“Somos dueños de un país sin dueño”
We are the owners of a country without a Master (René Juan Pérez)
I came to Puerto Rico with support from the University at Buffalo Romance Languages and Literatures Department to be a cultural mediator and translator for legal services and policy work by the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic group. This is my first time visiting the archipelago, and it is hard to position myself; although I am not a lawyer, and cannot contribute in creating policies, I am a PhD student in Spanish literature. Therefore, personally as a cultural critic mind-driven I am hoping to understand the Puerto Ricans through their written language and artistic representations. Today I am not writing as a cultural critic, however, but as a witness who is seeing Puerto Rico and its diaspora mobilizing to help each other.
The pueblo of Puerto Rico is aware of their condition of being a colonized and an exploited land. While we were sitting at a restaurant on the water during my first night in Mayagüez, I find myself falling in love with a land that reminds me so much of my homeland, Colombia. Puerto Rico has exuberant nature and resembles, as one of the locals said, El jardín del Eden. Besides listening to our group conversation while we were having dinner and drinking amazing Parcha-Sangria, we were listening to Maná in the background, a very popular band within Latin Americans. The atmosphere, music, and the rumbling of the ocean drove me to realize the deep admiration that I feel towards Puerto Rico, not only for being extremely beautiful, but for maintaining its identity and nationalism despite of being under the control of the American government over the last hundred years.
On our second day, we went to Guánica, an area that was quite devastated by the earthquakes. I witnessed many buildings completely collapsed, one of them being a school, which luckily fell when no one was there. We visited a refugee camp and delivered some supplies. Despite the tragedy people are friendly and remain positive, they always smile at you. Puerto Ricans are humble and extremely resilient people. After witnessing a distressed area, I had mixed feelings of helplessness and impotency because more things need to be done in order to help the affected people by both hurricane María and now the earthquakes. The recent natural disasters evidence how vulnerable the whole territory is, and the condition of dependency of the mainland United States, whose response has not been prompt and neither efficient.
At the main Plaza of Guánica, we heard a man screaming, “they invaded here since 1898”, after which he approached us and angrily asked what we were doing there. He calmed down once we explained. Puerto Ricans know their history, and they are very sensitive and distrustful of the government handling their future. They fear more earthquakes might arise, they are also afraid of losing power due to another hurricane. There is indeed an uncertain future for the Puerto Ricans, and alongside the truth that there is help needed, there is also anger, fear and trauma. Ambivalently, there is a strong national identity, but at the same time a sense of statelessness. To understand today’s Puerto Rico, we need to understand its complex history. Martí, a Cuban writer, and a pro-independent of Cuba in 1895, warned in his work Nuestra América that Latin America should fear the new colonizers from the north, worried that although we gained our freedom from Spain, we shortly became available to new colonizers, and new forms of colonization.
I would like to close my reflection with the last stanza from the song Los hijos del cañaveral by the Residente band. I felt very moved when I heard this song for the first time, and I think it summarizes the feelings of many Puerto Ricans today:
A latigazo limpio desde el descubrimiento A clean whip since the discovery
No pudieron, seguimos con el mismo acento They couldn’t, we continue with the same accent
Nuestro aguante ha sido digno Our endurance has been worthy
Somos los versos que no cantan en nuestro himno We are the verses that do not sing in our hymn
Hay que soltar los barcos del muelle You have to drop the boats from the dock
Esta carreta ya se mueve sin bueye This cart already moves without an ox
Al colono los bajaremos del trono To the settler we will lower them from the throne
Pa’ que nuestra bandera cante en un solo tono So that our flag can sing in one tone
It is an honor to be here with the #UBLawResponds team to witness firsthand what Puerto Rico is facing, and be part of the University at Buffalo team that provides some legal and policy help. You can support the work of the clinic here.