It Feels Surreal Being a Puerto Rican in the United States These Days

It Feels Surreal Being a Puerto Rican in the United States These Days

It Feels Surreal Being a Puerto Rican in the United States These Days

The disaster has revealed our ambiguous status as citizen-strangers.


It feels surreal, being a Puerto Rican in the United States these days. No, not because of that poll that showed that almost 50 percent of Americans are unaware that Puerto Ricans are US citizens. Most of us are not surprised by that data point, and I myself am not offended by it. We are citizen-strangers. Our movement is not restricted, but we are unable to vote on the island for the president who sends us to war. Come to the states and, voilà, you can vote for president! More of us now live on the mainland than on the island. And if knowledge that Puerto Ricans are US citizens makes Americans more likely to support aid for the island, then let the educating begin.

It feels surreal, being a Puerto Rican in the United States these days, seeing images of the devastation of an island I grew up on and that—despite not having lived there for three decades—I still call home. Like so many of the diaspora, even those born here and who never lived on the island, we feel our fates deeply intertwined with it. On the island, debates rage about those who are leaving, calling it quits on Puerto Rico. But for us in the diaspora, #YoNoMeQuito can feel incongruous, unsettling—because we haven’t quit Puerto Rico. We can’t quit. We, too, are Puerto Rico. We feel ourselves part of the volcanic rock, and in its despair we see our own uncertain reality in this country.

It feels surreal, being a Puerto Rican in the United States these days, talking to my mother on her cell phone when she occasionally has a signal. These talks add detail to my understanding of what has become the everyday normal: collecting rainwater to flush toilets and, now that they finally have running water in the house, boiling it for 10 minutes to make sure it is potable. Text exchanges with my sister feel incongruous, unsettling: ultramodern technologies are the vehicles through which I see a disaster that has pushed the island back to an antediluvian past, to the days of washing clothes in the river. “We have electricity now!” “Wait, that electricity we had for a few days is gone again!” Recovery efforts feel hopelessly slow and flawed. A ragtag group of Army vets, self-deployed on the island and looking like they stepped out of Duck Dynasty, decry FEMA’s ineptitude in regular social-media updates. Facebook and Twitter give us glimpses of the reality obscured by official death tolls that remain impossibly low.

It feels surreal, being an “American” in the United States these days, having as a leader of the country an abuser in chief, one who not only eschews the role of “healer” during a moment of crisis but also seems to revel in shaming Puerto Ricans, in humiliating us in our hour of deep pain. Yes, he threw paper towels to a handpicked crowd at a conservative church for expat white Americans living in an expensive suburb. Yes, he downplayed the tragedy by comparing Hurricane Maria to the “real catastrophe” of Hurricane Katrina, answering affirmatively that favorite pundit question: Is this Trump’s Katrina? Sí, coño, it is, and Americans are noticing. But the spectacle of the island’s representative in Washington, DC, who refers to herself as the “Congresswoman for Puerto Rico”—Puerto Rico has no congresswoman, only a “resident commissioner,” who can’t vote in Congress—genuflecting in front of the Dear Leader as he insulted our people, added the necessary yet unbearable colonial collaborationist tinge to the President’s visit.

What Hurricane Maria has done for us boricuas, here or there, acá o allá, is to make our reality, our surreality, a self-evident truth: We are not created equal. Many non–Puerto Ricans may not know our citizenship status, but we, the products of the US colonial venture that began with the “Spanish-American War,” cannot hide from it. The name of that war may erase us, but our bodies, our stories, cannot. This past March was the 100th Anniversary of the Jones Act of 1917, the federal law that made us into US citizens from that moment forward. Within months, Puerto Rican men were drafted to serve in World War I—but, don’t worry, we’ve been assured this was just a coincidence.

Puerto Ricans have served in every war since then, been drafted and volunteered. I am a product of this history. My parents followed one of the few paths out of poverty available in Puerto Rico in the early ’60s; Dad joined the Army. I was born in the Canal Zone of Panama (which I thought meant I could never run for president, until John McCain did so). Just days after I was born, the Army sent my mother, two older brothers, and me back to Puerto Rico and Dad to Vietnam for his second tour of duty there as an infantryman. He experienced the horrors of that war on the front lines. He almost had to go a third time, until a letter-writing campaign of Puerto Rican wives to our resident commissioner in Washington, which my mother co-organized, helped alert Washington to what a formal investigation of the Congressional Black Caucus proved true—that black and Latino soldiers in my dad’s battalion, and across the country, were getting third orders to go to Vietnam, when many of their white counterparts had not yet gone once.

From the third grade until I left for college, we lived on the island but on the US Army base there, Ft. Buchanan. It wasn’t until I came to the states that I realized I knew so much minutiae about the United States but so little of its soul. My third grade teacher Mrs. Hiebel, read chapters of Little House on the Prairie after recess every day. We sang songs of the miner Forty-Niners in music class. Other high schools in Puerto Rico didn’t have pep rallies and homecoming kings and queens, or marching bands and cheerleaders. Our simulacra were intense. It was like Rydell High, only Cha Cha wasn’t the only Latina in the school. We almost all were. Boricuas, we all pledged allegiance to the flag (the US one, of course) every morning.

High school was the first chance I had to study Puerto Rico’s place in the story of Latin America. It was then I learned about the Jones Acts, the one of 1917 that granted citizenship and the one of 1920 that restricted the island from receiving in its ports any non-US vessels. Most of what I learned was not in history class but in Spanish, taught by Missis Higuera, a product of the Cuban diaspora, one of the many who fled that island when its revolution turned Stalinist but who also avoided the right-wing utopia the exiles in Miami were seeking to build. It was with her that I first devoured Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I didn’t read it so much as ingest it; to this day I have the first and last lines committed to memory. And, although El Gabo wrote about Colombia, the fictional town of Macondo’s complex relationship to Spanish formal colonialism and the United States’ more modern form of the same practice, has always felt familiar. ¿Como andan las cosas en Macondo? That’s how we greet each other, my friend Ileana and I. She, unlike me, made her life on the island after graduation from our elite Eastern college. She is there now, dealing with life after the storm that has changed everything.

A brief moment of lucidity: Trump slipped on his trip to the territory when he acknowledged that the calamity facing the island before Hurricane Maria—its crushing public debt—had to be “wiped out.” Puerto Rico bonds plunged as US investors, who bet big on my people’s misery, panicked. Of course, the White House quickly walked back Trump’s rare and inconvenient truth. Many of us rushed to say, Hey, wait a minute, we agree with the president! No take-backsies! But, alas, our island is governed not by brief moments of lucidity but by long-term insanity: a colonial board, established in bipartisan fashion by the comically named PROMESA bill (it promised little and has delivered less). Since its passage, the governor elected by the people is but a puppet, submitting budgets for approval to an appointed junta that includes bankers whose institutions helped create the island’s financial mess. For those unfamiliar with the not-yet-on-Broadway Wall Street Story of Puerto Rico, a synopsis of the musical Lin-Manuel Miranda has yet to write:

  • Act I. Wall Street banks and bond salesmen lure the Puerto Rican government into taking on $74 billion in debt, much of it likely illegally incurred (but we can’t know for sure because the junta and the conservative governor have refused to audit the debt). Municipal bonds on the island are triple-tax free so extremely attractive. Also, federal law forbids island municipalities (unlike US cities) from declaring bankruptcy. So the stage is set for a completely captive audience: the Puerto Rican masses who will have to pay up.
  • Act II. Vulture hedge-fund managers started speculating on this debt, buying it for pennies on the dollar and demanding repayment in full. They did the same thing in Argentina and Greece. In Wall Street alchemy, you can always squeeze blood from a stone.
  • Act III. Then politicians on the island and in Congress used government to create an undemocratic austerity crusade intent on destroying public assets and driving down wages, causing widespread suffering—all to pay back the banks and hedge funds. Blood from a stone.

Trump not only walked back that moment of lucidity; now he is back to playing the abusive father, threatening to abandon the island, so full of ingrates, personified by the mayor of San Juan, that very Nasty Woman.

Surreal? Or, perhaps, magically real. García Márquez famously described his work not as fantasy but as an accurate depiction of a hemisphere’s history where magic and reason live together in a tight dance, like a bolero. I think of our history and our story, of the one hundred years since we’ve been citizens. I am terrified that, while the right has a well-developed shock doctrine, our side has none. Is the militarization of the island’s recovery a good thing? What does it set us up for? I cannot care, my people need food. Will Elon Musk’s promise of a new electric grid turn the island green, but privatized? I cannot care, my people are powerless; they need power. I cannot care, but I do, deeply. I see the future, and I worry, deeply.

The exodus from the island will continue and resorts will buy up land, making Puerto Rico a playground for the rich, like so many other small places in the Caribbean. In moments of panic, I remember the final words of García Márquez’s masterpiece: Porque las estirpes condenadas a cien años de soledad, no tenían una segunda oportunidad sobre la faz de la tierra. “Because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on face of the earth.” Boricuas, aquí y allá, whether we are the pious types or not, have taken to prayer. May This Not Be So.

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