Understanding Puerto Rico through Diaspora

8 mins read

Puerto Ricans, both displaced by the 2017 hurricanes and those who migrated to the mainland US before the major storms, must navigate identity, place, power and belonging in New York City.

“The island in general, it was like they had blown a torch over it. All the trees just looked burnt. All you would see is wood.” This is how Angel Rafael Blanco Colón, a recently graduated Pace University student studying dance, described Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria struck last year.  A New York City resident for the past four years, the island sitting between the Dominican Republic and the Virgin Islands is his home.

Colón’s nuclear family remains in Puerto Rico where they own a construction company. Their personal home fortunately survived the storm. That has not been the case for thousands of Puerto Ricans.

The responding action for many other families has been migration. A study released in March by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College estimated that approximately 135,000 Puerto Ricans relocated to the United States between October 2017 and February 2018. The department determined this number through examining FEMA records and school enrollment by county.

Data released in May by the tech company Teralytics revealed a comprehensive look at the wave of migration, using cellular data from 500,000 smartphones to develop an active behavioral map. The map shows that about 407,465 Puerto Ricans left the island. Since January, approximately 360,000 have returned.

The Teralytics migration map indicates strong reactions of both fight and flight amongst the Puerto Rican people; many are ready to head home and face the trauma of recovery that is still painfully visible. But these numbers may take for granted the fact that Puerto Ricans are American citizens, assuming that those who remained have chosen to do so. A different reading of the map shows the 6 percent of Puerto Rico’s population who had the means to exit, did so, even temporarily.

Colón’s best friend moved to NYC after the category 5 storm, Hurricane Maria, destroyed her house. “FEMA was able to give some money to a selected group of people and she was randomly chosen. She was living in a hotel for 2 to 3 weeks until she was able to find a job. But a lot of people couldn’t find a way to get out. There’s still people who want to leave,” said Colón.

A Cultural Identity Defined by Struggle

Colón expressed immense pride in his Puerto Rican identity, a Latinidad wrapped in a history of struggle to sustain quality of life on an island that outsiders have controlled for hundreds of years. “We are in reality a colony,” he states.

In the carefully chosen words of Bronx raised poet and performer, Caridad de la Luz also known as La Bruja, “We’ve been pimped.”

Residents of the island are United States citizens. As such, Puerto Ricans pay select Federal Taxes, including Social Security and Medicare, and maintain the right to equal federal protection and assistance. Puerto Ricans of the island do not possess the liberty to vote in presidential elections or possess congressional representation with voting power. Over time, Puerto Ricans have accepted the harsh reality of conflict surrounding the island’s commonwealth status as customary. 

The island has voted on statehood referendums five times, most recently in June 2017 at the request of Congress. On this occasion, a 97 percent majority voted in support of statehood, yet this represents singularly the 25 percent of the voting population who cast a ballot. Factions and individuals who rival the New Progressive Party, the political bloc currently in power, boycotted the polls.

New York City As a Microcosm

NEW YORK – JULY 23, 2015: Puerto Rico themed mural art at East Williamsburg in Brooklyn

“Tensions exist,” at all levels of the issue, acknowledges Monxo López, a Hunter College professor of African, Puerto Rican and Latino studies and PhD in political science. Between Puerto Ricans who have left the island and those who remain, as well. “These tensions are not the bulk of the relationship,” states López, “but they do speak about the fears people in the island have about folks ‘de allá afuera’ coming to dictate what needs to be done in the island, and how.”

López has keenly experienced the community shifting emotionally in the past year, commenting that, “People are at times depressed, angry, and resentful by the way the US government failed to address the disaster. At the same time there is a renewed sense of solidarity, and a stronger bond between the diasporas and the island.”

In light of the government response to Hurricane Maria, this renewed solidarity has become energetically apparent and necessary for recovery. López shares that, “most aid I have seen has come from individuals, and private organizations, most of them non-profit.”

New York City organizations like Loisaida Inc. have shaped their programming this past year around rebuilding and creating opportunity for communication between diasporas and Puerto Rico. Their initiatives have included supporting EcoKits which designed and funded packages of sustainable necessities sent to the island as soon as 3 days after Hurricane Maria hit.

López has worked with the non-profit on the “development and testing of a relatively inexpensive, state-of-the-art solar panel prototype to address the main needs of the typical household in the island,” an ongoing project. The organization has also raised $15 thousand for Puerto Rican relief through an art show and online auction AbrazARTE, in conjunction with Teatro LaTEA. This September, Loisaida plans to host a new installation titled Sobrevivientes. Curated by Puerto Rican artist Adrian Viajero Roman, the exhibition commemorates the anniversary of the storm.  

Speaking Up

Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Photo courtesy of Nuyorican Poets Cafe Facebook page.

Neighboring organization, the long-standing Nuyorican Poets Cafe, is uniquely positioned by its own model to serve as a center for continuing recovery and congregation of the Puerto Rican diaspora. Nuyorican has benefited the community as a multicultural institution for the arts since 1973.

Focused on spoken word, the cafe jump-started the careers of artists like De la Luz. Former Loisaida resident, Daniel Gallant, has been Executive Director of Nuyorican since 2008. He describes the platform as a method for, “sorting through the complexity of emotions that comes from having ties to a part of the United States that has arguably been underserved.”

As he points out, “Spoken word in general, the way that our artists practice it, has a long history of coinciding with community organization and with protest movements.”

The Nuyorican, primarily, makes and provides space, for the community, for new artists, for open dialogue. With the intention to, “If possible, have the questions, the confrontations, the energetic give and take that happens on our stage lead spectators to action in the greater world.”

Despite these strong, grassroots endeavors towards growth and rebuilding being championed by New York City residents, the commonwealth status of Puerto Rico hampers recovery efforts and casts a shadow over the island’s future.

The Cost of Recovery

Puerto Ricans in New York City protest the treatment of the island after the hurricane and the Jones Act that carries strict trading law.

Through natural disaster, Hurricane Maria has forcibly brought to light the manmade disasters of the island’s power structure, as well as, called into question the functionality of the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States.

Colón attests that, “The power structure is ancient. The authority of electrical energy is one of the corporations on the island that they would say is the most corrupt.”

In his home municipality of Bayamón, “which is in the metropolitan area…the lights could go at any second. And if there’s a hurricane, God forbid, it could be out for like a week.”

A paper released by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) in Washington DC this past June evaluates the fiscal plans passed most recently by Puerto Rico’s Financial Oversight and Management Board. Congress instituted the board in 2016 as part of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) addressing Puerto Rico’s financial crisis.

The plans aim to significantly slash budgets for pensions, social programs, medical care, and government operations, with additional provisions to reduce workers’ benefits. By CEPR’s determination, this sacrifice will be made with the goal of “privatizing public institutions and putting funds aside for debt repayments, rather than using all available resources to help the island rebuild and recover.”

Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rossello has come out against the fiscal plans, but the Financial Oversight Board has the power to usurp his authority if he does not comply.

Given Puerto Rico’s extremely compromised state and existing trade restrictions, the island would likely have great difficulty repairing or improving within the mandated constraints, let alone meeting them. Politically affirming this reality, alternate legislation has been put forth by Senate members which prioritizes needs of the Puerto Rican people as a method of economic amelioration.

In July of 2017, now deceased Senator John McCain proposed, for the third time, repealing the 1920 Jones Act completely. Intended to safeguard the US maritime industry, the Jones Act mandates that all goods passing between national ports be moved by American ships, built on home soil and staffed predominantly by US citizens. Foreign ships face steep import taxes.

November of the same year, Senator Bernie Sanders submitted The Marshall Plan, a $146 billion restoration and recuperation effort. The bill delegates funds towards rebuilding existing infrastructure as well as creating opportunity for economic growth and alternative energy systems.

As recent as this past July, Senators Sanders and Elizabeth Warren introduced the US Territorial Relief Act of 2018, aiming to eliminate a majority of Puerto Rican debt.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Bronx raised, Puerto Rican candidate for New York’s 14th Congressional District, tweeted her support on July 25th for “@SenWarren & @SenSanders‘ Marshall Plan for Puerto Rico,” as well as conversation “about the cancellation of PR’s debt, much of which is suspected to be illegal; and the imposition of PROMESA.” As Ocasio-Cortez implies, PROMESA was passed before the damage of Hurricane Maria could be taken into account.

The Power of Diaspora

Folk dancer at National Puerto Rican Day parade in Manhattan and Brooklyn

Despite these hopeful policy initiations, the community continues to struggle and mourn. De la Luz laments, “My whole career, I have spoken on these things, and to now actually see it . . . we’ve lost.”

At this turning point, the divide between mainland Puerto Ricans and those of the island is perhaps most apparent with regard to politics. The idea that only those residing in the United States ultimately have the power to propose and vote on Puerto Rico’s future, is a culturally damaging one. Furnishing the unsettling concept of a system, De la Luz determines, which has been, “set in place to make sure that we remain exploited.”

Neither De la Luz, Colón, nor López exhibited a desire for Puerto Rico to become more reliant upon, or a part of, the United States. Perhaps because they inhabit a cultural space outside of the political zeitgeist, a space defined by intellectual freedom and the development of individual practice in art or academic thought.

“In an irony, I feel that most of us activists echo a rather conservative mantra in this specific case: government should stay out of it and allow the people to create their own solutions and allow us to help ourselves,” López appeals. While Colón acknowledges the overwhelming “influence of American culture,” on the island, he similarly urges the opportunity to be, “self sufficient… to have some laws subsided and actually create a trade market centered in the Caribbean.”

This legislative relaxation might allow the kind of growth that the Financial Oversight Board wishes to see, but arguably with conflicting benefits. López points out that, “there are powerful interests both here in the island that see the financial crisis and the hurricane crisis as a way of making profit, of cashing in.” An eventual shift of the island’s population from economic dependence on the United States, and the emotional dependence that De la Luz compares to, “Stockholm Syndrome,” would conceivably undermine these interests.

“The realization is settling in,” De la Luz somberly admits. “There is no real fight. We can only speak the truth.”

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Gabrielle Lenhard is a freelance filmmaker and writer based out of Brooklyn. She has written for news blogs like Vast.com and Ditmas Park Corner as well as SAT passages on art and science for educational publishing. Creatively, she has completed narrative episodes for the podcast Desperate Nightmares from Christ The King, M.O, and staged readings of several of her full-length plays at Dixon Place Theatre. With a BFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, she is a storyteller at heart. Gabrielle continues to write, direct, produce, and edit experimental short films under the name Rude Ink.

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