Scapegoating Puerto Rico’s Poor: Moving Away From the Illusions of Political Status

I write this response not looking to antagonize anyone, for I mostly agree with Luis Gallardo Rivera’s “Why Statehood Is Bad for Puerto Rico” essay. Division and bickering among us will accomplish nothing.

I also write this response to not favor any specific political solution to Puerto Rico’s colonial situation. I favor decolonizing the island in a process in which Puerto Ricans have the power to decide—a process in which disinformation, demagogy, and fear don’t play a role.

Long ago, I realized that I would live my life on the mainland. I have made peace with that fact. I think that has made me better at observing divisions and trends in Puerto Rico’s local politics. I keep up with what is going on back on the island, and I visit twice a year. When I’m there, it is like I never left. And I talk and talk and talk with people from all walks of life: from mis panas del caserío (though most don’t live there anymore) to bankers. I observe and try to see what lies behind people’s faces and words.

With that said, I felt I need to point out some concerns about Gallardo Rivera’s essay, even though his first paragraph is on point. My own children are first generation stateside-born. And like Gallardo Rivera comments, they represent the resilience of the Diaspora in keeping our culture and identities alive (always pa’lante, changing, evolving, thriving.)

Puerto-rico-culture

For that reason, I do not buy into the heavy-nationalistic discourses appealing to the fear of losing our identity to promote support for independence. Whatever number of Miss Universe winners we have should not be a deciding factor when people make up their mind regarding political issues. As a matter of fact, I would love to see such weapons of mass distraction gone. I say this even after being part of a two-person caravan (my wife and I) in Western Massachusetts celebrating Puerto Rico’s basketball victory over the U.S in the 2004 Olympics. But I won’t substitute reason and logic with appeals to national pride. That is something that no one can’t take from me. In that, Gallardo Rivera and I are in complete agreement.

After that first paragraph, this is where I start disagreeing with Gallardo Rivera. He writes: “While many states were initially parceled up among settlers who were pushed West and told to construct a new society, Puerto Rico was left an overcrowded, welfare-ridden island that has been exploited by other countries for over five centuries.” Yes, many states were built that way, but not the Eastern states, many of which are in fact “overcrowded.” Many of those flat and parceled states are among the largest recipients of welfare in this country. Land pattern development can be changed. And “overcrowded” is a word used by the imperialists in Puerto Rico with the known nefarious effects. But that point is not even that relevant.

What I mostly disagree with is Gallardo Rivera’s take on welfare. He states: “…research shows, for example, that the abundance of welfare already available in Puerto Rico has a negative impact on the economy, the workforce and unemployment in general. The reader should be all too familiar with criticism of Puerto Rico’s mantengo class, and the increased welfare associated with statehood would only expand such a sector.”

Like in most of my recent writings, I have two perspectives on this: that of the scholar who seriously studies these issues, and that of a person raised on welfare—from cupones to sección 8, you name it. The mantengo culture or way of life we are accused of wasn’t part of my reality or those who like me grew up on welfare.

1978. First family portrait, a result of a Section 8 bureaucratic requirement.

1978. First family portrait, a result of a Section 8 bureaucratic requirement.

We have to stop shaming the poor. Really, we got it—we carried the stigma of growing up on welfare. I, like many others, tried to hide it. But the truth is that without welfare, it would have been nearly impossible for me to overcome the reality into which I was born.

For that reason, I cringe at the indiscriminate and unwarranted use of that hateful word: mantengo. The attitude and prejudice behind mantengo is not new. In the aftermath of El Grito de Lares in 1868, the Criollo Liberal socioeconomic elite turned to the myth of the peasantry’s docility and ignorance to justify their embrace of autonomy as opposed to seeking independence. Then, just like in present day, the political elite hides racist attitudes behind their blaming of the masses to justify Puerto Rico’s “inability” to break the Jordan knot of colonialism.

That “blaming the masses” game did not end in 1898. As Puerto Rico became an American colony, those who expected independence (like Eugenio María de Hostos, for example) and those expecting Puerto Rico to become a state, quickly blamed the masses’ “passivity” and “weakness” for the metropolis’ decision to deny us freedom or inclusion in the Union.

This “blaming the masses” game has survived until the present day—in the form of the mantengo argument.

Why do I say the argument hides racist attitudes? Since 1898, those using it have belonged to the elites, which more often than not have been much lighter than the masses. And, as argued by several scholars, those Liberal autonomistas of the late 1800s were afraid of not having a powerful state behind them, a safeguard to keep the darker masses down. In today’s world, those accused of living del mantengo are thought to live in the caseríos, barriadas and parcelas. And it doesn’t take a demographer to show that the farther away you are from the urbanización (gated or not), the darker Puerto Rico gets. So yes, this argument of the damage that el mantengo does to Puerto Rico’s society and economy is classist, racist and false.

As for the negative effect that welfare transfer payments supposedly have on the island’s economy, I would very much like to see those works. I have recently watched very bad videos on You Tube in which young economists have made that point. But a closer look will show that their models are indeed flawed, that they compare chinas y botellas to make their case and that in a clear violation of professional ethics they are twisting numbers to tell a story they must know not to be true.

(By the way, every political faction in Puerto Rico has its own unscrupulous pseudo-scholars.)

It doesn’t take an economist to see the “positive” impact of welfare payments to the island. The poor receive those payments and immediately deposit them into the consumer-based economy. So, for me, when I travel to the island and hear people complaining about the manteníos having access to health care and daring to shop in the same places where “hard-working” Puerto Ricans do their shopping, I lose it and I let them have it:

No, you don’t give anything to los pobres. If anything, you owe them for they keep alive this economy on which you depend by spending their very last penny (which they didn’t get from you) in the store you own, or in the store where you work. So thank a mantenío next time you see one.

We have to stop scapegoating the poor, period. This economic model is bad, I agree. But los pobres did not create it.

What about the bonds? Aren’t those bonds the ones that actually got the Puerto Rican economy in the deep abyss we find it today? Moreover, with either independence or statehood, Puerto Rico could declare bankruptcy, but not under the current colonial status.

What about the gas tax? In Puerto Rico gas prices should go way up so people start carpooling, using bikes, Vespas and public transportation. Right now, there is a car (or two) for every Puerto Rican on the streets. The result is the proliferation of roads and traffic—all horrible for the island’s ecosystem. If anything, that obsession with one car per person and cheap gas prices is nothing but Puerto Ricans following the same failed American model. We need green energy now! And we need to invest in that type of infrastructure and mass transportation.

Finally, we need to decolonize the island. For that to happen, estadistas and independentistas have to make a pact. They are the only two factions willing to end the colony—in their own ways. For that reason, both estadistas and independentistas should have a more constructive relationship, and establish an open and honest dialogue. Just like Gallardo Rivera himself mentions in his follow-up piece (an excellent, thoughtful analysis by the way), every political faction in Puerto Rico has leftists and right-wingers, and, if I may add, both factions also have some followers whose political stance is impossible to define.

So, let’s get rid of preconceptions about who is on either side—there are no tirabombas or vendepatrias when it comes to solving the status issue. There are simply people with different worldviews and preoccupations. I may sound like a naive idealist, but I do believe that if we listen to each other we may find that we have more in common than we may think. After all, we are all Puerto Ricans.

Let’s do this for Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans. We need to resolve the status matter so politicians stop hiding behind it. By doing this, these politicians don’t have to address the island’s social-economic problems and the structures of inequality. And we need to solve it so those divisions don’t divide the Diaspora as well, as they currently do. United we are strong, divided we are prey to the same colonial structures even when on the mainland.

And please, stop scapegoating the poor for they did not create this colonial mess.

#SomosUno.

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Harry Franqui-Rivera is a historian, a blogger and a researcher at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College, CUNY. He has a forthcoming book, “Fighting for the Nation” on the Puerto Rican experience in the Spanish and U.S. military.  He has recently published in online magazines on the topic of Puerto Ricans in the Korean War and the Diaspora. You can follow him @hfranqui.

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