Puerto Rico has been in the news a lot lately, for things that don’t necessarily relate with tourism. The small island is currently experiencing a debt crisis that has been brewing for the last decade. With over $70 billion in outstanding bills, La Isla del Encanto is under economic stress that is leaving the people in poverty with little to no assistance in medical care, electricity or clean water. More than 1,300 women have tested positive to the Zika virus and because of lack of funding, the colony has been forced to cut back on mosquito-control programs that could assist in the rise. Hospitals are laying off staff and closing down floors, leaving the people with even less options for medical attention. Tuition is steadily increasing, forcing young people to seek an education off the island. The impoverishment rate is, too, steadily increasing with nearly 47 percent of people living below the poverty line. The details pertaining to such a build up is overwhelming, disheartening and frustrating.
To better understand the turmoil that Puerto Rico is experiencing, it is dire to travel much farther than 10 years ago. It has been an ongoing battle since the Taíno Indians welcomed Christopher Columbus and told him to take as much gold as he wanted back in 1493. An old Taíno named Urayoán organized revolts throughout the island in attempt to rid themselves of their invaders after they realized they were not friends. But for three centuries, the Taínos would be defeated until there were, literally, no more of them left. An enduring people, the revolts continued: in 1868, Puerto Ricans congregated in the town of Lares with white flags that read “Libertad ó Muerte; Vive Puerto Rico Libre; Año 1868” (Liberty or Death; Free Puerto Rico Lives; Year 1868) which they called El Grito de Lares (Cry of Lares). It was unsuccessful, providing Spain with more reason to tighten their grip. Thirty years later, Spain lost the Spanish-American War and the island was handed over to the United States. And here is where American involvement begins…
On July 21, 1898, the U.S. government released a press release that read, “Porto Rico will be kept…Once taken it will never be released. It will pass forever into the hands of the United States… Its possession will go towards making up the heavy expense of the war to the United States. Our flag, once run up there, will float over the island permanently.” The words are chilling and difficult to digest. But in order to know where we’re going, we must understand where we’ve come from, right?
Nelson A. Denis’ book War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony was published in April 2015 in attempt to supply the world with the hard truths about the small island’s history. Like many other colonized places, specific details about Puerto Rico are swept under rugs and when revealed, they are watered down, whitewashed or, worse, omitted. Denis, however, is of Puerto Rican and Cuban descent; his conviction for the island hits home. In 1962, when Denis was eight-years old, the FBI stormed into his home like thieves in the night and stole his father, whom he never saw again. His father was a Cuban patriot, supporting the Cuban Revolution and openly discussed these political issues with his son, going as far as showing him the grim photographs of bodies slaughtered by Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. His father’s pride is why he was sought out and deemed a spy. Denis’ mother was forced to raise him on her own and Denis vowed to become a lawyer so that he could be a better vessel in keeping injustices from happening. Denis was committed to his declaration, as an alumni to both Harvard and Yale Law no less, who served as a representative to the New York State Assembly.
The journey toward writing War Against All Puerto Ricanscame after Denis realized Harvard had a library of three million books and not one contained the story of Puerto Rico or its principal political figure, Pedro Albizu Campos. It was a humble realization, one that further confirms why we (people of color) must write our own stories while laying down the verdict on how we want to be treated and perceived. What Denis discovers in his research is daunting and it paints an ugly picture of the United States, one we are not totally unfamiliar with.
We learn that after the Taíno Indians were forced to learn Spanish over the course of 300 years, the U.S. would attempt to forbid the language in public schools for both students and teachers in the early 1900s. The children, however, in elementary schools rebelled by simply not going. Spanish was eventually restored to increase enrollment, but English is still the official language for high schools. It is a clear gesture toward instigating complete dependence on the supposed dominant customs, a very parallel path taken by the intruders of Spain. During this time, American representatives would venture out to the island with an agenda to teach Puerto Ricans how to eat, what to eat and, ultimately, how to be. The choice on how to develop, build and teach Puerto Rican culture was dismissed.
Present day, there are more Puerto Ricans living in the United States than on the island, traditions are infused with Americanism and the distinction between both worlds is becoming more and more difficult to make. The process of eliminating an authentic culture is, literally, happening before our very eyes.
This process is spoken about candidly by Esmeralda Santiago in her memoir, When I Was Puerto Rican. Unlike Denis, Santiago was born on the island in 1948 and experienced, first hand, the shift. One day, Santiago sat in a community meeting with her mother as “experts from Jun-ited Estates of America” utilized charts and graphs to talk about nutrition and hygiene. She writes, “The bread was sliced into a perfect square, unlike the long loaves Papi brought home from a bakery in San Juan, or the round pan de manteca Mami bought at Vitín’s store. There was no rice on the chart, no beans, no salted codfish. There were big white eggs, not at all like the small round ones our hens gave us. There was a tall glass of milk, but no coffee. There were bananas but no plantains, potatoes but no batatas, cereal flakes but no oatmeal, bacon but no sausages.” Although the fruits and vegetables showed to them did not grow on the island, they were told “it is best not to make substitutions for the recommended foods. That would throw the whole thing off.” They were being taught how to be Puerto Rican.
“Colony” is defined as a country or area under the full political control of another country, typically a distant one, and occupied by settlers from that country. The repetitive use of this word to define Puerto Rico is evidence of its position in the eyes of America. Since day one, Puerto Rico was obtained to serve as a dumping ground and as opportunity for exploitation in more ways than one. The $72 billion debt is confirmation of this fact: although Puerto Rico is under political control of the United States, it is still being held responsible for clearing outstanding bills it never generated on its own. Use of the island as a beautiful tourist attraction served as a smoke alarm, distracting the world from the core problems because it’s so pretty on the surface.
For example, corporations are allowed to pop a squat there while paying no taxes and Puerto Rico is home to the Pfizer factory. As of 2008, PR became the world’s largest shipper of pharmaceuticals. The North American sales of Viagra alone exceed $1 billion per year, wealth that does not benefit Borinqueños. Instead, the people were contaminated through the 60-year use of Vieques Island as a military testing ground for new bombs and missiles. And in 1945, over 20,000 Puerto Rican women were sterilized without their knowledge, making Puerto Rico the home of the highest incidence of female sterilization in the world.
The crisis in Puerto Rico did not begin a decade ago as many outlets report. Denis quotes Eugenio María de Hostos, the great Puerto Rican educator, when he writes, “How sad and overwhelming and shameful it is to see [Puerto Rico] go from owner to owner without ever having been her master, and to see her pass from sovereignty to sovereignty without ever ruling herself.” War Against All Puerto Ricans, in obvious wake of the island’s economic turmoil, is relevant in understanding, full circle, why Puerto Rico is where it is today. The information to learn is hurtful, but eye opening in realizing that even in 2016, plantations still exist. —Bianca Salvant