Know the history of the region. This is something that community-led crisis responders say to those coming into a region impacted by crisis. But most histories are written by the colonizers, and so the role of educator also falls on the shoulders of those fighting to survive.
At the Crisis Convening event in Newark, New Jersey, Puerto Rican participants Jessica, Luis, and Raquela gave a brief history of Puerto Rico to a room of folks interested in community-led crisis response and environmental justice. What follows is adapted from their presentation.
Puerto Rico was colonized by the Spanish for 400 years. Just as the fight for independence was taking hold, the Spanish-American War ended and Puerto Rico fell under United States rule. Our timeline begins there, in 1898. It is a story of resistance, industrialization, imposed poverty and debt, diminished schooling, imprisonment, bombs hidden on beaches, and a growing demand for self-sufficiency.
In 1917, Puerto Ricans were granted citizenship, but in a different category. It meant that residents could receive financial aid for education, but men who did so could be eligible for the draft. Puerto Ricans still couldn't elect anyone who has a hand in American politics: no congressional or presidential votes. While elections for local positions would occur, the U.S. ultimately had veto power to override their votes.
The United States wanted to show that industrialization could help lift a community out of poverty, but that poverty persisted. In 1920, a new fight for independence began. As part of the push back against this fight, the official language of Puerto Rico, including the language of education, was changed to English, forcing many to drop out of school. After four decades of this, it was finally accepted that it wasn't working, and the primary language in education was changed back to Spanish.
In 1952 came a ray of hope. The United Nations was working to bring independence to "non-self-governing territories" and Puerto Rico was reclassified as an estado libre asociado, or free associated state—though it didn't become a state, nor was it free.
In the 1920s, more than half of Puerto Ricans were in favor of independence. Now that number is far smaller. This might be attributed to the brutal oppression of the independence movement. There is a well-documented history of persecution, killing, and jailing of Puerto Rican nationalists. Oscar López Rivera, Puerto Rico's longest-held political prisoner, was just released after 36 years.
In the 1960s, organizing against the military complex reached a new height. For decades, the U.S. military had used Puerto Rico to test bombs, contraceptives, and Agent Orange—without consent from residents. They even rented out the region for other countries to bomb! Organizers against these practices joined the existing movements for independence.
The realities of these activities were realized in 1999, when a civilian was mistakenly killed by bombs dropped on the island of Vieques, a site used as a bombing range in military-training exercises. People took to the streets to protest his death, and demanded that the Navy leave the island. It wasn't until 2003 that they actually left. This was a huge win, crossing political lines, generational lines, and transcending those who wanted statehood versus independence. But after six decades of military exercises, the island is still littered with contamination and unexploded ordnance.
Financially, Puerto Rico has steadily declined since the '70s, amassing $73 billion in debt. For a century, Ley Jones, or the Jones Act, has kept a stranglehold on the economy, banning shipments from foreign countries, and requiring that all shipments of goods between the island and the mainland be done with ships that are built, owned, and crewed by Americans.
In 2016, Obama put in place a fiscal control board. The Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) appointed seven people who don't live in Puerto Rico to determine how the budget is spent. This put a halt to all investment in infrastructure, and made massive cuts to education, health care, and pensions, and led to the privatization of schools, hospitals, utilities, and the airport. As you might imagine, this has caused further poverty. Hurricane Maria in 2017, further exacerbated the situation. Money is going to contractors who often don't do the work. School closures result in a transition to charter schools. And the profits are going into the pockets of outsiders.
The government has not shown up in a useful way, and so it's up to the community organizers who have been around through these movements to serve the people to Puerto Rico. Incredible work has been done to build community kitchens and farming projects, occupy abandoned schools for housing, and rebuild infrastructure.
This is a moment to build the empowerment movement. Puerto Ricans know they can do things by themselves, for themselves. Decolonization of Puerto Rico is needed more than ever. The reality is that, even though we are developing and building community power, being a colony will perpetually put us at a disadvantage. This is why there is pushback when you ask to help; the best way to help Puerto Ricans is to listen first.