From the 4-part memoir essay, “DiaspoRican Manifesto: The ‘Real’ Story Behind the Curtain of My Colonial Life in Puerto Rico Post-Maria
In memory of the irrepressible Angelo Falcón, my high school ASPIRA mentor, and GIANT warrior on the battlefront for Puerto Rican justice. QEPD or RIP.
On the third day after the ‘Mother of all Hurricanes’ dropped the curtain on the world as we knew it, my millennial daughter Daima and I exit the Vega Alta emergency shelter for storm refugees, deciding to brave the aftermath of Maria’s Category 5 widespread destruction, from within the wreckage and dismal environs of our “uninhabitable” home: no lights, no running water, no Wi-Fi, no TV, no landline, no newspapers, and zilch cell phone signal.
A social justice writer, my tools for communicating with the outer world severed, I’m sitting at my makeshift desk among the sodden ruins under a leaky roof —Maria’s razor-sharp winds scrolled into a zinc burrito— a lump on a log, listless and lost, perhaps still in shock. Certainly, a little slow on the draw for an old pro at surviving overwhelming odds in Crisis Puerto Rico, the usual help from above.
On my portable radio AM band, monitoring local hurricane developments since day one, shocked survivors in the more ravaged and isolated corners of the island are sending Mayday distress calls to the WAPA Radio listener phone-in line, that are tearing my heart out, and pounding it into shreds.
Why the tears again, Mami? My daughter mistakes my moment of desperation for a weakened resolve. Look at me, she blurts out. You haven’t seen me break down once. “My momma didn’t raise no punk,” she proudly exclaims.
I marvel at how far my once-shy and pudgy little 13-year-old has come, since dragging her (in 1999) from California to the island, to be Puerto Ricanized, like her Nuyorican mother, and toughened like her hard-as-nails (late) grandmother abuelita.
It’s not what you think, Mija. I’m feeling so helpless. Our people could be dying, and I’m not able to reach la familia down in Guayama either.
Suddenly, I spot a weak cell signal, quickening my motor reflexes, and start to check the national news stories sitting in my inbox, anxious to catch some images of the search and rescue missions in the mountainous zones. The string of unopened emails from my Chicana activist kindred spirit Dorinda Moreno heighten my spirits, amid the serendipity, the six degrees of separation are at work in cyberspace too!
My California “comadre-in-arms” performs her networking magic at the hub of a powerful pipeline of progressives, fighting the good fight across the vast wicked land. As though on the cyber-wings of Angels (just like that) I got wind of the Shock Doctrine Has Taken Hold of Puerto Rico. (OMG!)
Feeling privy to this earth-shattering revelation, a happily retired writer recluse and self-styled media watchdog, for the next four months —October, November, December, and January— I would be scouring the local news coverage, clipping newspaper stories and op-eds, my usual bundle, El Nuevo Día (ENDI), Primera Hora, Vocero, San Juan Star, Expreso, and Claridad, balancing my political perspective, in observance of my DiaspoRican writer’s guiding principles:
Rule #5: Pay special attention to the provincial media’s fairness (or bias) in reporting, the expert analyses of their political pundits, how they spin it—and what not.
(Meaning, to read between the lines of the “who, what, where and why” of the political “Hot Topics” covered each day in our extremely politically-charged climate.)
While simultaneously spending all my waking hours —Monday to Friday— captivated by the Spanish voices of my articulate news/talk radio companions, eloquent and sharp-witted political analysts from across the political spectrum, feeding my hearty appetite for knowledge, overpowered by this hunger to hear the word “shock” echoed by the local news gathering community. Confirmation that the new enemy at the gate —the “Shock Doctrine”— had been identified con nombre y apellido. And nada.
Arriving at another more stark realization: that there is a disconnect between my two worlds! I had long suspected, as such, but did not anticipate the information void to include my A-list informers who take pride in doing their digital age homework, here and there.
HERE: The WKAQ Radio political analyst Profesor Angel Rosa who tells it like it is, or Las Cosas Como Son, proclaims Puerto Rico will be sold to the highest bidder piece-by-piece right from under our very noses, while under the receivership and economic constraints of La Junta de Control Fiscal, PROMESA Fiscal Control Board. (Where is your “Shock Doctrine” analysis? I’m perplexed. Of all the opinion makers on the radio, el Profesor has a direct line to mainland news, during his segment “Mis Fuentes en Washington.” Or maybe I missed it?)
THERE: Diasporans don’t take no injustice, never have and never will. The preparations underway by the Diasporan resistance (in Chicago) are designed to stem the island’s gentrification by any means necessary (short of the 1950s Nationalist armed rebellions, of course).
Feeling isolated from all the Diaspora action, and cut-off from my isla familia, I start reaching out to friends and family stateside, and think to messenger my esteemed Bronx Science pana in my native New York. Two throwbacks to the 1960s civil rights era, back in the day (an Afro-Rican like me) Gil Colón was a member of the radical Young Lords (at 16 years old) and always had the liberation language down pat. Whereas (unbeknownst to the 17-year-old me at the time) I was being groomed by independentistas, a starry-eyed member of the ASPIRA mentorship program for future promising young leaders.
Gil, how is the resistance on your end? I swiftly inquire of my brother in La Lucha, and as though we never skipped a beat, he sends back a message straight out of the playbook, “How to Stop Puerto Rico From Falling into the Hands of the Rich”:
Boricuas here are discussing ways to invest in their homeland in order to slow down the gentrification process, by starting and/or promoting eco-tourism, green agri-business, niche farming, renewable energy, and advocating for a repeal of the Jones Act as a welfare program for the US Merchant Marine fleet and barrier against free trade.
(VAYA Bro! We didn’t graduate Bronx Science for nothing!)
Keep in mind, it’s still the third day since the monster cyclone pulled the plug on the power grid. Surely, mainstream media news outlets will have the video drone technology to capture real-time images of the human catastrophe. (After all, who can binge-watch Person of Interest and remain oblivious to the D.O.D. eyes on you? Scary thought.)
And so, I click into headline after headline: 1st Click WHITEFISH. 2nd Click WHITEFISH. 3rd Click WHITEFISH. 4th Click WHITEFISH. 5th Click WHITEFISH.
(WTF!) The Whitefish scandal is stealing all the media attention away from the humanitarian disaster!? Mija, have you seen the national news? Something’s not right. I think the Governor is being set up! Of course he is, she replies laconically, too fatigued to be bothered with the obvious. Having just stepped in, red-faced and flustered, from her Post-Maria survival ordeal, maneuvering our new reality of fretful dystopian shortages and rationing. The grueling five-hour waiting lines and traffic build ups, unremittingly punished by the scorching sun, had become a “Mad Max” dry and parched land, winding road chase, for scarce potable water, non-perishable food, gasoline, the precious solid, ice for the cooler, radio and fan “D” batteries, hard cash from a working ATM machine. And the never-ending pursuit of an ATT roaming signal, a commercial Wi-Fi (a strategic point from which to send smoke signals!) to submit the confounded FEMA application forms online.
THANKFULLY, from a distance, my California crackerjack paralegal niece, and her computer savvy city planning project manager hubby (both Lovers of Puerto Rico) came to the rescue, when FEMA disaster relief funds were too slow in coming, and the FEMA blue tarps (some 500,000 of them) to cover our roof-torn houses had been “lost in the mail” informed the lame FEMA local coordinator, who was caught with his pants down by the media.
But it’s the little things —the “Stranger Things”— gnawing at my conscience, keeping me awake at night, under the covers of darkness, my flashlight in hand, careful not to disturb my light-sleeper daughter, our weary bodies scrunched up on a hard and lumpy futon, after Hurricane Maria’s relentless rains rotted our bedroom furniture, the black mold gobbling up the wood paneling and perforated ceiling overhead is creeping me out. When my imagination runs wild…
(Back on Olympus. The Despicable One is behind closed doors, hatching his diabolical schemes to rule the world. “I AM KING OF THE HILL (heh..heh..heh, sinister cackle). Nothing can stop me now from becoming the richest man on the planet!” He has summoned his Legislative Minions to another joint strategy session, tightening the controls over Puerto Rico’s financial affairs.
“Come on in fellas. Have you carried out my orders?”
Your Majesty, there is resistance on the Colony.
Puerto Rico, your Majesty.
“Who says it’s a Colony?”
We did. During his language review of the 2017 status referendum, our Justice Department Chief did not take issue with the “Affirmation of the Voter.” The plebiscite ballot section recognized Puerto Rico’s territorial and colonial grievance for 119 years.
But your Majesty, we’re under United Nations investigation for human rights violations.
“Forget them. By the time those ‘Dudley Do-Rights’ resolve our case before the UN General Assembly, we’ll be well underway with our developmental plans. Porto Rico’s a piece of prime real estate. We can build whatever we want there. We own the island. Right?” Yes, your Majesty.
“And I’m a real estate mogul. I’m a master in the art of the steal. And can show you how it’s done. We must take over! the island’s electric power plant.”
Your Highness, what about Governor Rosaylow? He’s not a pushover. He’s smart, disciplined and well-intentioned.
“We’ll see about that. Let me handle him. Give the Governor the emergency money he needs for operations. Make it a loan. We’re not running a welfare agency. Not anymore. Not while I’m in charge. He’ll owe the US the $4.9 billion. And won’t be in the position to squeal. In the meantime, keep pushing more Porto Ricans off the island. Get our FEMA Chief to give disaster victims special housing assistance for relocation to the States. The state governors can pick up the tab when their disaster relief federal grants run out.”
Your Highness, there’s thousands of displaced Porto Ricans already burdening our districts. With the midterms around the corner, should they register to vote we could lose our congressional seats to the Democrats.
“Well then, make sure the Koch brothers station their Libre Institute outreach project in all the swing states. Unless the Dems can come up with our bankroll to influence their swing votes, we’ve got the elections in the bag.
Here’s the plan. We need to stage a major distraction for the American public and “fake media” to get them off the scent. A juicy corruption scandal will put the popular Governor in his place. First, we infiltrate his power grid restoration operations. Let’s bring in the Secretary of the Interior, his son worked for the Whitefish Energy company in his hometown of Montana. That way, we can keep our dirty little secret within the family.”
Must we remind your Majesty, congressional Democrats have FEMA under the microscope for dragging its feet with the emergency response in Porto Rico. And one Fox News poll now shows 41% of Americans are sympathetic to the statehood demands of their neglected fellow American Citizens of Puerto Rico.
“About that. You all know that inviting a ‘shithole 51st state’ into the Union would be bad for my Presidential image. If it were up to me, I’d stop them from coming to America altogether. Those Porto Ricans are not one of us. They want everything done for them and are throwing our budget out of whack. The sooner the HUD Secretary issues the CDBG disaster funds to rebuild their homes, the better for us. But now that we’re on the subject, how about you start gathering the votes to REPEAL their American citizenship. Can you do that for me?”
It’s possible your Majesty, but only while we still have majority control in Congress. But lately, some Republicans are growing a conscience.
“Time to start whipping them. And let me know who’s in or out. You can count on me to put the squeeze on the ‘Party Poopers’. I am ‘The Great White Hope’ for the alt-right Nation, and nobody tells me no! If you want to keep your jobs, then do as I command!”
“Now let’s run this by our FBI guys and have them dig up some dirt on contract bidding federal violations, catching his staff in the act. The Governor will have to answer to an FBI investigation. When those congressional hearings are over, we can move in and put —OUR MAN— in the driver’s seat of the electric company’s transformation.”
Begging your pardon, your Majesty, but that’s entrapment.
“And what if it is. We’ll have those money-hungry ‘spiks’ at the power company eating right out of our hands! Me and the good ol’ boys have a lot of private investments riding on the oil and gas fracking for the new energy plant we’re paying for, so get cracking. And don’t let this get back to me. I’ve got enough on my plate with the Russian elections tampering operation.)
IT’S NO SECRET, the Whitefish Energy contract federal inquiry found no wrongful doing, after all, on the part of the PREPA Executive Director under federal scrutiny. But the power grid restoration 3-week delays, inflicting cruel suffering on islanders without power, besmirched the Governor’s “in-control and promising new leader” image among his statehood supporters. And gave his detractors more slamming ammunition: “We told you so.”
On January 10, 2018, the renowned economist and sociologist Marcia Rivera argues for a change in strategy with Washington, in her Invited Guest Editorial. “Time is of the essence for Puerto Rico”.
It’s high time. The Puerto Rico government be preparing its formal international petition for reparations for more than 100 years of colonialism. And should also be preparing the U.N. petition to begin the decolonization and self-determination process, given the systematic violations by the U.S. of the 1952 commonwealth accord exempting the U.S. from filing reports with the U.N. regarding Puerto Rico. Likewise, the government should also petition the United Nations for international aid, as commonly done by all the countries of the world when confronting an emergency. Why hasn’t this been done?
Because for many islanders, the notion of self-determination as a free and sovereign nation (associated with the I-word Independence) conjures up stereotypical “Banana Republic” images of Venezuelan hardship and hunger, for one; or a dictatorial and communist Cuba, for another. Lately, though, the world’s fastest-growing economy rating by The Economist of the Caribbean island Dominica [+8.8] (not to be confused with the Dominican Republic); compared to Puerto Rico’s world’s worst performing economy rating [-8.0] —second only to Venezuela at [-11.9— is gradually gearing the political discourse towards the tried and true, inclusive and participatory governance, covered for the Guardian by UPR professor Maritza Stanchich in People Power in Puerto Rico.
After the Governor’s fall from grace, Congress and the U.S. Treasury wasted no time in putting a merciless hold on the disbursement of the approved $4.9 billion emergency stopgap funds. Consequently, lacking operating funds, the government’s bankrupt power company was forced onto the “privatization auction block.” And on the day Governor Rosselló announces PREPA was up for sale, ALL HELL breaks loose from the sudden shock to the island’s fragile central nervous system.
Puerto Ricanists are outraged by the PREPA FOR SALE sign, enough to single out for the record those elected officials who are responsible for destroying the public electric utilities company in the first place, and are waiting for another payday from the privatization Ponzi scheme.
Finally, on Jan 30, 2018 (four months after Maria struck) the ‘Shock Doctrine’ headline breaks!!!
“Face to Face with the Monster”
ENDI journalist Benjamin Torres Gotay (on my A-list) snags the exclusive interview with Naomi Klein during her week-long visit, to see firsthand the shocked communities of Orocovis, San Juan, Humacao, Naranjito, Vieques, Salinas and Guayama (my former stomping grounds).
Gotay: Cuando usted habla del capitalismo del desastre la gente aquí tiende a pensar que la única alternativa a eso es el totalitarismo, el comunismo, la dictadura. ¿Hay alguna opción intermedia al capitalismo del desastre?
When you speak of disaster capitalism, people here tend to think the only alternative to that is totalitarianism, communism or a dictatorship. What intermediate options are there to disaster capitalism? (That explains the delayed reaction and the local media’s seeming disinterest in digging deeper.)
By February 4, 2018, the Governor’s nebulous autocratic move (“yo no sabía nada” plausibility of denial) provokes a virulent editorial reaction from ENDI managing editor Luis A. Ferré Rangel, that sheds further light on the “Shock Doctrine” in Puerto Rico.
The best selling author of the “Shock Doctrine” (Canadian journalist Naomi Klein) has documented how totalitarian governments are using natural “disasters” to, on the one hand, keep (affected) populations in a state of vulnerability, thereby, prolonging the state of political, social, cultural and economic defenselessness. While the other hand opens the doors for opportunists of predatory capitalism who profit from the chaos. Almost always with (insider) local help. Hence, the arrival of Whitefish.
As with all things seen (and unseen) behind the curtain of my colonial life, all is not what it appears. And until Maria, I had no hard (irrefutable) evidence to support my prescient pronouncements (in 2014) that Mi Gente (My People) are indeed headed towards a certain Ethnocide—so diabolical, so cruel, so methodical.
“The continuing decline in the island’s population could point to the long-term end of the Puerto Rican,” cautioned the late political scientist Angelo Falcón, founder, Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP).
That for our salvation, it would take the Hands of God himself to swipe the canvas clean of his masterpiece —La Tierra de Borinquen— to start all over again. To begin the redesign and reconstruction of a more self-sustaining, eco-efficient, fiscally-sound and justice-serving Puerto Rico from Ground Zero—on the US government’s dime. (HUD $1.5 billion Community Development Block Grants Disaster Recovery funds over a two-year period.)
Cosmic reparations (if you will) or island redemption (optimistic pro-sovereignty supporters care to believe) from the unforgiving 119 years of ill-gotten gains and ill-effects of systemic colonial abuses. Ostensibly, the indentured servitude by Anglo American Supremacists of my proud, capable, noble, civilized, generous, valiant and fun-loving —Latin Caribbean— Puerto Rican people. That takes care of our own. But time is of the essence. Or better said, for the 3.4 million remaining island inhabitants resisting the Exodus from Puerto Rico to the 50 States—time has (apparently) run out.
On April 19, 2018, the Master Fiscal Plan certified by La Junta de Control Fiscal, PROMESA Fiscal Control Board, sends the clear message to islanders: “you are separate and unequal, and undeserving of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That, in turn, will drive thousands of more Puerto Ricans packing to the States, in search of job security and a better quality of life—anywhere but here. The U.S.A. none the wiser about violating U.N. Decolonization law stating: “no nation shall control the destiny of another nation”.
Much less exploit defenseless colonized subjects —U.S. citizens denied “the one man, one vote”— as lab rats in a conservative ‘downsized government’ economics experiment. That according to Sergio Marxuach, Policy Director of the Puerto Rico Center for a New Economy, applies a “theory of macroeconomic adjustment that has failed in dozens of countries.” And furthermore, does not consider the Social Costs of the Fiscal Plan. (A blistering indictment, by one of the top Independent think-tanks in the world, that is not to be taken lightly.)
The six members of the Board who approved the plan believe despite all evidence to the contrary, that Puerto Rico will become a neoliberal paradise. That is highly unlikely. More likely is that we wind up with a hellish dystopia: more social polarization, unemployment, extreme poverty, crime, child abuse, abuse of controlled-substances and suicides, and lower educational levels, life expectancy, and social mobility.
We will probably see geographical areas in ruins, with closed schools and abandoned buildings turned into ‘shooting galleries’ for drug addicts and lairs of prostitution or improvised shelters for the homeless and elderly without resources. Within a decade we would become a post-industrial wasteland in which the highest-growth activities will be drug trafficking, public corruption, and influence peddling. An island, paraphrasing Ruben Blades, inhabited mostly by ghosts and the living dead who for some strange reason refuse to go anywhere else.
(As if no one were watching how this crime against humanity was even allowed to take place. Well I was: and taking notes the entire time.)
So for those of us equally disconcerted by the predicted migration trends analysis in How Low Will Puerto Rico’s Population Go? According to the economist (consulting La Junta), the real story about the island’s “irreversible” population decline is not the rapidly escalating Exodus, as a result of all of the above. The real story is the following ticker tape of horrors:
The Caribbean Island of Puerto Rico’s
- fertility/birth rates are the lowest of the lows in the world at 1.4% (lower than Cuba)
- aging and mortality rate is the highest in the world
- inflow/immigration or net migration is the lowest of all the 50 states at 0.1%
By my reckoning, these “dire” population trends are a sure-fire formula for the “mass depopulation” of Puerto Rico, the colony. One can readily compare to the “unobtainium” exploited mining colony on Pandora, threatening the existence of the indigenous and fighting Na’vi. (There must be gold in them thar hills!)
Riches to be extracted from underneath Borinquen, the indigenous and fighting Boricua are getting in the way of. Luckily, all the numbers scrunching (+ and -) mumbo jumbo (of the Federalist contributor) fails to factor in one thing: THE WILD CARD.
Boricuas Are Genetically Programed to Never Forget Where We Come From
And like the Na’vi, this is our land, our sacred trust, we are prepared to protect and defend. For I have it on good authority, there’s a “Battle for Paradise” already brewing to take back Borinquen from the evil clutches of the “Masters of the Universe,” who would deliberately send islanders on a death spiral for decades to come. As borne out by this inauspicious report of possible population scenarios, presented to the PROMESA board before their 6-member vote. Citing the expert migration trends economist:
What if relief funds are misused, (As did the Gringo private contractors, observed slowing down repairs or leaving restoration projects incomplete, thereby extending the life of their juicy million-dollar FEMA contracts?) Puerto Ricans just keep fleeing, and broadly speaking, living conditions on the island enter a death spiral, falling to levels seen in other nearby Caribbean countries. Well, in this scenario ‘migration never stabilizes or gets worse scenario’ with long-run net migration at (-2%) population falls to 700-800K by 2060, fewer people than it had in 1899 (Hmmm? Circa the 1898 U.S. military occupation of Puerto Rico?) …but then again, mass depopulation events have occurred in human history… Hawaii’s population density is 780,000. In other words, there’s a case to be made that the stable Jones-Act compliant islander (Compliant, huh?) really might be vastly lower than currently expected. Hawaii is further from the mainland or other population hubs, which could reduce its stable population. But it also has a military presence which could increase it. (Yeah, and we kicked the US military out in 2001. You are f*ing with the wrong people!)
Unlike other distressed world countries or U.S. states, Puerto Rico straddles a triple fault line of government bankruptcy, hurricane ruins, and a new breed of vultures. Disaster capitalists already shaking down Puerto Rico’s abandoned or wrecked residential, commercial, government and industrial properties —belonging to Boricuas dispossessed of their beloved Borinquen—who fail to meet the naked eye, observes Naomi Klein in the case of Puerto Rico, the disaster island:
If anything, the stories of corruption and incompetence serve to mask this deeper scandal. (As did the smokescreen Whitefish corruption scandal?) The rise of a predatory form of disaster capitalism that uses the desperation and fear created by catastrophe to engage in radical social and economic engineering. (As in the henceforth-discredited Governor Rosselló administration’s attempts to put everything under the sun on the privatization auction block—electric utilities, public schools, public trans, tourism, corrections, statistics-gathering, the fiscally-strapped police force next? If we let him.) And on this front, the reconstruction industry works so quickly and efficiently that the privatizations and land grabs are usually locked in before the local population knows what hit them.” (As in the tax-free haven profiteers (libertarians) pickpocketing our sacred lands and abandoned prime properties for the Making of A Crypto Utopia in Puerto Rico?) (WTF is that?)
My friends, this is how you lose it. This is how you lose all that good upbringing by your old-school and strict Puerto Rican parents, who would wash your foul mouth with soap. The South Bronx ghetto girl breaks loose—high on the First Amendment! (While people of color still have freedom of expression in view of the ruling ‘kakistocracy’s’ moves to kill net neutrality.) Besides, it’s only human to screech OUCH! When you’re stomped on, kicked to the curb, and left to bleed out in the gutters of the world.
In a democracy, government is of the people, by the people and for the people, but in Puerto Rico, the colony,
GOVERNMENT GOES TO THE HIGHEST BIDDER?
¿Qué carajo, Coño! Does a new Crypto Utopia have to do with island economic recovery and jobs creation for the perennially poor in our collapsed economy? (Sorry, no translation).
I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!
So that’s the “real story” of how hurricane-shocked islanders, for the most part, were lulled into dictatorial submission, by believing that La Junta was a friend of the people. And were left scratching their heads, discombobulated: (WTF) just happened here?
The Shock Doctrine Exposed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Norma Burgos Vázquez (pen name Norma Iris Lafé)
A Writer’s Well Literary competition winner (2012), former public affairs writer, KCBS News Radio (SF), her personal vignettes and essays appear in the Rebeldes Anthology ‘Bolder’ (Latino Rebels Amazon e-book), Borderlines Journal (Latino Research Center, University of Nevada, Reno), and guest contributor, La Respuesta, Mujeres Talk, Latina Lista News, Writer’s Well Retreat, VIDA Women In Literary Arts, and Somos Primos. Holds a B.A, Black & Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College, has worked for federal, state and municipal island governments. Mother and daughter moved to Bayamón after the storm’s losses, where author continues editing her back-to-roots memoirs.