Will Puerto Ricans Decide the 2016 Election?

The effect of Puerto Ricans in presidential elections is not a new topic. Despite being U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans are unable to vote due to being residents of an “unincorporated territory.” However, they still contribute to national politics in other ways. Puerto Rico still has delegates, and they lend to decisions in partisan primaries. Yet another way they affect the presidential election has started getting more widespread attention in the media. I myself first realized this when a certain far-right news site shared an outlandish story about one of the presidential candidates actively importing people from the island in order to sway the upcoming election. This story is improbable simply because it’d be a ill-conceived waste of resources to go out of the way to physically bring Puerto Ricans up to the mainland en masse when they’re already doing that.

Despite how some keep trying to frame the whole disaster, the current economic crisis has been happening more or less for decades. Puerto Rico has frequently experienced fiscal turmoil during the U.S.’s overlordship, and this virtually always culminates in migration to the mainland. The lopsided political relationship between the U.S. and the commonwealth ultimately falls hardest on the working-class in Puerto Rico and many of their number find more and better opportunities in the continental mainland, especially when the alternative is no opportunity. Some of these migrants were even able to earn enough working in the mainland to build mansions back in their significantly poorer communities. You’ll occasionally see hand-built mansions mingled in with shacks on the rough mountain roads through places like the traditionally isolated San Sebastian, which provided many of those migrants to places like New Jersey.

The current migration, however, has a considerably different makeup. The demographic that’s leaving the island now to settle in the mainland is not made up almost solely of poor laborers and farm workers, but is constituted very significantly by professionals and specialists of all segments of the middle class. Despite this, many have found less opportunities than their forebears, who flocked to grab onto factory jobs and other labor-intensive professions that were still available in relative abundance in the Northeastern United States at that time. These new migrants have instead congregated in Florida, where they deal with poverty and rising racial tensions. You may be asking why all this background information is important – it’s because it’ll give you an idea of how these Puerto Ricans will vote, if at all, and why.

Coverage of this issue is divided between the usual far-right panic attacks about mass Hispanic migration throwing swing states to the Democrats, and whether or not Republicans could possibly take advantage of the new demographics in Florida. Reporters point out that Puerto Ricans, like most Latinos, are inherently socially conservative and emphasize family values. However, this point is frequently misread by outsider observers who don’t really seem to realize what Puerto Ricans on both the island and the mainland prioritize in terms of values. I see no way the current Republican party could possibly poach any voters from Clinton, and it’s their own fault. That’s not to say that the Democrats have done any better, but though both parties shoot themselves in the foot when it comes to enticing Latino voters (and probably all other minority voters, and arguably just all voters), only one continuously rubs salt in their own wounds. The Republican party of this election has been adding some dirt and fungus to that gaping open wound as well, and they’re behind even the Democrats in realizing Puerto Ricans and other Latinos have been watching the whole time.

Clinton is enjoying a lead of around 60-70 percent among the Puerto Ricans living in Florida, which is about the percentage she had over Obama during the 2008 Democratic primary in Puerto Rico. A study conducted by the Center for American Progress offers some more interesting breakdowns. The biggest concern amongst the Florida Puerto Rican community by far is the economy/unemployment, with healthcare being the runner-up, and issues like immigration, education and racism trailing behind at more or less equal levels of interest. The vast majority would not vote for Trump, and though nearly half like Marco Rubio most would still choose a Democratic presidential candidate over him. A slim majority are pro-statehood and consider a presidential candidate’s views on Puerto Rico to be a deciding factor in casting their vote. Of those surveyed, most were older (over 40), had some level of education beyond high school, had resided in the mainland for over 15 years, were children of first generation immigrants, and were from lower income households. Most also followed the news regularly, primarily through TV.

Though this was one study, it provides some interesting insights. One of the biggest is that the majority of Puerto Ricans in Florida are not newcomers. Most are the children of people who migrated there in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, when Puerto Rico went through several recessions coinciding with economic downturns in the mainland. Most are also educated, to various degrees, but still poor, and stay connected the news and to current events in Puerto Rico. In the latter case, that’s despite over half not being born on the island. We can make several inferences from all this data: mainland-based Puerto Ricans still far outnumber those residing on the island, and they fall in line with most other Latinos demographically and ideologically. One of the biggest differences is also one deciding factors in determining their 2016 votes – their continuing connection to Puerto Rico. The lukewarm to frigid reception of Republicans is a product of this, as though both parties and their associates blame each other for the problems in Puerto Rico, only one is more vocal and binary about their views regarding the island. Trump’s nomination only made it worse, with Puerto Ricans having the same low view as other Latinos of his past comments about Mexico. Though Puerto Ricans have been citizens for generations, most still pretty open-minded about opening paths to citizenship for the undocumented. It’s also interesting to note that though the report claims most are pro-statehood, it doesn’t go into detail about committed they were to the cause – which may have shed more light on why Puerto Ricans wouldn’t be more inclined to lean Republican as nearly every pro-statehood Puerto Rican politician does.

I’ve found that most Puerto Ricans have become, deep down, rather pragmatic politically due the issues they face regarding their identity as part of the United States. Many see Puerto Rico becoming a state as an inevitable reality, as, typical of colonized people, they cannot see themselves operating independently and risking becoming one of the poor islands occupying the Caribbean. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of Puerto Ricans who are patriotic Americans, but many don’t take for granted that the U.S. has their best interests at heart. Many becoming reactively leftist, especially those coming from the island. Indeed, I’ve seen firsthand how elitist conservatives can become liberal political activists when they come North. I’ve seen some juggle contradicting views of the poor on the island and the poor in the mainland. Puerto Ricans in the U.S. clearly see themselves as of the “have-nots” and the right-wing’s continued rhetoric demonizing Puerto Rico has left little room in their minds as to who’s to blame. Republicans keep unloading into that foot, and they’re panicking now because although Puerto Ricans aren’t really swarming to Florida as it’s been portrayed, they’re adding numbers to an already disenfranchised but politically conscious community.

The World Baseball Classic, El Clásico Mundial

By Ramon Negron

The World Baseball Classic, el Clásico Mundial has already finished the qualifying tournament and the teams are set for 2017. Australia, Colombia, Japan, Puerto Rico, Canada, Cuba, Korea, United States, China, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Venezuela, China, Italy, Netherlands, and Israel will all be playing baseball in early March 2017 in a world tournament, anticipated to be its most attended and watched World Baseball Classic.

El Clásico Mundial, as Spanish speakers call it, is more than just about the game, it’s about pride. The same pride Jose Fernandez expressed every time he pitched, every time he smiled. You see, beisbol for Latinos can be considered a tradition ingrained in our genes; like un buen chancletaso, it leaves a mark that will never be forgotten. With greats such as Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, Pedro Martinez, Omar Vizquel, David Ortiz, Mariano Rivera and many, many more, the American pastime has been greatly influenced by the Latino culture.

Amidst a financial debt crisis and a battle of opinions regarding its political status, Puerto Rico remains ready. The Clásico Mundial represents the fire within for Boricuas in the mainland. You see, it’s not all about Wall street when you’re on the diamond, it’s about la raza. With signs located in the metro area capturing some of the players on the world team including Yadier Molina, Fransisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Javier Baez, Carlos Beltran, Angel Pagan, Kike Hernandez, George Springer and possible pitchers Jake Arrieta and Marcus Stroman, this may be Puerto Rico’s best team yet.

Why is this important…Well, it’s liberating! To win an international event such as the World baseball Classic for Puerto Rico is a step in the right direction, one that leads to emancipation. With the corruption that many speak about and feel day to day on the island as well being identified as somewhat of an outcast due to the lack of good leadership, it is time to put individual efforts together and steer our own ship.

A Bigger Crisis in Puerto Rico May Be Developing

The ongoing economic crisis in Puerto Rico has almost completely overshadowed the environmental one that’s gone virtually unnoticed by the major news media. The majority of the island’s landfills are well over capacity and possibly spreading disease and toxic waste to the nearby communities. The Environmental Quality Board, the local government entity in charge of managing Puerto Rico’s ecological concerns, was granted control over the landfills by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1994. Evidently, the EQB has not followed the regulations put in place by the EPA and the latter is cracking down of the former. However, Puerto Rico Limpio, an environmental citizen’s action group on the island, released a fairly damning report based on the EPA’s own documents that accused the agency of ignoring the impending crisis for the past decade.

The online narrative for this situation looks like a one-sided duel of press releases. In one corner, you have the EPA doing its best to claim a premature victory for wagging its finger at the EQB and closing down two landfills, with plans to shut down the rest in upcoming years. On the other side is PRL tossing fire and brimstone at the EPA for ignoring EQB’s wrongdoings for so long. To their credit, the EPA has stepped in a few times on the island in the past year, though that’s only recently and only concerning polluted water and private commercial interests. Up until now, the EPA has done little besides the finger-wagging at the EQB about the crowded landfills and, in an eerie repetition of the Flint water crisis, has done little else with the derelict local government agencies on the island.

That last point may shed some light on the entire situation. In the case of Flint, the EPA was supposedly powerless to take any action against Michigan’s own local environmental government agency. If the same is true in this scenario, then that’d the great case of tragic irony, given how easily every other federal agency who has tried has superseded the Puerto Rican government’s authority. Congress is sending a pretty clear message about priorities when it steps in to protect the investments of hedge funds and restore confidence in the municipal bond market, but not when another government body is trying to make sure the land stays habitable. As hyperbolic as that sounds, who can argue otherwise? Dozens of politicians stepped in to weigh in on the fiscal crisis, most weighing heavily in favor of restructuring the debt as opposed to a bailout. In contrast, only one congressional representative has been the only one so far to sound the alarm bells about the landfills, and he’s a former Puerto Rico resident.

Besides bureaucratic red tape, incompetence or corruption, the only other explanation for the EPA’s willful ignorance is just that they thought no one would care. The lack of coverage of the crisis from any of the major news organizations seems to support that last theory. Possibly irreparable environmental damage is going on as you read this, and it’s happening right on American soil. Every ecological activist should be bringing attention to this impending disaster, just as with #NoDAPL and the Sioux people who are even now fighting to fend off their own man-made crisis.

Puerto Rico May Have Some Good News for Its Tourism Industry

With all the bad and potentially worrying  news spreading currently about Puerto Rico, we try our best to try to find the more positive pertinent bits where we can. Despite some ongoing scares, certain types of tourism of the island are still holding strong, namely cruise ship stopovers. The Port of San Juan saw a record-breaking 1.5 million customers in 2015, and it looks like that record might be broken again by at least another 100,000 more cruise ship passengers in the 2017-18 season. This is a complete reversal from the decline experienced between 2008 to 2013. According to Fox Business News, the appointed head of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company (PRTC) as of 2012, Ingrid Rivera Rocafort, made it her mission to increase cruise traffic to the island’s capital. Coupled with other good news, such as United Airlines expanding its number of flights from Newark to San Juan and new and promising types of tours in Puerto Rico, it would seem there’s a ray of light in all the darkness.

Of course, a quick search on the subject will link you to a repeated story hosted by several sites that regurgitate press releases, and chances are you’ll be targeted by some variation of “visit Puerto Rico” ads afterwards. Obviously, the PRTC is carrying out another aggressive public relations campaign to combat the  negative impact of the Zika press and bring in much needed money from tourism by using the tools at their disposal. The cruise tourist sector brought in an estimated $225 million in 2015, and the last marketing campaign that the PRTC put forward was able to generate between 7 to 10 percent increases in room bookings for certain hotels. With the massive debt Puerto Rico owes, growing revenue streams are desperately needed. However, the PRTC is still focusing on the same narrative of the island as an exotic escape which focuses almost solely on the upper scale sections of San Juan. We think that this not only a wasted potential, but that it will ultimately only lend to the indifference and ignorance in the mainland U.S. of Puerto Rico. I personally spoke to past cruise passengers who stopped over at San Juan, and one was particularly adamant that he wanted to nothing to do with the rest of Puerto Rico – a sentiment that I’ve unfortunately heard more than once. This continued framing of Puerto Rico only seems to reaffirm to its visitors that the island is just a place to have a few drinks and then forget as soon as you leave.

We realized that we are biased observers, but we also like to think of ourselves as informed observers. We’ve seen the effects of poverty in Puerto Rico firsthand, and spoken to the food vendors, hotel owners, artists, and everyone else with something to hock – they all want more mainland Americans to come their way. The difference can be seen when leaving San Juan between the capital and the rest of the island, and counting on a few hundred million coming to one port may not do much to pay the billions owed by the entire island. Puerto Rico needs capital from the more financially robust mainland to cycle through its local economies to make municipalities self-sufficient, and it needs it regularly. Focusing on one target audience for temporary services may not bring in that repeat business, or speak to the key influencers needed to bring that capital flow.

We’ve already pointed out recently the unique story about a certain New York lawyer who would not have returned to Puerto Rico if he had not been able to find out on his own that it was more than beachfront hotels. That lack of information almost prevented the arrival of a man who now employs several local Puerto Ricans at a revamped mountainside resort that has been labeled one of the best hotels in the whole world by one of the founders of Expedia. It was the only hotel in Puerto Rico, and in Latin America, that made the list. Steven Weingarten is a job creator, a businessman, and – most importantly – a member of his community in Utuado. When I was interviewing him, he was on his way to grab a pincho from a local kiosk – the man’s become more of an authentic Puerto Rican that some even on the island. He’s exactly the type of person the PRTC should be reaching out to more: someone who’s willing to actually engage in Puerto Rico, with Puerto Ricans, and spend some actual time there. While the current promotional campaign seems to be making an impact, there’s no telling what the future will hold. Puerto Rico needs to revamp its image as more than a tropical getaway if the country is going to have any future.

Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Control Board Gets Started

The Junta de Control Fiscal (JCF) has already set a deadline for a new plan to begin solving Puerto Rico’s debt problems. By October 14, current Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla is expected to present this plan to the board. Despite being tasked with overseeing Puerto Rico, the JCF has been meeting in Manhattan, where they have already been accosted by protesters. There is a lot of controversy surrounding the board, from its very existence to its seven members, some of who have questionable pasts concerning the island.

The JCF, via NBC*:

  • Andrew [Biggs] is currently with the American Enterprise Institute and served in the George W. Bush administration, including in the Social Security Administration and supports privatizing the system.
  • Jose B. Carrión III is president and principal Partner of HUB International CLC, LLC. He previously served in various positions in the island government, including the Workers Compensation Board. [Carrion is a pro-statehood Puerto Rican Republican, who evidently also promotes Republican involvement in pushing for Puerto Rican statehood on the side. He’s also the brother-in-law of Pedro Peluisi, Puerto Rico’s non-voting Congressional representative.]
  • Carlos [M.] García is the CEO of BayBoston Managers LLC and managing partner of BayBoston Capital L.P., a company he founded in 2013. He has held several financial positions in the past, including president and CEO of island’s Government Development Bank. García, who favors statehood for the island, is considered the architect of Puerto Rico’s controversial Ley 7 (7 Law), which allowed the government to temporarily declare a fiscal emergency and lay off thousands of public sector employees in response to Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis.
  • Arthur González is with the New York University School of Law. Judge Gonzalez previously served on the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York from 1995 to 2012, retiring as Chief Judge in 2010.
  • José R. González is CEO and [P]resident of the Federal Home Loan Bank of New York. He has served in a variety of banking and financial services positions, including with Credit Suisse First Boston and with the Government Development Bank of Puerto Rico.
  • Ana Matosantos, the only woman on the board, is president of Matosantos Consulting and has been director of the California Department of Finance and deputy director of budgets for the state. [Matosantos has been lauded by past associates for cooperating with administrations from both parties.]
  • David Skeel Jr. is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, having previously taught at Temple University in Philadelphia and in private practice. He authored the book, “True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World.”

*Brackets denote edits and additional information not included in the original article referenced.

Three of the board are Democrats, while the other four are Republicans, giving the majority control effectively to the latter (like a lot of other such committees seem to do…). Four are Puerto Ricans, though at least three of those are pro-statehood Republicans who were deeply involved in the last statehood governor’s cabinet. Like former Governor Fortuño, some of them have been diligently working within the Republican party in the mainland. It’s also important to note that Fortuño promoted the idea of a fiscal control board along with limited debt restructuring for municipalities and public corporations almost exactly a year ago. He made sure to assert that the government’s debt should not be touched so as to not set a precedent of rewarding states or territories for fiscal mismanagement – a consistent rhetorical point among Republicans concerning the debt crisis.

Ir’s hard to not be skeptical of the board and its members. Some of them have repeatedly shown a greater prioritization for ideology than for Puerto Rico itself. The former governor and his cabinet, including those on the JCF, still try to perpetuate their story of “saving” Puerto Ricans from themselves by implementing fiscally conservative policies. Of course, they really did neither, and in fact, according to some sources, Fortuño actually outspent the people he accuses now of overspending. Despite this blatant hypocrisy, these same people were still chosen to try to “save” Puerto Rico again. And yet again, Puerto Rico’s actual welfare falls to the wayside in the interest of making political partisan statements. The worst part for me personally is that the framing of the Puerto Rican appointees is one of native sons shepherding their homeland, while precedent demonstrates that they’ll do anything but. Between their personal agenda of promoting Puerto Rican statehood and their loyalty to a party that frequently uses the island as a pawn in their ideological battle royale, I don’t have a lot of faith that this control board will do anything beneficial for Puerto Rico. Once again, the help the island needs will have to come from outside the governments in San Juan and Washington.

Could the Recent Blackout in Puerto Rico be a Sign of the Future?

As some of you may already know, on September 21, Puerto Rico experienced a massive blackout across the island. The power outage was apparently caused by a fire that erupted at an electricity plant when some systems failed, sparking approximately 15 more fires at other locations. Up to 1.5 million people were left without power, 250,000 without running water, about $1 billion was potentially lost in the three days that everything came to screeching halt. Though the situation has been more or less resolved, for the time being, there are still many households left without electricity. The governor has warned that there could be unforeseen consequences from the incident in the future, adding to the fears that this a sign of worse to come as Puerto Rico deals with crisis after crisis.

The electricity situation in Puerto Rico is a symptom and maybe even one of the causes of the deteriorating economy of the island. Like with many other services in Puerto Rico, energy was provided by one centralized government entity called the Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority, or PREPA for short. PREPA has made many questionable decisions and has been the subject of several allegations of corruption. In towns like Aguadilla, electricity is provided free-of-charge to city-owned institutions and private businesses, though not to private citizens. The justification for this is the generous amount of economic benefits which Aguadilla and other municipalities have reaped from the deal, like fewer local tax increases and revenue from city-owned businesses (hotels, restaurants, etc.). The downside to this, of course, is that PREPA has had to borrow tremendously every year to plug the holes in its budget. PREPA’s debt stands at $9 billion because of these decisions.

The dilemma with PREPA illustrates how complicated and interwoven the economy and politics are in Puerto Rico. Everyone and everything ultimately relies on the central government institutions, really whether they want to or not. This particular situation is compounded by PREPA not following its own rules. When it was created by Rexford Tugwell, one of the New Deal architects we’ve referenced here before, it was intended to be a power company of the people and for the people – but it had limits. The no-charge use was conditional on a cost cap, after which cities were required to pay for continued use. Ostensibly, city and central government payments for increased usage of electricity would make up for loss in revenue from PREPA’s tax exemption.

As of 2014, though, municipalities and government institutions owe a combined $720 million to PREPA, of which there has been sparse efforts to collect. The last time PREPA threatened to turn off power for delinquent payments, the government had to sell off the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport to cover the difference. It’s now the only privatized airport in the nation, and yet the Puerto Rican port authority is still falling behind on its debts to PREPA. Other government entities with delinquent payments owed have publicly challenged PREPA’s legal authority to enforce its threats of power shutdowns.

PREPA has been criticized for its over-reliance on oil, of which prices fluctuate constantly and generate significant costs in importation, only adding to fiscal decline. Though some scoff at the idea of introducing alternative energy plans as a way to decrease the debt, it’s fast approaching the point at which the current situation cannot be physically maintained. A $72 billion debt and a fiscal control board will spell big changes in the way Puerto Rico’s run, and the doomsday predictions of more collapsing services in the future could end up becoming a reality. The reality now, though, is that the government-run corporations are virtually unable to sustain themselves, whether due to corruption, incompetence, flawed practices or circumstances outside their control. That in turn could lead to the reality of drastic budget cuts, which could lead to the dreaded reality of incidents like September 21 blackout becoming common occurrences.

From Suburban Lawyer to Jibaro Hotelier

The fantasy of packing up everything and moving to a tropical island is a common story that many of us can relate to. Leaving behind all the stress, the traffic, the bills, and especially the snow and the ice to lie down on a beach somewhere has a certain appeal. Some have definitely followed through with the fantasy: every time I head down to Puerto Rico, I find several second or third generation Puerto Ricans from the Bronx, Queens, Jersey, or wherever else, that had only been to the island once or twice before deciding to give up everything to settle there. I’ve also met quite a few white and black Americans who could barely speak Spanish, but nevertheless left their lives behind for Puerto Rican living. However, unlike most of those people, Steven Weingarten never had the dream of retiring to a tropical island.

Steven was a lawyer with a private civil law firm in Great Neck, Long Island, when he decided to explore Puerto Rico. He had been to the island at least twice before, staying with family at one of the Condado hotels, and traveling with a special summer camp program that brought kids from Connecticut all the way down to Bayamon, PR, as a camp counselor. Though he enjoys warmer weather, Steven isn’t all that fond of the beach, and the campers and counselors got themselves lost in the hilly, muddy terrain. Both were so long ago that Steven can’t even remember the name of the hotel or the program. So, what prompted Steven to just return to the island after decades had passed?

As he recalls, he was sitting in his law office “on a gloomy November afternoon in 1995…watching the large snowflakes float towards the cold concrete below. I feel the chill in my bones and the need to get warm soon.” He went to the local library to pick up some guidebooks, and eventually discovers that the island of Puerto Rico has a mountain chain in the central region that he’s never been to. Not being the biggest fan of “just lying on the beach for a week,” he decides that a little change of scenery for a tropical vacation would be the perfect escape from the chilly climate.

Steven looks into the system of Paradores in Puerto Rico, a special type of hotel established by the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, a government agency created in the 1970’s. The Parador program was a special initiative based upon a similar system in Spain of luxury hotels, though in Puerto Rico they’re privately owned “country inns” that were converted from older buildings, like coffee plantations. Unfortunately, focus for some Paradores has been less on the “luxury.” Steven tried for three Paradores, but two were overbooked so he settled on Parador Casa Grande up in the mountains of Utuado. Those of you who’ve seen our photography of the modern Casa Grande Mountain Retreat may be conjuring images right now of the renovated hotel, but as Steven describes it the place was nowhere near the picturesque hideaway it is now.

The Parador Casa Grande was in such disrepair that Steven still remembers the details vividly, 20 years later. The pool was a “dark soupy green” color and had not a single piece of furniture in sight, so that Steven had to bring one of the rough, scratchy towels from his room to lie down next to the mucky water. The guest rooms weren’t much better, with wall-to-wall carpeting – a big, BIG no-no in the humid environment of Puerto Rico, especially high in the rainforest – and bedsheets Steven describes as having a “nubby, sandy feeling.” The bathrooms had poorly glued-on tiles, tiny industrial sinks with bare piping, and rusty tubs that still had stains in them. The parking lot’s asphalt was broken up and there was barely any room to park. The walkways were made of rotting wood (unlike the concrete used now) and the hacienda was dimly lit and all the furniture was dirty.

Steven begins chatting up the staff and gets the full story on the deplorable conditions. The disinterested owner was already using money from refinancing his mortgage on the hotel to invest elsewhere. He hadn’t paid taxes on the place for years and foreclosure was soon to follow. The staff’s checks had already begun bouncing. While going over everything with Steven, the front desk manager quips that he should buy Casa Grande, possibly as a joke but maybe also a bit of a desperate plea. Steven’s a little shocked, but he takes the suggestion to heart as he continues his trip in Puerto Rico, eventually arriving at a much nicer hotel on the west coast of the island. He, as he puts it, “cornered” the owner and asked him if buying a small hotel up in the mountains was a crazy idea. “I don’t think you’re crazy,” he answers, “but you’re in for a lot of work.”

20 years later, and Steven’s gone from “being a suburban Long Island lawyer, to a Puerto Rican hotelier,” as he so aptly puts it. For over two decades he’s put his heart and soul into repairing and renovating Casa Grande, and it shows. “It’s unrecognizable from what it was,” says Steven. New, painted rooms, with beds that I personally can attest to are very comfortable, refurbished bathrooms, a clean, freshwater pool – with ample furniture – that’s being renovated yet again to improve it even more, walkways made out of solid concrete of course, and a redone hacienda where guests can sit and eat for breakfast and dinner, as well as attend yoga classes. There are even some beautiful hiking trails on the property, and Steven also added hammocks for all the rooms.

Steven transitioned to his new life gradually, commuting to Puerto Rico from New York for four years before settling in. Though it could have potentially been a system shock for an outsider, he’s adapted quite well to his new home. Even if he’s not that keen on beaches, Steven loves warm weather and says he also loves the landscape and fauna of the Puerto Rican mountains. He also says that he loves the people, calling them “very warm and very friendly,” noting that there’s less “pretentiousness,” “materialism,” and “social climbing,” than in the cities. “It’s very appealing to me, there’s a lot to be said for this lifestyle. That’s why I’ve been here for 20 years, no one forced me to stay…I get to live and work to in paradise.” Seeing Casa Grande Mountain Retreat now, it definitely does seem like a paradise within a paradise.

Puerto Ricans More Likely to Give Charity Than Other Americans

While searching through the increasingly depressing news reports concerning Puerto Rico, I found an interesting subject picked up by several different websites. Researchers have found that a majority of Puerto Ricans – almost 75 percent – regularly give charitable donations. That’s interesting for several reasons: that’s about 20 percent higher than the average for the rest of the U.S., Puerto Rico’s been in an economic decline for at least over a decade, and poverty levels in Puerto Rico are much higher than in the rest of the nation. Why then, are Puerto Ricans so willing to give up the few dollars left in their pockets?

Charity in Puerto Rico is a complicated topic to talk about, mainly because of the corruption that can often run unchecked through the island’s institutions. One such example is a local charity managed by the governor’s brother, its only employee, and a former New York union representative of Puerto Rican descent. The charity receives donations from the biggest companies doing business in Puerto Rico, and even the most casual observer can point out the nepotism and system of “pay-to-play” kickback politics. Worse still is the ammunition it gives to those who want to make sure no federal funds go to the island’s government, at a time when the effects of such are devastating.

Even with the less than ethical behavior of some charities, significant giving still goes and ostensibly manages to find its way to the actual people. A number of charities, including the one that initiated the study, both outside and based in Puerto Rico have been able to serve thousands of people on the island with donations from both locally and the mainland. However, according to the study, most Puerto Ricans prefer to partake in informal acts of charity, like donating directly to neighbors and family. A majority of those sampled knew next to nothing about giving through official channels. It’s also important to note that the study separated the population by general and high net worth households, the latter being those above $150,000 annual income or $1 million net worth. Though somewhat more gave to charity – about 88 percent – it was less than the average in the mainland U.S.

Puerto Rico has increased incentives for charitable giving, including the 2011 PR Tax Code which increased tax deductions for donations to 10 percent. However, most of those in the study had no idea this law existed, including quite a few high net worth households. Whether this is due to a widespread lack of exposure and education from philanthropic non-profits, or from an inherent distrust of institutions caused by corruption, it’s hard to say. What can be said is that there is a lot of untapped potential in Puerto Rico.

If you’ve read through our previous postings (which, you know, I’d personally recommend), then you have an idea of what we believe about Puerto Rican unity. While we – Puerto Ricans on both the mainland and island – can sometimes disappoint each other greatly, we continuously show that beyond the violence, racism, and self-hate we do care about each other deep down, even if we won’t admit it on an individual level. If that could be harnessed en masse, we could actually start to fix some of the internal problems on the island.

The Man Who Fought for Puerto Rican, Irish and Indian Independence

Last week passed the birthday (Sept. 12) of probably one of the greatest – and to some, one of the most infamous – revolutionaries the world has ever known. The man we refer to Don Pedro Albizu Campos was incredibly passionate, highly educated, supremely intelligent, and thoroughly dedicated to the cause of independence for colonized nations. His political involvement spanned over 40 years, despite almost 30 of those being spent in and out of prison. He was finally pardoned and released for the last time just six months before his death. His funeral procession is claimed to have been attended by 75,000 people, a testament to the enduring adoration held by many Puerto Ricans for him.

There are already plenty of sources detailing the man’s life, so I’ll just list the important bits. He was born in Ponce in 1891 to a mother of “mixed ancestry” and a father of Basque descent. His father wouldn’t recognize him until he was already 19, and the only thing it seems he received from his progenitor was the privilege of being able to be claimed as “white.” Anyone who sees a picture of him can plainly observe that besides a few European features, he didn’t really fit into many definitions of “white,” but the designation seems to have affected his life by supposedly allowing him access to education usually reserved for the white families of Ponce*, among other things later on. It’s important to note that Albizu’s mother died when he was young, and he grew up with his aunt in a devastatingly impoverished section of town with no support from his father whatsoever.

Despite these humble beginnings and not enrolling in school until he was 12, Albizu breezed through his studies and completed 11 years of education in 7 1/2 (it was at this point that his father finally claimed him). He was awarded a scholarship to the University of Vermont, where he studied Engineering, and while studying there received another scholarship for the prestigious Harvard University, where he earned several more degrees including one from Harvard Law School. However, his studies were cut short by World War I. He immediately enlisted for the U.S. military, even before the country entered the war, and was placed in the Army Reserves, as were many other Spanish-speakers and troops of African descent. His designation as a white Puerto Rican ostensibly led to him being assigned an officer position, though doubtless his vast intellect and ability to speak eight languages (at least four or five of which were spoken throughout the Western Front) helped to secure that position. He served until 1919, though never saw combat due to a variety of reasons, and the political circumstances behind them may shed some light onto why Albizu became so fervent in his desire for independence.

As I said, Reserve units like Don Pedro’s, the 375th Regiment, were part of an effort to raise men from among the Latino and African-American populations to face the daunting task of fighting what had become the bloodiest war in history at that time. However, politicians in the Jim Crow Southern states were not quite happy with the prospect of armed blacks passing through and residing in their constituencies, where some of the most important training camps and shipping off points were located. At least one source claims they dreaded the arrival of Puerto Rican troops, who they felt would not accept segregation. This proved at least partially prophetic, as the racism Albizu dealt with within the color-divided military changed him from a man who had been willing to fight and die for the United States to one who would cut all ties with the nation. He came to see the U.S. and Puerto Rico as culturally and ideologically opposed** and unable to co-exist as one nation-state. He extended this idea to other colonial struggles, namely to the Indian and Irish independence movements which were in full swing at the time.


Calle San Sebastian, Old San Juan

At school, Albizu became a leader and a rallying point for many of the international students and also involved himself with several revolutionary intellectuals at the time. These included Indian nationalists Subha Chandras Bose and Rabindranath Tagore, and eventually Irish nationalist Eamon de Valera. Albizu was involved in debates, consultations and even sometimes in the actual crafting of the rules and laws of these revolutionaries’ independence movements. He was constantly active in drumming up support for these causes while at Harvard and became a respected figure in their circles. However, he considered men like de Valera, Tagore, and Mahatma Gandhi as being too limited and idealistic in their views, and looked more to Bose and Irish nationalist James Connolly as the templates for what was necessary to uplift a colonized people.

He returned to Puerto Rico in 1921, and you can read yourself about how many lucrative job offers he turned down to work with the poor residents of his native Ponce. A few years later, in 1924, he joining the burgeoning Puerto Rican Nationalist Party and was elected its Vice President. In 1930, the Party suffered an ideological split and Albizu became the President of the organization, which reportedly saw a militant rise in its tactics and objectives with Don Pedro’s leadership. They campaigned during the 1932 elections, but were unable to secure much political support and then turned to labor strikes and other tactics, finally making headway in 1934 when Albizu was asked to intervene in a sugar cane worker strike. He successfully secured wage increases for the workers from 45 cents to $1.50 for a 12-hour day. It was then that Albizu and the Nationalists began garnering real attention, from both the populace and the government. Crowds of Puerto Ricans began following him around, as did the police and FBI. The U.S. government also appointed a new military governor of Puerto Rico, who outfitted the police force of the island with military grade equipment (Thompson submachineguns, tear gas, etc.)

Things came to a head in 1935, when a political spat between supporters of Albizu and supporters of Carlos E. Chardón, Chancellor of the University of Puerto and head of the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration, initiated a conflict that saw the police become involved at Chardón’s behest. Chardón had been appointed by former governor Theodore Roosevelt Jr., and Albizu accused the Chancellor of being an American crony. Chardón’s supporters at the University declared Albizu “Student Enemy Number One” and “persona non grata,” and Nationalist students protested in response. Police stopped a “suspicious looking” vehicle, and one thing leading to another, the two Nationalists in the car were subsequently shot by police and another two were dead as well (no source provides a single clue as to how the other two Nationalists who don’t seem to have been in the car just turned up as shot to death). A Nationalist who lived nearby claimed to have seen the police purposefully execute the car’s occupants, but her testimony was never introduced in court – the officers involved received promotions.

The head of the island’s police force, former Army Colonel Riggs, was assassinated not long after. In response, police rounded up two members of the Nationalist’s youth organization that they alleged to have carried out the deed, and promptly executed them without a trial. They then rounded up and arrested several Nationalist Party leaders, including Albizu Campos, who was sentenced to 10 years in an Atlanta prison. Thus began the first of several stints of incarceration for Albizu and many other Puerto Rican activists, and the decades of violence that followed. In 1937, more of the Nationalists’ youth organization members staged a march through Ponce to protest the arrests. The governor caught wind of it at the last minute and ordered the mayor to cancel their permit, and stationed police on the planned route with orders to disperse the crowd – all without telling the protesters. The officers began firing immediately, killing 19 and wounding 200, including women and children. Despite even members of Congress objecting to his methods, Governor Winship tried to hold a military parade the following year at the very spot of the massacre to celebrate the supposed “victory” of his heavy-handed campaign. Gunmen fired on him and managed to kill a local National Guard officer.

Though Winship was recalled and native Puerto Ricans were finally beginning to assume the higher offices, the government still cracked down on any and all attempts at promoting independence. One measure was an oppressive “Gag Law” that completely criminalized all such behavior, including any language critical of the U.S. government and even the displaying of a Puerto Rican flag. The Nationalists had had enough and planned to stage an open revolt, even though Don Pedro had finally been released from jail. This coincided with an attempt on President Harry Truman’s life. Though the latter came rather close to completion, both efforts ultimately ended in failure for the Nationalists, who were only able to hold most of their gains for a few days against planes and artillery. More summary executions followed their defeat.

Albizu was attacked and besieged by police in his home, and arrested again. He was pardoned by Governor Luis Muñoz Marín in 1953, but then in the following year Nationalist members opened fire in the U.S. Capitol building and wounded five congressmen. Don Pedro was immediately placed under arrest again and remained in prison until 1964, when he was released due to health concerns. He died six months later after suffering the last of multiple strokes. He had claimed while he was imprisoned that he was subjected to torture by x-ray radiation. Many of his symptoms accurately resembled radiation poisoning*** and a Cuban doctor confirmed such after performing an independent examination – in addition to the admission since that some prisoners were experimented on with x-rays.

There’s quite a bit I left out, like his accusations against Dr. Cornelius P. Rhoades (claimed to have purposefully killed several Puerto Rican patients in a private letter), his rivalry with Luis Muñoz Marín (who actively fought against independence even against his contemporaries’ wishes, and was alleged to have been an opium addict), his touring of Latin America, his investing in bonds for Puerto Rico, and many other historical anecdotes. I also interjected some of my own conjecture, and though others may disagree with how I painted his life, I felt that those details were important to understand who Don Pedro Albizu Campos was and why his story is still important today. The most important thing I left out was how he initially opposed the U.S. ownership of Puerto Rico. Though the passion for the fight came from his morals, he still approached the battle as an educated man. He contended that the U.S. relationship with Puerto Rico was illegal, and for all intents and purposes, he probably was right.

The Spanish granted Puerto Rico a Charter of Autonomy as they were preparing to leave, not wanting to deal with the insurrection any longer. However, the U.S. soon defeated the Spanish in Cuba and the Philippines (due in large part to the native rebel movements and the low morale among the Spanish troops) and demanded concessions for victory. Spain granted the U.S. the rights to Puerto Rico, violating their earlier agreement with the island. Claims can be made about the timing and the lag in communications or the remaining Spanish presence, but it does not change the fact that American forces disregarded the Puerto Ricans’ claim of sovereignty and continued occupying the island. The troubled relationship between Puerto Rico and the mainland U.S. will not change until that fact is admitted. Worse, the general impression of Puerto Rico among Americans has not seemed to have changed much in the past 60 years, despite everything. A 1950 article from a Harvard newspaper referencing Albizu as a former grad, and in the context of the Nationalist revolt, speaks about the incident and the island in quite unflattering terms. Specifically, they say that the political maturity of Puerto Rico is “doubtful.”

The appointment of the fiscal control board and the language being used to describe the whole Puerto Rican Debt Crisis has shown that this is still the popular view whenever anything even remotely goes wrong in Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans are frequently, consistently even, shown as administratively, economically and politically inept by even the most ostensibly liberal and humanist of news rags. Having come back from Puerto Rico recently at the time of the writing of this article, I can tell you personally that this portrayal and its effects are being felt on the island, and they’re not sitting well with it. The demonstrations may seem relatively small now, but so did the initial protests that led to the Nationalist Party, and probably a a million other revolts besides that grew out of tiny sparks of outrage. Worse, there might not be a leader like Albizu to keep whatever new movement comes centered.

Whatever detractors will say about him and his organization, Don Pedro was clearly a sober and driven individual. If the attacks attributed to his planning really were his masterpieces, then he truly was a hyper-intelligent and principled man. Even if you want to label him a terrorist, he was obviously nothing like the brutal fanatics we fear today. He launched no preemptive attacks, he bombed no crowded civilian centers, and he terrorized no common man or woman. Nearly every assault was aimed directly at the leadership, always came in response to previous atrocities, and was carried out as surgically as a nascent, Third World resistance movement could afford to. He never seemed to become bitter at the Party’s failures and begin lashing out, even as he was literally being killed by his captors. Where many other revolutionaries would become jaded, sadistic, tyrannical, delusional and amoral, he stayed focused, and where others used only violence, he attempted to solve things legally and civilly before finally turning to armed conflict. If Puerto Ricans revolted now, they’d be lucky to have someone as measured as Don Pedro leading them. More than likely, it’d be someone with a lot less finesse and reserve that would drown both sides in blood. This scenario could become an unfortunately all-too-real future if things don’t change, and soon.

I’ve purposefully avoided hyperlinking anything until now, not wanting to create leading trains of thought and preferring to offer you the links to most of my research, save the more atrocious and insulting pages that I refuse to give backlinks to. Read them for yourself and make up your own mind on who Don Pedro was.

*It’s mentioned in passing on Albizu’s Wikipedia page that Ponce High School was “a public school of the white elite.” I checked the source, and found it came from a book about Luis Muñoz Marín. As I said, Muñoz and Albizu were ideological rivals and it’s been my experience that most chroniclers of the former always attempt to tear down, demonize, and trivialize the latter to make their subject appear more ideal as the moderate Puerto Rican politician. I wouldn’t have given it any credit, but then I saw the claim that Albizu received his officer’s commission due to being labeled as white. I personally think it more likely came from his education and abilities, but I also know that it’s true that such all-black units were often required to have white commissioned officers, and that racial definitions for Puerto Ricans in American institutions were whatever was bureaucratically convenient at the particular time, and that it could consequently open certain doors otherwise left shut. I recall seeing an image some years past of what was supposed to be Albizu’s military application, in which he claimed himself as “Negro,”  but it was impossible to tell if it was real.

**Several sources mention two Catholic priests among Albizu’s international contacts prior to his return to Puerto Rico. A few seemed to imply they had ties to the Irish Republican struggle, and one source claimed the Basque priest in particular saw it as a fundamental conflict to free “orderly” Catholic Europe from “chaotic” Protestant Europe. It was also claimed that this was major influence in Albizu’s ideology, however all mentions of his religion are only of his “devout” Catholicism and no more. India wasn’t a Catholic nation, but WAS oppressed by a Protestant colonizer along with Ireland, however, it could just as easily have been reactive Anti-Anglo bias or simply because Great Britain was the U.S.’s ally at the time, or neither. His Catholicism influenced his principles, but there’s little evidence he saw his cause as a holy war.

***Thanks to the work of researchers and archivists, the photos of the abuse done to Pedro Albizu Campos have been preserved and can be seen clearly by all. I won’t share them here due to their graphic nature, but you should be able to find them online or in certain books. For those with weak stomachs, I can sum them up as showing Albizu on what appears to be a stretcher or gurney, with a sheet pulled back to reveal his legs swollen to an extreme degree with scars visible even in black and white.
























Arturo Alfonso Schomburg – The Puerto Rican Father of Black History

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg was born in what is now Santurce, Puerto Rico, in 1874, though nearly all information beyond that about the man is conflicting. His mother, Maria Josepha (or Josefa), was a freeborn black woman from one of two islands (St. Croix or St. Thomas) in what was then Danish territory. His father, Carlos Federico Schomburg, was either an immigrant from Germany to Puerto Rico or a Puerto Rican of German descent. This duality of information is a common occurrence in the sources detailing Schomburg’s life, many authors divided between one fact and another. Whatever his exact background, it’s clear that he was propelled to leave a tremendous impact on the world when he helped to introduce black history as a major subject of education and literature in the Americas.

Schomburg himself claimed that his inspiration for his life’s work came from the brazenly racist proclamation of a grade school teacher in Puerto Rico, who told him that black people had “no history, art or culture.” Many historians, however, suspect that his experiences with the African-American community at the turn of the century are what actually spurred him to dig up his people’s history. Schomburg emigrated to New York while still a teenager, and began befriending several Cuban revolutionaries – including the famous Jose Marti. He joined and founded several groups for the independence of both Puerto Rico and Cuba, though supposedly became disillusioned with the cause after the U.S. invaded and occupied the former Spanish territories.

Schomburg had married an African-American woman from Virginia in 1895, and another from North Carolina shortly after her death. They were part of the Great Migration, black Americans fleeing the growing oppression in the South as Reconstruction was giving way to Jim Crow. Through new friends and family, Schomburg was ostensibly exposed to the African-American experience for the first time and began including it with his writings on Afro-Caribbean topics. He started researching the history of Africans and their descendants, and networked with other black scholars to gather and promote texts on black history and culture.

In 1912, Schomburg co-founded the Negro Society for Historical Research with John Edward Bruce, and in 1926 he accepted an offer from Ernestine Rose of the New York Public Library to lend his collection of texts to the NYPL for $10,000. He donated somewhere between 5000-10,000 works in total, and used the money to finance travel to Europe and the Caribbean to further his research. He was eventually offered the position of curator for the Center named after him, and held this and many other positions until his death in 1938.

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg is undoubtedly the father of black history and the main actor behind it being taken seriously as a literary subject in the United States. Historians have started to wake up to this fact in recent years, though this wasn’t always the case. Despite how he’s portrayed now as a celebrated African-American scholar, he wasn’t readily accepted by the black American community according to some. Most sources I found claim Schomburg to have been “lifelong” friends with W.E.B. Dubois, yet I’ve heard from others that he was in fact one of the greatest resistors to Arturo’s appointment as curator of his own collection, which sounds more in line with the often narrow-minded and reactive approach Dubois would take to further his causes. Additionally, while Schomburg’s protégé, Langston Hughes was able to be buried at the Center, the mentor’s family was forced to intern Schomburg himself in what is described by some as a “pauper’s cemetery” (at least at the time) because his former colleagues wouldn’t accept his remains at the Library.

Whatever the real truth, it becomes apparent when looking into his life that the passage of time has muddled the facts of Schomburg’s history. What’s worrying to me is a sort of simplification of his background and work that has regulated it to being a solely African-American subject. Schomburg was born well before the U.S. acquired his homeland of Puerto Rico. He was already an adult and deep into his studies on black history by the time he arrived in the U.S., and it was almost a decade after that he began delving into the North American black experience as opposed to the Afro-Caribbean one he grew up in. Despite what some historians have tried to claim, he did not all of sudden abandon focusing on Afro-Latino issues to dive into African-American subjects, speaking and writing on both for decades after. This petty national divide undercuts the very cause Schomburg worked so hard towards – a Pan-African database of knowledge that all Afro-descendants could learn their history from. Whether in Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Virgin Islands, or the U.S., it was all the same struggle for him.

I think it’s also unfair and a little biased for African-American scholars have tried to paint Schomburg as being influenced primarily by his U.S. experience. I can’t speak much for the Danish Virgin Islands, which is where he spent his adolescent years studying, but I know that his childhood home of Puerto Rico is one of a few places where the racial divides take a unique turn. Puerto Rico was one of a few colonies where the free black population outnumbered the slaves. This affected the race-based class system greatly, which already operated outside the One-Drop Rule of the Anglophone territories. Interracial couplings, while still looked down upon by some, were not outlawed, and their offspring were afforded a relatively larger degree of social mobility. That’s why the son of a white Puerto Rican and a black West Indian could freely seek an education, and it’s without a doubt a major instigator for Schomburg’s life dream.

Schomburg was like many Afro-Caribbeans who arrived in the U.S., who rejected a status quo they did not grow up in. Racism is still prevalent in the rest of the Americas, but widespread segregation could not realistically be enforced long-term in countries where blacks were often the majority. They were not raised believing they were subservient or inferior, and knowing that their ancestors had fought to make sure of that. Their influence helped spark the Harlem Renaissance and the wave of Afrocentric literature and arts that followed. Schomburg is arguably one of the most famous of these activists, because he made sure to put it all in writing for future generations.