Editor’s Note: The author has given us persmission to replublish his piece on Latino Rebels. An original version of this piece was first published by The Latinx Project.
While a small subset of the U.S. population followed the impeachment debate on cable news, I was feverishly checking Twitter for updates on the earthquakes in Puerto Rico, calling friends and family to ensure they and their houses had survived. Thousands now sleep in tent cities—with the official start to hurricane season less than five months away and many of the displaced having just finished rebuilding their homes from the damage wrought by Hurricane Maria.
Reading Sophia Melissa Caraballo Pinero’s piece, “Watching Puerto Rico crumble from a distance isn’t easier than being there,” I was reminded that none of us are whole. Puerto Ricans on and off the island are walking with heavy hearts, full minds, and spirits longing to manifest a better future for our island.
Nevertheless, just as we did after Hurricane Maria, folks across our diaspora turned that depression and anxiety into fundraising to rebuild the island. In East Harlem, we raised over $10,000 in less than a week to support the recovery efforts of Coordinadora Paz Para La Mujer and Brigada Solidaria del Oeste. For a brief moment, grief turned to celebration. We may not have had the help we needed from the U.S. and Puerto Rican government, but we had each other.
Days after our successful fundraiser, news broke that supplies meant for post-Hurricane Maria recovery were discovered rotting in warehouses across Puerto Rico. Outrage quickly gripped the island as residents flocked to the south to deliver supplies to those displaced by the earthquakes. How many people had died waiting for essential goods in the months after Hurricane Maria? News of the hidden supplies spread far beyond Puerto Rico in part because Trump supporters reacted to the hidden supplies not with sadness for those who never received help, but joyous vindication that their leader was right to deny Puerto Rico critical disaster funding. Donald Trump Jr. tweeted:
So Trump was right after all!!!
Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced fires emergency director after aid is found sitting in warehouse. https://t.co/bek950y4Ct
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) January 19, 2020
Trump supporters spoke of Puerto Ricans as some alien race not ready for nor entitled to disaster aid much like the Supreme Court determined—over a century ago—that Puerto Ricans were unfit and undeserving of the same constitutional protections of mainland U.S. citizens:
“If those possessions are inhabited by alien races, differing from us in religion, customs, laws, methods of taxation and modes of thought, the administration of government and justice, according to Anglo-Saxon principles, may for a time be impossible,” Downes v. Bidwell, 182 U.S. 244 (1901)
Just as Plessy v. Ferguson 163 U.S. 537 (1896) deemed segregation in public spaces legal in the US, the now infamous Insular cases set up two classes of U.S. citizenship. The difference is that Plessy v. Ferguson was overturned in 1954, while the Insular Cases are still the law of the land. Puerto Rico and the rest of the US’s existing unincorporated territories are still subject to the unequal treatment allowed by these cases. This impacts the territories’ political and economic ability to prepare for and respond to a disaster.
As Andrea González-Ramírez and others noted in the days after the supplies were discovered, “corruption is a natural byproduct of colonialism.”
Quick reminder that corruption is a natural product of colonialism—this has been well-documented in post-colonial nations from sub-Saharan Africa to Latin America. You can’t talk about government mismanagement in Puerto Rico without recognizing its status as a U.S. colony. https://t.co/Oktz2SUAqe
— Andrea González-Ramírez (@andreagonram) January 21, 2020
From Latin America to Africa, present-day corruption has been shown to be inextricably linked with past and present colonial relationships. Puerto Rico’s political system is corrupt to its core, and few Puerto Ricans have argued otherwise, but that core cannot be separated from U.S. control of the island. What is instructive of Puerto Rico’s capacity to govern is not their elected officials (who thanks to the U.S. imposed fiscal control board cannot even control the island’s economy) but our grassroots, diasporic, transnational response to disaster and corruption.
In 2019, when leaked Telegram chats exposed government officials taunting Puerto Rico’s dead and joking about “a Puerto Rico without Puerto Ricans,” it sparked weeks of protests leading to the ouster of Governor Ricardo Rosselló. While Puerto Rican leaders knew that if the chat ever leaked they’d be in trouble, they may not have expected around one-third of the island to come out into the streets. Nor could they have anticipated that Puerto Ricans in our U.S. diaspora (and almost every country in the world) would protest them for a series of weeks.
Puerto Ricans in Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Brussels, Scandinavia, and Brazil are calling for Governor Rosselló to step down #RickyRenuncia
— Andrew J. Padilla ?? (@apadillafilm6) July 17, 2019
They did know, however, that their jobs may be on the line, that heads may roll, figuratively or literally, in the plazas of Borikén for what they’d said and done. This month’s discovery of hidden supplies was also met with island-wide protests. Politicians are now getting shouted out of public places.
Sorprenden con un #cacerolazo a Miguel Romero, senador y aspirante a la alcaldía de San Juan, así como a Ricardo Llerandi, exsecretario de la Gobernación bajo la administración de Ricardo Rosselló. Este último era miembro del #TelegramGate. #PuertoRico
— Angélica Serrano-Román ?? (@angelicaserran0) January 22, 2020
“Queremos sus cabezas, suficiente es suficiente”. La indignación es real. pic.twitter.com/AhX8DG5KWc
— V. Torres Montalvo ? (@Motinsitepegas) January 20, 2020
— Maricela (@marimar1288) January 21, 2020
.@noticel | "Wanda Vázquez dice que no se va. Es verdad, porque la vamos a sacar", dicen por el altavoz y que recibió el aplauso de los presentes. Añaden que están cansados de que Thomas Rivera Schatz nombre jueces y piden que se vaya, no solo del Senado, sino del país. pic.twitter.com/SdTT9NgqVV
— Adriana De Jesús Salamán (@adrianadesala) January 23, 2020
Estamos bien clarxs. pic.twitter.com/1v9N8jUhi0
— la ale-marie (@elcielodeabril) January 25, 2020
In contrast, U.S. political leaders do not seem at ALL concerned that one-third or more of the U.S. will stop working, file into the streets, and demand an end to corruption. Trump has spent 1 out of every 5 days as president golfing, almost one-third of his time as president at a Trump property. He has presided over a drastic upward redistribution of wealth, which has primarily helped his wealthy friends and family. He has placed his family in public posts with little to no qualifications, and they’ve proceeded to make hundreds of millions while doing so. The U.S. held a record 69,550 migrant children in government custody in 2019. That’s more kids detained away from their parents than any other country, according to the United Nations.
So, where are the guillotines in D.C?
As millions in the U.S. watched and waited to see how GOP senators would vote on impeachment, tear gas again filled the streets of Old San Juan. Police justified gassing and shooting protestors with rubber bullets because of property damage. The U.N. says Puerto Rico’s population may drop below 2 million by the end of this century. If only our society valued human life the way we value wealthy property owners.
That all said, I believe in Puerto Rico. Not the political class, but the Puerto Rican people. We’ve been in the streets fighting local and U.S. corruption, aquí y allá. We’ve been protecting and stepping up for our neighbors during the worst natural, economic, and political disasters in generations; we will do so again and again.
“Luchadora” by Molly Crabapple is one of many pieces auctioned to support the earthquake relief work of Brigada Solidaria del Oeste. You can still donate to the siemPResente gofundme supporting Brigada’s work (here) or Brigada’s direct paypal (here).