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.