In September 2017 Hurricane Maria ripped through the island of Puerto Rico. And, not surprisingly, the US government had very little to say or help to contribute. Sad.
There have been hurricanes and other disasters in the past, and I hate to admit that I’ve always felt far away and disconnected from them. Puerto Rico, though, was different. In 2016 I had my first out-of-country experience (not counting the move to the US in 1996), and naturally, the island has come to mean a lot to me.
Being undocumented means not being able to travel out of the country, and sometimes even domestically. Puerto Rico, it turns out, is in this weird state of limbo–it’s a ‘territory’ of the US, but not a fully incorporated state, so flights to and from PR are considered domestic, and nothing beyond a driver’s license (which I fortunately have) is required. So what do I do? Book a flight and get myself there. It did strike me as strange that Puerto Rico was its own country– but that it used the US dollar– and the people were citizens who had no electoral votes– or representative votes in congress– and the flights were domestic–
But my thoughts were shallow and I was ready for my first taste of the larger world. I feel a little silly making a big deal about my one trip out of the US, but maybe that’s also why it’s so dear and important to me.
So for this one, I wanted to (finally) share photos from my two trips to PR and other thoughts I confronted since my trip. (Keep in mind: I’m not a photographer.)
So this is my view from my airplane right before landing in San Juan. This is about when I realized I was going to fall in love.
My desperate attempt at being a millennial, who is apparently well-versed in the various arts of journaling, drawing, traveling, documenting, coffeeing. I got the last one down.
If a cup of coffee isn’t photographed, did it really happen?
– millennial, makeup artist, vlogger, social media extraordinaire
But the coffee in Puerto Rico is truly the best I’ve ever had. So here’s another one just to honor the coffee:
The next day, I set out to explore every inch of Old San Juan, beginning with El Morro, a fortress built by the Spanish in the early 16th century. Outside the fortress were grassy hills with families flying kites. Photos of myself are limited to selfie-stick products, which explains the awkward positions and angles.
- The view from a space that once held a canon (I think. I’m not sure)
- Real life battleship!
I didn’t realize how small Old San Juan is, so on the first day I went through almost half the items I had planned to visit over 3 days.
Thankfully, there were a handful of other places to see that I didn’t anticipate. And thankfully, I had people to help me when I got lost. Turns out they were famous! (But I didn’t know who they were.)
During my research into Puerto Rico before my trip, I learned that the island of Puerto Rico contains a number of different ecosystems in that little island, one of them being a rainforest. I think it was a tripadvisor page (or something like that) that said El Yunque in Puerto Rico is the only tropical rain forest of the US. Even if it were technically true, the language of possession… seemed strange.
But when I visited, I understood why the US would want to claim it was its own.
Three things I still can’t get over:
1. iPhone camera qualities (guau)
2. how chubby I was
3. how pristine the forest was
When I went in July the forest was packed. People were crawling all over the rocks and trails. When I went again in January, the crowd was definitely more manageable but the water looked a little murky.
But I mean, it’s still one of the best things I’ve seen. Nature has a way of humbling you, doesn’t it? Look how unruly it is, and still so poised. I wish Los Angeles had more sights like this.. Even the green pigment is deeper and richer.
But to me the most phenomenal part of Puerto Rico was the beaches.The warm, gentle Caribbean waters. I went to a few, but my favorites were Escambrón (pictured above) and Playa Sucia, which has to have been named with irony in mind because LOOK AT IT:
I already had a running list of different beaches I had to go to. The locals have unanimously suggested Vieques and Culebra, and some others suggested Gilligan’s Island, all of which are small neighboring islands.
So good even Bernie came to visit.
So this door was right next to my hostel, and I took a picture with it in all smiles. I later learned from a friend I made from the hostel staff that Puerto Rico had recently (recent to July 2016) undergone political agitation over some “shady financial decisions” -Alex. Or, “the island’s newly imposed fiscal oversight board” –someone else
So the artist who had originally painted la bandera repainted the red and blue black to express the indignation of the people. After learning that, I started to connect it to the various texts and signs all over the city of San Juan that I had seen. One in particular that I remember:
This was not my own, but a photo of what I saw in San Juan.
Slowly the old train of thought that had lost momentum and urgency resurfaced. I saw that the country was fighting, actively engaged in battle, or at least parts of it like the city I was mostly in.
Puerto Rico is the playground of the US (kind of like Cuba was before it shoved a fist to America’s face). Admittedly, there were probably certain benefits that came with “joining” the US. Some say that Puerto Rico couldn’t have advanced the way it had if not for the US. They point out the strength of the US dollar and US passport, and the economy from tourism provided by the US.
But should that ever deny a country its autonomy? Does that ever legitimize the dispossession and disenfranchisement of an entire country?
I once read an article, the name of which I don’t recall, unfortunately. And in it, the author pointed to the inadequacy of the Korean government and people in the 19th century. So many resources, it said, but such terrible management. So much potential, but so uncivilized and lowly. We can correct that.
This is pernicious for a number of reasons. For one, it’s an excuse, a thin veil over a far more repulsive sense of possession and theft. But it also purports itself as being justifiable. Conquest, genocide, thievery, and erasure are packaged in the name of “help.” Isn’t that always the banner under which colonizers ride in?
The colonizer loves to play the role of ‘the defender’ who found, loved, and uplifted the colonized. Japan did it. The US did it. Russia did it. They continue to do it. They can’t stand seeing a weak country possess the rich resources it does and not capitalize on it.
And that’s what happened in the case of Puerto Rico. Passed from one country to another, they’ve been exploited for its material and human wealth. Especially now, in the aftermath of the hurricane in tandem with the apathy from the federal government, I’m shaken by what’s happened to the country. The entire landscape has changed. Large portions of the country are still without electricity and drinkable water. This is typical of colonial powers: involving themselves when there is wealth to be seized and pulling away when there is a price to pay. When will people learn to see things appreciatively and not covetously?
The only reason I can even say I’ve been to Puerto Rico is because it’s a colony of the US. No one wants to call it that, but isn’t it true? Today, in 2017, there are countries and peoples that are still fighting for independence. But what do the people do when the oppressors they fight don’t look oppressive at all? How do they fight, and who will fight with them?
Colonization means control. Control, among so many other manifestations, is one “Jones Act” that reroutes direct incoming help to the island in a harmful and costly way. The Jones Act means dependency. But perhaps it’s time to release the country of Puerto Rico from the invisible yet unyielding colonial grip.
It’s with a very ambivalent heart that I recall my travels to the island. I love the island. It’s inscribed in my memory as the place that gave me my first glimpse into how big and beautiful the world is. How green, blue, warm, tropical, caffeinated, humid, and friendly the world can be. How exhilarating the other side of the country, the other ocean were. It allowed me to bypass barriers that I face as an undocumented American, and it allowed me to feel like a citizen of something greater–like I possessed the human right to experience.
I’m grateful for the abundance of beauty it afforded me, though a big part of me wishes it hadn’t been on these terms. I wish, instead, sovereignty liberty and recovery for the country of Puerto Rico.