From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
It Pours Down
by Raquel Salas Rivera
I commit to take action because Donald Trump is a war criminal who is responsible for the deaths of more than a thousand Puerto Ricans. I can’t offer an essay on why Trump is unfit because I think he is fit for the fascist interests that back him, but I can offer some thoughts about the impact of coerced infrastructural dependency under the Trump regime.
The image of Donald Trump tossing paper towels into a crowd of Puerto Ricans is cemented in the public imagination as a disrespectful moment, but few people in the mainland U.S. know that much of the audience for that visit was made up of folks who had been living in nearby shelters. One morning, they were rounded up, put on buses, and taken to visit Trump. Those most in need were chosen for this humiliation. Behind each new news scandal, there are people who are being exterminated or whose lives are being destroyed.
Puerto Rico has long been a testing ground for imperialist policies, from the forced sterilization that began when Law 116 was established in 1936 — which resulted in the sterilization of approximately one-third of all Puerto Rican women of childbearing age — to the Navy’s occupation of its sister island Vieques, where it performed routine military tests for decades. The Puerto Rican people have been exploited and used as guinea pigs since 1898. The newest chapter in this history of colonial experimentation has included the implementation of the PROMESA bill, the forced restructuring of Puerto Rico, and the subsequent infrastructural abandonment on the part of federal government agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Trump united white supremacists under a pirate flag and gave them permission to raid Caribbean islands. My Puerto Rico is under siege. El Morro, the old Spanish fort, now stands as a remnant, reminding tourists that Spain once ran things, but behind this museum is the real fort: the Jones Act, an invisible economic wall that keeps out the resources we need the most. Established as part of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, this law gives the U.S. complete monopoly over which ships can enter or leave Puerto Rican ports. Immediately after Hurricane María hit the island, the Jones Act limited the aid that could arrive by limiting the entry of ships from countries other than the United States. Households were left without enough food or clean water, left to depend on help from FEMA, which either showed up with boxes full of junk food or never arrived.
Trump and the interests he represents hope to push Puerto Ricans off the island so they can use their companies to rebuild a Puerto Rico in their image—a Puerto Rico without Puerto Ricans—where basic services are inaccessible and everything, from education to health care, has a price. This post-María abandonment has a purpose: to force those living here into destitution and lower property values so vulture capitalists can buy cheap land and build more hotels and casinos. If he can do it in Puerto Rico, he can do it anywhere, making us once more a preferred experimental location.
This is why many Puerto Ricans were forced to leave the island in the hopes that they would find better living conditions in the U.S. mainland. Since the hurricane, approximately two thousand Boricuas moved to Philadelphia, but things aren’t necessarily better here. On February 14, FEMA began withdrawing support for Puerto Rican families displaced by the aftereffects of Hurricane María and currently living in Philadelphia, leaving them homeless. Many of these Boricuas have had difficulty acquiring work because they do not speak English. What will happen to them? They are unable to go back, unable to stay, and stuck in a place where they are treated like second-class citizens by racists who don’t know and don’t care. Newly arrived Boricuas learn that hate doesn’t trickle down, it pours down. There is no protection or support in a world led by fascists who are being goaded daily by el Generalíssimo Trump. Fascism isn’t new, but each new manifestation of fascism under this regime means more of my people are killed or left for dead.
In the U.S. mainland, there has been talk of impeachment, but if Trump were impeached, would he get to live out his days in his wealthy home? Where is justice? Behind notions such as embarrassment, shame, and nation, there is murder, destitution, and colonialism. It is necessary to think beyond the supposedly reparative gesture of the public scolding. Trump isn’t white America’s bumbling racist uncle. He is a war criminal, a mass murderer, the world’s Darth Vader. He runs an empire.
In order to end this tyrannical reign, we must be able to imagine a world without colonialism, without Trump, without the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank. Let’s imagine a world where Puerto Rico can be truly free; where my people can expect more than food, clean water, and a roof; a world where we can live where we want (including Puerto Rico) and where we can go to the ocean and not fear a wave of new colonizers who show up wearing khakis and red caps and carrying bills that say we aren’t fit to rule ourselves. In this new world, we will be worth more than a falsified debt and all our poems will flood the streets, forcing the old waters to recede.
Repeal the Jones Act!
Cancel the debt!
Decolonize Puerto Rico!
Take action today:
Donate to Puerto Rican grassroots organizations such as Taller Salud, which has been fighting for and with communities in Puerto Rico before and after Hurricane María.
Raquel Salas Rivera is the 2018-2019 poet laureate of Philadelphia. Their most recent book, Lo terciario / The Tertiary was published in April 2018.