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.

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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.

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.

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.

albizu

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.

https://movimientomprl12s.wordpress.com/2016/08/27/frases-mas-sobresalientes-de-don-pedro-albizu-campos/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puerto_Ricans_in_World_War_I

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/369th_Infantry_Regiment_(United_States)

http://ephraim8.tripod.com/PuertoRicanPoliticalPrisonersAlbizuIII.html

https://writetofight.wordpress.com/dr-pedro-albizu-campos-his-emergence-and-the-influence-of-ireland/

https://nothingtobegainedhere.wordpress.com/2011/09/12/albizu-and-connolly-lives-of-sacrifice-and-valor/

https://waragainstallpuertoricans.com/pedro-albizu-campos/

http://latinopia.com/latino-history/biography-pedro-albizu-campos/

http://www.anb.org/articles/11/11-01225.html

http://www.democracynow.org/2015/4/21/war_against_all_puerto_ricans_inside

http://www.thecrimson.com/article/1950/11/9/brass-tacks-ppuerto-ricans-this-week/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ponce_massacre

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R%C3%ADo_Piedras_massacre

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_radiation_experiments

http://www.newdawnmagazine.com/articles/the-human-radiation-experiments

http://ippnw.org/pdf/mgs/1-1-mccally.pdf

https://www.loc.gov/rr/hispanic/1898/bras.html

https://palantelatino.com/2012/07/26/u-s-invasion-of-puerto-rico-misconceptions-vs-facts/

http://www.nytimes.com/1989/07/27/opinion/l-time-to-end-us-occupation-of-puerto-rico-787489.html

http://www.trackingterrorism.org/group/pedro-albizu-campos-revolutionary-forces-pacrf

https://palantelatino.com/2012/03/21/75th-anniversary-of-la-masacre-de-ponce/

http://www.whoisalbizu.com/

https://www.tumblr.com/search/pedro%20albizu%20campo

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.

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