When I first arrived in Buffalo, New York in the Summer of 2016 to study law at the University at Buffalo School of Law – SUNY, I quickly became very self-aware as a Puerto Rican for the first time in my life. In a short time, I became conscious of my accent, my culture, my taste in food, and even my skin color, even though most people back home would regard me as “blanquito” (white). That is not to say I did not feel welcome. But in the back of my head, I knew I still came from those islands called Puerto Rico, that speck of ink in maps and globes that is sometimes misshapen, or worse, forgotten and not drawn into the charted world at all. It became apparent all too quickly that most Americans did not understand the plight of Puerto Ricans and the rest of American territories, to the detriment of the memory of their own colonial experience and their war against tyranny.
I must admit it came as a surprise to me, when after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the American media was quick to react, with extensive coverage by major media and news outlets on the mainland and around the world. At the time, I did not realize that my surprise was mainly due to the fact this was my first time reading “Puerto Rico” in newspapers outside Puerto Rico. Regardless, I welcomed it and I felt a sense of hope and even opportunity from the response and concern that I was feeling around me, while in New York.
But as time passed and Hurricane Maria became a distant memory, I realized the story being told by national news outlets, such as CBS News, was far more alarming and disturbing, because it is quite apart from reality and frankly, a disservice to Puerto Rico.
Recently, I saw a short documentary by CBS News called “Puerto Rico: The exodus after Hurricane Maria.” I must applaud the intentions of the CBS News team in covering Puerto Rico during and after Hurricane Maria, and for taking a genuine interest in the issues affecting Puerto Rico. Upon watching the documentary and listening to reporter David Begnaud’s expressions of awe and admiration for Puerto Rico’s beautiful natural landscape while travelling the rural region of central Puerto Rico, I felt comfortable that there is a genuine admiration of Puerto Rico by Americans.
Yet, although the documentary was meant to portray the life of Damarys Perales, as an example of one of around 200,000 Puerto Ricans who left the islands and moved to the US mainland after Hurricane Maria, there is a serious concern. It leaves the perception in some of the documentary’s audience that Hurricane Maria was solely, and worse, perhaps even historically, responsible for Puerto Ricans leaving their home. I only have to point out that there are currently around 5 million Puerto Ricans living in the US mainland, as opposed to around 3 and half million living in Puerto Rico.
Clearly, the majority of millions of mainland Puerto Ricans did not leave Puerto Rico all at once after Hurricane Maria. This exodus has been happening slowly and steadily since Puerto Rico plunged into an economic crisis in the last few decades. More importantly, the historical exodus of Puerto Ricans moving to the US mainland is a direct result of a political dichotomy where Puerto Ricans are supposedly American citizens but are forced to abandon their home in order to enjoy the full protection of the federal constitution. It is also the result of an unsustainable economic system that is designed to extract human and other economic resources at the expense of the quality of life of those who choose to remain in Puerto Rico, or who simply cannot afford “the American dream.”
Most recently, the same CBS News team released an article explaining that the recent coverage of recurring daytime shootings, and what seems to be like an ongoing drug-related gang war in Puerto Rico, was “another one of Hurricane Maria’s devastating effects on Puerto Rico.” This is false and truly an incorrect and sensational packaging of statistical data that will create another false impression; that Hurricane Maria is somehow responsible for a high crime rate in Puerto Rico. The numbers clearly show that this is not a symptom of Hurricane Maria, but the reality of crime in Puerto Rico as it has been for decades; a symptom, not of Hurricane Maria but of a federal colonialist agenda that still exists to this day. As of date, there have been 24 murders in Puerto Rico, an average of two a day, an alarming rate to be sure, but as alarming as it has always been. As of the same date last year, there were 36 murders. In fact, the murder count dropped from 710 in 2017 to 641 last year, the year after Hurricane Maria where Puerto Rico had the worst police attendance in years. Now I am not saying that crime is not an issue in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. I am saying it is not an issue that we can remove from the list of the evils of colonialism and place in the list of troubles brought by Hurricane Maria.
I urge American media to please stop attributing all of Puerto Rico’s problems to Hurricane Maria. It is simply not true, and worse, it distracts from the real truth. The root of most, if not all, of Puerto Rico’s problems stems from an extensive era of colonialism, a false sense of autonomy, political and economic stagnation, all at the hands of a rarely uttered “territorial clause” within the federal constitution.
That is the true reality of Puerto Rico’s plight, not last year’s hurricane. Half of our homes have had roofs made of cheap corrugated zinc long before Hurricane Maria. Before Maria, we already had a massive public debt caused by a failing incentive-based economy. We already had an outdated and decaying infrastructure, and the inability to maintain basic public services because our government was always operating on a deficit. To stare at the inside of a home in the middle of the mountain region of Utuado, Puerto Rico, and to witness the mold growing in the walls, the leaky roof, and the poorly-lit rooms with wires hanging everywhere because of an informal (and unfortunately illegal) electrical connection from the main grid down the road, and to believe it all happened because of a hurricane in 2017, is to misrepresent the truth of the history of my people and my home. Puerto Rico was not a paradise before Hurricane Maria.