I just finished reading Alfredo López’s charming biography of Martí, in which the embattled 19th-century Cuban revolutionary makes several attempts to return to his homeland even after banishments and under the threat of imprisonment — or worse. In a letter to a confidant on the eve of his third return to Havana in the summer of 1878, Martí writes:
Need I tell you what lofty propositions, what potent flights of the imagination boil in my soul? That I carry my poor wretched people in my head, and that it seems to me that their liberty will one day depend upon a blow of mine? … [It is] not as a boyish martyr, but to work for my own, and to strengthen myself for the fight [that I] go to Cuba.
For his part, within three decades of Martí’s death in 1895, the Harvard Law-educated Pedro Albizu Campos would turn down several job offers in the United States, including a clerkship with the Supreme Court and a diplomatic position at the State Department, and instead return to his native Puerto Rico to advance the cause of independence.
Say what you will about Martí and Don Pedro, but they certainly loved their patrias.
So how should we judge the tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans leaving the island each year? According to recent analysis of Census data by the Pew Research Center, nearly 84,000 people left Puerto Rico last year while almost 20,000 people moved to the island in the same period, resulting in a net population loss of a little over 64,000.
The island’s declining population is not a new trend. Indeed, Puerto Rico has been experiencing a net population loss since at least 2005, a year before its recession began. However, the trend has been accelerating since 2010 as the U.S. mainland’s economy has rebounded from the Great Recession even as the island’s economy has remained mired in a recession. More recently, the Puerto Rican government has seen its tax revenues decline and, barred by U.S. law from filing for bankruptcy, it may run out of cash in November. The continued loss of people, particularly school-aged children and those in their prime working age, has only worsened the island’s economic situation and outlook.
Of course, no one can be blamed for fleeing crises and seeking better economic and political opportunities elsewhere. And though Puerto Rico could surely benefit from an influx of college-educated young people looking to provide their talents and services to Puerto Rican society and build their lives there, I allay my own guilt by reminding myself that I was born and raised in Chicago like my father, not in Vega Baja like his father.
Still, what is my and the rest of the Puerto Rican Diaspora’s obligation to the ancestral homeland? I’m at the point now that I feel like vowing never to call myself an independentista or talk of the crises in Puerto Rico until I’ve landed at Isla Verde. Then I remember something Galeano once said about the usefulness of writing: “When words cannot be better than silence, it’s better to shut up.” I believe the harm my absence may be contributing to the misery in Puerto Rico would only be compounded by my silence; we must all do what we can to make the world a better place, and since I’m a stronger writer than most (at least I hope I am), then writing is what I’ll do.
Ironically, it was Martí himself who once insisted on not being labeled a writer: “I love journalism as a mission, and … I resent it as a disturbance.” Then again, Martí the writer would produce essays and verses that would echo across the succeeding century and beyond, inspiring revolutionaries throughout Latin America.
I don’t dare compare myself to such a figure, who was twice as erudite, committed and brave as I could ever hope to be; I only rely on his example in this period of confusion and wrenching feelings. I’m being pulled in two different directions. My principles make me support the cause of Puerto Rican independence, and my Puerto Rican heritage compels me to believe I should do something to better the situation there. However, at the end of the day, I am a — whatever one calls a person whose only frames of reference come from being born and raised and living their entire life in the United States (there are several Spanish words: estadounidense, norteamericano, yanqui). Puerto Rico may be my ancestors’ homeland, but the United States is mine, and there is no getting around that fact.
Thus, Uncle Sam’s century-old experiment with colonialism seems to be closing in on a final victory. Slowly, bit by bit, the people of Puerto Rico have become more “American” and less Puerto Rican, allowing the U.S. government and Wall Street bankers to manhandle the island with impunity. There are more Puerto Ricans in the United States today than there are in Puerto Rico, at least twice as many boricuas singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” than those who even know the words to “La Borinqueña” (I don’t). Puerto Ricans have been driven out of Puerto Rico and, in the end, have had the Puerto Rico driven out of them.
And so it is that a part of me cries for the island, my feet itching to plant themselves on that soil. But alas, Puerto Rico is a part of my history, whereas the United States is my present, and I would rather be here than there. May my ancestors forgive, even if I never do.
Hector Luis Alamo is a Chicago-based writer and the deputy editor at Latino Rebels. You can connect with him @HectorLuisAlamo.