constant struggles over who can claim full national belonging and access the benefits of U.S. citizenship. This is evident in Puerto Rico’s case. Although rarely invoked until the aftermath of Maria, the phrase has been applied to island residents for over a century to emphasize political inequality and injustice. A 1900 Washington Times article offers a succinct, and still current, example: “the crime against our suffering fellow-Americans in Puerto Rico, and against the Constitution of the United States, is complete.”

[. . .] The phrase’s association with presidential addresses and their effect of rhetorically constituting the “American people” in times of crisis partly explains its surge after Maria. The repetition aims to affirm that given the failure of both the president and Congress to act, Americans themselves have the power to incorporate Puerto Rico as part of the national body politic and dictate that Puerto Ricans are deserving of care as U.S. citizens. To the extent that President Trump has explicitly claimed the category of “American” for whites, “our fellow Americans” also seeks to refuse the president’s racist rhetoric by taking over presidential speech. The phrase, then, is a declaration of democratic inclusion—the chosen version is, after all, “our” and not “my” fellow Americans—and a form of protest against the nation’s head of government.

This strategy has had some tangible effects. Brigades of nurses, pilots, cooks, celebrities and even The Simpsons’ cartoon bartender Moe have sent money and supplies to Puerto Rico or donated their time. [. . .]

At the same time, the embrace of “our fellow Americans” is more vexed than it appears. A good example is Walmart’s PSA. While the company may have intended to raise money for relief, many Puerto Ricans saw the ad as hypocritical PR given Walmart’s impact on the island. The reason is simple: Walmart is Puerto Rico’s largest private employer and its highest-grossing retailer, with upwards of $2.75 billion in annual revenue and more stores per square mile than anywhere else on earth. Accordingly, in the last two decades, Walmart has destroyed the vast majority of local competition, including independent pharmacies, and has been a factor in over 800 small business bankruptcies. Its near monopoly of the market has likewise driven up unemployment: for every new job that Walmart creates, the economy loses an average of 2.3. Equally significant, the types of jobs that Walmart has generated are mostly part-time, minimum-wage ones, without benefits or the right to organize.

This rhetorical gesture also overlooks that while recognition as Americans may translate into greater attention, the strategy is problematic for what it exacts and omits. Philosopher Nelson Maldonado Torres was among those to object to the “American” appeal by pointing out that Puerto Ricans should “receive help because they are people, not because they are [American] citizens”; citizenship status alone has never guaranteed rights for racialized people, who are not seen as fully human to begin with. Eduardo Bhatia, former president of the Senate of Puerto Rico, argued that while it was legally accurate to say that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, calling them Americans was another matter. From this perspective, “our fellow Americans” erases Puerto Rican national identity and their long history of struggles against U.S. colonialism.

Yet under the current circumstances, the most revealing limitation of the attempt to rhetorically make Americans out of Puerto Ricans is its failure to end the suffering on the ground—highlighting that Puerto Rico’s colonial subjection is thoroughly systemic. Usual responses to disasters in the United States, such as expanding the food stamp program for families in need, were not followed because unlike in the fifty states, there is a cap to the amount of funds the island can receive, even in times of emergency. For still disputed reasons, the mutual aid typically provided by states when catastrophe hits also did not kick in. States like New Jersey, Virginia, and Massachusetts were quick to send personnel, equipment, and other assistance to Texas and Florida after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria but not to Puerto Rico. To further clarify the island’s low status, four weeks after the hurricane, no less than sixty-nine House Republicans voted against additional aid for Puerto Rico, and the approved package was ultimately offered in the form of loans, although state agencies were granted direct relief in the same bills.

In other words, the appeal of “our fellow Americans,” particularly in the absence of political mobilization, is no match against a racist, colonial logic designed to keep resources away from “minorities” deemed to be undeserving. [. . .]

[. . .] Moreover, while press coverage to date has done much to shift some attitudes, the quantity and quality of journalistic interest itself often replicates existing power dynamics. While reporting about Puerto Rico spiked after Maria, compared to prior coverage on the debt crisis, it has been considerably less than that of hurricane damage in Texas and Florida. The equally devastated U.S. Virgin Islands—where three-quarters of the population is black—received nearly no coverage at all. Attention to Puerto Rico only picked up after Trump visited the island and has faded since. [. . .]

For full article, see https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/our-fellow-americans-puerto-rico-hurricane-maria-colonialism-rhetoric

[Photo above: Flags in the wreckage of Hurricane Maria, San Juan, Puerto Rico, November 18 (Lorie Shaull / Flickr)]

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