This post is being staged here while the presenters and other Public Lab attendees review it. It will updated in the next few weeks and pushed to Civic and Occupy Sandy blogs (as well as anywhere else that wants to share). Many intended links are missing, as are images.
“Know the history of the region” is something community-led crisis responders tend to repeatedly say those coming into a region impacted by crisis. But most histories are written by the colonizers, and so the role of educator also falls on the shoulders of those fighting to survive.
At an event called the Crisis Convening Public Labs Barn Raising in Newark, NJ in July, 3 Puerto Ricans (Jessica, Luis, and Raquela) gave a brief history of Puerto Rico to a room of folk interested in community-led crisis response and environmental justice. We took a rough transcript and created this blog post to distill their knowledge. With this documentation, those who wish to be in solidarity with Puerto Rico can educate themselves. Much of the blog post is comprised of pulling the transcript and doing slight rewording. The transcript follows the post. None of it should be considered mine. It is published here with their consent and endorsement.
Puerto Rico was first colonized by the Spanish for 400 years. Just as the fight for independence was taking hold, the Spanish-American war ended and Puerto Rico fell under United States rule. Our summary begins there, in 1898.
It is a story of resistance, industrialization, imposed poverty and debt, diminished schooling, imprisonment, bombs hidden on beaches, and a growing trust in self-sufficiency. It doesn’t end with a plan of action beyond listening more.
Resistance has always been a thing in Puerto Rico
In 1917, Puerto Rico got their “citizenship.” But as a different category – it meant if residents could receive financial aid for education, but of those of those who did, the men could be drafted into the military, and that Puerto Ricans still couldn’t elect anyone who has a hand in U.S. politics (no Congressional, no House, no Presidential votes). While local elections for local positions can occur, no matter what is decided in the island the U.S. has veto power, and the last decision.
The United States wanted to make an example of the impact of industrialization to lift a place out of poverty, but that poverty persisted. In 1920, a new fight for independence began. To push back against this fight, the official language (including the language of education) was changed to English, forcing many to drop out of school. After a couple/few decades of this, it was finally accepted that it wasn’t working, and the official language was changed back.
In 1952, a ray of hope! Countries fighting for their freedoms were released as colonies by the UN. But it was fake in Puerto Rico, which was named as a “Estado Libre Asociado,” which translates to “state free associated” – none of which are true.
All this happened during a brutal oppression of the movement. In the ‘20s, more than half of Puerto Ricans were working towards independence. Now it’s far less1. There is a well-documented history of persecuted, killed, and jailed those who stood up for Puerto Rican independence. Oscar López Rivera just released (in 36 years)2; two more are still there.
In the 1960s, organizing against the military complex reached a new height. Here’s as good a time as any to tell you about how the U.S. military used Puerto Rico to test bombs, contraceptives, and Agent Orange (all without consent). We even rented out the region for other countries to bomb! Organizing against these joined the existing movements for independence and educating community members they can be self-sufficient.
In 1999, the realities of these activities were realized when a civilian was killed by a bomb. People took to the streets to stop bombing, told Marines to get out of the land. It wasn’t until 2003 that Marines got out of Vieques. This was a huge deal, compared to the moments where it felt like Occupy Wall Street could win. It crossed political lines, generational lines, those who wanted statehood or independence. Side note that the bombs are still there, marines don’t want to clean it up.
During all this time, Puerto Rico was borrowing money3. Anything produced there had to be shipped to the U.S. and back in order to be used because of a bullshit act called Ley Jones4. In 2016, Obama put in place a fiscal control board, called “P.R.O.M.E.S.A,” which put 7 people who don’t live in Puerto Rico as a fiscal control board to determine how budget is spent. In addition to the standing requirement of having to pay creditors before investing in infrastructure or anything else, these people now also had a say in what budget cuts were. Further privatization, creeping into schools, hospitals, and power occurred in addition to the airport and telephone companies. As you might imagine, this has caused further poverty.
Bombs hidden on beaches are no longer the priority (somehow)
With Hurricane Maria in 2017, all the poverty, destruction of land, and poor infrastructure was revealed. The same thing that happened with Katrina in New Orleans is happening across the island – cutting social services, closing schools and hospitals. Money is going to contractors who often don’t do the work. School closures help transition to charter schools, which pull more money into outside pockets.
The government (as this history might indicate) have not shown up in a useful way, and so it’s up to the community organizers who have been around through these movements to serve the people to Puerto Rico. Solidary work has become the flag. The work done to build community kitchens, farming projects, occupying abandoned schools for housing, rebuilding infrastructure, and have become the shoulders on which local response to Maria are occuring.
This is a moment to build the empowerment movement. Puerto Ricans know they can do things by themselves, for themselves. They opened roads, created community kitchens, held spaces for sorrow. It is a place for freedom, but it is delicate.
So when you ask to help, this is why there is push back. This is why impeaching Trump is not a good first (or even tenth) topic of conversation.
- We don’t know the percentage. Less than half of the population voted last election, about 3% for independent party, but there are many more non-party affiliated fighting for independence.
- More than Mandela!
- Something like 72 billion?!?!
- What the everliving fuck