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What to Read to Better Understand Puerto Rico in the Wake of Hurricane Fiona

By Alicia Kennedy

San Juan, Puerto Rico
San Juan, Puerto Rico

This post appeared originally in Alicia Kenney’s newsletter “From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy.”

The day after category 1 Hurricane Fiona had left the entire archipelago of Puerto Rico with no power, caused destructive flooding, and generally unleashed catastrophe in most places, tourists were back to normal in Old San Juan. My husband and I biked throughout the metro area to take stock of the damage and hear just how many generators were running—the hum and smell of burning diesel were constant—and when we returned, we saw the photo shoots continuing as planned: Women in their best dresses with full faces of makeup, flip-flops on their feet and Instagram-ready heels in hand; men attempting to keep up, carrying heavy cameras or maybe just a selfie stick. Bars were full because what else were we going to do? But you could tell who wasn’t local: They’d showered, their hotels being outfitted with cisterns for occasions such as this. The rest of us had no water. We couldn’t find a reason to put on our nicest clothes, but we could certainly find a reason to have a drink.

In the days since the storm, the question used to greet everyone is, “Do you have everything—light and water?” Luz y agua—everything, a blessing. We in Old San Juan are in a bubble, and we’ve been even luckier this week to be in a section of the town with power. Throughout the week, most people have not had their power restored; many who had lost it again on Sunday. We are hanging on by a thread, with water pumps and cellular communications towers powered by a dwindling supply of diesel, running on generators that aren’t intended as long-term solutions. Protests against LUMA, the private power authority that has been upping our rates while doing nothing to stabilize the grid, are springing up everywhere.

Living in Puerto Rico right now is like practice for the future in a world where no real steps are taken to move toward sustainable energy, to sustainable anything. It’s practice to hurry to get work down while it’s possible, to read while there’s light, to shower when there’s water, to fill every container with some for cleaning and hopefully enough for drinking. It’s practice to eat all the avocados that fell from trees. (My husband tells me that his grandfather always told him he knew a storm was coming because avocados would fall from their trees: a signal, an offer from the earth.)

It’s practice for survival, imposed upon a colony by the United States empire and its cronies. It’s the theft of working people’s lives by the rich and powerful, untouched as they are by it all. The other day, someone said, “I just don’t want to wake up and think about this. I want to think about anything else.” So much time, so much creativity, so much leisure! Stolen.

We went to the farmers’ market on Saturday morning per usual. The farmers, bakers, and chefs who were there were visibly exhausted, and many of the regular vendors didn’t show up. La Casa Vegana de la Comunidad was selling avocados for $1 each to raise money for a hard-hit community, so we got as many as we could carry and left some on our neighbors’ doorsteps. Another farmer had limited greens—this is what happens whenever there’s heavy rains—but suffered minimal damage, losing some of their plantain crop. Another had fewer eggs than usual, fewer greens, and said this would be the last of their eggplant for a while. Plantain trees had fallen in large number throughout the island, the images shared on social media stark and sad.

In the wake of disaster, misinformation spreads and the posting of any old thought seems to ensure virality. I am allergic to this kind of crap, though that doesn’t mean I’m always immune—there is simply so much pressure to perform some kind of duty, however ill-defined that might be. I don’t share what I can’t verify; I respect the process of journalists who are reporting.

To that ends, I want to suggest some reading:

Throughout this week, Israel and I have just been trying to work. Work cannot stop, even if our internet is out. He wrote a brilliant, fiery piece for the New York Times opinion section on the current situation’s roots: “¡Basta de Apagones! The Rot in Puerto Rico Runs Deeper Than Its Disastrous Power Company.

Puerto Rico was unraveling economically and politically long before LUMA and Hurricane Fiona. Austerity programs cut deeply into the public service budget, health care, pensions and education to pay off creditors. Newly elected officials reward party loyalists with government employment, creating a series of sycophants who use public office for their own gain. They award million-dollar contracts to companies that are sometimes owned by party members or relatives, in exchange for kickbacks, or, worse yet, create ghost companies to divert the funds into their own pockets.

To understand why calls for statehood are ill-advised, read this new, fantastic, epic piece by Jaquira Diaz in The Atlantic, “Let Puerto Rico Be Free”:

Albizu Campos returned to Puerto Rico in 1947. A year later, the U.S.-appointed governor signed Law 53, La Ley de la Mordaza. It is widely referred to as the Gag Law, and it made flying Puerto Rican flags, even privately, illegal. The Gag Law also made it a crime to sing the Puerto Rican national anthem; to speak out against the United States; and to speak, organize, or assemble in favor of independence. Law 53, which violated the First Amendment, was in effect for nearly a decade, until it was repealed in 1957. It essentially empowered authorities to penalize Puerto Ricans just for being Puerto Rican.

It’s a good time to revisit Yarimar Bonilla’s “The coloniality of disaster: Race, empire, and the temporal logics of emergency in Puerto Rico, USA”:

Some see these rising calls for resilience as part of the larger dominance of neoliberal forms of governmentality across the globe, in which citizenship is increasingly being refashioned as individualized self-care. With the increasing cuts in social safety nets, all individuals are increasingly being called upon to take on entrepreneurial modes of self-care and self-management (Muehlebach, 2012). However, we must ask: which communities have historically been required to demonstrate resilience and incessantly forced to endure both the shocks of neoliberalism and the slow traumatic violence of colonial extraction? And is it possible that the push towards resilience has actually made them disproportionately vulnerable to the current challenges of climate change?

Someone asked me last week how to do tourism without also reinforcing colonialism, and there is no real answer: The world is unequal, shaped by colonialism, and some people have benefitted from this while others… lose their power because of a storm. They sit in hospital beds, kept alive by generators. Others throw out all the food in their refrigerator because it’s begun to rot, not knowing when they will be able to afford to fill it up again. Still more can’t rest, as heat and mosquitos envelop them in their beds. Work cannot stop, but some are forced to stop—forced into a more precarious financial situation, in a place where 44 percent of the population already lives in poverty and pays much more for basic goods and services than others with the same passport. Small businesses run out of gas for generators and then what? Supermarkets run out of gas for generators and then what? Hospitals?

To get a handle on tourism and colonialism, start with June Jordan’s “Report from the Bahamas, 1982” and this transcript of a conversation with Bani Amor on For the Wild, “BANI AMOR on Tourism and the Colonial Project.” 

Also read Lillian Guerra’s 2014 piece “Why Caribbean History Matters”:

Caribbean history matters for the same reason everyone in the Caribbean “remembers” slavery: the legacies of slavery, imperialism, and historical responses to it are, in the Caribbean, immediately evident in all the “weightier” concepts we associate with modernity: notions of citizenship, individual freedom, collective liberation, and nation. Caribbean history is not merely about the “colonial origins of poverty”; it addresses the most fundamental questions of who we are, what we believe, and how we got that way. Yet the uncomfortable facts of Caribbean history rarely make it into the consciousness of even the most educated of our society’s elite.

Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor” by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang is a necessary reminder right now. Empire is active. The colonial period is not history.

When metaphor invades decolonization, it kills the very possibility of decolonization; it recenters whiteness, it resettles theory, it extends innocence to the settler, it entertains a settler future. Decolonize (a verb) and decolonization (a noun) cannot easily be grafted onto pre-existing discourses/frameworks, even if they are critical, even if they are anti-racist, even if they are justice frameworks. The easy absorption, adoption, and transposing of decolonization is yet another form of settler appropriation. When we write about decolonization, we are not offering it as a metaphor; it is not an approximation of other experiences of oppression. Decolonization is not a swappable term for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools. Decolonization doesn’t have a synonym.

That’s all I have for now, as I’d like to get this scheduled before we lose our internet again. Next week, I hope, we will be back to regular programming.


About the Author 

Alicia Kennedy is a writer from Long Island now living in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Her work on food and culture has been published in the New York Times, the Washington PostT: The New York Times Style Magazine, Eater, Bon Appétit, and many other publications. She has a newsletter titled “From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy,” where she publishes essays, cultural criticism, a podcast, and recipes. Her book, No Meat Required: The Culture History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating, is forthcoming in 2023 from Beacon Press.