‘It’s Not Full Citizenship’: What It Means to Be Puerto Rican Post-María

‘It’s Not Full Citizenship’: What It Means to Be Puerto Rican Post-María

El Espace is a column dedicated to news and culture relevant to Latinx communities. Expect politics, arts, analysis, personal essays and more. ¿Lo mejor? It’ll be in Spanish and English, so you can forward it to your tía, your primo Lalo or anyone else (read: everyone).

Within my friend group in New York, even those of us who aren’t Puerto Rican all seem to know someone affected by Hurricane María. It seems no Boricua was untouched by the unspeakable impact of the storm, from which the island is still recovering.

Ahead of the two-year anniversary of María, a new book, “Fantasy Island: Colonialism, Exploitation and the Betrayal of Puerto Rico,” explores the effects of the disaster, as well as the political struggles of the island. Its author, Ed Morales, who teaches at Columbia University and has reported on Puerto Rico for more than 20 years, unearths the roots of the island’s current crisis by tracing its relationship to the United States since 1898, illustrating how the island has become a colonial outpost. Mr. Morales also interweaves his own family’s migration to New York in his discussion of the United States’ policy toward the island.

I sat down with Mr. Morales to discuss his new book, Puerto Rico’s continued colonial relationship with the United States and the island’s political destiny.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Credit Lidia Hernandez Tapia

How does your family’s story serve as a blueprint for talking about the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States?

When I was a little boy, I loved maps. I saw a map of the Caribbean and Puerto Rico, and in parentheses, it said “U.S.” underneath it. So I asked my dad, “Why does it say that?” He said, “Oh, that just means that Puerto Rico is part of the U.S.” So I said, “Oh, so it’s not a country?” And he said, “No, no, Puerto Rico is a country, and it’s my country.” It was the first strange contact I had with this idea that Puerto Ricans feel very strongly about Puerto Rico being a country, but the technical status is not that.

My family came to the U.S. as migrants in the early ’20s during the period that was part of Operation Bootstrap, which was something the U.S. government set up to industrialize Puerto Rico’s economy. My parents and about half of both of their large families came. They met in Spanish Harlem — they didn’t know each other in Puerto Rico, so their whole lives were really framed by U.S. policy toward Puerto Rico. It was basically the “West Side Story” moment. That’s how we were identified by the mainstream. We were stereotyped during that period.

In what ways was Hurricane María a tipping point for the colonial relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico?

When María came, there was so much neglect from the federal government. With President Trump, what happened is that people really started to think, “Wow, it’s really true. The U.S. doesn’t care about us and we’re just a territory. They don’t respond to our emergencies.” The terrible physical, psychological and emotional suffering that they experienced because of María really sharpened that dismay. Yes, they’re U.S. citizens, but there are a lot of caveats to that citizenship. It’s not full citizenship.

How would you describe the impact that María continues to have today?

People still don’t have a secure belief that the electrical infrastructure is really going to hold up. The experience with María has led to continued uncertainty and insecurity on that front.

A lot of the things that were begun through the Financial Oversight Management Board, as far as imposing austerity measures, have been reflected in school closures. The island is still suffering from depopulation and out-migration, and also a looming health care crisis. All of these things that were pointed out by María are still in effect.

How do you see the protests that happened earlier this summer calling for Ricardo Rosselló’s resignation as a product of all of this?

In 2011, there was concern about the police department using tear gas and violence against protests that were being carried out by students. They were upset about police violence and the funding for the university being cut. There were also labor unions who were reacting to the previous government cutting 20,000 to 30,000 government jobs. That was a real constituency of people who were not happy with what was going on. There were huge demonstrations.

A lot of those people who were involved in those movements, they graduated from university and remained activists. The Colectiva Feminista started organizing around that time, or shortly afterward. So there was a lot of momentum.

What happened with #RickyRenuncia is that all those groups that had been active were then joined by people who were not necessarily involved in activism, because they were so outraged by what was revealed in the Telegram chat. First, there were all the sexist, racist and homophobic comments, but also there were jokes about the victims of María, when again, people had not gotten completely over the trauma of what they went through. And then you add Bad Bunny, Ricky Martin and Residente, and you get a huge constituency of young people, as well as older people who all along had been very skeptical of what was going on.

What hopes do you have for the island now in terms of its political destiny?

What I see as the best possible future is definitely a change in status, whether it’s a more autonomous relationship with the U.S., or independence. I’m really hoping Puerto Rico can move to a new stage by a vast reduction of the debt, and then come up with a serious proposal to ask for reparations from the United States for having kept it as a colonial territory for more than a century and having repressed its independence movement in the 1950s.

Credit Lidia Hernandez Tapia

We have in place the possibility of a new intersectional movement that has a lot of potential to solve this problem of the disconnect between classic politics and identity politics in the U.S. It does that by being a nationalist movement that is trying to move past some of the problems of previous versions of nationalism, which are often patriarchal and discriminate against women and L.G.B.T.Q. people.

What unifies everyone is this pride and love for Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans have this outsized nationalism because it’s been a colony for its entire existence. It’s this tremendous need to have national unity because the sovereign nation doesn’t exist. You have that in place and I think that’s really encouraging.

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In a new comedy, Kal Penn plays a disgraced New York City councilman helping a group of immigrants navigate the citizenship process. — Concepción de León

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