Saving Puerto Rico

May 2, 2016
2:50 PM
El Batey in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico (Jorge Gonzalez/Flickr)

El Batey in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico (Jorge Gonzalez/Flickr)

Last Saturday NBC News published an op-ed by Julio Ricardo Varela, in which the founder of Latino Rebels proposes several courses of action that Puerto Ricans can take to draw greater attention to the centuries-old situation on the island:

1. Have Hamilton go dark. By now, the Broadway crowd knows that one of the most successful shows ever was created by a playwright of Puerto Rican heritage. What if the show closed and Lin-Manuel [Miranda] told the world that Hamilton won’t come back until Puerto Rico got the attention it deserved? Do you think that would get attention?

2. Have Puerto Rican baseball players go on strike. This season, there are over 30 major leaguers of Puerto Rican descent, including Chicago Cubs star pitcher Jake Arrieta. They should all walk off the field. No progress on Puerto Rico? No more Arrieta no-hitters. Imagine how the North Side of Chicago would react?

3. Have Justice Sonia Sotomayor take a looonggg vacation. Think about this global headline: Sotomayor Takes Break from Bench to Protest Lack of Action on Puerto Rico’s Debt Crisis. That’s an hour-long TV special waiting to happen.

4. Organize ‘A Week Without a Puerto Rican.’ You don’t believe Puerto Ricans aren’t a fabric of this country? What if we all took the week off? People would notice. They would have to notice. I mean, the city of Orlando alone would come to a standstill.

5. Cancel the Puerto Rican Day Parade and head to DC. As much as Puerto Ricans love their parade, why are we marching down 5th Avenue this year? Hire thousands of buses, head down to DC and stand united at the Mall. As ridiculous as this would sound, it at least forces the issue to the front pages of the world.

What excited me about J.’s list is how actionable it is—well, three of them at least. (Justice Sotomayor is bound by the Constitution to carry out her august role to the best of her abilities, and a week-long Puerto Rican hiatus would only confirm the ugly stereotype of the potorro huevón.)

In the last few months Lin-Manuel Miranda has been making the rounds, rapping at the White House with the president, standing alongside members of Congress, and appearing on Last Week Tonight with John Olivereverywhere urging the U.S. Congress, whose supreme authority Puerto Rico is under, to do something that’ll alleviate the crises. He’s promised tickets for his sold-out Broadway musical to any congressperson willing to help. There’s even a rumor Miranda has offered to donate the proceeds from ticket sales to help pay down Puerto Rico’s debt, a vow which sounds apocryphal to most people.

Having Hamilton go dark, however, would be much more immediate and effective than donating subsequent profits. If the playwright is genuine in his desire to see his ancestral homeland spared from the buzzards circling above, he should seriously consider shutting down his hit show until Congress decides to act. Imagine if one glorious Manhattan morning the doors of the Richard Rodgers Theatre were locked and plastered with notices that the show in fact won’t go on until Puerto Rico receives proper attention. Puerto Rico would quickly be on everyone’s tongue. Finally inconvenienced by events in Puerto Rico, theatergoers would demand something be done to raise the curtain. Miranda would either become an even bigger household name while simultaneously saving the island, or see his reputation (and bank account) depleted: though, with the production sold out from now till kingdom come, there’s little risk of the public losing interest in his masterpiece. Even so, Miranda must ask himself which is more important: his career or his patria.

Professional baseball players of Puerto Rican descent must ask themselves the same question, though admittedly they’re in a much more precarious position than Miranda. While Miranda is a singular talent in the theater world, for every 30 Puerto Ricans in Major League Baseball, there are at least 100 Dominicans, 100 Cubans, 100 Venezuelans and 100 other Puerto Ricans hoping to replace them. Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta is probably the Puerto Rican player whose boycott would be most effective. Arrieta had a stellar 2015 season, ultimately winning the coveted Cy Young Award, given to the best pitcher in baseball. As a Puerto Rican and North Sider myself, I can assure Arrieta that his popularity and that of the club would skyrocket among the residents of Humboldt Park and Logan Square; he might even gain a few converts in Pilsen and Little Village. And to his already impressive list of honors he would undoubtedly be able to add “Grand Marshal of the Puerto Rican People’s Parade.”

But what conscious Puerto Rican is in the mood to celebrate at the moment? Puerto Rican pride is severely bruised and has been for some time; the once vibrant colors of the flag are now a deep black and blue. Dancing down Division Street, Fifth Avenue or Calle Orange will be as appropriate and helpful as holding a late fiesta on the deck of the Maine. Now is no time for parades but for marching. Puerto Rican communities in Chicago, New York City and Orlando should organize a massive march on Congress in the nation’s capital to demand that something be done to fix the mess in Puerto Rico, which is largely Congress’s doing.

And that’s not all. Whereas Miranda and others prefer to skirt the issue of Puerto Rico’s status (“‘The ship is sinking,’ we have to say, and pay shit that matters/ Then we’ll figure out our Facebook relationship status”), the people of Puerto Rico and their cousins in the diaspora must demand that Congress immediately place Puerto Rico on a path to independence—a process that should also include negotiations over the amount in reparations to be paid to the island for nearly 118 years of U.S. colonialism. Decades of political machinations conducted by the metropolis and its insular overseers transformed Puerto Rico into a playground for Wall Street, maintaining economic apparatus that allowed for the exploitation of the island’s human and natural resources. Countless U.S. investors were made rich on the back of Puerto Rico, and just as the descendants of U.S. slavery and Jim Crow deserve reparations, so too are Puerto Ricans owed for the wealth created by them but not for them.

No, I’m not talking about a bailout either. This is money owed to the people of Puerto Rico—or, more accurately, money stolen from them. According to Nelson Denis, repayment for losses incurred by the U.S. Merchant Marine Act of 1920  —which mandates that all goods transported between San Juan and other U.S. ports must be carried on U.S.-made, U.S.-owned and U.S.-operated ships— would amount to nearly $76 billion alone, notedly higher than the total debt of Puerto Rico. Add to that a number of other injuries inflicted by the U.S. government —the devaluing of Puerto Rico’s currency by 40 percent in 1900, the 1.8 million pages compiled by the FBI in its decades-long surveillance of Puerto Rican nationalists and suspected independentistas, the forced sterilization of at least a third of Puerto Rican women mid-century, and the testing of Agent Orange in El Yunque National Forest and uranium-tipped bombs on the island of Vieques, just to cite a few crimes off the top of my head— and decolonization talks mediated by international parties could award Puerto Rico a sum well over twice its current debt.

Will the people of Puerto Rico, aquí y allá, take Julio up on these proposals, or has a century of U.S. colonialism finally beaten them into submission? It may be that Puerto Ricans have at last lost all concept of liberty and every memory of hope. If so, Puerto Ricans may never have a reason to parade ever again.


Hector Luis Alamo is a Chicago-based writer and journalist. You can connect with him @HectorLuisAlamo.