I remember hearing the rain pour down on the road while I sat under the cover of the balcony. I was eighteen and living at a boarding house for my first year of college at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez. My father had just called to tell me my mother was hospitalized. Her blood sugars were in the 400s and those levels were not responding to any medication. I sat cross-legged, looking squarely at a perfect droplet of water that had formed in one of my arm hairs. Mesmerized by its perfect orb, I thought that this was the most helpless and worried I would ever feel about my parents for the rest of my life.
As it turns out, I was wrong. Almost two weeks ago, Hurricane María devastated the island I grew up in, Puerto Rico. It also left me without any communication with my parents for five long days. These were five days filled with horrible what-ifs. I knew they had prepared as well as they could for the hurricane, but what if something else had happened amidst the devastation. Hurricane Maria ravaged the island and, while it made landfall nowhere near me, it managed to break my heart.
After five very long days, I received a text from my dad, who had borrowed a co-worker’s phone. The text said “we’re fine.” Sure, this was a relief, but trust me that after 5 days you start to question what fine actually means. I heard from them the next day, when they found a place with signal. They were ok, they said, they had water from their cistern system and some electricity with their gas-powered small generator. This reality has quickly changed since then.
Gas is being rationed, as is food, and the infrastructure of the island is completely broken down. In a scene that could be taken from The Hunger Games their TV stations are only able to repeat the same news story on a loop, often resorting to showing old programming and concerts to people who yearn to know more about what’s happening on the island.
The truth is that the west side of the island, where my parents live, has received little to no aid, and whatever people have managed to do has been on the backbone of the community, not the federal government. The island is completely disconnected in what is going on in other municipalities, since many do not have the resources or pathways to go to other areas of the island and discern the damage for themselves.
"Gas is being rationed, as is food"
- Adriana Wilson
As a member of the Puerto Rican diaspora in Texas, I know more about what’s happening in other parts of the island than my parents do (and they could drive across the island in 3 hours do, if they had gas and a clear path). My parents keep saying they are fine, but I know that they wouldn’t tell me otherwise. A place without any working infrastructure is unacceptable to think of, but here we are in the 21st century, talking about 3.4 Million American citizens in a humanitarian crisis that the United States would have not allowed go on in another country.
And if the phrase American citizens surprised you, I have more surprises in store for you. I have moved away from being an educator of willful ignorance, but this crisis is so big that I’ll set that aside for today. Let’s dig deeper, shall we?
Puerto Rico is a colony, yes, a COLONY of the United States of America. Sorry for yelling, but I really want to get my point across. You know what, I’m not sorry because people have died because of this colonial rule, and I’m not just talking about this very second.
Puerto Rico was invaded in 1898 as a result of the Spanish-American war. It wasn’t until the 1920s that Puerto Ricans were deemed to be American Citizens. Really nice of the government to do that, right? Well, what if I told you that it was only to ensure that the United States had more bodies for the draft in World War I? Since then, Puerto Ricans have enlisted in the military (thanks, propaganda) and fought alongside other American citizens in wars. They have offered their bodies up to be sent to war, to be mangled and broken by it. Puerto Ricans have sacrificed their bodies and their minds in service of their colonizer. Yet when we need aid amidst a natural disaster, we get little to no help from the federal government.
There are politicians and leaders, like Carmen Yulin, the mayor of San Juan, who have dared to come out against the current presidential administration to highlight the lack of help that Puerto Rico has gotten. Comments of the current president aside, Americans unfamiliar with what’s going on in the island or how the island has been culturally socialized to not rise against its oppressor, have listened to other Puerto Ricans who criticize the mayor on the grounds that she is using it to her political advantage.
To that, I say many things. First, that everything is political, even a response to a natural disaster. The mayor of San Juan is doing what the governor of the island won’t, which is to call out injustices where there are many.
Second, that without knowing the context of our community and our people, it’s very easy to dismiss her claims because she is a woman of color (and if our politics recently have shown us something is that women are dismissed very easily).
Third, Puerto Ricans have been indoctrinated into thinking that the United States is the benevolent but absent father that always has our own best interest. Speaking out against the United States is taboo. My grandmother grew up in a time where to criticize the American government would get you shot on the streets, even amidst a peaceful protest (La Massacre de Ponce). I have always been vocal about my opinions, and she, having lived through an era where people where shot for those opinions would tell me to shut up as if we were being monitored (Cerro Maravilla). I firmly believe that these attitudes are alive and well in Puerto Rico, even if people aren’t aware as to why they feel this way. So yes, it’s more convenient for Puerto Rican officials or people to oppose her instead of the oppressor.
There are other people who cite Puerto Rico’s financial crisis. To that I say, welcome to colonialism and a little something called The Jones Act , which has enriched everyone involved except Puerto Ricans. Oh, and you think we don’t pay taxes? Think again.
Since you’ve made it this far, I’ll make this very easy for you. There are 3.4 Million American citizens who are going through the worst crisis in over a century and they have no representation in the federal government. If you are in the United States, the very least you can do is call your representatives, especially Congress, to tell them to issue sufficient aid to Puerto Rico. People are dying. If that doesn’t speak to you in any way, I don’t know what will.
Have some extra cash to help?
Today, in the few minutes I was able to talk to my mother before the connection broke, I asked her if she was able to get Metformin pills to manage her diabetes. “I have enough,” she replied. I didn’t ask her what enough meant, and she didn’t tell me. I don’t know if enough means a month’s supply, or a week’s supply. All I know is that this is not enough for me.