Long Road to Gold for Puerto Rico

On August 13, 2016, professional tennis player Monica Puig became the first Olympian to win a gold medal for Puerto Rico. Competing in the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics in the women’s tennis singles, Puig managed to beat the German Angelique Kerber, who is ranked as the second-best tennis player in the world currently. On top of those accolades, Puig is also the first Latin American to win a gold medal in the women’s tennis singles, the first Puerto Rican to win an Olympic medal in tennis, and the first female athlete to win a medal for the island.

It’s been a long road to the gold for Puerto Rico. There has been a Puerto Rican delegation, independent of the U.S. team, in every Summer Olympics since the 1948 London games – and even a few Winter Olympics games. Puerto Rican athletes have a total of nine medals, with six out of that nine in boxing. Juan Evangelista Venegas Trinidad of Rio Piedras won the first medal in the 1948 games in the men’s bantamweight boxing by beating Louis Callenboat of Beligum by unanimous decision. Puerto Rico wouldn’t win another medal until the 1976 Montreal games, another bronze in boxing by Orlando Maldonado of Bayamon in the men’s fly lightweight division.

Puerto Rico received its first Olympic silver medal in the 1984 Los Angeles games, by way of lightweight boxer Luis Ortiz of Humacao. Though he lost his final bout by a knockout in the second round, it was reported that he was still given a hero’s welcome in Puerto Rico. Yet he was not the only one making history for the island, as fellow boxer Aristides Gonzalez won a bronze in the middleweight event to give Puerto Rico two medals from one delegation.

The next time the U.S. territory won a silver medal was in the 2012 London games, which also ended up being the second time Puerto Rico won two medals and the first time AND second time the island received a medal in a category besides boxing. Jaime Espinal, originally from Santo Domingo of the Dominican Republic, won his silver in freestyle wrestling, while his compatriot Javier Culson, of Ponce, won a bronze in the 400-meter hurdle event.

The reception received by Puig from Puerto Ricans, as well as her own jubilation, shows just how much this win means for all Boricuas, those on the island, the mainland, and abroad. Having their own delegation has helped to shape and maintain Puerto Rico’s own national identity. Events at the 1948 games led to Puerto Rico establishing its own flag, after the U.S. complained about the P.R. delegation carrying theirs’. Now more than 60 years later, people in the U.S. take to social media to complain about Puig referring to Puerto Rico as a separate nation in a case of the greatest irony.

Puig is technically not the first Olympian born in Puerto Rico to win the gold, nor is she even the first to win one in women’s tennis. Gigi Fernandez, born in San Juan, won gold medals in 1992 and 1996 in the women’s doubles events. However, she won them for the U.S. delegation, generating significant controversy in Puerto Rico. She also generated controversy recently when she seemingly insulted Puerto Rico’s most recent silver medalist, Jaime Espinal, for his Dominican ancestry. Espinal emigrated to Puerto Rico when he was five, and though he moved with his family to Brooklyn when he was 15, he quickly returned to Puerto Rico – even going so far as to leave without the rest of his family. It’s interesting to note that the exceedingly humble Espinal has actually defended Fernandez, despite the backlash against her carried out in his name.

Two things should be taken from this tale. The first is that the unanswered question of Puerto Rico’s sovereignty and identity does eventually spill over into everything. The second, however, is that the island’s national and cultural pride can be a unifying factor. The Olympian athletes who’ve represented Puerto Rico have been of all colors and backgrounds, but have had one motivation. Monica Puig may have spent a good part of her life living and training in the U.S., but she went out of her way to represent the island of her birth. The love she showed for Puerto Rico was paid back exponentially by her countrymen and women, a testament to the respect Puerto Ricans give to their national heroes.

#BlackLivesMatter and Puerto Rico

The #BlackLivesMatter movement began with a simple hashtag and a statement of frustration, a reaction to a rash of highly publicized fatal altercations between African-Americans and police (and at least one private citizen acting as if he was the police). Since its inception, it has galvanized people from many different backgrounds and spawned chapters in several American cities, as well as a number of overseas offshoots. Over the past month, a photograph taken by Joaquin Medina from Humacao, Puerto Rico, has been shared all over social media which depicts a group of black Puerto Ricans raising their fists with the tagline “#BlackLivesMatter Puerto Rico.”

The photo doesn’t seem to indicate that those involved are part of a new chapter of BLM in Puerto Rico, but rather the image itself is part of a reoccurring theme in Medina’s photography work that frequently showcases Afro-Ricans as part of the African Diaspora in Puerto Rico. The caption for the version posted on his Instagram account explains that the intention of the photo was to “show solidarity and unity with the black community in the United States,” roughly translated, though the exact language he uses is interesting. Specifically, he calls the killings by the police “the abuses of the government,” which speaks very heavily towards the history of police brutality in Puerto Rico – often targeting black Puerto Ricans of both genders and all ages, and carried out by a monolithic, overbearing police force.

As I said, many people – including more than a couple of group and celebrity pages associating themselves with BLM – have shared the image across social media. The photo has come at a time when many Person-of-Color organizations made up of other ethnic groups have come out to show support for #BlackLivesMatter, especially Latinos. The narrative surrounding the efforts of Hispanics in the United States to help BLM has for the most part been one of honoring shared experiences and empathy towards the plight of African-Americans.

An acquaintance of ours wrote probably one of the best examples of an outside supporter’s perspective on the movement, which does a good job of displaying the viewpoint of a Latino who believes in BLM. However, despite our support, we at Palenque Connections have mixed feelings about how our solidarity as Latinos is being framed. Now, don’t get it twisted – this is a cause we’ve been championing since before it was an idea on everyone’s lips. Our personal interests in this, though, are exactly the reason why we don’t agree with our portrayal as being on the sidelines. Institutionalized racism against persons of African descent is all too common throughout most of the rest of the Western Hemisphere, and we’ve already pointed out that a certain town in a certain U.S. territory has historically already been the subject of much abuse by police.

The history of that abuse by the police and other state apparatuses in Puerto Rico has already been fairly well-documented. Just as with the mainland, the War on Drugs effectively legalized the criminalization of black people on the island. The difference being that in Puerto Rico, with only about 1% of the U.S. population, most phenotypically black people had congregated in a certain few communities. In addition, the only local police force on the island is the Puerto Rican Police Department, a centralized policing contingent that maintains security for every municipality in the territory. As a result, these communities are often quite literally besieged whenever there is the slightest claim of a crime.

One such incident was the “Loizazo” in 2001, when the PRPD responded to a call about a fight breaking out at a children’s birthday party in Loiza with riot gear and indiscriminate beatings. Even the officers who were actually charged with crimes for this gross misconduct eventually had their convictions overturned by the higher courts. The incident has been widely dismissed by the Puerto Rican government and public, though the American Civil Liberties Union did finally begin investigating the PRPD a few years later. They filed several scathing reports and a lawsuit that saw the Justice Department start to crack down with reforms and independent monitors of the island’s police. However, despite the oversight the PRPD is still as corrupt as ever, and the ACLU only began taking notice when the violent tactics were extended to protesting government workers and students.

The message in the aftermath of all this is one that feels all too unfamiliar in the U.S., and Puerto Rico. Black lives matter only when their suffering begins extending to others, and even then it can only be addressed when it doesn’t start rocking the boat too much. In Puerto Rico the problem is compounded by the populace’s own racial identity. There are several conflicting theories and reports on the true ethnic backgrounds of the people that populate the island today, with census results showing that the further away we get from the last large-scale European migration, the greater number of Puerto Ricans think of themselves as white.

Studies have been conducted which paint a more realistic picture, but the findings always seem to be worded in such a way that leans towards excluding or trivializing mentions of African descent. The most conclusive so far indicates the majority (around 60%) of Puerto Ricans can trace lineages to male European ancestors and female Taino (Puerto Rico natives) ancestors. However, they also found that 84% of the women in the study had genetic markers from Africa. If the sampling is reflective of the greater population, then it might hint at the majority of Puerto Ricans having some trace of African blood in their family trees. “Y tu abuela, donde esta,” indeed.

Even more important than the genetic signs are the cultural. Any salsero would find themselves at home in a West African party, using the same dance moves they would in the Copacabana. Musical styles like Bomba and Plena were created by enslaved and free black communities, and even the Puerto Rican lexicon is saturated by African words and colloquialisms. Puerto Rican popular culture is transparently Afro-Caribbean. This makes the struggle between black citizens, the police and the government not only a class and race conflict, but an internal cultural conflict as well. It is, as others have alluded to, a persistent and physical rejection of blackness by Puerto Rican society, even while they continue to silently participate in Afro-Boricua culture.

In many ways, this struggle perfectly mirrors the struggle between African-Americans and white America, the rejection of the physical embodiment even while defining pop culture with their influences. However, in many other ways it’s even more perverse as Puerto Ricans also reject much of their own heritage, and their own family. It’s also reflective of the anti-blackness that permeates virtually all of the former colonies of the Americas. Ultimately, #BlackLivesMatter will have to move beyond framing their fight as one isolated to the United States and African-Americans. This is a cause that affects all black people in the Western Hemisphere. A good starting point would be making “BLM Puerto Rico” more than a picture. That’s not to say that no one in PR hasn’t already been fighting the good fight. If the efforts taken by the ACLU have shown anything, it’s that the leaders of Afro-Rican enclaves like Loiza would not and have not remained silent, even if it’s taken decades to raise any outside awareness. Yet it also shows that the voice of one community is simply not enough. The problem clearly transcends the lines of nationality – our solidarity and our actions will have to as well.

What About the 23 Puerto Ricans in the Orlando Shooting?

We’re all reeling from the recent attack at an Orlando nightclub, in which a perpetrator wielding an assault rifle and a handgun opened fire on over 100 people, including at least three Orlando PD. The attacker was the son of Afghani immigrants to Brooklyn, and was reported to have called 911 and supposedly claimed allegiance to the Islamic State (IS, ISIS, ISIL, Daesh, or whatever else you want to call it) in the midst of the attack. The story has already become politically charged as pundits and politicians jockey for control of the narrative here. The attacker was described by coworkers as “unhinged and unstable,” who also claim he frequently made offensive remarks regarding homosexuals, African-Americans, Jews, women and others. He also changed his name  to the Arabic word for “strong” and within the past two years traveled to Saudi Arabia multiple times. He was investigated by the FBI twice for suspicious activity, but they let him go both times. Now, some claim they’ve found his profile on a gay dating website and that he had been spotted at this very same gay club by some of the survivors. People are jumping to pin down his reasoning on one thing or another, whether he was indeed a self-radicalized Jihadist striking at Americans or an anti-gay zealot projecting his insecurities onto others in a violent way, or just a lunatic who should have never been allowed near a computer, let alone a weapon.

Many of the victims had another common connection: quite a few were Puerto Rican. A number of Puerto Ricans from all over the island and the mainland were visiting Florida at the time of the massacre, and there have been many looking to permanently relocate to Orlando and other areas in the Sunshine State. Florida has become the new primary destination for Puerto Ricans not only from the island, but for those born and raised in other parts of the mainland United States as well. People have cited the familiar Latino culture as one of the main reasons for places like Orlando becoming a popular destination, along with the high rate of violence as one of the main reasons residents are leaving Puerto Rico in the first place. That makes this particular all the more tragic considering how many left the island because of the violence only to find worse in a supposedly safe area. It’s even worse when you consider the unfortunate trends in Puerto Rico concerning LGBT rights and preconceptions about them. There has been significant resistance to attempts to secure equal rights and access for gay and trans people, including protests and targeted violence. One landmark case involved the mutilation and murder of one trans woman, which sparked outrage from LGBT rights groups on both the island and the mainland. The latter have been especially critical of the lack of legal protection and often total disregard for LGBT people within the court system. The situation for LGBT people in Puerto Rico overall has been too often even worse than for those on the mainland. Many of these people left this situation presumably with the hope that the one up north would be a better option, only to have that hope taken away from them so brutally and violently.

We come to the question of “why?” Why did the gunman choose this particular spot at this particular time, and these particular people? The entire case has been speculation from the start, complicated by both the perpetrator’s apparent mental illness and the modern political climate. Even on the things we should all agree on, we find ourselves combating each other for what should take priority. Whether the attacker was acting because of his religion or because of his detachment from reality is kind of a moot point to the victims and their families. Whether he targeted them because they were gay or Hispanic is an important question, but also ultimately a moot point for the same reason. Their specific nationality is also a factor when so many of one group was slaughtered, but who can say that was the assailant’s specific intention? It certainly wouldn’t make a lot of sense to the rational mind, if his agenda really was to stop the bombing of Syria by going after one of the most marginalized groups in the U.S. Maybe it was an excuse for his bigotry, or to act out his power fantasies. A lot of assumption on the former comes from an interview with one man, his former coworker, Daniel Gilroy. Gilroy claims that Mateen would use racial slurs in his presence so much that it was to the point of only using those slurs to refer to individuals of those groups. Mateen gave him the impression that he hated everyone, but at least one survivor’s account potentially contradicts Gilroy’s assertions. It could have been spur of the moment, but the attacker made a conscious choice not to murder any more of the Black patrons in the club, which makes his supposed racism seem relatively shallow, for lack of a better term. Of course, no one has made any mention of him sparing any of the many Puerto Rican and other Latino patrons present, so maybe his prejudice was narrower than his past statements would lead us to believe.

The incident was a perfect storm of hatred, vulnerable people exposed to the depredations of a madman. By all accounts, the attacker was a very insecure man and hid that insecurity behind a bully’s mask. Bullies will often go after people who they feel are easier targets for their rage and cruelty, and past lessons have shown that Puerto Ricans – especially LGBT islanders – are invisible victims. However, with the sheer number of Puerto Ricans present in the Orlando-Kissimmee region, they could have just as simply been targets of opportunity for this psychotic killer. It’s unknown whether Mateen chose the club’s “Latin Night” event specifically or if the date was just convenient for his homicidal rampage. I personally suspect it was a mixture of his supposed familiarity with the place and the personal hatred he harbored within himself, but we’ll never know for certain. Even if the attacker had lived, all the evidence pouring out about his personality in hindsight suggests he wouldn’t have ever explained his agenda any more coherently. Many people have come up with their own theories, but as of now they’re still just theories. People have come forward with their owns reasons, including that he had a secret gay life, but authorities have shot down these claims. It seems impossible to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong. No matter what the initial cause, 49 people are dead, and whatever labels are slapped on that story will not bring them back. There were straight, gay, black, brown and white men and women in that club. If anything positive is to come out of this tragedy, then as Americans and People of Color we need to acknowledge that these were members of our community.

News outlets have claimed there were a few families not claiming their slain relatives’ remains because of possible public shame. That’s probably the worst tragedy in all this, that even after seeing the human cost of this bigotry, some still refuse to budge on their outdated beliefs and continue treating LGBT Puerto Ricans as “undesirables.” The only good thing that can come out of this incident is for greater acceptance of these people by their families and the public as human beings. If there’s one thing I’ve learned growing up a Puerto Rican, it’s that – for better or worse – family’s always there. I’ll argue that it’s against our very culture to outright reject anybody, especially family. Hopefully, while this tragedy is in the public spotlight it will create an open dialogue about the status of LGBT Puerto Ricans on the both the mainland and the island.

The Unfortunate and Unpopular Reality of the Puerto Rican Debt Crisis

Now that the New York parade and the many regional festivals have passed, there’s one topic that’s dominating news about Puerto Rico. The debt crisis is threatening to cripple the island in a way it might never come back from, and politicians and economic experts alike are stomping their feet and shouting down each other’s plans to fix the dilemma. It’s an issue that’s dividing people of all ideologies – you know things are complicated when Obama, Ryan, Clinton and Trump ALL agree on one plan, while the U.S.’s only Socialist Senator and top conservative economic advisors agree on another. Most disconcerting about this muddled and increasingly tumultuous battlefield are the subjective narratives being pushed by all sides, including recycled rhetoric that borders on propaganda. One of the worst cases of the language spewed in these campaigns is the idea that is becoming ever more popular, of blaming Puerto Ricans for their misfortunes.

This reoccurring theme was originally aimed solely at the Puerto Rican government, and ostensibly still is for all intents and purposes, but has become quite transparently applied to the island’s 3.5 million residents, and their rather borderline nihilistic approach to politics and economics. This type of language is, of course, something we should be used to – it’s the same narrative put forward before, during, and even after Operation Bootstrap. The actual effects of that program are still debated today, whether it was ultimately beneficial or harmful, and was filled with the same finger-pointing and chest-beating we’re seeing now. I suspect that the ending will be the same as well, with nothing having been accomplished except driving Puerto Rico further in to a hole, upon which the residents will receive the rest of the blame yet again – and therein lies both the problem, and its root.

Let me preface what I’m about to say with that it should be clear that we are not going out of our way to be defenders the Puerto Rican government, either the legislative branches or the sitting Governor. I have had friends and family within the island’s government, including at least one blood relation, but I will not shy away from pointing out what has become glaringly obvious. Those holding political office in Puerto Rico continue setting a consistently ever-worsening precedent of self-interest, elitism, bigotry, and short-sighted decision making with each new cabinet change – but it was a precedent that was already old by the time the first actual Puerto Rican native took a political office while the island has been under U.S. control. A slew of Anglo-American civilian and military governors have taken administrative mastery over the colony, sometimes with rather productive results for certain sectors of the U.S., but with “mixed” results for the population of Puerto Rico – to put it very mildly.

Even the best-intended of these men often acted upon their own wants for the island, which is exactly how the centralized, government-controlled bank of Puerto Rico was created in the first place. Yet this is not a case to be dismissed as “failed progressive policies,” as some have tried to. Liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans – all have used Puerto Rico for their own ends, then cast blame on each other when things go poorly. When unemployment rises and businesses begin shutting down, everyone takes turns blaming either an unregulated free market or reckless government spending before shifting the accusations wholesale back onto Puerto Ricans. Both the fiscally conservative and liberal experiments in Puerto Rico have failed before they began, greatly benefiting only a select few every time, and the social experiments that have succeeded have often done so with disastrous results. There’s a worrying  (or, perhaps, infuriating) correlation between the two, tied to the amount of disregard for the well-being of the Puerto Rican people in either case.

There is no escaping the fact that for the 118 years it has lasted, the relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico has always been one-sided in the favor of the former. Current statistics have almost a quarter of every dollar produced by Puerto Rico going directly to the American mainland, and given the history between these countries these estimates could be overly conservative. For all the rhetoric concerning government intrusion coming from Republicans, few other states or territories have been subjected so continuously to such a brazenly parasitic relationship with the rest of the country. Yet despite this, it has been the House Republicans that have been shifting the most criticism onto Puerto Rico, and conservatives in general have attacked the island’s economy and internal politics both in the present and past.

The majority of past elected Governors of Puerto Rico may have been Democrats, but the current Governor‘s predecessor was and still is an ardent Republican. Despite his drastic tax cuts and claims of deficit slashing, upon his loss in the next election he left the governorship still with a massive deficit and a sharp spike in unemployment across the island. I don’t claim to be an economist, but the evidence shows clearly that this is not a matter of ideology. All the tax raising and tax cutting have done little to nothing for the actual Puerto Rican people, so that the only common thread between the parties here is their lack of foresight for the long-term well-being of the island. The Democratic Party, Republican Party, PPD, PNP, and the PIP all have favored short-sighted tactics for short-term political gains, and ALL have shown, repeatedly, that they either don’t know or don’t care what’s best for Puerto Rico as a whole.

While Republicans and conservative economists argue with Democrats and liberals about the supposed failure of “big government” policies in Puerto Rico, predatory hedge funds have been fighting behind the scenes to make sure they get a cut before everything goes to hell. The question of who owns Puerto’s Rico debt has a different answer depending on who you ask. In the course of doing further research for this writing, I’ve read several wildly contradicting ranges of percentage breakdowns. These claims are complicated further by the very nature of the market, as some of these bond investments have been thrown around into various mutual funds so that quite a few individual investors on the mainland have been dragged into the crisis as well.

This has worked in the favor of many of the less scrupulous of these hedge funds, as some have joined together to fund efforts portraying the governments in both San Juan and Washington, D.C., as forcing taxpayers to bail out Puerto Rico. They have taken advantage of the presence of island-residing bondholders to further this narrative to tug at Americans’ collective heartstrings. To be clear, there are many native Puerto Ricans invested in the San Juan government’s bonds. I have at least one relative that lost all her money in such investments and claims to be completely destitute because of it. I also know that she used her late American husband’s considerable fortune to invest in the first place. I’m not condemning her, but this speaks to the reality of many of the bondholders portrayed as “average Joe” Puerto Rico residents.

One such CNN story was appealing enough that even I was reconsidering my cynicism, but the illusion was quickly broken once they began revealing more details about the “average Joe” Puerto Ricans’ being profiled, namely their professions, locations, and especially the amount of they invested, which were all six to seven figures. That would be quite a bit of money for an “average Joe” mainland American to throw down on an unsure investment, but for a Commonwealth where it’s a struggle for most just to be able to live paycheck-to-paycheck, that’s a veritable fortune and a huge risk to boot. All the Puerto Ricans the campaign has chosen to profile as the main bondholders are, like my aforementioned relatives, part of the Puerto Rican upper-middle class, which of course most of the politicians they are fighting come from as well.

As we have alluded to here before, too often members of this segment of the population regard the rest with a rather elitist contempt, which I’ve been exposed to first-hand. I’ve listened to family that abandoned the island long ago wax philosophical about how dark-skinned Puerto Ricans and immigrant Dominicans are the cause of all Puerto Rico’s economic woes, similarly to how marginalized groups are blamed for crime and such in the U.S. and probably the rest of the world. One of the differences in Puerto Rico is the Old World, feudalistic mentality that still pervades society there just as it does in the rest of Latin America. The Spanish assigned class based on characteristics such as skin-color and ancestry, and made explicit policy decisions on how a person was treated based on these requirements. Blacks, Amerindians, and mixed peoples were not only socially restricted, but subjected directly to heavier taxation as well, all on the basis that they deserved it because of what they were.

Puerto Rico has not developed the same ideas of social mobility present in the U.S. (however complicated or skewed they are) because of this and portions of the population are often seen as inherently deviant. Thus, when parts of the upper-middle class, whether the government or private citizens, play around with the Commonwealth’s money it’s not likely to be seen as a societal disservice – it can be construed as their privilege to do so, and the burden of the rest to merely deal with the inevitable consequences. Despite the current government’s language, I have no doubt that many officials care little about the current crisis beyond maintaining their own salaries and nepotistic appointments. Here is part of the unfortunate reality we all face as Puerto Ricans – we are indeed often just as culpable in this long chain of oppression and negligence our island continues to be subjected to.

Congress has shown time and time again that, as a whole, they do not care much about Puerto Rico beyond gaining votes or creating inroads for businesses they’re personally connected to. The Puerto Rican legislature has shown that they don’t care much about the rest of the island beyond maintaining their power. And we Puerto Ricans on both the mainland and the island show we don’t care much beyond enjoying the beaches and dancing, and having the right to travel between both countries. These are sweeping generalizations, to be sure, but are all too easily applicable. I’ve met too many Puerto Ricans on the island that just want to live comfortable enough, and think moving north is a “Get-out-of-jail-free” card if things get too bad. I’ve also met too many Puerto Ricans on the mainland who couldn’t me tell what a single Governor had done in the past 10 years, but could name 10 beaches and bars off the top of their heads. And while all of us continue to ignore the reality in front of us, companies and wealthy tax dodgers from the U.S.come to Puerto Rico, make or save millions and bring it all back to the mainland after barely spending a cent on the island.

This crisis was inevitable, and it’s actually surprising it took so long for it to occur. If the current Governor had been in office during the recession, he would have likely done the same, unlike his predecessor who idolizes his allied American political party. This arrogance is typical of the Puerto Rican elite who have bought into the supposed autonomy and equality afforded under Commonwealth status. The recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court broke that delusion, especially considering its swiftness. The fact that any financial giant could get away with saying they’re side of preventing a taxpayer bailout, especially after the controversy of 2008-09, to poor Americans is tragically comic. It’s downright infuriating that the party of fiscal responsibility and shrinking government is campaigning to keep up trust in government bonds even at our expense. This hypocrisy is just another symptom of the broken relationship we have, and the schizophrenic agenda regarding us – treating us as less equal than others – has culminated into this very situation. Make no mistake, though, this is a taste for what is to come for many in the rest of the  U.S., no matter what bill passes, but it will be Puerto Rico that suffers most.

The status quo will no longer be viable after this, and those who have abused it for their own ends will be thrust into the spotlight because of it. The U.S. can’t continue to label Puerto Rico autonomous without affording it actual authority, and it can’t continue to label it part of the Union without affording it the same rights and privileges that every other American citizen takes for granted. I’ve been anti-Statehood my whole life, but if it would guarantee the island actual support I would be at the front line of any campaign to push it. We cannot to continue pushing our ideological agendas into the mix when the island’s future is at stake. As it stands now, Puerto Rico is a Third World nation with First World amenities. Puerto Ricans on the island have become a new “separate but equal” class within the U.S., citizens beholden to different sets of rules from two governments. No one has been able to decide whether Puerto Rico is part of the United States or part of Latin America, and until that decision is made there will continue to be incidents like the debt crisis, wherein the federal and Puerto Rican government jockey for power with commercial interests.

Whether the island were to become a State or independent, or even if it remains a Commonwealth, the result as of right now will inevitably be the same. Another large migration, likely to dwarf the past exoduses, will arrive in the U.S. mainland. It will be composed of the poor at first, who will have to compete with the undocumented for unskilled labor positions. It will quickly include the middle class as well, as it has recently, who will then compete with the already struggling middle class professionals here for skilled jobs. We’ve already seen it happen, and it will keep happening. Puerto Ricans have little recourse but to uproot themselves to the mainland, where even with a pay cut they can work for better wages with more job security. It’s been known for at least a decade that the island’s economy does not work, and the reality is that even it’s done ostensibly well, it’s rarely worked in favor of the natives. The only thing that will stop it from happening again and again is if Puerto Rico gains real economic independence, real political power, and, above all, real unity among its constituents.

This is the often unpopular part of the reality for many Americans, including Puerto Ricans, that Puerto Rico is for all intents and purposes a separate nation. It has a different culture, different norms, and different routines. The same methods that might work in the mainland have not worked on the island. Worse, most of those efforts carried out in the past have always been part of someone else’s finite political agenda. Puerto Rico is not a playground for others to test out their stratagems, their products or their military ordinance. It is not a place to force-feed American-made goods, avoid mainland regulations, or cheat your taxes. It is its own country with three and a half million living human beings just trying to sustain themselves. They need to be “allowed” to have the ability and freedom to do so. It’s also important going forward that we will all admit our complicity in creating this air of apathy and fatalism concerning Puerto Rico.

I purposefully avoided dwelling on the financial details of the crisis, because as I said I’m not an economist. You can read below the words of people more qualified and more eloquent than I to come to your own conclusion. I will say that there is precedent for throwing out at least the interest of these outstanding debts, and I agree with many that the very nature of what the debts developed into makes them as a whole at least partially illegal – and the fault of both governments as well as the financial institutions that have cherry picked which laws to follow. Both sides have pushed forward arbitrary stipulations in their own favor, which only proves my point: until the political situation with Puerto Rico is resolved, the economic situation will always be in crisis. What Puerto Rico needs is not investment in the government, but investment – and trust – in its people. We need legitimate investors to make equitable deals and grow with our local companies and institutions. There is tremendous economic potential on the island, enough to keep the entire population self-sufficient and their fund-givers happy. There is enough arable land to feed the entire island, and then some, enough wind and sun power to make alternative energy a lucrative option, and if the Jones Act restrictions were to be lifted or at least modified, then the port of San Juan could very well make Puerto Rico the Singapore of the Caribbean. This might seem a far-off dream and even impossible considering current events, but I have faith that our island can one day get through this and make this all a reality. But they will need help to get there.

http://www.democracynow.org/2015/11/26/juan_gonzalez_on_how_puerto_ricos

https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/114/190/

https://www.newyorkfed.org/outreach-and-education/puerto-rico/2014/report-main.html

http://www.centennial-group.com/downloads/For%20Puerto%20Rico%20There%20is%20a%20Better%20Way.pdf

A Tale of Two Countries

This was written in response to a series of events which the author details further in this writing, but can be summarized a nothing less than systemic violations of civic and human rights. This topic may now seem minute compared to the ongoing and quickly unraveling crisis in Puerto Rico, but the accounts which the author provides implies that what is referenced here was a symptom of the inevitable disaster that has been building up for over a century. Puerto Rico has been consistently mismanaged, by both the local and federal governments, and disregard for whole segments of the Puerto Rican population on both the island and the mainland have been an all too common occurrence. In writing this article, the foundation for Palenque Connections was conceived, based on the idea that active engagement and education would help heal these festering wounds. It is my personal opinion that if real change can be gradually implemented at a focal point of the divisiveness, corruption, and lack of empathy now all too rampant on the island, then it will prove that the current situation in Puerto Rico can eventually be alleviated to the benefit of all.

-Hector Bonilla, Jr.

 

Forced evictions from homes where residents have lived for centuries, including bulldozing the homes of residents who are resistant to these evictions, the construction of walls in order to separate more affluent newcomers from the traditional community and to isolate and limit movement of the longer established residents, the use of state sponsored violence to intimidate the local community to accept their subordinate status, and the implementation of racial profiling to marginalize and devalue the traditional residents in order to justify their social and political banishment from their long-established homeland. Included in this process is the imposition of restrictive policies which limit economic self-sufficiency and educational opportunities for the population under siege.

These events may have occurred to Native American populations during the Western expansion in North America, in the Warsaw Ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland, or in the Transvaal in Apartheid-ruled South Africa. However, we do not have to travel so far either in time or distance to witness these events. We only have to visit Loiza, Puerto Rico, which may be the oldest free Afro-descendent population in the Western Hemisphere.

Although not officially recognized as a town until 1692, Loiza had been a population center even before the arrival of Europeans. Loiza is named after the Taino Cacica (female Chief) Yuisa, who, along with her African-born companion, Pedro Mejias, was killed by Caribe raiders in 1514. The area that became the town of Loiza became a haven for Afro-descendent immigrants who escaped from slavery from nearby non-Spanish island colonies. This free Black population settled on this coastal area because they could subsist on fishing, crabbing, and indigenous edible plants, such as coconuts and tubulars like yucca and yautia, and was not readily accessible from the outside except by small boats. The Atlantic Ocean, El Rio Grande de Loiza, and the Piñones Mangrove lagoons permitted Loiceños’ mobility via water and served as barriers to interlopers, especially slave hunters. Because of its relative isolation, Loiza has been able to preserve much of its unique cultural heritage, which is an amalgamation of African and Amerindian traditions. This is reflected in its music – especially in la Bomba – its food, and its rituals, especially in its own very specific form of religious syncretization.

The viability and importance of Loiza to Puerto Rico was most evident during the British invasion of Puerto Rico in 1797. The largest British invasion force in the history of the Southern Hemisphere, led by Sir Ralph Abercromby, landed 7,000 ground troops composed of British Regulars and Hessian Mercenaries at Boca de Cangrejos (a small bay located west of modern Loiza) and marched toward San Juan. This same force had just captured the island of Trinidad from the Spaniards. At the time of this invasion, the Spanish had only a token force of regular army units in Puerto Rico to defend the fortress of El Morro in San Juan, because most of the other Spanish forces were in Santo Domingo fighting against the Haitian rebels.

The strategic error that Abercromby made was that he ignored the free Black population that was located at the rear of his forces. Loiza had a militia composed of 200 men, some of whom may have been veterans of the Spanish forces who fought in the American War of Independence. Those two hundred militia fought a withering guerilla campaign against the invaders, and captured or killed hundreds of those European soldiers. Eventually, hundreds of Puerto Rican militia from the central and southern areas of the island arrived to the battle scene and forced the British forces to flee. Sir Abercromby would go on to find better success in future military campaigns in Ireland, the Netherlands and eventually against Napoleon’s forces in Egypt.

The Spanish authorities underplayed the importance of not only the Loiceños, but of all the Puerto Rican militia in this military victory. But the reality was that the greater part of this two-week battle occurred outside of San Juan, and Spanish forces rarely ventured outside of the safety of El Morro. The only Spanish references to the capture of British and Hessian POWs were attributed to “los negros de Loiza”.

Although Loiza played a key role in providing food to San Juan, it still remained a marginalized community during the next century of Spanish rule of Puerto Rico. After the American military invasion, things worsened for Loiza. It lost its status as a municipality and was placed under the authority of the new municipality of Canovanas, a former rural section of Loiza. During the 1930’s, the Isla Verde section of Loiza was wrested away and assigned to Carolina, where they built a resort area and what today as known as Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport. However, Luis Ferre, the first member of the Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP, which believes in statehood for Puerto Rico) to be elected Governor of Puerto Rico fulfilled a campaign promise and re-assigned municipality status to Loiza. Consequently, voters of Loiza have overwhelmingly supported this party in all subsequent elections.

None of Ferre’s successors as Governor – including those of his own party – have been as considerate of Loiza. There have been innumerable attempts to extend the hotel and luxury apartment strip in Isla Verde to the Piñones section of Loiza. Environmentalists from in and out of Loiza struggled mightily against these efforts, and eventually Piñones was designated as a Natural Preserve. But the island’s government’s intervention came at a cost. Until the 1980’s, there was no bridge connecting Piñones to the rest of Loiza. Even automobiles had to be rafted across El Rio Grande de Loiza. Constructing a new bridge connecting Piñones to the town of Loiza and the rest of the island came at a price: a sewage treatment plant was constructed next to the new bridge. This sewage treatment facility handles the waste from San Juan and the surrounding suburbs (but not Loiza), which it then expels into the nearby ocean water, which of course the residents of Loiza rely on for subsistence AND has been left open to outside tourism the entire time the plant has been active.

The residents of Piñones have a long history of providing traditional fare to day trippers from San Juan. Food stands (known as kioscos) dot the area and serve traditional fritters, many of which are indigenous to Loiza. The government began to regulate and license these food stands and impose rules that ostensibly imposed hygienic standards, but in reality forced the food vendors to use non-traditional methods in food preparation. The new rules raised costs, and made this long-standing industry unprofitable for many of the food stand operators. These spaces have been increasingly bought out by people from outside Loiza with the resources available to comply with the new government regulations. Many of these new food stand owners invariably hired immigrant labor, not Loiceños, to operate these food stands. Ironically, Loiza, which has the highest unemployment rate in Puerto Rico, has a number of residents who can’t find work in an industry that they created, which is located in the neighborhood in which they have always lived.

Because of the resistance in Piñones, developers leapfrogged this area and started to build luxury apartments and vacation home developments in the traditional fishing communities on the Loiza coast. Even though some of these neighborhoods have been populated for almost half a millennia, not all of its residents have documented proof of ownership. Unscrupulous speculators, with access to government officials and connected attorneys, used money and coercion to extricate residents from long-established communities.

When these tactics did not bear fruit, whole communities were walled off, removing access not only to the beach, but even to access roads. Police forces were used as an “occupation army,” entering homes indiscriminately, and operating “road blocks” throughout the town. The rationale used for this excessive police presence was to quell drug violence; however, the courts went on to decide against the police in several cases involving accusations of police brutality in Loiza. There are still many more accusations of police brutality and police home invasions which are working their way through the court system. There are also allegations that the police, none of whom are native to Loiza, have been duplicitous in cases of violence committed by others against some of the more recalcitrant opposition to the forced development of Loiza. In one case of a Loiza woman named Adolfina Villanueva, who refused to be cowed by the developers, police or government, was killed in 1980 by these very same police officers. No one has been prosecuted for her death.

More recently, a community activist named Maria Mercado was run over by the Mercedes-Benz Sedan operated by a developer, who was convicted of this crime and served a total of three hours in jail as his punishment. Ironically, this developer went bankrupt and he has abandoned his project. There are several other unfinished developments like that, dotting the coastal communities of Loiza, monuments to the greed of developers and the rapacious thugs who run the government of Puerto Rico.

Maria is but one of several members of this community who are fighting for its survival, and refused to be moved, brutalized and disrespected. Although they all have “grass roots” constituents who they are fighting for, Loiza remains a geographically and politically isolated community.

Ultimately, the struggle that is occurring within Loiza is about race. Discussion of race is still the most pervasive taboo among Puerto Ricans. Notwithstanding, the inane responses of many island residents to the question of racial classification in the 2000 Census, identifiably Afro-descent people in Puerto Rico are at the bottom of every social and political indicator on the island. A community like Loiza which revels in its “African-ness” openly has always engendered derision and outright hostility by the members of the “hispanofilo” elements of Puerto Rico’s elite castes.

This belief system was brought home to me rather abjectly by a traffic police officer, dressed like a SWAT member, who was evidently stopping and harassing motorists with families for simply wanting to drive through Loiza. The police officer warned me, as part of the reasoning for the stop, that someone was murdered in Bayamon the night before. Since Bayamon is approximately 25 miles from Loiza, I asked him, “Why were the police setting up road blocks in Loiza?” Among the things he admonished me with, before he let me go he gave me a warning that I might get shot by one of “esos negritos” (those black boys), in Loiza. I then witnessed another automobile, a white Toyota Avalon driven by a gentleman with his female companion in the front passenger seat and a child in a safety seat secured in the rear seat of the car, being pulled over by the same police officer as they entered Loiza. As I drove through Loiza on the way to Luquillo Beach, I saw a slew of police cars in front of the high school parking lot, and another road block as I passed through Loiza towards Rio Grande, just before the Berwind Golf Course and the new Donald Trump Resort.

Two days before this incident, at the behest of renowned Puerto Rican artist, Samuel Lind, I had met with several Loiza educational and community activists who are working to defend this community under siege, promote educational and employment opportunities in their community, and to develop sustainable and equitable community redevelopment initiatives. In addition to the aforementioned Lind and Maria Mercado, present at this meeting were Ebenecer López Ruyal, an attorney and author of several works about Afro-Puerto Ricans, Miguel Rivera Rivera, a youth organizer and advocate against police brutality directed at Loiceño youth, and Mari Cruz Clemente, who leads an organization named COPI (Corporación Piñones se Integra), whose goal is to develop an ecotourism industry in Piñones operated by residents of that community.

What was quickly evident to me is that they are intelligent, competent, committed, and courageous people. There was nothing I could hope to teach them about “grass roots” organizing. They have a legacy of resisting all sorts of invasions that goes back at least 400 years. After all, remember the attempted incursion by British armed forces in 1797? It should come as no surprise that Puerto Rico’s leading scholarly savant and most respected defender of the island’s historical legacy, Dr. Ricardo Alegria, and the organizer extraordinaire, Dr. Antonia Pantoja, founder of ASPIRA, the Puerto Rican Forum, Boricua University, PRODUCIR, et al, were both raised in Loiza.

But they need help and support, none of which is forthcoming from the Puerto Rican government or the American federal government. It is clear that many have made up their minds that the identifiable Black communities in Puerto Rico should be forgotten, or eliminated. This present administration has been engaged in a systematic scheme to displace the populations of Caño Martin Peña, San Mateo de Cangrejos, La Cantera in San Juan, and the Black residents of Vieques, and is involved in a ferocious assault on Loiza. Federal resources do not seem to find their way into Loiza and other programs that identify Loiza as an Afro-descendent community are either diverted or rejected outright by government officials.

Loiza needs the same kind of public outrage and outcry that was organized around the United States Navy’s occupation of Vieques. They also need technical assistance in community development, and they need you to visit Loiza.  When you visit, don’t just eat the alcapurrias or pionones and then race back to San Juan before it gets dark. They are real people in Loiza, not the demonized savages that the Puerto Rican elite have created to validate their own internalized racism and assuage their own mediocrity. Loiza is Puerto Rico. It is the one place that all of the ethnic elements that comprise the Puerto Rican identity first came together. Therefore, on behalf of the people of Loiza, who after all are Puerto Ricans, I ask for your assistance in helping Loiceños protect and improve their community, which is really our community.

 

Respectfully,

Hector Bonilla Agosto