Eduardo Lalo delivered the following speech—“Unnatural Disaster: Puerto Rico and Hurricane María”—on June 15, 2018, at the one-day symposium Puerto Rico after Hurricane María: Culture, Politics, Place, organized por María Pilar Blanco at the Rothermere American Institute (RAI), University of Oxford, England. El Nuevo Día (Lalo’s column “Isla en su tinta”) published the complete speech in English; here are excerpts:
I write more than 250 days after hurricane María barreled across Puerto Rico on September 20th, 2017, more than eight months ago. Exactly two weeks earlier, another enormous hurricane, Irma, brushed lightly the north coast of the island, before veering west and causing great destruction throughout Cuba. Apparently, we were lucky then; after all, that was what people were saying in the streets, in the newspapers and radio and television stations. Time and time again, politicians and talk-show hosts repeated that our island was blessed. Somehow, hurricanes miraculously changed course when they were about to make landfall in Puerto Rico and the havoc was diverted to other islands and continental areas of the Caribbean.
This presumption was a product of a magical thinking that ignored or was blind to the history of Puerto Rico and its relationship with devastating hurricanes. We had been “lucky” with Irma, but that was only a self-serving mirage, because at the time, in the immediate days after Irma’s slight contact with Puerto Rico, most of the population was suffering an inexplicable blackout. In the case of my neighborhood, it took 13 days for electric power to come back. I remember how my wife, my youngest son and myself celebrated, when all of the sudden, in the middle of absolute darkness, a lamp went on.
However, the exhilaration of recuperating a normal life was to be short-lived. In just 48 hours, Hurricane María was to reach the eastern islands of the Puerto Rican archipelago, and soon after midnight its first gales were felt in San Juan. For almost 20 hours, there were hurricane force winds and tremendous rains. During the more intense phase of the storm, my family spent three hours huddled inside a bathroom. It was a miracle that the windows of our old house resisted the winds. From there we could see, shortly after daybreak, that the water level on the street was becoming dangerously high and that a fallen tree was blocking our driveway. We soon found out that all radio stations were off the air and that there was no telephone or internet services.
Those who were fortunate enough to still have a house without serious damage, clustered together on the first night in front of candles and flashlights to eat crackers, fruit, and canned tuna. My family spent the next 72 days without electricity. Today, more than 250 days after the hurricane’s passing, there are still thousands of Puerto Ricans for whom time stood still and seem to be on day one of the crisis.
[. . .] The unnaturalness of history had hit us harshly, and the people in power were shockingly unprepared. The colonial isolation of our country could not summon a fantastic extirpation from the Caribbean Sea out of thin air. We were soon to understand that we were not, as some believe in both Washington and San Juan, “American citizens residing in Puerto Rico”, but simply and unavoidably Puerto Ricans, another people of the Caribbean.
Two days after the storm, I went out with my wife on our bicycles. I wanted to ride from Guaynabo, on the outskirts of San Juan, to Río Piedras, to see the state of the University of Puerto Rico’s main campus where I have worked for three decades. Streets and avenues were filled with the debris of roofs, signs, fallen lampposts and trees. There were no traffic lights and circulation was chaotic. Slowly, we zigzagged our way through Roosevelt Avenue and entered a sector called El Vedado where we used to live. Then we got to Ponce de León Avenue and saw at a distance the iconic clock tower of the University. At least, it was still standing. When we arrived, although all the gates were locked, never before we had been able to see the old buildings so distinctly. I suddenly realized how this came to be: there were almost no trees left. The campus, as the whole city, seemed to have been bombarded.
We rode into the streets of Río Piedras. Somehow, there the devastation seemed to be less prominent and out of place: it was just another added layer of decay, ruin, and abandonment. Nevertheless, there was something eerie lurking there; a never experienced silence that gave the impression of living outside of time. No engines or electrical appliances could be heard, no any human voices. This was something that could be expected. Riding the empty and dilapidated streets, feeling the breeze on my face, I realized all of the sudden what created the uncanny silence: there were no birds anywhere. [. . .]
[. . .] The truth, we were soon to find out, was that the government was not at all prepared to cope with the hurricane. It had no reserves of food, water or fuel; it had no alternative ways of communication, other than the private cell-phone companies whose systems were either inoperable or handicapped by physical inaccessibility to their antennas and the absence of electric power. Countless communities were sealed off by landslides, people had died or were in the process of doing so, and the local authorities were absent or inaccessible.
The State had disappeared and everywhere people came together to find ways to survive. They opened roads, shared resources, rebuilt bridges, sent emissaries out of the central mountains to try to reach the capital with their desperate messages. The international airport seemed like a refugee camp for the elderly and the sick. Businesses, industries, schools, shops, restaurants closed indefinitely. For weeks we lived in a blank calendar. No dates were given for anything.
Many months later, we still live in a world of imprecisions. It is estimated that more than 400,000 people left Puerto Rico and nobody seems to know how many have since returned. The 16 deaths famously reported by Governor Rosselló to President Trump, during the latter’s infamous lunch stop in a San Juan under siege, have increased to 4,645 according to a recent Harvard University study. The many millions of dollars in emergency relief, that Puerto Rico was supposed to receive from the United States in emergency relief, never seemed to have materialized. At a maddening slow pace, street by street, electric power has been reinstalled, although there are still towns and sectors of cities where darkness reigns until today. Life goes on and makes you adapt and forget. But the millions of trees that went down during the storm can no longer obstruct or distract our field of vision.
One hundred and twenty years after the American military invasion, a century after the imposition of American citizenship to Puerto Ricans, 66 years after the United States manipulated members of the United Nations and other international organizations into believing that the colonial status of Puerto Rico had been resolved by the establishment of the Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico, the political, legal, and social situation of my country seems comparable to the one that it had in 1899, when another historic hurricane, San Ciriaco, hit the island and left it at the mercy of the nation that had taken possession of it a year before. We do not ride donkeys or go barefoot nowadays as we used to do then, but an ominous feeling of defenselessness seems to unite the times of the two most devastating catastrophes in our modern history.
Puerto Rico was socially engineered by the United States during the Cold War. A vast social experiment was initiated, which transformed a country that had been turned in the first half of the 20th century into a giant sugarcane plantation, into a modern industrial society. This transformation did not prove to be painless. [. . .]
[. . .] To put it succinctly, Puerto Rico shows the perils of the future. The global world is one of receding frontiers and at the same time, it faces increasingly absolute limits: those of economic growth, global warming and other environmental problems, and the continuous erosion of sovereign powers. The electronic age not only diminishes or erases distances, but also sizes, volumes, and bodies into the thinness of a screen and the invisibility of an instant transaction in which quantity is no longer a physical dimension. Globalization is a recolonization of the world by obscure or hidden armies and the economic and political societies that are being created now have more to do with the 19th century of colonialism than the 20th century of decolonization. The Era of Conquest that began in the Caribbean at the end of the 15th century, has never ceased, and what we are witnessing in our time is another one of its chapters.
Puerto Rico suffered on September 20th, 2017 an unnatural disaster. A Category 4 hurricane produced by the rise in the temperature of the oceans caused greatly by the Industrial Age, leveled a living political fossil of reiterated conquests, a recurring colony that, for more than 500 years, has been a pawn in the world’s political chess. It has been re-designed, according to the times, to supply military protection for Spanish or American interests, sugar, low wages, no environmental protection laws, a human laboratory for pharmaceuticals, a propaganda asset for free enterprise, or masses of consumers with no freedom to look for alternative markets. It has been a land where the inhabitants have always been thought as an addendum to the property. Their right to possess it has been never recognized nor has ever been taken into account. It has been a blind spot for political rights because it has been such a hotspot for conquest. [. . .]
Less than two weeks ago, I published an article in the Puerto Rican press that made reference to the fact that I was going to participate in this congress organized by the University of Oxford. Its title was “Escribiendo para el inglés” or “Writing for the English”. In it, I listed the events, errors, lies, and horror stories that occurred in Puerto Rico after Maria. The title of the article also plays with words. There is an old Puerto Rican saying that may had originated during the brief domination of the island by the British, when in 1598 Sir George Clifford, Count of Cumberland, landed with a thousand men and, after a fierce battle with the Spanish forces, took San Juan. Only three years earlier Francis Drake had attacked the island. Two centuries later, in 1797, a formidable invasion commanded by Ralph Abercromly tried again to add Puerto Rico to the British Crown. We could have easily become another experiment of English colonialism and oppression. However, in 1598, the British invasion was successful, and for a few months the English dominated its territory until dysentery forced the Count of Cumberland to make a desperate decision and leave the land that his forces had conquered. Maybe it was during this brief period that the expression “trabajando para el inglés” or “working for the English” came into usage, which means to work for free or, depending on context, for almost nothing at all.
In Puerto Rico (as in many other countries) “writing for the English” could be reduced to the act of writing itself. The reader could be English, American, or Spanish; colonial lords and empires are interchangeable. In an asymmetrical relationship of power, we are always “writing for the English”, working on words for anything or almost nothing. And this, of course, is not to be understood just in economic terms, but also conceptually, politically and philosophically.
We could relate this expression just considered with another: “Reading Puerto Ricans”. After all, this is what you are doing now. What sort of meaning do you get from the words read by or heard from a Puerto Rican author? We both use the same words, but according to our origins, they are interpreted at different levels of pertinence.
A day after “Escribiendo para el inglés” was published in El Nuevo Día, I received a letter by an unknown reader. In it, a woman commented the article and at the end wrote this sentence: “The English will understand, even if you speak of what is undecipherable.” This crucial adjective, “undecipherable”, refers to a text whose meaning is impossible to make out; one that is lost in the act of reading. Nevertheless, my reader was presuming a generous openness: “The English will understand…” in the end what might first appear as undecipherable.
Here lies the great challenge of literature in general, but with special acuteness in literatures considered subservient or peripheral because of colonialism: words are written to communicate what history has forced into silence or into what it has been disfigured and transported to the unkempt margins of the “Universal”. When I read in my reader’s letter the word “undecipherable”, another word came immediately to my mind. At first it came in French, maybe because I had read long ago Samuel Beckett’s L’innommable. “L’innommable”, “the unnamable”, “the undecipherable”. Literature is a territory in which words never abandoned words and where words never reach absolute meaning. To write is to whisper everywhere, but there are whispers that come from the unnamable, undecipherable lands of colonialism.
The consequences of colonialism and conquest are both unnamable and undecipherable. That is why colonialism and conquest always bring up crucial questions regarding reading and writing, and of the use of language itself. What does it mean, where do we put in the mental map of Western imagination the “reading” of a Puerto Rican “writing” for the English? What is “lost” not in translation, but in the conventions and traditions of Western reading that are overdetermined by imperialism? [. . .]