What It’s Like Being a Boricua in Diaspora After María

I am a Puerto Rican child of the diaspora. Both sides of my family are from a town called Barranquitas in the central part of the island. It’s up in the mountains, about an hour’s journey from San Juan. Although many of my relatives have left the island to come stateside, some of my family is still there in Barranquitas, in the houses I played in as a child. I remember dreading the drive there because of the amount of curves and changes in altitude in the mountain roads (it would take some time before I discovered dramamine was a thing). But as I got older, I grew to love the drives, looking out into the valley and seeing nothing but trees, streams, and the occasional house while listening to my mother’s stories about my jibaro ancestors.

I think about my family, the friendly strangers, those houses, those mountain valleys every day since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, flooding the entire island and leaving my people without power or drinking water. I cannot even begin to imagine the hell that my fellow Boricuas are living through right now.  Every day there’s new photos and reports on the conditions of la isla. Towns have been devastated. Entire swaths of the island, including El Yunque National Rainforest, are unrecognizable. Folks are running out of food. Hospitals are in need of diesel power to run generators that will keep patients alive. Already two of them have died in a San Juan hospital, and another has died from not being able to receive dialysis. Houses have become death traps. There is no cell service, so residents cannot call for help or communicate with their loved ones outside the island. Lines for fuel and food stretch on for blocks in some cities, and the wait is several hours. In San Juan, supplies are arriving but there are no drivers to deliver supplies. It may be weeks, possibly months before any of us in the diaspora are able to hear from loved ones.

It is hard to focus on work when I’m overcome with a desire to check the news for updates, for word from family, anything. In the days immediately following I retweeted and shared practically every mention of Puerto Rico because it seemed as if no one was talking about it. Social media is a mixed blessing in this respect. It is easy to feel as if no one cares when you share article after article about a crisis and no one responds. At the same time, I’m in a few Facebook groups made of Puerto Ricans, both on the island and outside. There are thousands of posts by people looking for any information about their loved ones. Those on the island who are able to get a cell signal post to say they’re okay, or that they’ve spoken to so-and-so’s relative, and they’re okay. Every post like this warms my heart like as if these are members of my own family. But still, my mother’s calls to her uncle or to my aunt go to straight to voicemail, and we do not know when we’ll hear their voices again. The anxiety and uncertainty of not knowing if people you know and love are okay as you watch a disaster unfold is a feeling I would never wish on anyone.

I can only watch as a humanitarian crisis unfolds on my island and the United States Government takes its sweet time to respond.

I am disgusted.

I am enraged.

But I am not surprised.

The United States Government has never given a damn about the people of Puerto Rico since they invaded in 1898.

Image from Defend Puerto Rico’s “CitiCien” artist exhibition in Philly.

Every non-Puerto Rican I have seen calling for attention and aid to Puerto Rico frames it as an appeal to help “our fellow citizens”. Every time I read I cringe. Fellow citizens. It reminds me that Americans will care only because my people are also “American”. If that were not the case, many of them would likely not bat an eyelash. Even so, my people may be “American” but we are (mostly) not white nor do we speak enough English for Americans to treat the crisis with the seriousness and swiftness it demands. When I brought up this fact recently, a white person tweeted at me to say that he was sorry “we” (read: white people) have “fucked things up so badly that we’ve forgotten about our own.”

“Our own”.

I realize he meant “our fellow American citizens” but I cannot help but read it as our possession. Our colony. I politely correct and ask him not to frame this in terms of needing to help fellow “citizens”, especially since Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States only as a consequence of colonialism, not some benevolent gift of the American government. He tells me that the “negative historical context” is irrelevant, Puerto Ricans are still citizens, as if that statement magically erases a century of American imperialism and neglect. Puerto Ricans are citizens thanks to a law passed by a government that Puerto Ricans did not elect, a government that did not speak the language of its colonial subjects nor made any effort to understand them, a law passed so that the United States could have more bodies to fight its wars. Don’t remind us of our “citizenship” when the suffering and indignity it carries with it outweighs what little benefits it yields.

I remind myself to disengage and take care of myself, but I can’t help but feel like that would be looking away and I can’t do that to my family, to mi gente. Fellow Boricuas I speak to echo this feeling. We are emotionally exhausted, frustrated, desperate. Our hearts and souls are there, en nuestra tierra.

If you’d like to donate to Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts in the most vulnerable parts of the island, contribute to Defend Puerto Rico’s YouCaring campaign here.