What am I? Borinquen? American? Entitled? Marginalized? Legal? Illegal? Am I lost or found? Do I have the right to speak over oppression, or should I be grateful and shut up? Do mainlanders genuinely understand what they benefit from, or expect us to be hopefully thankful to them, as though we are their burden to manage?
I’ve been told multiple times that as a citizen of the United States, I should shut up and be grateful for being a citizen and not in one of “those countries” (Latin America). After all, America is the land of opportunity.
The reality is far from that. It has torn many holes in my family as we try to push forward in life and constantly hear of the declining situation in my home island. However, most of the analysis of Puerto Rico is a superficial level of understanding. It only focuses more on the recent time frame of Hurricane Maria.
So, with the holiday season in full swing, I think it would be appropriate to shine a light on the small portion of the benefits obtained in the United States mainland. At the cost of colonialism and imperialism that was committed. I want it to be understood how American Innocence has harmed many people from a small lens.
Wait, what is Puerto Rico and the Situation?
Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States, a colonial remnant of the Spanish-American war. Puerto Rico was given to the United States by Spain during the 1898 Treaty of Paris. In the past, Puerto Rico was viewed as a naval geopolitical point to project and have defense influence in the Caribbean Sea and the Panama Canal. The island suffers from massive economic and humanitarian crises, with mass levels of people fleeing from the island, food insecurity, and high poverty levels.
By food insecurity, I mean long before Hurricane Maria and COVID. In 2015, 33% of the adult population in Puerto Rico were considered to have food insecurity, which has since increased more as the island has been spiraling into more poverty and desolation. In addition, 22% of adults reported skipping meals because they could not afford food.
Poverty ratings in Puerto Rico were over 43% for the general island population in 2018, and during COVID the percentage of unemployment went to 46%. If Puerto Rico were a state, it would be far worse than Mississippi, the poorest state of the Union currently.
Puerto Rico generally is not represented in Congress since they are a territory. Still, as an American unincorporated territory, the rights, or liberties on the island as citizens are severely restricted. We don’t get the same immediate protections as someone living on the mainland. For example, the government can force us to pay back benefits obtained in the mainland if we go to the territories to live. Historically, it has resulted in many laws trampling Puerto Ricans’ rights from the Puerto Rican government and the US government. And a cynical understanding of the military given power before citizens, like the routine bombing of the island of Vieques by the navy, resulted in environmental destruction and poisoning in the area.
The Gag Law prohibited Puerto Ricans from having the Puerto Rican flag, singing Puerto Rican hymns, or even discussing independence under penalty of jail time. This law was passed with the encouragement of the federal government to suppress dissent and longstanding independence movements on the island. This law was used with other rules to hurt anti-establishment critics and used to hide governmental actions. This Cold War-era law affected the speech patterns that we use references to the defunct law when people try BSing us.
Historically, Puerto Rico, during its time as a colonial holdover of Spain and the United States, has been geared for an extraction economy. Before and after the emancipation of slaves in Puerto Rico, we were used as cheap labor first for agriculture cash crops like sugarcane and coffee. After industrialization, we were used as cheap labor for pharmaceuticals and other goods. The work was treated as dispensable, and to this day, you see provisions that allow a $4.25 min wage for the first 90 days of employment in some sectors. We receive scraps for federal budgeting; we do not get full access to Medicare aid, do not get SSI benefits (Supplemental Security Income), and have pensions cut and many other issues due to forced austerity. And we have to pay fully for these benefits we don’t get, which makes us more poor and incapable of recovering.
Cabotage, corporation tax exemptions, triple exempt bonds that the mainland benefited from (and Puerto Rico got short-changed), the Jones act, rapid forced industrialization/specialization, and other protectionist and right-wing economic policies — all this resulted in Puerto Rico having a dependent economy on the United States. Island natives are paying high prices for essential goods and making the goods for mainlanders to benefit from. We receive the eggs and goods rejected by the mainland, paying for them at a higher cost. At the same time, the US benefits from this economic arrangement. Over 80% of our food gets imported as our agriculture sector is destroyed. We lost a lot of capital/knowledge to try making any local competitors that fail to compete against massive mainland corporations.
And when the corporations could no longer benefit from mass tax exemption? They abandoned us, and workers who were hard specialized in a specific industry became untenable as there was no industry that they could translate their skills to. Now we have become a tax haven in code in desperation and reducing restrictions to try getting a business, any economic activity back onto the island. Instead, all these policies have promoted further gentrification and caused many Puerto Ricans to lose their homes and meager savings, which have the rich buy protected land to develop and kill endangered species and have no actual activity. It’s a parasite’s dream, except it’s a nightmare for the hosts.
Due to the island government also being inept and the systemic corruption and incentives by the federal government and colonial extraction economy, we have a debt crisis. We cannot declare bankruptcy on or be capable of independently/realistically solving this issue which resulted in the federal government implementing help to “restructure” our finances. We call this board the junta, as it practically dictates what we can do; Puerto Ricans have no direct representation or ability to contest their power. It harshly does the austerity that we see in other developing nations, which has worsened the situation for people who haven’t fled.
This junta has gutted educational funding for the island, gutted pensions, harshly controlled wages, and made harsh cuts in public funding to “save” Puerto Rico from debt collapse. Instead, it further implemented brain drain, made schools shut down due to incapability to pay teachers or do repairs after the natural disasters of hurricanes and earthquakes. Prices rose with electricity costs soaring to try to cover debts. During COVID, governance was unresponsive in dealing with a massive food shortage and humanitarian crisis.
My family hears all of these issues from relatives stuck on the island, and we are in anguish with how useless we feel in doing something over it. While we hear of our relatives who died not being able to get insulin, get treatment in the hospital system, or hear of skimping on food. At the same time, we are stuck on the mainland (and a heavy toll was paid for my family to make it to the mainland, but that’s another story).
Failure of the System
What about the federal government? Surely, they care about Puerto Rico and other territories and have been helping all boats rise with their policy, right?
The two parties have no reason to ever want to care about changing the status of the people. One party explicitly says making Puerto Rico a state is socialism and therefore bad (because somehow granting people the same rights and opportunities are now socialism for some reason). While the other wishes to table the discussion until we remove tax havening status, which both parties helped create and even promote with neoliberal policy. Presidents from both parties have recently defended the Insular Cases, a series of racist rulings that Jim Crowed the territories. Recently, these cases were used to help restrict 4th amendment rights in the Virgin Islands. Meanwhile, both parties in the states appeal to the diaspora communities with promises that voting for them will help give Puerto Ricans full self-determination and finally get the economic help they need. Once they get voted, we get ignored or tossed around.
Hell, we get blamed for our woes when we have to deal with a colonial economy we do not have as much power over, deal with tariffs and policies we have little control over and have limited ways to raise revenue. For federal assistance programs, we get a drop compared to states (For example, Medicaid wise we get 15% of what states typically get for aid in a block grant, so we have to pay excessively to make up for the shortfall in money). Fun fact: about 54% of Americans even knew we were Americans in 2017.
We were seen as vagabonds, lazy people, and welfare moochers when the United States acquired the island via the Insular Cases. Citizenship was granted to us, but for the purpose of drafting us into World War 1, not because of an interest to include us. The Americanization of the island was a test run of what was done to other places America conquered or put under the influence. It is still done today, where we see diaspora communities encouraged to fully assimilate into the greater culture. When the electoral system and educational system were implemented, they were designed to augment the anti-blackness and whiteness system from Spain’s colonial era. Take a look at how historically, a lot of leaders for Puerto Rico’s movements were from US colleges and predominately white-passing. English was the only language taught for a while, and Puerto Rican culture was suppressed for American culture. A lot of focus and narrative was given over the “middle class” Puerto Rico that increasingly identified as white to try fitting in. They did this by studying in American colleges and learned policy in the shallow way as taught (problems we see affecting elite leaders of America today even), and to make Puerto Rico “progress and refine” itself, this helped promote and set up a lot of issues Puerto Rico has today dealing with racial discrimination, machismo, and other cultural issues. Only recently, Puerto Ricans have started removing themselves from the sphere of whiteness, with the current census 49.8% identifying as multiracial and 25.5% as other, as we have realized we are not seen as white nor accepted as such and will be continually seen as nonwhite. This has resulted in us rediscovering and embracing our past heritage and African roots and eschewing old hairstyles and beauty standards instilled in previous generations as an example.
The US has benefited too much from Puerto Rico and likes to make issues sound as though they were recent. In reality, it has been long-standing. Migrations were “encouraged” (forced) in the 40s and 50s especially. If we didn’t conform to American standards mentally and physically, we were given no chances. Forced sterilization occurred to “combat” high poverty and population. Between 1930 and 1970, over 1/3 of women in Puerto Rico’s childbearing age were sterilized. They were also used as guinea pigs for unsafe experiments and efforts to make the birth control pills used today. While said pharmaceutical companies were protected from their actions and reaped all the profits and benefits, this era is shunned and not talked about a lot in Puerto Rico, and women still don’t get full access to birth control measures.
Our public utilities get more privatized, which has resulted in more declining standards and higher costs of living. At the same time, the junta laughs and benefits from these deals. The electric grid is near collapse. People want to rebuild it with fossil fuels in mind, taking no heed of the previous environmental disasters.
Capitalism and imperialism thoroughly affected the island, scared our environment, and led to continued poverty. At the same time, rich mainlanders and corporations reap the benefits of the colonial economy, and we anguish.
And that’s just some of the injustices suffered by Puerto Ricans. And we get called privileged for all that.
But you’re a US Citizen….
Yes, I am one, and that means I get a certain level of privilege compared to many refugees who are undocumented or struggling to make it here.
By even having the time to air these grievances, I show privilege in having the resource and time, compared to many of my compatriots that languish and suffer. I get to be in a university and have a better life.
My family reconciled the fact we were privileged by being citizens and being from a colony that resents its treatment by instead resolving to use that opportunity to then try helping others in community service. I reconcile my differences by celebrating the enjoyments I get in the states and the access to knowledge and opportunities and also accepting that I am a Puerto Rican, and there is injustice out there that should be called out, and people should begin learning how to deal with them. I get to enjoy my individuality and my longing for community and the understanding of looking at it from more than one cultural perspective at situations. I am still not whole, perhaps I will never be, but at least it gives me something to work on to find my way while I grow.
But does this invalidate my experiences, suffering, or resentment for how things are? On the contrary, I think it serves to show that even as a citizen, the moment anyone speaks up per the issues, we are told to be grateful and obey, to be happy, we aren’t like the “others.” It shows the contradictions facing our economy and society and way of life and needs to be solved. You should care because if this is how a territory is treated, how do you think the other imperialized places feel? How do you expect to not have ramifications or issues like the recent refugee crisis from a place we destabilized?
So, as you go home for the holidays, as you go home to have those nice dinner discussions over the nation and patriotism, I want you to take a second and remove your innocence and exceptionalism of the nation, and realize the comforts experienced there and how that affects many other people and nations horribly. Know that for many people, the American Dream is a nightmare. And then ask what else is out there beyond this perspective.