Towards an Un-American Solidarity: Thinking With Puerto Rico After Hurricane María
Ren/Rachel Ellis Neyra, Ph.D.
A lxs amores de lxs muertxs no contados.
Severalty n. the condition of being separate. – Merriam-Webster Dictionary
“We all look at colonial structures as if it’s like happenstance. And the very nature of the terminology, the root…this is like the deep tree…the root is to sever, to break, to cause to die.” – Sharon P. Holland
“If you are the big tree, we are the small axe. Ready to cut you down. Sharpened to cut you down.” – Bob Marley
“The U.S. has a long history of attempts to crush the Puerto Rican independence movement… Within the last several years, Puerto Rico has been considered by the U.S. Government to be ‘the Achilles Heel of the United States.’” – Jan Susler
“Those people are going to revolt against you. They killed these people all those years ago, & now it’s coming back to haunt them.” – Ramón Miranda Beltrán
Miles of brown, uprooted, storm-felled trees daunt the eye looking for a familiar landscape. Wind-snapped canopies rot among bursts of growth. In the rains that continue to fall and flood the island after Hurricanes María and Irma, we are sure of nothing but that Puerto Rico is irrevocably changing. By changing, I mean that the invasive structure of U.S. colonialism and the everyday, racialized disparities between Puerto Ricans are extruding through the wreckage.
Where I see one island, my imagination reverberates out like an endlessly skipping stone and imagines other islands. I am deeply Glissantian: I, too, believe in small countries, that “they are there, not only destitute and isolated, but already a multiple body and radiating a lived example.” (1) I think that if Puerto Rico is changing, then the Caribbean is changing. I fantasize that global warming will contribute to uprisings. To dispersals of peoples who will radicalize in the deeply painful processes of migration. That a revolution is already underway, underground and above accumulating the unrepresentable forces of opacity and relation that are not detectable to the aerial view of the master’s gaze. The master to whom nothing is owed; who owes reparations to Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands. With every stroke of pickaxe and chainsaw, muscles build, the shape of things to come, forms, a changed vision and new subjects will emerge.
This land is not your land; this land is not my land. But to participate in direct action in Puerto Rico now and into the island’s future, we must speak unobstructed about its legal, economic, and psychic status as a colony of the United States. Saying colony is not the same as saying victim. I refuse to repeat any discourse that represents Puerto Ricans as passive and compliant. The incompetent local government is, but it does not represent Puerto Ricans per se; it represents the U.S.’s interests in Puerto Rico. Consider that U.S. law frames the self-determination of Puerto Rican peoples as tantamount to an attempt to overthrow the U.S. government. The legal category of seditious conspiracy has been used to arrest and punish Puerto Ricans who have fought for independence and against U.S. invasion. The mere gathering together of two or more people who think about Puerto Rico being free of the U.S. is punishable according to 18 USC 2384. The law’s definition of seditious conspiracy calls U.S. colonies “territories,” which rhetorically empties places – Guam, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands – of people. But Puerto Rico is not empty of Puerto Ricans, or lacking in anti-colonial neighbors.
Puerto Ricans as “subversive” un-Americans is a disposition long-held by U.S. law and practice. It is in the spirit of the self-determination of Puerto Ricans that I will discuss how the U.S.’s ongoing invasion, its forced dispersal of Puerto Ricans, and its imposition of debt is: 1. racialized; 2. in conversation with U.S. legal and military-backed tactics of removing indigenous peoples from their lands; and 3. a reminder that the U.S. has profited from repeatedly attempting to crush Puerto Rican independence since 1898.
Image: archival image, Camp Henry.
Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States; it has been a colony – not a commonwealth – since the U.S. invaded the island and Caribbean waters in 1898. On and off the island, we must recognize that the military invasion of Puerto Rico was not a mere moment on a linear, dominant historical timeline. It marks a disruptive, armed installation of an elaborate, enduring, and dysfunctional colonial structure.
On the island, in the diasporas, and among allies across the globe, we must be clear on the contradiction held in Puerto Rico being a colony on which a limited discourse of second-class citizenship has been imposed. Imposed in 1917, second-class citizenship appeared in time for the U.S.’s usage of Puerto Ricans to fight for its stake in World War I, as New York Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez recently schooled President Trump. 119 years of U.S. militarized invasion of the land, air, and seas have violently morphed into deep economic, psychic, emotional, and physical vexations for the island. And, as we have been seeing in the last month of muddled discourse about why the U.S. should aid the island, this colonial structure has generated confusion for American citizens of the 50 states, who have taken it upon themselves to know nothing about this extended history of invasion, and willfully misunderstand the limits of second-class citizenship.
The discourse currently used by the U.S. President and his government that “Puerto Rico was in bad shape prior to the hurricane” should not be simplistically heard as, Puerto Rico was economically dependent on and in debt to the U.S. before the hurricane. We must listen to the ways that power disguises how it operates at the very moment that it speaks. Instead, critically translate: Puerto Rico was in “bad” economic shape before the category 5 hurricane because of U.S. colonialism’s control of the island’s economy for 119 years. Puerto Rican Professor of Economics, Rosario Rivera Negrón, has been cited saying that in the year 2008, for example, Puerto Rico received $4.6 billion in federal dollars and contributed $71.6 billion dollars into the U.S. economy. The debt imposed on Puerto Rico by Wall Street, venture capitalists, and money launderers of the extractive tourist industry does not belong to the Puerto Rican people. It is theirs to contradict and rebel against. As is the U.S.’s narrative of itself as a beneficent occupier, an armed host to the other on their land. The U.S. government and its banks’ lending practices are the bankrupters of Puerto Rico. Said differently, the U.S.’s debt is Puerto Rico’s credit. It is part of what Puerto Rico should be paid in remunerations and reconciliation for over a century of colonial invasion.
For many of us, Puerto Rico is a place of historical, creative strategies of civil disobedience and cultural survival that have long metamorphosed the limits of its colonial status. Autonomous, relational, maroon, and collective organizations and informal gatherings of people have always existed on the island, and they are at work right now rebuilding their communities. But they continue to do this creative and laborious work with the historical chokehold of The Jones Act, or the Law of Cabotage, of 1920 in full effect controlling Puerto Rico’s waterways for U.S. interests. That Trump lifted the Jones Act for only 10 days is proof of how these waters are controlled precisely for extractive U.S. economic practices.
Image: Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Otros Usos [Other Uses]. 16mm, 2014. 7 mins.
Puerto Ricans continue to farm, move, and build life around the toxic waste and devastation that the U.S. Navy left behind after being forced out of its bases and weapons testing sites by decades of civil disobedience in Ceiba, Vieques, and Culebra. Artists such as Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Joel Rodríguez, Arnaldo Bagué, Ardelle Ferrer, Nibia Pastrana, Sofía Gallisá Muriente, and Eduardo Rosario, among many others, have done generative aesthetic work around the U.S.’s Naval occupation of the Puerto Rican archipelago. Artists and medicinal food workers and farmers, such as Tara Rodríguez and the people of El Departamento de la Comida, Las Nietas de Nonó, and the people of Finca Conciencia make a viable Puerto Rico and Vieques imaginable. Alongside their work, and in recent weeks of meditating on the colonial invasion of the island and the U.S.’s historical impulse to remove Puerto Ricans from their land, I have found it helpful to re-read not only historical changes in Immigration law, but also the concept of severalty, which retraces to the The Dawes Act of 1887, or the General Allotments Act.
The 1887 Dawes Act protected the U.S. government’s invasion and theft of indigenous lands in the mid- and southwest. Renewed by The Curtis Act of 1898 – the year of the U.S.’s invasion of Puerto Rico, Cuba, Philippines, and Guam – and in the Burke Act of 1906, the invasive practice of General Allotments is important to think through in the U.S.’s perpetuation of a colonial bind that imposes second-class citizenship and displaces Puerto Ricans from Puerto Rico. On the island, a history of blanqueamiento, mythologizing indigeneity, and forms of colorism and anti-blackness are subjects of everyday conversation and analysis. But I return to a cluster of U.S. laws that span the end of the 19th into the 20th century, because I want to imagine ways to fight against the violence of slow death and containment that the U.S. government is enacting against Puerto Rican life right now.
From the end of the 19th and into turn of the 20th century, stretching the years of Reconstruction, the Great Migration of 6 million black southerners, the emergence of the U.S. as global naval power, the legalized genocide, dispersal, and containment of indigenous peoples, and the beginnings of Jim Crow, we see evidence that: the U.S. government did not want to add to its recently “freed” black population – which, at the time, it was framing as a “Negro problem” – indeed, there was serious political talk of “shipping” freed blacks to colonize Liberia as well as parts of Central America after the Civil War; nor did it want to imagine another indigenous population to have to “vanish” or forcibly assimilate or remove from their land to then contain. Puerto Ricans of the Taino island of Borinquen, where the plantation system and slavery had dominated the economy for centuries, troubled the U.S.'s racist optic of what counts as citizen, as life. Spanish disturbed its violent monolingual fantasy, while blackness and indigeneity vexed its racial logics. It must be said frankly here: the U.S. does not and will never see Puerto Ricans as “white,” nor should those of us whose histories are not “white” desire that sadistic and pathetic fantasy of the self.
Theodore Roosevelt, President of the U.S. three years after the invasion of Puerto Rico, was obsessed with the U.S. becoming a global naval power. The same ships that the Navy navigated in their pageants of power under his regime would be sold to the United Fruit Company, and then to the emerging tourist industry. Roosevelt was also actively part of the discourse of genocide and settler colonial alternatives to genocide that would effect the removal of indigenous peoples from their lands. One such tactic was that of severalty.
Image: Irene de Andrés, “Cruise-r,” 2015. Poster, ink.
Severalty defines itself as the right to be a separate individual. But severalty operates by forcing indigenous peoples into exchanging their lands, as well as their histories and knowledges, for the promises of capitalist individualism and property ownership. It enacts removal and dispersal of indigenous peoples off of their sovereign lands, out of native-ness, and into the impossibility of assimilation. Not merely “good” things, individualism and property ownership are the basis of “citizenship,” which supposedly makes you safe and buys you a future. Severalty splintered communities whose proximity to each other and to their histories spelled subversion and rebellion to the U.S. government. Remember that amidst this invasion of lands under the auspices of incorporating indigenous peoples into a legally white nation, citizenship was not actually on the table, and would not legally be granted to “reasonable” indigenous peoples until 1924. That is the same year as the emergence of The Johnson-Reed and Asian Exclusion Acts, which strategically closed U.S. borders, and revealed particular racialized anxieties as part of the U.S. American vision.
I invoke severalty here to point out the following: while it is not the same as genocide, it comes from a genocidal mind, from a mind that enacts containment, deprivation, and slow death as tactics for legally stealing indigenous lands. As we imagine tactics of solidarity with Puerto Rico into the future, we must be clear with each other about the violent, self-legitimating, white nationalist mind that imagined and enforced The Dawes Act, The Jones Act, The Johnson-Reed Act, and the Asian Exclusion Act. Together, these legal maneuvers distinctly disperse racialized and indigenous peoples threatening to U.S. white nationalism and white nativism; promise assimilation to white nationalism as something positive and individualism as the key to achieving Americanness; and disguise the dispossession of other peoples of their lands as part of a plan that invokes inclusion but protects white supremacy, which we know vividly today intends nothing like equality.
In this story, Puerto Rico is not an indecisive hysteric who can’t speak for herself and can’t make up her mind about her relationship to the U.S. Pedro Albizu Campos, Lolita Lebrón, the FALN, Oscar López, Marie Haydée Beltrán, Alejandrina Torres, the Young Lords, and many artists and activists over time and at work right now have been utterly clear about their relationship to the U.S.: it is an invasive, foreign power. At gunpoint, the U.S. disregards Puerto Rican people’s rights to self-determination.
Image: archival image, Camp Henry.
This colonial relation is an explosive one. But the explosiveness continues to be – for now – offset by a historical cynicism and cruelty in the discourse about the potential of Puerto Rican statehood. Cruel because deeply insincere and divisive, the discourse about statehood is another force that has worked hard to disguise that Puerto Rico is in 2017 a colony of the U.S. and an economic captive to its military.
It has never been legally or civically intended that Puerto Rico be represented by this white national colonial system. The violence of this charade appears in the language of aid that well-intentioned people are using right now. Think about Trump’s recent remarks for the congresswoman who supposedly cooperated with his pageant visit to the island: “she was incredible in her support of our efforts.” Now think about his words for Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz of San Juan who has been advocating for Puerto Ricans to receive humanitarian aid: “she is nasty” and “an incompetent person.” Nasty incompetence, this language is racialized and gendered, yes, and it has been used variably for indigenous, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Black second-class subjects for hundreds of years. Trump’s imperialist, and narcissistic, rhetoric is a bloated metonym for the U.S.’s historical disposition towards the island. The public notices it more because he is vile and an abuser of language. But I would caution that to participate in the rhetoric of Puerto Ricans are citizens, and this is why I should care, give money to fundraisers, and share resources is to enact a translation of She was incredible in her support of our efforts. To uncritically participate in the rhetoric of the forced migration of Puerto Ricans to Florida as something that may “tip the scales” of American electoral politics recalls a history of dispersal, cruel aspiration, and erasure that does not want Puerto Rico to be viable and habitable for Puerto Ricans. This language imposes a sadistic timeline, one that reiterates both the master-slave dialectic and development economics: Oh, one day you will be human enough to be True Citizens of the U.S. Meanwhile, you must exist in an inferior and liminal position to learn how to be Whole. Whole in this racialized logic of citizenship is also to say Impossibly White.
Many Puerto Ricans are tired of ritualized U.S. American cruelty, bad faith, and the incapacity to think through claims that simultaneously reinforce and disguise colonialism. The Whitefish gambit is enacting the same old colonial cum neoliberal trick right now. But can you see that Puerto Ricans aren’t getting tricked, just reminded of the island’s colonial position? Many Puerto Ricans do not want what will always historically be linked to an “also,” second-class citizenship that has supposedly been democratically discussed and debated while colonialism has been enacted.
Puerto Ricans do not deserve the attention and mutual aid of U.S. Americans because they are (second-class) citizens. Puerto Ricans pay federal taxes, which makes FEMA’s parade of incompetence even more angering. But as the colonizing U.S. enacts its fetish for the slow death of racialized peoples, cultures, and other languages in Puerto Rico, we can minimally see how the centralized U.S. government, the Puerto Rican puppet government, and FEMA are obstacles to Puerto Rican life. The U.S.’s blundering presence literally isolates Puerto Rico from its place in the Caribbean, and blocks relations and exchanges with other islands. This is an exacerbation of what has structurally been held in place by armed force for 119 years.
From New York, I see a multi-generational diaspora forming and having effects in my home, on my friends, in how we envision time. I sometimes find myself not having words to connect to my friends in Puerto Rico. However, I do not fear this impasse. I listen. I sit with what I do not know, and I witness this much: the government is not functioning. Communities of peoples are forming and doing. Out of this moment, something that has been in Puerto Rico for centuries grows. Whereas deracination, uprooting, and cultural and linguistic destruction are real threats presently, I compose another threat, one that scares the U.S. government so much that it recently attempted to outlaw Ethnic Studies in Arizona: solidarity – racially and ethnically performative solidarity. Solidarity as many, temporary, and decentralized gatherings. Solidarity that looks like chaos to the master but is foraging and rebuilding to those who situate their histories in and alongside radical marronage. Solidarity that sounds like the poem “Ñam Ñam” by Luis Palés Matos, as sung by the Puerto Rican singer Mima, “en la carne blanca, los dientes negros…” Solidarity that sounds like reggaetonero-trapero Bad Bunny’s call, “¡Tú no metes cabra saramambiche!” Solidarity that sounds like Pedro Pietri’s Rican, Nuyo-Spanglish intonations taking hold of you: “look at your hands / that is where / the definition of magic / is located at.”
Note of thanks: to the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños archive for the images of Camp Henry, and especially to Natalia Viera Salgado.
1) Édouard Glissant. Poetic Intention. Trans. Nathalie/Nathaniel Stephens/N.S. Calicoon, NY: Nightboat Books, 2010. 147.