Americans Have Never Cared About Puerto Rico

The indifference toward the recent earthquake swarm devastating the island is the latest in a long list of indignities

Puerto Rico is convulsing, and I’m witnessing from thousands of miles away how Americans are once again turning a blind eye.

Nearly 1,300 earthquakes have hit the island’s southern region in a swarm that began on December 28, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. More than two dozen of the quakes have been magnitude 4.5 or greater. Just Wednesday, there was a 5.2 magnitude tremor followed by dozens of aftershocks. The situation for Puerto Ricans, who have been facing a financial crisis and are still recovering from Hurricane Maria, is dire. At least one person has died and several have been hurt since the earthquake swarm began. Hundreds have called the island’s suicide prevention hotline, and there are concerns that some recent suicides have been connected to the tremors. (Natural disasters have an outsized impact on mental health difficulties; we saw these struggles after Maria in 2017.) Thousands have been sleeping outside their homes or in makeshift camps out of fear their houses will collapse. That anxiety is not misplaced: An estimated 2,200 people lost their homes in the aftermath of the 6.4 quake — the largest one so far — that hit the island on January 7. Authorities in Guayanilla, one of the commonwealth’s hardest-hit towns, expect there could be up to 2,300 displaced residents taking refuge in outdoor government shelters, including a tent city. Estimated damages in five of the most impacted towns have reached $460 million.

As Puerto Ricans face down yet another crisis, there has been a deafening silence coming from the White House. It has taken more than a week for President Trump to issue a major disaster declaration, which would allow the island to receive much-needed earthquake relief aid. His political opponents have not been any better — most issued an empty call to help “our fellow Americans” and quickly moved on. The Democratic primary debate on Tuesday was a glaring example. Moderators didn’t ask about how the Trump administration had been slow to approve Puerto Rico’s request for a major disaster declaration, and none of the candidates on stage chose to bring that fact up. Media attention has dwindled in recent days — even though the island has not stopped shaking — and many Americans have already flipped the page to the next anger-inducing news event. “Wait, are there still earthquakes happening?” is a question many boricuas in the diaspora, myself included, have heard this week.

The apathy toward Puerto Ricans is blood-boiling, but it’s not unprecedented: Americans have never cared much about the island. It’s just the latest in a long list of humiliations the U.S. colony has faced since 1898 when it was invaded by the U.S. and discarded by its previous owner during the Spanish-American War. It’s easy for those hellbent on getting Trump out of office to point at his failures, particularly his administration’s unequal treatment of the island following Hurricane Maria, as the only stain in the history of the U.S.-Puerto Rico relationship. But the truth is that he has behaved the same as his predecessors when it comes to America’s largest colonial possession.

The apathy toward Puerto Ricans is blood-boiling, but it’s not unprecedented: Americans have never cared much about the island.

Under U.S. ownership — yes, ownership, as the U.S. Supreme Court decided during the Insular Cases at the turn of the 20th century — Puerto Rico has been bombed for six decades, economically exploited, treated as a laboratory for the birth control pill, denied voting representation in Congress, blocked from voting in federal elections, and forced to follow the decisions of an unelected fiscal control board — among a long list of other indignities.

Puerto Rico’s colony status also means its problems — the debt crisis, the hurricane aftermath, the earthquakes — are almost always treated as purely local concerns. From capped Medicaid funds to disaster aid, giving boricuas any type of federal assistance is often portrayed as an act of benevolence. There’s never an admission that taking care of the citizens of its “territories” — Puerto Ricans have been natural-born U.S. citizens since 1917 — is quite literally part of a nation’s responsibility, particularly for one whose whole ethos is about being the land of the free and the home of the brave.

The island’s well-documented instances of corruption are often cited as reasons why the U.S. must examine the situation before disbursing any funds, just like a parent would meditate on whether their badly-behaved teen can get some additional lunch money, but there’s rarely an acknowledgment that corruption is also a natural product of colonialism. (The link between the two has been well-documented in post-colonial nations from sub-Saharan Africa to Latin America.) Even then, the argument that aid must be withheld from the island due to its corruption — one the Trump administration has deployed — falls apart when you look at other places like Illinois and Louisiana, which have struggled with government malfeasance and still received support from the federal government in times of disaster.

Another recurring argument is that Puerto Ricans have “chosen” to be in this political limbo by virtue of not “voting” to become a state or an independent nation. The reality is that there have been five referendums in the last few decades — granted, all of them flawed and locally-led — on the question of the island’s status. If Americans were so interested in settling this debate, Congress could simply implement a binding referendum and allow Puerto Ricans to decide their own fate. Some rush to say Puerto Rico should be granted statehood automatically under the guise that it would benefit Democrats politically. This, too, is a form of colonialism: Denying Puerto Ricans self-determination in the matter would be an extension of the paternalistic approach the U.S. has used for more than a century — and that’s without taking into account how disgusting it is to think of boricuas only as potential votes. But these inconvenient truths are never talked about, as it would be difficult to justify the ongoing mistreatment of 3.2 million people.

A feature of the Trump era has been a performative effort to signal support for Puerto Ricans — support that is only offered when positioned in opposition to the president. We saw it after Hurricane Maria, which left 3,000 people dead due to the local and federal government’s ineptitude, and we’re seeing it again now. In these conversations, there’s always an emphasis on how Puerto Ricans are Americans and therefore deserving of help. But there’s been little movement by self-proclaimed allies to grapple with how the island’s struggles extend beyond the current administration. After all, the unelected board that effectively governs the island was imposed by the Obama administration, which used the racist Insular Cases to make its case, and the Clinton administration abolished the part of the tax code that eventually led to Puerto Rico’s nosedive into a recession, from which it has not recovered 14 years later. Calling Trump “racist” over his treatment of Puerto Ricans is easy; recognizing that the island’s unequal treatment over the past 122 years has a racist foundation is not.

In 2020, America still holds an additional four colonies — the Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and Guam — all which have suffered a similar fate to Puerto Rico: economic turmoil, governmental mismanagement, and of course, a lack of voting rights. Most people in the U.S. don’t even know residents of three of these places are citizens, or that American Samoans have not been even afforded that “privilege.” And, in the grand American tradition of marginalizing communities of color, from Indigenous peoples to the descendants of slavery, most Americans don’t really care about their fate, either.

As a child of the colonial experiment, I don’t consider myself American; just a Puerto Rican who happens to have U.S. citizenship. How could I feel otherwise? My entire life has been defined by witnessing the mistreatment of my home. Sometimes the reminders are insidious: As a child I was taught English, U.S. History, and the Star-Spangled Banner; in the liberal city of New York, people ask about my “visa situation” or whether they’d need a passport to visit the island, completely oblivious to the 122 years of baggage between the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Sometimes the reminders are much more explicit: bombs falling in Vieques and Culebra, the evolution from “savage and restless people” to “lazy and ungrateful,” and the blatantly racist policies specifically targeting Puerto Ricans, such as in the issuance of mainland drivers licenses. Entire generations have grown up hearing that without the U.S. kindly taking it under its wing, Puerto Rico would be doomed — poor, witnessing a mass exodus, in perpetual suffering. But that’s exactly what has happened under half a millennia of colonial rule under the Spanish and the Americans. Today, around 5.5 million boricuas live on the mainland — over two million more than on the islands.

Puerto Rico is still convulsing; there were 15 aftershocks in the time it took me to write this piece. I don’t expect Americans to unlearn 122 years of imperialism and begin to care enough to shift the tides any time soon. After all, if there’s anything we colonial subjects learn early, it’s that we can only count on one another if we want to survive.

Journalist covering politics, elections, immigration, feminism, and more. Puertorriqueña.

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