Puerto Rican aftermath
Puerto Ricans are US citizens. Puerto Rico is a colony. The tensions encompassed by these two facts were extremely clear in the federal response to Hurricane Maria.
September 20, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico. That morning, at around 8:00 a.m., I texted the latest coordinates and predictions of when Maria would leave the Island to my mother and brother. My brother replied. “Ok gracias.”
September 21, my social media feeds exploded. We all knew so little. The diaspora wanted any news, any detail that could give us an inkling of insight into our families’ safety. I checked in on my family on the US mainland just to hear someone pick up the phone after I repeatedly, obsessively, called my mother and brother knowing they would not receive my call.
September 22, I finally got what was to me the most important news in the world at that moment: my family was safe. A friend of my brother-in-law’s parents drove to my town and checked in on my mami. He then used his short-wave radio to contact a friend in the Dominican Republic, who called my brother-in-law in Miami. My sister called me, “We found them, they are ok, the house is fine.” I cried. This is what the luckiest ones amongst us got to hear.
September 23, I finally received the awaited call. “Mami!!” I exclaimed. I found myself being comforted by her, to not worry that within the circumstances, they were fine—“dado las circunstancias, estamos bien.” My father and I sprang into action. We shopped for the supplies they needed and planned mailing them—that is, until we realized that we could not send anything until the shipping services were back up. Each day I arrived home to be greeted by boxes of supplies, so unnecessary for us, so needed by my family in the Island.
On September 25, I read a tweet.
“Of course,” I say to myself. The debt. The notice, and reminder of the federal concern, that the Island is in trouble. Deep trouble. The callous sense that the Island was on its own, a place apart, surrounded by an ocean bigger than I could decipher.
September 28, when news of the post office delivering to my town emerged, the Facebook shares overwhelmed my feed. However, the back-up, the waves of packages, the lack of infrastructure…it was all too much for the delivery services to cope with. Their packages are being held in New Jersey: “In transit, delayed.”
After the anguish of waiting to hear from loved ones, after the rush of hearing from them and trying to do everything in my power to alleviate their suffering, after realizing that the damage to my Island and my people was too much to be dealt with by bootstrapping in, the rage and the powerlessness began to settle in. The news in Puerto Rico was that supplies were not reaching the people. Containers full, sitting on docks, also in transit, also delayed.
October 3, President Trump finally arrives in Puerto Rico. The deictic groundings of his speech serve to exclude as much as include. The circulating life of the utterances have broader audiences in mind than our Island and our people. The language used by Trump revealed the limited citizenship that can be claimed by Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico:
Now, I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico,
but you’re throwing our budget a little out of whack,
because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico and that’s fine,
we’ve saved a lot of lives, if you look at the-uh-every death is a horror,
but if you look at a real catastrophe like, Katrina…
Upon hearing this, I brace myself. I hear that “you.” The “you” that grounds the difference between Puerto Ricans and the “our” that follows, ostensibly referring to the US government or the US, but having the effect of excluding Puerto Rico and its Puerto Rican inhabitants, erasing the ways in which Puerto Rican economic activities contribute to the US budget. What I hear is the scale of hurricane María’s devastation being diminished while sidelining the responsibility to the Island, by saying that “our” (US) budget is being “thrown out of whack” by you (PR). I analyze how Puerto Rico is being positioned as an inconvenience, as the recipient of ostensibly charitable US help, rather the citizens with a right to federal aid in the wake of a natural disaster.
As he compares the numbers of deaths in Katrina to the number so far accounted for in Maria, I start to numb. The erasure of deaths that are happening, that are unaccounted for, and that will happen as the public health infrastructure erodes is all too much. The act of mapping the scale of catastrophe to the number of deaths elides quality of life to quantity of lives. As I listen, I hear clearly: survival should be enough.
It’s an honor to work with you folks, and we’ll all get it done together,
so I appreciate your support, and I know you appreciate our support,
’cause our country’s really gone all out to help,
and uh it’s not only dangerous, it’s expensive, it’s everything,
That “our” haunts me. What is the relationship between that “our” who has given “help” to the audience of Puerto Rican “you?”
but, uh-we’ve gone all out, and I consider that again a great honor.
And, here, at the end of his speech was a media-ready circulatable utterance, an abdication of any responsibility or accountability, which shifted the role of the US to one of a charitable provision of aid, rather than as a federal responsibility. This message was registered for Puerto Rican audiences, and was materialized in rapper René Pérez’s, aka Residente of Calle 13, instagram account: “FEMA ¡no es caridad!” which later became a headline in the Island’s major newspaper.
October 7, several news agencies circulated videos of Trump as he mocks the Puerto Rican accent in saying “Puerto Rico.”
PUE(l)TO Rico(h). we love Pue(h)to Rico(h)
((applause)) ((awkward smiles))
((Silence)) ((we love you!))
And we also love Porto Rico heh
I witness how the authority of Trump over Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans is symbolically accomplished through language. He frames this as a humorous interaction, but, like Jane Hill has argued, Mock Spanish uttered by white social actors, particularly those in power, rely on unspoken assumptions about the disorder of such varieties and stereotypes associated with its speakers. His pronunciation of Puerto Rico—aspirating the “r” in Puerto and the “o” in Rico in one instance and lateralizing the “r” in Puerto in the other, presupposes hierarchies that view Caribbean, and particularly Puerto Rican, Spanish as a stigmatized variety, where the lateralization of the post-vocalic r is often salient. Followed by his pronunciation of the Island’s name emphatically as “Porto Rico,” accompanied by contextualizing facial gestures (lifting of the brow, a shake of the head), asserts his as the appropriate one.
On October 12, in a tweet, the President stated that “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!” As is the political fashion, Governor Ricardo Rossello tweeted back, “The U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico are requesting the support that any of our fellow citizens would receive across our Nation.” Here Rossello repositions the “our,” claiming citizenship and with it the rights to federal aid. While the polysemy of Rosello’s tweet can be interpreted in several ways due to the charged topic of Puerto Rico’s political status and the ambivalences toward what inclusion in the “our” of the US might mean, I am reminded, regardless, that Puerto Ricans are US citizens. Puerto Rico, the Island-nation, is a colony.
The factors at play in this catastrophe go beyond the actual hurricane. The Puerto Rican debt and weak infrastructure was already reflective of the Island’s colonial condition, one that began long before the Trump presidency. The problems in distribution of food, water, and other needed goods exposed long-standing issues in governmental structures and an economic and political elite myopia that focuses most of its efforts on the metropolitan area rather than the Island’s interior and other harder to reach zones. All of these factors, coupled with an implied sense that Puerto Ricans are not fully US citizens and so are asking for too much and do not have a right to federal aid is the devastating storm that follows Maria.
Sherina Feliciano-Santos is an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina.
Cite as: Feliciano-Santos, Sherina. 2017. “The Storm after Maria.” Anthropology News website, November 7, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.677