Afterthoughts: Looking Back On Puerto Rico
I spent five weeks in Puerto Rico to work on my dissertation.
At least that’s what I told people.
For the last four years I’ve lived in Bushwick, a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood in Brooklyn, so I laughed when I got a chance to visit the motherland of my reggaeton blasting, late-night salsa dancing neighbors.
I learned plenty about Puerto Rico from afar and thought a trip to the island would finish off my degree in Borinquen cultural studies.
Quite the opposite happened.
Puerto Rico turned out to be far more complex than I ever imagined. Its long history of colonization and strange relationship with the United States make it a hard place to understand for foreigners and even for some of its residents.
Puerto Rico is not a typical Latin American country. Nor is it a typical Caribbean island. It’s part of the United States, but not really. Basically, Puerto Rico is a large question mark with big U.S. military bases.
According to the books, it’s an “unincorporated territory,” which is defined as “belonging to the United States, but not a part of the United States.” This is true politically and also culturally. The people of Puerto Rico are floating in between.
Puerto Rico has been the colony of one country or another for the last 500 years and counting. As a result, the people of Puerto Rico are knee-deep in a foggy swamp. They seem lost in 21st-century imperialism, each one wading through the mud without a true sense of identity or freedom.
It’s sad, really.
What does it mean to be Puerto Rican?
From what I’ve come to understand, this little island represents a world of contemporary problems linked to globalization and capitalism, but more than anything, it represents the failure to find solutions. The entire country is on a leash, being led blindly through socio-economic experiments by a foreign superpower. Sometimes the experiments work favorably, sometimes they don’t. In the end, it is the people of Puerto Rico that must live with the consequences while lawmakers in Washington remain detached, claiming little responsibility.
Is it not ridiculous for a United States “territory” to have 70 percent of its population on welfare?
Sure, it’s not that bad. The majority of Puerto Ricans are comfortable, they have decent lives, but to me it looks like they are being comfortably held down. When a group of people has enough to live and buy big cars and big televisions, they tend not to complain. They doze off and let Ol’ Uncle Sam up north take the steering wheel.
However, I see the possibility of change as I watch videos from the ongoing protests at the University of Puerto Rico. There’s rage in those eyes. The kind of rage that only grows from a deep sense of injustice. The kind of rage that can spread easily during prolonged economic downturns by forcing others to see the overlying system of abuse.
Change is also taking root in pop culture. The last day I was in Puerto Rico I heard a song called El Hormiguero by Calle 13. The singer describes a colony of ants (Latin America) getting together to take down a big cowboy (The United States). During the chorus, he repeatedly yells, “¿Tu quieres Guerra? (You want war?)”. Many people would consider the song reggaeton, a genre usually considered as apolitical, but it seems Puerto Rico’s most popular music is evolving.
I’ve been trying to understand Puerto Ricans for a long time now. There’s still plenty I need to learn, but I know what I saw during my stay and it was mainly an overwhelming sense of sadness. Sadness leads to depression. Depression, when not acted upon, leads to anger and that’s where we are now. The anger is real. It is present in the subconscious of all Puerto Ricans and the protests at UPR are pushing that anger out into the mainstream.
It looks like some Puerto Ricans are waking up. The question is where will they go with this anger? How will they act upon it?
It’s only a matter of time before we all know, and perhaps, gain a little understanding on this long-suppressed nation.
© Diego Cupolo 2011