With all that has been impacting Puerto Rico in recent years, from defaulting on debt payments to Hurricane Maria to the mass protests against our now-former governor, it makes me wonder why more people aren’t talking about the state of the Island. Many simply do not know, for instance, that Puerto Rico is on the brink of bankruptcy much like Detroit, Michigan was in 2014.
I often question how much people really know about the history of Puerto Rico. It’s important to better understand how the Island’s current conditions came about and why the situation is very important to Puerto Ricans living on the US mainland.
Puerto Rico: A Brief History Lesson
I won’t repeat the myth of the “Columbus discovered Puerto Rico” story. Columbus was in fact an intruder to the Island. There were Taino Indians living on the Island far before Columbus thought he discovered anything.
When Columbus invaded Puerto Rico, the Taino Indians had never seen a white person with blonde hair and blue eyes. The Tainos believed that the Spaniards who took over the Island were actually gods. Accordingly, they initially worshipped these white, blue-eyed, blonde-haired creatures (that’s how they described them).
Story has it that one day in 1510, the Cacique Urayoan, a chief of the Taino tribe, ordered the drowning of one of the Spanish soldiers to determine whether or not the Spaniards were immortal. (The Tainos believed Spanish colonizers had divine powers.) After they drowned this soldier, the Tainos watched him for several days until they were sure he was dead.
Later in 1511, after the Tainos realized the Spaniards were not immortal, they attempted to revolt. Unfortunately, they were unsuccessful, and many of the remaining Tainos either fled the Island or were killed.
It was during that time that the Spaniards began to bring enslaved men, women, and children from Africa to work the land. Puerto Rico was known for its abundant agriculture in sugar cane, coffee, and tobacco. This is how the modern Puerto Rican “race” came into existence. Some Puerto Ricans are a mix of all three — Taino, Spaniard, and African, as I am — and some may be more of one than the others. But what we have in common is our connection to the motherland.
The fate of Puerto Rico changed hands in 1900. Puerto Rico was surrendered to the United States military authority and two years later, in 1902, Puerto Rico was declared a territory of the US. It wasn’t until 1917 that Puerto Ricans were given US citizenship, making all Puerto Ricans (whether born on the Island or the US) American citizens. However, it wasn’t until 1952 that Puerto Rico became an official Commonwealth of the US.
Why Does Any of This Really Matter?
When we look at the definition of a Commonwealth, it is defined as a “self-governing unit voluntarily grouped with the US.” I want to bring your attention to the words “voluntarily grouped.”
Under colonialism, Puerto Rico hasn’t been voluntarily grouped; it has been dictated to and handed down from one invading government to the next.
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You might ask yourself, why does any of this really matter? Or, why is it so important for the US?
Puerto Rico is an asset to the United States, and it’s to the advantage of the US to keep Puerto Rico. While the US provides some federal help to the people of the motherland, in reality, Puerto Rico brings more revenue to the US than the US provides to the Island.
The Modern-Day Impact of Colonialism
Currently Puerto Rico is facing economic hardship, hardship that the US government, after exploiting Puerto Rico for its tax breaks and resources, now doesn’t want to help ameliorate. For just one example, the US government will not allow Puerto Rico to claim bankruptcy.
Those of us who carry the warmth and culture of Puerto Rico in our hearts and in our lives on a daily basis are forced to bear witness to the injustices that happen to and on our island. We are not considered our own sovereign territory, even though we have our own rich history — a history that continues to be lost because of America’s presence and grip on the Island.
Many who live on the Island live in poverty and are seen as lower-class because of Puerto Rico’s economic state, which was directly created by the hands of the government that imposed its presence.
We, the Puerto Ricans who live in the US, have no say in what happens in our island because many of us live on the mainland. And yet, when those of us who are born in the US move to the Island, we are not considered to be Puerto Rican enough and told that we are “de alla” (from over there).
Puerto Ricans from different areas identify with nationality differently, from Puerto Rican and American; Afro-Boricua, Nuyorican, and Chirican; to a mix of Spaniard, Taino Indian, and African. Born on the Island or born in the US, we come in all colors, and each of us carries our own identity and truths.
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I don’t feel I’m from the US. However, I’ve been told over and over again that because I wasn’t born on the motherland of Puerto Rico, I cannot claim to be a full-blooded Puerto Rican. I find myself constantly living in a state of limbo, not American enough for the US, but not Boricua enough for Puerto Rico.
So much is currently happening in this world that Puerto Rico’s current situation gets lost. A small tiny island known to many as paradise is quickly fading into the shadows.
Puerto Rico matters to the many islanders and mainland Boricuas. It is being abused by corrupt governments that continue to keep us in a modern-day state of slavery. Colonialism is slavery, and it should not be in existence in 2019, exploitation happening right under our noses.
The next time you hang out with one of your Puerto Rican friends, ask them about what’s currently happening in Puerto Rico. You will be surprised how much more you’ll learn than reading a textbook.
[Feature image: A United States flag waving in the sky on the left and a Puerto Rican flag waving in the air on the right. Both flags are attached to flag poles against a bright blue sky.]