Puerto Rico, trapped in time

On April 9, 2021, Spanish newspaper El País published a piece by Ana Teresa Toro: “Puerto Rico, atrapado en el tiempo.” As the editors explain, “With a personal look at the past and another at the future, Puerto Rican journalist and writer Ana Teresa Toro lists some of the clues to [understanding] a territory that is part of, but not an integral part of the United States. An anachronistic present.”

To illustrate her points about the colonial condition, the present state of the island (no pun intended), and its trajectory into the future Toro also speaks about the work of different Puerto Rican figures such as writer Cezanne Cardona (author of Levittown mon amour); artist and executive director of Taller Salud, Tania Rosario; and economist and urban planner Deepak Lamba-Nieves. [The article includes fascinating photos by Luis R. Vidal.] Here are excerpts:

I was eight years old when more than 250 boats arrived in San Juan for the commemoration of the Great Columbus Regatta in 1992. I remember walking along the docks, hearing people speaking different languages, feeling so much a part of the world. In those years, in Puerto Rico we were dreaming big. A committee was preparing the nomination for the 2004 Games. We imagined and designed futures; we did things that countries do. In those same years, scientists from around the world wanted to come to the Arecibo Observatory to use the radio telescope, the largest in the world up to that time, and a global epicenter for astronomy. From Puerto Rico it was not only possible to be part of the world, but even to look into space. Our gaze was expanded, large, dignified. We even felt universal.

I was a little girl, but I remember well that, at that time, few people used the word “colony” to describe the political reality of the island. The independentistas [pro-independence sector] did it and, to some extent, the annexationists (the sector that wants total integration of Puerto Rico with the United States), but the dominant discourse was that of the virtues of the political status under which the country had lived since 1952. Although it was always questioned, the narrative that prevailed insisted that “the Commonwealth (Estado Libre Asociado, ELA) is the best of both worlds”; a mantra that today practically no one dares to pronounce. The defenders of this idea were convinced that our situation was privileged because we were part of the most powerful country in the world, and we did it in Spanish and without losing our culture or our identity. But in just a few decades we would have to face a much less friendly angle within that narrative: it was possible that having the “best of both worlds” would leave you without one of your own.

When Hurricane Maria finally began to leave Puerto Rico in the afternoon of September 20, 2017, the second part of the tragedy was just beginning in Levittown. There was so much rain that, when on most of the island people began fearfully to leave their homes [. . .] to face the dimension of the disaster, many of the residents of Levittown ran up to the roofs of their houses to await rescue during the night as they watched their homes disappear underwater. The flooding was enormous, and with those rains, the dream of Levittown was drowned. It was one of the first urbanizations inaugurated in Puerto Rico, developed in the early sixties by the U.S. company Levitt & Sons. The newly-opened suburb would be the place where thousands of Puerto Ricans would return to fulfill the dream of returning to the homeland, after years of forced migration to the United States. With that return, in some way, Puerto Rico tried to correct the capital sin of its country project: there would be progress with the Commonwealth, and thousands would rise out of poverty. But the bonanza would not be enough for everyone; the island would have to split in two. Without mass migration it would be impossible. The worst thing is that, even with that sacrifice, the Puerto Rican experiment would eventually collapse. It took decades, but we hit rock bottom.

The same thing happens on every trip I’ve made. If I am the foreigner of any group, there comes a point in the conversation when I must explain myself. It is not enough to say that one is from Puerto Rico, we must try to clarify what a Commonwealth is. It is necessary to explain what it is to belong to, without being part of. It is also necessary to clarify that on the island there are people who defend independence, others who defend the Commonwealth (or other forms of autonomism) and there is another group that advocates annexation [. . .]. On the other hand, in Puerto Rico, talking about statehood has its nuances. There are those who would consider annexation as a decolonizing alternative, although technically that process implies the triumph of any colonizing enterprise: assimilate and absorb. This group is joined by those who advocate a “jíbaro statehood,” that is, to become State 51, but with an emphasis on maintaining our language and cultural identity. [. . .]

The annoyance of explaining to the world that does not understand how it is that we parade as a country with a single flag in the Olympic Games, we have a blue passport and we fight their wars, but we do not have the right to vote for the president, has gradually dissipated. Euphemisms are outdated. Now something is happening that was unthinkable decades ago: important figures of the leadership of the party that created the ELA (the Popular Democratic Party) admit that the status is colonial.

I have simplified my answer:

“What is Puerto Rico?”

“A colony in the middle of the post-colonial era.”

 [. . .] In 2019 we lived through a hotter and more intense summer. It so happened that, after the revelation of a private chat by the governor, Ricardo Rosselló, in which there was no marginalized group left unscathed by insults, people went out en masse to demand his resignation. Those who took the lead were artists: Ricky Martin, Bad Bunny, and Residente, among others. A spirit of consensus, which transcended any ideological division, reigned. After an exhausting day, the ruler’s resignation was achieved.

Like the blazing flamboyant tree, we bloom in summer.

What those pages revealed was outrageous, but Puerto Ricans had endured abuse for too long. The natural disaster of hurricanes Irma and María turned into a political disaster due to the inability of the local and federal governments to handle the crisis. After the passage of Maria, according to a study by Harvard University, 4,656 people died.

Tania Rosario, 41, remembers that number very acutely. She is an artist and executive director of Taller Salud, one of the feminist organizations with the greatest impact on the island and an institution that assumed leadership in response tasks after the passage of the hurricane. “There is no way that misfortune has reached that scale without there having been a multimillion-dollar theft of resources, because there is money here, there is money. If it’s not where it should be, it’s because it’s in the wrong pockets,” she says. She adds: “[. . .] I remember growing up in a Puerto Rico where the relationship with the United States was evolving. They told us that it was going to improve towards greater autonomy or greater annexation, and now we are here with a Fiscal Control Board, with an unpayable debt, with a precarious system always on the brink of collapse, with housing, education, health, and everything always on the verge of running out of money.” [. . .]

There may be many crises in the Government, but in the street there is no crisis of imagination. These youth do not know of windfalls; they are children of all the crises: economic, climatic—hurricanes, droughts, earthquakes—, politics—with the colony on their backs and protest always alive—, and now they are surviving a pandemic. They have nothing to lose. They can risk it all. Hopefully they will. Hopefully we will.

Excerpts translated by Ivette Romero. For full article (in Spanish), see https://elpais.com/eps/2021-04-10/puerto-rico-atrapado-en-el-tiempo.html

One thought on “Puerto Rico, trapped in time

  1. Reblogged this on It Is What It Is and commented:
    HOPEFULLY!! … “These youth do not know of windfalls; they are children of all the crises: economic, climatic—hurricanes, droughts, earthquakes—, politics—with the colony on their backs and protest always alive, and now they are surviving a pandemic. They have nothing to lose. They can risk it all. Hopefully they will. Hopefully we will.”

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