Puerto Rico and Its Continuing Struggle For Post-Colonial Identity

Curator's Note

Nearly two months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, approximately 50 percent of residents are still living without electricity, as thousands remain in shelters and badly damaged houses after the storm. Public critique of the federal government’s response to hurricane recovery efforts in Puerto Rico by San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz represents a century-old struggle the island community has endured while shaping its national identity since its transformation from an American colony to a commonwealth in 1917.

The relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States was built on a history of federal and corporate exploitation, fueled by the racial stereotypes held by government and corporate leaders since Americans acquired the island in 1898. This arrangement has left the Puerto Rican community with little control over its resources and high exposure to fallout from catastrophic events. It has also sparked an ongoing dialogue about the island’s value to the U.S., as underscored in the mayor’s statement. “I am begging you to take charge and change lives. After all, that is one of the founding principles of the United States of North America,” said Cruz, in a September press conference. “If not, the world will see how we are treated not as second-class citizens but as animals that can be disposed of.”

According to Congressional testimony by the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico, this U.S. territory desperately needs emergency and restoration funds “on an unprecedented scale” to restore housing, water and electric power. Puerto Rico remains a U.S. territory where the per capita income is approximately $15,200 — half that of Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation. And there are more Walmarts and Walgreens per square mile in Puerto Rico than anywhere else in the world. Some policymakers also argue that Puerto Ricans are strapped by restrictive legislation, such as the Jones Act, which drives up the cost of goods in Puerto Rico and limits shipping to the territory by U.S.-flagged ships.

"Puerto Ricans are both citizens and colonial subjects of the United States,” wrote author and former New York State Assemblyman Nelson Denis in The Nation. “After 100 years of citizenship, Puerto Rico enjoys the media images of the American dream and the underside of the U.S. Constitution. They are free to be poor, undereducated and unemployed; free to be invisible and unheard.”

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