My Country Was an American Paradise. And Now?
On the Idea of a Puerto Rican Nation After Hurricane María
That must be the saddest piña colada in the world, I thought as I walked by Barrachina, the restaurant famous for being the birthplace of the Caribbean drink. This was a few months after Hurricane María destroyed everything we knew, and Old San Juan, an epicenter of tourism in Puerto Rico, was still without power. No one was drinking piña coladas. No one remembered that this place was the world’s idea of paradise. A lush, tropical island in the Caribbean with a landscape that offers all shades of green, blue, orange, red, pink, yellow, and purple. White sand and turquoise waters, ripe fruits, and a breeze that smells fresh and salty as the sea or deep and powerful as the soil. The sun is warm all year long, and the tropical humidity just makes it all feel more sensual.
But today, the colonial architecture created the feeling and appearance of a haunted house. As I walked by the grim scenes on Calle Fortaleza, I remembered the iceless piña colada that someone I know was trying to make a few days after the hurricane. In the tropics, cold on your tongue is the true paradise. A piña colada without ice is just hot blended fruit juices that taste—I imagine (I had declined the offer) like snake vomit. Which is what everyone on the island was drinking, and too much of it: the hot and bitter juices of truth.
Previously, we had enjoyed our island both as a paradise and as a metaphor. In the same way that we see each other as islands, human archipelagos that move around the world, the idea of the solitary castaway is always at hand when we want to understand the boundaries of our individual consciences. To inhabit the island that we are, that body of land/flesh separated from the other by the sea, is a destiny we accept as inevitable. Metaphorically, it even offers comfort, if we think about the fact that we are all sharing the same inevitable solitude. But what happens when that idea escapes its figurative existence? What happens when it becomes unbearably literal?
It’s easy to succumb to vanity, to forget about what is wrong in paradise, when every day there is a caress of sun, a touch of water, a sprout of beauty in everything around you. It is dazzling, blinding. It is also a curse.
Because when you live on an island, all of your horizons are liquid, unstable, watery. When it rains and the big dense drops fall on the sea, they create such a beautiful and overwhelming image that we can see the painful truth: that we live in a water prison, crystalline and cruel.
As we now know—and perhaps we should have known it before—the shadow of paradise is the exact same size as its beauty. No beauty is possible without shadow. This darkness became a word-for-word reality after that damned September day. It is useless now to describe what happened. Everyone saw it; you—elsewhere—saw it way before we were able to see it. But it might be enough to say that today, here, when it rains and the wind tries to talk a little, all of your nerves start reacting. You are still in shock; you remember what it feels like to lose your place in the world without leaving it. You remember that living in paradise comes with deep solitude. You remember how the days started passing and no one showed up. You remember the feeling of abandonment, of helplessness, and recognize that you are still afraid. You fear the sky. You fear the wind. You no longer live in paradise. Maybe you never did.“To inhabit the island that we are, that body of land/flesh separated from the other by the sea, is a destiny we accept as inevitable.”
There was no gas for weeks, no water, no food on the shelves of the supermarkets, no diesel for operating generators in hospitals and shelters. There was an absolute silence from all communication outlets, and the realization that modernity sometimes is as fragile as a delay at the loading dock. We stood in eleven-hour lines for gas and ice; we developed a constant war with mosquitos; and after six months of looking at the moon, using candles at night, and smelling like repellent, our sense of romance changed for good.
My husband asked me one night, “You want to go out and see the stars?”
“No. I want to see them in my app.”
I stand by my answer. Because I believe we have a right to modernity. And because the attitude on the island was one of conformity, the colonial idea that it is all our fault.
I must insist that it is not.
We have tasted development, modernity, and everything that comes with the growth and development of an impoverished nation. But it wasn’t constructed on strong grounds. It was built up with a very fragile structure, the colonial structure. Instinctively, one would think that colonialism would lead you to blame the colonial powers that have put you in such a vulnerable position. But it works the other way around: the colonial experience often infantilizes the colonized society, and the colonized subject develops a mindset of inferiority and sometimes of blind admiration towards the colonial powers. We see it every day. Boricuas who can’t speak English advocating for English-only programs in schools, boricuas who believe that only our local government is responsible for the public debt and the poor response after the hurricane, never believing that maybe, only maybe, these are consequences of a whole system operating beyond local control.
Our colonial mindset bothers me every day. The country is full of managers, but not that many business owners. In our system, it cannot be any other way. When you don’t feel like the decisions are in your hands, you’re probably not going to feel free to take bigger risks. This is a blow to the self-esteem of the citizen, who believes he or she is the only one to blame for the failure of this political project, a project that once was seen as the shiny shop window displaying the success of the American way of life in the Caribbean, in contrast with the Cuban project. Colonialism, when successful, in a way makes you end up hating yourself. And yet, sometimes, I believe Puerto Rico is resistant. We have defended our language and culture. Other times, I think we have succumbed. Like during these last months when people went out and said on the streets: We deserved this.
We did not. Insisting on this is the little decolonizing gesture we can do deep in our minds.
Our feeling of harassment and abandonment is 120 years old; it traces back to the U.S. invasion of 1898. In the words of General George Davis, one of the island’s first military governors, “The island was occupied by force, and the people have no voice in the determination of their own destiny.” In the last months of 2015, Puerto Rico vs. Sánchez Valle affirmed that nothing had changed. The United States Supreme Court confirmed that the Estado Libre Asociado of Puerto Rico does not have sovereignty separate from the United States; that is, Puerto Rico cannot charge someone with the same criminal actions the U.S. federal government is already prosecuting, or vice versa. The fragile illusion of self-government was killed. Our colonial status was again fully exposed.
To that we must add the refusal of the United States Congress to allow the island to declare bankruptcy. Under the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act—the deeply uncomfortable law with the tone-deaf acronym PROMESA—an unelected board oversaw austerity measures designed to allow repayment to creditors. In response to this economic crisis, masses fled Puerto Rico for the United States over the past ten years. In the middle of this long siege, María came to see our foggy existence of a country—because we are a nation in all the symbolic meanings, but a nation that cannot actually be independent. We are the island and the castaway all at the same time.
It is cruel when every possible cliché becomes your reality. That is also what a hurricane does.
It was then, when no one came, that the flags started to appear. First were the truck drivers. They started putting small Puerto Rican flags in their windows, and little by little a lot of people followed. When someone saw one of those flags, which grew bigger and bigger, they honked the horn and waved. In that gesture we started realizing that we were still here, even though no one was listening. We were here, a reflection of one another; we existed because we recognized in each other the same solitude. We became living islands again.
But now there were fewer of us in the streets. The estimates said that 77 Puerto Ricans left the island every day, and most of them wouldn’t be coming back. And as the island started to empty, and there were more and more abandoned houses and businesses and streets and shadows of a past when we were able to occupy our space with our bodies, we had to start asking the impossible questions. Why wouldn’t we want to live in paradise? When did we stop wanting to inhabit our island? When does living in exile stop being a curse and become an ideal?
And then again, we are back in the endless spiral. Because aren’t Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens? Don’t they feel American? Some do, others don’t, and in a way it is useless and too hard to keep trying to define something that is unique. Academics love to talk about identity, and as I am a writer and journalist, you can find this topic all over my stories, but when it comes to living it, it might not make any sense to define it. In any case, I will speak for myself.“We are a nation in all the symbolic meanings, but a nation that cannot actually be independent. We are the island and the castaway all at the same time.”
As a girl, I grew up idolizing Puerto Rican nationalists. I went with my father to every major event of commemoration of our patriotic heroes. I even neglected my English as a way of loving and honoring my Puerto Rican identity. I chose to love Frida over Madonna, to study Latin American literatures and cultures in Spain and not in the U.S. (although it was an American university, which makes it all the more confusing). Of course I knew there were masters and writing idols in the English language, but I did not want to know about them. Not out of ignorance or disrespect, but out of loyalty.
This means that I have always belonged to a minority. Because Puerto Rican politics are generally divided between those who want to maintain the status quo and those who want statehood. There is of course a political left who advocate for the ideal of independence, but, for a variety of reasons, these lefties are the smallest and weakest political force at the present time. As a girl, and as a young woman, I remembered fearing statehood. I started to fear the death of my identity. I feared disappearing.
That’s why, when I made new American friends, it took me more time than usual to deepen those relationships. I resisted them, and I was unfair. Because I have met amazing human beings from Minnesota and New York, San Francisco and countless other cities in the States. Also I have realized that we have a lot in common, because even though it was not my decision, and not my country’s either, American influences have shaped my life and education. And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. But even when I could see all of that, when I could reconcile and fight with my own colonized condition, I still feared the disappearance of my point of origin.
When the hurricane hit, what I had feared for so long came to pass. First it was the landscape. There was no green anymore. No more idyllic colors, either, no more beauty to blind the eyes. It looked like a bomb had fallen and burned everything. We did not abandon our country; it was the land itself who left us. And then, the response to the emergency by the government—both local and federal—was just another reflection of the vulnerability of the island, of our ambiguous political reality. No one came, because no one felt they should.
My father, who distrusted everything American—except the country’s cars—told us something he never would have said before: “Go away. There is nothing for you here.”
I had never seen such defeat so intimately.
Then the birds of prey started circling. From Europe, Asia, North America. You feel them pecking you in the arms. They are buying businesses, houses, buildings, schools, land, “windows to the beach” (undeveloped beachfront property that, when privatized, limits public access). They are buying everything they can, at a price that competes with that of the smelly fish in an old market. Will this place remain Puerto Rico for Puerto Ricans?
People are angry, and have started protesting. On May 1st, some people threw rocks at the police. The governor was infuriated and held a press conference with a rock in his hands. As I watched it, I finally understood: that is the same stone that all of us have carried inside our guts since our elderly started losing their pensions; since our youth dream only about leaving the island; since the privatization agenda—in education, health, security, and other essential services—that has failed in so many places all over the world has been implemented; since the illusion of social mobility has disappeared. Since Mother Nature razed us and left everyone to see what now seems like a concerted plan: empty the island, impoverish it even more, so that those of us who stay will serve the new owners. There will be no more Puerto Rico for Puerto Ricans. That’s the invisible slogan of those who have planted that stone in our stomachs, that heavy pain and weight that is compressing our breath.
When we first learned about paradise as children, we thought that leaving it was the punishment we must endure in exchange for knowledge. Ignorance was no longer the bliss we needed; science, creativity, freedom, and adventure awaited us. But now, abandoning paradise seems like a matter of survival. From that shipwreck I write these words. We, the ones who are still here, will have to decide whether we can live in the bitter literalness of this cliché of abandonment. To live under the hot bright sun, alongside the replenished exuberance of green and turquoise, drinking the snake’s juices and standing still, marveling at and fearing the dazzling solitude of all islands everywhere.