As we continue our examination of Afro-Boricua-Latina individual and collective identities it is important to do a back and forth between the archipelago of Puerto Rico and the US Puerto Rican diaspora. So far we have explored how our forms of knowledge and racialized experiences, bodies, and languages are usually neglected in the US and its institutions. We have seen also how Latina-Boricua thinkers, writers, and educators are actively defending and promoting a dignified presence in US society and claiming spaces in contemporary debates. Today we are going to dig deeper into the conversation about colonialism and coloniality and how current climate and governmental disasters and Puerto Rican migration waves are connected to more than 122 years of US imperialism in Puerto Rico.
Yarimar Bonilla is a public intellectual and a leading voice on Caribbean and Latinx politics. She is a Professor in the Department of Africana, Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Hunter College and in the Ph.D. Program in Anthropology at the Graduate Center, CUNY.
Bonilla teaches and writes about sovereignty, citizenship, and race across the Americas. She has written about anti-colonial movements in the French Caribbean, the role of digital protest in the Black Lives Matter movement and the politics of hurricane recovery in Puerto Rico.
The current earthquake “swarm” in Puerto Rico pushes us to expand this framework even further. In an earthquake swarm, there is no sense of a “main event” with smaller precursors and successors. Instead, you have a jumble of seismic events of disordered magnitudes, depths, epicenters, and consequences.
I’ve thus started to think that what Puerto Rico and many of its neighbors are experiencing might best be understood as a “disaster swarm,” with hurricanes, earthquakes, debt crisis, migratory crisis, imperial violence, austerity governance, and other forms of structural and systemic violence all acting as a disordered jumble upon a collective body that cannot distinguish a main event or a discrete set of impacts.
Maria had a strong impact, ripping the veil off Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship to the United States—particularly for those living outside of the island, but even to some living there. But that unveiling process had been underway since 2016, with the declaration of the debt crisis, the determination that Puerto Ricans could not declare bankruptcy, and a series of Supreme Court rulings that made it patently clear that the island’s commonwealth status did not offer any measure of sovereignty.
These events had started to peel away the facade of Puerto Rico as a decolonized place. People of my generation and older were taught that in the 1950s we had been decolonized through the creation of the Commonwealth, or Estado Libre Asociado. Although there were those who questioned this notion, and there had always been an anti-colonial movement, the promise of prosperity and the escape valve created by migration had long cloaked the enduring relationships of colonialism.
People talk about how Maria ripped leaves off trees and, metaphorically, off Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship to the US. The storm made our vulnerability and our unequal relationship to the United States undeniable.
Second Class Colonial Citizens
RCJ: Much of the popular commentary on the botched relief efforts or Trump’s neglect of Puerto Rico after Maria, has centered on this insistent declaration that Puerto Rico is part of the United States and that Puerto Ricans, by extension, are US citizens. Do you find statements to this effect to be useful politically or for your intellectual project as a scholar?
YB: No, I feel like those statements occlude more than they reveal, because when people say, “Oh, these are US citizens,” the implication is that they should be treated otherwise because of that designation. But the fact is that Puerto Ricans are actually second-class colonial citizens, and their citizenship is working just as intended. The limits placed on their citizenship are (as they say in the tech industry) not a bug, but a feature.
Puerto Rico was strategically placed on a separate track, as an incorporated territory that was barred from becoming a state. The category of the unincorporated territory was created precisely to bar access to the full rights and guarantees of US citizenship. I repeatedly say that when allies feel the need to assert that Puerto Ricans are US citizens, they should instead ask themselves if what really needs to be asserted is that the US is an empire. When folks feel understandably upset over how Puerto Ricans are treated, they should ask themselves: “Why does the US have territories? Why is the US an empire, and how does it continue to benefit from that reality?”
Individual and/or group debate:
YB: In recent years, there has been a rising consciousness as to how global capitalism has led to the current climate crisis, but it’s important to stress that this is grounded in racial-colonial logics. The ability to claim jurisdiction and conquer territory based on ideas of civilizational hierarchy laid the groundwork for environmental destruction.
Rethinking sovereignty is thus key not only for decolonizing decolonization but also for decolonizing our relationship to the environment—by moving beyond settler (and masculinist) logics of conquest. Although decolonization and climate change might seem like disconnected issues, they both require us to think beyond the conceptual limits of the imperial nation-state. In both instances, we need to move from a logic of borders to a logic of entanglement.
How do you understand a logic of entanglement regarding Puerto Rico?