“Show you can be free in a colony.” – a brief history of Puerto Rico

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.

“I am protecting the 35 years of wins we’ve had.”
Your first plan in helping Puerto Rico should always be listening more, first.


  1. 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.
  2. More than Mandela!
  3. Something like 72 billion?!?!
  4. What the everliving fuck


This is a transcription taken by some folk in the room from the talk. It is not exactly 1:1 for when things were said – if an earlier time point was referred to later in the talk, we moved it into that point in time.


Today, we’re covering historical context. Tomorrow we’ll cover the groups doing work in PR so you know who to connect with.
It’s important to share this context because people showing up think we are American. We want to explain that part so if you want to help you know what’s been happening.
Know how many groups are collaborating closely with groups in the PR.


1898: U.S. invades PR. Since then, we’ve been under the political influence of the U.S.. We are a territory of the U.S.. “Belongs to, but is not a part of.” We don’t decide our own laws. We are a colony. No political agency, not even able to vote for U.S. president.
Ley Jones
1917: PR got our citizenship, but it’s a different category. Important for the wars – to be a part of the infantry along with Blacks. We can still feel the PTSD etc. – still suffering from that. We’re receiving money from the government but it can’t be productive. Mandatory for men to go to work – military service was mandatory.
Resistance has always been a thing.
Movement between 1920 and 1970: fighting for independence (organizing against the Spanish before. We were a year before our independence when the Spanish American War happened). Campos, diaspora in the U.S.. Becoming more organized over time.
Language in schools changed to English, many had to drop out. 20 or 30 years, finally changed it back. All these movements are because of the level of poverty which has always existed. Becoming a colony didn’t change the poverty. The U.S. wanted to make an example of industrialization, but the poverty has always remained.
1952: is when other countries fighting for their freedoms were released as colonies by the UN. But it was fake in Puerto Rico. “Commonwealth” / “Estado Libre Asociado” (state free associated – none of them are true).
After 1952, PR can vote for governor. Puppet of the U.S. because decisions actually come from PR. Lots of money came in around 1952, but it was all debt. It’s a 72 billion now. We aren’t allowed to declare bankruptcy.
Imagine, as you laugh, how Machiavellian it is to sell an entire country on the idea that it has power, has decisions while Congress takes all decisions. All important economic decisions are made by Congress. Move for the interests of companies. These are the powers of all the time. Mountains destroyed, plans for spaces.
All this happened after a brutal oppression of the movement against freedom. In the 20s, 50% were working towards independence. Now it’s 10%. Well written history of persecuted, killed, jailed those who stood up for Puerto Rican independence. Ricardo just released (in 30 years); two more are still there. More than Mandela.
1960s: Resistance has always been a thing. Community organizing in various parts of the island. With help of those in the political movement for independence, educating community members they can be self-sufficient. PR as a testing ground for military, rented to other countries to bomb. How the land has been abused. Agent Orange. Women not knowing they were being tested for contraceptives.
1999: Military threw a bomb, killed a civilian. People were pissed. Took to the streets to stop bombing, told Marines to get out of the land.
2003: Marines out of Vieques. All Puerto Ricans of all parties, it was a big thing. Came together to say “no more bombs.” One of the things that keeps us separated is politics. The amount of information and fear that U.S. has put in PR – I grew up hearing “you can’t plan that, we are small.” All that talk keeps the PR people separated. People want statehood so we’re alright. Others want to be a commonwealth, others want independence. Then there’s also religion. All people were against the Marines.
OWS as organizing and feels amazing, that was Vieques for us. There are people who were a part of this who are still alive, still organizing.
The bombs are still there; marines don’t want to clean it up. Kind of passed it to wildlife people. People live in a very small area of Vieques. Things are twice as bad there – violence, illness, mental health.
2016: Promesa – control fiscal board – 10 years or until it’s fixed. Obama said “you can’t work on your finance so people who don’t live in PR will tell you where to cut expenses. You have to do what we say.” Becomes clear how the governor is a puppet. No auditing of the debt to see where it came from, who is responsible. Citizens are working on it.
In the the constitution, you have to pay creditors before doing anything else (spoiler: it’s impossible to get out of that loop). Public services & utilities have now been sold. Airport, telephone company. Want to do energy and schools. Which means all the money ends up in foreign companies. Hospitals sold in the 90s, now have a crisis of health. Fiscal boards have caused more poverty.
2017: With Hurricane Maria, all this was unveiled – all the poverty and everything else. Now everyone is saying “oh, Puerto Rico.” But before people didn’t care, most people didn’t know where PR is. Now they know we’re next to Cuba. Maybe people in New Zealand don’t know where it is, that’s ok. But people in the U.S., that’s a problem.
The same thing that happened with Katrina in NOLA – cutting social services, closing schools and hospitals. Paying a lot of money to these people to do work that doesn’t get done. School closures help transition to charter schools.

Wrap up

Not just the poverty, destruction of land, poor infrastructure – into this context Hurricane Maria happens.
There are community organizers who have been around for a long time. But the solidarity work has become our flag. Government didn’t come to communities for weeks or months. We have to do community work to stand up. An organization that’s been around for 35 years responds better because they bought land, have an industrial kitchen for a festival, they have a summer camp. We work from there in the community with a base. We were able to respond how we did to the hurricane because people know this history and there’s a community (like Casa Pueblo). Gotta have commitment. Process of years and years.
We see a big opportunity to work on building the empowerment movement. We know we can move things after the hurricane. We opened roads, created community kitchens, created spaces for sorrow. We see this as a place for freedom.
Also seeing how our local and U.S. government responded. Create a new narrative of what can happen. Charity, solidarity. It’s so delicate for us.

This is why there is push back. I am protecting the 35 years of wins we’ve had. How to help, not make harm. This is the crash course.

Questions & Discussion

35 year org?
Projecto Areoro Muda. Merged with another group. They’re passing the baton. 70, 50 year olds taking positions.
All the laws in PR have to come from the U.S., we have a land of inequality. 266 schools PR to be closed. In August, our children won’t have a place, or will have to travel to go to school. There were 5 schools in my neighborhood, now only 1. Re-igniting one, one might be doing well but taking it out. Mutual aid and other groups taking that infrastructure. People occupying for living situation. To change the narrative, we will take those spaces back.
90% of the food comes from the outside. Ley Jones act says we can only bring things in from the U.S.. It’s the most expensive in the world. We can’t do commerce with anyone unless it goes through the U.S.. If we make something, we have to ship it to the U.S. and ship it back before we can use it. PR also has to pay the taxes on the food. Costs are 2x or 3x what they cost in teh U.S.. PR is a very fertile place but industrialization and monoculture, we’re working to change that and be more self sufficient.
After Maria, no ships coming in, so people died because no food came in. Super markets exhausted. When people from other places wanted to help, US told them they couldn’t come. This is why the Jones Act must be repealed.
Displaced farmers, $600/mo; but were already getting food stamps, so people quit doing the farming.

The history of colonization of PR is important to understand the migration. But there is a strong love of the island. Important discussions of independence. Solidarity organizations in the US, esp on east coast. When we think about migration, it’s a flow. Want to stay close to the island emotionally and physically. So with solidarity you have to see all this.

What’s the percentage of farmers you have now?
We don’t know. People do some subsistence farming. 50% of PR is a black market.
No support from gov for farmers
Monsanto has best land.
Local farmers doing good work. After the hurricane, people see how important it is. People saw the hysteria when the ships didn’t come.
Article in the Nation about farming.
Ironbound was trying to send two farmers over. Wouldn’t there already be farmers there? Want to use resources on the ground.

Culture of solidarity. Seeing the student strikers. 10 major student strikes in the last 50 years. So reliance on funding coming from the states, when the board says “cut funding” entire departments of the unis go away. With the students standing up, sometimes saved.
Just started in the 90s. Student movement has been increasing fast. Privatization of schools means those in poverty can’t go.
Is there a more affordable place for more students to study? Farming school is also going to be closed. The (student) strikes help us understand how to go into other battles. The students who have been through that are now organizing in the mountains.
The role of the university is vital. You study in your school and you realize it’s a small island. Meet people from all over. But also the sense of community. Rioting and connecting. It becomes personal. Government knows those who go to university will be in the line of resistance. They care that the universities close – in that they want it.
Not just people marching in front of a building, but barricades and shutting down the campus. Happened in 11 campuses.

Tourism is very important, storm stopped that. Is tourism helpful, harmful?
Depends on the tourism. In NOLA they decided to do tourism as an economic engine. What is the tourism about? People coming to an island… we have to deal with them coming to the resort, then help the community for 2 hours, then go to the beach.
So many things have been privatized, the hotels… San Juan comes with a boat, leave the same day.
Every country, it’s important to have tourism.
Gentrification – places that had been working people are being taken over by tourists who fell in love with the country. So tourism is a double-edged knife.

In NYC, Sandy began being called “System Change Sandy”
People who already know how to work together bounce back faster than communities where people felt separated. The Community garden budget from the City of New York has tripled since Sandy because those are places where people build skills. Beauty, recreation, food – skills are important because they contribute to resilience. Is that happening in PR across the board?
Maria has shown the reality of PR. When we say “we”, we mean those of us who have been active with community work for a long time. We see it as an opportunity of power and transformation because we saw we could do it without municipalities. First response that happened in all communities was the people: Opening roads, sharing food. Gov still hasn’t been to some places. See it as an opportunity for transformation.
The role of government is the history of not involving the people. The gov is still doing that. Bringing things as charity, not empowering, not organizing. Not giving the means to be strong in our communities. If that’s a government, you should want your people to be strong because you can’t be everywhere. This gov doesn’t care, it’s following orders. We could take help from gov depending on their logic. If it’s food but busting our organizing by not letting us cook it, we won’t take it.

Is there mapping going on of schools not being used but are still a part of the community and commons spaces?
There are several initiatives of mutual aid with mapping that are accessible. Some from orgs doing an incredible job on the island, by the diaspora. Tomorrow we’ll show those orgs, connections, strengths. Each org is focused on a different thing in a different way. Important to see how it’s all interconnected.

What is the sentiment – “commonwealth” is an oxymoron. What about independence vs statehood?
After teh federal court decided we were all a colony, the policial thing was to rethink a noncolonial decision. We’re still understanding our own power individually and collectively.
“When the US gets a cold, PR gets the flu”
Important to highlight the independent party, commonwealth, statehood remain static. Remain in relationship to the US. Still new for people to understand what’s going on. In my family, at least, you can see some peple are still suffering PTSD from the hurricane, and it’s hard for them to see , and they try to justify one thing or the other while observing how things are changing politically. So important how practicing solidarity and getting involved is a political project: it’s so sensitive, so hard, so much lost. it’s not [fixing] just the hurricane’s damage…it’s so much more.
our political situation is a controlled one – the colonial situation is such that it’s hard to understand independence is an option. The Fear, Incarceration, assassination is still there. The actual moment requires strategies to understand what we’re capable of, what has been done after the hurricane, we can do it if we work collectively. New opportunity but much to be done. It’s 120 years of colonialism. And 400 from Spain. We haven’t been independent.There’s 500 [years] of slavery on our backs.
Mutual aid orgs doing this work understood in the 60s and 70s recognized their own power. Now we see more than them. Political vision of participation. If you always do charity, it doesn’t help. If people come to do charity, it doesn’t help.

It’s still good to talk about ideas. It’s part of the project. About the community, get the info and structure into place. Still a very fertile moment to come up with crazy, radical, awesome ideas and try to make them work! Lots of joy and love in the process, and it’s important to protect this joy and love. Help us grow as the community grows. To be sustainable, must do things we love. Getting groups to get along with each other requires facilitation.

This has helped me understand why you want to work on a time bank without money entering into the equation. this is not a question it’s a Thank You (i just broke one of my own rules ;).
We have to live, commit to this new way of life. Not for the whole place, but for my community of Puerto Rico. I have to be there. Brigade from Chicago working the land. Be there, stay. Being there, staying.Not just San Juan. A family goes every month. Go, and go, and go. And help. Don’t talk about organizing against Trump here. We have enough going on.

In Cuba a group has restored some mangroves. In Maria, those mangroves protected part of the coast when other parts were destroyed. Are there ideas like that (urban ag) happening?
Not sure how to answer that.
Some PR are in touch with Cuba [because of our shared movements for independence in the mid 20th C but very rare because of this history.
Lot of grassroots groups doing an awesome job in reconstruction, recovery, education, healing. Government is absent. Gov is more into FIFA. People without roofs, electricity.

Thank you for interest in Puerto Rico. This was a short history of colonialism. We bet on a better future for us, our families, all around the world. Tomorrow we’ll talk about groups, strategies, how to support the work we’re doing, that people in the diaspora are doing. Importance of that connection. Not just Puerto Ricans need to care about our decolonizations.

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  1. Pingback: Something is not necessarily better than nothing: Introducing the Principles of Equitable Disaster Response – gregbloom.org

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