Gentrification, Colonialism and Identity in Puerto Rico (OPINION)

Jan 21, 2022
11:26 AM

AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa

A debate is raging in Puerto Rico over the gentrification led by an influx of wealthy Americans to the Caribbean archipelago, with many worrying that the newcomers are driving the gradual displacement of Puerto Ricans from their own land. It’s a debate that turns on complicated and contested issues involving housing markets, tax incentives, Airbnbs, and economic development.

But Puerto Rico being what it is —a U.S. colony— it also centers on a much deeper question: whether Puerto Rico is a nation and Puerto Ricans a people, or whether they’re merely the current tenants of a particularly attractive piece of real estate in America’s empire.

The public conversation on this issue was spurred by reporting by independent journalist Bianca Graulau about an apartment building in the small seaside town of Quebradillas that was purchased by a former Rhode Island state senator (and tax delinquent), Giovanni Feroce. His plan? To evict the building’s residents and turn it into a hotel or short-term rental property.

That’s the latest story, but far from the only one, as reporters and researchers have documented a series of worrying trends in recent years. Rampant luxury real estate development, often on environmentally protected land. A new crop of crypto colonizers” and other so-called Act 22 investor-tax dodgers who, studies show, contribute little to the local economy. Logan Paul.

While the crypto bros and influencers enjoy the sun and sand, life keeps getting a little harder, and a lot more expensive, for many Puerto Ricans. The influx of Americans has spurred a 15 percent rise in housing prices and not-so-curiously coincides with a nearly 20 percent rate hike on their electricity bills. Plus the recovery from Hurricane María remains inadequate—Vieques and Culebra may boast a ton of Airbnbs, but they haven’t had a hospital since 2017.

Now, the latest blow: a debt adjustment plan written by the Washington-imposed fiscal control board and signed by U.S. Judge Laura Taylor Swain, which allows hedge funds to profit while preventing teachers from accruing pension benefits.


It all adds up to a profound feeling of powerlessness, frustration, and even rage for Puerto Ricans, who rightfully sense that the Americans moving to the island receive the red-carpet treatment while longtime residents are mired in mud.

And yet, what should elicit universal condemnation and concern has instead provoked a sort of backlash to the backlash over the influx of Americans, which runs the gamut from claiming the concerns are unfounded, to accusing Puerto Ricans of being racist and xenophobic against Americans.

Predictably, the spirited defense made by the investors, real estate magnates, and crypto enthusiasts has come largely from supporters of Puerto Rican statehood, some of whom are siding, not with the people, but with ultrawealthy tax cheats. Whatever concerns statehooders may have, as progressive as many claim to be, about white privilege, the gentrification in U.S. cities, or the corrosive influence of money in politics, seem to evaporate when it comes to Puerto Rico—where such concerns are needed most, as the political impotence of Puerto Rico’s colonial status makes the islands disproportionately vulnerable to such opportunism and exploitation.

This is unfortunate, but predictable. Statehooders are committed to the idea that any American influence and investment in Puerto Rico is essentially good, and that Californians or Rhode Islanders settling on the islands are merely coming, as they should, to live among their fellow Americans.

But what’s happening today in Puerto Rico belies the ideological fantasy at the heart of their push for annexation, inclusion, and assimilation.

Most Americans are not moving to Puerto Rico to build community with their Caribbean compatriots, but to take advantage of tax breaks, set up enclaves, and wield and expand their economic power. And many Puerto Ricans do not greet them as brothers from another mainland. They view them as 21st-century invaders who flaunt their massive wealth and privilege only a stone’s throw from where Boricuas struggle daily to make ends meet.

What’s happening in Puerto Rico also serves as a sneak preview of trends that would only accelerate if the colony were granted statehoood. The tax breaks might end —or they might not— but the prospect of year-round beaches and sunshine will remain. What’s to stop tens or hundreds of thousands of wealthy American retirees from buying winter homes or moving altogether to Puerto Rico, as they do now to warm-weather states like Arizona and Florida? And what’s to stop these disproportionately conservative, wealthy, white Americans from transforming Puerto Rican politics for the worse, as they have in those and other states? Even if their numbers remained small in absolute terms, each one would have the buying power of a dozen Puerto Ricans, with predictable consequences. And the 51st star on the American flag would not magically turn the gringos into good and thoughtful neighbors.

At the end of the day, the debate raging in Puerto Rico is about whether it makes a difference —not just economically, but culturally, politically, and morally— whether a Joe Smith or a José Sánchez gets to own a little slice of Puerto Rican paradise. the answer should be a resounding “Yes,” not out of a nativist rejection of foreigners, but as a bulwark against the social inequality exacerbated by colonialism and runaway capitalism, and as a way to protect what should be a sacred bond between a place and its people.

The power of that bond was on full display last month when global megastar Bad Bunny kicked off his concerts in San Juan with an eight-minute video tribute to Puerto Rican identity. Tens of thousands stood and cheered as the sights and sounds of the island flashed across the screen and Benicio del Toro read the names and deeds of our cultural icons and national heroes.

Had the Americans now moving to Puerto Rico made up the bulk of the crowd, they might’ve stood there in silence. They wouldn’t have known what to cheer for, or why. And while that potential future may not yet be imminent, it’s getting easier to imagine every day.

Some will say that’s just fine as long as the Americans’ checks clear, that you can’t buy much with national pride or cultural identity. But for those of us who understand the value of being from “P FKN R” must remain vigilant, lest we wake up and find that they used those checks to buy things we shouldn’t have put a price on.


Alberto Medina is a Puerto Rican writer and editor. He tweets from @AlbertoMedinaPR.