Despite the recent media attention surrounding the ousted Gov. Ricardo Rossello, a critical tenant remains absent in mainstream dialogue on the political and social landscape of Puerto Rico: colonialism.
Colonialism has designated Puerto Ricans to a state of second class citizenship and heightened vulnerability, leaving its civilians ill equipped to face the consequences of climate change. To understand the criticality of a movement for Puerto Rico’s liberation, Jose E. Lopez—a leading member of the Puerto Rican Independence Movement—says one must first understand the “context of colonialism, resistance and, of course, resilience,” which has narrated the history of the island.
In an August webinar, Voices of Puerto Rico, Lopez highlights the significance of Rossello’s resignation, which came a mere seconds before July 25 earlier this year. That same date on 1898 marked the United States invasion of Puerto Rico, and the same date in 1950 marked the establishment of Puerto Rico as a Commonwealth Territory—excluding the island from the United Nations’ Special Committee on Decolonization—subsequently condemning Puerto Rico to a colonial state, devoid of accountability.
The history of July 25, addressed by Lopez, only begins to unearth Puerto Rico’s oppression under the calculated rule of the United States. SF State Ethnic Studies professor and leading activist Rosa Clemente, advocates for the teaching of Puerto Rican history in public schools.
“We [Puerto Ricans] were colonized, we were sterilized, we were incarcerated and our own movements infiltrated,” she said, recounting what she tells her own students. Clemente’s words confirm the trajectory of Puerto Rico’s history.
In the spring of 1898, the U.S. colonized Puerto Rico, exploiting the land and people to build a sugar market. In 1901, the Insular Cases—a series of opinions by the Supreme Court—deemed Puerto Ricans an alien race, incapable of understanding “anglo-saxon principles,” an assertion which barred Puerto Rico from a pathway to statehood. In 1917, Puerto Rican’s received citizenship under the Jones Shafroth Act, solely to fulfill a need for soldiers to defend the Panama Canal in World War I (the U.S. government believed white soldiers could not withstand fighting in the tropics and so Puerto Ricans found deployment under the title of “immunes”). In 1920, the Merchant Marine Act dictated that only American ships may carry goods between the states and the island, cementing Puerto Rico’s economic reliance on the U.S. In 1937, the Ponce Massacre occurred, in which police officers attacked peaceful protestors, who called for independence, slaughtering 22 and wounding over a hundred. In 1948, the Gag Law criminalized any individual who displayed a Puerto Rico flag or assembled in favor of Puerto Rico’s independence.
Laura Hernandez—a Puerto Rican psychologist currently writing her dissertation on government response to natural disasters in metropolitan versus rural areas—affirms Lopez’s message of resilience.
Hernandez vividly recounts the differences in how San Juan rebounded after Maria compared to towns in the countryside, like Yabucoa.
“I saw the difference between San Juan and the mountain side of Puerto Rico,” Hernandez said. “Their journey to rebuild communities was very different. In Yabucoa, the disaster was at 100 percent. They did not have food or water and we had to bring them necessities for the three months after Hurricane Maria.”
As reported by NBC news, FEMA deployed 800 personnel, but families in rural communities, like Arrecibo—which was destroyed by 8-foot floods—seemingly never received help from FEMA. Community members in Arrecibo waited in nine-hour lines for gas and had to travel by foot to find shelter. Hernandez confirms the disconnect.
“In my voluntary work, I saw stamps in some parts saying that FEMA was there but when I talked to people it became clear FEMA was not really helping them.”
In sharp opposition to the narrow depiction of Puerto Ricans in the Netflix documentary, After Maria, Boricuas refused to wait for aid. “The [American] Psychological Association was very active to help in the process [of rebuilding], and universities went to the streets helping everyone out in isolated communities like Yabucoa and Manguo,” Hernandez said.
Compounding the problem of isolation from resources, Hernandez speaks of how trauma manifested in deeply impacted communities. “After Maria or any natural disaster, you will witness Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD),” she said. “When it started to rain, people would have anxiety attacks, start crying and children would hide.”
The death toll of 2,975 people—released by the Government of Puerto Rico only after receiving harsh criticism over their initial death of 64—fails to account for suicide deaths. “In different parts of Puerto Rico, there was one suicide per day,” Hernandez said. “In one particular case I worked on, a man was suicidal because he lost his agricultural job and was planning to hang himself. Thanks to resources provided by my program, he was able to build back his house and is doing well now.”
Hernandez proudly points out that the heart of Puerto Rico lies in the peoples’ willingness to self-mobilize and create resources where they lack. “We didn’t wait for FEMA, that’s our true legacy,” said Hernandez.
Due to climate change, Puerto Rico’s legacy of self-mobilization must prevail again to simply secure a near future. Researchers predict that wind speeds will increase by 29 miles-per-hour and that the rainfall of hurricanes and cyclones will increase by 30 percent.
To put this into perspective, “five or 10 percent more rain can make a big difference, the carrying capacity of storm-water systems in a town or city can then be breached,” said atmospheric scientist James Elsner, in-interview with The Guardian.
For Puerto Rico, this means devastation incomparable to the horrors of Maria. Despite this, Hernandez remains confident in Puerto Rico’s ability to overcome, specifically lauding the current generation which stood at the frontlines of #RickyRenuncia.
“This generation that is rising is of total opposition to the norm. That is why people are going to be afraid and unbalanced,” Hernandez said. ‘We are taking it to the next level and we are showing you that we have a voice, and we will be heard.”