Colonialism’s Orchestrated Disasters in Puerto Rico

María, María, perdí la esperanza, María, María, perdí la esperanza.” I am reminded of these lyrics from the bomba group, Yuba Iré, when I see the pictures and videos of our beloved nation of Puerto Rico in ruins. Some of us had lived through hurricanes before, but nothing had prepared us for this level of devastation. I am one of the millions of Puerto Ricans in the diaspora, a “Diasporican.” As the bulletins announcing the trajectory of Hurricane María made the inevitable path clearer, we started to prepare. We called our loved ones not knowing when we would hear their voices again, repeating “Te amo,” as we heard our families respond, “We’ll be fine.” The only certainty was that the next day would bring total uncertainty. That evening before María made landfall, a few Diasporicans in conjunction with our compañeros on the island started preparing for the recovery and aid efforts. We knew it would be terrible, that much aid would be needed, and that Puerto Ricans would be on their own. As one compañera stated, “Solo el pueblo salva al pueblo” (Only the people can save our people).

Puerto Rico has always existed at the margins of the empire; a nation where people have always had to fend for themselves knowing that the empire constructs a narrative in which we are a burden to cover up the reality that we are a resource to exploit.

We can rehash the ample array of problems that US imperialism has wrought on Puerto Rico for 119 years. A debt in the trillions, vulture funds ready to tear into teachers’ pensions and social services, and a fiscal oversight board who reigns with impunity and without our consent. Scholars on the island and in the diaspora have extensively documented the social, political, economic, and cultural woes of Puerto Rico for decades. When Hurricane María struck on September 20th, the Puerto Rican people were already amid a disaster, an unnatural disaster created by US imperialism. The economy was in shambles; there is total lack of political will to ensure transparency and accountability; and most people were struggling to survive. For decades academics and politicians have called for the Jones Act (cabotage laws) to be removed. This would ensure competitive prices for goods, and would ultimately safeguard food security since most of the food is imported.

Colonialism is an orchestrated disaster. When natural disasters couple with human made disasters the tragic outcome, as seen from the extremely poor response to the aftermath of María, grows exponentially. The catastrophe caused in María’s aftermath has laid bare these issues, and for the first time US citizens on the mainland are learning about the stranglehold US imperialism has had on Puerto Ricans for over a century. Our brain drain has taken local talent, engineers, doctors, health workers, and teachers to the diaspora. We have left a population that is mainly elderly and sick in many towns outside of San Juan. Those same abuelitos (grandfathers) and abuelitas (grandmothers) whose frail health makes them more vulnerable to disease and heat exhaustion.

Solo el pueblo salva al pueblo. Many Puerto Ricans already knew not to expect help from the local or federal governments. A century of US imperialism has made us aware of our second-class citizenship, and of the myths and disdain US citizens hold for their colonial subjects. With that reality in mind, we set to work. We created an Amazon registry focused on procuring essential goods. We coordinated who would receive the donations and how they would be used, and tried to anticipate when they could leave their homes safely after the storm. Our compañeros on the ground got to work clearing debris and vegetation to start reconstructing our nation.

Brigada limpiando casa Barrio Playas en Añasco. Isa Rodríguez Soto

Puerto Rico has always existed at the margins of the empire; a nation where people have always had to fend for themselves knowing that the empire constructs a narrative in which we are a burden to cover up the reality that we are a resource to exploit. Diasporicans are moving heaven and earth to call attention to the urgent humanitarian crisis unfolding on the island. Many of us are academics and are trying to make use of our collective knowledge and memory of best practices for relief efforts. We are reminded of when the tsunami hit the Philippines people donated used clothes and shoes, tying up volunteers and increasing pollution with unwanted goods. We have witnessed sufficient disasters to know that money is the type of assistance that does the most good. It enables local organizations on the ground to obtain the goods that are immediately needed, and it is the fastest way to get help to an island that, as Trump stated, “is surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water.” Del árbol caído todo el mundo hace leña (Of the fallen tree everyone makes firewood). Faith in the Puerto Rican state is a fallen tree. Politicians are doing what local politicians do: getting camera time, not solving many problems, and making promises. These same politicians fail to recognize the state’s failure. The state ceased to be functional long ago, and the hurricanes have made this fact more evident. Celebrities rally to donate and garner aid to Puerto Ricans.

Diasporicans are trying to help their sick and elderly family members to leave the island, get their young kin into schools, and try to reconfigure life in multigenerational households in a nation that denies and reproaches them. I fear for those new to life in the mainland; their trauma from the colonial disaster will be met with more trauma of the racist and xenophobic kind. Some Puerto Ricans remain invested in the narrative of citizenship, crying to the federal government, “Are we not US citizens too?” This question is met with the resounding silence of a racist, imperialist government that has never cared about us.

Comedor social Barrio Playas en Añasco. Isa Rodríguez Soto

When I talk with my compañeros from the Solidarity Brigade, a grassroots aid organization that formed after the hurricane to provide immediate relief, we discuss the small gains. For example, Raquel calls me to say, “We managed to clear a section of the 108 road. Now the elderly couple can get their cars out to go and obtain fuel for the generator. His wife depends on an oxygen tank.” Sombra calls to let me know, “Hey, I checked on Sheila’s father in Hormigueros. He is fine. Who else is on the list of those whose family members abroad have not been able to reach? He is trying to access their houses and check on them.” Eury and Zuli decide to do their clown act at the town square so the kids can be distracted from the hunger and pain even if just for a little while. These are gestures and efforts that do not attempt to be pretentious; they are micro-efforts of the people helping the people (solo el pueblo salva al pueblo). These hearts that us brains have left behind (to take from Ana Lydia Vega’s essay) are the ones clearing the roads, preparing food for our abuelitos, and reinventing a nation from the remains of the oldest colony in the Western hemisphere.

Decolonization has been the aim for many of us. This catastrophe evidences that decolonization is not something we ask for. It is not something initiated by the oppressor. Decolonization is an act, it is a state of being, it is an exercise not a plea. Since the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) was signed, which basically handed over Puerto Rico’s finances to corporate interests in the United States without the people’s consent, we have been in the midst of decolonial process. The aftermath of this hurricane is a new and difficult part of it. We need accountability and transparency, but in true Boricua form, we know we should not expect it. We will demand accountability while simultaneously auto-gestionando (self-managing) our communities. Communities that are not bounded by that “big water.” These communities stretch the entire globe, and wherever Diasporicans live, there Puerto Rico lives. The road to recovery will be long and arduous. After the camera crews have left, after Trump is done insulting us, and after the headlines are gone, reconstruction and reinvention efforts across the 78 municipalities by grassroots aid groups such as the Solidarity Brigade will continue. The struggle will continue.

Isa Rodríguez Soto is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Akron.

Cite as: Rodríguez Soto, Isa. 2017. “Colonialism’s Orchestrated Disasters in Puerto Rico.” Anthropology News website, November 27, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.711

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