“You have to remind them, Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and its residents are U.S. citizens,” Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio told USA Today after Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that it would end hurricane relief aid for the island.
Not long after FEMA’s late January announcement (one it later retracted), lawmakers from both sides of the aisle took the agency to task for its latest disregard for the hurricane victims. At the time, more than 1 million Puerto Ricans didn’t have access to electricity. Today, there are municipalities where 70 percent of people are still without power.
Activists and politicians noted that FEMA’s retreat was especially gross because it was a federal agency attempting to abandon the American citizens that it was responsible for. Since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico last September, many influential people have also used their platforms to remind President Donald Trump and other lawmakers that the current humanitarian crisis on the island is particularly dire because the people suffering are in fact Americans.
It was as if abandoning our fellow citizens is apparently something we suddenly don’t do in this country.
The consistent emphasis on Puerto Ricans’ U.S. citizenship does have its purpose. Less than half of mainland Americans realize that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. This might be one of the reasons why there isn’t a collective national outcry strong enough to propel Trump and his administration to act. FEMA’s attempt to abandon the island and Trump’s failure to address the crisis during his State of the Union address suggest that these reminders have been largely ignored stateside.
It’s time we do away with our dangerous assumptions of what Trump doesn’t know and accept that the government’s current negligence in Puerto Rico is not the result of inexperienced, uninformed leadership. It is rather a deliberate political act of violence from a racist, imperialist government that is fueled by capitalist greed and white supremacy.
The lack of an uproar in the states about this violent act (or inaction) can also be attributed to the lack of kinship the majority of mainland Americans feel towards Puerto Ricans, which is no accident.
The United States has spent well over 120 years otherizing and dehumanizing Puerto Ricans to ensure this division exists since it invaded the island in 1898. The U.S. government has purposefully positioned Puerto Rico within the American imagination to always be seen as a foreign land inhabited and run by an inferior race of people, thus freeing itself from all legal and moral obligations to the island.
The citizenship that white Americans enjoy has never been fully extended to people of color on the mainland. How could it ever reach the shores of Borinquen?
This rift has also allowed the U.S. to commit over a century’s worth of state violence in Puerto Rico without much historical outrage or pushback from stateside citizens.
The calls for the United States to care for the citizens on the island are therefore inherently ineffective, because they ask an imperialist government to treat folks separated by race, ethnicity, class, Latinidad and a “very big ocean” as no different than it would treat the average white American ― when at no point in U.S. history has this country treated Puerto Ricans as fully human, let alone as fully American.
The citizenship that white Americans enjoy, one with a specific set of privileges and freedoms, has never been fully extended to people of color on the mainland. How could it ever reach the shores of Borinquen?
The citizenship that Puerto Ricans have been forced to accept has always been second class, at best. American citizenship has historically been used as a tool of colonial exploitation on the island, not liberation.
The U.S. government imposed citizenship upon Puerto Rico as a shiny new gift to itself; underneath the wrapping was unfettered access to millions of bodies that the U.S. would use to fuel its military industrial complex for generations to come.
One month after citizenship was passed on the island in March 1917, the U.S. entered World War I. Approximately 20,000 Puerto Ricans served for a country they couldn’t even vote in.
And, maybe more importantly, the gift of citizenship also included a permanent caste of working-class citizens for U.S. corporations to exploit for cheap labor as a means of upholding the capitalist social structure.
If we are to use simple reminders in a conversation as complex as this, let’s remind ourselves that the government’s abhorrent response to Hurricane Maria isn’t its first deliberate act of violence against the Americans in Puerto Rico.
When we consider everything the United States has stolen from Puerto Rico, it owes the island a hell of a lot more than four months’ of bottled water and expired military meals.
When the U.S. Navy used Vieques as a testing site for chemical weapons, it poisoned U.S. citizens.
When the U.S spearheaded and funded the sterilization of the island’s women, it sterilized U.S. citizens.
And when we ignore these and the countless other examples of state violence the U.S. has inflicted upon the small island, we slowly begin to absolve the government of the gross human rights violations it has and continues to commit against its own citizens in Puerto Rico.
It’s now time for the conversation about the crisis to include much more than the island’s relationship to U.S. citizenship.
Let’s remind ourselves that the United States invaded Puerto Rico; robbed its land; looted its natural resources; closed its schools; lowered its minimum wage; raised its retirement age; taxed its economy to death; destroyed any chance at self-determination; and tossed countless of its brilliant, beautiful and talented people into a pipeline that feeds directly into the U.S.’s military, private prisons, broken schools and underpaid labor force.
When we consider everything the United States has stolen from Puerto Rico, it owes the island a hell of a lot more than four months’ worth of bottled water and expired military meals. The time for repayment is long past due.
We must make room for a wider and more nuanced conversation that holds the United States responsible for completely rebuilding Puerto Rico ― not only because Puerto Ricans are American citizens, but also because the U.S. owes a great moral and historical debt to the island and its people for the past 120 years of colonialism.
Justin Agrelo is a writer from Chicago. He writes about politics, identity, and pop culture. Follow him on Twitter @jagrlo.